Many, many years ago — when my kids were little and Joni was in pre-school — I had a trivial but interesting experience running with one of the other dads there, the father of one of Joni’s friends. I don’t remember how we got started talking about running, but we must have had enough in common to think it would be a good idea to try a five-mile run together.
So one Saturday morning when the kids had a play date, we left the kids in the care of their moms and headed out for our run. I knew based on our previous conversations about races that I was quite a bit faster than him, so I was prepared for (and expecting) a nice leisurely pace. Imagine my surprise when after a few dozen meters I found myself struggling to keep up with what felt like 6:00-mile pace. Although my body resisted and complained, I hung on, wondering how I had so badly mis-judged this other guy and rapidly shifting my expectations for the run from an easy jog to a vigorous tempo effort.
But then within a kilometer or so, the pace began to slacken, and I began to feel much more comfortable. My companion had settled down and was no longer flooring the accelerator. After a mile or so, I’d guess we were running close to 7:00-mile pace. The next couple of miles passed uneventfully, but then we started slowing down A LOT. I felt like I was jogging, and had to consciously force myself to slow down to avoid opening a gap. Meanwhile, my companion was breathing heavily and had stopped all the previous small talk. It was obvious he was hurting. We finished the run at maybe 8:00-mile pace, and I thought “That was interesting.”
Talking about it with him afterwards was the most interesting part: for my companion, it had been a very normal run, and he even said he wasn’t aware that the pace had been especially fast at the beginning. That struck me as bizarre.
There’s a reason this story has stuck in my mind all these years. It gave me the idea that there are fast starters and slow starters, and that I was a slow starter. I’m reminded of that fact now because recently I’ve been limiting myself to very short runs, often on tracks, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about my slow starts, or more specifically, about how I feel at the beginning of a run and how that changes as I get into it.
Basically, when I first start running I feel pretty horrible. My legs feel heavy and uncooperative, my gait is stiff, and my limbs uncoordinated. I seem to lack all skill for running, and it takes a good bit of effort not to stop, go home, and take up another hobby more suited to a dignified old age.
When I run on a track, I’ve taken to timing every 400 to document how slowly I run when I’m first starting out. Even on a good day, my first lap takes me well over two minutes, and my pace is easily slower than nine-minute miles. As I continue to make circuits of the track, I don’t make any special effort to speed up, but it happens without any conscious inclination. After a few laps, I’m running about 7:30 pace, and after ten minutes or so, I’m running close to 7:00 pace. And it doesn’t stop there; it seems the longer I run, the quicker it gets, finally stabilizing at about 6:30 pace. If not for the caution I have about running more distance, I feel like I could keep going.
The thing is, and maybe this is finally the point, I’VE ALWAYS BEEN LIKE THIS. Even back in the day when I was a young, fit, and fast, the beginnings of every run were so slow that my first mile would easily lag by a minute or more the pace I would average for the entire run. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a slow starter. I wonder why?
At the beginning of a run, I question everything, and my mind is filled with doubt that I can complete that day’s planned effort. Even a three-mile run seems long and beyond my ability. After a few minutes, it’s not quite so bad. After ten minutes, the fog has lifted and the sun is shining again. After twenty minutes, I feel like a runner and it all seems to easy and natural. If I could figure out a way to avoid this daily drama I would, but it seems to be part of my programming.
This afternoon I’m meeting some folks for a short run, and I’ve decided that I need to get there fifteen minutes early and do a warm-up so that I don’t impose my snail-like start on them. It seems silly, unnecessary, and a bit overly self-conscious. But being a slow starter is also a bit embarrassing; it’s a little like having to get out of bed and face the world before you’ve had your morning coffee.