I’ve always wanted to run a sub-4 hour marathon. The closest I ever came was in 2009, when, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, I was faced with substantial winds. I also made some REALLY stupid hydration decisions, leading me to miss my goal by about 5 minutes. I’d done other running-related “feats” like run the 2010 Dopey Challenge at Disney, but my best shot at doing what I used to think was an impossible task (a sub-4) was in Richmond 2009, and I blew it. Then, I got injured. Finally, in 2012-2013, healthy and ready to seek my goal again, I turned to track work.
This blog entry is about Yasso 800s, and what kinds of things go through my mind as I’m running them.
Let’s get a couple of preliminary things out of the way, in case you’re unfamiliar with them: What are Yasso 800s?
The SHORT version is that Yasso 800s are a workout some people do as part of their marathon training.
The less short version is that they’re timed 800 meter repeats, with a 400 meter jog in between each one. Bear this in mind: One loop around a track is 400 meters. So it’s a single walking or jogging “warmup” loop, followed by two fast running loops. Those 3 loops (1 “slow” and 2 “fast”) equal one Yasso. The trick with a Yasso workout is that you’re shooting for the same number of minutes in your warmup loop as your two fast loops. The name “Yasso” comes from their inventor, Bart Yasso, a senior editor at Runner’s World Magazine.
Bart Yasso posited that if you ran 10 sets of 800 meters, each under 4 minutes, with proper marathon training the rest of the week, you could reasonably predict a 4 hour marathon. If you ran 10 sets of 800 meters in less than 3:30 minutes, you could reasonably predict a 3 and a half hour marathon. You get the rest. The other part of the trick is your slow 400 meter loop should ALSO take the target time. Do those “Yassos” 10 times, and you’ve got a decent ballpark prediction of your marathon time, assuming other proper training.
I’ve been doing weekly Yasso 800s since March of 2013, and have missed –maybe—four workouts in six months. Otherwise, I’ve done them obsessively. A lot of thoughts have gone through my head while I’ve done them. I wrote some down:
One-Track Mindedness: A short 10
It’s when I pull up to a running track in my car that I’m the most tense. The tracks around the DC area seem to only be at high schools. Will the track be open? Is there an event of some kind? Where else will I go to do my workout? I’ve been looking forward to these Yassos all week. Please, please be open.
As I look for parking, I see one or two people trotting around the loop. Sometimes, I’ll spot some soccer or flag football players on the field.
Either way, I exhale. It means I can do my track work for the week.
Speedwork, or, “Track work,” is easily my favorite workout of the week. Long slow runs? Boring. Can’t tell what I’m getting out of them, other than annoyed at whatever podcast I’m listening to, because, you know, I gotta be mad at SOMETHING if I’m running for 2+ hours. Regular weekly runs? Those are fine, but I’m often forced to dodge tourists on the National Mall WALKING THREE ABREAST ON THE LEFT WTF IS WITH YOU PEOPLE?
It’s usually about 2-3pm (!) when I get out of my car. I gather my kit of supplies and walk onto the school grounds. I’ve got my Garmin searching for a satellite already, but I’m more focused on a very old digital stopwatch I bought years ago. It still works. Hell, I ran my first marathon holding it the entire way.
I’m immediately struck by, and excited by, the smell of the track itself. It’s rubbery, bouncy, and well-marked. It will feel far better than the concrete of the National Mall, or of the Mount Vernon Trail. The rubbery smell of the track tells me that the warmer months are coming, and that I haven’t noticed it during last winter’s training in the cold, when I’d go out and just run various types of repeat workouts.
The decision to start doing Yassos was relatively easy. It’s a well-publicized track training program, and plenty easy for someone like me to remember and understand. For someone like me, focused on a sub-4 hour marathon, everything will be 4 minutes. Even *I* can figure THAT out.
On my birthday in late March, I went out and did 5 Yassos. 40 minutes of easy/hard running. 1 of the Yassos came in over 4 minutes, thus missing my goal. But I left the track excited at the prospect of what could happen from doing regular Track Work.
Over the months, I’ve gone from 5 Yassos, to 6, and finally settled at doing a weekly set of 8. As I’ll write about, I even hit the magic 10. I’ve had ups and downs for time goals, but, from what I can tell, I appear to be getting faster. It’s slow in progress, but it’s happening. I won’t move off the 4 minute time goal, though. Because all I want to do is break a 4 hour marathon, and I’m not worried about anything else. 3:59:59 is still a sub-4 marathon. So that’s all I shoot for while on the track. 3:59 per single/double loop.
March. I’m in Herndon, VA. A girls’ varsity soccer game is about to start. There is just a smattering of parents in the stands. It appears that there are less parents in the stands than there are girls from one team, which immediately strikes me as sad. But there are a few walkers on the track, and a couple of runners. Clearly no one considers us objectionable, or that we’ll disturb their enjoyment of the game.
I start off with a trot, out as far as I can be in lane 8, shuffling along, warming up, trying to keep from taking off. Runners pass me far to the inside. They’re moving at regular speeds, doing loop after loop of vanilla training.
Before I know it, I’m trotting out of turn 4, back to the starting line. I quickly reset my stopwatch, and shift to lane 1, slamming my thumb down on the “start” button as I cross the line.
Off I go.
A week’s worth of adrenaline is released, as I take off far too fast. I’m a kid out of school for the summer as I run this first Yasso. This workout will challenge me, but I’m at my happiest right now.
As expected, when my 800 meters are done, I’ve finished them far too fast, in 3:45. “You won’t see that time again today,” I tell myself. Little do I realize, that over the coming months, 3:45 will become one of my slower times.
April. Herndon, VA again. “TAKE THE SHOT HEATHER!” screams a coach from the visiting side to Heather, who appears more annoyed with him than with anything happening on the field. The players are encouraging to each other throughout the game (at least the ones on their own team). It’s nice to know that at least SOME team sports still have camaraderie.
I’ve concluded that my least favorite part of an individual Yasso is about the 200 meter point of the 800m. What’s happened is I’ve blasted through 100 meters at a strong effort, turned, and am on my way out of turn two, when I realize I have six more turns to go. I’m already breathing hard, working, and definitely wishing these were done. I feel myself let up, ever so slightly, defeated before I’ve even gone halfway in this loop. But, I continue to push. That Yasso loop is done, and I feel so grateful to shift to the outside lane and slow down.
May. I’m in Arlington, Virginia at a large high school in a wealthy neighborhood. The field here is as good as many small colleges elsewhere. Today, there are yuppies playing flag football, complete with refs and yardage/down markers. I don’t watch them as much today. I’ve got my eyes fixed on my Garmin and stopwatch, checking my heart-rate and remaining time.
That’s because it’s freaking HARD this week. Maybe that’s because it’s also hot. Clearly, the long Spring is gone, and we’re into summer. My breathing is labored. I’m gushing sweat. It’s creeping over my sunglasses, stinging my eyes. I keep lifting my shirt to wipe my brow as I walk the entire 400 meter rest loop. By the time I get back to the start of the 800 meters, I’ve gone slightly over 4 minutes, and have to take off, fast, as if I’ve seen my bus pull up a block ahead of me. I feel my legs palpably resist the command to run, and force them to pick up the pace. I’m not feeling it today. Well, that’s not quite true. The only thing I’m “feeling” today is unrelenting heat.
It’s so hot that while I’ve cruised through 4 Yassos, the (virtual) wheels come off for number 5. I miss 4 minutes. Yasso number 6 is dominated by my mind screaming at me to walk. I don’t. But I miss my goal. Again. I cannot get a breath. The air is hot. Heavy.
Screw it. My daughter wants me to take her and a friend to see “Star Trek” this evening. I pack up early, despite a goal of 8 Yassos, and leave the track, guzzling my hydration, and drive out to see her. When she asks later how my track work was, I deflect the subject, as if I were asked about an ex-girlfriend.
June. Back in Herndon again. No soccer game today. Instead, some members of the Boys’ team are practicing with a goalie, taking shots. Some miss, and dribble out onto the track. If they’re in my field of vision, I pause my run, and kick the balls back to the players. My kicks are AWFUL. I’m topping the ball for some, and for others, I’m somehow managing to kick other balls at a right angle AWAY from the players. How can I be so inept at EVERY sport other than running? Hell, how can I be so inept at everyTHING other than running?
I fully anticipate a “Charlie Brown-esque” whiff with a leg, and landing flat on my back to uproarious teenage laughter. But I kick the balls back anyway. Later, as they leave the track, one of the boys fist bumps me as I trot by, thanking me for sending shots their way.
The rest of today’s Yassos are done with a broad smile. That’s me. Joe Cool, track star, friend to soccer players.
May. Herndon again this week. Just in time for another Girls’ soccer game.
This week, the goalie for the visitors is having herself a rough day. She’s already been scored on twice, and is being replaced. Her teammates are supportive of her. I’m clearly more tired at this point, because I can’t remember which Yasso I’m up to by now.
I’ve noticed something as I do my various Yassos. The trotting loops are becoming more like walking loops. I’m tired. Spent. I’m working hard to catch my breath. I notice that I only have sub-30 seconds before I should be running again, and I’m not that close to the loop’s start. Crud. Gotta pick up the pace and complete this loop. It will be months and months before the Marine Corps Marathon, and I’m already dejected.
My mind is wandering today. I feel myself almost burning out. Too much drama in my life, and the dissatisfaction is finding its way onto here. I make my desired Yassos (8 this week), and quickly scurry off the track. The teams have broken for halftime, and the referees eye me curiously as I keep my head straight down and skulk off the track, proud of nothing, mind on everything.
June. I’m at a new track for this one: the fabled TC Williams High School (the subject of the movie, “Remember the Titans”).
It’s quiet. In fact, I am the only person on the entire track, field, or stadium today.
That’s because today isn’t just hot. It’s dangerous. The heat index is squarely over 100. Normally, I can deal. Today, however, I just don’t have it.
Like earlier in the year, the first 4 Yassos go smoothly. I run one, I move to the outside lane to walk (I pretty much walk at least 300 of the 400 recovery meters nowadays), and the process repeats.
Immediately, though, Yasso 5 is a problem. I’m ordering my body to pick up speed, and I’m almost shuffling. I’m sucking in hot air, and feel it burning my throat. Even the (normally) lovely smell of the track is more like an odor I can’t avoid.
Yasso 5 comes in over 4 minutes. Not the first goal I’ve missed, but my walk is already slow. I’m not going to make it around for another 400 meters. So I stop all timers, and walk, slowly, to my hydration.
At this point, I’m not sure if I’m going to quit. But I do know I’m loopy. So, I do what comes naturally to me: I goof around, since nobody's here.
First, I make a Vine (vines are 6-second videos, almost like a video version of a tweet). Then, I make another one, linked here, which I thought was funny. I watch it a few times, decide to Tweet it out, and find myself actually smiling. I’ve got some air back. I’m feeling better. I make MORE Vines, just a sweaty, stinky, goofy guy alone at a blazing hot track, making himself laugh.
Content that I’ve finally rested myself enough, I run one more 800 repeat, but the time doesn’t even matter to me. I’d given myself tons of rest, so the effect of the Yasso is probably nil. But, I know as SOON as I complete it, that I couldn’t do another one again if my life depended on it. Maybe, at this point, because of the heat, my life DOES depend on me stopping. I call it a day, and head for the car, smiling more broadly as my phone chirps out notifications of retweets and favorites over my Vines. So … I got something productive done today, I guess?
July. I’m back at TC Williams for this one.
There’s some sort of placekicking camp going on in the field. It’s not as interesting as watching girls’ soccer. These guys are kickers, but they’re HUGE. They’re also throwing each other perfect spirals in between booting the ball between the uprights. I feel almost embarrassed trying to rumble my bulk around the track. If I had lunch money with me, I’d almost feel compelled to just give it to them for old time’s sake.
I shift to the outside lane for my recovery loop, and start to evaluate my knees, ankles, and hamstrings. Any pain? Not anything worth stopping over? Should I shorten today? Maybe just to Seven Yassos? Or still go for Eight? Your marathons aren’t for months, who cares? Too late to debate. I’m back around the slow walking loop (in only 3:35, but I’m too close to the starting line at this point), so I reset my stopwatch and take off.
The change of scenery has helped. I spend less time thinking about personal drama, and have instead spent my time focusing on my foot strike, breathing, and counting loops. I leave, sweaty, but, for the first time in a while, almost proud. All Yassos came in under 3:40, including the cooldown portions. Forget it jocks, you can’t have my lunch money, I’m using it to buy a slurpee. I should go tell them that. Then again, I don’t want to know how it would feel to get a wedgie while wearing compression shorts.
August. Back at TC Williams. Today there are a couple of runners, and on the field are three huge guys practicing rugby moves. They’re also flipping a tractor tire around the way I would toss a coin.
But, today I’m not feeling the heat as much for this Yasso session. Sure, it’s hot. Plenty hot. But, I guess I’m adjusting at this point? I’ve been running in the high heat for months. Whatever the case, I’ve already decided to just do 7 Yassos, and not look down on myself for the lower number. I’ve got months – months – until my two marathons (The Marine Corps Marathon in DC, late October, followed 20 days later by the Richmond Marathon in mid-November). There’s no rush for THIS track work.
I crank through loop after loop, forcing myself to hit all my goals, including my rest goals. It’s hard, and I actually exhale out “Hell yeah!” on my last Yasso, when I see that I’ve hit it in 3:51, despite the heat. Worried that one of the football/rugby guys heard it, I don’t stick around to stretch at the track, a little embarrassed at my outburst.
It’s funny, by the way. I've seen 3:51 a LOT this summer. Mostly towards the end Yassos, but that exact number. To the second. Glad I don’t believe in fate or magic, because I think I’d sell my soul for a 3:51 marathon finish.
September. I am back in Arlington, at the rich school’s track. There are way more runners training here than at TC Williams, and it looks like there’s a full-fledged Ultimate Frisbee game going on. Meh. Not as impressive. Then again, I throw a Frisbee only slightly worse than I kick a soccer ball, so maybe I’ll just focus on my task. Over these months of training, there was one random week at this track when I decided, instead of doing just 8 Yassos, to do the full 10. I did them right here, at this track. They wrecked me.
The difference between 8 and 10 Yassos isn’t much if you’re counting (a mere mile and an half extra of distance), but they have an amazing effect. Sleeping that night was near impossible. My legs ached. I was restless and uncomfortable. They hurt most of the next day, and the recovery run I tried was almost no help.
Yasso training is not an easy workout. I got cocky, and paid for it. Somewhere, Bart Yasso is snickering at my insolence.
As I write this, it’s October. I’ve been doing Yasso 800s once a week for six months. September was uneventful at 8 weekly Yassos all month, but showed steady, progressively faster times. But, this month, I’ve run 3 Yassos sessions, doing 10 Yassos each. The “magic” number of 10 Yassos. No ill effects. They’ve all come in under 3:45. Some came in under 3:30.
But, the problem is that marathon race directors don’t let you walk up to the starting line, show your Yasso loop times, and give you credit for a sub-4 marathon. You have to run the thing. And my long runs are disappointing me at every turn.
I’ve also realized, to my horror, that there is a chance that all I’ve done this past summer is just teach myself to run Yasso 800s well. What if I've just gotten USED to doing Yassos? Don't answer. It means I'm screwed.
Will I break 4 hours? Maybe. Dare I say, even probably? But will I finish under 3:45? Let’s put it this way – I have no intention of finding out. I just want 3:59:59. I’m not going to run the Marine Corps Marathon pacing for 3:45. I’m stupid, but not delusional.
There is no “chapter”eleven. No “Yasso eleven” for this story. That’s because it isn’t written yet. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know that the rest of the story has to be written, but I honestly have no idea how it ends.
I know that I WANT there to be a happy ending. I WANT Charlie Brown to kick that football to the moon. I WANT to believe that my body won’t fail me during an actual marathon, as it did when I last tried to break this barrier in Richmond a few years ago.
But there’s no such thing as fortune tellers, or magic. And even Bart Yasso would tell you that when running his Yasso 800s, there are no shortcuts.
Wish me luck on 27 October in DC, or again in Richmond on 16 November if I miss it at MCM.