Friday, July 21, 2017

The Great Alaskan Running Cruise: Anchorage

Greg and I flew across the country from Virginia to Alaska yesterday to take part in the Great Alaskan Running Cruise. What is a running cruise? It's a normal cruise, Royal Caribbean to be specific, that includes special running excursions and events. Not everyone on the cruise is part of the
running group; there are about 150 of us. The cruise departs from Seward, Alaska and finishes in Vancouver, Canada.

We booked this trip back in February. It was actually my Valentine's Day gift to Greg because I knew that he had always wanted to go to Alaska. We actually got in off of the waiting list, as this cruise booked up about nine months in advance.

Alaska Bound!
We arrived in Anchorage yesterday afternoon and we will board the cruise ship this afternoon after a three-hour bus ride to Seward. We had some weather delays yesterday because we flew through Chicago, which had severe thunderstorms. We boarded the first plane, and then deplaned, and then boarded it again, and arrived in Chicago about two hours late. Thankfully, our connecting flight was also late. We got a nice tour of O'Hare International Airport as they changed our gate number several times (picture us booking it from concourse to concourse). Ultimately, we flew out of a gate that was very close to the gate we flew into, so we got some extra exercise yesterday.

View from the plane
Once we were on board the flight to Anchorage, everything went smoothly. Of course, everything was made much more tolerable with our first class tickets, which we got for a steal. I had never flown first class before because it's usually prohibitively expensive and I don't have any sort of status to qualify for free upgrades. But for 8+ hours of flying to only pay $300 more-- we thought it was totally worth it. Especially since it included free checked luggage and we needed to check two bags.

Speaking of bags, packing for this trip was quite the challenge. We each needed three outfits per day (four if you count pajamas). A running outfit, a daytime outfit, and a dressy dinner outfit. Cruise ship dinners require that men wear long pants, collared shirts, and dress shoes, so planning for that took up almost half our luggage space. Furthermore, the weather in Alaska in July ranges from the low 50's to the upper 60's, and it could be rainy or sunny on any given day. It's kind of like packing for a marathon, a wedding, a beach vacation, and a touristy vacation, and you're doing each of those things every day.

Anchorage Welcome
We arrived only one hour late, which was pretty incredible due to all of the delays. We had about an hour to get situated in our hotel and then we were off to the packet pickup and welcome meeting. The Skinny Raven running store was just two blocks from our hotel, and it was the largest running store I had ever seen! It was probably five times as big as the running stores we have in northern Virginia.

We met the other people who would be on our cruise. As expected, it was a diverse group with a wide range of ages. We were given a name tag and three bibs: one for each of the timed events. The first event would be a 5K fun run, which wouldn't be timed, followed by beer and pizza. This started about an hour after we received our packets.

I had informed my coach of all of the planned running events on the cruise and he wrote me a
Greg and me on the Coastal Trail in Anchorage
schedule that included them. For the welcome 5K, he suggested that I run it as a tempo, and then run 10 x (1 minute hard, 1 minute easy) afterward if I had time. Because Alaska is four hours behind the eastern time zone, it already felt like 8:00pm, and my normal bedtime is around 9:00! Plus, we had been traveling all day.

Greg and I decided to get the 1-minute intervals out of the way first because we had about 30 minutes to spare before the welcome 5K. And once we were done with the 5K, we would want to eat dinner and get to bed pretty quickly. We warmed up for one mile, and the began the 1-minute intervals, We ran up and down the residential streets near our hotel, staying close to where we'd meet back up with the group for the 5K. I felt pretty good, considering I had been traveling all day long.

The Moosehead 5K
Once we were done with our short workout, our group headed down to the water, where we ran on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. The 5K fun run was simply an out and back on the trail. The views from the trail were amazing! And at 68 degrees with low humidity, the weather felt heavenly.

Our focus during the 5K was to soak it all in and enjoy the experience. We knew we'd be visiting the trail again the next morning, when we would stop for photos and capture everything. We had gorgeous views of the water, the mountains and the forests. Our splits were 7:42, 7:27, 7:04, and 6:45 for the last bit, which yielded a 22:57. It felt really invigorating to run fast on this trail and we were both really excited to finally be in Alaska. Especially after having spent 8+ hours on a plane.

After the run, we all went back to the running store where we had pizza and beer. I was starving. It
was after 10:00 my body time! I finally got to meet fellow blogger Zenaida, whose blog I have been reading for over five years! We didn't stay very long because we were so exhausted. It felt really great to finally get some sleep.

Easy Run Along the Coast
This morning, Greg and I had some time before our transfer to go running. Of course, we woke up at around 3:00am, and the sun rose really early. We were out on the trail by 5:00 and it was pretty much deserted. This time, we went for an hour-long easy run. We went father on the trail than we had the day before and it was absolutely stunning. And at 51 degrees, the air felt marvelous. We're used to it being in the low 70's with insanely high humidity!

After our run, we went to a small coffee shop for breakfast. What a perfect way to start the day.

Today, our cruise adventure begins. More posts to follow!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Erase This Word From Your Running Vocabulary

Lately, I have been seeing this word all over the place in the running community. Particularly in blogs and on Instagram. And when I read it or hear it, it's like nails on a chalkboard to me.

The word? Excuse.

Here are some (not verbatim) examples of how I have seen this word used:
  • I'm not trying to make excuses, but it was 85 degrees out.
  • There was a headwind for 5 miles of the race. It's not an excuse, but it slowed me down.
  • Not making excuses, but I got a stomach cramp at mile 9.
  • The weather was perfect, so no excuses. 
These types of lines leave me scratching my head. What? Why would you need an excuse? Did you not just go bust your butt in a race or a workout while most people are sitting on a couch? What would you be excusing yourself for? Even though these runners are saying that they are NOT making excuses, they are implying that they might, in fact, need one by virtue of calling it out.

Let's back up here. In trying to figure out why this word bothers me so much, I've broken it down to the basics. What is an excuse? When would you use one? 

An excuse has two components.

1. You didn't do something you were supposed to do; you failed to meet a commitment
  • You didn't get into work on time.
  • You didn't attend an event you RSVPed yes to.
  • You didn't do your homework.
  • You didn't call or text someone when you said you would.
2. You didn't actually intend to do it, so you manufactured an explanation.
  • You didn't get into work on time because you slept in, so you blamed it on the traffic.
  • You didn't attend an event you RSVPed to because you didn't feel like going, so you said you weren't feeling well.
  • You didn't do your homework because you just didn't make time for it, so you said your dog ate it.
  • You didn't call or text someone when you said you would because it wasn't all that important to you, so you said you were too busy with work.

Both 1 and 2 need to be present in order for an excuse to come into play. If it's just #1, then there could be a very simple reason why. Maybe there was a major accident that prevented you from getting into work on time. Maybe you truly were sick so you couldn't attend the event. Maybe you couldn't do your homework because you had a headache. In this case, none of these would be excuses, they would be reasons.

Now let's apply it to running. It's almost never the case that 1 OR 2 exists, let alone both. When runners say they "aren't trying to make excuses" my question is, excuses for what? What didn't you do that you should have done? You missed a PR? You ran slower than your goal time? Well, that happens all the time. It's part of running. It's nothing that needs an excuse, an apology, or even an explanation. That said, explanations are helpful in understanding what went wrong, and if it was something you could control, how can you improve for next time? If it was something you couldn't control, then it's important to note it and then move on.

I remember a few years ago at the start of the Cherry Blossom 10-miler, the announcer said, "It's a beautiful day at 45 degrees and 5 mph winds. We call this no-excuses weather." So, if the weather were hot or rainy, would that be "excuse weather"?  Could you imagine if the announcer of the Boston Marathon said "Well, it's going to be 75 degrees and sunny today. It's excuses weather, so go on and make excuses for your poor performance."

If you ran a race, you don't need an excuse. It doesn't matter how fast or how slow you ran it. It doesn't matter if you achieved your goal or not. You showed up. You gave your best effort. Period. If you went on any kind of run, actually, you don't need an excuse. You would only need an excuse if you intended to train for a marathon, but didn't do any of the work. Or if you registered for a race and just didn't feel like showing up on race morning. If you put miles on your running shoes, then #1 above doesn't exist. So an excuse would never come into play. 

I also really hate the phrases "what's your excuse?" and "no excuses" when it comes to running. I see those so often on Instagram and Facebook. And even in advertising. Those phrases might apply to non-athletes who may legitimately want to start running, but don't make it a priority. But for people who regularly go out and run, the word "excuse" is completely irrelevant and potentially self-defeating. It's a negative word, and it's poisonous to a healthy mindset. So erase it from your vocabulary. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Firecracker 5K: Testing My Limits

Ouch. That was definitely a humbling experience!

This morning I ran my 5th Firecracker 5K in Reston, VA. This race is always brutal with the heat, humidity, and hills. I missed running it last year because I had just come down with mono (or some mono-like virus), and this year I was thankful to be running it. I also missed this race in 2012 because of mono, and in 2013 because of injury, so the most important thing was that I was healthy enough to race. My time in 2014 was 22:54, and in 2015 I finished in 22:05.

The timing of this race was not ideal. I flew to London last Wednesday for business, and then flew back on Friday. This definitely threw my body off schedule and resulted in a lack of sleep. However, I woke up on Saturday morning feeling refreshed, and I cranked out a set of 8 x 400m at 5K effort at paces that were faster than expected. I had been targeting 1:35-1:37 (6:20-6:28) and my splits averaged 1:33 (6:12). It felt like 5K effort and the fact that the temperature was in the low 70's and very humid was a sign that I was acclimated.

As for goals, I wanted to run sub-20:30, and ideally beat my time from Lawyers Have Heart last month (20:24), which was a flatter course.

I got another solid night of sleep on Saturday night, and felt great during the day, so I determined that jet lag would not be a factor in my race. I decided that I was really going to go for it. I am not racing again for another seven weeks, and after this race I have some scheduled recovery time built into my schedule. I decided that I would run the race based on effort (as opposed to pacing with my Garmin) and I wouldn't be afraid to go out hard. I was confident in my fitness and my ability to execute, so I was going to try and race this one really hard.

Before the Race
Greg and I arrived 45 minutes prior to race start. We drank our UCAN and met up with a group of friends for a warmup. I felt pretty good during the warmup, but I could tell the humidity was pretty serious. It was 75 degrees, and I think the dew point was around 70. I was thankful for the mostly cloudy sky, and even decided I didn't need sunglasses. After a 2-mile warmup, Greg and I went back to our car.

Just like we did for the Twilight Festival 4-miler, we brought a cooler of ice to the race. The plan was to soak ourselves with ice cold towels just before the race. I threw a handful of ice into my sports bra, poured ice cold water over my head, and felt ready to race. We walked to the start line area, and I did a few strides. I've definitely improved my running economy and leg turnover during this training cycle, and the strides felt really fluid.

I reconnected with my friends at the start line, where we all sang the National Anthem, due to the PA
Hannah, Perry and Me before the race.
system not working properly. I waved to my dad and stepmother, who had come to cheer me on. Looking around the start line, I could tell this would be a very competitive race. It always is, and I had no expectation of breaking into the top 10 women. I lined up farther back than I typically do, considering how many elite athletes showed up and people who I knew were faster than me.

Mile 1
This fast crowd pulled me out pretty quickly, and I told myself to have the confidence to run by feel. This mile has a rolling elevation, but it's net uphill. If I were being conservative, I would have probably paced it for a 6:35, but that wasn't my goal today-- I wanted to take a risk and see what would happen. It was pretty crowded the first mile, as it always is during this race. I was feeling pretty good as I polished off the mile in 6:27. A little fast, but I didn't judge it as I glanced down. Maybe today would be the day that I totally surprised myself and even PRed on a hot, hilly, humid course!

Mile 2
While mile 1 and 3 are net uphill, mile 2 offers a nice long stretch of downhill. Whenever I have run this race in the past, my second mile has been the fastest. For the first half of the mile, I just cruised along down that hill at the same effort I had run the first mile. But about halfway through I hit a wall pretty hard. My legs felt good, but a wave of fatigue came over me and suddenly I lacked the energy to continue to push. I knew that if I didn't back off the effort a little bit, I would crash and never make it up that final hill. So I eased up ever so slightly so that I would have enough energy to surge during the last mile. Even still, I felt exhausted and tired and I wanted to quit so badly. When I clocked a 6:32 split, I knew that this was not going to be the day I had hoped for. Mile 2 was always much faster than mile 1. But I knew not to speculate and to simply focus on getting to the finish line as quickly as possible.

Mile 3
Thankfully, I was able to devote all my mental energy to powering through the last mile. I think that the "former me" would have sulked about the mile 2 split and potentially given up mentally. Instead I simply thought "ok" and focused on my form as I powered up the first hill. I knew I had slowed down significantly, but I still had enough energy to push and run to my max. My split was 7:04, which shows that I had very little left to give.

The Last 0.18
Photo by Cheryl Young

I wasn't surprised that when my watched beeped for three miles, I still had what seemed like forever to go. This course always measures long on everyone's Garmins, it's just something to expect. Even with the finish line in sight, all I could muster was a pace of 6:39. For the past six races I've run, they've all had a final kick at sub-6:00 pace. But not this one. I crossed the finish line, bent over with my hands on my knees, feeling like I might pass out. But I got over it quickly and was able to move on.

My finish time on my watch was 21:16. Ouch. I haven't run a 5K that slow since my mono comeback in November. This is almost a full minute slower than the PR I set in May. I don't question my fitness-- I do think I'm in excellent 5K shape. But I definitely underestimated how much the humidity would impact my race, and that was a mistake. It just goes to show how much execution matters in a 5K. Fitness will only take you so far.

After the Race
I caught up with Greg, my friends and my family and we briefly exchanged race stories before going back to the car for more ice cold towels and ice cold water. We all cooled down together, and I struggled through that immensely. I felt completely gassed. This race took more out of me than any other race this season. Including the 4-miler in 81 degree temps.

I looked to see if the results were posted anywhere but I couldn't find them. Greg found them just before the awards ceremony began and took a photo of them with my phone. My official time was 21:21, the same as my gun time. Crap! My chip must not have registered at the start line. The person who won 3rd place in my age group was just one second faster than me based on chip time, so I went over to the timing tent to get it sorted out. Sure enough, they told me that my chip didn't register at the start line. This is the second time this season that I've had this happen to me. This time, however, we couldn't use Greg's start time because I actually started two rows behind him.

Photo by Cheryl Young
I showed them my watch and they changed my start time accordingly. This happened just in time for a race official to walk me over to the awards ceremony and present me with the 3rd place age group award. I do feel badly about coming in at the 11th hour and taking the age group award, but I did rightfully earn it and I couldn't find the results posted earlier in the morning.

As I said earlier, this was a competitive field. The 10th place female ran a time of 19:06 and the winner ran 16:56. I was the 23rd female.

Final Thoughts
There are two ways to look at this race. I could look at it as failed execution. I went out too fast, underestimating the humidity, and paid for it later in the race. If I had started out slower, I probably could have run an overall faster time. My execution in 2015 was much stronger, with splits of 6:57, 6:45, 7:10. Based on the course profile, I think this type of pacing is ideal.

Or, I could look at it as taking a risk, and having it not pay off. I did take a risk because I wanted to test my limits and see what I was capable of. And the 5K is a good distance to test things, particularly when it's not "PR weather." So, now I know that if it's 75 degrees and really humid, I should go out slower. I also know that it's useful to look at the Garmin during the first mile to ensure that I don't get pulled out too fast. I've always thought this, but I figured I would take the opportunity to try not using it and see what would happen.

I had a really fun time getting to see so many of my friends, and I feel like this was a good learning experience for me. It definitely was not the experience I hoped for, but I think it will help motivate me in future races. Even though the humidity hasn't seemed to affect my workout paces this season, a race is a different ballgame, and I need to respect that. And as I said earlier, I am thankful that I was healthy enough to run this race, as I've had to miss it multiple times in the past. I also fully realize that not every race can be a stellar performance, and I have had my share of strong performances this year.

I have some scheduled down time this week and a very easy week next week with no hard workouts. I specifically requested this from my coach because I really don't want to overdo it in the heat and be burnt out before marathon training even starts. I'll begin marathon training the week of July 17th, with a target of the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon the first weekend in November.