It’s official, I’m back on my strict training regimen! Okay, “strict.” I don’t plan on beating myself up if I miss a day or fall short a mile here and there. But the point is, training specifically, regularly, and with determined goals on a daily/weekly basis has begun for my spring half marathon season!

It started Monday, really, when my 6-week plan for Charleston had me scheduled for cross-training but I had to run 2 miles instead because my body pump class got cancelled. Then yesterday was a scheduled rest day, which I was fine with, because I did some snow shoveling and felt my blood moving anyway.

Then, today. The workouts that I’ve both been eagerly anticipating and also kind of fearing began! Speed workouts at the track with Potomac River Running’s Distance Training Program!

Photo credit David Coleman

I’ve been avoiding running outside like the plague. I joined up with the =PR= DTP group for two reasons: 1) to improve upon my first half marathon and hopefully successively PR this spring each month (with the exception of Disney, where I plan to allow myself time for character pictures), and 2) to force myself to run outside and run without headphones. I lump the last as one because they’re both things I’ve been stubborn about and ultimately I think will make me a stronger runner in the… long… run… okay pun unavoidable?

Anyway, this week we’ve had our first snow of the season here in DC. It began Sunday, broke for a rest on Monday, and started up again early wee hours Tuesday morning into morning rush hour, which effectively shut down schools and many places of work. The snow lingered today on the grass – it’s that fluffy yet wet snow that, even though it didn’t accumulate greatly, packed well. So it was still on the soccer field that the track surrounded tonight for my group’s first speed workout together.

I wore my long sleeve tech base layer, my hot pink reflective high-necked Brooks running jacket, Brooks running gloves, and long windbreaker pants and while I was cold, I knew I was going to be working hard for the majority of the time I’d be outside.

For the first time since I “became a runner,” I ran outside without music. Without anything except my feet and the track. It was dark out, and I got there about 15 minutes early to warm up. And for the first time in my whole life, my “warmup” was an “easy” one mile jog. It used to be a mile was the top feat, and more recently, every mile has been nothing I take for granted. Tonight, the full mile was just the warmup at an easy pace. And it felt easy! Easier than running on a treadmill even without my headphones, because there was the beauty of the stadium lights on the snow in the nighttime, my breath making clouds in front of me, to enjoy, and it was flat without forcing me to an exact pace the whole time. I stretched out a little after a half mile then just kept on going.

It is amazing how much shorter 400 meters feels now than it did in high school.

Photo credit David Coleman

After the mile warm up, which I clocked at about 10:30, I joined up with the group gathering at the benches for stretching. After a moment I realized an old friend from high school was standing there talking to a couple of other guys from the group! We were in a play together once in high school and we knew from Facebook that each other were runners, but I was completely surprised to see him. Very comforting to see a familiar friendly face in a group of strangers!

Our coach talked us through what the routine would be for the night (I would be in the “beginner half marathon” group, doing a 1200 interval, 2-3 minute moving rest, 800 interval, repeat rest, and finally a 400 interval). I don’t have a watch so I had no idea how to check my pace without looking at my phone the whole time (note to Santa: please give me the Garmin on my list?) so I was a little nervous when Coach Chris told us to go a tad faster than our normal long distance pace.

So, my pace at Richmond Half was just over 11 minutes (like 11:05 or something), and at Army Ten it was just under 11 minutes (like 10:56). But my 5K pace is now about 9:55. It felt counterintuitive in a speed workout to go slower than that for a shorter distance even than the 5K. I asked about it and Coach Chris suggested I go for my 5K to 10K pace. Again, without a watch I would just be guessing by feel, but I figured I’d do my best.

When we were off, this is pretty much how everyone else in the group looked to me:

(This is Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix)

Uh, so I moved it a little faster than I’d planned. I knew by feel I was going faster than a 10:30 pace, because whoa, I was gonna get lapped REAL soon, and as much as I tried to block out everybody else, I couldn’t help but want to keep up. But I didn’t realize how much faster than a 10:30 pace I was going until Coach Chris shouted my first lap time on my 1200 – 2:10. I was pacing at an 8:40 mile. I’ve never even run an 8:40 single mile.

I thought for sure my second lap would be way slower than my first and I’d get a lecture from Coach about going out way too fast, but it must have been the anxiety of getting lectured that kept me moving – my second lap was exactly 2:10! Half a mile in 4:20 – WHOA. Part of the credit also has to go to the only other girl anywhere near my speed range – we’ll call her A. In our group there are only three women and then our assistant coach is a woman too, but two of the women are like faster than bullets. So while the other girl stayed in front of me the whole time, I kept her as a pacer. If I could stay at least the same distance behind her if not closer, then at least if she were slowing down I wouldn’t be the only one getting lectured.

My 1200 clocked at 6:31. Holy crap.

I was lapped in my third lap, but this is how I felt when I realized I’d stayed on pace:

(This is also Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix.)

My 800 was the exact same pace! The winding down of distance definitely helped with staying on pace but boy was I tired by the end of those two laps. Knowing I only had one more lap to go after my water and shake out walk break was a godsend.

A hyped the two of us up before we started off – “only 1 more! We can do this!” I responded honestly with “just trying to keep up with you!” Feeling the “last lap” excitement I shot out of the proverbial blocks around the first bend, but by the second bend felt my thighs tightening up. I actually realized I’d never actually known what it felt like to hit the wall before until that moment when I thought I might collapse if I didn’t stop to walk. My quads were tighter than they’ve ever felt before.

Normally I always let myself walk if I feel like I need to that badly, but when I realized this was The Wall and every runner meets it and the best runners knock it down, I kept putting one foot in front of the other and in that final 100 meter stretch I gave it all I had.

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” -Pre

My last 400 was 1:57. Holy crap. I know I can’t yet sustain that for 4 laps for a sub-8 mile, and am a long way from being able to sustain it for several miles, but knowing that pace was in me for more than a few feet?

I can’t tell you how little I care that I am easily the slowest one in my speed group. Tonight, I felt like more than a runner- I felt like an athlete. I can’t tell you why the two words mean something different to me. Maybe I’ve felt like a runner ever since I started pushing myself with my New Year’s resolution. But I’ve never thought of myself as athletic. Certainly most of my life, athleticism has NEVER been a strength. Even at my best sport growing up, soccer, I was great at my position (goalkeeper) because I was smart and tough, not because I was particularly agile or strong. But tonight I saw, in the span of 45 minutes, real, tangible capability to consistently improve on my part with the athlete’s best friend – practice – and the athlete’s best tool – determination – and I feel like an athlete.

Current favorite sport meets first favorite athlete.

After practice I downed an Orgain caffe mocha flavored organic nutritional shake, which I’ll review later, but let’s just say the 2:1 ratio of carbs:protein was pretty ridiculously necessary, and came home to heat myself up some veggies, noodles, and potatoes in melted cheese and I was one damn happy camper.

If there is any way for me to beat out winter blues, I have found it. Turn Hump Day into the best day of the week – use it to meet up with a bunch of runners, work my butt off, feel incredibly accomplished. Conquer the cold. Conquer the Wall. Just conquer.