[In between cleaning up from the last storm and waiting for the next, in between treadmill runs and parking lot runs, and in the middle — but not finished with — several running books, I got nothing this morning. So here’s a another edition of “From the Archives,” a short essay that seemed appropriate for this time of year. It was originally published December 27, 2007.]
With winter settling in, and runners suffering from the usual blues and blahs of trying to maintain their training while the snow piles up outside, there are a few pleasures of the indoor season that help balance the ledger. One of them is watching really fast people work out.
During the rest of the year, really good runners are dispersed across the landscape, and you rarely see many of them in one place other than a meet. But these days, the talent of the region is drawn to and concentrated at a few indoor tracks — Harvard, BU, and Reggie come to mind. A humble Tuesday night at any one of these venues can turn into a fireworks display of speed and strength.
I make no apologies for my voyeurism at the track. I love to watch people run fast. of course, it’s best for me to have finished my own pokey intervals first, because otherwise the experience can be a bit discouraging. But once I’m done running, I become a fan. I stretch or cool down and watch out of the corner of my eye as one group rip off sets of 60-second 400’s, and another cranks out repeat 1000’s in 3:00.
Workouts vary tremendously among the silky striding distance specialists, the 400/800 types, and the true sprinters. The distance runners churn out intervals with ruthless efficiency, piling up lap after lap of moderately fast mileage interrupted only now and then by an impatient recovery at a quick jog. They never seem to stop, and are likely to add several miles before and after their workout without a second thought. The sprinters are never impatient, taking hours to warm up, stretch, do drills, stretch some more, do more drills, before finally stepping onto the track for a violent explosion of effort, which is inevitably followed by a long period of what appears to be agonized soul-searching. The sprinters make everyone else on the track look slow, and secretly the distance runners feel envious, which only goads them into adding a few more intervals to an already long day.
While it’s not as exciting as watching a meet, watching a good athlete workout is a better education. You see the preparation, the drills, the habits designed to help focus on the task at hand. You also absorb the structure and rhythm of a workout. You see how much or how little rest is taken, you notice whether the distance of the workbout changes. You can learn a lot this way, just hanging around the track and watching.
As runners finish their workouts, the atmosphere is often incredibly lighthearted, considering the difficulty of the task so recently accomplished. You sense when a workout has gone really well as you hear people chattering about their next race, or when it has been a struggle and a disappointment as athletes huddle with their coaches for some advice and consolation. Above all, you sense the pleasure in the camaraderie of the track workout, even for the gods of the sport.