For the first time in many months, I finally got to spend a long weekend in North Carolina, the place where I spent most of my adult life before moving to Philly. It was amazing — not because anything particularly earth-shattering happened, but just because I had missed it so much, and missed so much. One friend had sworn me to secrecy over her pregnancy the night before I left NC for good — and this weekend I met her two-week-old son. I had drinks with two of my best friends, who had just gotten engaged when I left and are now fully ensconced in the final throes of wedding planning. I had brunch with three former classmates at one of my favorite restaurants, and the conversation was so amazing that I never wanted to get up from the table. I did some shopping, got my car fixed, ate some great food (okay, a lot of great food), even laid in the sun for a bit. It was a weekend of simple pleasures, and I soaked up every minute. I felt like myself again, which, frankly, doesn’t happen often these days.
However, the initial impetus for me to spend this weekend away was actually the Tar Heel 10 Miler, a race that’s held every spring on the UNC Chapel Hill campus. It’s a beautiful time of year for such an event, and there are so many major universities around the area that the race has a fun vibe of good-natured rivalry, with runners receiving different-colored bib numbers and T-shirts depending on the school they represent (whether as a student, alum, or just a fan) and spectators turning out in school-specific apparel. I’ve run this race almost every year since it first began, always turning in more or less the same performance in terms of time, but always having a blast. This time, I was a little uncertain of where I’d fall in the pack, since I hadn’t run much at all since November (when I ‘accidentally’ ended up running two marathons in two weeks). I was a little burned out after that, not to mention that the CrossFit addiction hit shortly thereafter, so my ‘long slow distance’ running was happily placed on the back burner. Throughout the winter, I took advantage of the luxury of being able to focus on just one (indoor!) method of exercise that I truly enjoyed, rather than having to plan my life around a specific number of miles to log every weekend.
Then, all of a sudden, I looked up and it was three weeks until the ten-miler. I hadn’t been following any kind of a training plan (hell, I hadn’t even been running apart from the 400- and 800-meter sprints in the CrossFit metcons), and started to adopt a state of nervous resignation. I was pretty sure I’d make it through this particular race with a minimum of discomfort, but was anticipating a pretty dismal performance compared to past years. Worse, this had reminded me that last year’s NYC Marathon deferral was now looming on the horizon (an 18-week training plan starts in June!), and I was NOT happy about the idea of potentially soon having to cut down on my daily dose of happy CrossFit camaraderie in exchange for those long lonely solo runs. As the days ticked away, multiple individuals, including more than one CrossFit coach, swore that I would be ready, that doing general CrossFit six days a week will train an athlete for a footrace of this length, even without any run-specific training. I wasn’t so sure. I wanted to believe them, but the idea was such a departure from the ‘standard’ training to which I had so long been accustomed that it was hard to accept.
I’m not sure whether it was trust, laziness, or futility on my part, but in the end, the morning of the race dawned and I had done absolutely no special preparation whatsoever. I had a little rice pasta the night before, and slathered some BodyGlide under my sports bra the morning of, but other than that, I tried to pretend it was just any other morning workout.
It was absolutely FANTASTIC. Not just in the numbers (which were, for me, pretty great — almost one full minute per mile faster than last year, from a time of 1:42 to 1:34!), but also in my perception. I wouldn’t say the race felt ‘easy’ — I was definitely working — but it was a nice surprise to feel as though I understood exactly what level of effort I needed to sustain in order to cover the specific distance required as efficiently as possible. In years past, I haven’t really had multiple ‘gears’ to choose from — there was ‘running’, and there was ‘really really slow running’, and there was ‘walking’, and that was about it. This year, I had a much clearer sense of the spectrum of my ability and how much ‘gas was left in the tank’. I even managed a sub-nine-minute Laurel Hill, the beast of an incline that ascends for the majority of mile nine. (That hill is so steep that the race officials have made it a competition unto itself, placing timing mats at the bottom and top of the hill and providing individual awards for that single stretch, the Laurel Hill Challenge.) And I was amazed not only at how much more quickly I was able to run, but at how rapidly I recovered. I crossed the line, stopped my watch, drank some water, got a medal, ate a banana — and very shortly thereafter said, “OK, guys, it’s 9 AM — what are we going to do today?!?” I felt perfectly fine, ready to go tackle the day — none of the painful post-race hobble-walking, ear-ringing, or blood-sugar-swinging.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a very small victory. (I mean, eight minutes? Really?) I think what’s so exhilarating is the new sense of possibility I suddenly feel. I’ve been running races for almost a decade now; training on my own with traditional methods, my times for each distance were always within a few minutes of one another… and I never really saw myself getting a whole lot better than that. All of a sudden, I’m abruptly forced to reconsider what I thought I could do. For instance, it has long been a goal of mine to run a half marathon in under two hours (my best is 2:06). If I extrapolate the time I ran on Saturday, I come perilously, tantalizingly close to the two-hour mark. Taking an even greater leap, I can clearly remember expressing (quite confidently) to a Boston-qualifying friend a couple of years ago that “Oh, I’ll never be able to run Boston. I will simply never be fast enough to do that.” I still remember how I felt as I said those words — utterly certain that I spoke truth, positive that that particular achievement was simply a physical impossibility, to be met with dismissive laughter. Now — although I’m obviously still a LONG way from reaching a pace that would put me within the realm of Boston qualification — I can suddenly at least see the potential for such a thing, where I couldn’t before. Same with triathlons — years ago, after a very difficult half Ironman, I decided to shelve the idea of ever doing a full, because I just couldn’t envision it ever being remotely possible. Now, I’m thinking it may soon be time to reopen that can of worms.
A good comparison might be bodyweight pull-ups: I’m still a LONG way from getting one, but looking at the progress I’ve made, I’m able to envision the day when I will get one, whether that’s next week or next year. And if I could run 10 miles the way I did on Saturday, and feel the way I did afterward, after just four months of full-time CrossFit training… what will I be able to do after a full year of this? After two years? CrossFit has already made me reevaluate what I can do in terms of many other athletic feats — weightlifting, push-ups, double-unders — but most of those were new to me, skills I’d never really spent time on before. Now, it’s making me reevaluate what I’m capable of in a sport that I thought I pretty much had pegged — and it is tremendously exciting to suddenly see doors opening that I had thought were closed to me.
Needless to say, I will be using CrossFit to train for NYC 2013.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next… but I really like the way this feels.