Reflecting on Five Years of Running

The last several years on January 27, I get a text message or Facebook message from my friend, Brad: Happy Running Anniversary!

Brad is not a runner, at least not anymore. He was, for a short time, to raise money for charity. The desire to be charitable with his time took root; a love of running did not. So Brad now uses other methods to do good work for charity: water and the Detroit chapter of Engineers Without Borders (both are excellent causes: I link to them both so you can check them out). But Brad, being the kind of guy that he is (and assisted by his external brain, Google Calendar) knows running is a defining part of my life and so last Wednesday I woke up to the message: “Happy Running Anniversary! How many years has it been?”

Five. Wait, what, five? Five years?!

Yes, it has indeed been five years since I took my first wonderful (read: pain-inducing) steps as a runner. I like anniversaries and milestones. I like having those definitive moments where one can stop, take stock of life, and measure the progress that has been made from Point A to Point B. A five year anniversary seems as good as any time to do that and so during some quiet moments at work I took the time to reflect on what running has given me in the last five years.

1. New Places to See That Have Stretched Me As a Runner

I like to explore. Around home I like to find unbeaten paths I haven’t walked and out of the way dives I haven’t yet poked around in. The moment I began running it was clear I needed to find new trails to run as gamboling down the same country roads every day was simply not going to keep me engaged.

Luckily the Cleveland area puts a premium on preserving nature through its Metroparks System and the Cuyahoga Valley National Parkway. In five years I have become familiar with both. Anyone who has run through the woods knows it is a calming experience. Some of my favorite runs have come when leaves are starting to bud on the trees in the stretch of the Cuyahoga Valley that sits tucked amongst the steel mills in the southern part of Cleveland, during sunset in the middle of summer in Valley View, or when red and orange and yellow leaves are falling on paths near Boston Mills Ski resort. The terrain, though largely flat, offers enough twists, turns, and hills that afford me the opportunity to mix up my long runs, introduce hill repeats to break up my tempo runs, or even allow me to run challenging multi-mile up and down hill runs that help me build speed and power. It’s an experience unique to Northeast Ohio and I am richer for finding these trails.

2. The Benefits of Structure

With running you get out what you put in. When I started running I had no idea what I was doing. I ran as far as I could. If it felt like I should run fast, I did. Stretching? Sure, why not? And of course since I was now exercising far more than I had before, I was totally ok to eat those two eclairs, right?

If running had just been an activity I used to pass the time, that would have been ok, but early on I knew I wanted to run and to race to excel. I knew I would never run a 4-minute mile, but I could run a half marathon in under 90 minutes, I could approach a 3-hour marathon, I could qualify for Boston. Doing that though was going to take long term thinking and strategic planning.

Over five years I have come to understand how important structure is to a runner. With each year I find a detail I have previously overlooked that turns into an important wrinkle in my training. As I have become more obsessive (and I use that word in a positive sense here) about my training, my times have likewise dropped, starting with that first half marathon I ran in 2011 in 1:39:48 to last October’s 1:26:48. Below are some of the ways structures that have benefitted my running:

  1. I find a plan equal to my experience and follow it religiously. The experience level is key. If you are beginner running an advanced plan will only result in injury. Following a plan religiously is how you build a foundation for future adaptations. First you have to show you can follow a plan closely and be successful with it and the volume of running it is asking you to do. Then you can begin to make changes that will result in faster running.
  2. I make small changes incrementally. Once I know I can handle a given plan I begin to add small changes that should make me faster. Making small changes is key, especially early on. Not only do you want to build on your foundation, but you want to see what changes benefit you the most. I have found, through three years of trial and error, that I respond best to interval runs. Even my tempo runs now are broken up with hill intervals, which breaks up the tedium of long tempo runs and provides more bang for my training buck. I only found this out though because I first introduced tempo runs, then eventually interval runs, then finally hill repeats into my training over three years, saw how my body responded, and made changes where I felt they were needed.
  3. I added dynamic flexibility to my warm up. This was a major change after I spent most of 2013 sidelined from running with IT band issues. Previously I had warmed up with the same static stretching routines I had done since high school track. The result was a body that was not ready for running and injuries soon followed. Running for miles on end requires a proper warm up that doesn’t just stretch the muscles but elevates the heart rate and gets your body moving in a way that will mimic running. Dynamic warm ups do this. I will be providing my dynamic warm up in a new post soon.
  4. I continue to become more obsessive over the details that can affect my running health and performance. I have begun this year to strength train several times a week, focusing on my core, hips, and glutes. I am currently battling a forefoot injury and I recognize, more than ever, that foam rolling and flexibility, before and after running, is critical. The goal over the next few years is to qualify for Boston and with that lofty goal will come continued scrutiny over how I can tweak any element of my life to give me a running edge.

3. It Has Helped Me Learn How to Handle Failure

I spent my 20’s wanting to be somewhere else. Anyway else. I was supposed to be in this graduate program, have that job, be married by now and have this many kids. I valued the end result and paid little attention to enjoying the process. Ironically, I started running because I thought it would be something I could control and move forward while other aspects of my life stood still. In time, I would see what a misguided approach to running this would be and eventually I would be richer for it.

It is true that you get out of running what you put in and it is equally true that the road to running success is anything but smooth. Injuries will happen. Runs will go dreadfully wrong. Races you have spent months planning and training for will be sabotaged by weather or cramps or sickness or a poor race strategy. As it is in running, so it is in life.

When I was new to running the smallest nagging pain, the tiniest setback on a run would infuriate me. I thought, not about the problem, but about what the problem could cost me. I cannot point to any one moment where this changed. Maybe I mellowed out after 2013, where IT Band Syndrome robbed me of almost an entire year of running. When  you lose a whole year of running, how much worse can it really get? Maybe it was watching Meb win Boston in 2014. Here was a runner whose career was almost ended by a hip injury back, thriving, and winning that oh so emotional Boston Marathon. If a professional whose entire life is dedicated to the science of running at peak level could almost lose his career to setbacks, it was crazy for me to let my own setbacks ruin my attitude. Whatever the penultimate jolt was, I began to shift my focus to a longer view.

The change in attitude required a subtle but powerful shift. Rather than letting my frustration controlled me, I had to use that energy in a new way. I developed the following approach:

  1. I did not suppress my frustration, but I did not give in to it either. Instead I observed it and took the energy that came with it and refocused it.
  2. I put my energy into understanding whatever setback I was encountering. If I was hurt, I looked back to figure out why. Had I ignored pain? Was I neglecting my strength program? If I had a bad run, I looked at what might have caused it. Had I eaten well the past few days? Was I hydrating properly? Had I gotten enough sleep?
  3. I created a plan to keep this setback from happening again. If I was hurt, I focused on fixing the injury and then adding prehab routines into my training. If my long run had gone bad, I fixed the root cause.
  4. I stayed focused on the process rather than wringing my hands over a race result that was months away. No longer did I pay attention to what I was losing with that bad run or a few weeks lost to injury. Racing success comes from a cumulative build up of a long bout of training. If it is done consistently, more often than not the results will be positive.

As I made this shift with running, so too did I make it with life. I am far more calm now as a soccer coach. Setbacks are no longer horrible obstacles that prevented my team from reaching its potential but rather teachable moments that might help them see how they can scale the mountain. When work is not going well I take a step back, remember that I have learned much in my job, and seek out help if necessary to tackle the obstacle. I have come to love the process, to appreciate all the little work that goes into success, any success. Because success will come, just not always when I want it to.

4. The Sweet Sweet Feeling That Comes With Earning a Race PR

I knew, after four years of running, that I was going to break 1:30:00 in a half marathon at Mile 12 of the Towpath Half Marathon in October 2014. I had had an inkling since early in the race that this would be the day. My splits along the course were phenomenal, at times a minute ahead of where I wanted to be, and my effort was smooth and easy. At Mile 12, with my watch showing me a sub-1:22:00 time, I finally let myself believe it. This would be the culmination of four years of effort of fixating on this time.

When I had first decided that 1:30:00 would be my mark, shortly after I crossed the finish line of my first half marathon in a 1:39:48, I underestimated what I would need to do to reach my goal. I was new to running; I didn’t know what I didn’t know. For four years I would be disappointed over failures, struggle through workouts I wasn’t ready for, ice my way through injuries, cursing that I felt so far away from breaking that challenging time. It would take me time to realize that these setbacks were making me a smarter, faster runner.

All of which culminated in the deepest level of satisfaction I can recall the minute I crossed the finish line at the end of that race in October 2014. It’s a satisfaction I think anyone gets after a particularly good race, where a runner can look back at the months of work that went into making such a memorable achievement, the growth, the battles back from a bad run or an injury. The road to that finish line is rarely smooth but once you cross it the bumps don’t seem to matter anymore.

I smiled for a week after that race. It was as if I was enjoying a week-long runner’s high that my body did not seem to want to let go. Then four years of focus on that elusive time turned to a new road ahead. I had vowed I would not tackle a marathon until I beat 1:30:00. Now I had and it was time to decide when and where I would attempt this new race. While 1:30:00 was a nice time to focus on, having beat it, I wondered how much faster I could get in the half marathon. So I enjoyed my post-race week, basked in the glow that only can accompany an excellent race, and then it was time to move on, to ask: What’s next?


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