Monday, February 19, 2018

What I DON'T Want in a GPS Watch

A runner's watch and its settings are a personal thing. With the massive variety of GPS watches on the market, we have options not only for which device we use, but how we personalize it.

Houston Half Marathon Finish
One on extreme, there are the runners who always want the latest and most sophisticated technology. They want to track all the possible data and they want their watch to be able to receive text messages, play music, track their sleep, predict their marathon time and more. On the other extreme, there are the runners who may not even want to wear a watch, let alone a GPS device.

As for me, I'm pretty basic, with one exception. And the one exception makes it difficult for me to find a simple GPS watch that meets my needs. When I started racing in 2005, I bought a Timex stop watch with a lap button. That worked well for awhile, until I decided to get a Garmin in 2009. I went with the Forerunner 405. I loved being able to run anywhere and know how far I had gone. Before the Garmin, I would typically run on the W&OD trail, which had mile markers, or I would use a treadmill. Those were my options if I wanted to track my distance.

After five years, the battery died and I moved to the Garmin Forerunner 220. This watch was slimmer and more comfortable, but otherwise it wasn't all that different from my previous one. At least in terms of the features I used. When that started acting strangely (not uploading to my phone, cutting workouts short) I bought the Garmin 630 on Black Friday sale last fall. And I hate it. Alright, hate is a strong word, so I'll revise my statement to "I find the watch highly frustrating and I wish I had not purchased it." Greg got the same deal, but he's not as tortured by the device as I am.

As I said above, a runner's watch is a personal thing, so here is everything I want, and don't want in a GPS watch.

The Basics
The reason I use a Garmin instead of my stop watch is because I like to track my speed and distance.
Garmin Forerunner 630
I need my watch to track and display:
  • Total Distance
  • Total Running Time
  • Average Pace of the Run
  • Lap Pace
The first three of these I like to have on one screen, in that order. As I run, I want to know how far I have gone, how long I've been going, and what my average pace has been so far. On a separate screen, which I have set to auto-rotate, I display the lap pace only. I like this to be large and take up the entire face of the screen so I can quickly glance down and see what pace my current mile (or split) is. This helps me slow down or speed up when needed.

I used to want to see heart rate, but I have stopped training by heart rate. That got its own screen too.

Data and Integration
I will always be loyal to the Garmin brand because it integrates with my training log (RunningAhead) as well as Strava and Final Surge (my coach's app). So my second requirement, in addition to the basics, is that the watch can upload to the Garmin database and instantly update all those other sources. 

Programmable Workouts (loudly, please)
7:59 lap pace, big and bold!
If it weren't for this one feature requirement, I'd be able to get away with a much simpler GPS watch. But it turns out, if you want to program workouts into your Garmin, you have to buy a fancier model. If it weren't for programmable workouts, I would have a tough time with many of my training runs.

For example, this morning I ran 15 times (1 minute hard, 1 minute easy) followed by 15 times (30 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy). I programmed that into my watch so that it beeped, letting me know when the intervals were starting/stopping. And then it recorded my distance, pace, time, etc. for each of the laps. Now I know exactly what pace I ran for each of the 1-minute segments and each of the 30-second segments. 

With the Garmin 630, the beeps are so quiet, I can barely hear them. And even though this watch has a zillion options for everything (I can even put a photo of a zebra on it), there is no volume adjustment for the beeps. Because of this, if I need to do a pre-programmed workout, I use my 220. The alert beep for the auto-lap function is also quiet, and I often don't hear it when I'm doing my easy runs, especially if I am running near traffic.

Touch Screen
I do not want this! I purchased the Garmin 630 fully knowing it was a touch screen, but I thought it would be as easy to use as my iPhone. But it's not. navigating the touch screen is not intuitive. I always end up pressing the wrong thing. And when I go to put the watch on my wrist before my run, I inadvertently touch the screen so that it tries syncing my iPhone contacts. WTF? Why do I want my iPhone contacts synced to my Garmin device?!? No thank you. Plus, in the winter I wear gloves, so I usually need to remove them to use the touch screen, whereas I don't have to worry about that with plain ol' buttons.

Auto Upload
My feeling about the Garmin auto-uploading to my phone is similar to my feelings about automatic flush toilets. Let ME decide when please! I do not want my workout to upload to my phone until I say so. Maybe this is a setting I change, but I haven't found it. Because it integrates with Strava and my coach's Final Surge app, I don't want to publish my run until I am ready to say something about it. Otherwise, it's just hanging out there as "morning run" for people on Strava to view with (gasp) no context on what it was!!! But in all seriousness, sometimes if I am running near my phone, (I don't run with my phone, but sometimes it's in my car and I pass it), the Garmin will try to upload the workout still in progress. And if I'm doing a cool down, it will automatically upload the warm up and the workout itself, which I log as three separate activities.

I often run in the dark so I need a backlight so I can see my Garmin. I use the "stays on" feature so the watch is always lit once I turn it on. With the Garmin 630, if you select the "stays on" feature, but do not un-select the default "backlight is part of an alert" then every time you lap, your backlight will come on and stay on. This drains the battery. I discovered this one day on a treadmill run when I realized the backlight kept coming on and staying on.

Activity Profiles
I look at lap time instead of lap pace on the track
I'll end on a positive note with the Forerunner 630. This watch offers different activity profiles, and I use three of them: run outdoors, run on a track, and run indoors. For running outdoors, my settings are as I described above. If I select track running, instead of my lap pace showing, it shows my lap time. Because GPS watches are not accurate on tracks, I pace the workout using the elapsed time of the lap rather than lap pace. And for those rare occasions when I run on a treadmill, the watch turns off the GPS and using my cadence (I assume) to measure distance. And it's fairly consistent with what the treadmill says.

Even though I'm not a fan of the 630, I'm using it for most of my runs. Ultimately I'll probably buy the 230 which does not have a touch screen or a lot of the fancy features I don't use. My 220 works well enough, so until that dies completely, I will probably hold off on getting a new one. I wore the 220 in Houston because I didn't want the 630 doing anything funky. I'm carefully considering which watch comes with me to New Orleans in two weeks.

I'd love to hear from my readers on this: 
  • What features do you need?
  • How is your watch face configured when you run?
  • Do you log your warm up and cool down as separate activities, or put them all into one?
I'll post a training update next weekend, but that's going really well. I just wrapped up 69.3 miles last week and I'm feeling strong.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Kiss My Asphalt 5K

After missing my sub-20:00 5K goal by a fair bit on New Year's Day, I decided to make another attempt at breaking the barrier.

Based on my spring race schedule, this weekend was the best option. Races in February are slim pickings, and not really PR courses, so I found one in Fredricksburg (about an hour south) that seemed like it would be a good candidate for sub-20. The elevation profile on MapMyRun made the course appear like it was gently rolling the whole time with no major climbs. Even though the race would be small, the course was USATF certified.

MapMyRun elevation profile

On Wednesday morning, I woke up feeling abnormally tired and not like my peppy self. I observed that my resting heart rate (which I track with my FitBit) had been on the upswing for the past few days and was now at an all-time high of 50 bpm. Typically it's around 45. With the flu going around, I made sure to be extra careful about coming into contact with germs, started drinking more water, and taking more vitamins.

Thursday morning was the same story, but I ran in the evening by which time I was feeling more energized. On Friday, I woke up with an upset stomach and my 30-minute easy run felt really sluggish and heavy. Greg was also waking up with a dry throat and not feeling his best. I told myself that everything was fine, and I didn't speculate any impact on my race.

Before the Race
We arrived at the race site about an hour before the start. Greg was running the 10K, which started at 9:45, and I was running the 5K, which started at 10:00. We picked up our bibs and scoped out the course. Most notably, we could not find a start line. We found the finish line, but we knew that the race did not start and finish in exactly the same spot. This made the course net uphill, but not by a lot.

We knew that the race director would be providing instructions immediately before the race, so Greg and I warmed up and made it back to the start area shortly before 9:45. There were about 50 runners doing the 10K and 100 runners in the 5K. My weather app had said "rain starting at 10:30" so I expected that the rain would hold off until we were done. I debated wearing my hat anyway, but there wasn't even a drop in the sky so I left it in the car.

There was no actual start line. The race director told everyone where to stand and then he ran about 30 feet ahead and started counting down from 30 seconds. He had his phone in his hand, seemingly to communicate with the person starting the clock. At the end of his countdown, he yelled "go!" so that both the timer and the runners could hear him, hopped on his bike and led the pack of runners up a steep hill, out of the park and onto a paved path. The race was chip timed, but based on gun time as opposed to net time. However, with only 50 runners in the 10K and 100 runners in the 5K, everyone started within five seconds of the race director yelling "go."

This was definitely not the traditional start that I was used to, but the course was certified, my Garmin ended up reading 3.13, and my gun time was accurate, so it all worked out.

I watched Greg immediately take the lead and I cheered for him as he passed by. I spent the next ten minutes continuing to warm up while waiting for the 5K to start. The race director returned to the park on his bike and then briefed the 5K runners about what to expect. I was glad I had watched the 10K first so I knew exactly how it would go. As he was giving his briefing, it started to rain. It was too late to grab my hat, and I hoped it would just be a light drizzle and not soak the course. But, as if on cue, as soon as the race director yelled "go," the rain began to fall in full force and I quickly became drenched.

Mile 1: 6:41
Note to self: courses with steep hills in the first half mile are not conducive to sub-20. I learned this on New Year's Day, only this hill was steeper--almost to the point of needing to walk. Once we got out of the park onto the bike path, I was relieved. But within just two minutes, there was another big hill which curved up and around. Totally unexpected. I did warm up on the course, but I had gone in the other direction on the trail. At the top of the hill we turned around and headed back toward the park. Now that these two hills were done with, I figured the rest of the course would be a lot easier.

I think I took these initial two hills too quickly and then paid for it later. Because I thought the course would be relatively flat, I assumed I would be able to recover from my hard pushes. But I never really recovered. It was also pouring. There was no mile marker, but my watched beeped 6:41 and I didn't judge it.

Mile 2: 6:44
From this point on, the course, which was a paved bike path was up and down and up and down. I'm used to road races where you might have a quarter mile stretch of up hill and then a long stretch of downhill. But in this case it was constantly undulating, with some longer stretches of up and down. There was not a single flat section. I'm not sure why I thought this would be a good sub-20 course. Clearly, it was not.

The rain compounded issues and I started running out of gas. I felt like I had nothing to give. I wanted to push hard, but I didn't have it in me to go any faster. I did, however, pass one of the three men that was ahead of me, which was a good feeling. No women were ahead of me, which seemed to be the only positive thing. There were a few bridges to run over which were slippery due to the rain. I slowed down a bit because I was paranoid about falling. There was no mile marker 2, but my Garmin beeped and showed a disappointing 6:44. A few weeks ago I had run a 3-mile tempo run at a pace of 6:44 and it felt awesome. Now, I felt totally gassed.

Mile 3: 6:52
The finish line: flattering photo, right?
At this point, the only thing that was motivating me was that I was in the lead. The second place woman seemed to be about 30 seconds behind me at the turnaround, and if she had a good kick it was possible she could catch me. I repeated to myself, keep winning the race, keep winning the race. I was mentally and physically defeated at this point and all I wanted was to keep my first place position through the finish.

And I did! I won the race in 21:08. I was the 3rd overall finisher, with just two men ahead of me.

I crossed the finish line and the race director handed me a plaque and a wine glass for winning. Normally they would do an awards ceremony type of thing, but it was pouring rain. I thanked him and then waited for Greg to finish the 10K. I knew I'd only have to wait about five minutes.

I saw a fast-looking man cross the line, and glanced down to see that he was wearing a 10K bib, and then Greg crossed just seconds behind him. Apparently Greg had been neck-and-neck with this guy the entire time, and he out-kicked Greg at the very end for the win. Greg ran a PR in 40:51. His 10K pace was faster than my 5K pace!

Final Thoughts
We were drenched and tired and decided to drive straight home instead of eating lunch in Fredericksbug as originally planned. I was happy that I won the race, but not pleased with my performance. With 131 feet of gain over just 3.1 miles, that course wasn't conducive to sub-20. I also think I am fighting off some kind of bug. If I had to do it over again, I would have been more conservative on those first two hills. The downpour was another unwelcome factor.

My Garmin's Elevation Data
I'm not sure I would have chosen this course if I had accurately interpreted the MapMyRun elevation profile; which looked a lot less intimidating than the actual Garmin data. There's a local 5K tomorrow on a course that I've run many times before that I probably would have chosen. That course is also quite challenging, but I'm familiar with it and probably could have set a course PR. On the other hand, I did end up with an overall win, which is rare for me.

Looking at the bigger picture, I am a bit discouraged about this whole sub-20 thing. I think it's going to only get harder for me as I get older (I turn 40 in November) and usually you don't hear about women who have been running for 15+ years finally breaking 20 once they turn 40. But we'll see. I'll try and train for it again this summer and hope that I can find a good course with good weather conditions.

My half marathon pace four weeks ago was 7:00, and this race averaged a pace of 6:45, which seems totally off. In fact, several of my miles in the half marathon were in the 6:40's. I've heard many runners say you can't be in shape for a 5K and also for the longer distances at the same time, but I haven't really started the bulk of my marathon training yet. So I'm not sure exactly what I am in shape for, if anything. Or maybe I am, but I'm truly fighting off some kind of illness.

In any event, I won. So I'll just be happy with that and focus on my next race, which is the Rock 'n' Roll New Orleans half marathon in three weeks.

This made it worth the trip!

Even though the race had no mile markers or actual start line, it was well organized for a small, local race. The course was certified, there were aid stations, it was clear when to turn around, they took photos, and I liked the plaque that I won. If you're local, check out Bishop's Events.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Vegas, Awards, and Hills

Since running the Houston Half Marathon, life has been a bit of a whirlwind. A few hours after running the race, I flew to Las Vegas for a work event. Upon returning, my training really ramped up with intense hill workouts, and I attended two awards celebrations for 2017 running.

Las Vegas
The last time I visited Vegas, I found it impossible to run outside because of the constant stopping for traffic and the fact that you have to go up and down staircases to stay along the strip. This time, my coach told me about a track that was about 1.5 miles off of the strip. It was the UNLV track and he said that it was open to the public.

UNLV Track in Las Vegas
Thankfully, I didn't have any hard workouts that week because I had just run the Houston Half. But nevertheless, I needed to maintain my mileage base because Boston Marathon training was fast approaching. I was able to go for a run every day before the conference started, and it was nice to get the fresh air. The weather was perfect: mid 40s and sunny every morning! I didn't have to worry too much about my safety, as one of my co-workers is an ultra-marathon runner, and he was happy to accompany me on my runs every day. On one of the days, we even explored the UNLV campus, which was a nice change of scenery.

The conference itself also offered an "Urban Fun Run" to benefit STEM for Her. This was an (approximate) 5K along the strip, complete with multiple staircases and overpasses! It was quite thrilling to run in at environment with all the lights. But as I said earlier, it's not ideal for continuous running so once that was over, my co-worker and I headed out for the track.

I had no trouble adjusting back to east coast time when I returned. I slept over 9 hours on Friday evening and felt fresh for my long run on Saturday. And then I napped for almost an additional 2 hours. I logged 54.6 miles that week, which I was happy with given I was recovering from Houston and on work travel. I also came home $200 richer from the Roulette table! Lucky 14 hit twice!

In the Washington DC area, there are two sets of rankings I pay attention to: the RunWashington rankings and the =PR= Trophy Series rankings.

RunWashington (formerly called Washington Running Report) is a quarterly magazine and website. They don't do subscriptions by mail anymore, but they used to. I remember back in 2006-2009 getting that magazine in the mail and reading through the rankings. All of the runners were so much faster than me and I never thought I'd make the list.

To qualify for the rankings, you need to run at least six local races (they have a list of the USATF certified ones), with at least 3 being in the first half of the year and 3 in the second half. I ran a total of 13 races and was ranked as the 11th female. In my age group, I was ranked 7th.

To celebrate, RunWashington hosted a party in DC on a Thursday night a few weeks ago. Greg and I went with our friends Hannah and Alex. Hannah was ranked as the 6th overall female! The party was held at a bar in DC and it was fun to see people dressed in normal clothes. As fun as the party was, the highlight may have been the ice cream place Hannah found for us afterwards. The place had some crazy unique flavors like goat cheese and sweet potato, and it was delicious.

Hannah, me and Lisa
The other set of rankings I pay attention to is the =PR= trophy series. This is a series of 20+ races primarily in Northern VA. They are all very well organized, easy to get to, fairly competitive, and offer generous awards. For these rankings, runners earn points for winning age group awards and overall awards. If you place in the top 10 overall at a race, you get a certain amount of points. And you can double dip if you also win an age group award at that same race. The more races you run and the faster you run them, the more points you get. Some of these races included For The Love of It 10K, the Mother's Day 4-Miler, the Twilight Festival 4-Miler, and the Leesburg 5K.

I didn't run as many races in this series as I had the previous year, so I was surprised that I won first place in my age group. My award was a long-sleeved zip tee with the =PR= logo on it. These awards were presented at a party at the =PR= headquarters last Saturday night. Greg and I once again went with Hannah and Alex, and also our friend Lisa. This party was centered around an awards ceremony with people's names being called, whereas the RunWashington party was more of a social gathering.

Before I start logging 65+ mile weeks for Boston training, my coach decided it would be best to prepare my legs with lots and lots of hills. All of these hill workouts build leg strength so I can handle the upcoming high volume, and are also great preparation for the race itself. I'm not a huge fan of hill work, but I do think it's beneficial for the reasons above.

Monday's Hill workout
After I got back from Vegas, the next two weeks of training included 2 hill workouts each week. So a total of 4 workouts. Here they are, in order:

  • 10 x 1-minute hill repeats at 5K effort, with the jog back down recovery
  • 5 x 3-minute hill repeats at 10K effort, with the jog back down recovery
  • 8 x 90-seconds hill repeats at 5K effort, with the jog back down recovery
  • 3 x 10 minutes of continuous hills: 75 seconds uphill at 10K effort, and running back down the hill at a slightly faster pace nonstop
The last of these workouts was by far the hardest. 10 minutes of hills at 10K effort without stopping for a recovery is tough. Once I got to the top of the hill, I would want to recover, but instead, I had to turn around and immediately run down at an even faster pace. For each 10-minute segment, I ended up running up the hill 4 times. 

For 3 of these workouts I used a hill that was about 0.25 mile, with an elevation gain of about 50 feet. For the workout that required a 3-minute hill, I used a different hill which was actually steeper at certain points.

The mileage has slowly begun to creep up with 61 miles this week, including a long run of 17 miles. I really hope the weather cooperates in February and I am able to continue training without interruption!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Houston, we have a PR!

If I didn't PR, the alternate title of this blog would have been, "Houston, we have a problem!" But thankfully, no problems were encountered.

I made the decision to run the Houston half marathon about a week after the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon. Prior to that, I had been considering running the Rock 'n' Roll Arizona half this weekend, which would have been in close proximity to a conference I'm attending in Las Vegas. But upon further research, I wasn't able to get a hotel in Arizona within walking distance to the start line, and the course didn't seem PR-friendly.

So I decided I would stop off in Houston en route to Las Vegas. The race was sold out, but charity entries were available, and I figured that helping the victims of Hurricane Harvey was a worthy cause, so I signed up for the "run for a reason" program. The program simply required a donation (which was great, since I don't love fundraising) and I was set with a bib. What's better, this would be my 10th anniversary of running the Houston Half. I ran the race in 2008, setting a big, unexpected PR in 1:50:43, and learned that I performed best when I just chill out.

I wasn't looking at Houston as a redemption race, but rather an opportunity to use the fitness I had built up in my Indianapolis training cycle to run a fast half marathon. I knew that I had reached a new level of fitness and I felt that my half PR was soft at 1:33:36.

I took two full weeks off of running after Indianapolis Monumental, and then resumed training. The time off allowed my Achilles Tendonitis to heal and my body to recover from the strain of the marathon. It wasn't long before my coach started prescribing intense workouts, and I continually surpassed my expectations of how fast I would run them. For example, I ran a 3-mile tempo at a pace of 6:44, and then followed it up with a long series of very short intervals, feeling great the whole time. My weekly mileage for the six weeks of training was in the mid 50's, hitting 60 for one of the weeks.

Originally, my time goal was to run this race at a sub-7:00 pace. But as the race approached I started feeling more confident based on my workouts and modified that to a 6:55 pace, which would yield a time exactly 20 minutes faster than my 2008 time. My coach emailed me two days before the race and told me to approach the race with a clear head in terms of goals. He didn't want me to limit myself by trying to hit certain paces on the Garmin and that I should run by feel. Which is exactly what I did. No real race strategy- just run strong, push hard, and let the splits be what they were.

Before the Race
Even though Greg wasn't racing, he lovingly accompanied me to Houston. After all, I'd be away at a conference in Las Vegas for an entire week, so it was good to spend the weekend together first. We flew in on Saturday morning and arrived in plenty of time to do a shakeout run and go to the expo. I really wanted to meet up with fellow blogger Gracie, but I was communicating with her through Instagram messenger, and she was thinking I was going to text her. I had forgotten she'd given me her number. Unfortunately that never happened, but I did see her cheering for me during the race.

I wasn't at all anxious for this race. In fact, I felt like I was mentally more hyped up for the 5K I ran on New Year's Day. I was confident in my ability, so I just had to wait until race morning arrived and run hard. I slept relatively well, and didn't have any anxiety dreams about missing the start of the race, or having the race be an obstacle course, or anything like that. I actually woke up in the middle of the night with a nightmare that seemed totally unrelated to the race.

Race morning arrived and the weather was beautiful. 35 degrees, clear skies, and just a little bit of wind. I decided I would wear shorts, a singlet, and arm warmers. After reading my 2008 race report, in which I got stuck at the back of the corral and had to do a lot of weaving, I decided it would be best to head out for the start earlier than planned. The corral closed at 6:45, so I decided I wanted to be in the corral at 6:30. This meant that I didn't really get to warm up, but I had throw-away clothes that helped me stay warm until I shed them a few minutes before the start.

I said goodbye to Greg at 6:30 and he ran out to mile marker 2. At this point, the corral was fairly empty so I was able to jog around a bit. The Houston Marathon calls them "corrals" but they are more like waves, in that there are only four of them. Even though I was in the first corral, so were over 5,000 other runners. As the corral started to get crowded, I positioned myself towards the front. At 6:50, I shed my throwaway clothes and at 6:58, they called our group to approach the start line. (We were all surprised that they didn't call us up sooner, as the front of the corral was nearly a block away from the start line.)

Miles 1-4
The race started and I decided I would simply run the pace of the runners around me. I knew from my shakeout run the day before that the Garmin wouldn't be reliable for at least the first mile due to all
2 Miles into the race
the tall buildings. The street was about twice as wide as Indianapolis, so crowding wasn't an issue. Plus, I hadn't even really warmed up so I decided to look at mile one as my warm up and used it to get into a rhythm,

My feet had gone numb while waiting to start, and I had the sensation that my shoes were not tied tightly and that they would come undone at any moment. In fact, I looked down at my feet a few times just to be sure. I had to remind myself multiple times that I triple checked the tightness of the knot before the race, and this was all in my head. The shoes were fine.

About a mile into the race, I saw Gracie. And then at mile marker 2, I saw Greg. I was super excited to see him and he was cheerly loudly for me. By this point the crowd had thinned out and I was free to go at my own pace. I had the 3:00/1:30 pace group in my sights and I planned to keep them in my sights as long as possible, although I wasn't going to try and catch up.

I noticed that my splits were faster than expected (as my coach said they might be) but I simply continued on at an effort that felt like half marathon pace.

Mile 1: 7:23
Mile 2: 7:01
Mile 3: 6:53
Mile 4: 6:48

Miles 5-8
I continued to cruise along, feeling great and enjoying the race atmosphere. The course was very well supported, and the volunteers were particularly spirited. I had consumed a full packet of Generation UCAN before the race and didn't plan to take any more fuel. This worked well for me at the Shamrock Half, and I assumed it would again. I carried a water bottle for the first three miles and then ditched it. I've learned that I really don't need to drink much during a half if I hydrate well beforehand.

My official 10K split was 43:29, which put me on track for 1:31:44 (6:59 average pace). And I was still feeling really good. By this point I was thinking that I was going to get my goal of a 6:55 average pace, if not faster. I was continually seeing splits in the low 6:50s and the effort seemed completely maintainable. Nothing much remarkable happened during these miles, other than that I had gotten the feeling back in my feet, I had ditched the water bottle, and was in full-on race mode. I passed a good number of people, and few people passed me. At mile 8, the half marathon turned off from the full, which meant I knew who I was competing against.

Mile 5: 6:51
Mile 6: 6:52
Mile 7: 6:54
Mile 8: 6:55

Miles 9-11
I kept running along my merry way, when I started to notice my Garmin was in the 7's now. I thought that it must be wrong because I hadn't slowed down. The effort and pace was the same as it had been.
And the course was flattish and even downhill so it wasn't like there was a hidden hill. Weird. But I didn't worry too much, I just kept on going.

I felt strong, but this was when the race really started to get challenging. My legs felt good, but despite all my best effort, I couldn't get the Garmin to go back down into the 6's. I had to accept that I was running my hardest, but the Garmin wasn't budging. What I didn't realize until later (when I looked at a course map in relation to my splits) was that I had been unknowingly aided by a tailwind for the first half of the race, and now there was a headwind. It wasn't all that strong, but it was noticeable. My tailwind was gone, and now I had some wind resistance to combat.

A little bit after I passed the 10-mile marker, I realized that I had set a 10-mile PR. I didn't know exactly what it was, but according to my Gamin elapsed time, it was 1:09:46. My official split for the 15K was 1:05:14, which tracked me to a 1:31:45.

If I didn't have a Garmin, I never would have known that I had slowed down. The fact that I saw my slow down motivated me to push even harder, and at this point I knew I was giving my absolute max.

Mile 9: 7:02
Mile 10: 7:03
Mile 11: 7:04

Miles 12-Finish
Mile 13, running into the sun
At this point, it was all about hanging on. I knew that my goal was slipping away, but if I just held on I could still set a decent PR. Mile 12 was uphill. Mile 13 was the most challenging mile of the race, and it wasn't because it was the last mile. The sun glare was practically blinding. I couldn't see what was ahead of me, I couldn't see the other runners, and I had to be careful not to trip on the changing road surface. Apparently there was a 20K timing mat that I was completely unaware that I ran over. You can see the sun glaring on my body in the photo!

The headwind went from being a gentle breeze to a force to be reckoned with, likely due to all the tall buildings. I passed Greg with about half a mile left to go, and I told myself that I only had to push for a little bit more.

Not being able to see the finish line was hard. Usually in a race you can see the finish line and it's very motivating as a target to run to, but this time I just had to have faith that yes, this race would come to an end at some point!

Mile 12: 7:08
Mile 13: 7:16
Last bit: Unknown because of all the tall buildings!

My official time was 1:32:24, which is a PR by one minute, 12 seconds!

After the Race
The finish line area of this race is a well-oiled machine. Shortly after finishing, they route you into the
He's such a great supporter!
convention center, giving you a medal, a finisher's shirt, and post-race food. I was eager to simply get to Greg at the reunion area, but I stopped in the food hall for some hot chocolate. It was exactly what I wanted right at that time.

I met up with Greg and got my medal engraved. In over 12 years of racing, I've never once had my medal engraved, usually because I never wanted to stand around waiting. But there was no line, and it was right in front of me, so I did it!

When Greg asked me how I felt about the race, I said "so-so." I was disappointed that I didn't run my goal time, but the more I thought about it in the following hours, the more pleased and excited I got about it. We walked back to the hotel, showered, and then made our way to the airport where I would fly to Las Vegas and he would fly home. The PR cake will have to wait until next weekend.

Stats, Takeaways, and Thoughts

  • I was the 100th female finisher out of 6,100. The top 30 women all ran 1:15 or faster!
  • I placed 11th in my age group out of 1,007
  • Given how competitive this race is, I'm happy with my placement
  • Between the 15K mark and the finish line, I lost 39 seconds. It felt like a lot at the time, but it's really not all that bad
  • I took a leap of faith and didn't let the Garmin rule my pace. Even though I wasn't aiming for the low 6:50s, I ran them as they came without holding back. Being "bold" with my racing is a new thing for me, and even though it resulted in a slow down at the end, I'm glad I wasn't overly cautious.
  • Looking at the McMillan calculator, this race predicts a 5K time of 19:57! I want a sub-20:00 5K so badly I can taste it. My finish time also predicts a faster 10K, 10-mile, and marathon time than what I have ever attained, so in relative terms, this is my fastest race ever.
  • If someone would have told me 10 years ago that I would come back to Houston 10 years later, I would have thought that I would have slowed down with age. I would never have guessed I would have run a 1:32!
  • I do think I have a 6:55/pace half in me, and I'll have the opportunity to do that at RNR New Orleans in 7 weeks.
While initially I had hoped to run at least a minute faster than I did, I now realize that this race demonstrates a new level of fitness and performance, and I'm thrilled with it.

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year, Cold Day 5K

In 2017, there existed a young (well, maybe middle-aged) woman with stars in her eyes, eager to approach the new year with dreams of breaking 20 minutes in the 5K. With hope in her heart and speed in her legs, she eagerly anticipated the first day of 2018 when she would say "goodbye 20:17"-- both the year, and her 5K PR.

She would pace it perfectly. The first mile (uphill) would clock in at precisely 6:37, and from there, she would cruise downhill for the rest of the race at a pace of 6:20. Completely feasible for someone who just ran a 6:44 pace for a 3-mile tempo, and didn't even push that hard to do it. And definitely possible for someone who just ran 5 miles on a track at an average pace of 6:54, feeling like she could have run harder. She was primed for 5K excellence! While it wouldn't be easy, this middle-aged young woman was determined to give the race absolutely everything she had, glide across the finish line in 19:59, and then bake herself a PR cake.

Me and the finisher's blanket!
But then the reality of 2018 sunk in. January 1st arrived, windy and bitterly cold, with near record-breaking low temperatures. Despite these brutally harsh conditions, the young woman refused to back down on her goal of saying goodbye to 20:17 and PRing her 5K. She arrived at the race an hour before the start to pick up her bib and warmup, with her loving husband at her side. Prince Charming actually retrieved bibs for the both of them while the young woman waited in the comfort of the heated car. Once their bibs were affixed to their shirts, it was time to exit the car and warm up.

But suddenly, the young woman looked down and read the name on her bib. This bib did not belong to her! The volunteers had handed Prince Charming the wrong bibs. So the loving husband went back out in the sub-freezing cold and wind to retrieve the correct bibs.

Once everything was in order, it was time to warm up. They ventured out into the 11-degree weather, the young woman wearing an extra jacket over her race attire. They warmed up on the course, which they had scouted out the day before, just to get the lay of the land. After all, when every second counts, it's critical to know where the tangents are and get a sense of the elevation profile. The young woman had been warned by her coach, with whom she had shared the elevation profile, that this wasn't necessarily a PR course. And perhaps she could find another 5K later in the winter that had a flatter profile. But the young woman was still determined to go for it on this New Year's Day, in the cold, wind, and hills.

The 11-degree temperature wasn't so bad when running in the sunlight with the wind at their backs. But the young woman and her husband had a rude awakening during the warm up to discover that the first half mile of the course was shaded, into a headwind, and up a sizable hill.

And finally. . . it was time to start the actual race. Telling herself that she could endure anything for 20 minutes, the young woman approached the start line with all the confidence in the world. Here is her race report:

Mile 1
It wasn't a surprise that the first mile was uphill, into a headwind, with a "feels like" 1 degree temperature in the shade. I intended to run up the hill at a strong effort, but without killing myself completely. I didn't look at my Garmin as I climbed the hill, which was only about 1/3 of a mile long. But it was relatively steep. By the time I reached the top of the hill, I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me (literally) and I welcomed the downhill tailwind portion that ensued.

I glanced at the Garmin and up until that point, I had run a pace of 6:55. Not exactly what I wanted, but the mile wasn't over and so if I kept pushing, I could still make up enough time to bring that down. My Garmin beeped but I didn't hear it because the Forerunner 630 is much quieter than the 220 I am used to. And I didn't feel the pulse on my arm because the Garmin was over two layers of clothing. Afterwards, I learned that I ran the first mile in 6:52.

Speaking of wardrobe, here's what I wore, from bottom top top:

  • Mizuno Wave Sayonara shoes
  • Smart Wool socks
  • CW-X Insulator compression tights
  • Moving comfort underwear
  • Sports Bra
  • Compression arm sleeves
  • Mizuno mid-weight half zip top
  • Gloves
  • Mittens
  • "Little Hotties" hand warmers between the gloves and mittens
  • Ear warmers
  • Sunglasses
So essentially I only had one mid-weight layer on my core, which I kept most of the way un-zipped. When it's windy, I find that my arms get extraordinarily cold, so that was the reason for the arm sleeves. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't change anything about my outfit. I was obviously very cold running into the headwind in the shade, but for the tailwind sunlight portions, I was comfortable.

Mile 2:
I didn't look at my Garmin much during this race because I needed to pay close attention to icy spots and also running the tangents. But by mile 2 I felt recovered from the torture that was mile 1 and ready to run two very fast miles. And things were going well! I was cruising right along, enjoying the tailwind and the downhills and the sunshine. I put out a strong effort, and ended up running a 6:24 mile. I was pleased with this, and figured I could still PR if I ran another mile at that pace, although sub-20 was probably out.

Mile 3:
The goal here was to maintain my 6:24 pace. I felt like I could keep that effort level up for an entire mile. But the bad news was that the course went uphill again, and the last 0.4 mile was directly into a headwind. I felt like I was running at my absolute max. It felt like I was putting out a sub 6:20 pace. But after awhile I glanced down at my Garmin and saw that I had slowed down significantly. It was crazy that just one week ago I ran a 3-mile tempo at a pace of 6:44 and I wasn't pushing all that hard. And now, a 6:44 pace was the absolute hardest I could run. I logged a 6:41 for that final mile.

The finish
I still had little ways to go before the finish and at this point I knew that my goals were not happening. I still pushed hard to to the finish, but I didn't have my typical spirited kick. I gave up a
Post race: Trying to get my hands un-numb
little bit during that last part but I'm okay with that. My pace for the last 0.18 was 6:57. Uphill. Headwind. Real Feel of like 1 degree.

When I had mapped out the course using "map my run" it gave me a distance of 3.15. So I wasn't surprised that the course was long. Afterwards, Greg and my other friends who had ran the course reported that their Garmins read abnormally long for a 5K. The course was not actually USTAF certified, and it was the "backwards" version of the standard course run in that area, so the cones could have prevented runners from hitting the tangents. But in any event, I don't really care about the course being long because I wasn't going to PR anyway. It just means I got to extend the workout!

Final Thoughts and Takeaways:
I'll admit it was probably too ambitious of me to think that I could PR in these weather conditions and on this course. 12ish degrees with 10-15 mph winds is not a recipe for a first-time sub-20. But I wanted to at least give myself the opportunity because I truly believe my fitness is there. I've run some really strong workouts over the past few week with paces that indicate a sub-20 is within my reach. I just need a good certified course and favorable weather.

The positive:
  • This was a good VO2 Max workout for the upcoming Houston Half marathon
  • It was fun to see my running friends including Cheryl, Cristina, and Rochelle
  • I did push really hard, and I know that I couldn't have run any faster, except for maybe the last 1/4 mile
  • I won first place in my age group and was the 4th overall female finisher
  • Greg ran a 20:18, which is a super cool way to start 2018
  • I tried to be smart with my approach by scouting out the course the day before and having a pacing strategy
The not-so positive:
  • I lost my mental toughness with about 1/4 mile to go, running a 6:57 pace to the finish line
  • I ran much slower than I expected to-- this is one of my slowest 5Ks in the past year
  • My official race time was 21:13 (6:50 pace) even though my Garmin pace was 6:40.
  • I tapered for this race which meant I lost the opportunity to do a long run prior to the Houston half in two weeks
  • The weather is going to be even colder than this for the next 5 days, which means I will have to either train on a treadmill (not fun) or be ridiculously uncomfortable while running (also not fun) 
  • No photos for the blog or Instagram- photos don't happen when it's a "real feel" of 1 degree.
At least the temperature for this race was in the double-digits. We're looking at single-digit temperatures in the mornings for the upcoming week, and if I run outside, I'll have to be very careful about icy patches, with only my headlamp as a light source. So, that's all kind of depressing. I love running and it brings joy to my life. It doesn't exactly bring joy to my life when it's like this.

And so the young woman, feeling mildly defeated by the day's events, proceeded on to the rest of 2018 with-- still with stars in her eyes, and hoping this will be the year of the sub-20 5K. After all, Prince Charming ran a 20:18 on the first day of 2018, so this year was bound to be magical.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

19,000 miles in 10 Years

On January 1, 2008, I started an online training log at RunningAhead. Every day for ten years I have religiously logged my mileage, pace, route, and shoe. I have loads of data, and for a data junkie like me, this means I get to crank out some fun stats. As for my sentimental side, I get to reflect back on ten years of running and racing.

I've logged exactly 18,997 total miles in my training log as of today, which means I will be just over 19,000 come December 31. This has taken me 2,845 hours with an average pace of 9:00. That is 118.5 days of nonstop running!

Here are the averages from this 10-year period:
  • 1,900 miles a year
  • 36.5 miles a week
  • 5.2 miles a day
This chart tells the story:

In 2011, I was injured twice, but I also logged many miles in the pool (not shown here) just to be on the safe side. My slump in 2016 was due to having mono, and I also had mono in 2012.

Over the past ten years, my PRs have dropped as follows:

  • 5K from 23:22 to 20:17
  • 10K from 48:54 to 41:51
  • Half marathon from 1:50:43 to 1:33:36 (hoping to make that 1:30:43 next month)
  • Marathon from 3:51:49 to 3:21:54
Some people can make this kind of progress in five years, but I plateaued from 2011-2014. Also, I started racing in 2005, so these are not my slowest times. 

107 pairs of shoes! All of which have at least 100 miles on them. My shoe that got the highest mileage before retirement was the Nike Air Structure Triax +12. And that mileage was 247! I typically retire my shoes at around 180 miles, because that's when I start to feel them break down and my legs begin to hurt.
  • 39 Pairs of Brooks Adrenaline
  • 27 Pairs of Nike Lunarglide
  • 16 Pairs of Mizuno Wave Elixir
  • 15 Pairs of Mizuno Wave Inspire
  • 8 Pairs of Nike Air Structure Triax
  • 5 Pairs of Mizuno Wave Sayonara
Long Runs
I've completed 43 runs that were 20+ miles in length (but not actual marathons).
  • Slowest: 21.5 miles at an average pace of 9:49 in September 2014
  • Fastest: 20 miles at an average pace of 7:55 in February 2017
  • Longest: 24 miles at an average pace of 8:47 in April 2016
  • Hottest: 22 miles at an average pace of 9:05 in 76 degrees in August 2011
  • Coldest: 20 miles at an average pace of 8:57 in 23 degrees in February 2015
My hottest run ever was the Potomac River Running Twilight Festival 4-Miler in June 2016, when it was 91 degrees. Shortly after this race, I came down with mono. My coldest run ever was a 6.3-mile training run in 9 degrees in February 2015. 

I thought it would be cool to include my favorite photos from each year:

2008: Shamrock Marathon. The look of joy and pain as I approach the finish line toward a new PR of 3:51:49.

2009: New Jersey Marathon. Running in a torrential downpour killed my spirit and my time, resulting in hypothermia.

2010: The GW Parkway Classic 10-miler. I ran this race as a training run, and I love how happy I look.

2011: The Run Geek Run! 8K. I surprised myself during this race running much faster than expected, and this photo makes me look tough.

2012: The Potomac River Marathon. I DNF'ed due to race anxiety, but I tried my best to be relaxed before I bonked.

2013: The Cherry Blossom 10-Miler. I was disappointed that I didn't run a PR at this race, but I definitely gave it 100%.

2014: Boo! Run for Life 10K. This was a huge PR for me shortly after starting to work with my new coach: 43:56. I was still wearing the singlet of my former team, however.

2015: The Richmond Half Marathon. I ran this race in 1:35:08, which was much a PR by over two minutes from the PR I had set just four weeks prior!

2016: The Boston Marathon. No explanation needed!

2017: Semper Fi 5K. A new PR of 20:17!

It's been an amazing ten years. Running has added so much to my life with all of its ups and downs, but mainly ups. Hopefully I will be healthy enough to generated another 10 year's worth of data!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Houston Half Marathon Training Update

As I casually mentioned in my previous blog post, I'm running the Houston Half Marathon on January 14th. I knew I had built up a good deal of fitness for the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, even though my finish time didn't show it. So I figured that I could build on that fitness to run a speedy half marathon by mid-January. I've also been itching to race a half marathon. Of course my priority was healing my Achilles tendonitis, so I took two weeks off before jumping back into training. A few other reasons why I chose to run Houston:
Houston Half Marathon 2008
  • I ran the Houston Half Marathon in 2008, so this will be my ten-year anniversary. During that race, my watch stopped working so I had to run completely based on feel. Because I had been injured for the first two weeks of December, I was expecting to be much slower than my PR. However, I really surprised myself and walked away with a two-minute PR! And I attributed that to my relaxed attitude about the race: no pressure, not watching my splits, just running by feel and having fun. My time was 1:50:43.
  • This is an excellent opportunity to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey. I can't even imagine what it must be like to lose your home. I'm running as a charity runner for the Salvation Army, specifically aimed at helping the Harvey victims.
  • It's "on my way" to Vegas. I need to be in Las Vegas on Monday the 15th for work, and I actually saved money by doing a stop-over in Houston on Southwest Airlines.
My original goal for Houston when I registered was to run a sub-7:00 pace, but based on recent workouts, I think I could possibly swing a 6:55 pace and run it exactly 20 minutes faster than I did in 2008. That's an average of two minutes a year! So, my revised goal is 1:30:43. Last year Houston was hot, so hopefully this year the weather cooperates and I have an "on" day. This goal time would be a PR by nearly three minutes.

In terms of training, my weekly mileage has been in the low 50's for the past three weeks, and this week it will be 59 after I do my 30-minute recovery run tomorrow. Here's a recap of this week.

Monday: 6.6 miles easy at 9:08 average
This is the slowest I have run in a long time. I received an email from my coach on Sunday night telling me that I would have a big week of training and that I should run the easy runs very easy. I took that to heart and ran very easy!

Tuesday: 3-mile tempo + intervals
The prescribed workout was: 3 miles tempo, 3-minute recovery jog, 2 x 90 seconds hard, 4 x 60 seconds hard, 4 x 45 seconds hard, 4 x 30 seconds hard, 6 x 15 seconds hard, all with equal duration recovery jogs. I programmed this workout into my Garmin so that it would beep at the start/stop of each interval, and then give me exact lap paces for each. I couldn't believe how fast my tempo was! The miles were 6:51, 6:42, 6:36. That's an average pace of 6:44! And even after that was done, I still had gas in the tank for the short intervals, which started at a pace of 6:25, and ended at 5:48. Last year at this time, 6:44 was my 5K PR pace, and now it's my 3-mile tempo pace. Including warm up and cool down, I ran a total of 9.8 miles.

Wednesday: 7.8 miles easy at 8:57 average
Thursday, Dec. 21

Another easy run that I took very easy.

Thursday: 2 x 3 miles at HMP + intervals
Another workout combining lactate threshold work and VO2 max! The exact workout was 2 x 3 miles at half marathon pace with a 4-minute recovery jog in between, followed by 6 x (1 minute hard, 1 minute easy). This is the workout that makes me think I can run a 6:55 pace in Houston. My half marathon pace miles, which I ran based on effort, averaged 6:50, and the pace felt controlled. I could have definitely run faster. Exact splits were 7:00, 6:52, 6:48, 6:50, 6:49, 6:45. The 1-minute "hard" paces averaged out to 6:10. Including warm up and cool down, I ran a total of 11.4 miles. It was 30 degrees with no wind, which is ideal weather for me. My route was not pancake flat-- it was a series of small inclines and declines with two little hills, similar to how Houston is.

Friday: 6.7 miles easy at 8:43 average
A little faster than my other easy runs, but it felt like I was going much slower, surprisingly.

Saturday: 13.8 miles at 8:40 average
I kept this run nice and easy, with the first half averaging 8:53 and the second half averaging 8:29. My legs actually felt pretty good but I didn't want to push it too much.

Tomorrow I'll do a 30-minute recovery run and finish off the week with just over 59 miles.

Overall, I feel really good about this short training cycle. I'm basically just building a bit of extra fitness on top of my marathon fitness and seeing how things play out on race day. I haven't run a solid half marathon in nearly two years, so I'm itching to get out there and race one that I'm really well prepared for. 1:30:43, here I come!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Time Crunch

I spend the majority of my life feeling pressed for time.

I wake up, get dressed to go run, run for an hour or more, spend 45 minutes getting ready for work, commute for 40 minutes, work all day long, commute home for 50 minutes, and then I have about two hours to relax before it's time to clean up from dinner (which Greg cooks) and go to bed. And this is a life without having kids!

I usually feel like I am running behind and I'm always rushing around to get stuff done or go somewhere. I have often thought that I would love the option to work 4 days a week and get paid 80% of my salary. I value my time above all else. But of course, full-time salaried jobs don't work that way in the United States. Having a job means that you're all-in. Don't get me wrong-- I love my job. But the commute + all the running I do puts me in constant time-crunch mode.

I totally recognize that I am choosing to be this busy and I could opt for a job closer to home. I could move. I could run less. Or, I could find ways to make sure that the little "free" time I do have is not also occupied with things like running errands, cleaning the house, etc.

Over the summer, Greg read an article that showed how spending money on things that save time leads to the most happiness. I totally agreed with the article, which is how I justify spending up to $10/day in tolls to take the "fast" lanes. (Yes, a 40-50 minute commute is "fast" when compared to what it would take without the toll lanes.) After reading the article, he promptly hired a lawn service to take care of mowing our yard. He told me I should hire a cleaning service if I wanted. I didn't do this though, as that would require time to research, and I would want to be home while cleaners were at the house.

Instacart: 1.5 hours a week saved
Over the past month, however, I've really felt the time crunch with all of the additional "things" to do for the holidays. Holiday shopping, holiday gatherings, holiday cards, and holiday everything! On Thanksgiving, my sister told me about a grocery delivery service she uses to avoid having to go shop. It's called Instacart and for $149/year, you can have a groceries delivered to you from virtually any near by store: Wegman's, Giant, Harris Teeter, Costco, Whole Foods, CVS and more. There's also a 10-15% up-charge on the food, plus any tip you decide to leave the delivery person.

When Greg and I heard about this, we thought it would be life-changing and so far it has been. Each weekend, we typically spend 15 minutes driving to the grocery store, 45-50 minutes shopping for a week's worth of food, and then 15 minutes driving home. We prefer to shop at Wegman's and the closest one is about a 15-minute drive. In August, we will have a Wegman's within one mile of our house! But that's a long way off. When you include unpacking all the groceries, this ends up being about an hour and a half of time over the weekend, which we'd rather spend relaxing. Another benefit is being able to get groceries in the middle of the week instead of having to wait. This will cut down on eating out, thus indirectly saving us money. But as I said above, I'm at a point in my life where I'd rather save time than save money.

Dyson Hair Dryer: 1 hour a week saved
I've been eying the Dyson hair dryer since it came out about a year ago. It's supposed to dry your hair much faster, eliminate frizz, and be much healthier for your hair. For someone who spends 15-20 minutes each morning drying her hair, this sounded amazing-- if these claims were true. With a $400
Smooth, frizz-free hair in no time!
price tag, I simply couldn't justify buying this hair dryer for the longest time. But finally, when a 20% holiday sale came about, I pulled the trigger. And I was not disappointed! This hair dryer is twice as fast as my previous one, but not as hot! And it leaves my hair feeling as smooth as it does after I go to a salon, and without all the frizz. I love, love, love it!

House Cleaning Service: 1 hour a week saved
To be honest, I actually don't even spend a full hour a week cleaning. I only clean our shower once a month, and I never touch the guest bathroom. I vacuum about once a month, and I hardly ever dust. I've never cleaned the inside of our microwave or our ovens. I've mopped the kitchen floor about 3 times this year. Yup, my blog is all about honesty! Generally speaking, I do clean the house, but usually "cleaning the house" is an event that can take several hours. Our house always "looks" okay, but I have always felt a little guilty for never investing the time in truly deep cleaning it.

After years and years of wanting a cleaning service, but never enough to allow strangers to touch my stuff, I finally bit the bullet. My friend Rochelle told me that she hired a really good cleaning service who totally deep cleaned her home. Greg told me that if I wanted to have them come on Friday, he'd be home from work to supervise. Perfect! Greg actually gets every other Friday off work because his company has an alternative work schedule of 9-hour days.

Not only did I not have to worry about researching a good service, but I also didn't have to worry about trying to be home when they came. I still didn't like the idea of them touching my stuff, but I moved enough things out of the way beforehand that I felt okay with it. Rochelle was right- the cleaners did an amazing job, and we've reached a level of "clean" I never thought possible!

Time Savings
Now that I don't have to go to the grocery store, clean the house, or spend 20 minutes drying my hair in the morning, what am I going to do with all of this extra time? Probably nothing other than simply feeling like my life is less hectic, less stressful, and more enjoyable.

Quick Running Update
Track workout at sunrise

I realize I haven't updated this blog with my training lately, but things are are going really well. I've been posting my workouts on Instagram almost every day. My weekly mileage has been in the low 50's for the past several weeks, and I'm gearing up to run the Houston Half Marathon in mid-January.

I've been doing a lot of workouts focused on speed, and I think my fitness is in a good spot right now based on my paces. I'll run a 5K on New Year's Day with the hopes of a modest PR, and then make my way to Houston two weeks later. My Achilles tendonitis is practically gone, and I've only felt it about 3 times this entire week! For just a few minutes at a time.

With all the actual racing I do, hopefully my life will feel like less of a race with these small time-saving strategies.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Insertional Achilles Tendonitis Recovery

If you've been following this blog you'll know that I have been struggling with insertional Achilles Tendonitis for the past few months. I'm delighted to say (and I hope I am not speaking too soon) that I have made a near-full recovery, or at the least have experienced a dramatic improvement. I'm writing this blog primarily for my own records, and also in the hopes that it helps someone else out there. I am not a medical professional, but I thought I would share my experience and what helped me recover.

This all started in mid-July when I noticed stiffness on the backs of my heels when waking up in the morning and taking those first few steps. I didn't think it was a big deal at the time because it wasn't painful (stiffness is the best term for it) and I really only felt it when I first got out of bed. After a few weeks, the issue became more noticeable while on the Great Alaskan Running Cruise. It still wasn't painful, but I felt the stiffness more frequently, like after running.

At this point, I consulted with Dr. Google and diagnosed myself with Achilles tendonitis in both feet. What I didn't realize, though, is that there are two types of Achilles tendonitis: insertional and midpoint. The treatment for each of these is different. However, without knowing this fact (and that's the danger of Dr. Google) I started doing the exercises that had proven to heal midpoint tendonitis.

I did these exercises every day throughout the month of August. The exercise was standing on the edge of a step, and doing heel drops so that my heel fell below the step. This was slightly painful to do, but the article I read said that these exercises should feel painful. I also stretched my calves thoroughly each day.

The pain gradually worsened in that I would feel it after almost every run. My runs were completely pain-free (with maybe a hint of stiffness at the beginning), but then I would spend 40 minutes driving to work, which resulted in them stiffening up substantially. I would get out of my car and the first few steps would be really painful. The pain would last for the first hour of the day and then subside. This pattern continued for a month before I finally decided to see my sports chiropractor.

Rehab Exercises
My sports chiropractor told me that by stretching and doing those exercises, I was treating midpoint Achilles tendonitis, not insertional tendonitis. He told me that stretching my calves and sinking my heel below the step was putting additional strain on the tendon and making things worse! Oops! He told me that I should do eccentric heel drops on each foot, but on a flat surface. He told me that I should use as much weight as tolerated because the added weight would stimulate healing.

Ideally I would back off of the training, but given that I had a marathon approaching, he told me I could continue running, as long as I did the exercises every day. And once the marathon was over, he advised that I take a few weeks off to let the tendons completely recover.

I was very good about doing the exercises and I saw a notable improvement within just a few days. What a relief! I wore a backpack with 20 lbs worth of weights inside while I did the heel drops. I did 3 sets of 15 on each side, as prescribed, twice a day. As prescribed, I did these very slowly (lasting 3 seconds for the full drop) starting from half the height of full tippy-toes.

I continued training, running 60-70 miles a week, and sure enough, the pain worsened again a month later. Even though my actual runs were pain free, my heels really hurt afterwards. After a 22-miler, they hurt all day long, so I ended up taking 3 full days off from running. The most worrisome part about this was that my heels hurt when I was at rest, whereas typically they would only hurt when walking. The time off worked, with the pain diminishing significantly, and I was able to resume training, with just three weeks left to go.

The Smith Machine
I lower the bar and hold it in a relaxed position
The marathon came and went. My heels were mostly pain-free during the race, but they were extremely painful afterwards. With every step I took I could feel a burning sensation! I took two weeks off from running and spent this time focusing on recovery. After doing more research on insertional Achilles Tendonitis, I realized that my backpack-with-weights approach was not allowing me to add enough weight to stimulate tendon recovery. These exercises didn't hurt at all, and apparently they were supposed to hurt a little bit.

So, I discovered the Smith Machine at gym in my office building. This machine allows me to do the heel drops with a lot more weight, as it is easier to use the bar than wear a backpack. I simply hold the bar with my arms in a relaxed position down at my thighs. I started off with 25 lbs + the weight of the bar and after about a week, upped it to 30 lbs + the weight of the bar. I started doing the exercises twice a day, 15 reps on each side. And I am still doing them at this level.

Doing the heel drops with this machine has helped me more than anything. As soon as I discovered it, my Achilles felt dramatically better within just two days. I've now been using this machine for three weeks, and I am close to 100% recovered. By that I mean that most days are completely pain free, and on the days I do feel it, it's only for a minute at a time, like once or twice during the day. This injury developed gradually so I imagine it will take awhile to become 100% pain free 100% of the time. But I am very close to being there.

Here are some questions I had about this injury, and the answers I discovered. Once again, I am not a medical professional so take this as one runner's experience and opinion!

Shoes I wear to avoid additional tendon strain
Q: What type of shoes should I wear when not running?
A: My sports chiropractor advised me to wear a backless shoe with a chunky 1-2 inch heel, and that the heel height would relieve the strain on the tendon. While high heels are not a good long-term solution, they did allow me to be pain-free while walking around, and in order to recover fully, it's necessary to reduce strain on the tendon as much as possible.

Q: How do I know how much weight to use for the heel drops?
A: I started with a low weight (15 lbs in the backpack) and worked my way up. I think it's supposed to slightly hurt in the area of pain, but not horribly so. All of the articles I've read say "once you can do this without pain, then up the weight." So I assume there should be a little bit of pain or you aren't using a heavy enough weight. I saw the most improvement when I discovered the Smith machine and used 25 lbs plus the weight of the bar.

Q: How do I know if I should run?
A: This is a tough question, especially if you are pain-free while running. I think it really depends on how bad the situation is, and you should consult a medical professional. When my Achilles started to ache all the time (even when not walking) I knew it was time to stop running altogether until they calmed down. Recovery is not linear-- some days are better and some days are worse. It's important to look for a trend towards improvement and if you aren't seeing that, then it means you should reduce your mileage or stop running.

Q: What causes insertional Achilles tendonitis?
A: In my case, I think it was a change in footwear. I had been using a 10mm drop firm shoe for my speed work for the past decade, and then I changed to an 8mm drop cushy shoe in June. Even though this is only 2mm difference, my heel was getting even closer to the ground because of the cushiness of the shoe. My sports chiropractor cautioned me that those heel drop numbers can be deceiving because you have to take into account how stiff/firm the shoe is. I have limited ankle mobility, so I am not a candidate for a low heel drop shoe. Generally speaking, a high heel-to-toe ratio is best for preventing Achilles tendonitis.

Q: Should I ice or heat the tendon?
A: I've gotten conflicting guidance on this from multiple trusted sources. I tried icing my heels once after a run and 5 minutes in, they started burning really badly. So I nixed ice. Tendonitis means that the tendon is inflamed, so heat isn't a great idea either. However, heating the lower calf to get blood flow to the area is a good idea before runs.

Q: What's the best form of cross training?
Getting ready to go deep water running!
A: I was reluctant to use the elliptical machine or the bike because those machines can place strain on the tendon by forcing the foot to flex upwards. Swimming and pool running were a good option for me because I don't move my feet much when I do those activities. A more skilled swimmer might potentially move his/her feet more and thus irritate the tendon. I am not all that skilled!

Q: What about a night splint?
A: My podiatrist gave me a night boot/splint thing to wear while sleeping, but my sports chiropractor thought this was a bad idea. What to do? Since the boot didn't fit me anyway, I never used it, but I know some people have had relief with it. It basically keeps your foot in a neutral position overnight (not allowing the tendon to shorten/relax) so that when you get up and start walking around, your tendon has adjusted to being lengthened.

Q: Can the tendon rupture?
A: My sports chiro and my podiatrist both told me that this would not happen from long distance running. A rupture occurs from sudden force, which is more likely to happen in soccer or basketball. I ran a marathon with insertional Achilles tendonitis and it didn't rupture.

My best advice to anyone struggling with insertional Achilles tendonitis is to see a doctor, PT, or sports chiropractor. It's important to have a correct diagnosis and to pinpoint what caused the issue. It's also important to have a medical professional watch you do the exercises so that you know you are doing them correctly.