Finding the edges of my fast

Fast. Its one of those adjectives we like to throw around like it can be defined; neatly quantified to accurately describe the subject that follows. He is a ‘fast’ runner. She ran a ‘fast’ race.

When really, a word like fast is no different then a word like ‘rich’ or ‘smart’; we all have an idea of what those words mean, but can those concepts actually be quantified? Measured and judged? Not really. In the end, those are very subjective interpretations based on our own experiences. I feel rich when I find $5 in my pocket, but that doesn’t make me rich. I’ve got friends who have a pretty nice house and a couple nice cars. Are they rich? Kinda. Is Daryl Katz rich? Sure, but not when you compare him to Bill Gates. And I’m pretty sure there are some other tech wizards and oil barons that make Bill Gates’ wealth look quaint. My point being, these things are all relative.

Running fast, and our ideas of how to quantify that, are no exception. It’s a pretty subjective thing.

For most of my running life I really haven’t worried too much about how fast I am. Partly because I’ve never considered myself to be competitive, but also because the kind of running that I love to do isn’t quantified by speed, rather it’s by distance, elevation and more importantly by scenery and adventure. I don’t care if it takes me 25 mins to cover a kilometer if that kilometer takes me over a rocky ridge along a mountain top.

I didn’t even have a clue what my personal best times were for shorter distances. It sounds crazy, but I have never run a 5k or 10k race. And my half and full marathon times were so long ago they aren’t even relevant. I sort of skipped over all those goals and went right to ultra distance and have been pretty focused on that ever since.

But this summer I got curious. I heard other people refer to me as ‘fast’ or make comment’s about how I must win races all the time. I find this pretty laughable. Sure I’ve done well in a few small local races in big distance events, but mostly because those events have been a war of attrition and I’m too stubborn to quit. Doesn’t mean I’m fast…it just means I’m dumb enough to be the last one out there! (That’s the beauty of ultras.)

I watched on Strava, as a number of my friends set out to do time trials, which is basically a ‘pretend race’ to see how fast you can do a set distance. Usually the 1 mile, 5km, 10km, half marathon and marathon. And so many people I know nailed down some extraordinary speeds! I was inspired and intrigued… and wanted to know what I could do. So one day, early in September, I hit the track by my house and ran 5k around it, as hard as I could.

Ugh. That sucked.

The pain you feel while running an ultra can get intense, but it’s also manageable because you just sort of get used to it. But the pain of running as fast as you can for that long is a completely different beast. I am really not used to red-lining my system like that and everything in me screamed to make it stop.

I stopped my watch and sighed. It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great either.

I committed to six weeks of throwing a few speed workouts in to see what kind of improvements I could make. I know I have the fitness base to pull off some decent times, but first I needed to get my system fired up a bit and used to running in that red-line zone. My legs needed the reminder to turn over fast, way faster then the usual grind I put out while doing big distance training.

Speed work brings a weird mix of dread and exhilaration that I don’t get from other types of runs. They are usually short and intense and give you a runners high that carries you all day, but I have such a hard time getting excited about them and it took me awhile to figure out why.

But then it hit me. It was because speed work is quantifiable. And as soon as you put a number to something, you inevitably compare and are left feeling inadequate. Whether that means you are comparing yourself to others, or comparing yourself to your previous efforts, it affects how you feel about that effort. And it never felt good enough because like I started out by saying, fast should be a subjective term…but now we have quantified our speed…so shouldn’t we be able to identify what fast really is? Remove the subjectivity and give it a definition?

What do you think is a fast 5k time? 25 mins? 22 mins? 20 mins? Some guy just did it in 12:35. Does that mean that every time slower then that doesn’t meet the standard of fast?

This sort of thinking left me feeling pretty defeated. I went to a track workout with some pretty quick people, ended every interval pretty much dead last. I had hundreds of people bet on how long it would take to run 40km for Run On: The Race that Almost Happened, and turned out to be much slower then most people anticipated. Event though it was a difficult trail run and I was pretty social for much of the event, it still was a little hard on my head. I skipped some speed workouts. (Randomly ran an ultra instead to make myself feel better.) I sort of gave up on re-doing my time trial once the temperature dipped below zero. I didn’t want to do it because I was afraid of failure.

But then we got the gift of some pretty mild weather and I felt like maybe it was still worth a shot to see if I improved at all. My friend/coach Paul offered to pace me for it, so really I felt like I couldn’t turn an offer like that down at all. Time to see what I could do.

We met early on a Tuesday morning and oh man was I ever nervous. I hadn’t slept well the night before thanks to that raw energy buzz usually reserved for races. This was more then a race. This was a test that would answer the question I had thus far been able to avoid answering. Just how fast can I run 5k?

I told Paul my goal time, and decided I wasn’t going to check my watch at all while I ran. I would rely on him to determine our pace and turn around point and do my best to keep up. We did a short warm up loop and headed across the Walterdale Bridge and then stopped to stare down the straight paved trail following the river. I consoled myself it would all be over soon.

Watches ready. And GO!

We started out way too fast but I felt good so I didn’t care. Those are the sweet moments. Leg turnover feels easy and your heart rate hasn’t maxed yet so you literally feel like you’re flying. I will never take for granted the incredible privilege it is to be able to move like that with my own power.

If only that bliss could last longer then a few minutes. It doesn’t take too long before lactic acid starts to build and your heart rate starts to border on frantic. I focused hard on deep breaths and tried to settle into the rhythm but that meant I started to fall a few steps behind Paul. No room for letting up. We weren’t even to the turn around point and my brain started to play those games normally reserved for really long runs…I started to think of ways I could get out of it. I could stop to pee. I could pretend I needed to tie my shoe. I could…well…just stop. Nothing was keeping me there. I didn’t need to experience that pain for one more second if I didn’t want to. I could go home and snuggle between my dog and my husband in my warm bed. I could stop right then, and never run again. The pain could end if I would just listen to the excuses and just give up.

It was pretty tempting.

Turn around point came and Paul pulled even further ahead. Every now and again he would yell something over his shoulder at me. I could never hear what he said, but every time it made me dig a little deeper to see what else I had left. After what felt like an eternity the lights of the High Level bridge came into sight. Pass the LRT. Under the High Level. A slight downhill brought a tiny bit of relief, but the arch of the Walterdale bridge still seemed so far away to my burning lungs.

Photo Cred: Paul Hill -Picture of the Walterdale Bridge taken a different morning…
there’s no time for pictures during a Time Trial!

Finding the edge of your potential is such a strange thing. How do you really know if you’ve given it your all? If you had asked me in that moment if I was running as hard as I could I probably would’ve said yes. But yet, what would I do if I had looked over my shoulder to see I was being chased by a bear? Absolutely I would’ve found a higher gear! These things are all relative. But in that cool, dark morning with Paul as my only witness and cheerleader, I dug as deep as I could to finish those last few meters.

Stopped my watch. YAAAASSSS!

I was pretty pumped to see I hit my goal exactly bang on. It was a pretty decent improvement from my initial effort (considering I didn’t put that much work into getting there) and it was a good indication of how much harder I will have to work to take the next chunk of time off my new personal best.

I am tempted to share what my time was…but I won’t. Not because I’m not proud of it, I am. But rather because I am holding on to that time as my own subjective definition of fast. It’s my fast. Not yours. (Yeah you, whoever has read this far!) You probably have your own idea of ‘fast’ and how you stack up compared to the people around you. There’s not really anything wrong with that…but it’s a tricky balance to know how use that comparison to motivate you, not leave you feeling defeated if you don’t stack up. Mostly I want us all to take the notion of comparison out of the equation when it comes to our personal achievement. Everyone has a different edge of what fast means to them and that’s more then ok. In the end, its all about the journey. And while I don’t think I’m going to turn into a pace-obsessed road runner, it sure was fun to push like that so I can finally answer the question of how ‘fast’ I really am.

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