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Nonlinear fatigue

September 2, 2006

After over two decades as a fairly serious distance runner, I’m still learning new things about my body. Perhaps this reflects an admirable curiosity and openmindedness, or perhaps I’m just a slow learner. Regardless, last Saturday’s 5x1200m workout was a painful yet satisfying reminder of one of my more recent insights.

I can trace this particular insight back to May 9th, 2005, when I went to Husky Stadium hoping to run 3x1600m in 5:00 or faster, with 600m jogs in between. (This normally wouldn’t be too challenging, but it came two days after a 6.5-hour hike with Scott Jurek and his ultramarathoning friends.) The first 1600 went fine, but the first 400 of the second one felt horrible and was slow. “Oh well, there goes the workout,” I thought disgustedly, wondering how much more I’d slow down in the second lap. When I checked my 800m split, though, I saw that I was somehow back on pace. WEIRD! I began the third lap with renewed optimism, and, to make a long story short, finished that 1600 and the final one in 5:00 apiece.

On that day I realized that, for many years, I had been harboring the assumption that workouts always get harder and harder and harder as they go on (assuming that the interval distance, recovery time between intervals, and goal pace are held constant), with no letup ever. Now I could see that the assumption was not 100% safe; I might struggle early on in a workout (or a race, presumably) and still have a shot at meeting my original goal.

Quite an uplifting realization, and yet there are times when I wish I wasn’t aware of it. Take Saturday’s 5x1200m workout, for example. The first interval goes OK, but (after a 400m recovery jog) the second one is tough, and I have to kick the last 200m to get down to my goal time of 3:36. I’m tempted to aim for 3:39s in the remaining intervals, BUT I CAN’T BECAUSE I KNOW THAT I STILL MIGHT BE ABLE TO HIT THE ORIGINAL GOAL. I curse my now-heightened self-awareness and labor through the third 1200, again kicking to get to 3:36. Still trying to think of an excuse to ease off a bit; still can’t find one that holds water. Damn you, Crowther — why do you have to stick to Plan A as if it’s a test of moral purity? The fourth interval is underway. Another 3:36, barely. All right, one to go. After all this, you better finish strong, you freakin’ masochist…. 3:37. Not too bad. Another gut-wrenching interval session is over, and I warm down while pondering my expanding capacity for self-inflicted pain.

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