If there's one thing I've learned from a summer of running, it's that you can't force fitness. You can force your behaviours, but fitness has to happen on its own.
On July 23rd, I ran the Albion Grind 6-hour train race up in Caledon, Ontario. This was a 7km loop and the task was to complete as many loops as possible in a 6-hour window.
My reasons for doing this race as part of my 50-mile prep were:
- To get some practice racing and simulating my race-day routine
- To get in my longest training day to date
- To assess my fitness 6 weeks out of the big one
There were some successes, some disappointments, and many lessons learned.
Success: I got through the day. I completed my 5th loop in 5:30 and so with not enough time left to start a 6th loop, my day was over (race regulations). This was well over an hour longer than my longest training day, and was a huge mental hurdle to jump.
Success: I executed my race plan. I was able to stay hydrated, well-fed, and I started off at a comfortable pace that I was able to sustain for most of the race (more on that later).
Lesson: I underestimated my hydration needs. Luckily the aid stations were there to support, but I was consuming about 750ml an hour.
Lesson: The adrenaline of racing is a factor that I wasn't prepared for. At the start of the race, I took off at my desired easy pace, and was SHOCKED to see my heart rate at 158. I was almost scared. In training, I would have expected to see this in the low 130s, so a part of me was actually alarmed that this would ruin my day. But I suppose the rush of the race environment contributed largely to this, despite my best efforts. I suspect that this was due to my relative inexperience, and with time, it won't be as big of an issue. But I wonder how much this elevated heart rate contributed to my energy needs later in the day.
Success: I stayed positive. I was surprised how many negative comments I heard out there on the course. "I hate hills."..."Wow it's hot."..."My back hurts." I don't understand why people feel the need to complain to others during such an event, especially one that requires so much focus and attention. It was toxic and I quickly got away from those folks.
Disappointment: My knee. I'd been dealing with a nagging IT band issue that seemed to flare up after a couple hours on my longer runs, and it was my main concern for the day. I was optimistic at first, but sure enough, 2 hours in, the little bastard woke up. Hours 3 and 4 were painful. Hour 5 was debilitating. I had to hold on to trees for support as I walked the downhills--sections where I should have been flying--and had to grit my teeth to get any sort of jog going on the flats. After the race there was quite a bit of swelling that lasted a few days.
Lesson: It's hard to know the source of an overuse injury. Obviously it's mechanical in nature, but it could have stemmed from poor mechanics, lack of strength work, lack of movement variety, or simply too much volume too quickly. My gut says it was from lack of variety combined with too much volume.
Lesson: I got to be around actual runners. Training solo for 5 months left me little clue about how others actually perform during such an event. This gave me a chance to see some seasoned runners in action and how they handled the terrain. Humbling. That was the only word. At times I felt like I was surrounded by a bunch of billy goats just bounding UP the hills during hour 5.
Disappointment: I wasn't fit enough. Take away the knee, and I still wasn't quite ready to steadily run for 6 hours. Despite pouring everything I had into being prepared and making great leaps in my fitness, I still don't think it was enough time. I'm learning that this endurance stuff happens slowly. Even though I was aware of not escalating my volume too quickly, in hindsight, I still think I escalated too quickly and bit off a little more than I could chew.
Part of my desire for doing endurance events it to take on challenges that I'm unsure I can do. But I'm learning that's a dangerous line to walk.
There's a difference between doing something, and doing it well. I think the real challenge is in the latter.
And so, I've decided not to run the 50 miler on September 10th.
But as disappointing as this may seem, I'm not disappointed.
First, having this goal is what compelled me to train so hard, and learn all of these lessons. I have to be thankful for that.
Second, like I said, there's a difference between just doing something and doing it well. Do I think I could ambulate my broken body across 50 miles in 16-hours in a test of will and suffering? Truly, yes. I think I could do it.
But is that success? Is that really what I want my first ultra experience to be? No.
The challenge, to me, isn't just the race--it's the preparation. It's getting myself to a place where I can arrive at the starting line healthy, injury-free, and truly fit enough to complete the distance with a high degree of quality. That's a completely different ballgame than just putting up a sloppy performance and then getting a medal at the end.
I'm learning just how murky these waters are to navigate. I'm learning that endurance fitness happens slowly.
And so I'm going to take a step back. After a couple weeks off, I've resumed training. I'm going to give myself another year of work before I assess where I'm at again. Without the looming pressure of a race, I'm going to relax a bit. I'm going to let me volume naturally increase, keep more variety in my training, put as much work into my nutrition and sleep as my running, and learn to enjoy the lifestyle of endurance training.
Despite a disappointing finish to the summer, I also have to learn to step back and look at where I was a year ago. A 7 or 8km run was, at this time last year, a long one. To think that I'm now disappointed that I can only run 4 or 5 hours is pretty cool.