The Kilometers Beneath My Feet
I hadn’t fancied myself a distance runner, but in the shape I was in, there was no reason not to try.
Let's get some terminology out of the way first, though. In the late-90s, "long-distance running" referred to things longer than 5k. A cross country runner was effectively at the lower end of this scale, while marathoners were considered -- by about 99.99% of the population -- the top end. The ultramarathon was essentially unknown, outside of a few highly isolated enclaves of running nuts. (I notice that the word "ultramarthon" is still underlined here, indicating that while it exists as a phenomenon that can be discussed, it has not transcended into common culture yet; give it a couple years.)
Of course, the classic definitions of runners have always been tiered, essentially based on what kind of work the runner is doing during the event. The one-lap runs are considered "short"; these runs require that you stay in your lane on the track, and they're usually done at or near anaerobic capacity. The 400m is a particularly difficult distance, since it sits between the slightly sub-anaerobic 200m and the clearly aerobic 800m. The low-length multi-lap events -- 800m, 1-mile/1500m/1600m (depends on the competition context), and 2-mile/3000m -- are the so-called "middle" distances, distances that can be hammered out by the best runners in 10 minutes or less and only begin to involve strategies against other runners. Click up a number of laps to the 5000m and 10000m, and we arrive at the traditional "long" distances, endurance distances, persistence distances, distances that require planning and pacing and aerobic capacity, distances where mental focus and emotional state can become impediments to success.
And hanging like a golden unicorn far beyond all these is the marathon, that invented 26.2-mile race whose true origins have been multiply documented but are still bathed in appeals to ancient glory, a mythology which seems unlikely to die.
But advancing like the volume of ink spilled over the technological glory of running footwear, these distances are becoming more prolific, a sea of descriptors that are hard to discuss without a well-established background. I have my own descriptors (listed below), but I'll try to contextualize any words I use so the writing here is more clear. Hopefully you'll figure it out pretty quickly.
The color codings indicate sprints (red), power run (yellow), distance run (green), and endurance run (blue).
Using these terms a 10k is not a long distance at all, but a standard distance run. Recall that my daily go-to was about 4 miles, which is a little shy of a 10k but clearly longer than a short power run 2-miler. To someone running a standard or long distance, a mile is a warmup or a cooldown, so a 2-mile run doesn't include the actual run at all. (To someone doing an endurance event, a mile has to be part of the event or it's a waste of energy.)
As noted, though, I'll contextualize as much as possible, though I may fall back on these definitions every once in a while. They're pretty well burned into my skull at this point, since they're how I evaluate daily training and race potential.
So right, where was I? Oh yes, the term "distance runner". By distance I (now obviously) don’t necessarily mean marathons. We’re talking 4-10 miles here, firmly in the standard-to-pretty long distance frames.
And any increases would avoid big jumps, because the ladies were already impressed. Or because I didn't know how to get over the next hump. Remember, I was a running addict at the time, but not an adrenaline junkie: if it actually hurt, I wasn’t particularly interested.
I strongly advise this motto for anyone who’s interested in running as a hobby rather than an athletic pursuit. Pain -- the good kind, not the kind associated with injuries that need to be allowed to heal -- will only lead to longer distances or faster times, and it will rarely offer some huge improvement in the way you’ll feel about running if you’re not already interested.
You might hear about the runner’s high as though it’s some euphoria with an up that only dissipates when you've stopped. Writers will often suggest to the unwary potential runner that leaving the neighborhood on foot can get you a taste of the runner's high, and from there it's just a hop, skip, jump, and maybe a few happy somersaults through rainbow-painted fields of unicorns dancing with alpacas to the bliss of 5-milers, and from there you might just be ready for your first marathon. The reality is that if you run longer at a time, the runner’s high plateaus (for me this is somewhere around Mile 8), then eventually fades to the background before your body goes into a deep, deep sinkhole of regret and agony. If you like sinkholes of regret and agony, endurance running may be for you! If you prefer just the high, figure out where the high stops (it's usually in the distance run range), back it off a bit from that distance, and call it a day.
Er, where am I in this narrative again?
Ah. Distance runs to date were standard length, featuring upwards of 6 miles of wandering, undirected running. I doubt I was making a pace below 7:30 minute miles, but it's entirely possible; I didn't know my pace until grad school, and when I found out it was a little shocking. (My most recent pacing information came from "racing" as a pre-teen in Hershey track meets, where I was always the odd man out who did the 100m in 15-16 seconds and thought that was about as fast as a person could go.)
After one fine spring day, it was approaching 11 p.m., and one of my neighbors suggested we do what he called The Bus Route, a more substantial kick-out than my daily 4. It was purported to be done by members of the cross country team. I didn’t know what the name meant, but because I was easy as a cucumber and cool like Sunday morning, I immediately agreed. That name is evocative. It sounds mysterious and shady, like a run that ends in a high school prank. But now you get to learn the secret of “The Bus Route”, and alas, I promise only disappointment.
We got a posse of four together and shoe-leathered out the door a little after midnight. The course started on my normal route, but at the typical turnaround a mile and change off campus, we kept going. Remember that this is rural Minnesota, so roads are at least ¼ mile apart. It just so happens that the next road isn’t for almost ¾ mile, and the road we were on wasn’t a typical quarter-mile route but a highway that curved off. About 3 miles into the run, we made the turn, ran by the the bus farm (hence the name; are you disappointed yet?), and made our way back on the road that I normally took home, but now 3 miles from the end instead of 2 and change miles from the end.
The total couldn’t have been much more than 6 miles, but at the time it was (a) the longest run I’d ever done and (b) my second run of the day. Remember that the First Training Plan includes these two-a-days, but I never considered doing one with extra distance thrown in.
Two of the other runners that night were completely wiped out by the trip. I enjoyed the sensation of being outside at midnight, which of course I could have gotten by just walking outside. There was, I must admit, something different about this feeling. But no, I didn’t want to do it regularly; this was a special event, I thought, and while I might do another one, it was more of a social run. In a way, it reminded me of tennis-hockey: going out with friends, feeling free in the late night air, heavy exertion followed by a long adrenaline let-down when you’ve got nothing going on in the morning. (I think I had a German class at 8 a.m., but I was willing to show up tired.)
It was around the time of that excursion that we resumed our sand volleyball games. And each one we did, I started thinking about that night. Over and over it turned, rounding any edges it might have had until it was an exquisite object of desire.
Finally, weeks later, I did the run again, this time with one other person. We set out on a beautiful spring night, and when we got back, I only wanted more of these blissfully quiet and perspirant sessions. Surely there was variety out there too.
I was, well and truly, being sucked in.
Next up: A Race! Finally!
Mash out. Spin on.
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Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.