The Rain is Coming

The Southern Appalachians are on fire.  Extreme drought combined with carelessness and arson have set the mountains ablaze leaving the valleys choked with smoke.

When the wind shifts, the grey haze clears and blue skies return.  When it shifts again, the smell of wood smoke clings to our clothes and the ashy air fills our lungs.

Needless to say, this has not been a good month for running.

When I left for my long run yesterday, the skies were blue and the air smelled fresh.  I am back on marathon training again and this was my first 20 miler in many weeks.

The schedule called for 12 miles easy, 6 miles fast, and 2 miles of easy cool down.  I had hoped to run a couple laps around Lake Summit, a pretty 9-mile loop in the county south of us, but by the time I drove down there, the blue sky had turned to haze.

I turned around and headed back to Asheville.

The first easy miles were quite nice.  I jogged through the city listening to NPR podcasts in the sunshine.  I could feel the steady 10 mile run from the day before in my legs a little, but that was the point.  I was supposed to run on tired legs to simulate the conditions of a marathon without actually running 26.2 miles all at once.

When I dropped down to the river and ran towards the park, it was like hitting a wall of smoke.   Ugh, I thought.

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Maybe I should just go to the treadmill and finish this, I thought.  But I was on mile 11.5 and I was over 2 miles from home, a mile of it straight uphill.

I really don’t want to run on the treadmill and mess up the run.  I’ll just see how it goes.

It was not a great idea.

The plan called for those fast six miles to be 10-15 seconds faster than marathon pace or 6:35 pace.  And that’s AFTER running 12 miles on tired legs.  When I read that, I smiled and knew I wasn’t even going to attempt that.

Because of my recent fast finish in the half marathon, my assigned paces in my workouts have gotten much faster.  The only problem with that is that longer distances are my strength.  My maximum speed probably hasn’t increased that much; I can just keep it up longer.

So trying to run half marathon pace on tired legs at mile 12 isn’t going to happen and I wasn’t going to try it.  But maybe marathon pace (6:50-55) wouldn’t be too bad.

I decided I was just going to do the best I could.

The first mile was slow (6:57) and the second was even slower (7:04).  I was breathing much harder than normal for that pace and every breath forced the smoky air deeper into my lungs.  My legs were starting to feel sore and heavy.

Okay, this is dumb, I thought.  I’ll just do one more fast mile and run the rest easy.

But then the third mile came in at 6:43.  The tension I was feeling about the run and the smoke and my legs hurting simply evaporated when I saw that number.  A visceral wave of pain relief seem to flow over me and for just a moment all my discomfort vanished.

Just three more fast miles.  Finish it.

I turned the corner both literally and figuratively and my resolve strengthened.  As hard as it was to breathe and run each stride, I was not going to quit.  Not this time.

The final three miles came in right on pace:  6:55, 6:52, 6:49.

It was not fun.  It did not feel good at the time.  I don’t recommend running through wildfire smoke.

But I got through it.

This run is like adding another arrow to my quiver.  When it is time to slay the marathon beast, I can pull this one out from my memory and use it to keep fighting.

The forecast calls for the rain to start tonight.  So much rain, in fact, that there is a good chance of flooding.

Hopefully, it will be enough to extinguish the wildfires and wash the air clean.

I never thought I’d say this, but I can’t wait to run in the rain.

From “Eh” to “Hell Yeah!”

If marathon training were easy, everyone would do it.  Actually, that’s not true.  If marathon training were easy, most runners would get very bored and would do something else that was a real challenge.  Overcoming difficulties is a big part of why we run.  There’s really nothing better than doing something hard well.

So what do you do when you’ve had a string of good runs and then all of the sudden you get smacked in the face with mediocrity? (It’s not a hard slap.  More of a smear with a wet sponge.)  I’m not talking about the runs when you are dead tired, or sick, or sore, or just not feeling it.  I’m talking about the runs that start out just fine and gradually dissolve into an ego-bruising struggle.  It’s the kind of run where each time you look at your watch you imagine the GPS satellites have exploded in some cosmic crash because you can’t possibly be moving that slow.  It’s not the run that is an undeniable failure; it’s the run that’s just eh.

My long run last weekend was one of those eh runs.

It was 20 miles with miles 12-18 at faster than marathon pace.  I’ve been running my easy miles during long runs very slow lately and I thought I’d pick up the pace to a still easy, but more reasonable 8:30 pace, just to keep it a little more real.  I also decided to practice eating a lot more than I normally do on a long run to try to better simulate race day.  A marathon nutrition calculator that my coach had sent said that I needed nearly 600 calories during a marathon to fuel properly.  In Boston, I hit the wall hard somewhere between miles 20-23 and I don’t know if not eating enough was to blame for part of it.  So I thought I’d eat a bigger than normal breakfast and take a 100-calorie gel at mile 3, 7, and  just before 12.

That might have been a mistake. I wouldn’t say that I was really sick to my stomach, but I certainly didn’t feel great.

I got to mile 12 and picked up the pace.  6:51.  Well, that was a bit too slow, I told myself, but it’s okay to take the first mile conservatively so that I don’t fade hard later.

Mile 13 came in at 7:09, 24 seconds off.  Wait, what?  I was breathing hard.  It felt like marathon-pace effort.  I felt some stiffness in my legs, but that’s to be expected.

I tried to regroup. 6:55 for mile 14.  Okay that was at least in the ball park.  I’m good.

7:16.  Really?  You’re kidding me.  No way.

7:08.  Still not under 7?  Jeez.

One more to go, I thought, so make it good. 7:01.  Huh.

I jogged the last two cool down miles home and felt halfway good about the run, because no matter how you look at it, 20 miles at any pace is an accomplishment.  The other half of me felt eh about it, since I feel like I have the fitness to have done this run as written.

Coach Sarah had some welcome words for me after I logged my workout.  “Claire, I’ve never once made it through a marathon build up without at least one run like this,” she told me.  “It happens to everyone and the best thing you can possibly do is to let it go and move on; it in no way means that you are not fit. Try to keep your confidence high, the next one will be better!”

I know she is right.  If I nailed every workout I was given, the only thing I would learn is that my goal is too easy.  I have chosen an ambitious goal because it’s big and scary and there’s a likely possibility that I won’t achieve it.  But there is also a small but real chance that I can make it happen.  It will take more weeks of hard work, a willingness to be uncomfortable, and a healthy dose of good luck to cross the finish line in Richmond under three hours.  I know I have it in me.  Somewhere.

All I have to do is find a way to use that eh run as fuel for my next hell yeah! run.