FOLSOM, Calif. — I consider myself a dedicated runner. I got my start in high school track and, now 28, I compete in longer-distance races, including finishing the Marine Corps Marathon the past two years.
During marathon training, I average around 40 miles per week. These days, my weekly mileage is closer to 20, but I regularly train on the track for road races ranging from 10Ks to marathons.
So when I was invited to join a track workout with the NorCal Distance Project, a post-collegiate team comprised of some of the fastest female middle distance runners in country, I had high hopes I could keep up — at least for a while. But 66 seconds in, as I was gasping for air, I experienced first-hand the gap that separates the pros from competitive amateurs like myself.
On a sunny and warm morning late last month, I arrived at Folsom Lake College, a little less than 30 miles northeast of Sacramento, and put on the neon-green track spikes I hadn’t laced up in nearly five years. I was eager to get a sense of how elite athletes approached the daily grind of training and, of course, to see how I would measure up.
Drew Wartenburg, the coach who co-founded the group in early 2014 with Olympian Kim Conley (they married last spring), tailors his workouts to each individual. Wartenburg had divided that day’s session into three groups: Conley, winner of the mile at the New Balance Indoor Games in New York a few days earlier, would go on a “light” 35-minute run with Alycia Cridebring and Lauren Mitchell; Rolanda Bell and Lauren Wallace, both training for a mile race later that week, would run a track workout together; and Kate Grace and Lianne Farber would spend the morning sharpening their speed in a mile-specific workout. I had my pick of any session.
None of the options sounded appealing, but I decided to run with Grace and Farber, who had both starred collegiately on the East Coast — Grace graduated from Yale in 2011 and Farber finished her career at North Carolina last spring — before relocating last year to Sacramento, where Wartenburg’s group is based. Their workout, which consisted of running four repetitions of 400-meter sprints followed by 200-meters sprints, seemed like it would be a good gauge of my abilities.
Wartenburg tasked Grace to run her 400 splits at 65 seconds each, with Farber at 67 seconds. The 200-meter splits needed to be at 31 seconds.
I went into the workout with the belief that I could complete about half the reps. I had run 400-meters in under 70 seconds at the end of a long run a few weeks earlier and a part of me really enjoys track workouts. Grace, who paced Conley to a world-leading time of 15:09 in the 5,000-meters at the University of Washington Invitational a few days later, provided me with a reality check.
“It’s kind of fast,” she warned. “I don’t want to underestimate you. I don’t know what you train. [But] I don’t know if you’re going to last for a 400 for the first one.”
I took a deep breath as I stepped up to the line, clicked the timer on my watch and immediately went into what felt like a full sprint. By the time I reached the halfway mark, I was gassed. We had gone through 200 meters in 31 seconds (a quick pace for which Grace later apologized) and I finished the first lap in 66 seconds — just four seconds off my personal best over 400 meters.
As the other runners jogged ahead to get ready for the next sprint, I was hunched over in pain, wondering how I could keep going.
“Us going out too fast probably messed you up on that one,” Farber said generously.
They were just getting started. Despite the fact that my legs were beginning to feel heavy, I lined up for another rep.
I finished the second 400 meters in 76 seconds, followed by a 34-second 200-meter sprint. After crossing the finish line, I pulled off to the side, waving my hand in defeat. Grace and Farber glanced back briefly to check on me before continuing on their way. They appeared to have barely broken a sweat.
“The piece of the season where we are right now with this group of women is that they’re all in racing mode,” Wartenburg told me. “They’re getting to the point where they’re pretty finely tuned.”
I marveled at how effortless they made running look. Grace, who hopes to qualify for the Rio Olympics in either the 800 meters or 1,500 meters, and Farber finished the remaining sprints at exactly the pace they were assigned.
The next morning, I had trouble getting out of bed. My entire body was sore and I had run less than half of the workout. At one point, Farber had described our workout as “fun.” Lesson learned: Even if you think you can keep up, these elite athletes will quickly prove you wrong — and they’ll enjoy every second of it.