Sep 16, 2012

Running Slow

This past week I have dramatically increased my training speed. This is by accident; a result of running with a friend at work who is much faster than me. My average pace for all my runs in the month of August was 10:45 per mile, in September so far it's 9:41. The pace for all my runs this past week was 9:24. I had one 2.4 mile run where I did 8:15!! My 5K PR is at 8:18.. One month ago I was in no shape to PR anything and now I could realistically expect to PR a 5K.

I think this chart of my average training pace per week over the last month tells the story quite well:

9/9/2012 — 9/15/2012:

9:24 / mi
9/2/2012 — 9/8/2012:

10:02 / mi
8/26/2012 — 9/1/2012:
10:42 / mi
8/19/2012 — 8/25/2012:

10:49 / mi
8/12/2012 — 8/18/2012:
11:30 / mi

While I am of course pleased with the fact that I can run faster lately, it does trouble me that my marathon PR (11:01 per mile) is still 2 minutes 41 seconds per mile slower than my 5K PR, and that there's no indication that I'm about to close that enormous gap. Experts differ on how much slower the marathon pace should be, but virtually all would agree that 2:41 is far too large. I went online and found a few calculators that demonstrate this quite nicely.

Based on my 25:48 5K PR, my predicted marathon pace should be:

Jack Daniels: 9:21 per mile 9:21 9:25
McMillan: 9:36 9:37
Galloway: 10:05

Steve's actual: 11:01.

Notice how much an anomaly Jeff Galloway is - the other 5 are all grouped within 16 seconds of each other, and his is 28 seconds slower than the second-slowest. Yet even his is almost a minute faster than my actual time.

The irony is that I'm seen by virtually everybody as a distance runner, indeed an ultra-distance runner, and yet it's always been the case that my times have been better at short distances. I do not believe this is due to genetic inability or body type - the variance is just too large. I blame my training.

So I did a little reading on the topic and the source that has me most convinced basically says that

1.) I'm not running enough
2.) I'm running too fast

Let's look again at two weeks from the previous chart, and add total distance:
9/9 to 9/15, in which I ran 23 miles at 9:24 pace
8/26-9/1, in which I ran 43 miles at 10:42 pace

I'll add that in the first week it was very difficult to maintain a 10:30 pace for more than a few miles - in fact I needed walk breaks in latter miles. But yesterday's run was 6.36 miles and was able to maintain 9:30 without walking. (I should add that run felt harder than it should have been, which is what prompted my research and then this article.) Generally speaking, my fitness is improving. As I said, I probably can PR a 5K right now. It's just that the type of fitness that's improving is not the type of fitness I should be focusing on. The issue is the training I've been doing lately - and the trend to shorter & faster is exactly the opposite of the what I should be focusing on. I don't need 20-30 mile weeks at 9 minutes per mile, but more 50-60 mile weeks at 11 minutes per mile.

Details about lactate threshold and mitochondria and fractional utilization of VO2 max are beyond the scope of this article, and I'm not an expert at such matters anyway - though that link above covers all this. But if you've ever had the puzzling experience of struggling through a ten minute per mile run after cruising through 9 minute per mile runs, you probably can relate to how I've been feeling lately. And running with triathlete friends, who tend to be fast, has intensified my tendency to do the short and fast work rather than long and slow.

So, what is slow? I've seen runners run what their idea of "slow" is, and it's usually too fast, at least in this context. Slow should feel ridiculously easy, as though it feels like it's not doing any good. I am no different than most of my friends in that I have a mental block that keeps me from running slow enough. And in my case, that happens to be a round-but-still-arbitrary number - 10 minutes per mile.

It took me years - YEARS! - to get to the point where I could run a non-trivial distance at ten minutes per mile. It wasn't until 2012 before I could run a half marathon below that pace. I remember thinking that if I ever finally ran around Rockland Lake (3 miles) in under 30 minutes I would literally throw a party. It was a huge deal for me when I finally did it - as was the first occasion where I ran two laps in under 60 minutes. 10 minutes per mile is the pace that, if I find I'm not meeting it on a routine run, that's how I know I have slacked off lately and need to re-focus on getting back to where I was (Indeed, August 2012 was like this.)

The crux of this issue is that 10 minutes per mile is too fast for the type of training I intend to start doing. And that mental block is something I'm going to have to get over. I hate looking at my GPS and seeing a number larger than 10:00 in that "pace" field. Seeing a ten there shakes me to the core and drives me to run faster (and shorter) than I probably should. It does help me to better understand the science of it all, and while I like to think that rational thought wins in the end, my corresponding inability to control my weight reminds me that intellectual reasoning is no match for emotional desires - and there's a desire to run 9-something or even 8-something that's probably almost as strong as the desire for another serving of meat and potatoes at 8:30pm.

So, that's where I'm at here on September 16 - conflicted even though the path is clear. I should add that there are minor complications to this clear path - an ultra in Cleveland this upcoming weekend, and an Ironman Triathlon in Florida in early November. ("Now there's a contradiction in terms!") So the details will need to be hammered out - but all in all, should I follow this plan, I'm pretty excited about what should be possible in 2013. Maybe I can knock an hour off my marathon time - wouldn't that be something?