Grinding it Out: A Year of Redemption

Grinding it out: It’s an oft-used phrase in running to describe those races where you grit your teeth and push harder than you expected to get to the end. It’s misleading because you work hard in every race, theoretically. (There are those races you just do for fun in order to enjoy the post-race party, but I digress.) “Grinding it out” might be apt even in the races where I’ve had my slowest results. After all, when you aren’t trained to your race distance, just finishing can be tough.

The best races, however, are when you feel prepared to reach your goal and you go out and get the job done. It’s feels more like a victory lap for the months of hard work and insane hours you put in than some superhuman effort.

But over the last two weeks, I ran two races where the phrase “grind it out” appropriately describes my effort. Summer training was haphazard, due to recovering from post-spring marathon IT band pain and falls from weak ankles. Admittedly, I also melt like Olaf in heat and humidity, so there may have also been some procrastination and excuse-making to blame. Finally, I got my momentum back in September, with just enough time to build up my body and log a few longish runs in preparation for my fall half marathons in October. I’d finish without any major problems, I thought, but I certainly wouldn’t be logging any PRs. No biggie, though. When you’re a runner–and a frequently injured one, like myself–you’re pretty much just happy when you can run without pain.

In races where I know I won’t be bragging about my results, my only race plan is to tell myself “just take it easy and pace yourself; no need to race.” It’s mental gymnastics. If I tell myself I can relax, I get to the start line and don’t let my nerves get the best of me. It also braces me in the case that I finish with a time far worse than I expected (c’mon, you didn’t think I’d ever run without some time goal in mind, always). But in the back of my mind, I know that once they sound the starting horn and I’m off with the pack, there’s no way I won’t try to keep up. For the SONO Half, I wouldn’t exactly say I jumped out of the gate, but I was definitely running faster than was prudent. There’s no way I could hold my pace for 13 miles; I hadn’t run that fast in any run for the last half a year. But, despite my better judgement, I kept going. It’s a race, so I’m racing, damn it!

Turns out, I can hold an uncomfortable pace for quite a while, and even push the last 5K. That last 5K was a lot of bargaining with myself: “Just keep going for another 1/2 mile and then you can ease up a bit…” But that never happened. I just grit my teeth and pushed. I finished only about three and a half minutes slower than my 1/2 PR, and only two minutes difference from the spring half that I actually trained for. So much for training, eh? I should always give myself about five weeks ’till race day to get my act together. Lesson learned.

Just kidding. I attribute some of my inner reserve of speed and endurance to the spinning classes I’d be doing for a couple months. I’ve never been a cyclist and even resisted when told it would be a good way to cross train. But my husband cycles and I thought I’d give it a whirl in my summer slump. Turns out that biking works both your cardio and your buns. All runners benefit from muscling up those glutes. Additionally, it’s possible I hadn’t completely lost the fitness built from the spring marathon I ran (though I sure lost a lot of it, sigh). Lest I thought this was a one time hall pass from the running Gods, I basically repeated the performance at a trail half a week later (about 15-minutes slower, but that’s about what they estimate the terrain adds to your time). I grit that one out, too.

So if these aren’t PRs, and not even in my top race results, why am I blogging about it? Who cares about some races where I did satisfactorily but didn’t reach some major goal? The fact is, I’d flopped both races pretty spectacularly every time I’d ran them in the past. The last time I ran SONO, I was unknowingly suffering from postpartum hyperthyroid and pushing my heart way past its max. Finishing that race was certainly me “grinding it out,” but resulted in my worst half marathon time ever. The first time I’d run the trail half, I did it on a broken foot (who knew?); the second time, I had a wardrobe malfunction that cut off circulation to my foot and I had to ask a local bystander for scissors to cut my compression pants. Both times, I had to walk large portions of the course. This time I put it all out on the courses, certainly better than my training should have allowed.

So here’s to the little victories, when you finally catch a break and feel the sweet taste of redemption.