Thursday, March 24, 2011

"...only the trying"

"For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."

My March 22 workout with the Bryn Mawr Running Club has me thinking about this line from T.S. Eliot's "East Coker."

It began as all these workouts do--with the usual anticipation tinged with only a slight undertone of nerves. "Will I be able to handle the workout?" But the nerves had calmed down with time. I knew that I'd do the best I could and for any given workout, I'd still get the benefit. I'd become, in fact, comfortable with this frame of mind.

I haven't asked for a lot. My speed (or lack thereof) keeps me realistic. After the 15-16 minute 5k people and the 17s and 18s on up to the 20-22s are assigned to groups, the rest of us form a band of 24+ 5k runners. In my case, it's significantly "plus." I would say I form a separate group of one, but I am happy enough to have a group to start with at least.

In the preceding weeks, we'd been running distances of 800 meters to a mile at 10-mile to half-marathon pace, with short rests (about a minute at most), and I'd become somewhat used to this effort, even though I would have liked better times than the 9:30ish pace at which I hovered for the most part. Still, I accepted that this was my early season pace and that I'd get stronger as the weeks passed by. No daydreams of a sub-80 minute Broad Street Run... but could I dare to hope for sub-90 minutes?

Last week, Bob announced that we'd be starting harder-paced workouts with more rest between repeats. So I knew that I'd have to take my game up a few notches. But I've often felt that the Polo Fields eat what speed I have. Sub-4:30 for an 800 tends to be out of reach. Sub-4:00 is a pipe dream. Still, I looked forward to the change in pattern. Would this mean we would do shorter, faster distances such as 400 to 600? Would I have a chance to find some speed finally?

Not quite. I listened to the workout, the "slight undertone of nerves" growing into overtones as Bob explained the workout: a mile followed (for our group) by 4x800, to be run at less than 5k pace. We would have four minutes rest after the mile and two minutes after the 800s. We were to "feel the lactic acid burn," feel "as if you went out too hard in a 5k," and run through that. The doubts crept in.

A mile at sub-5k pace? I'd run the first mile of the preceding Saturday's 5k at 9:07. I'd never run faster than 9 minute miles on the Polo Fields. But that was what I thought I'd need for this workout to be a success. Then there would be the 800s. Did I mention that sub-4:30 had been mostly unreachable?

Still, I'd give it my best shot. I missed badly.

At 1/4 mile, my lungs were searing--and a look at my watch didn't encourage me. 2:15? The effort had felt much harder than a 2:15. By the half mile, I'd slid to 4:42. By a mile, it was 9:44. Yet the wind had been sucked out of me--not the best start, really no faster than what I'd done the week before with less effort. But at least the longest distance was behind me, and I had four minutes before the next hard effort. Maybe the 800s would go better.

No such luck. The first was 4:40something, again about the same as the previous week's time--yet I thought I'd worked so much harder for it. The second was closer to 4:50. And I was feeling zombie-like, dizzy. I collapsed briefly on the grass, and heard someone ask if I was all right. Then the nervousness turned to steel. I was not going to leave this workout unfinished. If I couldn't do it fast, I could at least keep at it until I completed all the repeats. I could at least hang tough. So I found my feet and started off on another 800. The time was an abysmal five minutes, but I'd at least gotten three behind me, and people were still running, some cooling down, but the faster groups doing six 800s were finishing the last of their repeats. Okay, one more. I could, WOULD--do it.

I didn't wait the full two minutes. My time was too slow to warrant a two-minute wait. So after a minute, I began my last 800 and even felt better as it progressed. The time was 4:48, which while not beautiful was at least not so far off the other times. But as soon as I finished, the dizziness overwhelmed me again, and again I collapsed.

This time, I laid still for a longer time, feeling I should really get up, except that as I stared up at the clouds--gray, looking painted in small strokes in the sky--I felt an odd mixture of complete exhaustion and relief... even a tinge of pleasure, which I tried to suppress, because I wanted to be back among the living. People came over, helped me up, gave me some gummy bears. I revived, and I'd have been willing to walk if not run back to the store--I wanted to move again--but a couple of the runners offered me a ride back and insisted on my accepting. I suppose I would insist in their place, and not wanting them to worry unnecessarily, I accepted.

Bernadette, who drove me back, expressed concern when I mentioned hanging out and having a beer with the others afterward. Although I appreciated her concern, I wasn't worried myself, because by then I'd recovered somewhat, and I knew enough to drink some water and eat my protein bar before reaching for a beer.

Bob, overhearing the conversation, yelled, "Drama queen--come on, have a beer and toughen up!" This worried Bernadette, yet I was more flattered than taken aback. I knew Bob was teasing, and also felt it was his way of saying, "you're tough. You can take this."

So I opted for a beer, but only one instead of the usual two I drank post-workout.

The conversation swirled around the faster runners' times and I listened with some envy as Bob complimented them on their workouts. Would I ever have a workout I could be proud of as they were proud of theirs? I wasn't expecting 5 minute mile pace, but I badly wanted at that moment not to be the club's slowest runner. I wanted to achieve something special. I wanted them to see that I could take the heat, run fast, keep my feet under me. I wanted that and it seemed unreachable right then. Still, the beer and the company were good as always, and I acknowledge the envy, but could not hold onto it--these runners deserved the recognition, and as their friend, I could admire what they accomplished, focus on the positive.

As I left, Bob looked up with concern, asked if I would be all right. I assured him and the others I was fine. Kept my tone casual. I needed to show them all that the dizziness was behind me. That I was leaving strong. Disappointed in myself, yes, but ready to fly again--and while a little the worse for wear, I had found my feet.

So what did I learn from all this? To take in the instructions but then recognize that the effort was more important than the outcome. I had let myself become too anxious, too attached to a number, to a time, to a result, to a single workout. To do so had shallowed my breathing and my thinking. No, I wasn't earning the compliments of the top guns. But ultimately, coming to the workouts ready to give it my best for that day, and then let go, trust that the rest wasn't in my hands--that I could do. That I will do. I won't say that the alarm bells will never go off when a workout doesn't go as I hope it will. But I can keep up the practice and that's all I can do for now. I might even be able to compliment myself on doing this.