You’ve read the workouts, you probably didn’t do them. Most people who read my workouts admit to me sheepishly that they haven’t done them, while simultaneously encouraging me to write more. I get it. I read a lot of travel blogs about vacationing in Greece. It’ll take me five to ten more years of getting served clickbait, that I continue to reinforce by clicking on it, before I go to Greece, but that’s fine. Just reading about Greece and looking at pictures of all those colorful houses teetering on cliffs above a turquoise sea brings me a small dose of what I’m looking for…escape. And if my workouts offer you the running version of that, that’s cool too.
So, for my last workout of the week for The Last Mile series, this is my gift to you. I’m going to make it easy to go to Greece. Like handing you a seashell from the Mediterranean. A vial of sand you open and pour into your palm. A little slice, a little piece. A small physical ask accompanied by imagination. Because imagination is 90% of what it takes to run a fast last mile.
I could write you a hundred workouts that work on your physical speed, but you wouldn’t be able to access it when it counts without imagination. I know this because even in a field of professional runners who are all trained to have a finishing kick, only a few are mentally prepared to do it in any circumstance.
When I was a sophomore at Stanford, I won my first NCAA title in the 5000m in outdoor track. I beat the defending champion, (Kara Goucher, maybe you’ve heard of her), and took the field by surprise with a wicked last lap and a half kick. I took off so quickly with 600 meters to go that most thought I had miscounted the laps, that I must think the finish line was right around the next bend. But no, I knew how far I had to go. I had never physically done this before…this insane thing…this huge looooong surge to the finish, risking failure and a very public body breakdown. But let me tell you what I had done before.
Two weeks prior, I was doing a long run near the Stanford Campus, and reached this section on a single lane road, one of those beat up roads that was built long ago when the first cars were invented and is no longer relevant for transportation but hasn’t been broken apart yet. Maybe you know the kind. It might not even exist anymore. Well I’m running down this road with nobody on it, and my season preparation hadn’t been going that great. I picked this lonely road to have some “me time” because lately everything felt like a struggle. Nationals was two weeks away, and I was out of time to get any fitter. The time for training adjustments was over. Out on this deserted road, I had the realization that I needed to accept where I was physically, and start imagining success in the body I was in because the race was going to happen no matter what. This little buzzword I had heard about recently, but had never tried, came into my mind: visualization.
And so here I am, running on this fissured road under a canopy of ancient oak trees, and I check behind me just in case and sure enough I’m all alone. Why not give this visualization thing a try? I didn’t know what to do but it seemed pretty self-explanatory. I listened to my breath moving through my lungs until I found a rhythm; I felt my legs revolving around and around, my feet bouncing off the crackled concrete. My body would be doing exactly this tomorrow; it did exactly this last week; it will do this in five years. And it would be doing this with two laps to go at NCAA’s in the 5k final in two weeks.
This thought transported me like Bill and Ted’s phone booth on their excellent adventures and I let myself imagine my body moving across that tartan track at Hayward Field, readying myself for the precise moment I would let loose and take a risk. I picked up the pace involuntarily, not at race pace, but just a little bit quicker than I had been running, and I visualized myself on that track, feeling strong and powerful and pushing farther and farther away from the pack behind me. I pushed and pushed in my mind, looking only forward, never peeking over my shoulder, using the ground beneath me to propel each step like a steel spring—and there is the finish line coming closer as I barely hang on, the crowd a blur of motion, the roar of indecipherable sound, my hands raising up in triumph and I cross the line lifting my face so high as to drink the sky with my wide open smile.
“On your left!”
The wind of the bicycle speeding past startles me into lowering my arms into a defensive position, and the track disappears. I watch his jersey getting smaller as he moves into the middle of the road ahead of me to continue his ride. It dawns on me that my private act of imaginary victory was witnessed the moment he looks over his shoulder and shouts, “Congratulations!”
My face becomes a tomato, and I literally laughed out loud. I imagine the view from his saddle and laugh harder until I slow to nearly a crawl to catch my breath. It was embarrassing, yes, but also a gift. He now had a pretty funny story to tell. And me? Well you know how nationals turns out. I won my first of what would become five NCAA titles, all of which were made possible by my imagination.
Visualization works. You can do it in the privacy of your home, which is effective, but I think it’s more powerful to do on the run. In my now recreational running life, I still like to take moments on runs before my races to imagine the moment where I am brave, and let myself be filled with the feelings that go with it. Nowadays I don’t practice raising my arms in victory, mostly because victory isn’t on my radar, but I raise them in flight. I raise them like wings when I’m descending a windy trail where the grade feels fast and free. I seize the moment and let the good feelings transcend, by Bill and Ted-ing my way into a future race. The imagination is a powerful thing, and when you practice a feeling, you are more likely to stride confidently into it on race day.
So to conclude: the workout of the week I offer you is quite simple.
1 x a run with 1 moment of imagination.
Go out the door planning to use your imagination at some point. And when you get to that part of the trail or path where you’re feeling relaxed, whether you are alone or not, tune into your breath and the rhythm of your feet on the ground. Let the rhythm lull you away from the noise of the outside world and the obligations and the “what’s next” into the pleasure and gift of the moment. And when you feel that pleasure, your only job is to imagine yourself being just a little bit brave. To imagine yourself at your next race feeling strong and taking flight in that final mile. Feel it in your body as if it is happening—really feel it.
And then let me know what happens. Imagination: it’s one of the coolest gifts you can give yourself.
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