I wake up before the sun rises. I grab a quick snack before strapping on my shoes and then out the door to the Strawberry Fields entrance to Central Park. I start my Fitbit and ease into a fast walk down the hill and onto West Drive. Cyclists whir past, most of them either in cycling team jerseys or leaning over their aero bars.
My Fitbit shows that I have walked half a mile. I start a slow jog, raising my heart rate to 115 beats per minute. As runners pass me, I listen to their labored breathing as I inhale and exhale through my nose. I round the bottom of the Loop and head north. The smell of horse manure is strong. A couple is standing on a bridge overlooking what will soon transform into a skating rink. Without my glasses they appear pixelated and generic. I check my Fitbit. I have traveled a mile. I accelerate up the gentle slope, heart rate inching up to 130 beats per minute, then 135 at the top. I push harder as I approach the Summer Stage. 140 beats per minute. I check my cadence: about 180 steps per minute. I breathe through my nose every four footfalls, and out for the next four.
Cat Hill slows me down. I check my Fitbit: 143 beats per minute. I need to stay under 145 to keep this run as aerobic as possible. Two months ago I would have been crawling up this hill, waiting for my right sacral ala to re-fracture. Today, however, after almost three months of training slow using the Maffetone Method and almost five months of near-exclusive aerobic base-building with swimming and cycling, my legs keep moving and my mind is clear. 145 beats per minute at the top. I pass some runners.
Now I’m running downhill and then slightly up as I pass the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then down again and then flat as I run next to the reservoir and up East Drive. I accelerate and watch my Fitbit hold steady at 143 beats per minute. I am running below a seven-minute per mile pace, which feels great for running at approximately 75% of my maximum heart rate. I could never have done that before I got injured, and I would not have even cared. My philosophy had been “train hard, race harder.” Under my new philosophy of “train slow to race faster,” I had already PR’d at the Percy Sutton 5k with a time of 18:24, a minute and ten seconds faster than my time at the Salsa, Blues, and Shamrocks 5k in March when I was running hard on every training run, trying to build speed before I had developed an aerobic base.
I fly down Harlem Hill and run alongside the north side of the park. It’s always a little quieter over here: Even some of the guys on their $5,000 TT bikes avoid the big hill. I’m heading up now, heart rate still hovering around 143 beats per minute. My stride shortens, and my cadence increases slightly. I slow down when my heart rate hits 146 beats per minute. I’m halfway up. I’m passing a few people on bikes. I can see the top. 142 beats per minute. Pick it up. 143. 144. Top. Downhill. Pace picks up again.
I could keep going, but that’s a good summary of what goes through my head while I’m out on a training run. I’m generally thinking about my heart rate, cadence, and listening to my body. It reminded me of this article in which researchers studied what marathon runners think about when they run.
This summary also demonstrates why I love running: It’s one of the only activities during which I can maintain complete focus on what I’m doing. I get distracted at work all the time. I can barely sit still while watching TV or eating dinner. Give me free time, and I will fill it with structure out of fear of the unknown. But give me running, and all that matters is putting one foot in front of the other and improving one step at a time. I understand it intuitively. I am calm.
Of course, I have some days where I want to skip a workout, or I finish feeling worse than when I started, but those days have almost ceased to exist since I have begun training slower to race faster using Dr. Maffetone’s method. The phrase “everything you’re doing now is to prepare you for race day” often echoes through my head, and it keeps me focused. I am not running just to fill the time. I am running because I want to race as well as I can. So, I try to make each step matter.