You Can Take the Runner off the Track, But…

I’m a creature of habit. I like everything from my daily routine to my calendar year to be “just so”. Since 2012 or so I’ve done my hair the same way, latched onto a style that my friend Lauren calls my “personal color palette” which has remained largely unchanged, I’ve eaten the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day (dinner is on an approximate five day rotation), my running routes and training regimen up until 2019 have been the same, my racing calendar has looked the same. I like it that way. Why change a good thing?

It was back in 2015 that I put thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail on my calendar for the summer of 2020. Even that disruption to my routine was very planned. Still, I continued along with my running and general life routine for the next four years. I felt happy, comfortable, and mostly fulfilled. Mostly, and not totally, because I felt like I kept hitting roadblocks in my running. I went from improving my race finish times by minutes to mere seconds. For the amount of work and emotional investment I was putting in, the external rewards were becoming fewer and farther between. I was doing everything “right” and following my training plan to a T. To be fair to myself and my coach, I was running consistently well and still had those magical race days where everything went right. In 2018, I ran personal bests in every commonly raced distance from the mile to the marathon. Most of the frustration came from not improving at the rate I wanted to.

While running gives me great pleasure in itself, there’s always been some kind of purpose to define each run. It’s an easy day, workout day, or recovery day. To prepare for a track race, I’d do my workouts on the track. When I trained for the Chicago Marathon in 2016, I practiced running long on pancake-flat Sauvie Island. In preparing for the 2019 Boston Marathon, I zipped along the rolling hills of Fairmount Blvd to prepare my legs for the undulating course. When it came to specificity in training and preparation, no stone was left unturned. 

In the summer of 2019 when I began training for the AT, I naturally turned my focus and energy toward spending long days on trails while still mixing it up on the roads. It was only then, when I broke out of my road-specific routine, that I had my greatest breakthroughs in the road marathon. First, a two minute PR of 2:57 in the Chicago Marathon in October 2019, then lopping off another six minutes for a 2:51 finish in the Houston Marathon in January 2020. Part of that might have been physical; running trails likely made me a stronger and more dynamic runner with all the hills and technical terrain. But more than that, I think shaking things up like that just helped me to stop overthinking everything. I started to adopt the mindset, “Don’t think. Just run!”

Now, post-AT, I’m setting my sights on more trail-related goals including the Promise Land 50K in April and hopefully my first 100 miler this summer. Naturally, my training is now much more specifically geared toward trails. In addition to mileage goals, I now have weekly elevation goals as well. It’s rare that I ever run on the road. My workouts have mostly been in the form of hill intervals. This trail-specific training is totally unlike anything I’ve done before. Comparing it with road running is a bit like apples and oranges.

This past week Coach K wrote a track workout into my schedule, the first of this year. The workout was 6 x 800m, 4 x 400m, 2 x 200m. At first glance that seemed like an unbelievably lengthy workout, but then I did the math and figured it wouldn’t take any longer than the hill workouts I’d been doing every week. I thought I might feel intimidated hopping onto the track again, but as I jogged my familiar warm up route up and down Terwilliger Blvd, and went through my dynamic stretching routine that I’d done hundreds of times before, I began to feel comfortable and at ease. It was a little bit like finding an old favorite sweatshirt tucked away in my closet, waiting to be worn again.

I cruised through the first 800m rep in 2:54, the next in 2:53, and continued to match that pace within one second through the remaining four reps – 2:54, 2:53, 2:53, 2:54. The 400s ranged from 80-82 and both 200s I squeaked in at 39 seconds. It felt incredibly fun and freeing to zoom around the track once again. For the first time in a while, I didn’t have to constantly worry about tripping over rocks and roots, nor did I have the added resistance of going uphill. I also wasn’t obsessing over splits, other than making an effort to be consistent. If anything, I just felt this awe and appreciation for being able to do what I had just done.

For how familiar the ritual of running a track workout was, this was the first time I’d ever arrived at that point by way of a totally different route, with mostly only trail running under my belt for the past few months. As in, everything I knew about my running and past performances has been so incredibly measurable from season to season, that I think I began running in a way that I expected myself to, like some kind of self-fulfilled prophecy. Take away the measuring stick of the road, the track, and the splits, and you might actually leave some room to surprise yourself.

After a year and a half of constantly trying new things, it felt good to revisit a familiar way of running and see it in a new light. While I feel that I’ve changed in many ways over the past year and a half, there’s a reason that I’ve held onto the good things for so long, and there are plenty of reasons not to abandon those all together. So I suppose if you find yourself in a giant rut, maybe it’s time to shake things up and try something totally out of your realm. It might help in ways you didn’t expect, and you might gain some perspective that’s impossible to see up close. Think of it as adding something new to your tool kit. It may also give you a new kind of appreciation for the things you love, which you can always return back to.


Thanks for reading. If you connected with this or felt inspired in some way, please share this with a friend and/or consider buying me a coffee!

5 responses to “You Can Take the Runner off the Track, But…”

  1. Rich Schumaker Avatar
    Rich Schumaker

    Variety is the spice of life.

    1. Liz Anjos Avatar

      Yes that’s right! I’m working on it! Haha.

      1. Rich Avatar

        You need to come back to Virginia to train. We actually have oxygen in our air unlike your mountains.

      2. Liz Anjos Avatar

        Ha!! I’ll be there for the Promise Land 50K in April! Cheers from the luscious green mossy trees in Oregon… :)

  2. Marty Douglas Avatar
    Marty Douglas

    Awsome: I ran marathons in the early 2000s and built up to them each year. I jave been off a few years as I lost my running buddy to suicide. Now you have inspired me to get back to the trail runs and mix it ip. Thank you. Limite.


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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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