Where is this train going?

I’ve been thinking about writing all day. Between dragging myself out of bed (despite a warm and cuddly cat who crawled in for a while), lifting weights, dealing with various frustrations at work, sitting and waiting around at the end of the day for someone to finish a meeting so I could transport that person to where he needed to go…and finally go home. Through making and eating dinner with my husband while watching Netflix.

And yet I’m not 100 percent sure what I want to say. Which is fitting, really. Because I’m not really 100 percent sure what I want out of my running right now.

After running Chickamauga Battlefield Half in November, at which Shannon and I made a strong but not remotely PR showing, capping off a strong but not remotely structured “training” cycle, with the Swamp Rabbit Half in Greenville in late February in our sights, we dove right back into training. Sort of. For the first time in a few years, I wrote our training plan. It was like coaxing a stubborn old engine to start back up: I looked through some old plans I had written and completed, looked at plans my coaches had written for me, looked at a plan a friend wrote for her husband, and finally forced myself to do it. Like running after a layoff, it was awkward and clunky at first, but then it flowed. I think. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

The first few weeks were mostly building mileage and hill strength, as we were piggybacking off our Chickamauga fitness to run a trail half in Helen, GA, in mid-December. Our second trail half ever, and possibly the most fun I’ve had running in ages (or possibly ever). I ran half the race with a giant, stupid grin on my face. Despite big, grueling climbs. Despite slipping on a wet and muddy board walk and landing hard on my hip (just bruises, thankfully). Despite a calf-deep, frigid creek crossing a couple miles from the finish (thank goodness for well-draining Hoka Speedgoats and tall wool Stance socks – feet were ice blocks for a couple minutes but warmed back up with shocking speed. Wool is the best).

Maybe I caught a little trail running bug back in June when we ran Rabun, but since Helen, it’s been a non-stop fever. I sit in my office, looking out at the beautiful woods around me and the idyllic path and bridge I can view from my window, and I dream of ditching work and hitting the trails.

After Helen, and if we’re being honest, after the holidays, when we were finally able to get back into a real routine, get a little more rest after the chaos of non-stop visiting family, and started eating right again, we dove into the training plan in earnest, ripping out tempo runs and track workouts and long runs.

Part of me feels like there’s a gear of speed I don’t have in me right now. Or perhaps it’s in there, but it’s buried deep, collecting dust. Am I just not strong enough right now? Not tenacious enough? Not bold enough? Am I too afraid to push? My paces for most of this cycle have not spelled anything close to a PR. Better time than Chickamauga perhaps, but still a few minutes from breaking 1:40 again. And that’s okay.

But yesterday, a week and a half from race day, my last big workout of the cycle, I had it–the breakthrough workout. I roped in a few girlfriends: my new grad student friend Laura has been my constant training companion of late, and she’s game for absolutely anything and getting stronger and faster all the time; Krystina had a massive breakthrough at CIM this past December and my half tempo paces now fall within her easy-ish/conversational-ish range; and Renee, getting stronger every day post-partum, always lives up to her nickname of Scooter. The workout was 9 miles total, with 2 x 3 miles at half tempo. I assured Krystina and Renee (the latter of whom wished to join for the second half of the run) that my half tempo effort had been falling consistently in the 7:50s and I didn’t really expect anything different.

Laura and I, all smiles after finishing a (different) recent workout, one that had been stressing me out for a week.

Krystina pretty much laughed out loud as the first set clicked off faster and faster: 7:43, 7:39, 7:38. Okay. Well then.

I’ve been running by feel for a while now, wanting to see what I can do on a given day, not freak myself out with the thought of “too fast” or “too slow.” Remember how to dial into what my body is feeling day to day, mile to mile. Apparently, my body was feeling peppy. Maybe it was the extra fast company of extra friends. I figured the first set was a fluke and I’d correct on the next loop. We picked up Renee for our 1 mile recovery before setting to work on the next block of 3 tempo miles. Surely I’d go slower.

Wrong. 7:37. Krystina called back to me, a few steps behind, with a thumbs up: “All good?” Me, nonchalant, feeling strong and surprised: “Yep. PR pace.” I had to laugh to myself. I could feel the effort hitting my legs a bit. The next two miles would be slower. 7:30. Laura and Renee dropped back a bit. I let Krystina push and pull me along. The last mile hurt, but in a way I embraced. “Mile 13!” Krystina said, echoing my exact thoughts. 7:27.

We regrouped for our cool down. I analyzed the workout. Had I been sandbagging for a while? Did I just need time to find my training groove, which I apparently have fund just in the nick of time? Was it the fact that I was distracted with the fog coating my glasses every quarter mile, forcing me to clean them off constantly and paying extra attention to my foot steps so I didn’t trip in the dark and wet? It certainly kept my mind off the effort for the majority of the workout.

I’ve been planning this entire time to go to Swamp Rabbit to have fun. I want to race hard, but I wasn’t expecting much. I planned to do what I did at Chickamauga — entirely ignore my watch, checking no splits or paces, until the very end. And I still hope to do that.

But should I be bold? Can I be brave enough to push the effort into the red zone? I ran hard but controlled at Chickamauga. I’m fitter now. I’m not sure about my mental toughness – it isn’t all back, but it’s coming, day by day. What would it cost me to go balls to the wall on race day?

And the truth is, the answer is…nothing. So what if I bonk? So what if I blow up? So what if I go out too fast and risk it all – this one race – and end up slogging in the last few miles, maybe walking? I’ve spent so many years racing by careful calculation of paces to reach a specific goal. But I don’t have one right now. I can just play and try and red line for as long as I can and come what may.

A few friends and acquaintances have asked me what else I have planned for the spring. It feels strange to say (and maybe strange to hear) that the answer is that I’m not sure. I don’t have anything really on the calendar. We registered to run the Rabun Half again, but we’ll be just as minimally trained as before, since for two weeks in May we’ll be traveling through Ireland (where we fully plan on running and hiking, but not exactly specifically training for a tough trail race).

But I keep finding myself being pulled to trail races. My browser has wandered off to UltraSignUp more and more frequently. Trail halfs, trail marathons, even flirting with the idea of a trail 50K (I don’t think anytime soon, but who knows?). Because one of the great things about trail racing as there is no basis of comparison, day to day, race to race. I have no goal other than to finish with that big stupid grin on my face. To get dirty and have fun and hopefully complete the race without major injury or incident (clumsy trail runner that I am, especially).

I won’t be making any decisions until I’m recovered from Swamp Rabbit, but I have a feeling you’ll be seeing more ankle dirt on this blog in the very near future.

Because what do I have to lose? Besides maybe a couple toenails.

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I'm a 35-year-old writer and runner. This is my running blog.

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