35 Weeks to Go: The Oval Highway to Hell

They say you should never make big life decisions in the middle of the night.  Well, thanks to two vodka martinis and a bad case of monkey mind, several weeks ago, I found myself reading “Marathoning for Mortals” again during the wee hours.  (It was either that or clean up the 4,132 unread emails in my inbox.)

As a direct result of this madness, I had another lapse of sanity and signed up for my first full marathon — the inaugural running of the Onward Shay! Marathon in Boise this October 30. In an attempt to survive the experience, I am mostly following Jeff Galloway’s run/walk/run marathon training program.  I say “mostly” because I am only doing the “run” part of the program, for now.  When I started running, almost ten years ago, I began by using his program for a couple of years and then switched over to just running.  I plan to switch back over to run/walk/run once the heat of this summer kicks in and longer runs are the norm.

I’ve never been much of a walker mostly because I’m impatient (unless it’s on a beach with the right company and a glass of something delicious). My on-again, usually-off-again backpacking career has been more like the Bataan Death March than anything, since my pack is always too heavy and I’m never in shape for it.  But I’ve learned to occasionally incorporate walking into some of my runs, like races with big-ass hills in them.  Given that baby ducks can beat me up a steep hill when I’m running, fast walking the hills has seemed like a great alternative, to keep me from complete exhaustion and out of the sag wagon.

duckling in road

Anyway, this week in Galloway’s program, the weekly long run is replaced by what he calls the Magic Mile. At regular intervals, I’m supposed run a timed mile on a track and, over time, hopefully see improvement from the previous time.  The results, overall, are a solid predictor of a person’s half-marathon time, after multiplying the results by 1.2.  Or a full-marathon time if you multiply by 1.3.  Sounds good to me.  Who am I to question?  If you’re curious about this calculation, check out Jeff Galloway’s site:

Jeff Galloway Magic Mile Calculator

In our tiny little town of Star, northwest of Boise, Idaho, we have a 4-lane, asphalt track at the local grade school. I drive by it almost every day and think about how I really should do speed work; but then I feel guilty, drive home, open a bag of tortilla chips, and look for the corkscrew instead.  But today is different.  Today, I am going to get on the track and run my first Magic Mile.  I’m not sure I feel the magic, but I’m pretty sure I can survive a mile.  And then I’ll come home and search for the corkscrew…

In spite of signs warning us to the contrary, we take our running dogs, Henry and Claire, on the track with us. Every back yard that lines the perimeter of the schoolyard has a chain link fence and at least one manic, barking dog in it.  We soldier on.

My mission for the day is to warm up for 2.5 miles, do one more lap of walking and four acceleration-gliders, and then do my best to run a full mile with intent. It’s a vaguely cloudy, early spring day, when a light jacket feels pretty good until you’re a half-mile in, and then off it goes.  So, in other words, I have no excuses for running even more slowly than I fear I will.

In almost ten years of running in my very mediocre and unimpressive way, I can count the number of times I’ve attempted speed work or a timed mile on the fingers of one hand. It always sounds like a great idea, and I even enjoy it when I’ve done it (although the memories are dim), but for some reason, I just haven’t managed to get ‘er done.  This is probably for why I do not run like a Kenyan, even an 87-year-old Kenyan, with bad knees and pneumonia.  Ah, but today will be different.

Full of enthusiasm and caffeine, we start running on the track and the perimeter dogs start barking at the four of us. A German Shepherd starts the canine symphony, soon followed by two Killer Chihuahuas, a lazy Lab (lying down at the fence line; the official state dog of Idaho), an athletic and reasonably manic Cocker Spaniel, and then, to my surprise, a rooster.  With each lap we run, the same melody ensues in the same order, much to the frustration of the owners on this Sunday afternoon, who run outside to yell at their dogs, glare at us, and disappear inside to watch people running on fields/courts on ESPN.  (Note:  No one yelled at the rooster to shut up.)

lapping everybody on the couch

It should be noted here that I have a very low tolerance for repetitive tasks, like running in circles, eating salad, or vacuuming. Within seconds, my brain leaves my body for more interesting and exciting places like, uh, Belize:

belize 1

See? It just happened again.

So, running 10 laps on a track means that I could wind up running 8, 10 or 17, depending on how distracted I get. I still cannot fathom doing much track running for this very reason.  But years ago, my friend, Judy, trained for her first marathon exclusively by running on a 400m track.  When I asked her how she kept track of the number of laps she had run, she said she had the right number of toothpicks in one hand and after each lap, transferred one toothpick to the other hand.  May I also say that she ran a very successful first marathon, at a steady pace throughout.  She clearly is wired very differently than I am, since today I lost track between laps 1 and 2.  But it’s SO great to be running on a flat surface, for once.  I could do this forever, as long as forever didn’t last too long.

Anyway, I ran my 10-ish laps and then another ¼ mile of walking and acceleration-gliders, which I don’t quite get yet, but am sure I will someday.

Then the moment of truth had arrived: I have to run one mile, pushing it, whatever that means.

Let the overthinking and negotiations begin!

Magic Mile – Lap 1: I put our two dogs in the car; time to get serious.  I turn on my Garmin watch and head down my Oval Highway to Hell.  According to the instructions, I am not supposed to try to run as fast as I can, right out of the proverbial chute, but I am supposed to run this first lap faster than my warmup laps, so I do so.  No problemo; all systems go.  All of the perimeter dogs and the rooster cheer me on.  I take the suggested 10-second fast-walk break after the lap, muster my meager amount of running mojo, and continue on.

hamster in a wheel

Magic Mile – Lap 2: The German Shepherd  no longer considers me a threat and is lying down in the sun, which is probably what I should be doing.  I pick up the pace a bit and make eye contact with the Killer Chihuahuas.  Now, I am what you call a serious dog lover, but I’ve never met a Chihuahua that didn’t try to attack and kill me, regardless of what I was doing.  But I get it; if I looked like that, with those little legs and that yappy mouth, I’d be pissed off too.  It was just some weird genetic fluke that they didn’t become racing greyhounds; kinda like I feel.  I too “coulda been a contender,” in some parallel universe where potato chips are a superfood and single malt scotch is good for you.

The Killer Chihuahuas run along the fence line with me as I pass by their yard, fantasizing about being faster and greater than they are. Wait, no, that’s what’s in my head.  I try to channel my running idol, Deena Kastor, but realize that I shouldn’t bug her now.  I think I’ll need her during the last six miles of my first marathon instead.


We have so much in common, Deena and I; I too broke my foot and have a black running hat. (And I just have to say that I am so sorry that she wasn’t able to compete in the recent Olympic marathon trials; she is so amazing and I was really rooting for her to qualify.)

So I lumber on, thinking how good it’s going to feel when this mile is over, especially when I ditch this weird skirt/tights thing that I thought I liked when I bought it, but I was wrong.

star track 2

Magic Mile – Lap 3:  I pick up the pace a bit more, still completely ignoring my watch.  I’m not gasping for air, but I’m realizing that my legs haven’t moved like this in quite a while; it feels good.  My stride is lengthening, my arms are working harder, and I realize that the dogs are no longer barking.  The rooster is no longer crowing.  Actually, I think that they were all so terrified from watching me run that they took solace inside on the couch, with their ESPN-watching owners.

Damn it; now I’m alone with the thoughts in my head, the same thoughts that tell me that I really should exfoliate, floss my dogs’ teeth, and drink more water than wine. Oh, and that the presidential race is actually just a “reality” TV show from a different parallel universe, directed by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.  How else can you explain it?  And then, happily, I’m back in Belize.


OK, wow, I just finished the third lap. That was kind of fun, actually…

Magic Mile – Lap 4: OK, this last lap is when my Inner Olympian needs to kick in.  I am truly, madly, deeply looking forward to this lap being over.  I start negotiating with myself about how I will feel about my time for this mile.  I have no delusions of grandeur; I figure that if I come in at anything less than an 11:30 pace, I should be as happy as if I had survived hang-gliding across the Grand Canyon.

As I continue around the track and pick up the pace for the last half-lap, I am startled by the sound of my own gasping. I hear an ambulance in the distance and wonder if it’s coming for me.

If I collapse on the track and no one is there to hear it, will I still make this terrible, wheezing sound?

I can no longer feel my legs. I wonder if that is a bad thing.

belize 3

The sand on the beach feels great between my toes.

I hit the one-mile mark, stop my watch, and say one final prayer to my pathetic, running ego before looking at it: 10:00 on the nose.  That means, in theory, according to Jeff Galloway, that if I were able to run a half-marathon today, I would run it at a 12:00/mile pace.  Sounds about right, based on my past experience.  That Jeff Galloway is one smart cookie.  OR, if I were running a marathon, I would run it at a 13:00/mile pace.

I frankly am, for once, pleasantly surprised.  While I know that I could have run that mile faster than I just did, considering how little running I have done in the last year and how rarely I have pushed myself to run faster, ever, I am a little THRILLED.

Maybe there’s hope for me after all.

But joy is fleeting; I still have so many improvements and changes to make before I tackle my first marathon.  Like, for example, today’s lunch of Nilla Vanilla Wafers (left over from Gary’s pie crust) and a double-shot cappuccino probably aren’t the best things for me to eat before a run, or maybe even ever.

The good news is that I just received some dietary advice from my good friend, Sharon.  You never know where you will find important life wisdom; in addition to bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets, you can also find it on socks:


We drive home from the track and I’m all giddy about my first one-mile test, like a puppy with a new stick. As I recover for a few moments in front of my computer, I wonder…just for fun…if a 13:00/mile pace could ever be a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon.  You can check me on this, really, here it is:

BAA Qualifying Times

Well, the bad news is that no, it wouldn’t. BUT IF I can shave a mere 30 seconds off of today’s Magic Mile time (easy-peasy), my expected marathon pace would be 12:21 and that, my friend, would allow me to qualify for Boston when I am 80 years old!

Wow, now there’s some good news, right there…

Twenty years to Boston! I wonder if it’s too soon to buy my airline ticket.

Maybe you can come and cheer me on?  You don’t need to decide today.

Thanks for reading. I know how busy you are.