Friday, April 6, 2012

A Breakthrough Performance

With the spring/summer racing season kicking off in earnest, this is what I'm hoping for. It's timely that I was pondering the topic on this morning's run, seeing as tonight's Stanford Invitational marks two years since I experienced one of two such performances in my own brief racing career. For the better part of nine months I've been running healthy and strong, and especially of late have been hitting tough (for me) workouts and long runs with relative ease. I feel like my body has been absorbing all the training and mileage I've thrown at it, recovering quickly and completely within a short period of time, but I'm still waiting for that one race to really surpass everyone's expectations and take my running to the next level.

The first time this happened was in February 2010. I was coming off a fall and winter riddled with injury, during which I'd taken at least nine weeks completely off from running. I began training again just two weeks before the D2 national cross-country meet, in which I competed for my team and finished upwards of 100th place. Shortly thereafter I had to take even more down time when an acute case of shin splints flared up, no doubt in response to my frantic attempt to regain fitness and salvage my only collegiate cross-country season. When I toed the line for a 5k at the Armory in early February, I was working off about six weeks of healthy running. At the time, my 5k PR was 17:27. I remember asking Jordan, who is nothing if not frankly objective about my running, what he thought I was capable of on that day. He told me a goal of 17:15 would be reasonable. To say I wasn't on anyone's radar is being kind.

The gun went off, and eight laps later I remember passing through the mile marker in the low 5:20s and doing a double-take. Hasty calculations told me I was well out of my league, but inexplicably I felt great. Shortly thereafter I crossed the finish line in 16:54, notching a huge PR and securing an automatic qualifying berth at the D2 indoor national meet. From that moment on, I started thinking and training like an All-American, which I would become for the first time a month later. My entire mental paradigm, my own confidence and self expectations, shifted dramatically.

A few weeks after the indoor national meet, that shift happened for the second time at the Stanford Invite. At the time, my 10k PR was a woeful 36:12 and the D2 national qualifying standard had just been lowered to 35:30. I knew I had the ability to run the qualifying time but was still very inexperienced at the event (and at track racing in general, for that matter). After a recent mile repeat workout with Jordan, he told me I was capable of running clos
e to 35-flat, but I honestly would've been satisfied with 35:29 on the dot. I just wanted to take that next step toward being competitive at the national meet. Instead, on one of those fabled magical Palo Alto nights with calm air, loud fans and fast times, I raced to a nation-leading 34:37, nearly a full minute faster than I'd anticipated. The very next day I approached my coach about coming back a month later and aiming for the USATF outdoor standard of 33:45.

I did go back a month later, and I didn't hit the time, but that's not really the point. Breaking through and running a huge PR once again made me reevaluate what was possible. It was the first time I had a confident thought about qualifying for the Olympic Trials, or competing at national championships, or proving myself beyond the niche of a brief D2 career. Two years later, I'm definitely ready for that feeling again. I'm a bit wiser, a bit more experienced and definitely more self-aware of my own potential. But at the same time, I don't feel as though I've really taken a significant leap to that next echelon in the running ranks. (One could argue that my time at the OT marathon was such a performance, but in reality anyone who followed my training would agree that I was in 2:40 shape. My Trials race was good, but not revelatory.) When I toe the line at the US Half-Marathon Champs this summer, I want to feel like I belong there specifically and among elite runners in general.

But first, I need another breakthrough performance. I've learned you can't predict them or expect them--after all, isn't that half the point? But you can prepare for them, which is what I'm trying to do with purposeful training every single day. I'm sure several of my friends, running buddies, current and former and future competitors will enjoy such a performance at Stanford tonight. For them, I'm excited. For myself, I'm ready to experience that unparalleled feeling again.


Nichole said...

This is an awesome post. I've been following your progress here & it'd be hard to believe that a breakthrough race wouldn't be just right around the corner!

Anonymous said...

It must have felt like a million $$$ to break 17 in that race....amazing. Excited to hear what you will do at the Half Marathon Championships.

Caitlin Chrisman said...

While I hope a breakthrough performance comes before June, I do KNOW that a breakthrough half marathon is in the books in Minnesota.