As you may have noticed from my last few columns, I love road biking. It’s an ideal activity for early spring: easy, fun, and we get to ride far and fast and see different corners of the Upper Valley.
It’s ideal, too, because in the summer and fall we will focus on ski-specific training: running, but also lots of rollerskiing and bounding with poles. It’s good to avoid those activities early on so we’re not too sick of them by the time September rolls around.
However, in the middle of the spring, training begins to become less carefree. Yes, I’ll still ride my bike. But face it: you can ride a bike for 3 hours as many times as you want. While you’ll be tired at the end, it’s still a lot easier to ride a bike for three hours than it is to run for three hours.
On the other hand, doing intervals on a bike is pretty tough. Because your upper body is stable, your legs have to be working hard to raise your heart rate. Imagine riding a bike at threshold for 25 minutes. To get your heart rate to threshold – for me, 170 beats per minute – you have to be riding aggressively up a steep hill. Now find such a hill that lasts for 25 minutes. You begin to see where (part of) the problem lies.
So there is a moment every spring when real workouts become a necessity. We start adding: first, maybe one threshold session a week, and one really long session that isn’t on a bike. Then we start adding the max interval sessions we’ll include in our training for the next eight or nine months.
Usually it’s a bit of a shock. I am so used to training all year, training 15 or 20 or more hours per week, that I expect that I can do anything. I won’t really be that tired after intervals, will I? Why would I bonk on a long run? We do this all the time! But being accustomed to one-hour runs and easy long bike rides does not prepare you for harder training days.
And so it was with some trepidation that I set off running on Saturday. My teammate Katie Bono and I had decided to do our first long run. We were joined by our teammate Julie Carson and her boyfriend, Mark Davenport, who may not have realized what we were up to: he didn’t bring water, unlike us girls who modeled our stylish hip-belts.
We slowly jogged across the bridge into Norwich, and by the time we started up the hill on the other side, Julie and Mark were out in front. I smiled to myself: I was in for the long haul, mentally alternating between purposely going easy and refusing to think about how long we would be out.
We ran up the Ballard Trail from the Norwich pool. It was beautiful and quiet in the woods, with the ferns still unfurling and the trees just sending out bright new leaves. In places we had to jump along the side of the trail to avoid submerging our sneakers in mud, and in others we had to climb over and through broken tree tops which had fallen across the trail.
By the time we got to the end of the trail, on Beaver Meadow Road, we had already been out for the time of my longest previous run all spring.
As we started up Tucker Hill Road and Julie and Mark once again took off. Katie and I shuffled along, chatting about how this was one of our favorite roads to run on. The views were beautiful as always, and I daydreamed about how much I’d like to live in any house we passed. Or, as I told Katie, in any of the barns. Imaginary house-hunting is a great way to occupy time on long runs.
We girls said goodbye to Mark when we turned onto the Burton Woods trail. None of us had run it before, and we soon realized that the first mile of trail was entirely uphill. I picked my way around the spring stream that ran down the trail, leaving the surroundings mucky and wet, and hiked a few steep spots where the bedrock was exposed. Katie tripped over a down log and joked that her coordination was disappearing as she tired. We laughed, but all knew it was true; the same thing was happening to each of us.
We hit the Appalachian Trail in a small clearing, where a sign pointed south to Podunk Road (1.8 miles) and north to Elm Street (3.5 miles). We ran toward Norwich. It was one of the trail sections I am most familiar with, since it’s so close to campus, but at the same time, it is one of the sections I understand least. So much looks the same. The obvious landmarks are only close to the end.
And so while the forest type changed from hardwood to pine and back again several times, we wondered how close we were actually getting to Elm Street. It was at one of these transitions to a dark, pine forest where the ground was soft and muted the sounds of our footsteps that I realized I was tired.
I wasn’t bonking, no. But while only a few minutes before I had been bounding over rocks and logs and roots, I could feel that my pace had slowed. I was more apt to walk a few steps up a steep section. It was more of a chore to stride out the flat parts. It was more dangerous to run freely down the hills, because I was starting to trip over things. My curiosity and energy were dampened just like the sounds of my feet, but Katie and I kept talking, discussing the subtle psychology of training in groups.
At the same time, Julie was developing blisters. Mark had drank half her water before he left us, and she was out. She lagged behind and stopped talking. I worried, sometimes slowing down to let her catch up, sometimes trying to draw her into the conversation. But it was fairly useless. Julie was in her own world.
We finally crossed the powerlines, and then the stream that told me we were only minutes away from Elm Street. I have an incredibly distinct memory of running up the hill from that stream with Kristina Trygstad-Saari, class of 2007, on a fall day two years ago. I wondered why the memory was of that place and not some other along the trail.
As we ran up the long hill into Hanover, we could smell the pig roast at Theta Delt, a fraternity on West Wheelock Street. It was a reminder of how different we might be from the rest of campus: on this Green Key party weekend, our classmates were wearing sundresses and had probably only woken up a few hours earlier. We had been running for three hours, and were drenched in sweat, exhausted, smelly, and covered in scrapes from tree branches.
But after we showered, we went to Theta Delt ourselves to restore our energy supplies, munching on corn and meat. As we discussed plans for the evening, I thought we weren’t any different from the rest of campus after all.
And in any case, we had survived to rejoin our classmates in their revelry. We had survived, and the next difficult workout, number two of the year, would be entered with more confidence, less trepidation, and a sense of satisfaction: we did what we needed to do. As recovery, maybe I’d do an easy bike ride the next day, just like nothing had changed.