Last year when I was around 8-month post partum I was starting to see the light.
I had recently run a personal best in the 10,000m and snuck under the Olympic Standard. But one warm and muggy morning down the mountain from Flagstaff, on a loop where our team often trains, I had one of the worst workouts I’ve experienced in the last 4 years of my career. Worst on every front - how I felt, how I failed the paces, and how I was so far off of what I expected to be able to accomplish on the day. Coach Ben had written the workout as 3 x 3 mile with 1 mile jog rest at 5:35 pace. At the time, that would have been my half marathon effort.
5:34 through the first mile and I knew it was going to be a bad day. I can’t exactly describe how I felt, but I was just off, sluggish and tired. I came through mile 2 in 5:42 and tried to keep squeezing down the pace. 5:37 for my last mile which had an incredible tailwind for the last 800 (I was lucky). Ben handed me water, I choked it down breathing laboriously and wiping dryness from my mouth. I told him the effort felt like I was reaching, not comfortable or relaxed.
He said, “today’s a day to grind”.
I set off for the 2nd set and tried to compose myself. 5:40 for the 1st mile, and then the doors fell off, 5:55 with Ben barely reading my split, clearly discouraged.
“Try to rally!” he shouted.
My mind screamed at my legs, "this is where we go", and I made the last left on the route. Just 1200m of open road ahead. On days where you are hurting, this long stretch of road feels so daunting. I had to keep my eyes and head focused on the ground, just to carry my feet from one step to another.
5:43, all was not lost.
I grabbed my water bottle from Ben, chugged as much as I could without filling up my belly, and wiped the sweat from my eyes. He was close to cutting the workout, but could tell I was fighting. He jogged with me for a minute and then said one of the best lines I’ve heard from a coach.
“Well you’ll find something out about yourself on this last one.”
I would try to run 5:45s. Clearly my target pace of 5:35s was out. I was nowhere near this. I thought if I could go into it relaxed and with a slower pace I could hit it. It was hotter and windier as the minutes went on and there were excuses all over the place to throw in the towel. I came through the mile at 5:55, and turned into the wind. The place, the moment where the workout was defined had arrived. My legs and arms were swinging in tandem but my body wouldn’t give me anymore.
6:15 through mile 2.
I felt embarrassed, frustrated, all within a span of a mile stretch of road. My brain never gave up. I had 1 mile to go and my pain and suffering would be over. In that moment it would have been easy to run another 6 something mile and call the workout a wash. Then I pictured myself out on the race course, in the middle of a bad patch in the marathon and remembered one bad mile can’t define your race, but fighting through to find one good mile can make it. As I made the last right turn I knew I’d had that friendly tailwind behind me so if I could reach within myself I could run a respectable last mile. Everything hurt. I was tired and thirsty. I closed the workout with a 5:45 mile and a revelation about bad days.
Bad days will happen. They are inevitable. I didn’t know at the time but this workout fell on the end of my first 90 mile week in 3 years. That’s huge. That's a win. Some mornings with the kids, just getting out the door with my watch on is a win. Days in which weather conditions are tough make for good excuses to throw in the towel on a bad workout. Although I came nowhere near hitting 5:35s, I didn’t question Ben prescribing that pace. He was testing my fitness, and had the big picture of The Olympic Trials in July front of mind. But the lesson of that workout wasn't fitness - it was the fight. Enduring is often a far greater practice than quitting.