Nothing about this is fun.
My legs are screaming at me to stop, I can see the banner at the finish line, but nothing around it, there are people lining the streets, clapping mindlessly as they crane their necks looking past me, down the road for friends and loved ones, they may be cheering but I don't hear anything except for the hollow, low, muffled sounds adults make in the Charlie Brown cartoons. I'm seeing stars now, taking short, sharp breaths, and trying to keep the black tunnel vision from closing, trying to decipher the red numbers on the clock as I cross the finish, seeing the first two, 39, and I can't remember if I smiled then or not, probably not as I staggered to the curb, dodging the first aid guy with fear in his eyes and arms ready to catch me. I sat on a curb, staring at my shoes with two immediate goals, trying not to vomit and trying not to pass out. I remember smiling then, at that moment, a combination of joy, relief, and most importantly, knowing that I had reached my limit. It's a feeling that every runner should experience, at least once.
The number 40 was arbitrary, a number that I picked out about eight years ago when I started running, a long-term 10K goal to break 40 minutes, a goal that was out of reach, and a time that was a lot faster than I could run, but with proper training and dedication, was within the realm of possibility.
I don't enjoy racing 10Ks. 5Ks are fast, fun, and over quickly. Half marathons are hard, but you can ease up a little, letting endurance take over for the speed. Marathons and longer, for me, are more about conserving energy for the later stages, and getting the nutrition and fluids right than trying to run hard for as long as I can hold on. There is no taking the foot off the pedal in a 10K. In order to hit my goal of a sub-40 minute 10K, I would need to set a 5K PR in the first half of the race, and then keep going. There is nothing fun about that, but having trained hard, tried, and failed twice at breaking the 40 minute mark (running just under 41 minutes each time), I was determined to do it before I turned 40 in mid-February. It was a romantic idea, fight the slowing due to age, give 40 the middle finger, and prove to myself that I can still improve.
Fast is relative, that's why I didn't want to title this post "How to Get Fast." For a lot of the guys I run with, a sub-40 10K is a hard training run, and most could crank it out without much preparation. For some, a sub-40 10K is unreachable, but this is not about a certain time, it's about finding your limits, pushing harder than you thought you could, and running faster than you ever have. I'm not a coach and am not a certified anything. I kind of subscribe to the Roomba Training Philosophy (TM) of bump into enough walls and eventually the floor will get clean. But the following strategies helped me and I wanted to share them in the hopes that they will help you run faster, and find the outer edge of your own limits.
1. Pick a convenient race.
For me it was the Cardiff Kook 10K. It was local, it started at 8:30, and it's a fun event with a lot of community support. The simpler the race, the fewer the variables, and less that can go wrong. It is a familiar route along the coast, and I knew each turn, twist and hill. I was able to sleep in my own bed, eat what I wanted, and get to the race start with enough time to warm up and use the port a potty about 20 times.
2. Have a time goal that is out of reach (within reason).
A good way to do this is to take a current race time, and use that pace to help set a goal for a longer race. For example, you may be able to run a 2 hour half marathon, but think that a 4 hour marathon is out of reach. It isn't. If you can hold that pace for 13 miles, you can train yourself to hold it for 26. Shut up, yes you can. And don't sandbag it, either. If you tell me you're trying for a sub 4 hour marathon and you come in at 3:10, I'll still congratulate you, but you're going to get one hell of an eye roll when you're not looking.
3. Share your goal.
One of the things that kept me running when I was ready to take a walk break (thanks to ultras, now every hill is walkable), was thinking about the people that knew I was out there running, trying to run sub-40. I probably told too many people (I even posted it on the blog), and I started to get annoyed in the weeks before the race when people told me that I was going to break 40 easily. My response was "I'm just going to try to have fun." BS. I was scared of not meeting my time goal and already preparing excuses for my failure, but when it came down to it, pride is a powerful motivator and I didn't want to show up to our regular morning run with excuses.
4. Get in a pack.
It sucks running alone in a race. When my 10K started, I watched the elite field (all the fast locals were running...the winner came in at 30 minutes) fade into the distance, and I was caught between 3 or 4 runners in front of me and a big pack behind me. I pushed to join the pack in front of me and tucked in between two strong women (this is starting to sound like a dream I had once) that I recognized. I knew they were both capable of finishing sub-40, so I stuck with them. There is an extra push that you get when you run with other people, a "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" thing that can help you during a race. Pace groups for marathons, and half marathons are great for this.
More than anything else, this is the one thing that I attribute to making me faster. My goal pace was 6:20. I bumped my goal to 39:30 after my friend and training partner, James, told me that I was probably psyching myself out with 40 minutes, and I should shoot for 39. I compromised at 39:30, and figured that this would be the small cushion I needed and I would finish just under 40 minutes. The one major change that I made in my training schedule was that I added a weekly track workout to my regular routine (4-5 maintenance runs, one longer run of 8-15 miles, and a rest day). I focused on drills and longer intervals at just under race pace. As Richard puts it, in order to run fast, you have to run fast. I became (somewhat) comfortable at running at a 6:20 pace. I remember a track workout about a month ago. It was Friday morning, and I was scheduled to run 4 X 2000 meters at race pace. I was alone in the dark, the temperature was hovering right around 30 degrees, and I was in pain. My legs were tight, my lungs hurt from the cold air, my motivation was low, and the workout was really, really tough. Looking back on that workout, I realize that was the day I accomplished the goal, it wasn't at the race. I ended up running 6:21/mile at the 10K for a 39:28 finish, almost exactly the pace that I trained on the track.
6. Have a mantra.
It is so easy to drift and lose focus in a race. This is great for ultras, let the time and miles slip by. But in shorter races, losing focus can be the difference in accomplishing what you set out to do, and failure. Repeating a mantra when my mind starts to drift helps me to focus on the moment, and to bring my attention back to my form. My ultra mantra (inspired by Phil Dunphy) of "slow is smooth, and smooth is fast" wasn't going to cut it for a 10K. I changed it to "strong is smooth, and smooth is fast" for the first 5 miles, then spontaneously changed it to "F@#$ 40" (I apologize to any of the kids on the sidewalk who were able to read lips) in the final mile. Anger can be a great motivator.
7. Drop some weight.
I bounce around between 165-180, and I know I'm faster when I'm lighter, especially in the short races. Want some motivation to lose weight? Check out this online calculator and pay special attention to the weight adjusted race times. I realized I could gain valuable seconds just by dropping a few pounds. I went from 2-3 drinks a night to a glass of wine with dinner and dropped 5 pounds in 3 weeks without changing anything else. It wasn't a major, drastic, hard to maintain lifestyle change, but it did have the desired effect.
That's all I've got for the tips, the rest is just sweat. No, it's not fun, and I don't want to re-visit that place too many more times. Finding your limit hurts, it's stressful, it's risky, you could fail miserably, and I can't even really describe the payoff, except to say that it's worth doing, at least once.