A Day at the USC Track

The track stadium at USC. Trojan Pride, or whatever the cheer is I can never remember.
The track stadium at USC. Trojan Pride, or whatever the cheer is I can never remember.


This is the USC track. It’s a perfectly nice track. And, yesterday, (or two days ago, I’m not sure, I wrote this on the plane to Turkey — fyi, I’m in Turkey) I found myself running there, not because I particularly needed to do a track workout, but because I had some time between things and wanted to fit a run in and am trying to ease back in to training. The bronchitis diagnosis on Tuesday afternoon and subsequent medication is actually starting to clear up my month-long illness — really one illness + a secondary respiratory infection. Obviously, this meant it was time to start running hard-ish again.

The track is a weird place. Usually you go because it’s an honest place. It’s clean and hard and there’s a truth there. It will hurt and you will get faster. But, weird things also happen at the track. Because it’s a small group of people that choose to run circles, they want to bond and talk, and spectators enjoy making comments. This is probably why I usually run by myself, but that’s a whole other problem when you lose it a little bit and start swearing you can hear the telephone wires vibrating and taste the track in your mouth.

Yesterday, there were a handful of people running and walking around the USC track and more showed up as I ran. That’s fine. Normal. The university puts barriers in the corners across the inside three to four lanes when it’s open hours, which is really annoying when you’re running hard and trying to hit times. But, I’m not fast right now, so whatever. I started running on the edge of lane four and cutting in where possible. This older man walking back and forth in lane five yelled at me to stay in the outside lanes. Yeah, ok, that’s where I am, I thought.

I thought he was just being a local vigilante to stop people from using the inside three lanes, but as I came by him again he yelled and started waving at me that I could only run in lanes six, seven, and eight — while he walked back and forth in lane five. OK, fine, he wanted to use this 50 meters of lane five. I kept running my tempo in lane six when I was near him, to give him a wide berth, and then I’d cut in to lane four or five when I could. There were other people jogging or running or walking, some of whom I’d have to run around and some of whom were in other lanes. And, yet, I was perfectly able to get around them, because that’s how running on a track works. But, not him. He kept yelling at me whenever I came by, even though I wasn’t anywhere I shouldn’t be, and he kept pacing back and forth. Then he left the track, so I thought it was ok to run on the innermost lane that wasn’t blocked by the barriers — namely the edge of lane four. Oh, I was wrong.

I finished one of the shorter harder efforts and was walking/shuffling to catch my breath and he reappears to start yelling at me about disrespecting him and how he had to wait ten minutes to do one of his intervals. Intervals? Wait? Ten minutes? I’m pretty sure you don’t get to just claim an entire lane to yourself during open hours and throw everyone else out of it. And, I’m pretty sure I didn’t stop anyone from running.

It was so strange. And, so confusing. And, what was the weirdest part was that I was 100 percent sure that he was positive I was disrespectful. He thought I was just some little entitled USC girl, who thought she could do whatever she wanted. But, all I wanted to do was use the track the way the track is used.

The Power of Belief

Yesterday, I nailed my first hard workout totally on my own in months. No coaches telling me what to do, no training partner with me. Just what I had put down on my plan and then me, by myself, executing it.

I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. Actually, I was sure it wasn’t going to happen. I pretty much knew for a fact that somewhere between the tempo miles and the descending 800s I simply wasn’t going to make the times. I 100% convinced myself that the last two 800s would be impossible. I was just going to do the best I could, but there was no way. No way.

Yet, I did. I even ran faster than that. Instead of the 3:04 I was aiming for, I ran a 2:59. So there.

Partially, there was no way it was going to be as bad as I was expecting it to be, so that made it easy to succeed. But, that’s a fine line to walk. Because, if you talk yourself too much down a hole then it’s hard to climb out of it. If you think it’s going to be impossible, then you might just quit before even trying. But, if you think it’ll be easy, if you’re sure you’ll nail it, then it’s also impossible to meet those expectations and you might just quit when it’s harder than you thought.

Before I headed out, I saw Mario had tweeted this and I was thinking about it some while I was running (particularly because I was doing a Mario workout from this time last year):


And yes, that is true. There is no one right answer. But, man, there are a lot of really wrong answers.

If you’re not a moron (and there are some people who like, yeah, you are definitely doing it all wrong), then the fear isn’t that you’ll mess everything up on any one given day. If you have a general basic concept of training down, then the worry isn’t that you aren’t doing the exact right thing this minute. That’s not how things go wrong. Things go wrong in slow, small, creeping steps until you get to the end and don’t know if it all adds up anymore.

That’s what erodes belief.

I don’t know how you believe. It would be great to just go around believing, believing in the face of overwhelming evidence and doubt. Wouldn’t that be awesome? But, I don’t know if that would work out for me well either. If I believed beyond question I was going to nail that workout yesterday, then when I started gasping and struggling I would have wondered what was wrong with me. I would have questioned why it was so hard. I might have bailed and then I would have added that to the list of workouts I have not succeeded in completely. I needed a little doubt in order to cement my belief.

Mile Repeats: The Running Test of Truth?

Pretty much no matter what you’re training for, you’ll do a workout of mile repeats. It’s just a fact, a standard of running. (Though I suppose ultrarunners probably avoid the mile repeats; it might be unnecessary. I dunno.)

Mile repeats are hard to fake. To a degree, I can fake 400s for a long time, though I might regret it later, and I can barrel and pray my way through long tempos beyond my real fitness. But, mile repeats — especially mile repeats done on the track, where the numbers are the numbers, not the numbers are relayed through a satellite and interfered with by trees and may be the numbers or may be something else entirely — can not be anything but your actual fitness. You can fake one, maybe two mile repeats, but you can’t fake them all.

This morning I did 4 x mile repeats with a 200m(ish) jog/walk/shuffle in between. I had no idea what they would be like or how fast I could go. My plan was 4-5 miles at 6:25ish pace. I wasn’t 100% sure how do-able that’d be. I sort of thought just keep it under 6:30, do the 4th one as a tempo 6:45-50 mile — something we do with the high school kids at practice to break up intervals, just get through it. But, then I did the first mile in 6:10, while dodging a PE class walking laps.

And, yes, a mile on the track is 1600m, not 1609m, so yes, it’s like 2″ short. But, still. That’s fast.

In this kind of workout, where I have no specific pace goal, I don’t like to slow down after the first one. If I went too fast, then I went too fast, but it’s time to find out if I can hold on. So, I did the next one in 6:11. And, it was hard, like I was running in tight armored pants, dragging my legs along. It was also really obvious this was going to be a battle, a real test of if I could gut it. Coach made an executive decision then and decided just four, not five, just four repeats, all under 6:15. Come on.

I was definitely muttering to myself at the start line, while the high school PE class (not the high school I coach at, the one right by my house) all stared at me like I was crazy. But, they already thought I was crazy. I did the third in 6:14. Going out slower and trying to pick it up on the second half was NOT easier.

Then, the last one. I was already wrecked. Anything under 6:20 is fast for me, is closer to 5K pace than anything I plan on racing soon. I slapped my legs a little, told them to pull it together. Once I started running it was a fight, a real nose over the line on which would happen first: I’d finish or I’d shit myself. I finished. The last lap I was killing myself, holding back the vomit, to try and keep it under 6:15. I crossed in 6:15.

And, then I was Done. And, it is three hours later and I haven’t gotten so much work completed. I may be Done for the day. But, I know I can run 6:10-6:15s now. I know. Test of truth.

A Few Random Things That Weren’t Individually Worth Their Own Post

  • It turns out Tupac the Cat is a boy, not a girl. Obviously, this has changed everything and he is very confused.
  • I started training at KQED this morning for an on-call job. This is very exciting, fyi. But, I do not know how people workout and make it to offices by hours like 8 a.m. I especially don’t know how they do this if they went to a comedy show last night and Dana Carvey made a surprise appearance and it went super late. I got about six hours of sleep and didn’t do anything this morning except get up, shower, and get in the car.
  • At that comedy show, the woman taking tickets recognized me from hosting the local weekly news show, Seriously Now, on public access. I’m pretty much a celebrity.
  • My sister is visiting through Saturday. We’re trying to come up with super awesome exciting things to do tomorrow.
  • Yesterday, before Maggie got here, I did a track workout at the high school by my house — which, incidentally, is not the high school I coach at, it’s our rivals — and there was a PE class going on. Since it’s the last days of school, they were just goofing off and the teacher didn’t mind that I was running in the middle of their class. So, I talked to him a bit and then he started giving one of the kids a hard time, saying ‘When I was your age, I could run a 10-flat 100m. Can you do that?’ And the kid said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I could totally do that if I wanted to.’ Which, obviously, he couldn’t, because you know 10″ is quite fast for 100m. But, the teacher challenged him to do it then instead of just being all talk. So, we all watched the two kids, who were convinced they were super awesome, make it about 50m before completely losing steam. Ah well.

Back to the Track

Numbers never lie.
Numbers never lie.

Yesterday, I got it into my head I needed to do a track workout to test out my legs, even though I haven’t been to the track since I hurt my foot running on it two months ago. I was hoping that the 5K last weekend was a fluke, what we refer to as “breaking the seal” — that terrible pain/performance your first race back and after which you always do far better.

But, I wasn’t optimistic.

Originally, I was going to get up and bike to the community college for a group track workout of 400s in the morning. But, I hate waking up and I slept poorly (again), so when my alarm went off I just rolled over. This was at the massively early hour of 8:15 a.m. That actually worked out, because I ended up having to knock out some work when I did get up at 9:30 a.m. But, it left me on my own for track.

I went back and forth and back and forth, even heading out for my run at 6 p.m. (a time I had set in my calendar as go time), without being sure if I was going to run on the track or just around the neighborhood. I made it to the track. I went back and forth some more at the track, without being sure if I was going to run the full workout I had in my head or bail halfway. It didn’t help that my arms are still so sore from the Crossfit debacle that I can’t bend them fully.

My plan was: 1 mile, 2 x 800m, 2 x 400m – descend as you go. That was as much detail as I got into. I tentatively thought I should run the mile at 10K pace and descend from there, to test out the idea of racing the Memorial Day 10K in a week. But,if I ran anything under 6:30 I was going to be shocked. (Hell, if I run the 10K at 6:30 pace I’ll be surprised.)

Apparently, I am either not as out of shape as I think or the 5K really did break the seal or I have some inherent speed but no endurance.

I ran a 6:14 mile and felt fine, followed by two 3:02s, and then an 86′ and 85′. All without much trouble. This is insane.

And, then, my “buddy” showed up during the 400s and wanted to talk about Boston. It may surprise you to find I am both tired of people going ‘Wow, that’s crazy. How’d it go’ and also that I dislike talking to people while I’m running in general. I go to the track once a month at random times and he always shows up and wants to talk. I think he thinks we’re friends. That’s almost weirder than how fast I ran.

How do you know if a twinge is a twinge or the beginnings of an injury?

pknn522lEvery day you run (or play any sport at all really) something hurts a little — or a lot. Sometimes those niggling aches and pains turn on you, don’t go away after a good night’s sleep, slowly get worse and worse until you’re walking home from the high school track, stopping to pull your shoe off and look inside because there’s just no way that sharp a pain isn’t being caused by a rock. And, then, you hope it’s all just in your head, a fluke, like so many other times.

But, how do you know? How do you know when something is the beginning of an injury and not just something you’ll look back on in your training log months later and wonder why you felt the need to walk home, what could have been so bad?

Also, I think I sunburned my eyelids in this abnormal 80 degree March heat.


High School Track: Hot Shit

Yesterday, I spent all afternoon at our high school invitational track meet. (By my calculation, I walked about five miles back and forth across the track, ushering kids to their spots.) It’s a big relay meet, with almost 30 schools from around the Bay Area, and the kids run a sprint medley or a distance medley or a co-ed 4 x 800m or 4 x 200m. And, man, do they think they’re hot shit.

Fastest kid in their class, at their school, in their county, at the meet. I got conned into handing out the medals for the sprint medley (100m-100m-200m-400m) and all those kids were pretty sure they were the greatest thing since, I dunno, last year’s meet?

It made me think about when I ran track in high school. I had a love/hate relationship with track. I was fast and thought it was fun, but it lacked the team spirit and funky hi-jinks of cross-country.

Every year in high school the goal was to qualify for state. To qualify, you had to be top two at Sectionals or run a qualifying time at Sectionals — not at some other point in the season. I was an 400m and 800m runner and every year I just missed the qualifying time in the 800m. (It was 2:21.5. I still know that.) My freshman year the Sectional race was on one of those crazy Chicago days where you get shitty winter weather at the beginning of May. Terrible winds were slowing everyone down by a couple seconds a lap. I ran a 2:24 in that two-lap race. A great effort. ‘You’ll get it next year,’ everyone said. I didn’t.

The race I really remember, though, 12 years later, is the sprint medley we almost qualified in my sophomore year. I ran the 400m, after three other girls ran 100m, 100m, and 200m. We were good. We got invited to the indoor state meet based on our times in indoor track. (I lived in Chicago. We had indoor track. And, because it was Chicago, sometimes the indoor meets would be on hot February days and the outdoor meets would be held in hail in April.) When we hit the outdoor season, we won a lot. But, we ran consistently 1:53 or 1:54. Qualifying was 1:50.

The week before Sectionals, we ran a 1:53 at conference. We had to cut three seconds off, so I learned closed hand-offs in a day. I still remember Tory telling me, more or less, to just start running as fast as I could when she said ‘go’ and she’d get me the baton. If you’ve never run a relay, that’s crazy. The hand-off is nerve-wracking and takes lots and lots of practice. It’s when the most things can go wrong.

At Sectionals, it worked. We had flawless hand-offs, everyone ran the fastest they’d ever run. And, I got the baton in second place. I still remember rounding that first turn and thinking, “We’ve got it. We’ve got it. We’re going to state!” And, then, this girl who went on to run a 56″ 400m passed me. We were in third, but I could still qualify on time. I could!

We came around the last turn, less than 100m to go, and I could see the clock at the finish line. It was going to be so close. A girl came up on my inside and I could feel another behind me. We were flinging ourselves toward the finish, all hoping for the 1:50, and my legs turned to rubber. They simply couldn’t go any faster. It was the first (and, to a degree, the only) time my legs have ever completely given out like that. It wasn’t like I hit a wall or stopped being able to run, I just couldn’t make my legs turn over any faster. And, I wanted to. God, I wanted to.

I crossed the finish line in 1:51. I don’t know how I knew that. I couldn’t hear anyone in the stands or see anything else, but I knew we hadn’t made it as soon as I finished. It turned out I had run a 60:something, the fastest I’d ever run, but I only found that out later. Right then, I simply fell over on my hands and knees and started throwing up. I don’t think I got up for five minutes. I don’t think I knew you could throw up that much either.

Twelve years later, I still remember that particular combination of complete exhaustion and disappointment. I know I ran the 800m later that meet and didn’t qualify in that either, but I don’t remember anything about it.

I wonder what the kids from this weekend will remember, if they will keep running, if this will be the time they didn’t win or the time they did. I hope standing on that podium wasn’t the highlight of their lives. (And I’d like to note, for my personal satisfaction, that the winning girls team ran a 1:53.) There was a NPR story once about someone hitting their high point in high school, when they caught the softball to win the championship. It became the best thing they ever did. Nothing else could top it. That story’s become code in my family for peaking to soon, for never being able to top standing on some podium in high school. Don’t want to catch the softball, we say to each. Don’t catch the softball.