Friday, February 3, 2012

Finding the Flow

Finding the flow.
I have a confession: tempo runs worry me. When I see them on my training plan, my palms get a little sweaty and I keep that run in the back of my head all week.

The planned tempo run is of course different than the actual tempo run. You know, the ones where the schedule calls for an easy run but there's something magic about the day and your pace drops naturally to tempo?

My dad called yesterday during his odyssey up 95 from Florida to D.C. The conversation, as it tends to do with us, turned to running.

“What’s the run for today?” he asked.

I inhaled sharply. “Six miles with four at tempo. Makes me nervous.”

"Just let it flow," he said.

I went on to explain that my anxiety lay in the sustained speed of a tempo run. I love my interval workouts. Whether it’s ripping off 200s on a track or 2Ks on the road, I can feel the life pumping through me and ratcheting up the adrenaline. The “torture” is generally short-lived. And if you're RunDanRun, so are the contents of your stomach. At tempo pace, it is indeed all about finding that flow, where the needle is just past comfortable but the rhythm – the tempo – carries you easily like a river's current over the rocks.

For me, it’s about finding that rhythm.

In the past, I would run my warmup and then slam down on the accelerator and try to get right into tempo pace. But when I trained for New York last summer and fall, I decided to tackle my tempo runs with more patience. I kept repeating, Let the pace fall naturally. Then I'd try to believe it. And once I (sort of) believed it, I tried to execute it. I’d ease down on the accelerator until my legs and lungs synced up into that “comfortably hard” pace.

It worked.

My watch would beep to tick off another mile and I’d glance down at my wrist and see the pace getting faster with each mile, until I’d pushed it down far enough where I was right in that tempo zone or even a touch faster and just humming along the side of the highway feeling invincible.

Yesterday, when I let out from the house, I lurched into my warmup and had to pull the reins back and remind myself that it was only a warmup and there was plenty of time for fast running ahead.

I picked a hilly three mile out and back route to throw a little variety into my training. I’d tackled the same six mile loop all week and started feeling the mental fatigue. The trip up and down West Ox road rises and falls the entire way. I vowed not to look at my watch, and instead keep the effort even over the front and back of each hill even if the pace wasn't.

When my watch beeped one mile, I chanted, Find the flow. Find the flow. Find the flow. The pace surged and dropped back depending on the pitch of the road. I kept stealing glances at my watch then chastising myself for looking. Run by feel. Feel the road. Find the flow.

The watch chirped again and showed a 15 second faster pace. I raised my eyebrows and powered on. I hit the turn around and shot down the back stretch of the hill I’d just climbed. When I hit the valley, I peered up at the long, steady climb that waited for me. Strong legs, strong lungs burned behind my eyes like a movie theatre marquee. I said it over and over, using it to time my rhythm.

I reached the top of the hill and was feeling it now. That elusive flow. Only one mile stood between me and completing the workout. I surged ahead into the darkness creeping in ahead of me, just another headlight in the evening traffic. Everything worked hard: arms pumping, legs churning. The beep. And then I slowed to a jog. I’ve learned to fully embrace the slow 10-15 minute cool down at the end of a hard effort. In fact, there are few things more satisfying.

I got back to my front step and sat for a moment before unlacing my key. I’d left my worries and my demons out on the road. Will I continue to worry about these tempo runs when they crop up on the calendar? Probably. But in many ways, it helps me mentally prepare for the hard effort ahead and teach me to find that flow.

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