I love me a slow jog. Give me 20 miles of stars, sunrise, and scenery. Let me soak up the oxygen with a deep and easy inhale. I’ll build the ache over distance, the soothing effect of moderate effort. Moderately moderate. No-reason-to-go-overboard kind of moderate. Breaking-a-sweat-is-so-overrated kind of moderate. Okay, easy. Easy effort. I love me an easy pace.
So imagine my chagrin when I decide to add speed intervals to my weekly workouts. I don’t think I have a fast-twitch muscle in my body. I have never actually sprinted in my life. Ever. No playground races, no soccer team drills, no chased-by-bullies-or-bears traumas. But when one has run more half and full marathons than one can count on one’s fingers, things get a little dull. So I added 400s to my Tuesday mornings. I warm-up by jogging a half-mile, then I run at a fast but not deadly pace for a quarter mile 5-8 times in a row, with a short cool down between each one. I polish it off with another slow half-mile.
It’s tough. The first couple intervals are manageable. During the next couple intervals, I start to breathe a bit harder. Then I do a couple intervals counting to 100 to distract myself from the effort. Finally, I finish with one or two intervals during which I look and sound like a bull after a long session in the ring with a champion matador: frothy sweat at the corners of my mouth, an audibly heaving exhale, and a mad fear flashing in my eyes. I’m doing it, people. And let me tell you, I’m feeling pretty good about myself.
So I tell my best friend all about it (she’s a wicked fast runner, you know). “So have you thrown up yet?” she asks with straight-faced candor. I look at her, my mouth slightly ajar with surprise and annoyance that she hasn’t yet clapped her hand heartily on my back and shouted, “Awesome job! You rock, queen of speed!”
“Am I supposed to?” I ask doubtfully.
“Yeah!” she responds with chipper enthusiasm. She goes on to quiz me about dizziness and numb legs, finishing with, “You really haven’t thrown up? Even a little bit, in your mouth?”
Me. Staring. Mouth ajar. “It’s supposed to feel like that?”
She faithfully goes on to explain this whole speed training thing to me. The speed intervals build your vO2 max, which makes your cardiovascular system stronger and more efficient--able to endure more punishment so you can eek out a few more strides and a few less seconds in a race. She diligently pulls out her pace wheel, a rainbow-colored torture device that predicts reasonable finishing times for various distances based on past performance. Pardon me, “reasonable” finishing times. So using my best half marathon time, the wheel o’ misery suggests marathon, 10k, 5k, or 1-mile times I can expect to achieve with training. The pace wheel thinks I’ve been slacking.
And then she utters the two words that now haunt me. “You’ve gotta hit your pain threshold.” I’ve heard her use this phrase before, in reference to training and intervals and hills and Olympian marathoners. And I feel like a fraud again. I’ve been play-acting this whole runner thing. I realize that I’m a complacent marathoner. Shouldn’t that be an oxymoron?
But I know it’s true. I’ve found a comfort zone, and I’m reveling in it. By the way, there is nothing wrong with this! Finding a good comfort zone and spending lots of time there is necessary to a sustainable human life. I should do almost all of my runs in this comfort zone; I should do my long runs at an even lazier pace than that. As a runner and a wife and a mother and a Christian and an educator and a friend, I should spend most of my life in my comfort zone, where I am competent and useful and able to breathe. But as a runner and a wife and a mother and a Christian and an educator and a friend, I need to spend a little corner of my time outside of it, bumping up against my pain threshold. Not my mild-discomfort threshold, not my slight-exertion threshold. My pain threshold. Friends, this is not a place I know.
So I’m starting with running. I’m keeping the intervals, but increasing my speed. In April, I’ll alternate them with hill repeats. I’m scheduling quality time with my pain threshold so that my comfort zone will expand--and then I’ll get to push harder to reach my pain threshold! (Crazy, much?) My speed-goddess best friend is helping me. I asked her (what was I thinking?) to pace me for a fast mile. She did it. I needed to stop half way through; she didn’t let me. I wanted to die at 3/4s of a mile; she told me to run like I was rescuing my children from imminent death. It hurt so bad, I couldn’t bring myself to care. She pushed. I finished. Then I laid right down, hot cheek to cold pavement, and sucked air so hard I gave the universe a hickey. Hello, pain threshold. Nice to meet you.
I’m officially more afraid of leaving my comfort zone, because now I know just how uncomfortable it can be. But here I go. I’ll keep you posted on how that works out for me--as a wife, mom, teacher, believer, and friend. Time to give my heart a workout of another kind. (Was that a prayer?) Yikes.