A Tempo For K

Three weeks ago, I talked to my friend K, who’s been suffering from seizures for almost 11 years. She got out of another stint at the hospital just before Christmas after two months, including 10 days during which she went into what she described as violent, constant fits on her entire right side. She was bedridden and at some points couldn’t talk.
“We’re talking 24/7,” she wrote. When the seizures finally stopped, they left her temporarily paralyzed on the right side and in need of physiotherapy.
When I told her that she’s been dealing with the ordeal with an exceptional courage, she answered: “You just kind of deal with things as they happen because you can’t do anything else. Ultimately, I think it makes you a stronger person.”

Shortly before we had this exchange, I was thinking of the workout I had scheduled for that night. For the fourth year in a row, the new year marked the official start of my training for the Boston Marathon, and on my program that day, Jan. 6, was my first tempo run: 2 miles of warming up followed by 5 miles (8 kilometers) at a fast pace.
I dreaded the exercise because I had to use a treadmill, which I find a lot more difficult — and boring — than running outdoors. I was certain I couldn’t sustain the pace for 5 miles, maybe not even one: I’d never done it before on a treadmill, even during my previous marathon trainings. I was toying with the idea of pushing back that workout to the following day, not that it would make it easier since it would still have to be on a treadmill — just a day later. I was being a typical self-centered, insecure runner in marathon-training mood. I was preoccupied by minute details of my training plan and how to fit it into my day.

Talking to K reminded me how lucky I am to be healthy. I reluctantly headed to the gym after work. When I saw that all the running machines were taken (by the new year resolution crew), I was both angry and relieved: I wouldn’t have to do that grueling workout after all. The second I finished that thought, the man on the last machine in the corner of the room finished his exercise, leaving me with no excuse.
I had K on my mind when I pushed the start button for the 2-mile warm up and Radiohead on my iPod. I faced a window covered with steam, through which I could only see lights from cars and traffic signals (green-orange-red; green-orange-red; green-orange-red). I started very slow, at 6 miles an hour, and gradually increased the speed every minute, by 0.1 mile for the first 10 minutes and 0.2 mile after that. When I reached 2 miles, I was just above 8 miles an hour, and that pace felt fast. Now I had to increase it to 9.2 miles an hour (or about 6:31 a mile) and sustain it for about 33 minutes to complete the planned workout: It seemed unfeasible.
I started at 9.1 miles (6:35 a mile), feeling like a wimp for being 0.1 mile slower than the required pace, and it felt like a sprint. I was trying not to look at the dashboard. After staring at the blurred traffic lights for what seemed like an eternity I couldn’t resist checking the mileage: 2.38 miles. Great: I had run 0.38 miles out of the 5 miles requested. That’s when Radiohead helped: the song “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” from The Bends album, gets me in a trance. At the end, I hit the rewind button again and again. I also decided that 9.2 miles an hour wouldn’t be much worse than 9.1 miles so I increased the speed.

After 2 miles — the equivalent of about three times “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” — I started to think I might be able to complete the workout. Milestones are important for geeks like me during a workout: a quarter, a third, half. The most difficult part of a treadmill session is the first 20 minutes. Sometimes when I reach 0.5 mile of, say, a 7-mile session, I think to myself: 13 times of what I just did and I’m done!
With about 1 mile left — by now I’d listened to “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” about six times in a row — I went bold and increased the speed one more notch to 9.3 miles an hour.
K was still on my mind when I reached 5 miles, satisfied with my small accomplishment, meaningful only to myself. She was my inspiration.

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