What Are You Afraid Of?

I kicked off Boston Marathon training in January with an interval workout on the Portland waterfront. It was one of those perfect nights for running. Cool, dark, and windless. I used to run the waterfront at night all the time, but between starting a running club and coaching a high school cross country and track team, it’s incredibly rare if I run alone at all. I found myself a little on-edge, partly because of the looming workout, and partly out of uneasiness. Will there be any other runners or cyclists out there? Will I attract attention? Will anyone bother me? It was my first workout back since running CIM in December, so no real expectations. This made it all the more surprising when I looked down at my watch during the first rep and it read 5:17/mile pace. It was only for a minute, but still! Maybe it was the hyper awareness of my surroundings and being alone, maybe it was the anticipation and excitement of running fast, but I felt ready to charge. As I worked my way up the ladder, with each interval increasing by a minute until reaching five minutes, my pace hovered in the upper 5:00/lower 6:00 range. Once I was actually out there running, I wondered what I had even been uneasy about. It’s just another night in Portland. There are people out and street lamps up and down the river. I repeated the entire sequence again, heading back the way I came, and that time I started even faster (5:15!) and managed to average sub-6:00 for even the longest interval. It was one of the best minute-based workouts I’d ever had. I felt great!


The next week I had a four mile tempo run at half marathon effort. Another night run, this time at Hollister Trail on the Nike Campus. It was my first time running on that trail at night, and I was admittedly a little nervous. I had a headlamp, but what if I couldn’t see a root and tripped? What if there was a coyote lurking about? What if there was a creep hiding in the bushes somewhere waiting to grab me? I half-jokingly told my teammates at the nearby track to send for help if I wasn’t back in half an hour. I jogged over to the trail with the mindset of “no expectations, nothing to lose.” I clicked on my headlamp and took off at a quick, light clip. As I raced down the trail, any fear I had totally vanished. The trail was never far from the road, and I’ve run it a bajillion times–how was this any different? Who’s afraid of the dark? First mile, 6:04. Whoa! I told myself to relax and settle in. Second mile, 6:02. On the one hand, I felt like the effort was right around where it was supposed to be. On the other hand, those numbers scared me and I thought, you’ll never last. I backed off and the third mile was in 6:08. With just a mile to go, I gave it what I had and finished off with a 6:01. For the sake of comparison, my splits from the same workout early in my CIM training cycle (so, sometime in September) were 6:25, 6:25, 6:18, 6:17. To be able to hit low 6:00s at a similar effort felt unreal!

After those first two solid workouts, I thought about the possibilities of the season, and Boston, and how the reality of some of my long term goals seemed to finally be unfolding. I vowed to be unafraid of the faster paces, to lean into them, and not to back off out of fear for how bad I might feel later in the workout.

Then it all got harder. A week later had a workout alternating 10K pace and half marathon pace. I was all over the place. My 10K pace was too slow, my half pace too fast. Two weeks later, I had a six mile tempo run. I was so excited to try and nail 6:00/mile pace for that workout. If I felt relatively good for four miles, what could I accomplish if I really dug deep for six miles? In the end I averaged 6:15 and it felt terribly difficult. It was a blow after things had started so well in the beginning of the season. On the upside, it was my fastest six mile tempo ever. Progress, still.

The next week I had mile repeats (five to be exact), and for the first time this season, I performed worse than I had in the past. Last season I’d averaged 5:52 over the same workout. This time I managed 5:55. In the aftermath of that humbling workout and feeling quite disappointed in myself, I did my best remember, and accept, that the path to success is never a strictly upwards trajectory. Maybe part of hitting those great paces early in the season was that my legs were fresh. Maybe it helped that I had no real set expectations and put no pressure on the workouts. Leading up to that point, and still, the weekly mileage has accumulated, the long runs have gotten longer, the overall workload greater. I’ve been craving more and more sleep, more food, more everything. My legs were, and still are, tired.

Last week I set out for yet another tempo on Hollister trail- this time, 8 miles at half marathon effort. After two weeks of setting big expectations and being disappointed, I just ran. First mile was a little hot in 6:08, but then I settled in and found a groove. 6:14, 6:14, 6:10. The second half was where I had to come to terms with being in true discomfort. There were many times I bargained with myself or thought of quitting. I had started the workout when it was light out, but with every 1 1/2 mile loop around the trail, the sky, the trees around me, and the ground in front of me turned a shade darker. 6:17, 6:15, 6:19. The last mile was totally in the dark, and that time I had no headlamp. I searched desperately for the wooden posts marking every 400m, afraid I’d totally miss them. I picked up my feet to dodge any unseen dips or roots in my path. I allowed myself to care and push a little more, even though the pesky little voice in my head kept asking me why I bothered at all. Final mile, 6:12. Average pace, 6:13. Ever so slightly faster than two weeks before, and two whole miles longer.

At the end of the week, this past Saturday, I entered in a 3K race in an indoor track meet at Boise State University. The track was on a raised platform as if it were a stage, curved up at the sides, with absolutely nowhere hide. I felt relatively confident going into the race, though I got a pang of nerves as I was ushered to the start line and squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder with twenty other women. We clamored for place as the gun went off, elbows flying and spiked shoes perilously close to the next limbs ahead. I hung on for two or three laps, when the entire field began to put a gap on me. 12 laps remained, and I was running alone. Hundreds of people were watching. Pride called for me to step off the track and be done with it; pride also kept me going. I finished a full lap behind the other women. The stadium was painfully quiet during that final solo lap, but for the sound of my footsteps.

Following the meet, I set out to run a long, long cool down to make my goal of 20 miles total for the day. I was still marathon training, after all. I ran through little neighborhoods and winding roads up and up into the foothills shadowing the city. I discovered some trails snaking through the desert-like terrain all the way up to the snow line. I was treated to a beautiful peachy sunset and was tempted to go even farther up to a lookout, before sense told me it would be very dark soon, and being in the mountains alone at night wasn’t an awesome idea. I finished out the run through some more neighborhoods on the hillside, passing by windows of families cozy at home gathering around their dinner table or television, and felt proud of myself for putting myself out there on the track despite having a truly awful race, and for being independent enough to travel and run and explore new places on my own.

The role fear plays in my life–our lives–has especially been on my mind lately. There have been countless times in this training cycle, such as simply the act of running in the dark, or the fear of failure, or fear of embarrassment, could have gotten in the way of an opportunity to grow. I don’t know what the future holds, but for now I’ll put on a brave face, keep putting myself out there in the face of failure or disappointment, and have faith that all the hard work will get me where I want to go.


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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