Thursday Brian had me scheduled to swim forty 100 meter reps with ten seconds of rest in between each rep. It should have taken 90 minutes. My regular pool was closed for repair so I decided to finally go to the Culver Plunge for their nighttime lap swim. The Plunge is a 5 minute walk from my front door but since I’m a cheapskate I’ve always driven the 10 minutes to the free pool at my in-law’s place. Last week I promised Coach Brian that I’d switch to the plunge because it’s a 50 meter pool and that will greatly expand my aerobic fitness for Ironman distance. First, switching from yards to meters, and second, not pausing for 3 seconds at the wall to turn will help a lot. As I walked to the Plunge I spotted a familiar face prepping to run with a small group of people.
Let’s call him Guy. Guy is a friend of a friend and we’ve met on a number of occasions. We rode together once as a group up Stunt Road and he roundly decimated my friend and I on the climb. Guy is a natural athlete; he can roll out of bed and knock out a podium finish. But according to him, he always felt no matter how hard he trained he would only be a mid-level pro. His internal battle was being an age-group winner or a mediocre pro. Both are dissatisfying over time – how often can you win your age group before you acknowledge you’re good at it with nothing left to prove? And how often would you want to finish mid-level as a pro before burning out? Guy was standing there geared up to run with a small group of people and I said hello. We engaged in small talk but for some reason I felt weird vibes coming from him. Couldn’t put my finger on it but by the end of the conversation I decided that maybe Guy just didn’t like me. I went off and did my swim and didn’t think much about it. Rather, I focused on banging out 40 100 meter reps which, I have to say, gets pretty boring after 15, interesting at 25, and then mind-crushing around 30. Especially because the plunge’s night setup is short-course, meaning the lane guides are the width of the pool rather than the 50 meter length. 100 meters is 2 laps, which meant trying to do 80 laps of 18 strokes per lap, and yeah, without music swimming is just a shitload of counting.
The next day I instant messaged with my friend about Guy. To be honest, my first comment was that Guy was kind of a dick. Sure, his words were friendly enough, but something in his tone and guarded attitude about his group and his training were strange. We’re all doing the Malibu Sprint triathlon, on different teams, but raising funds for the same cause. As I typed it out with my friend I came to a realization – Guy wasn’t being antisocial. Guy was throwing game. I’m a sarcastic person and I smack-talk by being a caustic asshole. What I hadn’t experienced before was someone throwing game by being guarded, closed off, and humorless. To take it a step further, it was, in a backwards way, a compliment. In my mind Guy is far and above my level of athleticism. But if he’s bringing mental game now it means that he thinks I’m his competition. In the moment I wasn’t understanding what was happening because I’ve never allowed myself to think that I could compete with the big dogs. All of that is changing as my numbers get better, and I guess it means I should expect more of this kind of behavior from other people.
It’s only recently I’ve allowed myself to let the fire of competition burn. In the past I never felt like I had a chance of doing well so I suppressed those desires and removed my ego from the result. Now that I’m doing better I’ve brought that desire into my drive, while still working to be okay with whatever the final result is on the clock. Clearly the lesson from Oceanside was that I have a long way to go. I was emotionally crushed by not reaching the goals I had set for myself. Yet it took a long time to acknowledge the 15% improvement in my ability. My emotional intelligence is a system of tightening up the time between cause and effect. That is, an event occurs and it will take me days to figure out the appropriate response. As I gain more emotional intelligence about how I want to respond in the future the goal is to shorten the time delay so that I have the reaction I want within seconds, or even just a few hours after the event. I am the person I am today because I have worked very hard on different emotional responses over my life. What I love about endurance work is that it strips away the conscious constructs I’ve built and tells me who I am at my core. Call it emotional time trialing. When I tear down my Ego, who am I? Do I need to compete with others to psyche myself up for battle? Do I need someone in front of me to find my kick and run past? Would I rather race next to a friend or an enemy?
I still prefer racing with friends. On Sunday I raced the OC Half Marathon with my cousin, and we have a friendly and supportive running history together. Two years ago we ran the City of Angels ½ marathon back when I was still intervaling a 5/1 run/walk method. My cousin was strong enough then that he didn’t need to interval but since he had never run a ½ marathon before he stuck it out with me and my friends. By the end he had so much gas in the tank he sprinted the last two miles. Since then he’s had a son and put a lot of time and energy into his photography business (and he’s exceptionally good – if you need an event photographer he’s phenomenal). Recently he got back into running seriously and also has been doing a beach boot camp workout twice a week doing anaerobic strength training. He’s building on top of a lifetime of good aerobic fitness from surfing and skateboarding his whole life, but he’s definitely showing exponential progress with focused attention. He ran a sub-two hour half marathon a few months ago and then set his sights on cracking a 1:45. He invited me to run the OC half marathon with him this year and I agreed, wanting to put a 1:45 on the board myself, especially after my disastrous run at Oceanside.
The day was perfect – slightly overcast but warm enough not to freeze. A 6:30am start was unfriendly but we made it to the line at 6:10 after getting dropped off by my cousin’s friend. We agreed that we’d wear our headphones since talking was not going to be much of an option at the pace we’d set. My cousin taped his goal times on his water bottle – but he had mapped out a 7:45 average pace, which I thought was overly ambitious. Still, it was good to know what would be the hard effort compared to the moderate effort. We did some dynamic stretching and then a ten minute light jog warm-up, just enough to wake our legs. We positioned ourselves near the front of the start, ambitious but necessary when so many slowpokes push forward and mess up the timing. I popped two sodium pills with water five minutes before the gun.
We started easily enough and I made the executive decision to break to the side and whizz in the bushes. My cousin did the same and when we emerged he thanked me for taking the lead on what he would have tabled for later and been unhappy about. We started running 8’s, letting ourselves get carried by the momentum of the crowd but also letting the engines really warm up. By mile 2 we were solid, consistently under 8:00 per mile in our pace and we held sub-8’s the rest of the run.
The only thing I did differently was drink 1% milk in my morning coffee. I am pretty sure that is what caused the stomach crisis at mile 6. I briefly tried to detour to use a port-a-john but the line was too long and I re-merged with the pack. My cousin had put 30 seconds on me from that point and I never caught him, but that’s because it seemed like we were exactly in the same range for our pacing.
I had a Gu packet with me, but never used it. I stopped only twice for a sip of Powerade, once at mile 7 and again at mile 11. I only took in a few sips and tossed the rest because everything I took in reminded me that I desperately needed a toilet. The run would have been more pleasant if that need wasn’t there. I would like to have one race in my life where I’m not thinking about my bowels. Really. It’s getting ridiculous.
The last four miles were just focusing on the next mile marker and keeping my feet in quick turnover. I stayed out of my comfort zone the whole time, remembering Coach Brian’s words that it’s not stride length that creates speed, it’s rapid foot turnover with a quick propulsion forward. I put my attention as low as it could go on my body – land mid-foot, spring off the forefoot. Lean forward at the ankle, cup the hands loosely. A slight rotation of the body with each stride, thinking of falling forward and catching myself with every step. Spend as little time on my feet as possible and use my cardiovascular fitness to rev the engine; don’t Hulk-smash every footfall.
It worked. I crossed the finish line in 1:41 according to my Garmin, confirmed later that day on the official chip time. My cousin finished 30 seconds ahead of me due to my brief abortive toilet stop. We both had amazing races, beating our expectations and confirming that we have made tremendous progress.
Putting up a 1:41 was important to me because I knew I could do a 1:45 and missed the chance to prove it at Oceanside. It’s proof to myself, not to others, that I am making distinct, measureable progress. Replicating on a course what I’ve done in training is the icing on the cake. I understand why people like training more than racing and I am rapidly approaching that place myself. But racing is good precisely because it’s not comfortable. In training you can control your start and finish time. You know you can always bag a session if your heart isn’t in it. You control the variables. But racing is the opposite – you submit yourself to the harsh external rules and surrender the comfort of control. What you get in return is the ability to compete. No juking the stats. No changing the rules to suit your ego. You put your body and mind on the line against everyone else.
That is what makes winning feel so good.