It was weather every runner dreams of – high 40s. Sunny. A slight cool breeze. Just like Lakefront Marathon, I remember thinking as I strode through the warm up mile of last night’s MP-practice-turned-HMP-practice tempo run, watching my running skirt bounce on the hips of my shadow.
I cruised through mile 1 at my typical warm up pace and into mile 2, intending to ease into goal marathon pace by mile 3. I became a little concerned when my breathing started to get heavy, and I saw this transition mile had actually been an 8:31. Okay. Guess we’re not waiting until mile 3 to start goal pace. I tried to just stay at that pace. I’ll just do two cool down miles instead. My body and legs were feeling good but gosh darnit lungs, get with the program! It was like my breath couldn’t keep up with my body. What gives?
As if reading my thoughts, my Garmin suddenly chimed in with the answer: 8:04.
I tried to ease up on the reins, but not too much. Result: 8:12.
Well, shoot. I’d better…wait a minute. My breathing is stable. I’m not panting anymore, in fact, I’m not struggling at all. The next three miles ticked by – 8:12, 8:11, 8:15.
I’d hit it – “nirvana” pace. When there are springs on your feet and a motor on your back, an invisible hand pulling you gently along, some higher running power doing all the work for you. All the elements click into place and you feel like you could go on like this forever.
A year ago – a couple months ago – I would have let a run like this get to my head. Look! I ran one day at an 8:14 pace and it was comfortable! Well then, I’ve arrived! No need to bother with any more of this easy running in the 9:00s, this one run means I am clearly way faster than I thought! Quick, better start shaving 5-10 minutes off all my finish time goals!
But now I know – a good run is just a good run. There will be more of them sprinkled throughout my training, among the many more inevitable runs where I have to practically bribe myself out the door just to labor through an easy pace. I will have days like today, buoyant and shining, and days like I had last week, humbling and uncertain.
One bad run does not define me as a runner. And, as much I hate to admit it, neither does one excellent run. The tempo run where I float through low-8:00 miles like a derby girl on roller skates doesn’t define me any more than the tired easy run where I huff and puff my way through 9:30s.
So what does define me?
That thing that happens not after a rockstar workout, or a week of rockstar workouts, but when I keep getting out there and pushing myself, week after week after week until the weeks turn into months turn into seasons. When I stop overthinking every mile, hyperfocusing on every workout, and zoom out to look at the months and weeks I’ve put in the bank so far. The big picture.
Progress = practice.
It’s how three months ago, I also ran some “nirvana pace” 8:14 miles – during a 5 mile run, when I was running about 20 miles a week. Now I just ran 8:14 miles with the same effort level during an 8 mile run, with sore legs coming off a 46 mile week.
It’s how several weeks ago, my splits in pace practice and interval repeats were all over the place and luckily averaged out to around goal pace. Now, I marvel at the fact that in my pace and track workouts and races lately, my splits have become remarkably consistent.
It’s how I see myself doing things that used to be hard and overwhelming – mile repeats, 20 mile long runs – with control and finesse. Finishing strong is no longer a goal, it’s become a habit.
It’s how I thought to myself during this run: this pace used to be so hard for me. There was no defining moment, no pivotal workout, in which it ceased to be hard. But it did.
And it’s how I couldn’t see or appreciate any of it until I finally accepted that progress is a slow and gradual journey. Getting better and faster as a runner is like the rotation of the Earth: now matter how hard you try, how furiously you squint, you can’t see it happening with your own eyes. And yet, the sun rises and sets every day, the seasons change, people grow older. Trust the change you cannot see, and only then will you start to see it.
During my last pace mile I imagined myself crossing the finish line of my BQ race, the most triumphant grin on my face. That’s going to happen, you know.