Wild Things, Honesty and Race Specificity

Yesterday Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, passed away. I had the pleasure of listening to most of this insightful set of interviews he did with Terry Gross as I was driving. Quite a caracter.

Last night my 3 1/2 year old and I read the book and I couldn’t help but think of what was said in another radio essay on his life, specifically his honesty in storytelling.  Where the Wild Things Are is unlike other children’s book from that time because the boy is naughty and the mosters scary.  Other books had cute ducklings that were helped across the street by smiling policemen.  My mostly angelic daughter sometimes misbehaves and when she ran across the street last night I hope that her reprimand was somewhat scary.  Thus, childhood sometimes means being sent to your room with no dinner.

I think there is connection between the honesty that Sendak brings to childhood and his children’s storys and the honesty that runners should bring to their training.

For instance, a good way to view the marathon is that you’ve got to be able to a) metabolically use fat/lipid stores as well as carbohydrate (CHO) and b) you’ve got to be able to neuromuscularly run the pace your “engine” is capable of for the full 42.2k. I think Brendan Martin spoke eloquently about this when he said the group he trains in, Hansons Brooks, believes in accumulating fatigue and then doing workouts at race pace. Simple, straight forward approach that yields fantastic marathon results.

If you’re running the marathon you need to be honest that you’re going to have to burn lipids. So if the longest run you’ve done is 17 miles, you’re deceiving yourself if you think you’ve taught your body to use lipids (and conserve CHO). But as my college track coach is fond of saying, “Never underestimate the human capacity for self deception.”

In Coach Patrick McHugh‘s description of training a 4:05 high school miler, Peter Callahan (now running at Princeton), he talks about forgoing distance runs outside in the icy Chicago winters and doing circuits indoors that are fundamentally aerobic, yet have general strength (and specific strength) exercises in the circuit to make the runners better, stronger athletes. Then, come spring, the athletes are strong and can handle a great deal of specificity. And if you read the above article closely, you’ll see they did things like model race tactics (important for middle distance runners) and ran workouts like a 1,100m time trial to get young Mr. Callahan used to how it would feel to come through 1,100m and then be ready to move.  There is an honesty in this training – that middle distance runners need to be strong, need to be able to deal with lactate and ideally, need to come through 1,100m smoothly, ready to unleash something special in the last 500m.

The biggest problem I find when people email me examples of their training is that they’re lacking work at goal race pace. There is a neuromuscular reason to do this and a metabolic reason to do this. Neuromuscularly you need to grove what ever pace it is that you need to run (and there are biomechanics associated with each goal pace as well – specifically knee angle). Metabolically, when you’re running at race pace (assuming the repetition is long enough) you work the correct system, be it creatine phosphate, anaerobic or aerobic. Again, very simple stuff, yet you’d be surprised how many people email me saying they’ve hit a plateau at 5k or 10k and then proceed to share all of the threshold runs and long runs they’re doing, yet lack work at race pace.

My final point about honesty and training is this. Do workouts that psychologically prepare you for the race. A key workout at CU for the 5k was 10 x 500m with about 50 seconds rest (more or less recovery depending on studliness…so 60 sec for me). And the great thing about it was that it felt pretty good, then not so good, then hurt like hell, just like an honestly run 5k. Cross country workouts should be long enough to cause doubt, but short enough to run fast. 22 miles is an appropriate length for a long run if you want to reach your potential in the marathon. Bryan Berryhill, former NCAA 1,500m (who, as an Oregon native, won that title at Hayward Field) liked to run a 500m at 800m pace, jog  the backstretch (i.e. 100m), then run as hard as he could the last 200m, all to simulate how an 800m race feels.

Obviously you don’t do these type of workouts every week, but if you want to reach your potential, you need to be honest about your training and train specific for the demands of your race.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KRIXL7URWLJ2LBS4IM4R3EHREA Matthew

    This might be the most … creative use of “Wild Things” yet.

  • Alex Mcdaniel00

    In the few weeks leading up to recent road 50k and 50mile races I spent a lot of time doing long runs on the track in a narrow band around goal pace (+- 10 s/mile). A friend asked me why, since that pace is aerobically easy for 10-15 miles at a time, and I told him it was to work on form. I was afraid my form (some unanticipated small muscle group) would fail before “the engine”.   I had done this for 5k-13.1 before but never “long distance” pace. I really feel like this made a HUGE difference as my races went very well.

  • http://coachjayjohnson.com CoachJay

    Great point Alex.  I have a good friend, Zeke Tiernan, who has finished second and third at the Leadville 100 (has only run it twice).  He gets in that long, long run every week or ten days…then the rest of his training is pretty tame.  Makes a lot of sense.

    Best of luck with your training.

  • http://coachjayjohnson.com CoachJay

    Hopefully everyone is familiar with the book and knows that Max, the boy, is sent to his room without dinner.  I would struggle to be that strict with our daughter.  But the flip side is we told her should couldn’t move her bedroom furniture and she did, so we removed it piece by piece last weekend – every time she moved something, we removed it from her room.  At the point her floor was bare and she had to sleep on an oversized pillow, her bed frame, mattress and night stand were all in our living room.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KRIXL7URWLJ2LBS4IM4R3EHREA Matthew

    Reminds me of when our daughter was young….

  • Felix

    Hi Mr. Johnson, whould you do workouts after early season races with your elite athletes? I’ve seen salazars group doing this on some videos at flotrack. Any opinion?

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