Zones. They’re everywhere. Comfort, danger, congestion – they’ve all got one. Even Men’s Running has its own (rather excellent) dedicated zone just for trail runners. But then there’s the big one. The one that requires no introduction. The one simply known as The Zone. A place in sport that everyone tells you to find but no one explains how to get there or, for that matter, exactly what it is you’re looking for when you arrive.
So without any expert analysis or scientific input whatsoever, I went in search of mine and, thanks to Project Trail, I think I may have found it. In fact, quite alarmingly, I think I may have found them.
I experienced what I first considered to be The Zone as a positive shift from a negative place. Occasionally I’d head out for a run and the first couple of miles would feel like a real effort. Something would just be niggling at me – a few aches and pains here, a bit of general fatigue there – nothing definable but nevertheless a sluggishness that affected my enjoyment and left me doubting my ability. Fear and anxiety that I’d have to stop would soon follow. But then something would happen. My mind would focus on smaller goals. I’d just go another mile to see how that felt. And somehow I’d find a rhythm to go a bit further, building on my expectations in small chunks. Then, before I knew it, I’d have run further than I’d even intended to in the first place. What’s more, I could keep going. Somewhere between giving up and pushing on, I’d shut out all of the fears and anxieties that were holding me back and found my running mojo.
As my training has increased, I’ve found it easier to enter that mindset, to lock into an immediate rhythm, to leave at the door the things I can’t afford to carry with me (like anxiety and self-doubt) and to have the confidence that I can achieve what I’ve set out to.
That’s until something upsets the rhythm. Something like a big gruelling ascent, some seriously technical ground or Robbie adding a 20-minute speed session at the end of a two-hour run. That’s when it becomes a more fragile place. A sudden influx of doubt and I’m dragged straight out of my Zone and exposed to the fear, anxiety and loss of confidence that I thought I’d left outside. Once again, I wonder if I can keep going, whether my legs will recover, whether I would be better collapsing in a coughing heap and hoping a kind stranger gathers me up. Or calls an ambulance. Or my Mum.
And that’s been the problem with my Zone. It’s no longer finding it that I struggle with; it’s staying in it. Until now, I’ve either existed inside or outside and it hasn’t taken much to tip the balance. That’s until some recent experiences made me realise something that may, to be honest, make me sound a little odd and more than a little boastful. The more intense my training gets, the more I feel like London on a tube map – like, in fact, I may have more than one Zone!
Take my most recent long run. For the first few miles, I ran at a consistent pace on a mixture of trails and roads. I was focused and in a positive place. Then I encountered a hill, a real leg-sapper that I normally do my best to avoid. Rather than cave in to my anxieties, though, I mentally shifted down into second gear and kept running. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty but my mind focused entirely on achieving it. It wasn’t the Zone as I’ve come to know it – I wasn’t focused on my normal rhythm or pace. But my fears and anxieties weren’t in control, either. I was. It was like I’d found a dedicated mindset for tackling this one tough section. Once I’d achieved it, I locked back into rhythm and kept going, slowly regaining my original focus.
A later hill session with Robbie confirmed my theory. We did five minutes of hill reps, my mind screaming with doubts that I’d have to stop any minute. After a short break, we did it again. This time, while it was physically harder with the last set of reps in my legs, I knew that I’d get roughly six reps in during that time and this became my entire focus, ticking them off one by one. I’d found my hill zone.
And on my longest runs, I’ve found there’s a place that I go to that is very much further away from my original focused mindset. It’s where I convince myself to just grind out the last few miles no matter what – where, despite the fatigue, aches and pains, I somehow believe that I can still do it. That place is on the outskirts of my known ability – and, just like the tube map, I realise that the further I go, the more it will cost me – but it seems to be somewhere that I’m able to access if I have to. Thankfully, I haven’t found the end of the line just yet.