Episode Five: Save the Fire for Race Day
In high school, Sarah trained out of the halls of Fredericton High. Shoelaces knotted tight, she would run intervals across Main Street’s scuffed linoleum. Back and forth down the cement tunnel; back and forth beneath the dim fluorescent lights. She’d rest, count down the watch, and launch into another repeat. Her heart rate would shoot up, her legs would grow heavy, and her head would wobble faint. When she felt tired, too tired to keep going, she reminded herself of the scholarship dream. She would think of representing an NCAA school, of racing under hot white lights before a dark and cheering crowd. She would also think of being that tenacious, tough, workhorse girl.
In the halls of Fredericton High she would bite down and throw herself into one more interval.
In the brightly lit and equipment-crammed research lab, I bit onto what looked like a snorkel and tucked a heartrate strap under my sports bra. Wendy secured the almost-snorkel to plastic halo, which dug into the crown of my head. She smoothed a piece of tape over the bridge of my nose and clamped a pincer to flatten my nostrils. No air could escape; I breathed out hard and the force shot back through the tube.
Trent snapped on a pair of rubber gloves and, jaunting a shoulder jig, he swabbed the pad of my finger and pricked the skin. A tiny bead of blood rose between the fibers of derma, and he collected it onto something that resembled the end of a plastic gelato spoon. He plugged the non-spoon into what looked like a Gameboy. Numbers flashed on the screen.
“You’re set.” He grinned at me. “Ready for your first sub-max Vo2?”
Last week, Sarah and I underwent a sort of “spring testing” at PISE. Over the course of a day, each member of our training group breathed into tubes while running on treadmills that gradually increased in speed. The WestHub tests their athletes at several key points in the year; they obtain benchmarks for our physical profiles so that they can track progress and stages of development.
I hopped on my toes, buzzing like Steve Rogers right before he received the experimental serum. I stepped onto the treadmill. Wendy plugged a clear hose to the end of my non-snorkel. I nodded once from the jaw. The treadmill began to whirr.
As the Director of Innovation and Research at the Canadian Sport Institute (CSI), Dr. Trent Stellingwerff researches the front lines of athletic physiology. Wendy Pethick works behind the scenes at PISE’s Performance Lab, as an Exercise Physiologist and Lab Coordinator. Ever at since Sarah and I joined the WestHub, the expertise and wisdom of these two passionate individuals improved the precision of our training, and by extension, our performance on the track.
The Vo2 Max test measures the maximum amount of oxygen that the body can deliver to working muscles. Combined with blood lactate samples — see the bloody finger and the lactate analyzer—Trent and Wendy would use the day’s results to inform the coaching staff of each athlete’s physiological profile. Knowing an athlete’s aerobic threshold, their max heart rate, and their body’s ability to process lactate, serves to illuminate their specific training zones. This knowledge allows a coach to make well-educated decisions when planning each individual’s workout schedule.
As teenagers, Sarah and I dreamt of this sort of life. When you don translucent and pinchy headgear, breathe into a tube, and sweat in the presence of sport physiology geniuses, you kinda of feel like a superhero. That, or someone ferocious and hardened, someone resolute and indomitable. As at runners, we like to think of ourselves as someone who knows how to work, as people who push themselves further than mere mortals. Our chosen lifestyle allows us to assume this easy and proud identity.
I ran for three minutes, then hopped to the side and produced my finger for pricking. Trent increased the treadmill’s speed. Drool had coagulated on the edges of the tube, and I wiped it away and hopped back on. Run, hop, prick, hop, run…with the increasing difficulty I settled into the floating groove of rhythm and work. Shoulder blades smooth, breathing steady, legs strong. Today’s results were going to be great.
“That’s it, you’re done.” Trent pressed stop on the treadmill.
“Ahh reabbee bot da eyererrr!” I tried to speak over the plastic in my mouth.
Apparently, Trent speaks tube-ish, and understood me when I said I’m really not that tired!
“Your blood lactate spiked past 4mmol/L. That’s enough to get an idea of your thresholds.”
I stared at Trent while the treadmill slowed and groaned to a stop. That was it?
When Sarah and I were teenagers, the blurry line between working hard and working too much did not exist. We would have done anything to achieve the fragile possibilities of athletic success. In our youth we ran all of our workouts as fast as possible, as far as possible. Brainwave stars and the mutated light of exhaustion became a familiar lens through which we peered into the world. Sometimes we trained so vigorously that we started a race fatigued. And though we both understand that overtraining gets one nowhere, the desire to constantly dig deep has never fully evaporated.
Barefoot, I loped down the concrete hall to the ReGen room. Sarah sat on the edge of the hot tub, her legs submerged to mid-calf. She flipped through her textbook.
“I didn’t get to go hard!” I threw up my arms and exclaimed in her general direction, then squirreled up on the edge of the cold tub.
“You weren’t supposed to.” She made a face at me, then returned her eyes to the page. “They got everything they needed.”
“Well, that’s no fun.” I said.
“Saaarry.” She flipped the page and bit into an apple. “Wanna come jog for thirty this afternoon?”
Once, Sarah and I believed that working hard at all opportunities was the single most important pillar in achieving our dreams. Now that we’re older and can borrow the wisdom of others, we know that working smart is equally important. In part, training intelligently involves figuring out how our bodies function. With our current situation, we gratefully rely on a band of experts to tell which systems, paces, and thresholds we must improve.
Training intelligently also means respecting the purpose (and limits) of the task at hand. This mandates that we let go of our forcible ideals, that we abandon our egos. If we want to work smart, we can no longer take satisfaction in being a girl who grinds her body to the ground. While the headgear, the monitor, and the finger prick make us feel like superheroes, there’s no need to overwork the body in training.
As a wise woman once said, you gotta save the fire for race day 😉
Thanks for reading!
The Adventures of Sarah and Grace
We’re Sarah and Grace, two New Brunswick gals who train, race, and live as elite middle distance runners. After our collegiate careers, we knew we weren’t quite finished with sport — so, we joined Athletics Canada’s West Hub training centre and launched ourselves into our passion!
Now, we float through Victoria’s lush rainforests and stride across grey sand beaches. From this base, we get to travel to secluded corners of the world and meet boatloads of incredible people. We both started running as kids and competed in local New Brunswick races; then, when we got older, we became a part of ANB’s High Performance Program. Even though our dreams have now carried us away, the picture province of NB never stops feeling like home.
Sometimes workouts gut us, injuries temporarily sideline us, and bad races leave us discouraged, but those moments occupy only a small portion of this life. Our phenomenal coach, Heather Hennigar, guides and inspires us to find joy in the day-by-day process. We’ve forged close relationships with our teammates, and each workout means another opportunity to tease and goof off.
Every day, we train to become the best athletes we can—but, more than that, we aspire to lead lives full of love, laughter, and adventure. Often, we’re asked about our training schedule, our races, or what it takes to try and be the best. Well, we’re still trying to figure it out. But, we’ve committed ourselves to one howling journey, and we can’t wait to see where the currents take us. We’d love to show you an inside look into our intense, quirky, rambunctious, draining, animating, dopey, and soul-filling lives. Thank you for reading along!