I’ve been rounding the track since I was 15 years old. Track is truly a place where you find pain like no other, where you can dig so deep into yourself that you’re not sure you can ever climb out. It’s a place of pure surprise, pure pain. And if you expect and embrace this level of pain, you’ll come out of track stronger in your body and mind.
It’s been 1 month since my last track workout. These days, I only find myself there before a race for last minute sharpness, speed, and to remind myself that you can push to that level, you can push through that hurt, to gain the confidence that even at your most sickeningly speedy and redlined pace you can still make it across the line.
And last night as I pushed around the final turn of my first mile on the track, I noticed a welcome and friendly face standing by the fence – the perennial smile and bouncy blond hair of Leslie Curley.
Truth be told - I’ve been engaged in secret and covert training with Leslie Curley. And last night, I took her to my secret and sacred place of pain – the track.
The track was buzzing with runners. Trapped in endless sets of mile repeats, runners of all levels, abilities, and speed rounded their way around 400 meters. As darkness settled in with the night, their paces slowed, their breathing heightened, but they kept going. Something kept them going. And something made all of us choose this circular place of pain instead of our comfortable couches on this overcast night. The promise that running on this track, suffering through these laps, persevering through this pain would deliver us a faster, stronger, smarter runner unafraid of taking risks and testing ourselves.
Leslie hopped on the track and warmed up, smiling as she wound her way through the other runners and cheering me on as I finished my last two 800’s. A former collegiate track distance runner, I knew she was no stranger to the pain that can only be found in these red, rubberized 400 meter laps. It had just been awhile.
With reasonable paces to hit, she sailed through the first 1600 and two 800’s. Energetic, cheerful, focused, she made her way around each lap finishing each with a little huffing, a little puffing, and her upbeat happy smile.
As she went off for an easy jog before the last 800, I knew it was time to tell her to turn that smile upside down, shake things up a little. It was time to let the track do what it does best. It was time to let it get ugly.
She got ready to toe the line for the last 800. Smiling, she looked at me. I gave her the firmest directions I could find - go all out on the first 400, leave it all out there, make it hurt, make it ugly, blow up, let it all go. Chris, eager to get in on this commanding of pain, added, “and for the last 400, just barely hang on.”
This is completely opposite to the conventional way to run an 800. Common sense tells you to hold back, keep it under control for the first 400, focus on form then pick it up in the final lap.
But I never liked the common or conventional way of doing things. And, after all, this was the track. It is a place where you can, should, and will fall apart. So you might as well embrace it and let it happen. Fall apart. Breakdown. Trash your legs so bad on the first 400 that you think there is no conceivable way possible you can hold it, push it for another lap. And then go out and do it – surprise yourself, push through a new level, take it up a notch, teach your legs to take the pain and teach your head to tell them how.
A few years ago, I was listening to a friend describe their experience in training for a military position. He described the exercises they were put through in which they had to swim a distance while holding their breath. The catch was you couldn’t swim slow, and while holding your breath the lactic acid would build and build until your head felt like exploding in it’s own shaky pain. He referred to this level of effort as ‘seeing the wizard’, the point where you go so hard or hold your breath so long that you are nearly ready to either piss yourself or pass out.
In other words, I told Leslie to see the wizard.
On our command, Leslie took off. In the outside lane, Chris, myself, and Leslie’s husband, Jeff, stood watching. She bolted at the start. She literally flew off the line. Legs with knees high and pumping, her arms were like little pistons. She hit the halfway mark and remarkably maintained the same speed. Rounding the corner near us, I told her husband that it was about to ugly. She passed the 400 mark in stellar speed. Going out at a pace like that was not only risky but brutally painful on both lungs and the legs. As she buzzed by us, I quickly commented that she was going fast, damn fast, incredibly, amazingly fast. And that’s when Jeff said, “Yeah, and she wasn’t smiling.”
Perfect. Leslie had let it get ugly.
Let it get ugly from time to time. Allow yourself to hit rockbottom, to let it get so ugly that you have to stop, clutching your legs while crying or moaning in your own pain, to go back home and feel like throwing something or throwing up. Give yourself permission to breakdown, to fall apart, to unravel so far that you’re not sure you can pull yourself together for the next day. Leave it all out there. Hell, piss yourself. Just put a pair of extra shorts in the car just in case.
If you hit the bottom, if you break down enough, your body will have a better understanding of what to do when and if it happens during a race. It will be familiar territory, something you know you can push through or come out of alive. When you’re on the edge in a race, the edge of nearly blowing up or nearly breaking through, your body will find a way to pull itself through and last it out because you have practiced it, visualized it, expected it – you let it get ugly in training and you know what to do.
Leslie rounded the last turn and pushed hard through the line with a gut-wrenching grimace and a look of fury and fire in her eyes. She had seen the wizard. And seeing that the track is an entirely personal place of pain, there was no way to be sure if she had also seen the lion, Dorothy, or the Tinman along the way.
That night on the track, I think each of us, Chris, Leslie, and myself, found the bottom of our workout soul. Though in very different ways, we each hit the bottom, we smelled it, tasted it, felt it, pushed through it. And on our way back up, we found something, or someone, much better and stronger than before.
The key is to remember this – to internalize it and pull from it next time you are on the edge in a race. It’s ok, you can let it get ugly. You can take big risks. You can go out hard and hold it. Trust your legs, trust your body, and trust your head. You’ll know what to do.