One week before the Nov. 14 American Family Fitness half marathon in Richmond, I went out for my regular Saturday group run. Since I was tapering, I kept it to ten miles at a moderate pace.
On Sunday I knew I was in trouble.
The run had taken more out of me than usual. I felt drained and weary, and did not bounce back the next day like I normally do. And this was after a week of cutting back. Since I was going to attempt a PR (new best time) in Richmond, this was not good. So – what to do?
Against every instinct, I decided to rest the entire week, cancelling my Monday gym workout and Aikido class, and skipping the Tuesday night run. A short bike ride on Wednesday was all I allowed myself.
Finally, arriving in Richmond on Friday, I felt my energy returning. But was it enough to run 13.1 miles hard and fast? When I got tired, would I have the physical and mental fortitude to keep going and set that PR?
Then I came across an article about Jesse Itzler, an ultrarunner and entrepreneur who’d be considered an overachiever by 99.9 percent of the planet. Not Jesse; he decided he needed to “shake things up,” as he put it. So he hired a Navy SEAL to kick his butt for a month. In the winter.
You can read about that crazy month in his book, Living with a Seal: 31 Days Training With the Toughest Man on the Planet, or go here for the CNBC interview. Along with ice water soaks and night runs, the SEAL gave him lots of advice, including this: “When your brain tells you you’re done, you’re only 40 percent done.”
Well, when a Navy SEAL says that, I believe him. Anyone who survives a year of that training, including the infamous Hell Week, ought to know. Could I use this little gem of wisdom to get me through the tough part of the race, when my brain would be strongly suggesting it wasn’t my day and how about we slow the hell down? I hoped so. Even tapping a little of that other 60 percent would be a plus.
Race morning was sunny and about 38 degrees, good conditions for a fast race. I warmed up with a jog of a mile or so, with some short sprints at the end. I felt ready to go and lined up near the front of the first wave to ensure I could get out of the gate and into stride quickly.
Anything under 1:33:49 would be a new personal best.
I’d decided on an unorthodox race strategy. Instead of trying to hold my target pace of 7:00 per mile for as long as possible, I would run sets of two miles at 7:10 and two at 6:50. I hoped the varied pace would keep my mind engaged and provide some recovery time at the slower pace.
The first four miles went exactly to plan – two at around 7:08, then two at 6:50. I didn’t recover as much as I hoped on miles 5 and 6, but I hit the 10K timing mat at 44:00, right on schedule.
Then we entered a park and began about two miles of gently rolling hills. I struggled to hold my pace and was breathing hard. With over six miles left, I felt fatigue set in, and the mental chatter changed accordingly:
Well, looks like a week off wasn’t quite long enough. What did you expect? You ran a 100K not long ago and it takes time to recover. How about we ease off a bit? Just not your day. No big deal, right?
Fortunately, I was prepared for it. I played the trump card.
Hah! We’ve only reached the 40 percent mark. Let’s press on and see what we have left, shall we?
With that, I relaxed, took some deep cleansing breaths, and pushed through the final inclines and out of the park.
The remaining five miles were by no means easy, but the worst was behind me. At mile 11, I surged to catch up to a couple of other runners and stuck with them, trying to match their stride and cadence. Together we hit the final half mile, a wide, sprint-inducing downhill packed with loud spectators on both sides. Richmond bills this event as “America’s Friendliest Marathon” and based on what I saw, I can’t disagree.
As we passed the cameras at mile 13, I looked at the finish line clock. 1:32! With a downhill-assisted 6:40 final mile, I finished in 1:32:43, a new personal best by over a minute!
And even better, I’m feeling good again. Yesterday I ran ten snowy miles without any trouble, then went home and shoveled my driveway clear – twice. Guess what I was telling myself out there?
Mr. SEAL, wherever you are, thank you very much.