Anatomy of a Workout

During my training for ultras, I gave myself permission not to do structured workouts. Trying to accumulate vertical and going longer meant I skipped time at the track, tempo runs, and really anything planned. Having a policy of “see hill, run up hill” and squeezing extra miles out of my busy schedule made for a challenging few months. On the other hand, the lack of more planful running also meant that I wasn’t consistently systematically pushing myself and checking progress.

Towards that end, I’ve started to do more regular workouts as I decide about fall racing options. Here’s a look at what I’ve been doing.  You’ll see my paces below. I want to acknowledge at the outset that we’re all on our own journey with running. Whether you’re slower and faster than me, I’m hoping we can focus on the dedication we share as runners rather than comparisons.

Marathon Pace Runs 

A buddy of mine who put himself through a brutal training plan for his first marathon suggested I run some marathon pace runs to “see if you really want to do the training.” My current marathon pace is a bit of a crapshoot since I haven’t run a road race since 2015 and haven’t raced a road half marathon since 2011. Going by heart rate, I should be able to hold at about 7:00/mile on level ground. While we all know that the wheels can come off over 26.2, this pace seems like a reasonable starting point.

The last 2 Saturday mornings I’ve slugged down my coffee and headed out for MP runs. After a 2 mile warm-up, I hit a stretch of bike path that’s about 1% grade downhill for 3.5 miles. On my first attempt, I turned around at 3. The downhill stretch felt effortless, as I cracked off 6:3x miles with my heart rate in the mid 80% max range. The way back was another story! My heart rate crept upward, and while my monitor seemed to drop off for about a mile, I could tell I was hitting lactate threshold as I finished up my MP miles. Finishing with an uphill 2 mile cooldown, I struggled to keep my heart rate down even at 8:30 pace. My overall pace  for the MP miles was 6:48, which I realized was definitely too fast (though the prospect of dropping sub-3:00 is pretty exciting).

The next weekend I somewhat impulsively decided to do 9 miles at MP with the same warm-up and cool-down. Learning my lesson about pace, I kept things in the 6:50 range on the way out. Again, the gentle downhill was smooth and easy. A 1% grade makes a shocking difference. I had to run out past the end of the bike path towards the increasingly busy Sturgis Rally campgrounds. Turning around at mile 6.5 (4.5 miles into the actual workout), I hit a minor headwind and that deceptive little uphill grade. My pace crept upward towards 7:20 as I trudged up the familiar bike path. Likewise my heart rate hit 90%, which wouldn’t be good news if I had another 17 miles to go. My overall pace was my targeted 7:00. That being stated, I wasn’t exactly encouraged. I didn’t have the unsettling lactate build-up for the prior week, but there was no way I could keep that pace up for a full marathon at this point. I’m also surprised how much the little uphill affected my pacing/effort.

Lessons Learned 

First and foremost, training for marathon performance is serious business. If I want to do this right, I’m going to have to be prepared to tolerate some unpleasant miles. In retrospect, I also realize that I wasn’t putting in the effort required to do my best in an ultra. Other than a little segment chasing, I hadn’t put much on the line while getting ready for the Black Hills 50k. I’m not sure what the equivalent of 9 miles at MP would be in getting ready for rockhopping on the Centennial Trail, but I do know that I didn’t think enough about how to get in consistent, higher effort runs.

The other important lesson is that endurance takes concerted effort. I can go out and run 2-3 miles at 6:15 pace and think I’m going to crush longer distances. I’d be totally wrong. As I push myself on the track and in these MP runs, I’m realizing that I need to radically check my hubris. For example, I ran a steady 6:04 mile on the track last week (perhaps worth a post to address just Track Tuesday). While that felt pretty easy in and of itself, I also felt totally queasy about the idea of trying to run a 10k at that pace. Getting for here to there is going to take time, humility, and consistent effort.

Overall, it’s been fun to get back to doing more consistent workouts. I’ll definitely be devising more structured ways to build fitness when I do throw my chips in for another ultra. In the meantime, I’ll be out there pushing myself a bit, still undecided about my fall running plans.

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