Recovery Through Running

Listen to this article

The late May afternoon is warmer than normal and even with the 5pm start time, the 5k run I have entered will bring both heat and humidity. It is 1990 and I am about to run what I believe will be not just a final race, but a final run ever for me in beautiful Bidwell Park in Chico, California.

My wife and I are readying ourselves for a summer move from Red Bluff back to a place I loathe, southern California. Worse, we will end up in the armpit of the Inland Empire known as Hemet. It’s a move out of necessity as nearby Redlands is home to one of two hospitals in the country that we have been advised to live near because of the special care our only child requires. It’s either the Southland or somewhere back east near Pittsburgh.

When it comes to running, I am not a jogger. I am a runner. There is a big difference. It’s the same difference as being a guy who lifts weights at a local gym and one who is a body builder, only I tip the scales at a buck forty. Despite the upheaval of life for the last year and a half since our daughter was born and the fact that I will soon turn 32, I squeeze in time and mileage chasing what I hope are faster times and excellent results.

A half mile after the gun goes off, I find myself part of a group of six runners who are determined to do whatever is necessary to win a race that carries no prize money. The winner receives the same t-shirt and coupon for a complimentary Bear Burger after the race that the last one across the finish line receives. It’s clear we are all well versed with the question the late Steve Prefontaine was known to ask his competition at the start line of a race, “Anyone here besides me willing to die trying to win today?”

Runners are no different than any other fanatic who spends too much time trying to break a PR (Personal Record). When they get together, they love to brag about their workouts and what sort of times they have been hitting in practice. I prefer listening instead of boasting because it allows me an opportunity to gain useful information to use against opponents. Sure enough, prior to the start, I can hear the other five sharing what sort of quarter mile splits they are hitting with their track sessions. I eavesdrop while one after another proudly claim they run 60 second splits as if that is the benchmark to greatness. I should be intimidated because I only average 72 to 75 second splits. Instead, I smell fish stories.

I laugh to myself when each of the five follow up their boasts by saying they more or less follow each 60 second hard effort with a five-minute recovery, one that includes walking, stretching, and a light jog before their next hard run. By the time their track workouts end, they have completed five or six quarters in a minute or less.

They clearly do not realize that at no time in the middle of a race do they have time to walk, stretch, and jog lightly. If you are willing to die trying to achieve a goal, you might want to toss in a few near-death experiences, I think. The key to successful racing is not how fast you can run (hare mentality) but rather how quickly you can recover from each near-death experience (quarter mile repeats). My quarter mile repeats might not be close to their 60 second claims, but in the time that it takes them to complete half a dozen, I will have nearly killed myself running between 16 to 20 with only 30 second recoveries. I do not intend to allow any of these guys the recovery time they are used to.

As the race unfolds, I settle comfortably in the pack of five boasting runners, making sure I have enough room on either side of me in case I decide to make a move to the front. For now, I am content to let others take turns forcing the pace and trying to break the will of the rest of us. No one is able to hold a lead for more than thirty seconds before dropping back to regroup (catch their breath).

Half way through the race, we turn left, cross a bridge over Big Chico Creek and then make another left. It’s at this point I make my first trip to the front but it doesn’t last long. Someone panics and takes over the front followed by another and another. The tactic being relied on to break the group is called surging and for it to really work, it is entirely dependent on a runner’s ability to recover between surges in short order. The pace is fast, the heat has not let up, and the humidity is making matters worse.

No one is letting up with the surges and each leader is quickly replaced by another runner. I am beginning to struggle because instead of surging, I have tried maintaining a steady but hard pace. As we approached the One Mile swimming hole, I suddenly blurted out, “I’ve got nothing left.”

There’s a half mile to the finish line and it seems I am about to crack. However, the One Mile swimming area requires careful navigation. It requires running in a single file. Once we arrive at the bridge that crosses the dam, there is a run up a few steps then a very sharp and narrow left turn on a slick surface followed by traversing several twists and turns along the narrow bike path. It is impossible to run this section fast and once it dumps you back on the road at the same spot the race started, runners still have another quarter mile to the finish. For me, I just received a much needed short recovery at a time the rest would have probably preferred one that lasted five minutes.

The other five runners have strung themselves apart and I am now ten yards off the lead. However, I have recovered and there is no way any of the five ahead of me have a 60 second finish in them. They’re still trying to surge but any increase in pace lasts no more than a few seconds. I am now comfortably back into a rhythm and as I edge closer to the front, a runner falls back, gassed and without enough time to recover before the finish line.

I am in fourth place with room to move up on either side of me. The leader is now less than five yards in front and there are 200 yards left. I remind myself to hold steady and if anyone takes off, I am to go with them.

As another runner in front of me cracks, I notice another sitting on my right shoulder. I am now in third and still feel good about my position. Up ahead, there is one final left turn to make that is forty or fifty yards from the finish line. I inch up and position myself on the outside shoulder of the runner in second place.

I realize the lead runner has made a mistake. He is hugging the inside line but the turn ahead will be too tight for him to carry any speed through to the finish. I can also hear the runner in second place struggling to breathe.

Suddenly, the runner just behind me and on my outside shoulder makes his move. He passes me and in an instant, I take off with him. As we hit the final turn, shoulder to shoulder, I have just enough left for a final sprint to edge him by less than a yard.

Exhausted, the other five each come up and congratulate me on a hard earned victory. Less than an hour later, we are all sitting around a table eating our Bear Burgers and drinking a cold mug of beer when one of the runners asks about my track sessions. I figure I am moving away and won’t see them again so I pass on my approach to track work. I tell them the key is not how fast you run your quarters, but rather how fast you can recover. I tell them I don’t care how fast I run a quarter mile nearly as much as how hard I can race over five or ten kilometers. This requires minimal recoveries during a race like we just completed.

Two months later, my very pregnant wife and I loaded our daughter and belongings into our vehicles and headed to a new home and a new job as well as a soon to be second child. Over the next thirty-four years, something called life would unfold and on December 29th of last year, I arrived back in Chico. Instead of the college student I was when I first moved here in 1979, I arrived with a lot more wear and tear.

This morning, I was up at four because it was a run day for me. By 5:45, I was running in a nearby park. Actually, I was jogging. My mind contemplated whatever it needed to, my body told me what sort of pace to maintain, and the park department’s sprinklers determined my route. When I returned home, I beat the triple digit heat heading our way and deep watered my plants before taking a load off my feet to recover.

I admit, at this stage in my life, I do not maintain a bucket list. I simply plan my workout schedule and it is still centered around recovery. If I have learned anything from decades of running it is that all of us are in a constant state of recovery. Once you recognize this, you can get on with the practice of finding the fastest ways to recover so you can get on with what you enjoy doing most.

More than anything else I have tried, running has always been my best therapy. It was that way when I was a kid in elementary school and still is today as an adult in therapy. I may not be able to run every day, and my days of 16 quarter mile repeats are long gone, but I can still lace up my shoes and quiet my mind to the rhythmic sounds of my breathing. Best of all, I get to run where I once was king for a day, actually a tad less than seventeen minutes, and reflect on all the life lessons learned, not just from running, but also from recovering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.