Finding Our Tolerance Level

12/22/2016 - 16:07

By Micah Ward
Fernandina, Florida

ward.jpgOne of my favorite quotes comes from the legendary ultrarunner and coach David Horton: “Find the level of intolerance you can tolerate, and stay there.” Now I am the first to admit that I do not stay at that level on every run. I don’t even look for it very often. The vast majority of my runs are slow easy trots down the beach or along a bicycle trail under the shade of enormous Live Oak trees. I do no regular speed workouts although I am occasionally afflicted with a little fartlek. No, I save that level of intolerance for race day.

On race day I expect to hurt and I go ahead and embrace it. Before you get the wrong impression that I am a really fast racer let me explain something. I run hard on race day but I do not run very fast. Many years ago I read that most runners race 60-80 seconds per mile faster than their average training pace and over the years I have found that to be true in my racing. In my current world that means that I comfortably train at an average pace of around 10:15 a mile. Then I race the local 5K of the week a little below or above 9:00 a mile. If I go a long way back in my old training logs I can find those days when I trained around 7:30 pace and raced 5K at 6:00 pace. So there is definitely a correlation and it has held pretty consistent over the years.

Some may scoff at the idea of intolerance for a short race like a 5K but I beg to differ. If you run two miles significantly faster than your training pace then it becomes pretty intolerable to hold that faster pace for the third mile. But that is the idea. We will achieve fast times in races by finding that level of intolerance and then holding on until the finish. It is something akin to the historic quote from Steve Prefontaine, “Each time you do less than your best, you sacrifice the gift.

As I have pointed out, I’m not very gifted when it comes to running fast. But I do have the gift of being able to run period. If you doubt that being able to run is a gift then you probably haven’t been injured for any length of time. So when I step up to the starting line my key to not sacrificing the gift is to find Horton’s suggested level of intolerance. Some people run races just for the social aspect and I have been one of those people on some occasions. But this isn’t an article about social racing. This is about those times when I still want to let it all hang out and run, what for me is fast and see if there might be an age group medal waiting at the finish line.

Of course, sometimes that level of intolerance has nothing to do with speed. Sometimes it has to do with just completing the distance. I have run a few marathons and ultramarathons. Let me correct that last statement. I have run, with numerous walk breaks, a few marathons and ultramarathons. I found my level of intolerance at a walking pace on the trails of the Long Cane 50K in South Carolina. It was my own fault, I didn’t train enough and I went out too fast. Yes, I was double dumb. But that was my first time past the marathon distance and not only had I reached my level of intolerance; I had found the point Ann Trason described when she said, “It only hurts up to a certain point. Then it doesn’t get any worse.”

Reaching that level of intolerance hurts. But there is also something very magical when you do so. When I was out there in the last few miles of the Long Cane, or when I am in the last mile of a hard run 5K or 10K I get lost. Not physically lost but mentally lost. Alright, my wife says I get to the same place without running but that’s a different article. When you reach that level of intolerance something happens. You forget about all your day to day worries and stresses.

In the late stages of a marathon or a 50K I have no energy to think about mortgages, retirement accounts, car payments or the current state of my beloved Atlanta Braves. The same holds true when trying to hold a faster than normal pace in any race from 5K to half marathon. Reaching your maximum sustainable level of intolerance takes you to a place where the only thing you can concentrate on is holding your pace or in some races, just taking the next step. Some people avoid that type of hurt, but I say we should pursue it.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded by text, tweet, phone call and email; where we are pulled into a 24 hour news cycle and bad news seems to assault us on a daily basis, we may just need a dose of physical intolerance to save our sanity.

I have a book that was autographed by ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek. He wrote, “Never stop exploring the edge, that’s where the magic happens.” You could be running a marathon or an ultramarathon or maybe it is the local 5K of the week. But it isn’t really the distance that matters. What matters is that we get out there on that edge, to that last place where the intolerance can be tolerated and see what magic we find.

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