Thursday, November 27, 2014

Every Second Counts: Turkey Trot Race Report

When I qualified for Boston last month with not a second to spare, I realized the importance of seconds while racing. Things like running the tangents, avoiding weaving, and being quick about water stations all really matter, no matter how short or long the race.

This morning, I ran my 9th consecutive Virginia Run Turkey Trot 5K. I'm very thankful that I've been able to run this race since 2006 without injury. My fitness for this race usually depends on what fall marathon I ran, how well I recovered from it, and how much time I had afterwards to knock out some fast workouts.

This year, I was pretty confident in my ability to PR. I took 9 days off after the Columbus marathon, but then had nearly 4 weeks of training that included some interval work.Two weeks prior to the marathon, I shaved over a minute off of my 10K PR from 2011, so I figured I could probably take at least 10 seconds off of my 5K PR, which was also set in the fall of 2011.

Before the Race
Greg and I parked in our normal spot and did our normal warm up, just under two miles. The weather was perfect. Overcast and 33. I wore my CWX capri pants and a light weight long-sleeved shirt. The pavement was still wet with a few icy patches from yesterday's snow event, but safe enough to run on.

I know this course very well, and my splits are always very similar. The second mile has a large hill, so that's always the slowest mile. The last mile is slightly downhill, so that's usually the fastest mile, if I can hold onto my effort level.

When I PR'ed at this race in 2011, my splits were 7:00, 7:05, 6:42 with a time of 21:29. I wanted to run a similar pattern today, but with everything about 5 seconds per mile faster.

Mile 1
This race is notorious for being very crowded with kids and slower runners lined up at the front. Greg and I lined up close to the front, but the problem was that the people behind us went out at like a 6:30 pace for the first quarter mile and then slowed down, which meant a lot of people to pass. I didn't want to waste energy on weaving, so I wasn't as aggressive pace-wise as I could have been. I felt like I was putting out a hard effort and I didn't worry that I was slightly slower than planned.

My first mile clocked in at 7:01 and it felt tough. I was a little surprised that it felt as hard as it did. When I ran my 10K six weeks ago I ran some 7:03 miles that didn't feel nearly as hard, but I guess that course was flat and this one has hills. The thought crossed my mind that a PR wasn't likely but I immediately dismissed it and told myself that it was definitely still possible.

Mile 2
This is the mile with the big hill. One of my goals for the race was to stay strong on this hill and to not let it slow me down. This mile has always been my slowest of the race, but with a 7:01 first mile, I really wanted to speed up and not slow down.

Before the hill I developed a strong rhythm and cadence that was keeping me at about a 6:55 pace. I told myself to keep up the pace, and increase the effort. Typically my strategy is to run an even effort level, which means slowing down on hills. But today I told myself to run a steady pace, and just be mentally tough up the hill.

It worked, and for the first time ever, mile 2 was faster than mile 1 at 6:54.

Mile 3
I wanted to really drive it home here, but things were getting hard. 5Ks hurt. They hurt a lot. It's a constant mental struggle to tell yourself to endure that kind of pain and not slow down.

I had a few women in my sights that I wanted to pass during this mile. I think I passed two of them and I'm not sure about the other one because the finish line is a bit of a blur. I had remembered this mile being mainly downhill, but there were some inclines that really hurt. I clocked a 6:45.

The last 0.13 + Finish
I usually have a very strong final kick and regret not starting it sooner. But that was not the case today. I stayed strong, with a 6:15 pace for that last bit, but there is no way I could have started it sooner. I know I gave 100% and no less.

My Garmin credits me with a 6:52 average pace and my official race time was 21:30. That's just one second off of my PR.

I placed 3rd in my age group out of 242
I was the 15th female out of 1,351

My first age group win at this race!  And with 10-year age groups too!!!  I wanted to stay for my award, but it was just too cold to hang around in such a lightweight shirt. Hopefully they will mail me whatever it is won.

Even though I didn't PR, I wasn't disappointed. My immediate reaction was I qualified for Boston by one second, so if I miss a 5K PR by one second, it's really not that big of a deal. In other words, I am so thankful for that one second in my marathon, that I'm not going to get upset about not having that second today.

Plus, I ran this race hard. I don't think I could have found an extra second. I guess I'm a little surprised that I wasn't faster, given how much time I shaved off of my 10K. But I know I gave it my all.

Final thoughts & takeaways

  • I finally won an age group award at this race, after 9 years!
  • This was also the first time that the hill in mile 2 didn't slow me down
  • Next year, I will be more aggressive on that first mile and not afraid to weave if necessary.
  • Every second counts, and I need to remember that when things get tough
Now it's time to enjoy Thanksgiving!






Monday, October 20, 2014

The Agony and the Ecstasy of a "Perfect" BQ



A Six-year Journey
March 2008. Upon completion of the Shamrock marathon in Virginia Beach, with a shiny new PR of 3:51:49 I set out to qualify for the Boston Marathon. My first six marathons were all PRs, and significant ones, and I had trained for them on relatively low weekly mileage. I figured I would bump the mileage up into the 50 mile range, follow a tried and true plan and qualify in the fall. Easy peasy.

But I got really sick that fall and wasn't able to race the marathon. And on the following attempt in January 2009, the weather was abnormally hot in Phoenix, and I ended up run-walking my way to a 4:10. I prayed for cooler weather for an April marathon of that same year, and got my wish, along with a dose of hypothermia and an unsatisfying 40-second PR. An injury prevented me from racing the Toronto Waterfront marathon that fall, and in the Spring of 2010, I was once again greeted with abnormally high temperatures and my first DNF. I tried to make up for it by running the Bob Potts marathon six weeks later, but I once again bonked at the end, finishing in a disappointing 3:53. Agony.
Potomac River Marathon, 2012

That fall, I didn't make a BQ attempt and instead ran with Greg during his first marathon in NYC. In the spring, I ended up with multiple stress fractures in my shins, which sidelined me from racing. By the time the fall of 2011 rolled around, I had put so much pressure on myself to finally qualify for Boston that my anxiety got the better of me. I ended up bonking big time at the Milwaukee Lakefront marathon for no other reason than an inability to arrive at the race rested and relaxed. At one point, I felt so defeated that I started crying and laid down in the grass somewhere near mile 19. Agony.

I once again attempted Shamrock in the spring of 2012, and had to drop out at the halfway point due to a combination of anxiety and heat exhaustion. I made another attempt six weeks later at the Potomac River Marathon, which also resulted in a DNF due to an elevated heart rate caused by anxiety. Agony.

That's when I started to see a sports psychologist to address my performance anxiety issues.

But then I got mono, crushing any hopes of a fall marathon. In the Spring of 2013, I was in excellent shape for the B&A trail marathon, but some stomach cramping and digestive issues landed me a very modest PR of 3:48. I took a few seconds off of that 3:48 in Chicago of the same year, running the race on a very short, 7-week training cycle due to a stress reaction in my shin during July/August.

Finally, I made some significant headway last spring at the Mississauga marathon where I pushed through a very windy course to get a 3:43. Ecstasy!

During this six-year period, a lot of other stuff happened. Boston qualifying standards became more difficult and I moved into the the 35-39 age bracket. I won age group awards at almost every distance, including the marathon. My times at the shorter race distances fell significantly. My half marathon time dropped by 9 minutes, my 10K time dropped by over 5 minutes, and my 5K time dropped by 2 minutes. But the marathon wasn't really budging.

Injuries, illness, anxiety, weather-- at least one of these factors seemed to be the rule rather than the exception when it came to my marathons. But my desire never waned. Nor did my will.

October 2014
In order to know what works for you in running, you have to try different approaches. For the first time in over three years, I changed my training program. I got a new coach, who built me a custom program with new types of workouts that I had never done before.

I was in the best shape of my life, and shaved over a minute off of my 10K PR just two weeks prior to the Columbus marathon.

I was also doing great from a mental perspective. I slept very well in the week leading up to the race, despite a major career change. I arrived at the race feeling excited, relaxed, confident and simply ready.

The only "watch out" on my list was that my right hip was not 100%. It had started aching about 10 days before the race, resulting in more of a taper than originally planned. I knew it would probably hurt during the race, but I didn't think it would stop me.

Before the Race
It was a very typical race morning for Greg and me. We ate breakfast, got dressed, walked to the start line and waited in the corral. Everything went smoothly and the weather was ideal. Low 40's and sunny.

My pacing strategy was to go out at a pace of 8:20, but then speed up slightly to run a half marathon of around 1:49:00. Then, I wanted to negative split, resulting in a time of around 3:35 (give or take 2 minutes in either direction).  I was in new territory with my fitness level and relaxed mental state, so I had no idea what I was capable of. It was exciting!

Miles 1-7
What an exciting race start! There were fireworks loud music, all sorts of lights. I felt like a rock star! I ran with Greg for the first mile and then turned my headphones on after he ran ahead. It was crowded. I think this race has over 15,000 participants if you include all the half marathoners. I knew that with so many people blocking my view, running the tangents would be impossible for the first half.

My hip started to hurt at around mile 5. Instead of worrying, I told myself "think of it this way, you don't have a bad hip--- you have one good hip!" I stayed really relaxed during these early miles and everything felt great, as it tends to do at the beginning of a marathon. I was really focused on my music during these miles, and that definitely helped me relax.

Mile 1: 8:41
Mile 2: 8:34
Mile 3: 8:14
Mile 4: 8:16
Mile 5: 8:10
Mile 6: 8:08 (downhill)
Mile 7: 8:23 (uphill)

Miles 8-14
These were the glory miles. Everything felt so wonderful. I was speeding up according to plan. Well, not exactly to plan. The second half of the first half of Columbus is mainly downhill. (This makes me
really want to go back there and run the half marathon). I was just cruising miles 8-13. I was going a little bit faster than planned, but it was downhill, it felt easy, and I had no idea what I was capable of.

I also realized that my Garmin was beeping well before the mile markers. About 0.2 mile before each marker. I was doing a miserable job at running the tangents simply because I couldn't see when the turns and curves were coming up. This meant that my Garmin pace would be faster than my actual race pace. I knew this wasn't something I should be focusing on, so I quickly got that thought out of my head.

I stopped during mile 11 to refill my hand-held water bottle. It took me about 20 seconds, which I hated, but I figure it made up for not having to stop at any stations prior to that point. According to the race results website, I passed 49 people during the first half of the course and 67 people passed me. Interesting stat. My half marathon split was 1:48:46, which was almost exactly what I had planned. It gave me a huge confidence boost that I was executing well. Ecstasy.

Mile 8: 8:12
Mile 9: 8:05
Mile 10: 8:08
Mile 11: 8:23 (water bottle filling)
Mile 12: 8:17
Mile 13: 8:06
Mile 14: 8:08

Miles 15-20
Mile 16 through a stadium
Ouch. I knew that this would be the toughest part of the course and was mentally prepared. Miles 17-19 are a net uphill, and there were some pretty large ones in there. I kept telling myself it was going to get better, and not to worry if I slowed down a little bit. I knew that a downhill section would be coming once I reached mile 19.

It was hard, and it took a lot out of me. More than expected. At mile 18, I ditched my hand-held water bottle even though I still needed it to take one more gel. It was just too exhausting to be carrying it and I needed to be pumping my arms on the hills. These hills were not as steep or as long as they were in Mississauga, but for whatever reason, they just hurt a lot more. And my left hip was in full-on pain mode. Agony.

Mile 15: 8:14
Mile 16: 8:15
Mile 17: 8:16
Mile 18: 8:40
Mile 19: 8:41
Mile 20: 8:20

Miles 21-25
These miles were advertised as the fastest of the course and my coach told me that this is where he really wanted me to speed up and hammer home. Well, I ended up just being happy to hang on to a decent pace rather than speeding up. My original plan was to be running these last miles at a sub 8:10 pace, but that just wasn't happening. Aside from my hip (which was really killing me at this point), my legs felt really strong and not as tired as they normally are at this point in the race. The limiting factor was my energy level and overall feeling of fatigue.

I think the problem in these last miles was my lack of nutrition and hydration. I had one more gel that I planned to take at mile 22, and I had to stop at a water station to do so since my bottle was gone. When I did that, my reflexes had me spitting the gu out of my mouth just as quickly as I squeezed it in. And then I tried having some water, and I spit that out as well. My stomach wasn't hurting me, but it clearly didn't want to take in anything.

I was super frustrated that I had wasted 15 seconds at a water stop where I failed to get any nutrition or hydration. Agony.

I pushed forward. I felt like death and every time I started to question why I put myself through this
torture, I immediately replaced those thoughts with "you can do it" and "stay strong". At this point, I had cut off the music in my headphones because it had come to be more like noise than anything else. At Mississauga, the music really helped me all the way through the finish, but that was not the case here.

I started to think about my finish time in hopes that it would motivate me to stay strong and keep pushing the pace even though it hurt so much. At this point, all I wanted was a sub 3:40 and a BQ. I knew my original 3:35 goal was out the door, but I told myself a BQ was still salvageable.

Mile 21: 8:22
Mile 22: 8:18 (including the water stop!)
Mile 23: 8:25
Mile 24: 8:38
Mile 25: 8:24

Mile 26 and the Finish
During the last mile, I started thinking about my finish time as motivation. I told myself I had to speed up if I wanted to qualify for Boston. I thought about all of the years of hard work I had put into this. All the tears and disappointments. Over 10,000 training miles logged. This was it. All I had to do was run fast for another mile and half. I channeled all of my resources and it wasn't until just before the mile 26 marker that the adrenaline truly set in. The runner next to me, "Sarah," had a huge cheering section and I fed off of her crowd support. She was staying strong, and I was going to stay strong.

Ecstasy: My Garmin showed 26.2 miles in 3:37:xx
Agony: I would not get "credit" for this, and I might not even qualify for Boston

I was so pissed at that. Dammit! Agony, agony, agony!!!! I wanted that BQ. I deserved it. Today was supposed to be the day. For real this time!

Somewhere deep within me, I found this hidden gear and I just bolted for the finish. According to my Garmin, the last half mile of the race was a 7:21 pace. Previously, I hadn't even been able to maintain an 8:21. My desire for this BQ was so great that I tore through those last 0.2 passing everyone in my sight. Blowing by people thinking "I am getting a BQ!"

The finish line was in plain sight. I could literally see my BQ potential slipping away by the second. I wouldn't let it happen. It would not get away from me.

I crossed the finish line.

Ecstasy: My watch read 3:40:01, which could mean an official 3:40:00 BQ
Agony: My watch read 3:40:01, which means I could have actually missed it by just 1 second.

I found Greg shortly after crossing the finish line. My hip was on fire. Physically, I felt horrible. Mentally, I was so proud of my final kick.

Agony: My hip hurts so much I can barely walk
Ecstasy: I might have qualified for Boston
Racing stripes!

The hotel was less than half a mile away, but it took us forever to get there. My hip hurt me so badly that I had to walk at a snail's pace. I even tried walking backwards.

One Milestone at a Time
As it turns out, I did qualify for Boston. With a 3:40:00. Not a single second to spare. I fought hard for every second, and I am owning every second. Sure I would have loved a sub-3:40, but this allows me to enjoy one milestone at a time. A 3:40:00 is the only non sub-3:40 time that is still an official qualifying time.

I think it suits me. It's kind of funny. And kind of appropriate. In the grand scheme of things, the Boston qualifying journey has been about so much more than running. It's been about perseverance, dedication, mental strength and most importantly, learning how to truly accept my imperfect self. I would not be the person I am today if I had qualified back in 2008.

The reality is that a 3:40:00 will likely not get me a spot in the 2016 Boston Marathon. Because the race doesn't have enough spots for all of its qualifiers, the new registration process only accepts the fastest of those who have met the official qualifying standards. This year, I think you needed to be over a minute faster than the qualifying time to actually get a spot in the prestigious race.

Ecstasy: I qualified for Boston
Agony: This time won't get me into Boston

As much as I want to run Boston, I don't feel like this diminishes the achievement in any way. I will try to get my time down next spring, but yesterday was my first official Boston qualifying finish. It's mine. The fact that it was the slowest possible BQ I could have possibly gotten is kind of special. And now that I've done it, I will have the confidence to know I can do it again.

I set a PR by 3:44, which is significant chunk for someone who has been running for over 10 years. According to the results website, I passed 140 runners in my age group over the course of the race, and was only passed by 20 people. So even though I didn't get my negative split, most people slowed down to greater extent than I did.

My coach tells me it's amazing that I was able to run as fast as I did during those last 5 miles without any hydration or nutrition. And with an injured hip. Before I run another marathon, I want to experiment with different hydration strategies, as I think that I would have been more successful at the end if I had more fuel and water.

Overall, I think I had a very strong performance yesterday. Even though I didn't hit my goal time, I still accomplished quite a bit and I'm ready to train even harder for the next one.  Boston I qualified for, and Boston I shall run. The journey continues.



Sunday, October 5, 2014

Spontaneous 10K

On Thursday evening, as I was driving through McLean, I saw a flashing sign that said "road closed on Saturday for race course." It made me think, we are going to have perfect racing weather on Sunday-- I am jealous of all of those racing.

And then I realized, hey wait a minute, it's totally acceptable to run a short race two weeks before a marathon, and in the past I've tried to get a 10K on my schedule then!  My training plan called for a 16-miler with marathon pace miles on Saturday, and a 6-mile recovery run on Sunday. But I figured I could probably do a mini taper Friday-Saturday, and race the 10K with enough warm up and cool down to get some decent mileage in.

When I got home, I went to runwashington.com to search for races and sure enough, there was a 10K on Sunday in DC. And it was a 10K that I had run before and was very familiar with: "Boo! Run for Life." Perfect!

Excited, I emailed my coach and asked him if he thought this was a good idea. After all, I wouldn't want this 10K to negatively impact the marathon. He told me to go for it, so I registered on Friday.

I woke up at 4:00 this morning, just raring to go. I was so excited! After a disappointing half marathon, I felt like I finally had the opportunity to see where I was fitness-wise and where all this training had brought me.

Race Strategy
Pacing wise, my plan was to run even splits and run by feel. I still planned on checking in with the Garmin, but it wasn't going to dictate my pace. My main time goal was to break 45:00, but I wasn't sure by how much I could break it, if it all. I figured I would probably go out at around 7:15 for the first mile and then try to speed up. My previous PR of 45:19 was set in November of 2011, on the exact same course, although technically a different race. It was time to shatter it.

Before the Race
Greg decided to do a Saturday long run instead of joining me for the 10K. To each his own! I was happy to have him cheering me on, taking photos, and holding my stuff for me. I warmed up for 2.4 miles and things felt great. During the warm up, I thought, this is my day. I'm going to nail it. I feel amazing. 

As I was running, a walker asked me, do you know what time it is? Which I thought was borderline rude, to stop someone while they were running-- when there were plenty of other people nearby he could have asked. I just said "I don't know, my watch doesn't have the time screen." (Note- this is foreshadowing.)

After the warm up, I found Greg and he said he was going to go out about a mile and take photos. We hugged and he wished me well. I walked to the start line and felt relaxed and ready. It was 45 degrees and sunny. No wind.

Miles 1-2
The race started and I settled in pretty quickly. About 3-4 minutes into it, I decided to see what pace I
Mile 1
had gone out at. Garmin read 6:50ish. Um, wow. This did not feel like 6:50. It felt more like 7:20. I saw Greg a bit before mile marker 1, and I couldn't help but yell out "sub-6:50 pace!"

Just after the first mile, a couple passed me. One of them was wearing a portable music device with speakers, so everyone around them could hear the music. I started to be grateful that they had passed me because that meant I didn't have to listen to their music for the entire race, but then I checked myself. Ironically, I had told my sports psychologist just a few days prior that loud music during races is jarring to me and I don't like it. He told me that I needed to ignore it and I shouldn't be thinking about what I liked or did not like during a race. It didn't matter.

So this couple ended up not bothering me. But as luck would have it, once they passed me, they did not speed up. They were abut 10-15 feet ahead of me for almost the entire race, and I could hear their music off an on.

Mile 1: 7:03
Mile 2: 7:12

Miles 3-4
It was nice to get to the turnaround point. Mentally, I love feeling like I am running toward the finish line and not away from it.

Shortly after the turnaround, I heard a voice behind me say "what time is it?" I thought to myself, I must be hearing things. Nobody asks that during a race. I must just be remembering what was said to me during my warm up. I wasn't sure if she was talking to me, but I just ignored it. And then I heard "you're keeping a good pace." Hmmm. And then I heard "You're lead a pack of 4 of us here and you're really helping us." I replied, "Are you talking to me?" (And talking during mile 4 of a 10K is never easy.) "Yes," she said. "Nice," I replied, or something to that effect.

I started to pickup the pace. So did musical couple. They still maintained a good 10-15 foot lead on me. At this point, I was running right next to a guy with a hoodie. We were literally side-by-side for almost a mile. I found it odd that in a race with less than 600 participants, I had so many people around me at this stage in the race. There was a ton of unoccupied empty road ahead. But I had hoodie guy, musical couple and the pack of 4. Not complaining- just observing.

Mile 3: 7:10
Mile 4: 7:03

Final Kick
Miles 5-6.2
When I hit the mile 5 marker, I decided to bump up the effort level. I wanted to really gun it home. I passed musical couple and hoodie guy flew way ahead of me. I would be on my own for this mile.  I pushed and pushed and pushed! My spirits were high and I knew it wouldn't be long before a new PR would be mine.

With about 0.3 to go, I started my final kick. I never know how early to start these things, but I was feeling great and the finish line was in clear view. It's nice having something to run toward. In many races, you can't see the finish line until you are right there, which isn't as motivating as being able to see it from far back.

Mile 5: 7:03
Mile 6: 7:08
Last 0.23: 6:35 pace. I felt like I had wings!


After the Race
I finished in 44:13, which is a PR by 1:06. Wow! And to think, all I wanted to do was break 45. I would have never imagined I could average a 7:07 pace for a 10K. I think I'm finally over my plateau.

After catching my breath, the woman from behind me asked me what my time/pace was. I guess she didn't wear a watch! She complimented me and told me that I motivated her for the entire race, but pulled ahead by about a minute in the end.

Greg found me and I was so giddy! This is exactly what I wanted! To finally crush a PR after all this hard work and training.

I cooled down and just felt great all over. I realize that it's the exception, and not the rule, that you have perfect weather and a flat course after an uninjured, high-mileage training cycle. So I was totally basking in my exception.

I found Greg after my cool down and we waited quite a while for the awards ceremony to begin. I
My age group award
was pretty sure I'd won something, but I didn't know how they were doing the awards, since every race is different.

When I realized they were only announcing/recognizing the first place in each age group, and not second or third, I figured I probably didn't get it. And then they called out my time, and then my name! I won my age group! I can't tell from the results how many people were in my age group, but the race had 532 finishers, which is not insignificant.

What next? I have mad confidence in my ability to run a great marathon. This race has definitely opened my eyes to the possibility of running it faster than expected, but this does not change the pace I will go out at.

I have just a few more hard workouts and then marathon day will be upon me!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Running in the Outer Banks: 60-mile Week

After running the Rock 'N Roll Philadelphia half marathon last Sunday, Greg and I drove down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a week-long vacation.

Even though the race hadn't gone as planned, my spirits were high and I was excited to enjoy a week of relaxation with my husband. With just four weeks to go before the marathon, this would also be an intense week of training. Greg and I visited the Outer Banks last summer, and I had a really successful week of training.

Priority one was a proper recovery from the race. At the hotel in Philadelphia, Greg and I took ice baths and then donned calf compression sleeves for the 7-hour drive. When we finally arrived at our beach condo, it was after 9:00 and we were both dead tired.

We awoke to humid, 70-degree windy weather, which would be the norm for almost every morning of our vacation. I can't remember ever running the day after a half marathon, but my coach had a 60-70 minute recovery run on the schedule, so I complied.

Most runs were on the road closest to the ocean
We stayed at milepost 10 in Kill Devil Hills, which is where the beach road begins to have a running
path along the side if you head south. The wind was forecast to be coming from the north each day, which meant a tailwind for the first half of the run, followed by a headwind.

Monday: 6.5 miles recovery
My legs were not as nearly as bad off as they normally are after a half marathon. My initial thought was that I didn't have the opportunity to really wear them down in the race because the heat beat down my energy level so much. Another theory was that I was so well trained that my legs could handle running the day after a half marathon. Greg came with me and was hurting more than me, but we both were in favor of going very slowly.

Tuesday: 10.5 miles easy
Again we faced humidity, warmth and wind. This run was more about building aerobic capacity than anything else, so we didn't push the pace.

Wednesday: Rest
It was very fortuitous that I had a rest day on Wednesday because we had quite the storm! It was pouring down rain and winds were 30 mph! We spent the day inside putting together a puzzle and enjoying the fact that we didn't have to do anything but relax.

Thursday: 10 miles, including intervals
There was a high school track located about 2.5 miles from our condo. This workout is actually supposed to be done on a hilly route, but given that we weren't going to find that anywhere, we figured a track would be a good option as it would be a softer surface away from cars. We warmed up and cooled down by running to and from the track.

The workout was 3 x 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, 2:00, 1:00, with 90-second recovery jogs in between each. It was 71 degrees with 96% humidity. Thankfully, the wind wasn't as noticeable as it was on other days. I basically just ran these intervals by feel and afterwards looked at my paces. They ranged from 6:15-6:40, which was encouraging in that weather.

I was completely beat by the end of this workout and I just slugged my way back to the condo during the cool down.

Friday: 6 miles easy 
This run was extremely humid and I didn't feel at all energized. It must have been a combination of the hard workout the day before and the lack of sleep from not having my own bed. But, I got it done!

Saturday: 21.5 miles
My plan had 20-24 miles on it and my original goal was 22. I must have mapped out our route a half a dozen times, but we ultimately ended up winging it! I even had some anxiety dreams about how hot this run would be, and worried that I'd get sunburn. Before heading out, I applied SPF 75 sport sunscreen everywhere.

Greg and I got a relatively early start at 6:30. We couldn't start much earlier because the roads are not well lit and the sun rose at 6:50.

Partially shaded bike path in the Outer Banks
The first 10 miles were an out-and-back along the beach road. South, and then north. We refilled our water bottles at the condo and then headed south for the track. We figured it might be nice to run a few laps around it. When we got there, we realized the track was the worst place we could be. The wind was more noticeable, there was no shade and the sun was getting high in the sky. After two laps, we abandoned the track and headed for a path that led to the Wright Brothers memorial. The plan was to run around the memorial (about a mile loop) but we realized that we were on a 3-mile bike path, indicated by signs, so we followed that instead.

Great choice! The bike path was partially shaded and led to an area where we got a nice view of the bay. We ended up running on some neighborhood roads and it was a nice change of scenery. We turned around at mile 16 and headed back to the beach, stopping at a gas station to by new water bottles. Miles 16-19 were by far the hardest of the run, and I was completely out of water by mile 18.

We made our way back to the condo and the sun was in full force. I decided it would be okay to stop
Me in the ocean, post long-run
at 20 or 21, since the plan had 20-24. I was getting really hot, but I dug deep, found some mojo and actually picked up the pace. Greg and I ended up with 21.5 miles at a pace of 9:49.  It took us 3 hours and 30 minutes, and I expect my marathon time to be around 3:35. The goal was "time on my feet" and this was certainly accomplished. After the run, I took nature's ice bath in the ocean!

Sunday: 5.5 miles recovery
My legs felt surprisingly good during this run. However, about 3 miles into it, the sun came out in full force and I just felt drained. I was very happy to finish the run, capping off the week at an even 60 miles.

Overall, the vacation was wonderful. It was overcast nearly the entire time, and not really beach appropriate, until Saturday when the sun decided to make an appearance during our long run. We didn't get a lot of beach time, but we enjoyed watching movies, doing our puzzle, eating good food, and exploring the Outer Banks.

With just three weeks to go before the marathon, I am feeling super confident in my training. Here is a look at the past two months:


I'm back home now, and looking forward to some nice early fall running weather. Unfortunately, most of it will be in the dark before work, but it will be a nice change from the wind and humidity!


Monday, September 22, 2014

A race I am proud of

Yesterday morning, I ran the Rock 'N Roll Philadelphia half marathon. My primary focus of the race was as follows:

  • Practice staying mentally tough and pushing through the hard parts- no negative thoughts!
  • Running by feel, and not letting the Garmin control my pace
  • Gaging my fitness level for my upcoming marathon next month
About 10 days out from the race, I started thinking about what my time range goal was, and I realized that I wasn't sure what I capable of, given my training has been much more intense than any previous cycle. 

In fact, I ran one workout as follows: 2 x 3 miles at half marathon pace, with a 4:00 recovery jog in that middle. The half marathon pace miles averaged 7:19, and I felt like I could have even gone faster. Based on this workout, my coach and I determined I should run the half marathon based on feel, not looking at the watch, because I could end up seeing much faster paces than ever before in a half marathon. And this made me giddy with excitement. The thought of finally breaking 1:40 and then some!

As the race approached, and the weather forecast solidified, I felt less confident about running a PR, but I didn't rule it out and decided I would still run based on feel. The weather forecast was for seasonably warm, humid weather, which was ironic after such a seasonably cool week. I did find myself looking at the forecast every morning, wondering what this meant for me, but by the Friday before the race, I had fully accepted it and was determined to run my best no matter what the weather was.

Pre-Race
I felt very well rested and relaxed going into this race. I had slept an average of 8 hours per night for
I wore this same outfit during my fast tempo run!
the entire week leading up to the race, if not more. With my increased training volume, I have found myself exhausted and needing lots and lots of sleep. Thankfully, I've been able to get this sleep by going to bed early and managing my stress levels. 

Greg and I woke up on race morning, had our bagels, got dressed, pinned our bibs on and were off. I was happy that the race had a D-tag instead of a B-tag, which meant I could make the bib small enough to fit on my sports bra without bending any sensors. 

As we walked to the race, we were thankful that the sky was overcast, and hoping that it would stay that way. It didn't feel overly hot, maybe about room temperature. But as Greg later said-- it was deceiving. You don't feel "hot" but you sweat buckets and your body has to work extra hard to keep you cool. So far, everything was going according to plan. Sleep, check. Hydration, check. Low anxiety levels, check. Acceptance of weather, check. Race strategy, check. Injury free, check. Went to the bathroom, check.

Miles 1-3
My plan was to not look at my Garmin but to run by feel. Unfortunately, I ended up looking because my watched beeped on auto-lap well before the mile marker, so I looked at it. And then I hit the lap button again when I got to the mile marker so I would have an accurate split for this race report! I noticed I was running just under a 8:00 pace, which was very conservative. It felt like the race pace for a half marathon and after having running 25+ half marathons, I know what half marathon pace should feel like. 

I basically just stayed relaxed during these miles, making sure to drink water regularly and ease into things. Everything seemed to be going pretty well, and I wasn't worried about the slowish splits on my watch because I knew I still had a long way to go.

Mile 1: 7:55
Mile 2: 7:53
Mile 3: 7:43

Miles 4-6
I was looking forward to getting out of the city and running down by the water. I ran through a very
large cheering station at mile 5 (where the start line was) and realized that some runners hadn't even begun the race yet! I did not like the large crowd cheering at me. I've noticed this in past big-city marathons that the really loud crowds are jarring for me and I would much prefer to run in peace and quiet. I also didn't like the loud bands. I guess anything "loud" during a race annoys me!

I still felt good at this point and was confident in my ability to speed up and to execute as planned. I was definitely exerting a hard effort, but I felt like I had a lot of gas in the tank still. Mile 6 was a lengthy downhill and that felt great. I remember last year running down that hill and having it energize me for the next few miles.

Mile 4: 7:39
Mile 5: 7:45
Mile 6: 7:41

Miles 7-9
I ran through the 10K marker feeling confident and pumped for the rest of the race. I kept strong, putting out a hard effort and glanced down at my Garmin, and noticed I was in the 8's. Hmmm. I told myself to push more and try to get back down into the 7's. So I pushed harder. And harder. And no matter how hard I pushed, I didn't feel like I was going any faster.  Greg later told me that he thought this part of the course was uphill, but to me it didn't seem to be uphill, it seemed flat.

When I hit the 8-mile marker, I looked down at the split and it was well into the 8's. I was surprised. I didn't feel like I had slowed down that much and I was exerting a greater level of effort that I had been at the beginning of the race. I asked myself if I was truly giving 100% and the answer was yes. I told myself that my goal was to run a race that I would be proud of. I needed to make sure that I was always giving 100% at all times and never giving up. I didn't think I was particularly mentally tough during the last half marathon I ran and I wanted to make up for that here. No matter how bad I felt, no mater what the watch said, I was going to give 100%. I was truly going to leave it all out there.

I think my previous self would have gotten discouraged by the paces and given up mentally, perhaps taking walk breaks and not pushing as hard. But I vowed not to do that. I wanted so badly to feel good about this race! So I told myself, "run a race to be proud of".  After the race, Greg and I would be taking some vacation, and I didn't want to spend that vacation depressed or miserable because of a shitty race. So I kept reminding myself of how I wanted to feel about my performance afterwards, and that really kept me strong.

Mile 7: 7:50
Mile 8: 8:16
Mile 9: 8:44

Miles 10-13
Toward the end of the race
Mile 9 is an uphill mile, and once it was complete, I started to feel a bit better. I told myself that I could still try to get back in the 7's. With only 4 miles to go I told myself that it should be easy for me to run 4 miles at a sub-8:00 pace. I energized myself, I motivated myself, and I told myself I could do it. Unfortunately, reality kicked in after the first of those miles and I found myself really struggling. At that point, I was doing everything in my power to maintain my effort and not just quit. 

Physically, I just couldn't go any faster. 

I gave it all I had until the very end, and there was no final kick. I almost always have a very strong final kick, but this time I couldn't muster one extra ounce of energy. It took all I had to just maintain my pace during that last 0.1 mile. 

Mile 10: 8:08
Mile 11: 8:56
Mile 12: 8:28
Mile 13: 8:57

The Finish Line, and Beyond
I crossed the finish line and I saw Greg. At first, I was not able to talk to him. I tried to get words out, but they just wouldn't come. Then, I started to feel disoriented. I started having strange thoughts, like the thoughts you have just as you are starting to fall asleep and dream. I panicked because I thought I was going to pass out, which made things worse. But ultimately, I was okay. I just needed awhile to recover. And actually, I couldn't believe I was actually running just a few minutes prior, knowing how horrible it felt to be stopped. If I had stopped before crossing the finish line, there is a good chance I just wouldn't have crossed it. 

To pour salt in the wound, as Greg and I were walking back from the hotel, I tripped on the sidewalk, and nearly fell flat on my face. 

My official time was 1:47:14, and I had no idea what it was going to be until I finished and looked at my watch. 

Key Takeaways
Although this is one of my slowest half marathons in the past five years, I feel good about my performance. I didn't really have a time goal to begin with-- I was more focused on executing well and keeping mentally tough. 

While I know I'm not supposed to compare myself to others, I think this race confirms what I have suspected for years-- the heat and humidity affect me more than the average runner. I think that most runners probably ran a good 2-4 minutes slower than they would have in cooler, less humid weather. For me, that delta is more like 6-8 minutes. I trained all summer in the humid weather. And I actually ran pretty well in the humidity during training. But when I am putting out 100% effort (which I don't do in training) my body doesn't respond well. I remember when I was a teenager in dance class. When the class was over, my face would be beet red. Nobody else's would be and I was often asked if I was okay because of how red my face got. 

So, it's nothing to be upset about, but rather something to simply accept. Training in the heat and humidity will help me acclimate, but it will only go so far. The good thing about this race was that I didn't go into it "expecting" to bonk. I went into it with confidence and I ran it by feel. Unfortunately, my body just wasn't able to sustain a fast pace in those conditions.

So, what are the key takeaways from this race?
  • I've come a long way in terms of reducing my race anxiety and being able to sleep in the days leading up to the race.
  • Although I initially got upset about the weather, I ultimately let it go and was very determined to run my best no matter what.
  • I executed my strategy as planned, starting out at a conservative 7:50's pace and then speeding up. 
  • I used positive self-talk to get myself through the tough parts, and I made sure that I was always running my best, no matter how crappy I felt, or how slow the pace
  • I know I ran my best yesterday
  • I know that the heat/humidity is not "all in my head" and that I truly am affected by these conditions to a greater extent than most people-- even if I train in these conditions and am well acclimated.
  • I know I have the mental toughness I need to get me through the marathon in a few weeks.
  • I'm still confident about my fitness, although I didn't get the gauge/confirmation I was hoping for.
All in all, this was not the race I hoped for, but it is a race I am proud of.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Put another "X" on the calendar

Summer's on its deathbed.  There is simply nothing worse than knowing how it ends.

(For those of you who are not Panic! At the Disco fans, those are lines from one of their songs.)

I'll continue my theme and breakdown this post with those lyrics.

Put another "X" on the calendar
I've been ticking off the miles like clockwork this month. I ran 229 miles in August, which is my second highest month ever. My highest was in March of 2009. It's easy to run high monthly mileage when the month has five weekends for five long runs.

But there was a setback week in August. My right calf started to get really tight during a workout and during the cooldown, every step hurt. At the same time, my high hamstring tendonitis flared up. I've had this injury since March, but it had gotten about 95% better. But after the workout, the pain flared up very noticeably.

The result was that I had to take two unplanned rest days, cut mileage back on another and bail on a 10K race. Interestingly, I was able to run 18 easy miles the day of the race, but I could tell my legs would not have wanted to run fast on hills. Now my calf and my hamstring feel just as good as they did at the beginning of the month, and I am very grateful for that.

July and August training


I'm continuing to love my new training program, and I've had some really great workouts:

  • 60-minute steady state run: 7.7 miles at an average pace of 7:47 (faster than MP, slower than tempo)
  • 3-2-1 tempo run w/4:00 recoveries: 3 miles at 7:35, 7:35, 7:25 then 2 miles at 7:24, 7:21, then 1 mile at 7:14
Summer's on its deathbed
This summer has been wonderfully mild and I'll be sad to see it go. As much as I have always hated hot weather running, I think I am really starting to embrace it. Proper hydration and heat acclimatization go a long way and I think that I'm much better equipped to handle heat than I was in previous summers, even though it hasn't been as hot.

Interestingly, I opted to do this past weekend's 20-miler on Sunday rather than Saturday. Sunday was noticeably hotter and sunnier than Saturday, but I just wasn't "feeling it" on Saturday. I decided to cut my would-be long run short at 8.7 miles, with the confidence of knowing that I could run a 20-miler in the heat. And not only could I do it, but that I'd be better off in the hotter weather with a little more rest under my belt. The hot, humid, sticky, sunny 20-miler was a success and a huge confidence boost for warm weather running. I paced it properly and my last mile was the fastest and most energized. 

Before I became a runner, summer was always my favorite season and I had a renewed appreciation for it this year after such a brutally cold winter. I always used to say that I prefer running in very cold weather to very hot weather. And while that's still true for racing, I would rather go out in a sports bra and shorts than spend all this extra time with layers of clothing and gloves, hat, hand warmers, etc. 

There is simply nothing worse than knowing how it ends
I was once asked: "If you knew how your races would go before you ran them, would you still want to run them?" It was a good question. In the past, I've had a lot of anxiety about racing because of the uncertainty. I wanted to be able to control how the race went. I didn't like that there were so many things about racing that were unknown and that were beyond my control. And as a result, I found it difficult to relax in the days leading up to a race.

But the more I thought about that question (and my outlook on running in general) the more I realized that a large part of the fun is seeing what happens on race day. You don't know what is going to happen or what time you will get. And that's cool! It's not something to worry about, but rather something to embrace as the excitement of the sport. 

The reason I bring this up now (other than that it fits my lyrical composition of this post) is because I find myself looking at my fall races with excitement instead of anxiety. In less than three weeks I will be running a half marathon and then a full marathon four weeks after that. I'm confident that my physical and mental prep will serve me well no matter what the outcome, so my focus has been primarily on this preparation and not the races themselves.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Training Refresh!

July marks the official start of marathon training. Greg and I are running the Columbus Marathon on Oct. 19, and that's just 12 weeks away! We're also running the Rock 'N Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon four weeks prior.

I've been using roughly the same training plan for about three years now, and I decided I was ready for a change. The problem was-- I didn't know any other way to train. I knew that I needed to have a tempo and interval workout each week, and then a long run that got longer each weekend, ideally with three 20-milers total. But this started to get boring and I didn't think my fitness was improving that much. Even though I just shaved 4+ minutes off of my marathon PR in May, I think that was more due to improvements in the mental aspect of racing rather than physical gains. I think I've had the physical ability to run a 3:43 for the past four years, and I finally got my head into a spot that would allow it.

My training was beginning to feel stale and I wasn't really excited about jumping into a new cycle doing the same thing. So I got a new coach! While I am still a member of Capital Area Runners, and I have total respect for coach George, I wanted something more personalized, new and different. So I have been working with my new coach since mid-June and I've been having a blast with my training. Even if the new plan doesn't help me break through a physical plateau, just having something new and different to do every day makes training more exciting. His credentials are pretty impressive, including a 2:13 marathon PR.

Core Strengthening
The first component is core work. I used to be very consistent about this, but over the past year or two, I just got lazy and stopped. I decided that I needed to be doing core work consistently (at least 4 times a week) and other exercises to strength my hips. I really do not want to get injured and if it means waking up 10 minutes earlier every morning to fit this in, I will do it.

One of my struggles with core work and supplemental strengthening was always when to do it and how to progress. My coach gave me six different exercises to do and told me how to progress them over time as I got stronger. I've noticed a huge difference. At first, there was one exercise that I was simply unable to perform, but now I can do 10+ reps of it.

Side plank with leg lift

Side plank with leg lift, better lighting!
Seeing a little bit of definition
I've noticed that my runs have felt stronger and I feel less flabby. Also, I am hoping to stay injury free. My nagging hamstring tendonitis is almost 100% recovered, and I hope to continue to move in the right direction there.

New Workouts
Instead of just interval workouts and tempo runs, I am doing progression runs, fartleks, steady state runs, stride workouts and shorter intervals (200's and 400's). I've never run 200's before or done a stride workout, so it's fun to have a new challenge and figure out the pacing. Also, most of the workouts are time-based rather than miles based, so it's a new way of thinking about things. I never know what my weekly mileage will end up being until I am done with the week, so that's refreshing.

So far, I think my two favorite runs are the "steady state" run and the faster/slower tempo (not sure of the official name). The steady state run is slower than tempo pace but faster than marathon pace. I love running at this pace because I like I am working hard without it feeling uncomfortable. Last week, I ran a 45-minute steady state run at average pace of 7:51. That's 5.7 miles. It felt great!

The week before, I ran this six mile workout, with every other mile being 10K pace/marathon pace. I have to admit I was intimidated by doing six miles worth of speed work so early in the cycle with three miles at 10K pace, but the run actually ended up being fun and I executed it very well. I actually ran it faster than I thought I would, especially considering how hot and humid it was. The miles were 7:29, 8:16, 7:27, 8:23, 7:25, 8:16.

These workouts are fun, challenging, and I think they are making me a lot stronger.

Travel
I spent last week in San Francisco for work, and I was in Fort Worth, Texas for part of the week before that.

Greg and I were visiting his sister in Texas for the weekend, and then I stayed on Monday for a business event. We had a 12-mile long run on tap and I was worried that I wouldn't be able to survive the Texas heat in the middle of July. Prior to going there, I asked my Dallas/Ft. Worth running friends where a good place to go was, and someone recommended the Trinity Trail. The entrance was very close to where Greg and I were staying, so we did that. This was one of the more enjoyable long runs I had. I survived the heat just fine, and we got to see new scenery. People in Texas are more friendly than in the DC area, so lots of people were saying hi. There was even a promotional water station setup where we stopped and to fill up our bottles. I'll never be great at running in the heat, but I think I am pretty well acclimated.

In San Francisco, I did a 90-minute progression run and a Fartlek run, both on the Embarcadero. I had the
Not the Embarcadero, but close enough!
Fartlek intervals programmed into my Garmin. The only problem was that the Embarcadero gets really crowded, so dodging people when you are trying to surge can be difficult. The progression run was really invigorating. I started out feeling sluggish and tired due to the time zone change, but once I started to speed up, I felt awesome and by the end, I was running a sub-8:00 pace comfortably.  The funny thing is that when I was done with my 10.3 miles, I took a cab back to my hotel, which was less than a mile away! My hotel was located in the city, and you have to keep stopping for the lights. So, I didn't want to finish my progression run by stopping every minute and waiting. So I finished it on the Embarcadero and then got a cab back.

I don't have any work travel scheduled for August, but Greg and I will be going to NYC for a few days so I think a Central Park run is in my future.

Ramping Up
I actually don't know exactly what my weekly mileage will look like for the rest of this cycle. This week was my first week at 50 miles and I imagine it's just going to keep increasing. The great thing about having a coach customize a plan is that he will adjust it based on the feedback I provide, and he gives me about 4 weeks at a time. Most of the runs also have ranges (75-90 minutes, for example) so I can run more or less based on how I am feeling that day.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the training evolves over the next few months!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Firecracker 5K: A Summer Rust-buster

This morning I ran my 3rd Firecracker 5K in Reston. I've been registered for this race every year since 2010, but I wasn't able to race it last year or the year before due to injury/illness. So making it to the start line healthy was a great feeling.

For the past year, I've been sleeping really well before races and my anxiety levels have decreased significantly. However, last night, at 1:00am, I awoke to the sound of my doorbell. As yes, kids doing the ding-dong-ditch thing. In the 4+ years that I have lived in my house, this has never happened. And of course it has to happen the night before a race. Needless to say, Greg and I were pretty pissed off, but eventually we fell back to sleep.

My spirits were high as I ate my pre-race breakfast and got ready for the race. I actually didn't even think much about the race until the warm-up, when I started to wonder how the race was going to feel for me.

I haven't raced since my marathon on May 4, and two months is a long time for me to go without racing. I had a few goals for this race:

  • Do not look at the Garmin during the race
  • Stay strong on the hills and try to pass people at the tops of hills
  • Practice the mental strategies I've been working on to stay positive and focused
I actually did not have a time goal. I was interested in seeing where I was fitness-wise, but a time goal wasn't top of mind. I thought I would probably run somewhere between a 7:10-7:20 pace. 

It was about 67 degrees and overcast (not bad for July 4th!). But on the flip side, it was also quite windy and very humid, coming off the tails of thunderstorms that just passed through. I decided I would trust my experience of knowing what 5K effort felt like and just run whatever I had in me.

Mile 1: 7:14
Mile 1, photo by G. Buckheit
The first mile was primarily uphill and very crowded. This race had over 2,000 runners and the course was not very wide. I started close to the front, and I expected that the crowd would thin out after the first mile, but that never happened. During the first mile, I told myself to relax and stay in control. Relax, control. That was my mantra to begin with. My running team's coach was there at the first mile marker taking photos and cheering me on. That helped energize me.

Mile 2: 7:02
I started to really feel the effort during the second mile, so I shifted my focus to just maintaining a constant effort level. Mile 2 was a net downhill, hence the increase in speed. It was nice to get a break from the uphill running, but I knew that the worst of the hills was yet to come during mile 3. I successfully passed a few runners during this mile, but not a ton.

Mile 3: 7:27
This mile is tough. The second half is up a long hill, and there is one curvy hill that's relatively steep. I did slow down a bit on the steep hill, but I refused to let the long, less steep hill take anything from me. As I ran up the final hill, I remembered back to my marathon from two months ago and how I tackled those hills. I broke the hill down into small sections mentally and I got myself into a rhythm. It made the hill seem less daunting and before I knew it, I was at the top. Oh, but then we made a turn and there was another hill leading up to the finish!

Last mile
Last 0.18 Miles (6:37 pace)
As I made the final turn and approach the finish, I gunned it. I was actually quite surprised by how much I had in me! And in fact, this is common for me: a very strong final kick that makes me think I could have started kicking earlier, or that I could have run the whole thing a little faster. Ah well, better than bonking and doing the survival shuffle to the finish line!

This course is always long according to my Garmin. I know all of the arguments against using your Garmin distance as the actual race distance, but I still think this race is slightly long. I made sure to run the tangents and minimize my weaving through the crowd. Greg also ended up with 3.18 miles.

According to my Garmin, my average pace was 7:13, which was on the faster end of my expected range. Given the humidity and the wind, I am pleased with this and I think I ran a smart race. I accomplished all of my goals, except for maybe not passing as many people at the tops of hills as I would have liked. 

My official race time was 22:54, which is my slowest 5K in a few years. But I also haven't run a hot 5K in over two years. 

I ran a much faster time at the Crystal City 5K this past April, but I wasn't at all happy with my effort there so I didn't even bother to write a blog about it. I really like how I am thinking about my race performances in terms of effort and not outcome. 

I placed 9 out of 183 in my age group (top 4.9%)
I placed 53 out of 1212 women (top 4.4%)

It was a large, competitive field and it's hard to believe I placed third in my age group when I ran this race back in 2010. And had a slower time than today!  Also worth noting is that the female 35-39 age group was by far the largest age/gender group at the race. The top 3 women in my age group all finished under 20 minutes, and the top 3 women in the 30-34 age group all finished slower than 20 minutes. I found that really interesting.

Anyway, it was good to be out there racing again and putting out a hard effort. My next race will be a 10K in Reston in about 8 weeks, so I better get used to hills!

Capital Area Runners Post Race

Monday, May 5, 2014

Mississauga Marathon Race Report: Staying Strong

Yesterday morning, Greg and I ran the Mississauga Marathon in Ontario, Canada-- just outside of Toronto.

I chose this race because I wanted to run a later spring marathon due to a hectic work schedule in January and February. I figured I should find one up north with a better chance of cooler temperatures. I had heard about the Mississauga Marathon from one of my friends who lives in Canada who raves about it every year. The elevation profile looked flat, and the first 10 miles were actually a net downhill. And the fact that Toronto is only an hour-long flight made the race even more appealing.

Goals for the Race and Mental Prep
My primary goal for the race was to build on the mindset I had during the Cherry Blossom 10-miler: continue
to push hard when things get tough. Expect for the race to be difficult. Have a plan for staying mentally
positive and pushing through tough times. Be confident in knowing that I will be able to deal with whatever the race throws at me.

I focused heavily on this goal during the two weeks leading up to the marathon. I knew I needed to have a
Cherry Blossom 10-miler
mindset of "I push through and I don't give up." Every day I sit in traffic for 45-60 minutes. And I never get angry or frustrated or annoyed by the traffic. I expect it, accept it, and deal with it. I rarely arrive home in a bad mood because of it. I signed up for this traffic when I took this new job last July and so I have ways of coping with it so I stay relaxed. Similarly, when I sign up for a marathon, or any race for that matter, I should expect that it will be hard and it will hurt. And sometimes it will be a lot harder than I think it "should" be. Regardless, I need to accept it and know exactly how I will deal with it when it happens. I'm not somebody who gets angry at traffic during my commute. And I'm not somebody who gets discouraged when a race throws a curve ball.

So that's where my focus was going into the race. I wasn't hung up on a particular time goal, although I had a range of times that I though was realistic given my fitness level. As I result, I slept better than I ever had in the week leading up to the race. Not only did I get enough hours, but they were quality hours. I woke up feeling completely rested and relaxed, as opposed to practically jumping out of bed like I used to do.

I think it's fair to say that I had very little, if any anxiety about this race. And that's because I felt completely in control. When I used to focus so much on my goal time, it would stress me out because I didn't know if I would get it. There was this huge fear of the unknown. But by focusing on what I could control-- my mental will to stay strong-- I remained as cool as a cucumber.

Before the race ever began I felt like I had achieved so much.

  • The taper didn't feel like something to "survive"-- it was just a normal two weeks. 
  • My sleep was restful and I got enough of it
  • I was injury free: I had felt a hip injury coming on in mid-March, which I staved off through strengthening exercises and religious foam rolling
  • I had come to terms with Boston. Years ago I decided that it was a huge goal of mine. And when I kept missing my qualifying time, it became a monkey on my back. So I changed my attitude toward Boston and I ignored it. I just pretended that it didn't exist and that I wasn't going to let it influence my running at all. But finally, a few days before the race, I realized that I want to run Boston but it doesn't define who I am as a runner or a person. It's just something I'd like to do eventually and the fact that I haven't done it yet doesn't make me any less of a runner. It's not a goal or a dream of mine. But it's also not something that I am ignoring. It's just a race with a qualifying time that I'll run eventually. 
I felt really proud of myself for overcoming so many mental obstacles, that executing the race would just be icing on the cake. 

Before the Race
Greg and I were cutting it close with a flight that was scheduled to land in Toronto at 1:00pm. The expo closed at 5:00pm, so it was a short window of error given customs and potential flight delays. But thankfully, everything went extremely smoothly. The flight was on time. There was literally no line at customs. We got a cab and arrived at the expo at around 2:00. Phew. 

The expo was great. Unlike most races in the U.S. that have stopped giving out real goodie bags, this marathon and expo had plenty of free stuff to give away. And everyone was so nice! Also, the physical ChampionChip was being used instead of a B-tag or D-Tag which was a blast from the past. I have to admit I always preferred the actual chip because it seemed more reliable than a flimsy strip of paper.

One of the volunteers at the expo even drove us back to our hotel! Because the expo was located in a suburban area, we weren't able to get a cab. They tried calling us one, but it never showed up, so a really nice young man personally drove us to the hotel. We were there in time to get several hours worth of rest before going back out for dinner.

Race morning arrived and Greg and I did our pre-race routine: bagels, bathroom, bibs. I had hydrated really well in the week leading up to the race and had been taking Salt Stick Caps to help maintain electrolyte balance. This worked well for me in Chicago so I figured I would do it again. I used to drink G2 and Pedialyte, but I didn't need all the extra "stuff" in those drinks. I just wanted water + electrolytes. No flavor needed. 

I felt really bad for Greg because the iPod that I had charged for him, filled with a playlist that I made for him, was completely dead. I have no idea how it happened, but the newest version of the Shuffle is a piece of junk. I had to read multiple online help articles to figure out how to get a playlist to play in order, and the design is not at all intuitive. I offered him my iPod, but he told me he'd go without music. Also, his Garmin didn't charge overnight because the outlet was broken, so we only had about an hour to charge it, starting from 0 percent. He handled both of these technology failures well and didn't stress about them. We were only able to get his Garmin to 57% before it was time to leave for the start line, but figured that was enough to make sure he could pace the first half properly, which is what is most important.

It was 41 degrees and very windy. We both had throwaway hoodies that we ended up wearing for the first two miles. I knew the wind would be a factor in the race, but I was hopeful that it would primarily be a tailwind. The wind was out of the WNW, and the course was a net east, but there was a lot of back-and-forth running and turns along the way that I was mentally preparing for.

There were no corrals, but the race seemed relatively small so I wasn't worried about crowding. The marathon actually had less than 800 runners. It felt much bigger than that, though, because we started with the half marathoners and there were at least twice as many of those. 

It was pretty cool to hear the Canadian national anthem at the beginning of the race. There were very few Americans in the race and looking at the results afterwards, the majority of the other Americans were from upstate New York. Greg actually grew up in upstate New York and had never even heard of Mississauga until I told him about this race.

Pacing Strategy
The plan was to run the first half in around 1:50-1:51 and the second half in 1:48 or faster. I planned to run the first six miles at a pace of around 8:30-8:35 and then speed up. I had enjoyed a two-minute negative split in Chicago and felt great at the end, so I figured I would try the same approach here. My time goal range was 3:35-3:45.

Miles 1-6
The race was actually measured in kilometers-- 42.2K. It was pretty cool to have kilometer markers instead of mile markers because there were more of them. However, I paced the race based on miles and I had my Garmin to tell me what mile I was on so that I could execute a pacing strategy that I was familiar with.

I decided to listen to music during the race since it worked so well for me during Chicago. In fact, about half of the playlist was an exact repeat of Chicago to bring back those positive memories. I spent these miles taking in the scenery, relaxing and just enjoying the race. I noticed the wind, but the course was relatively sheltered at this point, and the winds weren't as strong as they would be later in the race. About 15 mph during this early portion.

The Mississauga course advertises itself as a net downhill course, which is true, but very deceiving. The net downhill occurs within the first 10 miles and then the rest of the race is rolling hills. My coach always advises runners in the Boston marathon to run the first half very conservatively, despite all of the downhills. I took this advice and tried to restrain myself on the downhills but at the same time, I did want to take advantage of them.

Mile: 1: 8:35
Mile 2: 8:32
Mile 3: 8:16
Mile 4: 8:32
Mile 5: 8:31
Mile 6: 8:20

Miles 7-13
The half marathoners turned off at around mile 8, and the crowd really thinned out. But I preferred it with fewer people because I liked knowing who was in my race. Mile 7 featured a long hill, which I wasn't expecting. That would be the first of many uphills that you don't really see when looking at the course elevation profile. Typically in races I run an even effort so I slow down on hills, but yesterday I decided to try and keep an even pace, knowing that the hills would be tough, but that I would recover from them. I think my reluctance to push up hills in the past was due to my fear that I would expend too much effort and then blow up. But yesterday I had a great deal of confidence and my goal was to push through the hard stuff. Which meant toughing it out on the hills. Which I didn't really expect many of! 

About 8 miles into it, I realized that I did the "work" of restraining the pace early on that would set me up for a negative split. Most mistakes in the marathon are made within the first 10K, and I felt like I had done a great job of being conservative early on. I ditched my throwaway arm warms and gloves as the sun rose and the temperatures climbed into the upper 40's.

The scenery during this part of the race was really nice. We ran through some residential areas with beautiful houses and I found myself really relishing the experience. Waving to people, smiling, and just feeling a huge sense of happiness. I was carrying a water bottle, which I stopped to refill during mile 10. This took about 30 seconds, which I figured was worth it because it would be my only stop during the whole race. 

Mile 7: 8:48
Mile 8: 8:12
Mile 9: 8:19
Mile 10: 8:42 (re-fill water)
Mile 11: 8:31
Mile 12: 8:26
Mile 13: 8:15

Miles 14-20
I felt amazing during miles 14-17.  I saw people holding Boston signs and I thought to myself "I'm going to Boston!" and this huge excitement swept over me. Everything was great. No stomach issues. No anxiety issues. Legs felt strong. Everything felt wonderful. Okay, yes, there was a tailwind and a downhill. But to feel so great at mile 17 of a marathon was awesome! 

During these three miles, I noticed two runners with marathon bibs running on a path alongside the road in the opposite direction. I wondered if they dropped out and why they were running the course backwards. And then I saw more runners on that path. And then it hit me-- pretty soon, this nice downhill/tailwind combo would turn into an uphill/headwind combo. That was a scary thought. I put it out of my mind and told myself I would deal with it when I encountered it.

I saw Greg at around mile 16 as he was on his way back and I was wondering how he was coping with going in the other direction. At the turnaround there was a sign that said something like "Sorry-- just a little out and back." That made me smile. I think it was about three miles out and three back. 

I turned around and things started out okay but it wasn't long before the 20 mph headwinds came. I tried
drafting, but I found that I was wanted to run faster than the people I could draft off of. I kept passing people instead of drafting. This was both good and bad. Finally, there was a guy in a bright orange windbreaker who I was able to draft off of. Unfortunately, it didn't really work. I didn't feel any relief from the wind by being behind him and his windbreaker. 

This mile 18 was when I started to really push. Unlike with Shamrock, I had no thoughts of "this sucks" or "this is unfair" or "this is so hard" or "there goes my sub-3:40". I didn't think about it. I just ran through it. I didn't even need to tell myself anything mentally. I just kept listening to my music and kept running. My mind was pretty quiet as I just pushed through the wind and up the long hill, passing people one by one. 

Finally, at mile 19, we turned around and I let out a huge sigh of relief. Orange windbreaker guy looked back at me and I smiled.

Mile 14: 8:13
Mile 15: 8:16
Mile 16: 8:22
Mile 17: 8:16
Mile 18: 8:47 (20mph headwind)
Mile 19: 8:24
Mile 20: 8:38

Miles 21-Finish
I did not like how the course was setup during these last miles. There were so many turns and hills and I prefer longer stretches where I can see far out in front of me. Greg later told me that he liked the variation of so many turns and weaving through the area, but for me it was mentally draining to keep having to change direction and from road to path back to road and then path. We ran down by the water, which was beautiful, but only for about 5 minutes at time before we were routed away from the water and back onto the streets. Because of the continued back and forth, there were a lot of hills, which I wasn't anticipating. And it also meant that we spent a lot of time running into the 22 mph headwind. 

So many people were struggling. I passed people who were walking up the hills and people who were doing the survival shuffle. Orange windbreaker guy stayed strong and I kept him in my sights at all times. Not a single person passed me after mile 17, and I'm very proud of how smart I ran. I glanced down at my Garmin and saw that I had an 8:29 pace average for the race. I was hurting pretty bad and the wind was really taking it out of me bit I did not want that number to slip too much. I had gotten this far with it, and I was going to do whatever it took to hang on. I took my last gel at mile 21 (which ended up having bits of the wrapper in it) and then ditching my water bottle. It felt great to not have that in my hands anymore as I used my arms to push up hills and against the wind.

The last three miles were so mentally exhausting because of all the curves and turns. I just wanted to zone out and run in a straight line. I didn't like not knowing where I would be going. But never did a negative thought enter my mind. I just kept pushing. I was definitely hurting and worn out, but I was going to give 100% and have no regrets.

Even with 0.2 miles to go, I still couldn't see the finish line! But I gunned it anyway, running the last 0.2 miles at a 7:46 pace. They called my name right before I crossed the finish line and it felt amazing!!!

Mile 21: 8:24
Mile 22: 9:10
Mile 23: 8:35
Mile 24: 9:14
Mile 25: 8:44
Mile 26: 8:53

The Finish
I finished in 3:43:44, which is a PR by over 4 minutes! I was thrilled to finally see some major movement on that marathon time. 

This was a much more challenging course than I expected. I thought it was going to be flat during the second
About to finish
half, but instead it was hilly. I didn't think the 22 mph winds would be headwinds for as much of the race as they were, but I pushed through. I am super proud of myself for hanging in there, never having negative thoughts and just pushing all the way through to the end. That's what this sport is all about.

I didn't qualify for Boston, which means I will have to wait until 2016 at the earliest, but I am totally cool with that. And hey-- if this was two years ago before they changed the qualifying standards, it would be a BQ. 

I ran the first half in 1:50:58 and the second half in 1:52:46. This is a positive split by less than two minutes, which by some schools of thought, is actually the ideal amount of fade at the end. I had been trying to negative split, of course, but I will certainly take this.  The second half of the race was windy and hilly, whereas the first half of the race was a net downhill and the winds had very little impact. I looked at the half marathon splits of those who finished around me, and most of them ran the first half significantly faster than I did. Some as fast as 1:40. It was an easy day for a bonk, which I did not do!

My major takeaway is that I am finally at a place with my marathoning where I am feeling confident and relaxed going into the races and not afraid to face wind, hills, or heat. 

Up next: The Columbus Marathon in October.