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.

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.

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.  


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Saving Time, Gas, and Money with a 20-miler

Last night, Greg and I celebrated the five-year anniversary of our first date! And the first time we met in person (we met online a few weeks prior).

To celebrate he took me out to a nice dinner in the city. I work just minutes outside of Washington DC, and he works about 30 miles outside of it. When he left work, he drove to the metro, parked, and took the metro to my office. From there, we took the metro into the city. Dinner was wonderful. He surprised me with a beautiful pair of earrings and a necklace. I certainly had not been expecting a gift!

Afterwards, we took the metro back to my office, where my car was parked and drove home. We figured we'd pick up his car the next day since we were both so tired and wanted to get home as soon as possible.

This morning, a thought popped into my head and I said to Greg: "Do you want to find a way to run to your car?" He immediately and enthusiastically replied "Yes!" I knew that the car was actually only 10-11 miles away, but we could surely find a way to get there in 20.

I logged onto MapMyRun, hypothesizing that taking the W&OD trail into Vienna would yield about 20 miles. Greg and I used to do all of our runs on this trail before we moved to our house. Now, our house is about 9 miles away from the nearest trail entrance, so in order to run on it, we have to drive to it. However,
Running all over Northern Virginia to retrieve Greg's car at the end
since we wouldn't be returning back to the house, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to run to the trail and take it to our final destination.

Sure enough, the route was almost exactly 20 miles. The only challenge was making sure that the connection from the Fairfax County Parkway to the W&OD trail  had a sidewalk. Greg used the street view feature of Google maps to inspect the road we needed to take and with just a few alterations to my original route, found a way that was completely accessible via sidewalk.

This was going to be such an adventure! All we carried with us were our water bottles, energy gels, $20 cash, a credit card, and the keys to Greg's car. If anything happened, we'd be prepared! It was going to be sunny and on the warmer side, so we'd rely on water fountains and fast food joints to re-fill our water bottles.

Miles 1-4: From our house in Chantilly to the Fairfax County Parkway
This was very familiar territory. We usually do the entirely of our long runs through these neighborhoods and were thankful for a change. We stopped at a McDonald's at mile 3 to refill our water bottles. There wasn't much to refill but since we knew we wouldn't have another opportunity for awhile, we took it.

Miles 5-9: The Fairfax County Parkway, from Fairfax to Reston
Most of these miles were shaded, and the terrain was rolling hills. There is basically a path right next to a major high-way like road.

Miles 10-12: Reston Parkway
This was completely new to us. We'd run on the Fairfax County Parkway path before, but never through these Reston neighborhoods and the Reston Parkway. It was hilly! This entire route was actually far more challenging than what we typically train on. We found a shopping center with a Subway where we refilled our water bottles.

Miles 13-18: W&OD Trail from Reston to Vienna
We were back on familiar ground on this trail. The first portion was a nice, steady downhill, but the last 2-3 miles were on a slight incline, directly into the sun. That's when it started to get hard. Greg and I were both pretty happy with how well our legs were holding up, but the sun and the rising temperatures was something we hadn't acclimated to yet. This part seemed to go on forever and we were anxious to get to the end where we knew a water fountain would be.

Miles 19-20.5: 123 and Nutley Street, from downtown Vienna to the metro station
We ran on the sidewalk of 123 in Vienna which was a welcome change of direction from the sun. It was so exciting to finally turn onto Nutley street and be so close to the metro. As we approached the metro, we ran through its overpass to cross highway 66 and when we came out on the other end, our Garmins read 20.5. It was quite the finish line!

This run was great for so many reasons!

  • It was nice to be running to a destination instead of running around in circles like we typically do
  • It was exciting to explore areas where we had never run
  • It was cool to run from our house to the W&OD trail where we used to always run
  • We saved the time and hassle of having to get Greg's car later
  • We also saved energy and gas money of using my car to get his car
  • We both stayed strong, even when it got hot and sunny at the end
  • Our legs held up great, coming off of the Cherry Blossom last weekend
  • This run brought me to 54.5 miles for the week (and I plan to run tomorrow!)
  • I practiced my nutrition/hydration strategy for the marathon and my stomach held up great!
We don't have any more 20-milers this season, but once we start training for our fall marathon, we plan to do this again, complete with a nice dinner in the city the night before!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Trusting and Pushing: Cherry Blossom 10-miler Report

This morning I ran my 5th Cherry Blossom 10-miler. I used this race to practice some of the things I mentioned in my post about pushing past limits in order to get myself to the next level.

Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite race distance is, I say "the 10-miler". It's short enough so that
the pain isn't horribly prolonged, but it's long enough where you don't feel like you are about to die for the entire duration of the race. I've also raced consistently well at the 10-mile distance and I feel like it's my "sweet spot" in terms of performance. In my first few years of running, I would set 10K PRs during 10-mile races.

I had a few goals for this race. The primary one was to see how much I could push myself. The weather was going to be ideal (low 40's and sunny), so there would be no unknowns there, and I knew the course, so this would be the perfect chance to really test my limits in terms of pushing. Of course, I always go into races
wanting to push my hardest, but I've never really focused on it so heavily beforehand. I've usually focused more on the time goal and not my effort level. In the two weeks leading up to the race, I thought a lot about the mental strategies I would need to use to push hard when things got tough. I remembered all the mantras I have used in past races to keep strong and I visualized myself during the last 3 miles pushing hard instead of giving in.

Cherry Blossom 2013
My other goals were to go into the race relaxed and well-hydrated and run the tangents. In terms of a time
goal, I wanted to beat my PR of 1:15:52 from 2012 and ideally get under 1:15. I tried to do this last year, but it was extremely windy during miles 7-9, so I ended up with a 1:16:10. This year, I was fairly confident in my ability to run a sub-7:30 pace, but just barely, and I know that this course always runs long on my Garmin. I suspected I would be able to run a sub 7:30 pace, but I didn't know if that would necessarily equate to a 1:14: xx.

My training in the week leading up to the race was solid. I ran 10 easy miles on Monday, 6 x 800m on Tuesday (7 total), rested on Wednesday, and then did some easy running on Thursday and Friday. My running felt good all week and I felt ready. Even though I am in the middle of marathon training, I prefer to look at my training as not just centered around one race. If I do, it puts too much pressure on me for that race. I didn't see Cherry Blossom as a tune-up for the sake of marathon fitness, but a race in and of itself to be prepared for and raced to my full ability.

Before the Race
I slept about as well as can be expected the night before the race. I woke up several times during the night wondering what time it was, but overall, I think I got about 6-7 quality hours. Greg and I woke up at 5:15 with a goal of leaving the house at 6:00. It turns out that this wasn't enough time to eat our breakfast, go to the bathroom, get dressed, and get all of our stuff together. I'm including this so that I know to wake up earlier next year! We ended up leaving the house at 6:15, and we were so rushed that Greg didn't bring his driver's license and neither of us brought money. We had our metro cards, but I wasn't even sure how much money was on mine.

Normally a situation like this would have made me a bit anxious, but instead I found it thrilling. We drove to the metro station knowing that we'd end up in DC without money or ID and only the metro cards to get back. It actually helped distract me from thinking about the race. We were also later than I wanted to be, so I was worried that we wouldn't have enough time to use the porta potties.

It turns out, we did not have enough time for that, but it was fine because we didn't need to anyway, which is a first. We got into our corral with about 15 minutes to spare, which is what I planned for, since the corrals get really crowded.

Miles 1-4
As the race started, I felt really relaxed. I was excited to finally be there as I had been anticipating this race for the past few weeks. In the spirit of pushing hard, I didn't want to look at the Garmin too much initially. I told myself to trust my experience with the 10-mile distance, and that I would know what the appropriate pace felt like. Trust. I repeated that to myself over and over during the beginning. Trust your training. Trust you can push hard for the whole race. Trust that you won't blow up. Trust your experience. I didn't look at my Garmin until it beeped for the first mile. 7:37. A little slower than planned, but better too slow than too fast. I figured I had 9 miles to get the pace down.

Mile 2 was over a bridge which included a slight uphill and then slight downhill, and then repeated as we turned back around on it. The pace was feeling challenging, but I told myself that it should feel hard for the entire 10 miles. It's not like a marathon that feels easy during the first hour or so. Again, I avoided the Garmin because I didn't want to be discouraged by a slow pace, or freaked out by a fast pace.

I carried a water bottle for the first four miles, and it felt great to finally toss it aside and have my hands free. I also didn't want to over-drink. I think I've made the mistake of drinking too much during races, resulting in cramping. I had hydrated well beforehand and I drank a good amount during miles 1-4, so I felt confident tossing the bottle and not having any more water for the last six miles.

Mile 1: 7:37
Mile 2: 7:26
Mile 3: 7:19
Mile 4: 7:15

Miles 5-7
I only looked at my Garmin when it beeped for the mile. I wanted to run by feel and not slow down or speed up based on my pace. I looked at the overall time when I crossed the 5-mile mark, and it was 37:24. I was on track for my sub-1:15 and feeling great.

There was also a timing mat for the 10K mark, which I hit at 46:33. That's a good 10K time! I thought to myself that I probably could have set a nice PR in the 10K distance today.

Mile 6 is always challenging in this race because there are a few hills and things start to hurt a lot more-- and yet you aren't really close to the finish. I always dread mile 6 of this race, but things tend to get easier when we reach Hains point at mile 7. We ran around a lot of curves during the 7th mile, and I was longing for the road to just be straight so I wouldn't have to focus on tangents. I started repeated "run to mile 7" over and over again to myself. This got rid of the negative thoughts that were starting to enter my mind. It worked so well that when I passed the mile 7 marker, I kept repeating it! I laughed at myself a bit, but the mantra was working.

Mile 5: 7:24
Mile 6: 7:36
Mile 7: 7:24

Miles 8-10
I couldn't believe I still had three miles to go. It seemed impossible and I was ready for the race to be done. I started envisioning myself dropping out at various points, which is a thought that always crosses my head
Photo by Cheryl Young
during races. I told myself to push and trust. I kept reminding myself that this was my chance to really see how hard I could push. After thinking about this for weeks, here it was-- the time when I wanted to push hard despite how tired I was feeling.

During the 9th mile there was a bit of an unexpected headwind. It wasn't horrible, but definitely noticeable, given that I was already feeling so worn out at that point. It also felt like a slightly uphill mile. But maybe I was just really tired. I glanced down at the Garmin a few times and noticed my pace was significantly slower and I was at risk for not meeting my goal. I told myself that the pain was just temporary, it would be over soon. Now was not the time to give in, after pushing so hard for the first 8 miles.

We finally hit mile 9 and had just one mile left! It was so hard! The last mile includes the biggest hill of the race and I used every ounce of energy I had to push up it. I finally reached the top, my Garmin beeped 10 miles, and then I ran a downhill stretch to the finish line.

Mile 8: 7:31
Mile 9: 7:40
Mile 10: 7:47
Last 0.7: (5:51 pace)

The Finish and Beyond
I felt like death immediately after crossing and knew that I did push past limits. I beat my PR from 2012 by 26 seconds, with an official time of 1:15:26. According to my Garmin, my average pace for the run was 7:29, which is pretty much what I predicted-- with the official race pace being a 7:32.

I found Greg about a minute after crossing, but I wasn't able to speak to him for a few minutes. We went immediately to the metro station without stopping for food or socializing, as we were both eager to be home. Fortunately, we made it back to our car without needing money or IDs! I have to say that one of the accomplishments of the day was how efficient we were at getting in and out of the city. No baggage check, no post-race food, no socializing- just the race and back home.

I placed 377 out of 10,548 women.
I placed 41 out of 1,597 in my age group (F 35-39).

I was excited to be in the top 2.5% in my age group!

Getting super data-focused, I could see this as my second "fastest" race ever. Looking at the McMilllan running calculator, the only distance where I have run a faster equivalent is the 5K.

McMillan pace equivalents

I was really pleased with my performance on this one. I achieved all of my goals: I went into the race feeling relaxed, I pushed hard when things got tough, and I ran a sub-7:30 pace. I know that my previous 10-mile PR was pretty solid, so at this stage in my running career, I don't expect to be setting huge PRs. I'm thankful to be getting faster slowly but surely, and that the 10-mile distance continues to be one where I excel.

Photo by  Cheryl Young

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pushing Past Limits

I've heard the phrase "pushing past limits" over and over again throughout my running career. Whether it comes up in the blogs I read, on Facebook posts, in running magazines or during in-person conversations with other runners, it's a very common theme.

I've never given the phrase much thought and honestly it's always seemed cliche. But now I am starting to really think about what it means to push beyond one's limits.

Shamrock half marathon 2014
I'm at the stage in my running where PRs will be few and far between. I've run 100+ races over the course of 8 years, with over 10,000 training miles and I'm starting to question if I am at my peak, or if I still have the potential to run faster.  Greg pointed out that it's only within the past year that I have truly addressed my mental pillar and I'm finally starting to arrive at races well rested and relaxed. Mental limits can be the most difficult to identify and break through, and I think I am making great strides there.

I think my next challenge is pushing past my pain tolerance during races. I always think I push myself as hard as possible, because racing always hurts so much, but then I wonder if there is a certain amount of pain that is familiar to me during races, and if I push past that, I would fear blowing up and not being able to sustain it. And therefore, I am afraid to run past a certain pain threshold.  I think most runners (well, I guess all runners) have this threshold, but I think I can push mine farther.

I know that Greg's tolerance and pain threshold far exceeds mine because he races much faster than he trains and it takes him a few days longer than me to recover. A common line of his is "I had no business running that race as fast as I did." We often wonder that if it was his mind running in my body, how fast I would be.

No matter how a race goes for me, my final kick is always very strong (usually over a mile per minute faster than average race pace).  I almost always have plenty of gas left for that last quarter mile or so. I'm just afraid to turn it on until the very end, when I no longer fear a blow-up.

I am making progress here, as I have been thinking about this topic for the past several months. When I ran the Shamrock half marathon and the GW Birthday 10K, I could see the finish line from about half a mile away. In both cases, I pushed hard early and was in that "I know I can't sustain this" zone longer than I usually am.  One of my goals for my next few races will be to push past my pain tolerance without the fear of a blow-up. To truly trust my training and realize that my limiting factor is my mind, not my body.

Peak Week
I haven't posted any training updates this year, and I typically blog about my "peak week" of training for a marathon. This Missisauga Marathon is on May 4, and this past week was my peak in terms of mileage.  Next week I will taper for and run the Cherry Blossom, and the week after that will include some recovery time.

I've gotten my hip under control with daily foam rolling and strengthening exercises. I've been extremely diligent about this and as a result my hip is now pain free. I did take 5 days off pre-Shamrock earlier this month to rest the hip, but since then, I have been running on it consistently with no additional time off.

Monday: 10 miles
10 Miles easy on the Mt. Vernon trail before work. It was in the mid 20's and windy, which made for a very cold run. I think record low temperatures were set that morning. Can't winter just end already!?

Tuesday: 8 miles with intervals
It started snowing about halfway through this workout, but I kept going. I knew it would probably start snowing on me, but I've had to miss quite a few track workouts this season due to a snow-covered track, and I really wanted to get this one in before anything accumulated. I warmed up for just over two miles and ran the following intervals, with 1/2 distance recovery jogs:
1600m (6:56)
1200m (5:05)
800m (3:17)
800m (3:17)

These are pretty typical paces for me. I followed it up with a cool down run for 8 miles total.

Wednesday: Rest day
Rest days are important! I still did my foam rolling and hip exercises.

Thursday: 9 miles with 5 tempo
Greg and I warmed up for 2.5 miles, ran 5 at tempo pace, and then cooled down for 1.5 miles. I think record low temperatures must have been set again, as it was only 20 degrees with a "real feel" in the teens.
Mile 1: 7:30
Mile 2: 7:35
Mile 3: 7:26
Mile 4: 7:17
Mile 5: 7:12

This is an average pace of 7:24.  I would love to run the Cherry Blossom 10-miler at that pace next weekend! I try to run my tempos at 10-mile race pace, so we'll see if I can execute on this.

Friday: 8 miles
An easy 8-miler with Greg, and finally the temperature was above freezing.

Saturday: 16 miles with 10 at marathon pace
This is a workout that my coach recommends and that I have done several times before, although none during this cycle. Considering I ran a 5-mile tempo on Saturday, I knew that I would need to keep the marathon pace miles at marathon pace and no faster. So how do I determine marathon pace for a workout like this? Based on my recent race times and paces for other workouts, marathon pace ends up being between 8:10-8:15. Do I actually think I will run the marathon at that pace? Maybe. It's workouts like these that help give me the confidence to believe I can execute.

Miles 1-2 (easy)
Miles 3-6: 8:11, 8:12, 8:17, 8:15
Mile 7 (easy)
Miles 8-10: 8:08, 8:04, 8:16
Mile 11 (easy)
Miles 12-13: 7:54, 7:40 -- I got a little carried away here.
Mile 14 (easy)
Mile 15: 8:01
Mile 16 (easy)

I felt really strong at the end and went faster than planned.  The average pace for the "marathon pace" miles was 8:06.  I felt strong throughout and my legs didn't get tired.

Sunday: 6 easy
It was 40 degrees, rainy and windy. Just miserable weather! However, I had a few friends running marathons and half marathons, so I didn't feel too badly for myself. I am in total awe of anyone who raced this morning.  Anyway, my legs felt great this morning, and I didn't have any noticeable affects from the marathon pace run.

Total mileage for the week = 57.

I'm feeling great about my training and I need to remind myself that training is just one piece of the marathon puzzle. It's the preparation. It's me doing my best to be prepared for whatever race day brings. It won't guarantee me a particular time. It will, however, give me the confidence of knowing that if I decide to push past my typical pain threshold, my body will not give out on me.

In the meantime, I've been taking this training cycle "one week at a time" focusing on immediate goals and not looking at everything as training for just one thing. Cherry Blossom is my current focus and I'm excited to see what happens next weekend.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Shamrock Half Marathon: Breezy, Brutal, Beautiful

This morning I ran the Shamrock half marathon in Virginia Beach. And it was hard.

I had fond memories of this race from 2009, where I surprisingly smashed my PR by over 4 minutes. I was hoping for some Shamrock magic this year too.

I went into this race well-trained and optimistic. I had been logging 45-55 mile weeks for the 2 months or so, with some quality tempo run thrown in there. Due to weather and travel, I hadn't been able to access a track so my intervals were lacking, but I figured those weren't as important as tempos for half marathon prep. Based on some of my workouts, I was very confident in my ability to PR, and hopefully even break 1:40.

The biggest unknown going into the race was my hip. For the past three weeks, it has felt sore toward the end of long runs, and finally last weekend it really kicked in. I felt it just three miles into a recovery run and decided I needed to rest it. I did zero running Monday-Wednesday, and did a 2-mile test run on Thursday. It was fine on Thursday, but then it acted up again on Friday's 2-miler. So going into the race I didn't know a) if my hip would be okay or if it would hurt and b) if missing a whole week of training directly before the race would impact my fitness.

My mental preparation was fairly strong. I got plenty of sleep in the week leading up to the race (well. . .except for two nights before-- but that wasn't due to pre-race jitters). I felt calm, cool and collected at the start line. I didn't even check the weather every day leading up to the race like I used to do.  Only a few times, and I certainly didn't worry about the forecast. The morning of the race, Greg's weather app indicated 15 MPH winds, but I chose to ignore it and I told myself it wasn't going to be that bad. Thus, I wasn't mentally prepared for wind.

I used to go into obsessive mode the week before a race, but this week, I just felt normal. I made sure to eat well (with the exception of the large piece of s'mores pie on "pi day" at work) and hydrate, but I didn't obsess over these things.

Before the Race
On Friday, when I went for my 2-mile "test run" my Garmin stopped working. It had been acting up for a few days with the battery indicating a full charge, but then going to 0% by the end of the run. Classic symptoms of a dead battery. So on Friday, I stopped into my local running store to purchase the Garmin 220. I know you aren't supposed to do anything new on race day, but I wanted to have a functioning Garmin, and I figured I had enough time to learn how to use this new model. Previously, I had the 405.

I played around with it, and adjusted the screens to the data I like to see when running. I like the "lap pace" to be displayed largely, because I think that's the most important metric when racing, so I gave it its own screen. On the other screen I displayed distance, total time, and total average pace.

Greg I drove down to Virginia Beach on Saturday morning and got to the expo just after 10:30. This race is
At the expo in my bridal shower attire.
notorious for never having the shirt size I reserve. I always request an XS, and it's always gone by the time I get there. And they are not gender specific, so a men's small tends to be too large for me. Anyway, when I walked up to get my shirt, they said "the XS shirts are running small, so would you like a Small instead?" I said no, and looked at the shirt, and it was plenty big. Greg then later theorized that they probably realize that they always run out of XS, so they try to get XS selectors to take the Small size instead. Ha. Didn't work on me. :-)

One of my friends who lives there was conveniently having her bridal shower that day, so after the expo, I dropped Greg off at the hotel and headed to her shower. I found myself fully engaged in the conversation at the shower and focused on the bride-to-be and not at all thinking about the race. I think that previously I would have been so nervous that I might not have enjoyed the shower as much.

The morning of the race, things went as they always did. Bagel with peanut butter, plenty of water, bathroom, getting dressed, attaching the bib, etc. We left the hotel about 30 minutes before race start, and walked just a few blocks to the start line.

It was windy and cold (45 degrees) at the start line. Greg and I shivered in the corral and ditched our throwaway shirts a few minutes before the start. I still wasn't worried about the wind. I knew that the wind would be coming from the northeast, which meant it should be easy for the second half. What I didn't realize was that there would be a 2-mile portion of the course at the curvy turnaround that headed directly into the northeast. I saw a few of my teammates on the other side of the corral but decided to stay put as I like to run my own race.

Miles 1-4
My race strategy was to start out in the low 7:40's for the first three miles and then speed up from
Happy first mile, photo by Cheryl Young

there. However, I didn't want the Garmin to run the race for me-- I wanted to run based on feel. The first mile was a little slower than expected, but I didn't worry. I figured that I didn't have a warm up, so it would be good to ease into the race.

Everything felt great, as it tends to do at the beginning of a half marathon. I was confident in my plan and my preparation. The hip was pain-free, and I was so relieved that I didn't have to deal with that. It was unfortunate that I missed a week of training, but at least I was able to run without it hurting.

The course was flat and not windy. The temperature felt good. Everything was going according to plan and I was excited. The new Garmin was working great and I was happy with my choice of display screens! I took my first gel at mile 4 and it went down well.

Mile 1: 7:54
Mile 2: 7:49
Mile 3: 7:43
Mile 4: 7:39

Miles 5-9
I had this nice, gradual acceleration going and I felt like I could keep accelerating and feeling strong. Mile 5 was faster than mile 4, and mile 6 was pretty good. Mile 7 started out great. But then-- boom! At the end of the 7th mile we turned directly into a 15 MPH headwind, with 25 MPH gusts. I figured I would just draft off of other people, but they kept running too fast for me. I noticed that my pace had slowed down significantly and most people around me were passing me. I think that's what was mentally the most difficult thing about this race. Nobody else seemed to slow down here, or at least not to the extent that I did. I didn't have anyone to draft off of because there were going to fast. I tried and pushed hard, but it was a really tough battle.

I just felt like this tiny little body, fighting this huge force and failing. I tried to keep a positive mindset. I told
LOL- people drafting off of ME!!!
myself to just keep running, no matter what, keep pushing, and that it would eventually end. I started feeling like I was just going to bonk and they wave of "I feel horrible" overcame me. Which is not good news during mile 8!  I decided to take my second honey gel, mainly so I could drink water with it and then toss my water bottle (I always carry a disposable hand-held during races). With my water bottle gone, I figured I would feel more "free" to push and really exert myself.

Slowing down to take the honey was a bad idea. I lost my momentum, I didn't get all of the honey in my mouth, my hands got all sticky. I was jut in a bad place. I poured water on my hands, wiped them on my skirt, ditched the water bottle, and realized that a curve was coming that would hopefully put an end to the wind.

Another thing that just sucked was that my foot fell asleep. It didn't go numb like it has in the past, but it had that tingling-falling-asleep feeling. And it was very difficult to run like this. I was hoping that it was just because of the cold wind hitting it, and that once I got out of the wind, my foot would wake up. My foot was asleep for just over a mile until it finally returned to normal.

Mile 5: 7:36
Mile 6: 7:40
Mile 7: 7:53
Mile 8: 8:07
Mile 9: 8:08

Miles 10-Finish
Once I turned a corner and was out of the wind, I resolved to stay strong and run my fastest. I refused to believe I was "bonking" and that I was just going to get progressively slower. I knew that a PR was probably unlikely, but I was going to salvage this race and run the rest of the miles as close as possible to goal pace.

Photo courtesy of Cheryl Young
I was really proud that I turned things around mentally and my speed picked up. I kept reminding myself that I had many high-mileage weeks behind me which meant I could endure at a decently fast pace for a long time. I kept reminding myself that I was physically capable of running in the 7:30's or 7:40's for the rest of the race, so I should do that.

Miles 10 and 11 were smooth sailing, but I started to feel a bit like death during miles 12 and 13. The last mile had some turns where we ran directly into the headwind again, and I felt like it stopped me dead in my tracks. I did not feel good during these miles and I just couldn't wait for the race to end.

About half a mile before the finish, we turned onto the boardwalk. The turning point featured a very strong wind gust, but once I was on the boardwalk and could see the finish, the wind was no longer there and so I gunned it. I was so determined and I felt very strong. I was fighting back for the time I lost in the windy section. I only had about third of a mile left and it wasn't windy so I figured I needed to make the most of this time.

Mile 10: 7:39
Mile 11: 7:38
Mile 12: 7:47
Mile 13: 7:48 (this mile started out in the 8:20's!)
The last 0.1: 6:45 pace

The finish and beyond
My final kick was pretty hard, so I felt destroyed after crossing the finish line. I easily found Greg and some other friends of ours. I ended up crossing in 1:42:24, which was better than I had expected at mile 8!

Greg and I took a very cold walk back to our hotel where we looked up our times, showered, and talked about our races.

Once I started thinking about my time, I felt a pang of disappointment. I really thought I was going to PR. And probably break 1:40. I was in great shape, the weather wasn't hot, I had slept well, and I felt relaxed. Meanwhile, most everyone I know who ran it set a PR. I know, I KNOW I am not supposed to compare myself to other people. But the notion that PRs are extremely rare at my level was totally proved wrong. And, most all of them had negative splits. I felt like I was the only one with a positive split. Everyone else had sped up throughout the race, but I slowed down. And on the windy part, I was passed by tons of people-- it just didn't seem to affect them the way it did me.

I felt very discouraged. I do realize that wind can be tough, and without seeing other people's PRs or the people passing me during the windy sections, I would have been very satisfied with my performance. But I wasn't. I felt like most everyone was able to push through and PR except for me.

My half marathon PR is over three years old. I've done SO much training since October of 2010-- and I
Photo by Cheryl Young
know I am in better shape now, both physically and mentally. Very frustrating that my time isn't budging.

I later had a text message exchange with a friend of mine who totally understood where I was coming from, and reminded me that yes, it can be tough when everyone you train with out-performs you. But she helped me focus on what was important-- that I ran a strong race and pushed through after having that whole hip issue to deal with.

Greg was also very supportive, reminding me that the "old me" probably would have gotten so discouraged by those 8:08 miles that I would have given up. And that previously, if I had run the race with the same level of fitness, I might not have gotten as much sleep, or been as relaxed, or had the mental strength to keep pushing after the wind had taken so much out of me.

Ultimately, yes, I do realize that I have a lot to be proud of. And now, 10 hours after the race, I am "over it" and no longer feel that sinking feeling of disappointment. I know I am capable of running faster, I just didn't do it today. There will be other races, other opportunities.

Here is what I did do:

- After years of not being able to sleep well in the week leading up to the race, I slept straight through the night almost every night.
- I didn't obsess about the race or the outcome beforehand. It was just "what I was doing" that weekend.
- I didn't give up after the windy miles. I pushed hard and got my pace back down to goal pace for the next two miles.
- I had a nice final kick.
- I enjoyed the race. I high-fived someone during the last mile, which I usually never do. I laughed (internally) at a funny spectator comment.
- I ran my second fastest half marathon ever.
- I finished 163rd out of 5,500 women, putting me in the top 2.9% of female finishers.
- Even though most everyone I knew PRed, and it made me feel badly about my race, I worked through the feelings (relatively quickly) and resolved to not let it overshadow everything else. This was probably the hardest part about the day. Harder than the wind even-- overcoming that automatic feeling of disappointment when others around you seemingly out-perform you. It's not easy, and I will continue to work on it.

The "beautiful" from the blog title comes from my custom-made shoes matching my singlet perfectly. And the bib matching the "zebra" verbiage of the shoes.