Bittersweet Tempo-ny

Tuesday night I went out for my first run of taper – a “blow out the tubes” tempo run. 8 miles with 5 at tempo. No pace restrictions – just whatever pace feels good and try to keep it at least sort of consistent.

I’m not a big fan of false modesty, so I’ll just come out and say it: it was awesome. I totally knocked it out of the park. It was a straight progression (the “royal flush” of running workouts), with the tempo miles starting at 7:43 and ending at 7:13 (7:43, 7:33, 7:24, 7:17, 7:13; average – 7:26).

7:13!! In an outdoor road tempo run! I could hardly believe it. It used to be that I could barely even hit sub-7:30 miles, let alone average that pace for 5 miles. And I didn’t even feel totally wiped afterward either (maybe it’s all the protein I’ve been stocking up on this week). It was like I was in someone else’s body for an hour. Who IS this girl?! I did wear the K-DEER leggings again, and I’m convinced that has something to do with it. Seriously, I’m pretty sure these things have magical powers, you guys.

But anyway, I assure you I am not writing this post just to brag about my workout, but rather to explore the interesting set of mixed feelings that came about in the wake of my speediest ever miles.

The first thing I remember thinking is: isn’t it amazing that I can go out for a tempo run on untapered legs, 2 days after a 20 miler, and hit paces like that…and yet, I still don’t feel the least bit confident that I can hold an 8:25-8:30 pace in a marathon race with taper-fresh, adrenaline-fueled legs?

And as I was pondering that, a feeling of sadness crept in. Yes, sadness. Because I realized that a couple months from now, I’m not going to be able to do what I just did. I ran that tempo run because I’m at my peak fitness right now. Now that I think of it, this might very well be the best running shape I’m in for the rest of the year. After the marathon I’ll recover, and get back into running…but I won’t be able to hit those kind of paces in a tempo run anymore. Heck, it will be a while before I’m even in good enough shape to go for a tempo run that long, and I certainly won’t be ticking off sub-7:45 miles. It may be a while before I can hit sub-8:00s again.

Or, maybe not. Who knows. Maybe this summer when I’m not training, I’ll be more motivated than ever to run, and I won’t really lose any of my speed. But I think we all know that it won’t be the same anymore. By definition, peak fitness isn’t something you can sustain. You build up to it, you achieve it…and then, inevitably, you have to travel back down, so you can one day summit an even higher peak.

I struggled with this last year after Grandma’s Marathon. I talk a lot about the burn out I felt after that training cycle, but it wasn’t just burn out. I had a wildly successful race, and I had a hard time letting go. I couldn’t stop comparing myself to the runner I was in May-June, and being upset and disappointed with myself that I never measured up anymore. I had this irrational feeling that if I couldn’t maintain that level of fitness, then it would invalidate what I had accomplished, like the race never happened. It’s stupid, I know. My marathon success was like that ex-boyfriend you’re still in love with: constantly living in the past and pining over what used to be.

But I’m also glad I went through that, because I learned a lot from it. I’m about to go into another off-season soon, and I’m determined to do it right this time. I now know that I should expect some post-race blues after Pittsburgh, that those are normal feelings, and that I can choose to move on from them in a positive way. I understand that I won’t be in the same fitness level anymore, but that too is perfectly normal, and it’s okay. In fact, one other thing I learned is that as long as I keep running, I’ll probably lose a lot less fitness than I think. Making improvements throughout the many years of a running career is a constant ebb-and-flow process, and not only am I more keenly aware of that fact now, I also appreciate it more.

So yes, I may experience a case of the blues next month, and I may not feel like the runner I am right now anymore. But I have to embrace that ebb tide, because I know that allowing myself to feel and process those emotions will actually enable me to get back into training and improvement sooner.

So I’m left feeling that this magical tempo run was sort of like a way of saying goodbye. I probably won’t see 7:26 miles on my Garmin for quite a while now. It was wonderful to see them on Tuesday, to affirm and see with my own eyes how far I’ve come – but they can’t stay.

I’d like to think it’s a happy goodbye, though – more of an “I’ll see you later.” I’ll be back eventually, and before I know it, I’ll be seeing tempo miles that are at that pace and even faster. And no matter what happens at the race in a few weeks, it doesn’t define me or this training cycle. I still have this affirmation of my fitness and how far I’ve come, and nothing that happens at the race can change that or take it away from me.


22 thoughts on “Bittersweet Tempo-ny

  1. I had a similar experience last weekend when I tacked two tempo pace miles on the end of my long run. First one was a 7:21 and it honestly felt so easy that I could not believe it. It was like I was running in an alternate universe where I am a much much faster runner. I’m so used to any pace under 8:00 feeling like hard work.

    I’m just about to enter my racing season and since I will just be racing 5ks, I should be able to maintain peak fitness/continue to improve for a bit since I won’t be beating myself up the way a marathon does. But that definitely doesn’t mean it can last forever. I needed the reminder that I will be taking a break this summer and it is okay to lose a bit of fitness during that time (and also heat + humidity = slower). You always write such thoughtful posts that help keep me grounded.

    1. It is really interesting how different the process is for longer and shorter distances, despite the similarities. Like you said, peaking for a season of 5Ks probably won’t take up the full tank of gas like peaking for a marathon does, and it’s so interesting how the process of peaking for a series of races differs than peaking for just one. It’s something I’m looking forward to if I decide to focus on shorter distances late in the year. In my case I would do 10Ks, but it’s gotta be nice to know that if you screw up one of them you can go back out in 2 weeks and try again, and that once the season is over you don’t need to devote two months to recovering and getting back into a groove. But runners of all distances still go through phases of fitness.

      1. I’d love to see how you put a 10k season together. I actually have never ran a 10k before, but it seems like a really tricky combination of speed and endurance. If you do end up doing a 10k focus in the fall that would probably provide a really solid foundation for starting a spring marathon or half cycle, without needing as long of an off season/recovery season. Just something to think about…

      2. That’s what I love about the 10K. It’s something that would allow me to work on my weaknesses (speed) while simultaneously utilizing my strengths (endurance). I’ve never really trained for one, but I’ve always enjoyed the ones I’ve run. And I’m definitely thinking if I went that route this fall, I would then train for a goal half next Spring and a full in the fall. That’s a lot of consecutive training but hopefully with the different distances and gradual build up I would avoid burn out.

  2. It’s so exciting to nail those paces, but definitely bittersweet when you aren’t jumping into more training soon after your goal race. It’s helpful (and hard) to remember that paces and races don’t define you, even though it becomes our main obsession for months at a time. 🙂

    1. So true! Accepting that paces/races (lol I love that running is so rhymey!) don’t define you is a journey in itself!

  3. That was an amazing tempo run to finish on. Stepping back may show you slower paces but it can only make you a better runner in the end. You are going to have an awesome marathon followed by a nice relaxing summer of running. 🙂

  4. It is pretty frustrating after peaking/racing to head out for a run and suddenly feel like you’re starting all over. The whole month or two of running after the marathon was so disappointing, like all of my fitness was gone! As frustrating as it is, it’s also a little fascinating due to how the human body works. I think it really speaks volumes to the importance of a strong training plan and sticking to that plan in order to peak and not just be “in shape” for the race. And I’m totally with you on hitting great paces on the tempo, but then wondering how the hell I can hold a pace for a race!

    1. Haha it’s amazing, isn’t it? No matter how many times we race successfully we still don’t believe we can hold our pace until we get out there on the course and do it. The mind is such a weird thing. And I agree about running being frustrating after a marathon. Last year for me it was compounded by the fact that getting back into running corresponded with the beginning of summer (literally – my marathon was on the last day of Spring), and I do not run well in heat/humidity so every day I was out there turned into “OMG what is wrong with me!” That’s part of the reason I’m looking forward to lots of Garmin-free running in the off season…what I don’t know can’t hurt me, right?? 🙂

  5. Those are great paces! But I also just love this post. I can completely understand how you feel. I would love for our fitness levels to stick around a little longer after races and hope that someday those paces will be easier all the time not just at our peak!
    Your perspective is great though…very positive and contagious!

    1. Thanks so much! Yes, it would be great if fitness could stick around (although usually, much of it does!). But then again, “peaking” wouldn’t feel so special and gratifying if it weren’t a once in a while thing, so I guess we just have to take what we can get 🙂

  6. Congrats on those paces! Fitness levels after races can be so frustrating, which honestly is why I love peaking for the half – I feel like I come off of that race stronger and can maintain those faster paces better after a few weeks of recovery. But the marathon? It takes so much!
    And yes, I understand so much about the struggle to have confidence in a marathon goal pace, even when you hit faster paces in training. Like, I want to run a 3:30 marathon, should be able to run a 3:30 marathon, and yet my mind questions the ability. But I know for you that your training has been so race specific and strong that you will be able to hit your goals on race day!

  7. First of all, congrats on such an amazing breakthrough run. Seriously, I was so proud of you as I was reading this. Not just because you hit some SICK PACES, but because of your perspective and honesty. I completely understand what you are feeling and had those very same thoughts myself on my final tempo. Like, I’m going to run this marathon and then I am planning a recovery period with NO pace work so naturally, this is going to be something I will need to build up to again. But then I thought about my last recovery period and I went back and re read posts I wrote from my first 8 weeks of training. I didn’t feel good running when I came back. But when I started to feel good again, I felt GOOD. Like, really good. Like I hadn’t felt in years. So we really do need to get to that summit and come back down because it WILL make us stronger. I think what you went through mentally last year is going to prove to be very beneficial after PGH because you will be ready for the break and KNOW you will come back and be an even stronger, faster runner than you already are. You are so awesome, my friend, and you are on track for a GREAT marathon!

  8. Congrats on the amazing run! I’m not a fan of false modesty either, why not just say you smashed it!?

    I’m having a total comedown after the marathon on Sunday, so I know how you must have felt after your last one. But still, onto the next one!

  9. You should definitely brag about that awesome run! Congrats! I think it’s great that you’re putting things into perspective. I always think once I reach a new fitness level I should stay there and get frustrated when I don’t. You’re right that it’s the ebb and flow of running that makes us better over the long term. Also, I meant to comment on your last post, but those K-Deer leggings are on my wish list–those exact ones! There’s actually been research done that shows that clothes we love to wear are empowering and can help improve our performance. So it really is true that leggings can be magical!

  10. The post race blues hit me hard after the marathon in February. I agree we have some blues normally but coupled with my disasterous results, hit me hard. It was literally 4 weeks after that I finally started running again.

    I hope you don’t get down too much on peak level and abilities. You’ve done amazing work and should be proud of everything.

  11. Holy wow!!! Look at you throwing down crazy numbers like that in a TRAINING run! I think your perspective has changed so much that you will surprise yourself after recovery from Pittsburgh. There’s so much to be said about just being able to maintain fitness and find joy in it. The numbers will fall where they will and they definitely are not what matters most 😀

  12. Wow, GREAT work on that tempo run! I love your insight about the paces…when we’re at our peak, we can enjoy that feeling but we have to know it won’t last forever…

    But then again, it IS possible to get faster overtime. Maybe someday 7:15 will be a moderate run for you, not a tempo pace!

  13. First of all great work on that tempo – those are amazing splits! It shows that all that training has paid off and you are ready to rock your marathon. And I totally understand that feeling of wishing you could keep that fitness for ever, but at least you have the confidence now that you are capable of these times and it might not be so intimidating in the future to push yourself to get back there.

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