Neither our budgets nor our freewheeling approach to training have ever led us to a serious search for a running coach. We have no running partners set on speed dial. We have never been affiliated with a running club long enough to have sat for a club picture. And yet we frequently enjoy the motivational benefit of having a coach, partners and club membership. And it comes without the guilt of accountability, and at no greater cost than our standard gym membership. As with so much that is good in life, we stumble on our coaches, partners and ragtag organization of runners by accident; like the lonely hearts of the world, we just kind of find each other. More than anything, it’s Old Man Winter, that unlovable curmudgeon, who brings us together under the same roof at more-or-less the same time. We are the children of the indoor track, united by a parallel disdain for winter’s murky cold and the hypnotic monotony of the treadmill. We comprise a shifting roster. Participants are continually joining and leaving our ranks, coming without introduction, and going without fanfare. Some runners we see but once. Others we see more frequently than we do your own siblings. All are welcome. All, that is, except those who come in twos and threes and insist on walking, jogging or running abreast; and those who run opposite the posted track direction. These etiquette offenders create more traffic hazards than CDOT at rush hour.
Finding a gym with an indoor track wasn’t easy; most gyms opt to use their outside perimeters in the usual way: it’s here the mats are leaned and the televisions and mirrors hung. We like mirrors: they tell—more candidly than any partner ever did—what is right and what is wrong with our running form. Their advice comes at less cost than any coach’s ever did.
Once we had painstakingly scouted out our gym with an indoor track, tapping into our competitive spirit was relatively easy. Running is never so primal as in those instances when we give chase to a fellow runner—in spite of our counter-prevailing urge to just take it easy. In those moments we are the hound pursuing the rabbit, even if that rabbit regards us with steely indifference. And we should not feel ashamed for being goaded on by something as insignificant as another’s velocity; nothing could be more natural –and more healthy. Left to our own solitary devices, even the best of us tends to underperform; the brightest flame is snuffed out in a vacuum.
No training comes nearer to simulating the conditions of a race than the training that affords a little—or a lot of—racing. We find that by chance we are the fleetest runner on the track tonight. But are we fast enough to lap the next fastest runner before she or we have come to the end of our run? The next night we find, again by random chance, that we are the slowest runner on the track. But are we so dawdling tonight that we can’t hold off the approaching runner for the bell lap of our run? The next night, we are in the fourth mile of our easy run, and some one-and-done lap sprinter tears past us. Do we try to hang with him? Here’s the perfect chance to try out that finishing kick we’ll surely need once spring racing begins.
We indoor track runners are keen on patterns. On this night, every two minutes or so, between weight-lifting sets, a young man enters the track and runs two laps at a pace that just happens to approximate our 5k race pace. Could there be a better invitation to perform that interval work we’ve been putting off? Though the sledding is tough and we hadn’t planned on speedwork tonight, we find that we are disappointed when our man fails to appear for his—or shall we say our—seventh workbout? It’s then we realize that we are running—intervals, no less—for the love of it and not slogging through the motions.
Not all who take to the indoor track are knowing actors in our speed play. Some become—as impersonal as it sounds—mere scenery by which we measure the slope of our training curve. We notice that this month we lapped the tall guy 5 times in an hour, where last month we were only able to lap him 3 times. We are pretty sure he has no idea that he has buoyed our confidence as a straggling standard of comparison. In fact, we prefer that he be oblivious (for fear our gain would be his loss). We may be sure that we have unwittingly boosted another’s assuredness by the same ungainly method. But on certain nights, our little acts of synergism are openly acknowledged—even celebrated—through knowing looks, good natured jeers, self-effacing remarks or mock gloating at the water fountain.
Longer, milder days herald a return to outdoor running. And with as little ceremony as befits the indoor track (that is to say, none), we bid farewell to brothers and sisters—coaches and training partners—whose names we never even knew.