The Dam Buster

I’ve been middling. Quietly putting in the miles with zealot-like devotion. The fatigue has accumulated. The miles have piled up. The calendar days have marched on toward the inevitable. When is it going to happen? I’ve wondered.

The “it” in question is that magical moment, that elevation to a higher plane. The one where all the training pieces finally fit together and, though there’s more fitness to be had, you get a glimpse of what you’re becoming.

The week following my tune-up half, I expected heavy legs shackled by fatigue. But on an optional 10x200m session three days post-race, there was a lift and a power in my legs that had been absent. The following day, it was more of the same. I finished easy runs feeling, well, easy. I let myself start to accept the idea that, indeed, I was starting to round into form.

I had a 16-mile long run slated for the weekend, with pickups over the last 70 minutes. The dawn broke clear and crisp, and I buzzed with anticipation. As I laced up, I told myself, Keep it controlled. I set off down the Washington & Old Dominion rail trail heading west. My legs turned over with ease and I settled into a steady rhythm. I typically don’t like to look at my watch during long runs so that I can let my body set a comfortable, natural pace, and that morning was no different. In fact, I slipped the watch under my glove and just waited for the steady vibration to mark each of the miles.

At mile 5, I started the first of my pickups, easing down on the accelerator to quicken my turnover. The trail had begun to pitch downward for about 3.5 miles, and I welcomed the decline and pushed it out of my head that I’d have to ride it back up on the return trip.

But ride it I did. After the turn, I started a 2-minute pickup and caught a glimpse of the pace: 5:45. I raised my eyebrows in surprise but continued to flow on. I started my 3.5-mile ascent and focused in on maintaining the effort for that section, which meant not letting my mind start to wander. My legs churned forward and I could feel the power in them and the control I was suddenly able to exercise over the pace. I could move forward or pull back regardless of what the terrain served up.

I topped the crest of the hill and accelerated down the other side with a little over 5K left to the finish. At mile 13, I focused in on the clock for the first time, did some quick math, and realized that I could potentially run a sub-1:40 16-miler. Normally, I’m pleased when I can do that with 15 but have never come close to doing for 16. But I slipped back into my comfortable pace, heeding my words from the start.

With 1 mile to go, however, I needed a 6:29 to come in under 1:40, so I started to tighten the screws. I surged up the half mile long hill, fighting to maintain control and then powered down the backside. Under the bridge, past the mile marker, crosswalk in sight, buzz damn you buzz! I clicked my watch, slowed to a walk, and pulled back my glove: 5:44 last mile, 1:39:05 for the run. Fist pump.

I’ve been at this long enough to know that with the right amount of consistency and perseverance, that dam will burst. But mired in long training runs, dark and cold mornings, another gut-busting interval session, your resolve can start to fray. It was Churchill who said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

And it was John Parker, Jr. who wrote, “People conceptualize conditioning in different ways. Some think it’s a ladder straight up. Others see plateaus, blockages, ceilings. I see it as a geometric spiraling upward, with each spin of the circle taking you a different distance upward. Some spins may even take you downward, just gathering momentum for the next upswing. Sometimes you will work your fanny off and see very little gain; other times you will amaze yourself and not really know why.”

Last week, I had a glimpse. This week, I’m shouldering the load of a 100-mile week, staring down a 25-miler tomorrow. But I know I just have to keep going, to keep gathering momentum for the next upswing because I’ve seen what’s waiting for me on the other side.

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