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January 25, 2011

Small Victories

"I strip away the old debris that hides a shining car -
A brilliant red Barchetta from a better vanished time -
Fire up the willing engine responding with a roar -
Tires spitting gravel, I commit my weekly crime ...

Wind, in my hair, shifting and drifting -
Mechanical music, adrenaline surge..."

- Rush, "Red Barchetta" (video after post)

A couple of months ago I indicated that I was undertaking a minimalist speed project to try and reconcile my love of running in minimalist footwear with my latent desire to regain some of the speed I’ve lost over the past several years. During my most recent track session I had a breakthrough of sorts – but before I explain it, I thought I’d tell you a little bit about my car. (Stick with me, though; it always gets back to running around here. Well, almost always.)

The car I drive is nearly 18 years old – which in auto years makes it a senior citizen. It’s covered almost 220,000 miles, and I’d love to get another 80,000 more if there’s any way I can – but sadly, I’m not certain that we’ll ever reach that ambitious milestone, because the car is clearly showing signs of age.

My car, with approximately 220,000 lifetime miles

In fact, taking care of my car is a lot like living with a very elderly relative. Over a certain period of time, one system after another that worked perfectly for many years begin to simply wear out. The car goes into the mechanic’s hospital with increasing frequency, and each time there’s a discussion of whether the cost or risk of attempting a full repair is worth the benefit, or if it’s better to just leave well enough alone and learn to live with whatever the limitation might be.

For the most critical liabilities, the decision-making is easy – but for the dozens of smaller difficulties that inevitably come along, it’s usually best to just adapt to the changes. When enough of these accumulate, your car acquires the idiosyncrasies and problematic behavior that are the hallmark of old age.

My car’s radio antenna is broken. Oil leaks from the engine, and blue smoke rises from the hood whenever I go over a big hill. The power windows occasionally need a breather before returning to the closed position. The sunroof sometimes opens spontaneously (thankfully, never in a rainstorm yet). The remote keyless entry first lost it’s “beep” capacity, and then stopped working altogether. And I could go on and on. As long as the car keeps rolling and taking me where I need to go, I can put up with all the inconveniences.

Once in a while, however, you get glimpses of the old car that was so impressive to you in its youth, and they become reasons to celebrate. For example, I still try to lock my car with the remote every time I exit, and every now and then - perhaps 1 or 2 times out of 10 - it actually works. Whenever that happens, I give a little fist pump in appreciation.

In other words, you learn to savor the small victories.

Back to my track workout now: as I checked the halfway split of my first 1600m repeat, it read 2:56. I felt like I was cruising comfortably, so I maintained the same cadence and effort level, ultimately crossing the line in 5:58. And then I gave a little fist pump in appreciation.

It was the first sub-6 mile I’ve run in a workout for at least a year.

For as long as I’ve been doing track workouts, the six-minute threshold for my mile (or 1600m, depending on the venue) repeats has been my own personal Mendoza Line to determine whether I had any tangible speed in my legs at all. In my marathon racing days, I could rattle off a string of 5 to 6 repeats in the 5:30s to 5:40s, or 8 to 10 near 6:00 even – but ever since my two-fold conversion to ultrarunning and minimalist footwear, the fastest intervals I could muster in a workout have been in the 6:05-6:15 range.

Between completely revamping my form and practically eliminating speed work from my weekly regimen, the times when I show flashes of my old self – or more tellingly, when I feel like I’m flying the way I used to – are few and far between. So the fact that I cruised a sub-6 mile while maintaining good form without feeling like my legs or lungs were blowing up was a very welcome surprise.

This isn’t to say that I’ve turned any kind of corner, though; the other repeats of the workout clocked in at 6:04 to 6:15 as usual. Rather, it was an opportunity to celebrate a small victory, in recognition that those moments will probably be more fleeting as the years go by.

Me, with approximately ??? lifetime miles (definitely a lot)

I don’t have any intention of returning to road racing, and I don’t know that I’ll ever reach the ambitious PR milestones that used to fuel my workouts for months on end. And as my training ramps up in preparation for this craziness I’ve gotten myself into, track workouts will become a thing of the past, with the vast majority of my mileage spent on hilly trails instead of flat, hard surfaces. (There’s also probably an age factor in this equation, but since I refuse to acknowledge that I’m getting older, I can’t really quantify it here.)

I guess the best way for me to sum it all up is like this: I have no desire to turn myself into a sports car again, but I’m happy to keep rolling along as a dependable high-mileage vehicle - one that has a lot of little quirks and is falling apart in several small ways, but still manages to make it from Point A to Point B all in one piece. As long as I keep on rolling wherever I want to go, that's enough to keep me satisfied.

And since we're on the topic of old cars and old times, let's go with an old song by my favorite band from my middle school years: the almighty Rush. I spent more hours playing air guitar to this song than you'd even believe if I told you, so I won't. In a related story, I don't remember having any girlfriends in middle school.

Rush, "Red Barchetta" (click to play):

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wayne 1/26/11, 5:21 AM  

Excellent writing! Having crossed the "double nickel" myself, speedy running is more and more of a fading memory. The trail in a nearby state park is tight and twisty in parts though, and when I get into the corkscrews amongst the trees, I'll go to full throttle, just because the trees going by in a blur makes me FEEL like I'm fast again :).

Gretchen 1/26/11, 5:42 AM  

Believe it or not, I have noticed and appreciated your reliable, not-so-flashy car. I'm pretty unimpressed with people who need fancy cars.

Also, in my mind, track workouts will always be a total rush, regardless of the distance for which you train. Keep it up and have fun!

marathonmaiden 1/26/11, 9:49 AM  

i love it when a workout gets a fist pump. great work :)

Anonymous,  1/26/11, 10:07 AM  

Now, this is the real way to go minimalist!! My car has 176.000 and counting. Very nice post!

Jason Fitz 1/26/11, 6:37 PM  

Love it! I wrote about "small victories" on Strength Running before because I know how valuable they are. Each small success is a stepping stone, keeping you motivated to move closer to your goal. Whether it's a track split, distance, or even how you feel on a particular run, the small victories keep you coming back to running day after day. Good luck with your training Donald!

The Running Gator 1/26/11, 6:38 PM  

Like your posts! Looks like your over striding in your picture, if you want to have longer mileage you shouldn't be stepping that far ahead of your hips! Good luck!!

Her Name Is Rio 1/26/11, 7:39 PM  

I'm giving a little fist pump right now for this article.

Darrell 1/26/11, 8:05 PM  

its been a long time since I've heard any Rush. The guys in the room next door back in college loved 'em.

I'm hoping to be able to give my own little fist pump after this weekends long run. No speed, just survival.

treklightly 1/27/11, 11:20 AM  

Is that a 93 Toyota Camry XLE? Looks exactly like mine. Except I just bought mine last summer and it only has 85,000 miles on it... I love the car and have no reason to buy anything newer... Moonroof, leather seats, automatic everything, what more could you ask for?

Kelton 1/31/11, 2:16 PM  

The old Camry is more akin to an old New Balance 576. If you really wanted to go more minimalist you'd upgrade to something that meets more strict emission standards and doesn't leak oil.
Though I understand that sentimentality does have its virtues.

Stacy,  2/21/11, 10:41 AM  

So, I'm using part of the day to go back and comment on a few posts that made a special impression over the past few weeks...

I loved the old car metaphor, although it perhaps strikes a bit too close to home. A while back, a writer for Outside went on a full PED regime as a trial. I remember the conclusion being that it was basically like turning back the clock. And that gave me a very uncomfortable epiphany about how eye-opening it would be if I could -- in a single moment -- undo the gradual ravages of aging and experience again what I felt like at, say, 20. After a hard workout or after a hard week or whatever. I bet it would be horrifying.

Still, confessing to cranking out mile repeats in the low 6s is probably not going to get you much sympathy from most runners. Especially since your ultra and minimalist priorities -- and they are good priorities -- tend to put a drag on pure speed.

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