I am sure you have read or heard the story of the Tortoise and the Hare at some point in you life. In quick summary its a story about a race between a tortoise and a Hare where the tortoise wins the race because the Hare continuously goofs off while the tortoise plods along at his own pace. It never happens in real life and all I can say is being a tortoise in a hare’s world, when it comes to running, is often frustrating. Being a tortoise in a race carries a unique set of circumstances that hares rarely worry about.
In 2012 I began running for the first time ever in my life. After a few months of working my program I was super slow but able to go the 5k or three mile distance. To put slow in perspective, it took my fifty minutes to finish my first 5k. Following that first race I continued to work on increasing my speed and eventually the following year I reached my fastest 5k running race with a forty minute effort. Two and a half years later and I am still running 5k races at that same speed. For me speed has been an elusive emissary throughout my progression into running.
Of course I have tried different suggested workouts and often stuck to them for months. I read books by experts and spent months working through their programs. I spent hours doing fartleks, intervals, Galloway run/walks, progression runs and tempo runs to name a few of the myriad techniques I applied to get faster, all with little results… no matter what I did my speed on roads always hovered between fourteen to fifteen minutes per mile, I was still frustratingly slow.
While I exhausted workout plan after workout plan I found my distance on my long runs increasing. For a while I incremented a quarter mile or so every month and sometimes every two weeks, depending on how I felt. The early long runs I often considered the high single digits to be a long run. Over time I worked myself up to upper teens as my abilities to run long expanded. Being a tortoise though meant these runs took twice as long as others running similar distances. When I ran my first twenty mile run on roads the en devour took over seven plus hours on my feet. At the time I shrugged off the time it took to complete this run as my legs and body were so sore from this effort, I was just happy to complete the distance.
This year I decided I had enough with all the standard speed workouts and I threw myself at running trails and distance, upping my weekly volume from ten to fifteen miles a week to twenty to thirty miles a week. I still mixed in occasional hill repeats and fartleks and other speed workouts, but my focus was volume . I realized that high mile running efforts would often take me almost all day to complete but I found I loved these runs and for a while I saw some small speed improvement. Where I really found improvement from these high mile, long hour efforts was in my growing strength and a gradual increase in being able to sustain slow efforts over a consistent pace. Before I knew it I was able to run twenty plus mile long runs in eight to ten hours and not have my legs cramp up on me. But my speed was still slow. Yes I could run for ten to fifteen hours but that only got me about twenty five miles on trails.
At present I realize I am slower than most others that consider themselves in the Tortoise category. The other day I met a woman on my group run that claimed she was a turtle and she was right, she was slow comparatively. Guess where I was, way behind her. Now I will say I have been running fifty miles a week and traversing some major elevation while the other woman has been running way under that weekly total, but it still puts things into perspective… I am the slowest tortoise alive when it comes to running and running fifty miles a week has only made me slower.
Knowing I am an extremely slow runner means cutoff times are a major focus for me on race day. For me cutoff times mean there is a greater likely hood of DNFing (Did Not Finish) than most people. But does this mean I should not try?
Wanting a challenge, I signed up for the Mystery Mountain Marathon in Georgia, a beast of a marathon with over 15,000 feet of elevation change and past race reports that read like horror stories. The course has a strict cutoff for 13.1 miles which is four and a half hours and has a total time allotted of eight hours. I have never ran anything greater than a half marathon in a race, yet I signed up for a race that has a strong DNF potential due to cutoffs and difficulty. Why?
Because of the sheer challenge of pushing myself as hard as possible is why. I am slow, but I want a challenge. I want to howl and charge at the thing I fear most. I want to push myself to new and unknown limits. I would rather toe the starting line than forever toe the ‘I am too slow to try’ line or the ‘maybe I will do it next year when I am more ready; line. I have decided I am no longer living in fear of my slowness, instead I am going to go out on race day and attempt to complete this challenge in the time allotted. I am going to charge and howl and be fierce and I will attack the course with every source of energy I have available.
Until race day though I am left to worry about speed and making cutoffs on this brutally hard course. Being a tortoise and accepting a daunting task does not remove the worry and fear of missing time cutoffs. Instead I am hyper aware of what I have to do race day to stay ahead of the cutoff and that I know will be a major challenge for a raging tortoise. For now I am left time to contemplate and plan, worry and fret. On race day I will show up with my tortoise shell decorated and ready to do battle. Til next time.