Ah yes, the long run. The anchor of any distance runner’s training program. It’s the essential component of toughening up the body to get ready for half marathons, marathons and ultras. Some people love them, others endure them.
I’ll be honest with you, in the heat of summer it’s kind of miserable. Yet at the same time, memorable. Here’s a breakdown of what it’s like for me…
DAY BEFORE: I’ve mapped out my route. On tap for the day is 15 miles, which means getting pretty inventive in terms of route selection. So I get on the computer and start calculating distances. What I came up with is a run from downtown Tulsa, going south along the east bank of the Arkansas River. I’d then cross a quarter-mile pedestrian bridge to a paved trail on the west bank, continue south to Turkey Mountain, do a near-mile loop on a dirt trail at Turkey Mountain, then retrace my path back north to downtown. It sounds nifty in theory. Until I check the forecast. The high for the day was predicted at 99 degrees. Knowing this means I have to get up earlier than normal just to make sure I don’t boil my brains at the end of this. I don’t get much sleep that night.
NEXT MORNING: The alarm on my phone sounds. I get up about two or three hours earlier than usual on a Saturday. I’ve been spoiled by what had been a mild summer to that point, but real Oklahoma summer temps are back. To beat the heat, you’ve gotta start early.
Breakfast comes first: Cereal, skim milk, whey protein, blueberries and strawberries with a small glass of orange juice. Just the right mix of high calories, high carbs and high protein to prime the pump, so to speak. I’ll need ’em all.
I snag my CamelBak, fill it with water and stuff a Rice Krispies treat inside. Put on my running clothes (tight shirt to prevent nipple chafing). Then I do a series of exercises to get my back, feet and ankles ready.
My strategy is to stop at every drinking fountain along the way, and drink from my pack in the “dry” stretches. This is nothing like past longer races or training runs in 40- or 50-degree temps. It’s going to be slow, and the heat is going to be the boss. I plan accordingly.
EARLY GOING: I dreaded the run because I knew what was coming. But as I leave the gym, I’m mentally ready, even a bit stoked. I keep my pace slow and steady — no reason to blow myself out in the beginning. The downtown skyscrapers fall away, replaced by eclectic older neighborhoods, and then, I hit Riverside Drive, the road that runs along the Arkansas River’s east bank. South I go, and there are plenty of runners, walkers and cyclists out. It’s 78 degrees and still pretty reasonable. About 2.5 miles in, the pedestrian bridge shows up. I drink, then cross — running across wooden planks is SOOO nice compared to pavement. Once I’m across, a new paved trail opens up, right under the shadow of a huge power plant. I’m 3 miles in, and plenty left to go. But all is well.
THE WEST BANK, PART 1: I’m one of those people who does a little people watching when I run, which is why I really dig running downtown. You see all kinds — lawyers, hipsters, skateboard punks, homeless dudes. On the west bank trail, most of the people there are cyclists. “On your left!” is a phrase I hear often as cyclists zoom up from behind me. I give a slight wave just to let them know I heard them.
I gotta give Tulsans credit for creative use of space. Wedged between that power plant and a sewage treatment facility (we call it “The Rose Garden”) is a large soccer complex. There must be at least a dozen fields crammed in there, and on this day all of them are filled with teams varying in age and skill-level. This is the distraction I need as I’m plodding along, checking out the action of athletes and spectators. I’m not sure what it is, but I get energized when I’m out running and there are other people outside getting busy in their chosen sport or activity. This bit of people-watching carries through to my next drink station. It’s still not hot, but it’s getting there.
Soccer fields behind me, it doesn’t take long to roll up on the northern campus of the Rose Garden. The smell ain’t pretty, but it’s not as bad as you would think — certainly not enough to make me gag or anything like that. By this time, the Interstate-44 bridge is in sight, meaning I’m about 5 miles in. To my right is an oddly placed and run-down strip mall and a trailer park called “Cherry Hills.” Being within a stone’s throw of the treatment plant, I can tell you there’s nothing cherry about it. “Desperate Estates” might be more apropos.
Another drink stop. And Turkey Mountain is dead ahead, vine-covered cliffs that mark the northern tip of what is really just a long, wooded ridge along the riverbank. Yeah, we Tulsans know it’s not technically a “mountain.” No, we don’t care. Go run or ride its trails sometime, and trust me — you’ll have a healthy respect for the challenge of this place.
Anyway, Turkey Mountain is on my right, covered in trees and underbrush. To my left, for a few hundred yards or so, the southern half of the Rose Garden. Along the way, a steady stream of cyclists. A couple of runners. A dude on a wheeled elliptical, and he’s haulin’.
The trees are providing some shade, and that’s a good thing — the temps are in the upper 80s now. I sip more water and keep plugging. Almost halfway there.
It’s maybe a half-mile past some old railroad tracks that the path veers sharply west, and I begin a steep climb up. Just what you want at 7 miles in, and 8 more to go. Then to my left, my turnoff for a 0.8-mile trail loop. I make the turn, and my feet and legs thank me for the kinder surface of the dirt singletrack now underneath. This is different running, dodging rocks and roots, and it’s still a gradual climb. But in running terms, it’s just much more fun. Soon it ends at the Turkey Mountain trailhead parking lot.
This is a good place to take a break. I eat a little, drink up and refill my water bottle. There’s a spigot with a showerhead at the trailhead, so I fire that sucker up and hose down my head and upper body. Wring out my socks from all the sweat. Drink more.
A couple of women in their 30s are there, and we strike up some small talk. One is training for a half-Ironman. The other is trying to knock off the full. Way more rad than me. Better yet for them, they’re done — 14 miles in the books. I tell them “Good job!” and head back down the hill.
Eight miles done. Seven to go. It’s 90 degrees.
WEST BANK, PART 2: The downhill slope away from the trailhead parking lot is steep, and you have to be careful — cyclists bomb down that hill pretty quick, and with sharp turns going back north they only have so much wiggle room. But I got out of that OK and stuck to plodding ahead, stopping at the railroad tracks to drink again.
By now, every slight uphill is a chore. It’s harder to keep my breathing rate and heart rate down, and really, it has little to do with what I’m doing. The sun is running the show now and I have to obey its rules.
I slowly trudge past the Rose Garden, then refill my water bottle again at the next water fountain. Yep, I’d already drained its 24 ounces in not quite two miles. Oh, and my stomach tells me it’s already hungry again. Fuel fail.
There is a portion of the path that has a bridge going over Mooser Creek, a small stream that dumps into the Arkansas. I see people going down here to fish a lot, and I have to wonder what little bugs might be in the fish that are patrolling the waters so close to the Rose Garden. I also wonder if these fish are important protein sources for the folks living in the Not-So-Cherry Hills trailer park. On my latest jaunt I saw a fella and his young daughter walking away from the Mooser Creek inlet with a couple of fish on the stringer. I guess fish was on the menu that night.
By now there isn’t a lot of bounce to my step. Mr. Sun has taken possession of that. Those water stops can’t come soon enough.
Most of those soccer games are over, too. A few are still being contested, but the big crowds that were there earlier are long gone now.
I’m still seeing plenty of cyclists, but fewer runners. I’m sure cycling in the heat has its own challenges but I have to think the breeze you get at bicycle speeds helps cool things down. And aside from getting a crick in your neck/back and saddle soreness, the pounding from running has to be more fatiguing. Maybe I’m wrong. Cyclists, feel free to set me straight. I don’t mind correction. But come on…
Seeing the power plant means the pedestrian bridge and its crossing to the east bank is near. And, of course, another water stop. And just a few more miles to go.
HOME STRETCH: Back on the east bank of the river, there are more people, including runners. They all look so much fresher than me. And faster. I keep telling myself that they’re all just out on little 3-milers, and if they’d already had 13 under their belt, well, they’d be as pathetically slow as me. Hey, find motivation wherever you can, right?
I eventually make it up to a parking area by a riverside restaurant called the Blue Rose Cafe. There’s a water stop here, too (thank God!), but this is also where the roughest part of the run begins. Downtown Tulsa is on the crest of a hill, and it is quite literally all uphill from here.
It’s 93 degrees.
“Hey, good lookin!” a female voice calls out from an SUV. Surely whoever is in that car is blind or delusional. I take a closer look and realize it’s my friend Dina and her husband BJ. I shuffle over to say hey.
“How far you going?” she asks.
“Fifteen. But man, I’m SOOO done.”
“You need a ride?” she offers.
“Nah, I gotta get this done.”
We chit-chat a little more, and then I’m off. I decide to run as hard as I can uphill on 18th Street toward Cheyenne, and my legs just say “No.” Somehow I see an image of Dikembe Mutumbo wagging his finger at me. “No, no, no! Not in my house!”
The shuffle continues. The sun, that nuclear-powered jerk 93 million miles away, wants me to quit. So does the uphill grind. And the pavement. And everyone in the world. They all hate me right now. Heck, I don’t like myself at that moment. I keep questioning myself, why I do this every week, how not-fun these long runs are, hoping that they’ll become easier when it gets cooler (though the miles will increase), and doubting if I can actually achieve the lofty goals I’ve set for myself this fall. I have no answer to any of this except to keep moving forward.
Block by block, the route shortens. A half mile. A quarter mile. A couple of blocks. And then, in front of my gym, it’s over. Bent over, hands on knees, dripping wet, slimy sweat on my legs. Everything from the waist down hurts. But it’s over. Weekend long run complete. Sunday is coming, that blessed day of rest.
POST RUN: It’s here the ritual begins, and quite honestly, I love every bit of it. I know I absolutely cannot sit down. First, because I’m a sweaty, slimy mess. But if I sit too long, well, “a body a rest tends to stay at rest.” It will hurt too much to get up to do anything, and believe me, I have things I need to do.
Back at home, I drink some more water. I make a smoothie, chock full of awesome recovery food, protein, carbs and other goodies. I slam that down. Off go the workout clothes, into the shower. Still on my feet, mind you.
Once fed, showered and clothed, now I can move on to the next – and best – phase of the ritual: Sleep. I hit the couch. Turn on some football. Flat on my back, it takes about four or five snaps of the pigskin before I’m out.
Forty-five minutes later, I’m up. I gingerly stand. Grab the black marker and put an “X” though the day on my training schedule, which is now half filled with black X’s. Moving once again, I’m ready to roll. Time to go out. Visit friends. Enjoy the weekend. By looking at me, you’d never know of the sufferfest I just endured.
Except, of course, for the copious amounts of food I ate that afternoon and evening. I’m all about replacing those calories I lost that morning, and rebuilding my body to get ready for the next week of training, a mix of short, faster runs, hill repeats, track work, trails and, yes, another weekend long run.
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