At first glance, Downward Ladders seems like one of the easier track workouts Coach Kate could throw out to us. After all, the first repeat is the longest. We start at 1200 meters and run our way down to 400 meters, just once around the track, with 200 meter recoveries. But the evil twist in the project, the thing that really makes your legs and lungs burn, is that each interval is done at an ever-faster speed. So not only is your distance dropping, but so is your pace, as your body moves toward exhaustion. What a tease! If ever you were looking for a workout that would clear your mind of everything but the will to push forward just so it would all be over, Downward Ladders is it.
I have mentioned before, but not in a long while, how much I love that track on the East River. The symmetry of the orange oval is pleasing enough. Combine the scenic views of the river, turf and other runners with the attentive presence of New York City on the other side of the bleachers, ready to welcome us back to its mean streets once we’re done testing our limits –well, then it’s nearly as good as it can get.
Running still has the power to awe me. By that I mean: my own ability to gain fitness and speed while enduring pain never ceases to surprise me. Perhaps this is why I enjoy Wednesday night speed sessions so much–track workouts are further proof that I am a real runner. I get to use words like “intervals” and “splits” in proper context. I get to do the thing I love best in its most traditional setting, even though I never ran track as a student. Track workouts are purifying. It takes all of my mind’s concentration and body’s effort to maintain a proper pace, right on the edge between all-out and just-a-little-more. No matter what else I have going on in my life–good or bad–it all gets set aside for the half hour that I am hauling ass around that track. And let’s not forget that track workouts are galvanizing. When I am done, I feel tougher, more confident in my ability to meet the challenge of my next race, and more committed to continuing on with my training. Add in a little poetic fairy dust (running on the track in the dark feels like flying because I can’t really see where my feet are landing; I get so breathless that the laps begin to swirl together; every now and then I reel in someone from my pace group, grin) and a track workout can turn around a bad day, a bad week, a bad month and set it back on the right, well, track!
I queued up with the 8-minute-per-mile pace group (based on 5k pace), and quickly appreciated the carefully calibrated speeds the pacer was taking us through. Elemental, involuntary functions like my breathing, the beating of my heart, and even the blinking of my eyes become keenly felt and monitored. The arch of my back, tuck of my chin, swing of my arms, cast of my shoulders, and strike of my soles are considered, adjusted, and adjusted again. I imagine myself in my mind’s eye; I imagine other runners (elites and friends alike) keeping pace next to me.
My splits end up like this (with 200m recoveries, not listed):
Distance / Pace
1200 / 8:02
1000 / 8:00
800 / 7:58
600 / 7:10
400 / 6:49
When I looked at these times afterwards, I understood why the last two intervals hurt so damn much. (Plus, I had just put myself through a similarly punishing speed “workout” at the Continental Fifth Avenue Mile just 3 days before.) But, as John Mellencamp says, it hurt so good: I wasn’t complaining. Total mileage for the evening, including the roundtrip trot between Paragon Sports and the track: 6.38.