The day before, I had 9 miles scheduled: 2 warm up, 6 x HM pace, 1 cool down. Unfortunately life/work/the universe got in the way of that and no running happened. But Friday I was determined to get it in, so after a long week and an exhausting day down at The Farm, I headed back up to SF, changed into my running clothes and headed out the door before my body had a chance to develop too much inertia and perhaps sink into a couch somewhere, never to emerge.
For reasons I've mentioned before, these HM pace runs make me nervous. The rational part of my brain knows that I can run sub-8's, even 7:45s & 7:40s, for a good while. The more animalistic, neurotic, emotional part worries that I can't (or won't be able to). If the target pace is 7:40, for example, that part wants to compensate out of fear. It has no problem with me working too hard to run ten seconds under pace but has an absolute freak out if I'm ten seconds over at any point. This is the part I have to control and contain and channel appropriately in training runs and races alike. It's fantastic at pushing me through that last agonizing 10-20% of a race but can cause real trouble if it's not kept in check early-on.
Having averaged right around 7:50/mile in Oakland with no problem, I've now raised the bar a bit when I run HM miles and started pushing myself to average 7:40 as much as possible, as long as the effort level feels right. That's actually probably been the biggest benefit of doing progressively longer and longer HM runs -- I've gotten WAAAAAY better at knowing what that effort level should feel like, which has slowly but surely begun to free me from the tyranny of Mr. Garmin.
My last HM run was four miles, which went fine, but it felt like a big jump to six. I used this same seven-week program training for Oakland, but coming off a month of no running, I hadn't really been in shape to do every workout exactly as written. I'd run 2 x 2 miles at HM pace instead of 4 in a row, then 2 x 2.5 instead of 5, then 3 x 2 instead of six, then eventually 2 x 3. (Which is not to say I couldn't run six miles at 7:40 pace; I just couldn't do it at HM effort level.) Post-Oakland, I'm definitely in better shape, so I figured I'd just go as far as I could at ~7:40 until it started to take more than HM effort, and if I needed to take a little breather before finishing up, so be it.
Warming up, I felt great. Some days I'm surprised at how fast that nice, comfortable warm-up pace actually is, but today was not one of those days. These were respectable but nothing remarkable. As I mentioned last time, my first non-warm-up mile usually takes me west through the Panhandle towards Golden Gate Park, which is deceptively but decidedly uphill. There's always a danger of the emotional runner brain taking over here and attempting to run it by numbers instead of effort. I was a bit erratic, ratcheting back and forth between 7:30 and 8:15, but ultimately when that first mile clicked off I was pleased to see that I'd averaged 7:53. Perfect.
Getting into the park, I wanted to try to run by effort as much as possible rather than stalking my watch. I think of HM pace as brisk but manageable, as pushing just about two notches beyond what is really comfortable, so when I felt like I was hitting that I tried to just settle into the pace and stay there.
The weird thing was, I kept seeing mid to low 7:30s on my watch, and occasionally high 7:20s. That in & of itself was not totally shocking; sometimes it takes a few miles before HM pace really starts to feel like work, so every time I saw numbers that low I forced myself to take a deep breath and let my pace drift back up to the 7:40 range. The second mile clicked off in 7:39. Number-wise, it was right on target, but I couldn't get over how effortless it had felt. Ah, just wait for it, I reminded myself, thinking back to how it had really taken until my 4th 7:45-50ish mile in Oakland to start feeling the burn.
The third mile passed in more or less the same way -- me floating along at what felt like the perfect pace, spotting 7:2x on my watch and forcing myself to ease up. Cruise along. Check watch. See 7:2x. Ease up. Wash / rinse / repeat. Mile three done in 7:35, and me feeling like I was barely working.
This part must be more downhill than I remember, I thought. It'll probably balance out on the way back. Plus the last three miles will definitely be tougher.
In my last half mile westward, there was a notable hill. I kept bracing for the burn, reminding myself not to try to charge up it. Then I noticed I was halfway up said hill and had barely felt a thing.
Halfway through mile four was my turnaround. I must be heading uphill now, I thought. These last miles will surely balance out these silly 7:3x's. But mile four felt much like the last, except faster. Cruise along, feeling great. Check watch. See 7:2x. Ease up. Cruise. Check watch. 7:1x (!). Ease up. Wash / rinse / repeat. Mile 4 = 7:24. My reaction: "Whose body is this, and how did I get into it?"
Mile 5 was mostly the Panhandle in reverse, a just-noticeable downhill. Now this, you can REALLY just cruise, I reminded myself. I still felt great, so my only real goal was to keep up the same level of brisk-but-totally-manageable effort and not let myself get out of control.
Cruise. Check watch. See 7:1x. Ease up. Cruise. Check watch. 7:0x (!). Ease up. Feel completely baffled regarding the level of effort this is NOT taking. Mile 5 = 7:18. (I mean, yes, it's downhill. But it's not THAT downhill.)
I totally could've sprinted the last mile and been none worse for the wear, but the point was to practice HM effort level so I tried to stick to that. At that point, I really did feel like I could've run at that pace forever. It was just unthinkable to me how I was already nearly 8 miles into my 9 mile run and I had no idea where the time or the miles had gone. Before I knew it mile six clicked off in 7:28.
7:33 average. Minimal effort. And again with the body-swapping theories.
I ran the last mile "easy," or what felt easy, including taking the hillier, steeper route back to my house (because I still felt as if I'd barely had a workout), and even that was at quite a good clip. (This was mostly because I really needed to pee.) If I'd had to, I could've run that mile at the same pace as the previous one, no problem.
I wish I could explain to you what sort of magic I did, physically or mentally, before this run. That I had some magical lunch, or happened upon God's foam roller, or did the Dynamic Stretches of Destiny. If I knew, I would do it before every single run and every single race. I would start a business. I would monetize the hell out of that shit. But I have no freaking clue. I just went by feel, and those were the numbers that just sort of happened. I just kept running, completely in awe of what my body was letting me do. I thought back to all those HM pace runs I did last fall while training for Clarksburg, how I had to fight so hard for those 7:40s and how so completely not confident I was (in spite of vociferous assertions to the contrary) that I'd actually be able to pull it off. I kept waiting for these miles to feel at least a little hard, but they never did. Or, more accurately, it was sort of hard, but a completely tolerable level of hard that I felt like I could have handled for a good long while.
If I can handle it for seven more miles, even five seconds slower per mile, I'll get my 1:39:xx.