Stepping away from trails for a few months of focused speed training was a valuable phase both mentally and physically. I learned more about myself than I was anticipating and not just as it pertains to running, but for the very things I love. The simple truth that we sometimes need to do what we don’t like in order to do what we love, never rang more true than in the past few months.

As I entered October, I frequently joked about the drudgery of the roads in comparison to the grand mountains that I so passionately love. My pictures were no longer tagged with #niketrail but rather #nikeconcrete. And although the thought of weekly 22-24 mile long runs on relenting flat asphalt made my lip curl, I knew the work I was about to do was “good work.” I needed a change in my training; a fresh approach; and if I’m being honest, I needed to get back to my roots- which started on the road and track.

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As a coach myself, the conversations I had with Ann Trason about my new training regiment were exciting; and as we discussed workouts, I understood the reasoning behind each session. I found comfort in each passing month as I felt my body respond to new workouts and training stresses. Some of the workouts like tempo runs and mile repeats have been part of my program for years, and getting on the track for some quick spinning here and there was familiar; but really it was the consistency in which I was doing these workouts that changed the most. Each week I was doing a couple speed sessions and my weekends were long runs on the roads instead of the trails.

My only fear during this phase was getting injured (which I thankfully avoided). Having come off 2015 injury-free, I didn’t want to start 2016 in pain. Over the years, I have learned that whenever we add a new stress to our body there is always a chance for injury- so proceeding gently is key; however, I am not exactly gentle when it comes to my training; and this has been a constant “check-in” topic that Ann has with me. It’s just how I’m wired and it’s something I will always have to work on; and I’ve learned to combat my often “over the top” approach by staying focused on my goals, my training, and my racing- and not giving a second glance as to what everyone else is doing. The act of “comparing” (in any situation really) is a powerful destroyer and I’ve had to humbly learn my lesson in that area more times than I have wanted to. Eyes on the prize…ALL.THE.TIME.

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So now for a snapshot of my training and racing during this phase:

*The Heart Rate Monitor became my Best Friend- Every speed session I did, Ann was testing my heart rate; and my long runs were done at a fairly easy pace/low heart rate. I had gone to two different clinics for some sports and physical assessments- which also showed me the exact heart rates I needed to stay at for each zone. This was super helpful and took the guess work out of what pace I should be at for recovery, aerobic, speed runs. Ultimately, it helped me run relaxed, easy effort races in January.

*Aerobic, recovery and long runs- were done on the beach path a couple miles from home. Every now and then I’d smile to myself while running on this path because it’s where I first started endurance running long ago; I have many fond memories of reaching milestones within my training; sharing miles with dear friends; and the serenity that the ocean has always offered me. The only time I dreaded running here was when the coastal winds would pick up- ugh.IMG_5841

Track and more track- there’s a very worn out all-weather track at the local community college that I Iiked to go to for my track workouts. Most of the track sessions were 800s with some 400s here and there. I thoroughly enjoyed the shorter stuff; but still despise 800’s…and I had to do those the most! But, as we hoped; I got faster with each passing month- which was the goal.

Tempo and Mile repeats- I did these everywhere; sometimes on the beach path, through the dirt paths in the wetlands, or on the treadmill. As I said before, tempo runs are not new to the schedule; but they were a little faster than when I’m in the thick of 100 mile training.

Road Races- When we first started the program, Ann and I agreed on a racing schedule that would begin with some short, fast races and culminate with a marathon. I shared that I wanted a solid schedule that would lead me to a sub-3 hour marathon, but at the same time, I simply wanted to focus on getting faster for Western States. This allowed me some wiggle room and quite honestly took a lot of stress off my training- which was needed during the holidays and the sheer fact that I never took a true “off-season.” I battled a few colds and a respiratory infection in December which helped me make my decision to just get the marathon “done with” and so I chose the Carlsbad Marathon which was held on January 17th and the Southern California Half Marathon a week before on January 9th. We decided to use the races as heart rate runs; no worry, no stress, just find that “sweet spot” run forever pace and bring it home. I had mixed feelings going into each race; I typically don’t enjoy standing at a Start line with the intention to “just relax and run,” I like to push and race; but I was also curious as to what my pace would be if I hung out in the heart rate zone Ann had prescribed. As I walked to the Start of the half marathon, I remember thinking “What if I’m slow at this heart rate?” I suddenly felt uneasy and even as the race started, struggled to “enjoy” the race. I must have looked at my watch 80 times in the first two miles. Thankfully, my family was there to spectate and I was able to see their joyful, smiling faces several times throughout the race- which kept me happy and relaxed. As the miles passed, I relinquished my anxiety, reminding myself that the whole reason I had embarked on this new training was to get better and to gain a better picture of my fitness; and no matter what my finishing time was, I was going to be content. I settled into my zone; ran a negative split; and finished in 1:35:06- a 7:16 pace. In my opinion, it wasn’t a time to write home about, but I was very pleased that the pace was easy, relaxed; that I could have kept on going; and more importantly that I wasn’t tired or in need of a recovery phase. The day after the half marathon, I left for a 5 day Nike photoshoot; which meant 4am and 10pm workouts for me. It was an usually tiring week going into the Carlsbad Marathon; however, I relished in it because my goal is Western States and the mental training along with the physical fatigue meant the marathon was going to be solid 100 mile training!

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I got home from the photoshoot late, the Friday before the race; spent a full Saturday hanging with my family and then got up at 3:45am to drive down to Carlsbad. The race started at 6:15am and I had an hour drive ahead of me. As I drove, I went over my race plan in my head. I had 3 gels, my heart rate watch, and for good measure my phone strap…yep, first race I’ve ever run with my phone! My goal was to run the course the same way I had run the half-marathon the weekend before…which would have me finishing somewhere between 3:12-3:16.

It was eerily quiet when I arrived; most of the runners had signed up for the half marathon, which was scheduled to start after the marathon. I picked up my race bib; did a short warm-up routine then jogged to the Start line. As I stood there waiting, all I could think about were the mountains, “I get to go back to the mountains after this!” I felt relaxed as the National Anthem was sang and told myself again and again, “relax; settle into your pace; stick to your race plan” The race started and some 2000 runners began making their way up the first of many, many climbs…OH.MY.GOSH this race had so many climbs! I knew it was a hilly course and as a mountain runner- trust me; NO complaints, nothing gnarly, but seriously save for a couple miles, every mile we were climbing. If you are in SoCal looking for a flat, fast course or you want to PR in your road marathon, DON’T RUN CARLSBAD! ha ha ha!

Like the half marathon I had just run, I must have checked my watch a ridiculous amount of times those first few miles; once I locked in my heart rate pace, I started to look more at the scenery around me- it was a beautiful course along the coast and since it was a relatively small marathon; the space around me was relaxing. The race seemed to fly by; and I even questioned the aid station placement a couple times, “didn’t we just pass an aid station?!” I was encouraged by my pace as the miles went on and despite the climbs, still managed to pull off a negative split for the second half of the race. I finished the race in 3:18:28- a 7:35 pace.

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The last 100 meters of the race was the best- I had finished the training block confidently and was now hungrier than ever to get back on the trails. So hungry that as soon as I crossed the Finish line, I checked the results (3rd AG, 14th OA), found my car and drove straight to Mount Wilson for an 11 mile, 4500 feet of climbing trail run. This was NOT part of Ann’s training for me; but rather out of sheer love and appreciation for what my body can do. I still remember my first road marathon like it was yesterday, I finished completely decimated; I couldn’t walk without aching for two weeks; I had bloody blisters on my feet and it was weeks before I started running again. Fast forward to today; after years of training and pushing; my body has adjusted; and what once hurt, now felt easy. I told myself that if I could climb the mountain with reasonable strength and then rip it on the way down, then I had truly run the marathon at an “easy aerobic pace.” But if I struggled; if my energy waned and the downhill hurt, then my marathon pace must have been too fast.

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I felt like a kid as soon as my feet touched the dirt; and despite the hour and a half drive to get there, my body was happy; and my energy high. As I climbed higher and higher, I settled into a prayer of gratitude- thanking God for His grace upon my body over the years and for the strength and passion He has woven into me. With the exception of a few friendly faces I had passed, the trail was quiet and peaceful. I savored the view for a few moments and then began the descent, “Ok quads, show me what you got!” I joyfully ripped down the mountain; the descent on Mount Wilson is one of my favorites in Southern California and the last mile and a half is smooth and fast; I threw my arms out to my sides to catch my balance on a tight switch back as I flew down…. “weeeeeee!”

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I was home.

The Lessons I Learned

*Training for 100 mile mountain races does not make you faster. Over the past two years, I noticed that my leg turnover wasn’t what it used to be. Despite the tempo runs and sporadic track workouts, the focused speed phase was absolutely necessary for my 2016 goals.

*There is STILL no substitution for hard work. You don’t have to love it; or enjoy it, but you do have to do it. The enjoyment comes in the results. None of this is new information; but it’s always a good lesson that I must be reminded of weekly.

*When you work hard for what you love; you love it more. How many times did I longingly stare at the mountain ranges during my road runs? Every.Time. I genuinely have great respect for road athletes; those who log long miles on cement and the intensely hard work it takes to race fast on flat terrain; but for me, I realized more than ever just how much I love the trails; climbing high; seeing new landscapes; watching the sunrise or sunset from a peak; the sound of leaves and pine needles beneath my feet; the absence of smog, cars, and noise; and the uninterrupted conversation with friends. I have no desire to race a road marathon or see how fast I could run one with true focused commitment to a faster time- I just want the mountains. My view of mountain races and road races is that they are two entirely different events and while many trail athletes continue to crush road races; I wholeheartedly believe in training for what you are passionate about; this is how longevity is achieved. When there is love and enjoyment; you’ll naturally work hard to make sure what you love continues and this is how I feel about the trails. If I need to have a speed phase on the road to be a faster mountain runner, then give me ALL that training!

*My training will continue to evolve. As with anything in my life; I want to grow and continually push my limits far beyond me. Already, my training is at a different place than it was last year. At this time last year I was pool running most days of the week while my torn hamstring healed. I’m encouraged to already feel stronger and fitter at this point in the season than I felt last year; and regardless if I’m back on the trails- you can best bet I’ll still be putting in that good ol’ speed training.

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*Achieving your dreams is not a solo journey. I’m not sure if it’s a “maturing” thing or the compilation of life experiences, but I have become increasingly aware and so grateful for those who take the time to care for me; look out for me; and encourage me in pursuing what I love. I realize that “good people” are not always easy to come by, let alone those who selflessly love me no matter my faults; and for that I deeply cherish people like my husband, children, my coach, my close girlfriends who are like sisters to me, my crew- who are really like brothers, and the countless strangers who take time out of their day to write me thoughtful emails or comments on social media or stop me on the trails to say Hello. I do not take a single day for granted and I am fully aware of the many blessings in my life that are so much more than any one human deserves.

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I suppose I should wrap this up now; I’ve got a tempo run waiting for me! I appreciate you taking the time to read and follow my journey. As with anything I write, I pray you have either learned something helpful for yourself or found a bit of comfort or encouragement. Be blessed today; stay thankful; and keep moving forward my friends….the BEST is always, always Yet to come!

 

Author Sally McRae

More posts by Sally McRae
  • Scott Chapman

    You’re awesome, upbeat, and very inspirational. Thank you for sharing.

    • Sally McRae

      Thank you Scott! Appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!

  • Chris Cunningham

    Sally thanks for the post on the importance of leg turnover and speed work. We are in similar places currently and reading about your progress has been a bit of a pick me up. The last time I trained hard for a road marathon was in the Spring of 2013, since that time I injured a hamstring but mostly avoided the roads and speed for trails and ultras and one mountain race. Trails is where my passion lies and long for mountains one day, but I still have road racing goals not yet reached. When I would do a short road race for fun I would be disappointed that times I once ran somewhat easily were no longer within my grasp and people I once beat were well ahead of me. Since mid December I started training with a few friends for the Carmel Marathon in the spring with the goal of setting a PR and a BQ (3:10 is goal). The training has been hard, I can easy pace it all day but the speed has not come back to me as fast as I had hoped. Your post has inspired me to keep pushing. Thank you so much. One day I will see you at Western States 100 but since I didn’t get in this year I’ll be at the Mohican 100 in June. Good luck to you.

    • Sally McRae

      Hello Chris! Thanks for sharing a bit about your journey and for reading my blog post. Glad to hear it was a bit of encouragement to you; all great things take hard work and time, and it sounds like you’re putting in the hard work…keep at it and you’ll reach your goal! Wishing you best of luck at Mohican 100!

  • Melanie Schirmer

    Thank you for sharing your experience Sally! Very inspiring.

    • Sally McRae

      Absolutely Melanie! And thank you for reading!

  • Tim Gears

    Thank you for the post Sally, your name/voice popped up on a Ginger Runner podcast and after a little digging i stumbled across a few of your workouts on Instagram & your blog. Keep up the great blogs and that great positive energy you have!! Happy training/racing. One very quick question, what was your target HR for both races and how was this worked out?

  • Demmaje BF

    Awesome read Sally! I’m currently in marathon training mode for the Buffalo Marathon in May and to read about your passion and success is humbling for any runner, trail or road runners! Best of luck in your 2016 races! #nikerunning #NRC #2016

  • urielfernandez

    I enjoy reading how you go through the same battles must of us are facing or fill face eventually. I guess we all grow at our own pace =D