The Harvard outdoor track at twilight
Is it a trick of memory, or was there a time when I wasn’t so dull and listless in the afternoons? I feel sure that when I was younger I had the vigor to fill the day with useful activity, to be productive from the time I arrived at work in the morning, until quitting time at five or later. And then — because one has dreams beyond work — I still had the desire to throw myself into a good run or workout before heading home for a late supper. These days, I’m happy if I manage a few good hours in the morning where I can maintain enough focus and energy to take on life’s everyday tasks, and maybe sneak in a run before the urge for a nap becomes too great.
I thought of that last Thursday as I drove into Cambridge late in the afternoon, watching all the cars leaving the city. I was on my way to join an impromptu workout at the Harvard Track, and recently these late-in-the-day workouts have been tough. Normally, by the time 6:30 p.m. rolls around, I’m struggling not to crash, and it’s not an hour when I usually accomplish anything that requires more than token mental effort. Even my relatively easy sessions on the track require more than token mental effort, and so I regarded the imminent task with some trepidation.
Ah, the task. It’s not really work, because it’s strictly voluntary and I claim to pursue it for pleasure. Better to say that I’m off to play at Track – play at distance running — by joining my friends at Harvard’s outdoor track in the shadow of the football stadium. But if this is play, it’s a serious strain of play that will test me, and I can’t afford to be casual about it. Hence, my anxiety as I pull the car into a parking lot and gather my gear and racing flats for the short walk to the athletic fields.
I wish I were in better shape. I haven’t done a lot on the track over the last few months, and running fast – or what passes for fast these days – is still hard on my body in ways that I’m not able to predict. I know that tonight I might begin the workout and suddenly feel my calf muscles seize up, or tweak something in my hip or hamstring during the dynamic warm-up exercises. I might not be able to breathe properly. I might not be able to keep up. With an effort, I try to suppress these negative thoughts and focus on what I value about being here – the chance to re-connect with other runners, maybe if all goes well, another step in the journey to be fast, at least the knowledge that I showed up.
I like to think of fitness as preparedness. When I’m fit, I’m ready for almost any running challenge. Positive or negative thoughts aside, I don’t feel ready for this workout. I feel, instead, that I’ve made a good beginning these last few weeks, and managed to get through a handful of abbreviated workouts without hurting myself or suffering a setback. But I’ve also been surprised at how strenuous those short workouts have felt, and I’m planning on running further and faster tonight.
It could go well or it could go poorly. If it goes well, all this nervousness will look silly in retrospect, just the habitual worrying of a hypochondriac runner, always complaining about something. If it goes poorly, I’ll probably know it’s going to be bad by the second interval or so. Sometimes you feel like crap during the warmup, but after an interval or two, you realize you’ll be OK, and you just needed to get going to shake off the dreary ennui of a slow day. And sometimes you feel like crap during the warmup, and you go right on feeling like crap for as long as you can stand to punish yourself. In either case, there’s only so much you can do about it. Basically, you need to carry on or abandon the effort, and thinking too much about it won’t help one way or the other. But I’m a worrier, and I want it to go well and I want to feel good. Otherwise, why the hell am I heading to the track instead of having a nice dinner? There’s no race on the horizon, no standard to meet, nobody to impress… so if it doesn’t feel good, it’s hard to justify doing it at all.
Of course, there IS another reason. This running thing is my social life, and I want to be able to run with my friends, which means wanting to keep up with them as they train and race and put in the weekly workouts to stay fit. I used to be a regular at all the weekly workouts – track, tempo, hills, long run. Now I disappear for weeks or months at a time, maybe with an injury or more likely because of work or coaching. Well, work isn’t an excuse anymore, and there’s no coaching in the summer. So I need to be at the track, even if I’m not quite ready for it. If all goes well, if I’m patient and faithful for a few weeks, maybe I’ll even be able to complete the full workout.
I feel slightly like an outlaw, crossing Soldier’s Field Road during a break in the traffic, and then finding a break in the fence that surrounds Harvard’s athletic fields. It occurs to me that being native to a place means, among other things, that you know where to park for free and where there are gaps in the fences designed to keep outsiders out. Harvard may not know it or like it, but I’m one of their most loyal patrons, having been quietly running laps on their indoor and outdoor tracks for thirty years. One day I’d love to thank the University for their hospitality, but I don’t think the conversation would go in a useful direction.
None of my teammates are at the track yet, but it’s just as well, since it gives me a chance to start my careful warm-up without having to make conversation. I start with some leg swings, then some marching, then some other quasi-dynamic drills to wake up muscles and neural pathways. After about five minutes, I finally start an extremely slow jog clockwise, always clockwise, around the track. The fatigue isn’t too bad today, and after a few laps, my breathing settles into a good place. Maybe it will be a good night, after all.
After a while, Terry and Amory appear. They are mostly warmed up already, having jogged to the track from other parts of Cambridge. I keep jogging, and am joined by Brian. Eventually, there will be nearly a dozen of us. Our numbers are small compared with two other clubs who haze dozens of runners at the track, and who even now are massing near the finish line, making us veer off to get around them on every warmup lap. We’ll be dodging them all evening, I reckon, and so it proves.
After everyone has had enough jogging, we do a full set of dynamic drills, and then Terry goes over the workout he sent out by email earlier that day. The long version – 5600 meters of intervals at various paces — will be too long for me, but I find inspiration. Instead of running the short version of the workout on my own, I’ll run the structure of the long version, but cut the longer intervals in half. In other words, I’ll start each interval with the group, but run less distance and rest longer in between intervals. I calculate this will give me 3200 meters of intervals, a modest increase for me over my last workout nine days ago. It seems doable and sensible.
The talking over, we do two laps of 100m strides, and then it’s time to get going.
Everyone is dragging a bit. Terry raced on the Fourth, so he still has fatigued legs and isn’t interested in hammering his intervals. Amory is strong, but hasn’t been doing a lot of really fast stuff, so she’s also running at a modest pace. On the intervals where I’m cutting the distance in half, I’m delighted to discover that I can help them out a bit by leading into the wind for a bit before peeling off early. It’s nice to feel like I’m not just leeching off their pace, as I have done so often the last few months.
As I had expected, by the second interval I can tell it will be an OK workout. I’m handling the pace without too much distress, and the extra rest I’m taking is helping me recover more fully between intervals. I’m probably running a little harder than what would be optimal, but the trade-off is that running harder allows me to stay with my small group, which makes all the difference in maintaining a good attitude. There’s nothing like doing a track workout on your own to tempt you into feelings of self-pity. With friends, there’s no room for that.
I know that I’m not running fast, but I feel like I’m running fast enough to do me some good. Later, Amory will tell me that I looked smooth, an extravagant compliment that is even harder to credit given how strenuous it felt to maintain the pace as my legs became more and more fatigued with the unfamiliar effort. But I think what she observed was that I was “comfortable,” in the sense that I wasn’t obviously fighting myself, as we all are prone to do when we’re searching for a little more speed. I know that in this latest attempt to get back into shape, I had intentionally started with short bursts of running, rather than with long intervals, with strides/ 200s/400s, rather than with 800s and 1000s. It was my attempt to remember how to run with good mechanics before testing myself with feats of aerobic heavy lifting.
After the last interval is in the books, and we’ve high-fived each other for seeing it through, we change our shoes and head out for a slow and social cool down loop around the fields.
Even though my legs are feeling wobbly, this is the best part of the workout. Everyone is relaxed now, glad to have come through the trial all right. Giddy at having survived the workout, our conversation is wide-ranging. It’s a time for memories of other nights and other sporting adventures. Amory shares an amazing story of playing with the U.S. National Lacrosse team when they won the World Championships twenty years ago in Japan. Her account is interrupted when we pass a soccer practice where several players are practicing medium-range shots while a goalie saves them. Sensing an audience, one of the players shouts out at us, “Do you want to see a GOAL?!” We say “sure!” and he drills a shot into the lower left-hand corner of the net past the lunging keeper. We cheer lustily, and bow in mock in homage before laughing and continuing on our cool down.
By now it is past 8:00 p.m., and the track is almost empty. Around us, dusk is falling, and the lights around the stadium are starting to come on. After a few more minutes swapping plans for the weekend and looking ahead to next week’s workout, we disperse. I walk back towards my car, appreciating the remains of the sunset to the West. Red sky at night; sailor’s delight.
I’m in no hurry. Later, after my body has cooled from its exertions, I’ll be hungry and in need of a good dinner, but for the moment, I have water, and that’s all I need.
I think about how various are the activities that people enjoy on a summer evening. While I know that many people find joy in running, I suspect far fewer feel the need to run hard track workouts to find satisfaction. There are the soccer players and the softball players, who find their joy in the laser shot on goal or the double to left-center. There are the multitudes who crave no competition, but simply stroll along the Charles, or tend to their plots in the nearby public garden.
I had parked near a kayak rental place, and now as I stretch against my car, I watch the day’s final customers pack up and leave, and the employees stack the kayaks for the next day’s business. Near me, a family is piling into their car for the journey home.
Soon I’ll join them. But for a few moments more, I linger at my car. I feel the honest fatigue in my legs and the satisfaction of a task completed. Around me are all the pleasant sights and sounds of a peaceful city heading home from its play. It’s an entirely unremarkable summer evening, and there isn’t a single thing I need to make it better.