A Long-Awaited Running Breakthrough

I came to triathlon two years ago from a running background. Not a formal running background, but a steady diet of two marathons per year for about 13 years. I did lots of different races (except 5Ks, which I hate), but my true love was the marathon. I loved that it was a serious enough distance that you usually could not wing it, but had to put in a few months of training. I loved the way the event unfolded. You might think you were in for a rough day, but it might feel easy (relatively speaking) the whole time. Or you might think the day was going to go great, and it turns out to have some unanticipated challenges.

When I hired Sonja to coach me for Ironman Canada in March 2011, I immediately realized that the run training she was having me do was a little different from what I was used to. Namely, we were slowing down – a lot. I was used to hitting the track once a week for anything from 800s to 2-mile repeats and doing my long runs at sub-8:00 pace with a few miles at goal race pace or under at the end. That plan had seemed to work for me as I had run three marathons in 2009-2010 at 3:10 or better. Now, with Sonja as my coach, I was still going to the track on occasion, but it was for a workout of an entirely different type – usually a “MAF Test.” Coined by Dr. Philip Maffetone, “MAF” stands for “maximum aerobic function,” and refers to a heart rate roughly equivalent to 180 minus your age. We do quite a bit of training either at this heart rate or using it as a marker, i.e., recovering at “10 beats below MAF.” I’m generalizing quite a bit here, but the basic premise is that you can judge your aerobic fitness by running or cycling at this pace and gauging any improvement. The test itself involves going to the track, warming up for a couple of miles and then running a set number of miles at MAF heart rate.

The first time I did a MAF test, it was discouraging. First of all, I discovered that my heart rate tends to be freakishly high when I first start running, even when I’m trotting along at a pedestrian pace. So I learned that I usually have to run at least 2 miles or around 20 minutes to get an accurate reading. Then the pace itself was a bit of a revelation. My starting MAF pace was around 8:10. This seemed like an easy run pace for me, not a pace that I would race at. After that first test, I’m sure I sent Sonja a barrage of emails asking what it meant, how long it might take for the pace to come down, and trying to convince her that I was a freak of nature high heart rate person and that my MAF heart rate was probably higher than she thought.

We repeated this test periodically for the whole season. Usually, I was right around an 8 minute pace, but sometimes I had a “bad” test and the pace was more like 8:10-8:20. I just looked back at my Training Peaks, and my second to last MAF test before Kona was a pretty good one – I averaged 7:55 pace.

Today I got my first chance since Kona to do a MAF test on the track. It was a gorgeous day – high 50s, sunny. I came prepared with Yak Trax, but it turned out that someone had shoveled the snow off of lane 1, which was a treat. Everything was going well and when I hit the lap button on my Garmin after the first mile, I almost couldn’t believe it – 7:34!!! Had I miscounted a lap? I couldn’t believe it because the pace felt so easy, slow even. Mile 2 was a little slower – 7:40, and the subsequent miles were a few seconds slower still, but I stayed solidly under 8:00 minute pace. It was like magic, and I hope the new MAF running pace is here to stay.

Jeffco track

It was ironic that on the day of a running breakthrough, a surprise was waiting for me at home tonight. Mark had taken my collection of old race shirts that I never wore and had them made into a super-cool quilt for me! I had planned to do this with the shirts but they had been sitting in a bag on the floor of our closet for at least two years. That is typical Mark and I really love the quilt and that he took the time to have it made.

So many of the shirts on the quilt hold memories for me of special races: there’s the Frozen Ass 20-miler shirt from the year that I was the women’s champion (2001!). Right next to it is the shirt from my marathon PR race – Tucson 2009. Above Tucson is my shirt from the NYC Marathon in 2007, when I returned to the site of my first marathon back in 1996 and knocked out a 3:20, which was my goal for that day. Next to NYCM is a shirt from Hanson’s Running Store in Michigan, where we used to buy our shoes before everyone in the running world knew what Hanson’s was. Third from the top on the left is the promo shirt I designed for the Denver Marathon in 2009 when I was the coordinator of that race. We loved the way it turned out, but the Bolder Boulder people sent us a cease and desist letter claiming they had trademarked the phrase “Run With Altitude.” The rest of those shirts are probably still in a warehouse somewhere.

There are several shirts from the Georgetown to Idaho Springs Half Marathon, which is my favorite Colorado running race. There’s my recent shirt from Ironman Canada, which I deemed too ugly to wear, but love having as part of my quilt. There are a couple of Vail Half Marathon shirts, which is the only trail race I do because I love Vail Mountain in the summertime and think it’s pretty special to run to the top to enjoy the view. There’s my shirt from the Steamboat Marathon in 2006, my first marathon after the kids were born, where I ran a somewhat pedestrian time but managed to finish in third place. I’m so happy I didn’t just donate these shirts and now have a cool quilt of memories.

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