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Out There: The Numbers Game

  • By Susan Lacke
  • Published May. 24, 2012

Numbers have the ability to incite fear. Susan Lacke is currently tussling with big scary figures herself. 

To say I suck at math would be an understatement. In college, I got a D+ in Statistics, and my parents wept tears of joy – I had actually exceeded their expectations with that plus sign. I hated every second of that class. Numbers and I do not get along. At all.

Unless, of course, those numbers are related to running. If I had to take a test on converting miles to kilometers or calories needed in a 15-mile run, I would ace it with a number-two pencil and my big sexy brain. Calculators? Pssht. I don’t need no stinkin’ calculators.

Running is a numbers game. If you don’t believe me, listen to a conversation between two runners. It’s an intricate tango of minutes per mile and beats per minute. Pace, cadence, grade, elevation – they’re all part of the unique language endurance athletes speak. Calories need to be in a certain ratio of carbohydrate to protein, and so many ounces of fluid for every 15 minutes of running. A runner can look at her watch, mid-race, and quickly calculate what adjustments need to be made to hit a certain finishing time.

It’s dizzying and splendid all at once.

Those numbers can be a badge of honor. Ask a runner for his PR, and you’ll see his chest puff out as he rattles off that special set of digits. To some, they’re just numerals, but to the person who ran that 10K in 40:31, they’re bragging rights.

On the flip side of the coin, numbers have the ability to incite fear. I’m currently tussling with big scary figures myself. Though I’ve known for quite some time what my overall marathon time needs to be in order to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I’ve been keeping myself in a state of denial about the details. I don’t analyze my training data, I just trust my coach, Competitor.com guru Mario Fraioli, and his training plan to get me to where I need to be. The less I know, the less I freak out.

My strategy of denial was going well, until Coach Dude e-mailed me the other day to recap on the progress I’ve made and outline the training plan for the week. In it, he described how we’ll be increasing the length of my speed intervals to get me comfortable with being uncomfortable for long periods of time.

“After all, you’re going to be pulling an 8:12 minute/mile pace in your marathon.”

8:12. Gulp.

Subconsciously, I knew going in to this endeavor that my pace would need to be around there, but actually seeing those numbers made it real. My heart began to race and my eyes widened as they fixated on those numbers. I turned to my partner, Neil, who was sitting next to me:

“Coach Dude just told me I have to run 8:12 minute miles to qualify for Boston.”
“Yup.
“Holy shit.”
“Yup.”
“I gotta do that for 26 miles.”
“Point two.”
“What?”
“You’re running 8:12 minute miles for 26 AND .2 miles.”
“YOU’RE NOT HELPING, YOU KNOW.”
“Yup.”

I’ve run 8:12 minute miles many times in training. I’ve run much faster than that, actually. But never for 26 miles. Oops, sorry – 26.2 miles. For some, that pace isn’t scary. Not me. My brain is still stuck in 2010, when I swore the day I ran 8-minute miles would be the day pigs flew, hell froze over, and Flavor Flav won the Nobel Peace Prize.

But as time passed since receiving that e-mail from Coach Dude, something strange has happened. Though the numbers still render me quite awestruck, they’ve also become what motivates me every time I lace up my running shoes. The numbers make up a carrot dangling in front of my face, a constant companion when I hit the track or the trail.

The numbers remind me of how far I’ve come from my first 5K, when I was ecstatic to finish in 43 minutes and 4 seconds. They give me a linear view of how much I’ve improved since beginning to work with my coach, and a forecast that makes me optimistic I can sustain that 8:12 minute per mile pace for 26.2 miles.

Maybe I was wrong in my Statistics class. Those numbers? They’re not so bad after all.

****

About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons, and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). In addition to writing for Competitor, she serves as Resident Triathlete for No Meat Athlete, a website dedicated to vegetarian endurance athletes. Susan lives and trains in Phoenix, Arizona with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete boyfriend. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke

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