Workout matchmaking

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This Tuesday my strength session overlaps with Gwen. This is our first workout with just the two of us. She is a champion triathlete, currently training for the marathon. That doesn’t lend itself to much overlap with a mid-distance runner. But we are both planning to compete on the track at the USA Championships in a few weeks. I’m entered in the 1500, she’s in the 10k.

The workout is sets of tempo 800s with short rest. I’m going to do 9 reps, and she’ll continue with 3 more. It seems like it should be pretty manageable. We are getting closer to USAs. It’s not yet a taper, but Jerry does seem to have pulled back from the impossible sessions. This helps with recovery from accumulated fatigue, and it’s nice for confidence.

It’s a treat to workout with someone new. Usually we are segregated by distance. On event specific days, I’ll run with the other 1500 specialists. A new pairing is a bonding moment. You laugh and banter to get out the pre-workout jitters, and learn to rely on each other as you switch leads. And at the end, you share the accomplishment.

Still, I’m a bit nervous. It’s Gwen!! I really respect her, her athlete accomplishments (Olympic gold medalist in triathlon, for one) and the career she’s built, and I want to be a good workout partner. In this situation, we are given the pace, and we take turns leading one rep at a time. Being a “good” partner means that I hit the prescribed pace on the reps I lead, and do so evenly (if the goal is 2:34 for two laps, an ideal leader would run 77 and 77). It also means pulling my weight throughout the workout. I don’t want to blow up and leave a workout buddy hanging at the end, right when it gets hard. It feels like more responsibility with just two people, but it’s not as if any of this is new to me. If anything, I’m more experienced on the track than Gwen is. Still, the thought crosses my mind, “don’t mess up.”

Tempos are a unique kind of pain. They hurt, but not enough that you have to stop immediately. And it’s a slow build, so you start feeling the pain long before the end is near, long enough that your brain can get in the way. Today, I find myself forecasting. It’s maybe the 4th or 5th rep, only halfway through, and I start to worry about how much is left. I’m suddenly very aware of everyone at the track, especially those taking pictures. I let it start to agitate me. Stop with the camera, turn away! What if I can’t finish?!

I don’t usually get thoughts like that in the middle of a rep. The goal is to stay too present for the negative predictions. But tempos are just easy enough that my mind can wander. And I’m probably predisposed to a bit more performance anxiety right now. I ignore the mental interruption, or don’t add emotional importance, and focus on each piece individually. By the last set, I’m thinking I could have done one more.

Back to altitude

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Returning to Mammoth means I have to relive the post-race lull for a few days. People ask about my takeaways, I give some lightened version of the last post. There is no escaping the result, and the result is a buzzkill. I want to hide from their questions. I don’t know how to say this except to say it, at this moment I feel like the worst of the group. And when my confidence is strong, I see that as an incredible opportunity; I will never grow more than when pushed by these people. But my confidence is shot right now. A cheap boost would be nice.

I have Tribe of Mentors on my Kindle. It’s a collection of quotes and advice from the guests on the Tim Ferriss podcast. One question I highlighted is: “where do you go when the ego is low?” I believe it’s from a trainer talking about how the best performers will seek to be challenged even when they are down. He says it’s a mark of the good ones that they don’t back away in difficult times, when the first instinct is to run for comfort and reassurance. I’m clinging to that thought now; I can stand this discomfort. I try to not overthink results and just keep moving.

The mountains help. Up here we’re isolated physically, it’s easy to disconnect from news or social feeds and enjoy the camp atmosphere and the training. We are connecting with other runners in town, the Mammoth Track Club hosted us for a group dinner. I’m thankful for the camaraderie and distraction.

Post-race is a daze

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It’s been a few days since the meet, and my outlook is deteriorating. Lauren Paquette is another runner training in Mammoth. I see her on the trip back, and she mentions how says she thinks of post-race emotions as a series of stages, akin to the stages of grief. At first, I’m done — physically spent and sheepish. Then, I’m reassured by Jerry and focused on the positive progress and on Shelby’s breakthrough, maybe denying the sadness of my result. Over the next few hours and days, I move to disbelieve, embarrassment, anger, and the slightest bit of doubt.  

The questions start coming: Am I cut out for this program? Will I thrive under this system eventually, like other people have? What happens if I don’t? I try not to linger too long, but the thoughts do arise. I joined last October, it’s now been seven months, and my results at this point are subpar compared to last year.

I try to reframe my thoughts. Do these results fit in with my greater understanding of how development in this program will work? Yes. Shelby and Courtney both talk with me about how they felt in their first year of racing, they describe a similar, disconcerting, sense of tired legs. It’s helpful to get that first-person perspective. Though the question still lingers: when faced with a series of mediocre results, when do I continue forward with resolve, and when do I reevaluate the underlying assumptions?

I know I’m supposed to be all-in, but my theory of training is that the best results come when you can honestly reflect on what’s working, and what’s not. One size does not fit all. One size doesn’t even fit one, if you take the length of their career, or changes in outside variables. You have to be able to take results (good and bad!) into account, and iterate if necessary. Wait forever and you’ve missed your shot.

But I trust my teammates and their shared experience; I believe this training is a new and needed stimulus, and that my body will respond; and I have faith in this program.  I redirect my questioning from the training to myself. Am I doing everything to support myself in my goals? If I’m going to give this my best shot, the answer has to be yes.

Photo by Al Lacey

Mentors

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You are your own business, your race results are the product, who do you pick for your board of advisors? (Okay, maybe most small business don’t have boards, but this is my imaginary scenario, and anything is possible).

Call them mentors, #1 fans co-conspirators, there are going to be people in addition to a coach who play a role in your athletic career.  You can call them family and friends, though I’ve found that I prefer to consciously choose who I let in on the details of my training and development. My parents love me, but I’m not texting them after a bad workout. That’s why I like the board of advisors thought exercise. It helps define who plays which roles for me, especially when roles can overlap. As I navigate bonding with a new coach, a rocky first few months, and a new training program, I am especially aware of these supportive figures in my life, and so thankful for them.

Aren’t mentors irrelevant if you have a good coach? Maybe for some, but I’ve found they hold different functions. I want a coach to keep me accountable, to raise the bar high and keep me reaching for it. I’ve found that I push myself hardest in practice when I have more of a “tough love” relationship with a coach. If I never break the seal and ask for mercy, that in itself strengthens my resolve… it’s a nonnegotiable. I want a coach to be honest and realistic, because only in that way can the relationship maintain its integrity. We both want big things, and we won’t pretend to have reached the goal until we are there. Trust grows in this way, and we can have direct conversations about what’s going well, and what’s not. I believe that a working relationship based on high standards, trust and psychological safety will produce the best results. And when those results come, they come with the satisfaction of mutual achievement.

But the growth phase is hard. The coach isn’t going to baby me, but man, I want someone to! Whereas I’m going to always try to bring my best self to interactions with a coach, I sometimes need to be able to admit when I’m scared, or unsure. I want help with nurturing my confidence, maybe now more than ever. And I love me a partner in crime. This person can be a significant other, a dear past coach, a trusted mentor. In my reality, it’s all of these people at different times, hence the board analogy.

Sometimes it’s helpful to have someone who will shamelessly make me feel better. At others, it’s nice to be able to brainstorm about what I might be overlooking in training, the auxiliary parts that my coach doesn’t oversee. For example, how do I process the “failure” of the workout last week? Should I re-evaluate nutrition, strength and recovery for missing links? Or is it better to reframe, realize that I’m completing longer and more intense sessions than I ever have, that it’s only in comparison to training partners that it seems I’m coming up short? Questions like this are always popping up through the duration of a season… when to make changes, when to stay the course. Improvement is a dynamic process. Of course I could come up with answers on my own, but seeing my development through an advisor’s eyes can be enlightening and reassuring.

I believe my ability to stay positive, long-term focused, confident, purposeful, joyful, has been due to an incredible support group. People like this impart a feeling of security, they enable me to take risks and dream big. I can’t imagine my career and track accomplishments without them.

Team

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I was thinking more about that last update, and the psychology of working with a coach in the early stages, before you have experienced success in the program. That’s when training partners are more important than ever. 

Physical training of this intensity is hard (understatement!). You are exhausted a lot of the time, and while at altitude camp, you’re mostly isolated from friends, family, partners. And on top of all that, there are no guarantees it will pay off. Improvements at this level don’t come easy. You have to endure months of work without much positive feedback, from a coach or the outside world. It’s a recipe for some depressing moments.

Having teammates in this situation is what makes the setup at all bearable.

When I first joined, I was warned a lot about the trials of the first year with Bowerman. Courtney, Colleen, Shelby, Emily, Amy, everyone had a story about how hard it was at different points, how they weren’t able to finish workouts, and that in itself was a new challenge. So I was at least prepared. But commiserating can be a slippery slope. You want keep the bar at the level of the best of you, not let it fall to the lowest common denominator. I think we do a good job of this. On the workout days, no one is given much sympathy. It’s not that anyone is mean, it’s just that the focus is on the people completing the full session. Which is exactly as it should be. People still working to get to that point (me!) can gain strength knowing that teammates who are crushing it now went through the same growing pains. You aren’t given the chance to wallow or slow down in the pursuit.

And this all makes it sounds so serious, when there is so much fun. We giggle and bond over shared struggles and goals, use humor to deal with hard days. We explore new places together, cook together, share stories. We get on each other’s nerves, but even that turns eventually to jokes. The experience of a training camp is itself unique, and you grow close from sharing it, living with each other’s messes and faults.

A few of us struggled on the tempo mile day. There is power in simply knowing that someone else is going through a similar ordeal. We didn’t talk about it too much, we all went home and kept each other on the same routine: did a second run, shared dinner duties, got up the next day and repeated. Simple. But at a point when I am desperately wanting more approval, from Jerry, from the outside world, from myself and my expectations, I am so thankful for this camaraderie. I want that stuff, my ego wants the validation, but I don’t need it when I have them. And maybe you could say I don’t need training partners, but on this day, it sure as hell makes it easier to keep my head up and keep on the train.

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