The chapter begins "'An interval workout,' Cassidy once explained to a sportswriter, 'is the modern distance runner's equivalent to the Iron Maiden, a device as you know used by ancient Truth Seekers.'"
Over the years, I've found myself mentally preparing and physically bracing myself for the interval workouts appearing on each training calendar. It's a case of steeling the mind for the pain you're sure to endure...and knowingly -- and willingly -- inflicting it upon yourself. There's something raw about intervals, the reduction of the body into a primal state of survival as you take counterclockwise turn after turn around this interminable torture device. It's also where we learn the most about ourselves.
As I mentioned previously, normally my training programs conclude with some sort of race. This one, the only end goal was simply to get faster and prepare me for the next calendar. So, this became the circled date on my calendar. As Bruce Denton said, "This is where you find out."
I walked from the far corner of the parking lot, cutting across the soccer field to avoid the questioning gaze of onlookers at the high school I was surely trespassing on, and really had no right to be at. High school boys scooped and flung lacrosse balls back and forth at one another from a field looking out over the track. To them, hopefully, I was just some faculty member of no consequence out for an afternoon jog. With a deep exhale, I dropped my keys and water bottle by the finish line and set off on my customary one mile warmup trot with some 100 meter striders mixed in.
The warmup is always sluggish. My body seems already to be rebelling against the effort. The breath is abnormally labored and the form is sloppy. The strides feel taxing. I relish the 10 minutes or so I take to stretch and do some plyos. In my head, I'm simply catching my breath.
It's a hot one. My arms already glisten and sweat drips from the brim of my hat. The sun eases down behind the the spires of trees that ring the west side of the school and cast a merciful shade upon the backstretch.
I spend a couple last seconds rationalizing the workout to myself. Somehow trying to break it into smaller, manageable chunks: it's only five miles; it's only five miles with periods of rest even. But no matter how simple I try to make it, the fact of the matter is, the work still has to be done. I ran paces through my head one more time (no slower than an 85, that computes to a 5:45 mile). No more stalling. I toe the line, click my watch, and am off....
The first one is alarmingly easy. I complete the loop in a 79 I know I'm going to regret in about 30-40 minutes. I trot slowly around the curve that will serve as my 100m recovery. Down below, near the edge of the woods, a pack of deer regard me with caution. I swing beyond them with a lingering look before disappearing around the bend. Somehow, it's already time to go again.
The first set disappears quickly but not smoothly. I feel like the rest is too short and the effort for each interval is tremendous. My chest burns from the humidity (and the air quality alert explains that later). I try to visualize the smooth flow of a river, getting swept up in a current, but the hard, raspy breathing only conjures thoughts of thrashing about in my river trying not to drown. I take the 200m jog at a shuffle to gain as much back as I've lost. After the 100 recovery, it nearly seems like an eternity.
Rather than accepting my 85 threshold, I'm stubbornly fighting to grind out anything close to 80. The second set passes nearly as miserable as the first does.
Before I get ready to start again, I take a long swig of water and look around. The deer have long since gone. Short, shrill blasts from a whistle and barking orders tumble down from the lacrosse game. Sweat flings from my arms with each stride, so I can only imagine how hot they must be with pads on. It dawns on me that we're all toiling, all striving toward an end goal. Unbeknownst to the other, we're suffering in our own way.
It's at this point that I tried to pull a song into my head. I don't run my intervals with an iPod. I want to be fully aware and in touch with what's going on. But, usually there's some song (good or bad) that plays on a loop in my head, and normally it's some line that I cling to and repeat as a mantra. Tonight, there is nothing.
Each arduous effort kept blending together. Because the rests are so short, I keep tally on my hands: reps on my left hand, sets on my right. Each completed set is like a slash against a prisoner's cell wall. Sometimes, I dash across the line dramatically, hands to knees and sucking in deep, haggard breaths; others I simply trot through, click my watch, and start the slow jog to recovery.
It's until mired in the middle stretch of set three that I settle into a rhythm. A slow tightening begins to draw across the tops of my quads. Yet, I swing around the second turn as if fired by a slingshot. With a 100 meters to go, everything relaxes and the thrashing stops. The movement feels effortless. I click my watch and look down at a 78. I have life.
I start the next one and in my head, I reason that if I can somehow just coil like a spring around those curves, I can unleash a smooth almost floating stride down the straights. And so I do. To the point where the curves became 100 meters of waiting. I'd experienced this during my 200s. I'd repeat "coil, coil, coil, coil....release!" in my head and come barreling down the straightaway.
Each rep simply comes and goes. I lock into some in-tune yet detached state. Those 78s become 77s. The monumentalness of the workout subsides and it just becomes another training session.
Then my right hand has four fingers in the air. One set to go. One measly mile. I call on past "final miles" from races, from training runs, from any place in my catalog of memories. "It's only one mile. Anyone can run one mile," I say.
I try to run it like any other set, but I find myself counting down each rep: 300, 200, 150, 100, click!
The sun has disappeared in total behind the trees. A warm breeze blows across the track. Three fingers on the left. Four fingers on my right. The starting line approaching. One lap the track. In my head, I know I'm finishing on a straightaway and I just need to maintain that same rhythm I've found back all those reps ago, and just let the current carry me. Click!
I take the first turn with a renewed quickness in my step. My strides eat up the ground and droplets of sweat fly from my pumping arms. I hit the halfway in 38. A wry smile crosses my face as I accelerate out of the final turn. My eyes lock on the finish. All the form drills, all the core routines, all the early alarms, all the flat strides, the hill strides finally coming together in one perfectly flowing machine. The lactic acid begins to wrap around my legs like a vine but still I push.
When I break through the line, I continue my trot and let my momentum carry me around the track one more time. I look down at my watch, knowing what would most likely be there. I let out a "Yeeooow!" and bring my arm up to what I already know is there: a 75.
A smile breaks across my face and doesn't leave until I get home. The adrenaline carries me through the rest of the night until my wife and I settle down on the couch. I promptly pass out at 9:00 and sleep just about straight through until my alarm goes off at 5:20 to head out in the dark, once again, onto the road.
Though the workout, "the interval workout," was a success, there's still more work to be done.