I have a love/hate relationship with speed work. Mostly I hate it, except when I’m in the middle of a workout and feeling strong – then I love it. Almost. Maybe love is too strong a word, but at least I appreciate it. As a high school and collegiate runner, I grew up on speed work, from the torturous Sunday workouts my dad put me through because he thought my high school coach wasn’t pushing me hard enough, to the long tempos in which my college teammates and I would take turns running each other into the ground. Even training for 100km ultras I would suffer through two to three interval or tempo sessions a week.
Speed work always made me almost as nervous as races. I’d think about my workout all day long, working myself into a frenzy (and an upset stomach) before even lacing up my running shoes. I knew I was putting way too much pressure on myself but just didn’t know how to relax.
All of this is to explain why, a couple of years ago when I decided to back off on my competitive running, I was happy to say goodbye to speed work, once and for all. Farewell to the track. Adieu to the measured tempos on the roads. Sayonara to the stopwatch. Even hill workouts seemed too structured for my liking. I was ready to enjoy myself without timing the effort. Even though I would continue to compete in the longer distances, I figured speed work wasn’t that crucial. How much turnover does one need in order to compete in a 24-hour race?
The thing is, once I stopped trying to run fast, I began to run slow. Yes, that should have been self-evident. Of course I was no longer going to be able to fly around the track at my previous 5km pace, but I figured I’d still be able to maintain a decent pace on my daily runs. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Not only was I falling behind my hubby (who seems to be getting faster as I slow down), but it was becoming a challenge to hang with two of my running buddies, whose pace is so quick and energetic that I’ve nicknamed them Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. Aging is no fun. I began to wonder whether it was time to slink slowly into the shadows as a solo jogger, watching my training pace slowly but surely increase twenty, thirty seconds, a minute per mile while I slogged along. Goodness, at this rate my long runs would take all day!
Fortunately, there is another option – start running fast again. I knew it was going to hurt and I would be appalled at how slow my “fast running” would be. I also knew that if I hit the track for 400 meter intervals, I would be so discouraged that I probably wouldn’t return. So the other day I decided to ease back into speed. On a recent morning, I cautiously added a few pick ups to my regular trail run. I wasn’t exactly burning rubber, but I must admit it felt good. For a few seconds here and there I caught a glimpse of my former self, and I liked what I saw. So here’s the new plan: I’m not ready to bite the bullet and return to the track – those days are over. But if I can throw in a fartlek run on the trail a couple of times a week, I might just be able to hold off the aging process for a little while longer – and hang with Electra Woman and Dyna Girl.