Sprinting for the finish!

Saturday, at the end of my 12-week running plan experiment, I ran a 21:40 5K that blew away all three of my goals for the season! I’d wanted to finally break 22 minutes. I also needed 22:10 to be “elite” in my age group, and 21:42 to finally beat  7:00-minute miles.

So you can call me an elite athlete now, thank you very much!!

What has me baffled is the strange path the whole thing took. I posted a few weeks ago that I was feeling overtrained after a debut 10K I was proud of. So I modified and improvised, spreading my remaining workouts over five weeks instead of four. I added gentler stretching and walking as needed to total my five weekly hours of exercise; but I also added back  intensity when I could handle it, with strength training and a high-volume running week, and a fast interval workout doing laps at 1-mile race pace! My legs still felt sore and achy all the time, even with the reduced workload. I’m fantasizing about swimming for the winter instead!

Two practice 5Ks at weeks eight and ten yielded times squarely in the middle of my past results (22:52 and 22:33), and nowhere near my goals. At this point, I mentally prepared for end-of-season disappointment. But it seemed especially demoralizing that dedicating myself to such hard work over so long had produced so little! I began to question whether I have more running speed in me at all, in a lifelong/existential/aging sense, or should focus on longer endurance distances or triathlon instead. Or crafts, or playing the ukelele.

The 5K on Saturday was a fantastic flat course by Sawyer Point and Friendship Park. Still with moderate expectations, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone into a new pace, and followed the guy in front of me as best I could. I was shocked when I came in even faster than the most ambitious goal I’d trained for, 31 seconds faster than my PR in one swoop! I ran almost a minute faster than my 5K just two weeks ago. When you’re already at your own limits, that’s some serious shit.

The part I’ve been turning over and over in my mind is how I went from real evidence that showed I wouldn’t make it, would be lucky to bleat out a time barely approaching my PR last year, would succumb to aging two years after I started racing and learn to be content with downwardly adjusted expectations — to handily blowing away those goals. I wasn’t confident. I wasn’t even that motivated; I had two more races built into the plan as a fail safe. The plan just came together the way it was supposed to when it was supposed to, and my intuitive modifications worked. One week I couldn’t do it; the next I could.

One of the worst times in my life was Fall of 2003, when I was terminated by a company after complaining legitimately about gender discrimination.  The VP who had been a personal friend sided with HR, and began making very personal post-hoc complaints about my work and abilities that he’d never made before, to justify the firing. During the same time, I found out a separated man I was mutually romantically interested in was not, in fact, leaving his wife.

It’s a long, ugly story in which nothing really happens, but the gist is that I sat on my couch for several months tracing the pattern on the reupholstery while my scared cat tried to get my attention. In between, I went on job interviews and tried not to cry actually during them. Somehow, several companies ended up vying for me.  By March 2004, I’d started a senior job with Quill, the perfect antidote to my prior employer, as they put me over 35 people and five areas that the other company said I was unqualified for. Then I met and later began dating my boyfriend Chris. Everything that I’d suffered and doubted after that experience was turning around in five or six months. Certainly not everything I’ve endured in life has turned around nearly that quickly, and I’d never promise anyone that; but I always remember how I’d wanted to die that Christmas, just two months before everything changed. I looked ahead and saw darkness, but I really couldn’t see ahead at all.

This is only running, but the lesson feels the same. There are so many things that I’m doubting about myself and about the generosity of life right now. But once upon a time, in half a year, I went from unemployed, betrayed, and humiliated, to genuinely in love and handsomely rewarded. On a smaller scale but equally illustrative, in two weeks I went from discouraged and flat and conceding age and/or lack of ability, to running stronger at 46 than I ever have in my life and earning the improbable designation “elite” among my peers.

Third woman to the finish. One of the timing guys says, “21:40. Geez, that’s fast!”

It’s not true that results always flow in even proportions to the work behind them. Sometimes things plateau and stagnate, only to take a sudden leap forward. I know a life coach who calls it “walking through a door.” We tend to think tomorrow will be like today, but that’s not always true. Sometimes change is closer than seems possible. That’s not a platitude to me anymore; I’ve seen it.

Here’s to tomorrow.