Can an Old Marathoner Learn New Speed Tricks?

 I have spent the past couple months trying to turn a cruise ship into a speed boat. On July 9 at 6:45 p.m. local time in London, I’ll see if it sails.

After winning the J.P. Morgan Corporate Challenge race in New York last year, three coworkers and I are headed to the series championship to represent our company in the mixed team competition.

So far so good. It’s an exciting challenge, a rare chance to run as part of a team and an opportunity to go back to London for the first time in almost 10 years.
 Except for the distance: 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers).
One of my greatest sources of frustration as a runner is to be only marginally faster in short races of 3 to 6 miles than in a marathon. If you think I’m exaggerating, don’t.
Take 2013:
— April 15: Boston Marathon: 26.2 miles at pace of 6:39 a mile.
— June 1: Moorestown, New Jersey: 5 miles at 6:36 a mile.
— June 12: J.P. Morgan Challenge: 3.5 miles at 6:34.

I am being generous with myself here. Those results were among my best. My worst running moment was probably an October 2010 women-only 5K (3.1 miles). I ran at a 6:46 pace (not much faster than 6:56 at the 2010 Boston Marathon six months earlier) and finished behind the 12-year-old winner and her 10-year-old sister, who passed me just before the finish line. Ouch.

(Can an old cruise ship become a speed boat in 2 months? Photo credit: vastateparkstaff)
     I have a poor track record on shorter distances partly because I don’t specifically train for them. Those races are often a means toward the greater goal: the marathon. I also have poor form (I tend to lean backwards when I run fast) and poor race strategy. The psychological fortitude — or stubbornness — that carries me through marathons becomes a mental barrier in short races: I’m stuck with the idea that I suck at them.
     To overcome all of the above, I laid out a plan I called “more torture/less pleasure.” It involved weekly speedwork (my bête noire), weekly hill repeats (another unpleasant experience) and weekend 5K races. I also cut “empty” miles — the nice, long trail runs sans watch I love so much in the summer.
     During the Tuesday group workouts (repeats of 400, 800, 1,200 or 1,600 meters, in various combination), I once again could barely run faster than my marathon pace (6:45 in the 2014 Boston Marathon). A sample from my June 10 training log: 5 times 1,200 meters at 6:34; 6:41; 6:44; 6:51; 6:44. It was a hot night (above 85 degrees Fahrenheit) and we ran around a muddy soccer field, but those are just excuses.
     To help break the mental barrier, G., a member of the group who used to compete in pentathlons, told me to start an upcoming 5K in Philadelphia as fast as I could and hold on as long as humanly possible. I ran the first mile in 5:57, then couldn’t hold on. Coincidentally — or not? – G.’s wife, an experienced and fast runner, paced herself in the first mile, passed me and won our age category. I still credit G. for my improved time (19:36 for a 6:19 pace) on that June 15 race.
     Our group coach advised me to enter as many 5Ks as possible with runners who would push me harder. So on another hot and humid evening earlier in June, I showed up at a race organized by a church to raise money for child victims of violence. It was a good cause and a professionally timed race, so I assumed fast runners would participate. When I saw the crowd of about 50 casual runners, I grew anxious. A man who did look like a more serious runner approached me, checked me out from head to toe and said, “You’re on your own!” I still feel guilty for stealing their race and winning by some 30 seconds ahead of the first man, but I had come to train. I didn’t tell anyone that I was disappointed by my time (6:25 pace).
     I was even more disappointed by another 5K later in the month (6:34 pace). The Wilmington course was hilly, my legs were toast from hard training earlier in the week and a picture of me at the finish line showed me leaning backward. But that’s training for you. You can’t always run your best time.
     Overall, I have become a faster runner on the distance in the past six to eight weeks. I’ve even started to find masochistic satisfaction in speedwork. (I wouldn’t use the word pleasure).
     London, here I come.
(Typical backward-leaning technique: at the 2011 Pocono Marathon’s finish.)

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