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“My entire persona is influenced by my running
program, I must remain constantly in training. Otherwise, the sedentary life
will inexorably reduce my mental and emotional well-being.”
--From George Sheehan’s last essay on running, Runner’s World, December 2003
This article just about didn’t get off the ground.
I was trying to make a new PR in the 1000-meter row and almost let failure get
the best of me. I rarely get down on myself, but I was failing time after time.
I always strive to improve. As I explained in Challenge
Yourself At Any Age,
that’s what keeps me motivated. It’s not easy after more than 50 years of
training. But that makes success all the more rewarding.
As I’ve written many times before, success breeds
success. Mike Tymn, a former masters editor for Runner’s
World and four-time national masters champion, said it perfectly: “As long as the person can continue to improve, he remains
motivated.” The strength of your training motivation depends on your past
success. If your workouts are filled with failure, you’ll eventually get
disgusted and quit. On the other hand, if you continually achieve your training
goals, you reinforce the training habit.
That’s easier said than done, of course, especially
after you’ve been training for a long time. Obviously, wise goal setting is
key. Those that keep training year after year learn that positive feedback comes
in many forms.
Three-time Mr. Olympia physique champion Frank Zane
starts training all over again each year. After winning the Olympia, he said he
“rolled around in the gutter for a while” (for him, that meant skipping a
workout or two and having a
glass of wine and a slice of pizza) and then started over again like a beginner.
Lance Armstrong does much the same thing preparing for the Tour de France. They
can’t stay in peak form all the time. It’s impossible.
Dr. George Sheehan, in his last essay on running,
published in Runner’s World
on the tenth anniversary of his death, as always said it flawlessly:
“Excellence…is a momentary phenomenon, a rare conjunction of body, mind, and
spirit at one’s peak. Should I come to that peak, I cannot stay there. Like
Sisyphus, I must start…at the bottom and work back up to the top. And then
beyond that peak to another and yet another.”
Fortunately, each step back to peak form provides
positive feedback. Joy is found in achieving peak condition, but also in the
process of getting there. Again, George Sheehan said it best:
“Happiness, we come to discover, is found in the pursuit of
When I have my head on straight, I do the same thing
in preparing to compete with my peers from around the world in indoor rowing.
Problem is, I don’t always have my head on straight.
I usually post my times on the Concept 2 ranking
system as the season unfolds and I move toward peak condition. I don’t wait
until I’ve eclipsed my time for the previous year. That would deny me positive
feedback along the way. It would set me up for major disappointment if for some
reason I don’t improve from year to year.
For example, my best 500-meter time in 2002 was
1:39.6. In 2003, my first post was a rather modest 1:43.6. As the season went
along, I made--and happily posted--times of 1:42.7, 1:41.2, then a personal best
of 1:39.2--and finally 1:38.4 three days before the season ended in April.
It was a good year. I was happy and optimistic about
In the 2004 season (started May 1, 2003), I posted 1000-meter
times for the first time. (I thought it would help me do a faster 500-meter time, and it was a new
challenge.) As in the case of my 500-meter times, I started slowly (3:47.5) and
built to a peak over the course of the season, doing 3:44.8, 3:41.6 and finally
3:41.1 (see article 123).
I decided to start the 2005 season, which began May 1,
2004, with a new 1000-meter PR. My time for 800 meters suggested I was ready.
I failed no less than 11 times. Every time, I was on
record pace (for me) at the halfway point--and usually feeling pretty
strong--but I couldn’t seem to make myself complete the last 400 meters. I
just didn’t want to endure the discomfort that comes at the end of any PR
attempt. Failure was becoming a habit.
I tried everything. I rested more, and less. I
visualized myself executing every 100-meter split perfectly. I had Carol cheer
me on. I even dug out my lucky tank top, the one I wore when doing my best
2500-meter time more than a decade ago. Nothing worked.
Doing my best 2500-meter row, in my lucky tank top,
given me by a friend from northern New Mexico. Photo by Carol Bass
I was beginning to feel pretty bad about my rowing,
and myself. Something had to be done. But what?
The first change that got me over the hump was a
happy coincidence—and a no-brainer. I checked the Concept 2 ranking and found
that the first-place time for 1000 meters was six seconds slower than my best
the previous year. It was early in the season, of course, and the best rowers
had not posted times. I could be first, at least temporarily, without recording
a personal best. Like last year, I could start slowly and build to a peak over
That’s what I decided to do.
The second change was more subtle and no so obvious. I’d been trying to maintain a steady, fast pace the entire distance. In training it worked perfectly--for 800 meters. I didn’t have to worry about the dreaded last 200 meters. That, of course, was the impasse.
The fact that I was able to maintain a pace for 800
meters faster than needed for a personal record at 1000 showed that
my problem was largely psychological. I needed something to bolster my resolve at
the 500-600-meter point, where I was pulling the plug. The solution was simple,
I decided to change the pace every 200 meters,
inserting a planned slowdown at the critical point. I slowed down at 200 meters
and again at 400, and picked up the pace again at 600 and 800 meters. The
revised plan did two things:
It allowed me to marshal my energy and determination at the point where I was most
tempted to stop, and it forced me to stay in the moment. It made me focus on
pace changes rather than the discomfort that was sure to come.
It worked beautifully. In rapid succession, over four
days, I finished the 1000 meters at a good clip three times: 3: 42.4, 3:41.3 and a personal best 3:40.1.
Rocket science? Hardly, but it does show that common sense works in getting over training hurdles, just as it does in most things.
Progress and well-being
The only fly in the ointment was a guy from
California posted a terrific time--better than
the best time posted last season--denying me a
temporary first place. No sweat. I’m back on
the road to progress.
Carol will tell that my mood went from good to great.
I try never to leave the gym feeling really down, and I almost never do. I
salvaged my botched 1000-meter attempts by doing shorter pieces or something
It’s amazing how the breakthrough at 1000
meters buoyed my spirits. I don’t flatter myself by comparisons to George
Sheehan, who I consider the greatest philosopher of fitness. Nevertheless, like Sheehan, my mental and emotional well-being is
strongly influenced by my training. When things go well in the gym, the sun
shines brighter outside. (See RIPPED 2,
Part Four, “Training
Training success comes in many forms, and it is sweet.
Photo by Tina Gallasch
After finally breaking through to a new PR at 1000 meters, needing a break, I turned to longer distances, making new record times (for me) at 1500 and 2000 meters. I'd never rowed these distances for time before, so the bar was fairly low. I also improved my 500-meter time for the the 2005 season, but was still a fraction away from my all-time best. Then I returned to the 1000 meter distance, where (for me) the bar was considerably higher.
It's no surprise that the old demons returned. I again found myself in delicate negotiations with myself. My survival instincts said, "Stop this madness before you kill yourself." My ego replied: "I'm stronger now and a number of guys my age and weight (rowing specialists) have done substantially better than my time. I want to challenge myself. I know I can do better. Plus, I promise not to do anything foolish." Turns out that I won, but the struggle--with myself--was brutal every time I strapped into the rower.
I continued training (weights and rowing), and experimenting to find a split pattern that worked physically--and psychologically. Over several weeks, I recorded the following 1000-meter times (my best was 3:40.1): 3:41.3, 3:40.5, 3:42.3, 3:41.9, 3:41.2, 3:40.4, and finally broke under 3:40, by one-tenth of a second (3:39.9). Sounds crazy, but that was a big deal. I was over the hump, and felt sure I could do better--and I did. Nine days later, I did 3:39.8, and three days after that, 3:38.9--a decisive break under the 3:40.0 barrier. For me, it was akin to Bannister running the 4-minute mile. (See article 136.)
How sweet it is! I know I can do better.
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