First, a confession: I left the beautiful Northwest for Minnesota. Not the University of Minnesota, but a small college in southern Minnesota, nestled in a town with a population of about 4,000 locals and 2,500 students. Everything about the place was quiet: quiet school, quiet town, and quiet scenery compared to what I was used to, which, let’s be honest, wasn’t particularly noisy.
I didn't know how much I would miss mountains or ocean or the vast familiarity that connected me to Washington State. That feeling of being part of a place is difficult to define, more difficult to overcome, and even more difficult to change. The Place sets up a comfortable house inside, then clears away all the pointy and dingy bits the longer you're away, leaving only that polished impression to carry with you.
But the draw for something new can be equally strong. And I needed something new, needed that feeling like a bird hurling itself into the great abyss for the first time. In almost every possible way, Minnesota was new.
For all that's said about its frigid winters, that was one of the main attractions. I loved the cold. I didn’t mind most of those wet and chilly winter days, as long as I could keep moving. I didn’t mind wearing a T-shirt and shorts when it was 50F and drizzling. It seems like that should have been a holdover from my more weighty days, but even at a svelte 160 lbs, I enjoyed being the warm guy in the cold place.
And while I had firm friends back home, I didn’t feel the need to just uproot our day-to-day life to another town with the same towering pine trees, ocean smells, and mountain views, where instead of talking about video games and daring each other to eat moldy burritos we would talk about computer games and actually dumpster dive for those burritos (while ignoring the towering pine trees, ocean smells, and mountain views).
I craved a novel existence, a respite from the bland, contrived life of a '90s high schooler in nowhere Washington. Most of my friends went to Western Washington University in Bellingham or the University of Washington in Seattle. Those were my second and third choices.
When I arrived on campus as a pre-first day student, my first departure from the dorm was to establish a running route. Keep in mind that this was before the days of computerized mapping technology, so figuring out where to run was a process of trial-and-error. Alas, I also no longer had a wall to practice against, but with four years of doing that, I was confident those skills wouldn’t just disappear. (It turned out there was a wall, but I never used my run to get to it: it was the art building, which stared down the face of my freshman dorm; the people inside weren’t keen on regular thumping from a lacrosse ball.) The holdover, though, was running with the stick, which was so comfortable that I felt to leave it behind would have been as to run without underpants.
And I always ran with underpants.
Those first runs were a 3-mile loop, no longer interrupted by the wall session. This put my daily mileage at something less than what I’d been used to back in high school, but since it was all at once, it was actually more challenging. And adhering to the principles developed in that First Training Plan, I slowly extended it to around 4 miles and interspersed sprints with the rest of the run. In short order, I had moved from two-a-day 2-milers with an hour or so in between to a daily 4-miler, complete with sprints.
About two weeks into the school year, at my first lacrosse practice, I took a ball to the eye and cracked my eye socket down my cheek. I looked excellent, half my face painted in the deep colors of a bruise, puffed out and slightly drooping, like a water balloon at the beginning of its fill. The next day, a yearbook photographer who was intrigued by this new person on campus running with a stick stopped me while I was coming through and asked to take my picture. He saw my face and backed out.
The swelling was annoying, but it mostly felt like I recalled running with a flabby belly felt: something floppy without much individual feeling that tugged on the rest of my face in an annoying rhythm. I mentally detached that swollen part of my visage from the rest of my body and carried on as normal. When the swelling went down and feeling returned to my face (there was some question about whether that would happen at all; also, this may be another story I never told my parents -- just rackin’ em up, we are!), I was back in the lacrosse net like nothing had happened, and my fitness hadn't changed.
But that fitness felt rather uninspired, the result of an involuntary response that led me out the door each morning, pushed me through a few miles, and ended in a sprint up the hill to my dorm. My workout needed a new set of tactics for the wild and crazy days of college to come to stay interesting. That brings me to the Second Training Plan, once again compiled from my extensive notes from those years.
(Checking my blog -- wait for it -- ok, almost here, and...oh right, it was 1997. I probably used the “wall” command to announce the plan to the two other people in the computer lab. )
The Second Training Plan
Once the First Training Plan is in place, you’re ready to start increasing mileage and speed. This Second Training Plan gives you a good jumping-off point, but it won't make you extremely fast or extremely enduring. Where it excels is in maintaining both without taking up too much time.
0. Do the First Training Plan.
1. Combine your two runs into a single run, leaving off about 20% because it’s going to suck at first otherwise. Do not maintain any sprint segments you had previously been doing, except near the end of the run, as you'll be re-introducing these as you go.
2. Every couple weeks, run a little longer, maybe by a couple blocks each time.
3. When you get to a distance that is comfortably long and doesn’t bore you to tears and/or wreck your legs, stop extending it. Your normal running speed at this stage is now your "down-tempo" pace.
4a. In subsequent weeks, add up-tempo bursts -- short of a sprint but noticeably more challenging than the down-tempo pace -- of a block or two at a time, interrupted by down-tempo rests. Intersperse these as no more than 2 blocks at a time and no more than half your total run distance. (This would be called the "mile pace" by more coachy coaches.)
4b. In subsequent weeks, change some of these up-tempo bursts to all-out sprints, maintaining them as no more than 1 block at a time and no more than 1 in 5 blocks. (This is the 400m pace; an actual all-out sprint of 60-80m in 10 seconds will, of course, pretty much end your run.)
5. Keep doing Step 4 until your run is essentially 15-20% sprints, 20-30% up-tempo, and 50% down-tempo.
6. Run! Run run run run run!
Just weeks into undergrad, and I was doing daily interval training. Crude but (thanks to my youth) effective interval training that included mostly quarter-mile runs. Within 6 months of starting college, I was running almost 4 miles at a pace I never would have thought possible back home. There was -- lucky for me -- a hill in town that I ran up twice each run, including a closeout sprint, and I also had the pleasure of running into some brutal winds as they blasted across the plains at the top of the hill. The stick just added to the difficulty, a sail that, when fully luffed, ignominiously deposited a ball into the nearest ditch.
At the end of each run, I did some push-ups and sit-ups to feel more adequate relative to my less lower-bodied peers, and I achieved a measure of equality in my overall muscle mass. As long as that measure is, you know, something that looks like an Erlenmeyer flask.
It also turned out that my floor supervisor was the sports editor for the newspaper. I hitched onto that wagon late in the fall and was soon reporting on the local sports scene, parlaying my extensive background into a small sum of pay-per-word cash each week.
Across campus I gained a reputation as the lacrosse stick guy, out there every day: snow, rain, sleet, cold, and brutal heat did not deter me from the ritual exit. Each morning, either before class or after my first one of the day, I cozied my hands into my lacrosse gloves, grabbed the stick from the corner, and slipped out the door for 30 minutes. (Unfortunately for my sex life, most people were confused by the accessories. When friends introduced me, they would throw in "you know, the guy who runs around with the lacrosse stick". While instantly recognizable, that also bludgeoned most conversation because the locals generally thought "lacrosse" referred only to the city of LaCrosse and assumed I was a weird butterfly fetishist from Wisconsin.)
Rain and chill I was already accustomed to, and when temperatures plummeted, I safety pinned a scarf around the shaft of my stick, put on rabbit fur gloves under the lacrosse gloves, pulled a neck/chin warmer up over my mouth, and wore ski goggles to shield my face from bursts of icy wind and snow blindness. I had to have my daily run, my half hour of activity that would buoy my spirits for the rest of the day; no mid-December cold front would bring me to my knees, even if it came with 40-knot gusts that accelerated with abandon along the tree stands surrounding the local fields.
I was, obviously, addicted. But looking back with half a lifetime of running experience, I was not addicted to any particular aspect of the run itself; instead, I craved the feeling of having done something personally gratifying that made me me. It gave my days personality and gave me something to look forward to as the sun traversed the horizon each morning.
Running was not a means to an end -- it was always a beginning.