Friday, June 17, 2016

New Summer Focus

I keep saying that I am going to take a break from half marathons and marathons and focus on short distances. Then pride gets in the way, and I sign up for a long race. I get distracted from one train of thought and bounce over to another. I obsess over the long distances, yet again, even though I previously swore that I didn't care for it anymore. I think part of why this keeps happening is that I tire of the comments from those who don't get it. Or those who don't know me, or my cramping issue, nor understand why I'd take such a "break". The trouble is that the 5K and 10K distances often get the wrong reputation, or they are misunderstood. Yes, these distances are often what a beginner chooses to run for completion because, on the endurance side of things, these are relatively short and completion is an achievable goal. But that does not mean I am demoting myself or that I'm now a beginner. The focus these days tends to be on recreational runners going after longer and longer distances with the goal of simply completing them. I've been there and done that, and want something new.

Training to race a 5K or 10K with the goal of improving finish time is actually insanely hard work and a beast that seasoned athletes try to conquer. To me, training to take time off a 5K finish time is harder than training to complete a half marathon. Me opting to focus on shorter distance races is not to take a backseat, but to actually take my training to a higher level. A much higher level! I wish to challenge myself to something I know I can make gains in, Cramping is preventing me from making any improvements in my finish times in the long distance efforts, but this here is something I know I can change. With long distance races, I finish, always, but my times have not shown any improvement in 3 years. They stay the same or get worse. But with my 5K, 8K and 10K, I have improved before and can improve again. After a setback 2015, I know with hard work and specific training, I will be able to get faster and even achieve personal best times. I can smell it.

Here's the thing - when I've said to some listeners that I am focusing on the 5 and 10K distance over the summer, they seem to assume I'm going to be actually taking a break - slacking off and never running long, and therefore lose my fitness. Like if they want to invite me to run a 16K with them, I won't be ready to join them. But, no. I will still run plenty long on weekends to maintain and improve my endurance. But during the week, I'm strengthening at the gym and working on power gains, killing it at the track, etc. It's more specific, and a heck of a lot of work. It's painful almost. Painfully good. My quads feel huge after yesterday's track workout (OK, I know, they are huge).

And before you judge, wait, I am running a half marathon 9 days from now - the Scotiabank Vancouver Half Marathon. I will probably still run more half marathons than this upcoming one. I just won't make improving my times there my goal. I am just running them for enjoyment, to socialize, or to give me the excuse to log higher training mileage because I simply love it.

I have mentioned before, my goal setting may have been confused before. I wanted to lose weight, as I'd gained 15lbs last year whilst working in a stressful job. Yet somehow I didn't understand why I had slowed down so much as a runner. I was perhaps a bit in denial. I was asked by friends if I'd be speed training with them again, and my excuse to say no was that I was afraid of injury, since 2015 saw plenty of that. I told them I was just trying to get my endurance back safely and injury-free. Yes, this was true. But there was more to it and the "in-denial" part of me failed to mention that when you're carrying 15lbs of excess weight, that alone is going to slow you down a whole lot. Losing the weight would do as much to help me, or be more helpful and safer, than trying to run my guts out in interval training heavier.

Some examples - my easy or long run pace had always been in the 6:00-6:30/km range. My 5K pace was about 5:00/km. With the extra weight, I was averaging 7:00-7:30 on a slow run. Yikes! So naturally when I started seeing these times, I decided to stop timing myself. It was discouraging and I wanted to eliminate anything that would make me feel bad when I was rebuilding. I also stopped trying to run with friends because truth is, I wouldn't be able to keep up with them, and I wouldn't want to hold them back.

The Icebreaker 8km this January was a wake up call. I signed up to run it like I do every year. But I hadn't really been timing myself for months, so I had no realistic view on how fast I actually was (or how much I'd really slowed down). I should have known that if my slow stuff was around a 7:00/km, I wouldn't be anything near my previous 5K pace of 5:00/km. Truth is, I was in denial about my fitness loss, and I hadn't expected to finish as slow as I did. I was out of breath giving the effort I always used to in an 8K, thinking I want to be as close to 5:30/km as possible (surely 5:30 should be possible with a small amount of fitness lost).....but I was looking at my watch and seeing that I could barely maintain a 6:30/km pace. What used to be a lazy pace somehow felt like a sprint. I was out of breath. I wondered how I ever ran an 8K in under 41min when I finished that day in 51min. It seemed impossible and I was deeply embarrassed when I crossed the finish line.

So after the Icebreaker, my focus truly became about losing weight. The timing of this race was why Feb was the start of my efforts in the weight loss department, and I pulled all the stops to achieve it safely and effectively. The half marathons and other events I did were just for an excuse for higher mileage, or for fun, for socializing, and something to focus on. I didn't wear a watch to time the halfs, just did them and hoped to not be in pain. You know though, I cramped.

But about a month ago, I officially got to the point where I was happy with my weight again, having lost the 15lbs and a bit more in fact; I felt like my old self again. I decided to finally start timing my runs again. Even before starting to intentionally do speed work, I noticed huge time improvements over where I was months ago, just from losing the weight I'd gained and regaining my base fitness. Like magic, my easy pace had improved back to where my easy running times belong, in the 6min range. I started running at the track once a week for intentional speed training because now I knew I was light enough that it wouldn't risk injury and the fast feeling would be familiar to my now familiar feeling body. In fact, it felt amazingly empowering too. So when the prospect of the summer and a lot of options for shorter distance races came up, excitement welled up inside me.

Even though I had only done a couple of track workouts at this point and knew that these wouldn't have made a huge impact on my fitness, I signed up for a recent 5K, the Longest Day Road Race, to put myself to the test - as a benchmark of my current fitness so I can set realistic goals for upcoming races knowing I'd keep up my training habits over the coming months.  Normally my success in 5K efforts comes from a great warmup, lining up close to the front, and giving 'er at the gun. If I start out "too fast" at the start, it is a short enough distance that it won't kill my race. In fact, it might have the opposite effect if I've trained myself to push and dig deep for more even after I've tired. But I knew I hadn't been training specifically for long enough to use the old strategy. I went in with little expectation of myself, did a very light warmup, and lined up more middle camp.

I, as a result of lining up further back and being less warmed up, couldn't give 'er at the gun as much as I normally would. I had a few slower joggers to navigate around too in the first km, but soon my legs worked out their usual kinks as they warmed up. I felt good and my legs remembered the feeling of being in a 5km. And an event I've run 3 times previously felt familiar too so I pushed myself a bit harder. I looked down at my watch and was pleased to see I was averaging a 5:23 pace. So I pushed to hold it. In fact, I could have pushed even more but held back and made my goal to maintain the pace the whole way. I had a km at 5:07 and my worst was 5:30 when we had some hilly bits, but considering where my fitness was before, this was a huge victory. I finished with a chip time of 27:23. This was about 2min off my personal best 5K, which isn't bad at all. The difference is absolutely surmountable, and knowing how I approached this event and how little specific training I'd done, I feel very empowered about future races and what I can do with a little more elbow grease added to my training.

So today I burned a hole in my credit card and registered for a few more races to keep me busy this summer:
Hope to see some familiar faces there! First things first though, the Scotia Half on June 26th.

<3 Zahida

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