Sunday, August 15, 2010

I finally understand overtraining.

I did another tempo Saturday that made me cry. It didn’t make me cry because of the pain-- THAT’S something a distance runner has to endure-- but rather, because try though I did, my pace hovered a mere seven seconds faster than I’d run it two weeks before on the same course.

WTF, I thought, as the acidic-feeling in my stomach churned like a vat of butter, is wrong with me? I’m following my two-week cycle (with four key workouts) like I was told to: I sleep 8-9 hours each night, I drink water like a fish and there’s no way I’m not eating right. WTF, I repeat.

And so, I did what any marathoner would do with a cell phone and an overwhelming need to sob but not in public and certainly not at work: I texted my coach in spare language that the Trials are just not (NOT EVER I thought) in my reach:

Me: I have theory. Im out of shape, not tired. 8 mile tempo @ Tahoe @ 6:43 p. Last tempo: 6:50. Im getting worse. So far from 6:19. :-((

Coach E: Chill out. Sounds roughly comparable to me.

Me: [Sniffle, sniffle. Wiping nose. His next text arrives.]

Coach E: It is not 6:19. You r not where u want to be. How does a rational being react to this information?

Me: [Sniffle. Blow nose. Tear.] I think about saying I need to work harder. I need to train more. But again, (I’m not a very fast texter) the phone vibrates again.

He brought up the triathlon I did in late July. “You put a marathon effort in the middle of your training,” he texted me. And I was about to text him back, to say: “no, the tri was definitely NOT a marathon,” but then he called.

He, like, NEVER calls me. It probably has something to do with this quirk I have (is it due to my writerly persona, I wonder?) which favors, in times of crisis, what I call a necessary melodrama. For instance, two months away from comp exams and graduation of a Master’s program in French, the department emailed me the night before a big race to inform me I wouldn’t be graduating as planned that semester and I would receive no more funding. I was in shock. And then whatever lies beyond shock. I left him a shaky voice mail and an hour later, he called and called until finally I answered, admitting I was curled up in my empty bathtub taking swigs of cheap red table wine from the bottle wondering where on Earth I’d gone wrong. Though to be fair, I placed third in that race with the fastest pace I’d had in a race, to date.

But enough digression. “You have to be strategic about your training,” he said.

And I of course responded, “But I HAVE!” And honestly, truly believed that all these months of miles and cross training sessions would make me fitter, and therefore make me a better runner and capable of a 2:46 finish in December. But I was about to learn that no, the human body is not exactly like a rechargeable battery. A regrettable mistake, since that’s how I’ve trained for the past three years.

(However, I haven’t exactly done poorly on this philosophy, either. But I have come to realize there is an insurmountable difference between a 2:54 marathoner and who I want to be: a 2:46er.)

“Let me tell you a story,” he said and finally Coach E was speaking my language. Maybe, long last, we’d understand each other.

He told me he once coached an incredible athlete. Who won, like, practically every 1500 meter race she entered. And she had finally gotten to the point where she was ready to train for the Olympic Trials, with a nearly guaranteed spot on the USA Olympic Team. And that summer, prior to the big races early that winter, she begged him to do a 10k in Boston where she thought she would win money. She begged and begged, he said, and though he knew it would be a bad idea, he let her do it.

She ended up 5th, with little money and her legs wasted, but as Coach E said, no lesson learned. Two weeks later, while he strolled onto his porch for a morning cup of joe with the local newspaper, he found she’d competed in another local 10k, making a new (local) record and winning first. “As though she thought I’d never find out,” he scoffed.

The training weeks which followed, he said, where worse than mine have been: she couldn’t complete a track session and would stop mid-way in tears. Tempos were flat, unimpressive times for such a promising elite. She was, he told me, just tired and in need of recovery.

Recovery which, unfortunately, blew her chances for the trials and the Olympic team.

And so, I looked across Lake Tahoe, speechless, my cell phone to my ear. What could I say? I cleared my throat and I said what I’ve confessed to all of you: my intentions are to be the best I could be and I believed the triathlon-- with it’s demand I cross train yet to continue to run high-volume weeks-- would make me stronger.

But no, that’s not how it works. In recent days (hours even!) I’ve realized the body is such an amazing entity that it adapts to everything you do and will be there when you ask it to be, if it’s strong enough. And for athletes, that’s the problem: you want to do it all, you want to be the best. Perhaps that’s the humility in sports: you can’t always be first. At a certain level, you have to literally pick and choose those victories and forgo the rest though “fun” or “lucrative” it might be.

Lucky for me, my VERY IMPORTANT race is in December and I still have months to train, to improve. And yet, I wonder if, standing on that starting line December 8th, I’ll have that tiny voice in the back of my mind wondering “What if” I hadn’t discarded a month back in July for a triathlon that, in terms of my career as an elite runner, meant very little?

I can only say-- now-- that I do not regret competing in that triathlon. I was afraid of swimming: now I’m not. More importantly, however: before a life without marathons terrified me: it was a life that appeared meaningless. However, I know now that there is an athletic life that waits for me when the day comes that I can no longer run 70-100 mile weeks. And that makes me, well not happy exactly, but less anxious.

And the rest makes me wise. A good combination, one I couldn’t have planned.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can totally relate here, however, be cautious about instantly notching this up to "overtraining". The degree to which we train necessitates a continuous breaking down/building up of our bodies and sometimes we are just on the down slide of things when we want to hit certain workouts. It doesn't mean we are unfit or out of the game...but just waiting for our bodies to respond. I've very much felt the same lately, where I can't hit the workout times I want to...but I also know amazing things happen in that taper leading up to the big day. The body repairs itself completely and becomes superhuman. Keep telling yourself that. Keep telling yourself that you'll never know just how awesomely fit you are until you get that sufficient pre-race taper. I know I'm never as race ready as I want to be in the competitions I enter leading up to the marathon. That race always trumps the rest. Regardless, looks like you've got a good perspective and it'll be great to see it all come together down the road. Don't get too down on yourself.