Do me a favour. If you ever find out I’ve not been following the advice laid out in this post, kindly print it out, wrap it round a brick and throw it at my stupid face. Thanks.
My long runs have been coming along quite nicely of late. I’ve been running for a couple of years now*, and for quite a big chunk of that time my LSR distance has been stuck at anywhere between 8 and 12 miles. Then last month, for reasons I can’t remember, I went out one drizzly Wednesday morning with the intention of just running for 2-3 hours; no distance target whatsoever, just aiming for time on my feet. This was new territory for me, especially given the fact that rather than choosing a familiar route I instead pointed myself in the general direction of some nearby villages and jogged off into uncharted lands like a sweaty little Columbus.
The feeling of just forgetting about pace and distance for a while was a liberating one, and when I arrived home two-and-half hours later I realised I was onto a good thing. At 15 miles, it was the furthest I’d ever run, but the biggest plus for me was just how relaxed the whole thing had felt. I was finally bouncing back from a recent mojo recession, and my training diary now looked like this: Week one would involve 3-4 runs totalling 25ish miles, comprising various types of run (tempo, interval, hill, cannonball, logans) while week two would be dominated by a long run where I aimed to increase the time on my feet a little bit more each time, supplemented by a couple of shorter easy runs. It seemed to work well, and the buzz I felt when my next LSR hit 18 miles was balanced with the knowledge that by increasing my distance fortnightly rather than weekly, I was safeguarding myself against injury and burn-out.
Soon enough, it was time for the third LSR of my new regime, and I was aiming for 20 miles. Now, even as I write this, the part of my brain that specialises in hindsight (I imagine it as a little room in my head populated by incredibly smug numskulls) has just gone into overdrive, pointing out that nowhere in that sentence does it mention how long I was planning on running for. It’s almost as if I’d become so pleased with my increases in distance that I’d completely lost sight of all the “just enjoy the time on your feet” stuff from the first paragraph. Anyway, I went through the ritual of kitting up for a long run, which had become more convoluted as the weeks had passed. The 15-miler I mentioned earlier had just involved throwing on my favourite shorts and top and heading out the door, the most essential piece of kit being my shiny new philosophy. But by LSR number three, this had somehow evolved to the point where I now looked like I was preparing to run the Marathon Des Sables AND the Badwater ultra with a quick trot up Mount Kilimanjaro thrown in for good measure. Dressed head to toe in skin-tight technical gear and dripping with various gadgets and other kit, I had transformed myself into some sort of effete school-sports-day ninja. But I needed all that kit if I was going to crack 20 miles.
…while aiming to keep under 10-minute miles.
Yep, that’s right; apparently it wasn’t enough that I’d lost sight of the lovely ethos that had spawned my running renaissance. Now I had to chop it into tiny chunks and set fire to the remains, laughing maniacally as I widdled all over them**. Hopefully that’s conjured up a lovely mental image for you.
The first half of the run passed reasonably smoothly, although the hills (of which there are plenty on my long route) felt a bit less forgiving than usual. I stopped off for a quick blast of coffee and then set off on the second leg, which has tended towards negative-split territory on recent runs. But as I ran, my mind became more and more focussed on how much further I had to go until I hit the mystical 20 mile target. Although it was based around a route I’d run before, this time the miles didn’t seem to add up in the same way, and I found myself thinking there must be something wrong with my Garmin. My legs were telling me, in no uncertain terms, that I’d run nearly 18 miles, but my watch said I’d only done 13. A spot of quick maths later, and my pace slowed as I struggled to come to terms with the realisation that my watch was right and my legs were wronger than a drunken concussed clown on University Challenge***.
What happened next was unpleasant. The last part of my current long run route run takes me on as many laps of Blueberry Hills as are needed to hit whatever target time (or in this case, distance) I’d set myself. I’m still not entirely sure what went wrong, or even whether it was mental or physical, but all of a sudden my relaxed slow run became hard and laboured. I’ve talked to a lot of people about what it feels like to hit The Wall, but I honestly don’t think this was it.
But if not The Wall, it was certainly The Privet Hedge.
Anyway… whatever it was, it left me feeling despondent. The thought of tackling another hill made my heart sink (possibly weighed down by my heavy legs) but I still had another four miles to go until I hit 20. By now I was on a flat stretch of cycle track with hills in front and behind. The flat area was maybe a quarter of a mile long, and at the time I contemplated running back and forth along there a few times so I could hit my precious target without having to run uphill. Thankfully, it was at this very moment that a tiny sliver of common sense took over and told me to stop being so bloody stupid. Quitting is never easy, but a niggle in my left foot was starting to turn into something more, and I knew that this run was never going to end well. I could maybe have carried on, but rather than being a plucky-plodder-triumphs-against-adversity type thing, it’s much more likely that I’d have been left feeling broken, and reluctant to tackle another 20-miler any time soon.
As I limped the last half-mile home at a slow walk, the endorphins quickly wore off, ensuring that the pain in my foot soared past “annoying niggle” all the way to “trapped in a lift with Justin Bieber****”. It felt like someone was jabbing a fork into my left arch while hitting the front of my ankle with a table leg. I checked, and they weren’t, so at least that was some small consolation. But with pain came clarity, and I decided to put the rest of the journey home to good use, taking it as an opportunity to have a much-needed word with myself.
Suddenly it all became clear, and I could see how stupid I’d been. I’d become so enamoured with my escalating mileage that they’d stopped being miles, and were now just numbers. Numbers that I could casually wave under the noses of my non-runner friends like a badge of honour; “yeah, just banged out a quick 15 miles before breakfast, punched a wolf, rescued some baby turtles from a burning barn. No big deal”. A few weeks of decent running had brought me immeasurable pleasure; unfortunately it’d also turned me into a git. But that was all irrelevant now, as I knew I was injured enough that a week or two away from running was almost a certainty. There’s a fine line between building endurance and trying to beat the shit out of yourself, and I’d just crossed it.
Is it possible to do regular 20+ mile runs as part of general training, banging them out as casually as one would a 5k?*****
Well yes, of course it is. I know plenty of people who do it regularly without breaking a sweat. But, unpalatable as it may be, I have to face facts; that’s not the runner I am.
Not yet anyway.
UPDATE: Well, nearly five days have passed now and still no running; and even walking was painful for the first two or three days. A quick chat with Google has indicated that it was an ankle dorsiflexion issue, so I’ve been resting a lot and stretching a lot and eating bourbons a lot (it didn’t say anything about whether bourbons were part of the recovery process, but then again, it didn’t say that they weren’t). I now feel 100% better, which probably means that I should rest it for at least a couple more days.* Not all in one go, although sometimes it feels like it. ** I wonder if, while writing their autobiographies, the likes of Chuck Norris and Steve McQueen spent as long as I did agonising over the correct past tense of “to wee”. The internet is a wonderful place. *** Unless there were an unusually high number of questions on the subject of “violently wetting yourself” or “offensive balloon animals of the 21st century”, in which case he’d probably do okay. **** Okay, not that bad. ***** Although, if the Me of 2 years ago heard me talking about “casually banging out a 5k” he’d give me a slap. Well, that’s not strictly true. He’d angrily chase me for a hundred metres before sitting down in the middle of the road and wheezily bellowing something along the lines of “I know where you live, you bastard. You’ve got to sleep sometime”.