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.