Pace To Race

Article by Heidi Brumbaugh, PhD is a linguist. Visit her website at to learn about her word learning app Vocab Victor and read her vocabulary blog.

I’m hacking my morning run to optimize it for speed, endurance, and conditioning.

I come to running late in life. I was a scrawny, uncoordinated kid who grew into a chain-smoking teenager. By the time I quit smoking in my mid-twenties to have kids, there were no fitness habits to build on, although I did manage to do some biking and hate on a few aerobics classes in my thirties.

I suppose it’s a cliché to wake up in your fifties, look around, and go, “Oh shit! I better get in shape!” But then, “Better late than never” is also a cliché, and it also happens to be true.

It’s been a slow build-up over the past few years, but this year I’m finally, literally, hitting my stride. I’ve made the circuit with running groups, coaching, a few races (last place!), and talked to a lot of runners. The best advice I got was also the simplest: Get up, drink your coffee, then run for an hour, every day. Brilliant! I’ll get right on that.

But first, the overthinking. After all this is 2020. You want it? We got an app for that. We got your heart rate monitor, your steps counter, your pacer, your cadence tracker, your running music, your nutrition science, your blood pressure machine, your calorie calculator.

Yes, I will run for an hour. But I will hack that bitch.

The very best thing I did for my running success was, when we moved a few years back, to find a house across the street from a beautiful nature park with a lovely lake and several miles of paths. This gives me a reliable, long route to use every day without having to drive anywhere. The running challenge to the park is the inconsistency of the terrain. Parts are nicely paved, parts are paved but dangerously pockmarked; there are some flat dirt paths, a few climbs, and lots of roots, loose rocks, buried stones, and gopher holes.

From my experience in the running world (such as it is), I’ve learned that the key to making progress is interval training. (I’ve also learned that the sport has a ridiculous number of terms that all mean “run fast, then recover.”)

I decided a hack of my morning run had to be based on timing my intervals around the best terrain for faster runs, then recovering on the uneven, treacherous bits.

Next began an at-times frenetic search for the perfect running app. I wanted to break the lake run into smaller chunks (literally hack it into pieces), assign each chunk a pace (or a non-paced recovery period) depending on terrain, and analyze my performance (because what’s the fun of running for an hour if you don’t immediately geek out on your stats afterwards?).

I settled on Pace to Race because it has a good pacer with audio cues to keep me on track, a good interface (with giant displays that are easy to scan while you’re running), and it let me set my distance intervals down to the tenth of the mile.

The best places in the park for a flat-out, fast run are the dam above the lake (paved), and the boardwalk on the opposite side (wooden and flat). These are the anchors around which the rest of the run was designed, and also the best opportunities for improvement.

I start my training plan with a short warmup that gets me from my park entry to the paved trailhead entry, .07 miles. Then I kick it up a bit with two 18:55 pace intervals, which brings me to the flat, paved dam run, where I put in my “fast” interval of 16:45 (did I mention I was slow? Don’t laugh!).

It took a few weeks of iterating to get the distance intervals where I want them to be. This is a recent run of two times around the lake (you can see that .07 mi warmup at the green dot start position):

The final step, analysis, required some support from the Pace to Race team. Originally the app showed only summary statistics and splits. For a true hack, I wanted to dig into my results for each individual interval. Thankfully, when I explained to them what I wanted they added the feature to their next release, bless their nerdy little hearts.

Now I can compare my targets for each interval to my actual performance and adjust targets accordingly. You can see here I set the pace for 18:55 but hit 16:35/16:40. FTW!

Naturally the end goal here is to tweak each individual section for optimal performance, adding speed and eventually distance to get the most out of that hour run.

This hack requires a lot of time and iteration. It’s basically, guesstimate the distances, do the run, adjust, add a few more sections, and so forth. My next goal is to add strides to the end of the run, but I need to figure out the best paths in the park for that.

Hacking my morning run gives it a gamified aspect that keeps it interesting. I know it will get me in better condition and running faster so I can achieve my goal for my next race (second to last place!).

Thanks again to Pace to Race for their great customer support!

Article by Heidi Brumbaugh, PhD is a linguist. Visit her website at to learn about her word learning app Vocab Victor and read her vocabulary blog.