I've been thinking these thoughts for a while, so I thought I'd write them down. Here it goes:
As I've gained fitness from one training segment to the next, I've experience a different kind of valley during training. Years ago, before my training was anything serious or focused, I could pretty much pick up where I left off after a marathon and a break from training. I think the MAIN reason for this is because I wasn't all that consistent anyway, so to take a week or two off meant I was only missing a few runs. Most of what I was "running" on then was a general fitness I gained through being very active in general with cycling, surfing, tennis, and running. Also, while I was generally pretty fit, I was not a well trained runner with a very high running specific fitness and strength. After races, I could pick up running again where I left off right before the race when I was in my best running fitness to date and begin building on that from the start.
Since I've upped my training and really gone after being the best runner I can be, I've noticed that I don't quite get that same luxury that I once had. After gaining significant fitness and strength as a runner in 2016, most of 2017 was spent in a different place- fitness wise. I spent months at a time in the spring/summer and through the fall training with less fitness than I had gained the year before. I managed to string some good workouts together (through injury) only to tie my 5k road PR. I had another solid 6 weeks of training only to run a pretty awful half marathon in June. In the summer, I had some great workouts, only to run about 30 seconds off my half marathon PR in October. If you follow me at all on social media, you'll know that all of this culminated with a HUGE marathon PR to end 2017. But throughout the majority of the year until I neared the marathon, I wasn't fighting to make huge leaps in my fitness and previous bests; I was fighting to get back into the fitness I once knew. I spent the year in Not Quite PR Shape.
I had a lot of time to ponder during training runs and this thought was in my head a lot, but not in a discouraging way. The closer you get to your physical and mental limits, the harder they will be to maintain. With higher peaks, it's only natural to have deeper valleys. It's ESSENTIAL to drop into that valley in a healthy way to let your mind and body reset. You can't stay at the top the whole time. That means 2 things:
- You'll have to spend some time climbing back up.
- You've been there before. You know the way. You'll make it up again and if you just stay the course, you'll likely get there a bit faster and be ready to go a bit farther.
As I ran around in Not Quite PR Shape, I was content. This meant that I was getting better. It comes with the territory of trying to make the jump from a local standout to regional or national standout runner. It comes with the territory of becoming an elite runner and I want to be elite in every sense of the word. I want to move onward and be so good that I will no longer be associated with the term "sub-elite" or "elite B." Those are not for me. So I thought of all the truly "elite" runners who run around most of the year, most of their careers in Not Quite PR Shape, just trying to get back to the fitness they once had and inch forward just a bit. I thought of the world record holders, and former world record holders, and Olympic medalists, and defending marathon champions starting a new training cycle, feeling sluggish and slow and heavy, grinding out workouts, working hard to run splits just a little slower than their best workouts last year just to get back to where they were before and culminate their season with hopefully a bit more fitness than they've had before and a maybe a slight PR or recapturing a title. I've surely got more to gain than those at the very top of the sport, but I'm happy to have at least made it to a level that I share in the experience of spending large chunks of training just under what I know I'm capable of waiting for my fitness to come around again. I'm happy to slowly claw my way back up to the next peak just a bit higher than my last.
If you find yourself in a valley after a big race and break, you just may be doing something right. And don't be afraid of the decent. If you try to run along the top for too long, sooner or later you'll fall off a cliff (Ok, this analogy is breaking down, but you'll get hurt or over-cooked and end up taking a break the hard way and lose even more fitness). Trying to stay at the top is an act of fear of losing fitness you've worked for. Accepting the valleys as they come is an act of confidence that you can and will steadily climb your way back up again and go higher.