Back on track
Contributor: The Nerd
My long-term goal is to publish a novel about a high school runner, but it's been difficult to find chunks of free time to devote to the project. For the past year, I've been writing a chapter here or there when I travel. In honor of high school tracksters, many of whom will be back on a track this week for the first time since May, here's a short piece of fiction about the first interval session of the year. You may love or hate what I've written, but I'd appreciate feedback as I work towards this ambitious goal. You can DM me on social media or shoot an e-mail to email@example.com with your feedback.
Coach Robertson refused to micro-manage winter conditioning. While he advised all of his athletes to take off at least two weeks from running after their last cross country meet in the fall, his guidance for the winter was mostly limited to a list of “don’t do these things.” For example, “don't run a marathon.” “Don’t play YMCA basketball.” “Once you’re at 20 miles a week, don’t increase mileage by more than 10% per week.” “Don’t start smoking.” “Don’t join the soccer team.”
Coach Robertson’s premise appeared to be that successful runners needed to develop their own self-motivation and discipline. Decades earlier he required his distance runners to turn in weekly running logs to compare to the winter training plans he devised for them. After a few years, he realized he could tell who had fabricated their logs simply by looking at their thighs and calves on the first day of practice. Even worse, the ambitious procrastinators who didn’t want to lie would inevitably spend the winter running a week’s worth of mileage every Saturday and Sunday, only to be knocked out by an overuse injury before April 1st. Coach was a religious man, so to avoid contributing to eternal damnation or stress fractures, he abandoned winter training plans and logs all the way back in 1994.
Hank relished the independence. Like nearly all headstrong high school runners, he felt he had a good sense of what training plans made him a better runner, but during the season he refused to deviate from or criticize the coaches’ training plans. The summer and winter were an opportunity for him – is that too grand a statement? – to control his own destiny. In reality, the off-season training was probably more important than the in-season workouts – base mileage builds champions, right? – so Hank meticulously planned his running life from December 1st to February 28th. In fact, last November he began scribbling training ideas in his journal while his dad was driving him back from Nike Cross Regionals.
Nebraska winters aren’t particularly kind to distance runners, so his training plan included flexibility for the few nice days that fell in January and February. After eight weeks of base mileage, for the first week of February he had penciled in an easy interval workout on the track.
Coach Robertson purposely avoided the track during cross country season, favoring hill repeats, intervals and tempos on asphalt trails and grass. A sunny, 45-degree day on February 5th was an exciting day for Hank; it was the best weather he’d seen in nearly two months and it was his first time on a track since August.
PRs and championships aren’t won in February, and today’s workout would pale in comparison to an April or May session. However, it had been so long since he’d run fast – not Usain Bolt fast – in part because it was difficult to take full strides on snow-covered sidewalks and trails. Yes, it was nerdy, but he had been excited about the workout since he saw Sunday’s forecast earlier in the week.
His school’s track wasn’t an option for today’s session. It was a cinder track so four days of snow melt meant it would be in only slightly better condition than a mud-wrestling pit. Plan B was a junior high track a mile from his house. Plan B was a bit of a gamble; the public school didn’t care much about runners, so the gates were often chained until the start of track season.
Scaling a ten-foot gate wasn’t an ideal start to a workout. Place his right foot on the padlocked chain, put his left foot on the gate latch, and then execute a perilous flip over the top of the gate in a maneuver that had to look as dangerous as it felt. Trespassing on public school property was technically a crime but Hank had company. There was already a raucous 6-on-6 soccer game being played on the turf infield, with profanity (Hank assumed, since he had taken Latin instead of Spanish) yelled at every missed and made goal.
Today’s goals were simple: (a) 200-meter full-strides at 80% effort to begin building speed and cadence for tempo runs, (b) very brief anaerobic effort followed by 100 meters of walking, and (c) nothing that might be the cause of a subsequent injury. He had no time goals, no certain number of reps.
Interval sessions featured a range of physical feelings that always amazed Hank. The first few warm-up laps were awkward, painful and exceptionally slow; he had learned long ago that the warm up revealed nothing about the success or failure of the workout. Eventually, after he’d jogged about 2400 meters, the heaviness in his legs began to fade away. Over the next two laps he threw in a few bursts and strides on the straightaways, and by the end of two miles he felt nearly human.
The first rep was always a shock to the body, even at these slow speeds. By the end of the first 200, he could feel an ache in his right hamstring just above the knee. The muscles running down the length of his calf felt they were being stretched for the first time in years. It was days like this where he wished he had taken physiology as an elective. However, maybe he wouldn’t be able to ignore these little sensations if could actually put a name to them.
While he could have looked at his running log from last year, he wanted to step on the track for this session with no expectations. The split for the first rep would be a surprise, and the relative comfort of that result would set the course for the remainder of the workout. He was happy to see he had clocked a 37; unless he was completely out of shape, that would be his slowest mark of the day.
He walked 100 meters across the football field towards the start line, carefully avoiding the soccer game. Coach Robertson preferred intervals with active recovery in the heart of the season, but today’s session was intended to be easy. He began jogging as soon as he reached Lane 1 on the far side, clicked his handheld stopwatch when he reached the spray-painted start line, and quickly built up to full strides. The second rep felt easier than the first, his hips a bit looser and his legs more prepared. His breathing and heart rates would take a few more reps to stabilize. By the fourth rep, he was gliding through 34 or 35 seconds with little more effort than walking up a flight of stairs.
By season’s end, he’d be able to predict his 200s to within 0.2 seconds of actual, and the 400s within 0.5 seconds. He couldn’t explain how he made those predictions. It was a purely subjective calculation, the sum of his effort, how efficient his body moved, the bounce in the track surface. On his best days, he could even predict his heart rate.
While he needed teammates for more difficult workouts, Hank relished today’s solitude. By the 5th rep, he had settled into a trance-like state. His heartbeat and breathing drowned out the sounds of the soccer game. He stopped noticing the northerly breeze. His range of vision slowly narrowed to Lane 1. His movements – walk across the field, step on the track, jog to the start line, stride out for 200 meters – became so automatic that it became unclear whether he was deciding to start the next rep or his body was doing it independently of him. He finished each rep slightly out of breath, his legs tingling, his body equally anxious for 90 seconds of rest and another 200 meters of speed.
After near-daily runs of 40-80 minutes the last few months, the 100-meter walk between reps began to feel like cheating. The 10th rep was no more difficult than the first, even though he now dipping below 34 seconds. The sun was shining, the breeze almost perceptible, and Hank was certain he could run 40 more reps at the same tempo. He wouldn't try. Today was simply about finding his stride; it would have no bearing on whether he ran a sub-4:20 1600 this season.
He reluctantly ended the session after 16 reps. He knew it was too many for his first session but, after all, dumb high school kids aren’t supposed to know any better. He pushed a little harder and dipped under 30 seconds for his final rep.
Today could not have gone any better. Hank knew that in a few hours the tendons and muscles in the back of his legs would start to tingle, and perhaps a few would be tender to the touch. He’d have a little less bounce in his step by bedtime. He’d definitely be sore tomorrow, and the 8:00 pace on his recovery run would not be enjoyable.
He would embrace the discomfort. Every day was one more step towards a faster Hank.
Originally written for and posted in February 2023 at www.preprunningnerd.com by Jay Slagle.
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Finally, if you think runners and jumpers are the best thing on earth, you'll enjoy our two most popular articles. In 2018 we published "The Runner with the Broken Heart" about a high school boy who finished last in nearly every race he ran. In 2022 we published, "The Fall and Rise of Emmett Hassenstab," a story about a high school triple who became a quadrapalegic after a swimming accident.