Mumford and Sons propelled me to not one, not two, but three PRs. True story.
It all started with what was destined to be the worst track workout of all time. Smack dab in the middle of marathon training, I was scheduled to run eight miles with 6 x 1000 at 5K race pace. I had run the workout before and had always felt a particular disinclination toward it. This time around, however, the whole business was made even more distasteful due to an inadequate intake of sleep and nourishment on my part. Work and training demanded I burn the proverbial candle at both of its proverbial ends (always an unfortunate state of affairs for a runner), and after weeks stacked upon weeks of high mileage, I found myself standing on the track of a local middle school, watching the sun retreat behind a condescending horizon and feeling severely under-rested and underfed. Mental fortitude and motivation had clocked out hours before, and I could think of few things I would rather have done less than a long, lonely track workout. To say I was unenthusiastic about the impending intervals would be an egregious understatement.
I immediately began negotiating with my inner coach. Look, I said, You’re tired. You’re hungry. You’re worn out. Nothing good can come from blowing this workout. You know you’re not going to be able to maintain pace. You know you’ll just be discouraged by a disastrous performance. Why not pick an alternative workout, something less taxing?
Now, there was some validity to the reasoning. Some days your body just doesn’t have it. You need to be smart enough to recognize when a workout attempt will do more damage than good. Still, it’s a slippery slope, that of brokering an easier track session. And the slide was getting only steeper as the mental parley continued.
How about Sixteen quarters? You would be happy with that. Sixteen quarters at 5K pace.
I grimaced. I really didn’t want to be there. I grabbed my iPod and flipped to the album list. Sigh No More by Mumford and Sons. That would work. I never listen to music during track workouts, but today… today was hardly a track workout. I needed all the help I could get. Begrudgingly, I started my warm-up mile. I felt awful.
Okay, sixteen is a bit much. How ‘bout twelve? Twelve quarters.
One lap of warm-up down.
Or eight. Eight would work.
Two laps down.
Forget this. I’ve got nothing. Just run four miles and call it a day.
And then I looked at my watch. My warm-up lap had been pretty darn fast. Not race pace or anything… but a good clip. I was encouraged.
Weird. But I’ll take it. Okay—the inner coach returned—try to hold this pace for another mile.
I did. In fact, the next mile was significantly faster. After two miles of warm-up, I made a play call at the line of scrimmage: I would tempo the next three miles. With some effort (it is difficult to operate an iPod and run), I scrolled back to the first song on the album. For some reason, it felt right. First mile of tempo. First song on the album. I’m all about symmetry.
Serve God, love me, and mend
This is not the end
Lived unbruised, we are friends
And I'm sorry
Cue the banjo. Cue the regret. Cue the lamenting. Cue the frenetic, toe-tapping, pace-setting, exuberantly irate-yet-plucky folk melodies. And, in the process, cue a 5K PR.
For some reason, my body’s response to Mumford and Sons was to keep pace with metronomic consistency. There’s something delightfully angry and desperate to the album, which is fitting since that’s how I usually feel at race pace. Mile three was fast. Mile four was faster. So was mile five. And six. I looked at my watch as I entered the final mile. The last two miles had been faster than my best 5K pace—ever. A lot faster. If I could just hold this pace for four more laps…
I was in a state of shock even as I rounded the track for the gazillionth time. How in the world had I gone from near workout abdication to a resounding 5K PR?
Finally, after twenty-eight manic laps, I finished my workout, seven miles and a new 5K PR in hand. I smiled even as a gasped for air and tried desperately to stave off the urge to vomit. I had hammered that run.
I think it had something to do with the soundtrack. (Get it? Soundtrack? Ahem…)
One week later, buoyed by the seemingly paranormal powers of Mumford and Sons, I returned to the track. If I had managed a 5K PR when I was feeling bad… well… why not shoot for a 10K PR since I now had a bit more pep in my step?
I cruised through a warm-up (to Sigh No More, of course) and then restarted the album once the self-imposed 10K race began.
And 6.2 miles later, I had a 10K PR in hand.
What is this magical mystery? Another PR? I sat down on the track and again fended off the ever-present urge to vomit. I felt as though I were a fleet-footed Ponce de Leon and had just discovered the runner’s equivalent to the fountain of youth. Who knew? The only thing holding me back in my running career was the lack of an English folk indie rock band! And banjos! Banjos are the key to success!
Don’t judge. Running is mental. If it works, go with it.
And so I did, exactly one week later. The result? Another 10K PR. It was close—I made the cut by mere seconds—but still, the cut was made. Three PRs in as many weeks. All run to the strum-happy melodies of Mumford and Sons. (Note: I have yet to return to the track for another 10K attempt. God bless Mumford, but even the best songs have their limits.)
My running career, like life, has a soundtrack. It’s not always the same. In fact, it is perpetually changing. Sometimes it is loud and raucous. Sometimes it is soft and gentle. Sometimes there is no sound at all. But nevertheless, it’s always there.
What about you? What songs have motivated you? What songs have inspired you before a long run? A workout? A race? Do you listen to them before your run? During? Both? Comment away… We’d love to hear your running soundtrack!
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.