Saturday, March 24, 2007

The day I ran faster than I drove

I ran the Wirefly National Half Marathon in Washington DC this morning. In its second year, this marathon is rapidly gaining in popularity. It drew people from 48 states!

Unfortunately, those people didn't get a very scenic or historical view of Washington. The only notable landmark that the course passes through is the Capitol, at the beginning of the race. Otherwise, the course goes through run-down neighborhoods of the city. No nice view of the Potomac river like in the Marine Corps marathon. No view of the monuments or the White House. Just dirty, run-down neighborhoods.

I ran this race with my good friend Lauren, who I referenced in a previous blog. Lauren and I headed out to the race just before 6:00 a.m. in my car. It took us approximately 25 minutes to drive to the parking area near the start line. It was dark and raining, with a temperature of about 48F. I had debated over what to wear, but finally settled on shorts and a heavy long-sleeved top with a quarter zipper. 

Before the race started, we had some time to stretch and use the porta-potties. The rain tapered off a bit and I suddenly became very warm in my heavy top. I was worried that I would get too hot, and at certain points during the race, I wished I had chosen something lighter weight.

The race was relatively uneventful. There was very little crowd support, and I was surprised becausethere were about 5,000 runners (both full and half). It was nothing like the Marine Corps Marathon where tens of thousands of people swarm the streets and crowd the sidewalks to catch a glimpse of the runners. The lack of crowd support and dreary weather took a slight toll on my mood, so I didn't have the excited spirit as I typically do when I race.

My strategy was to begin at a 9:00 pace and then gradually decrease to an 8:20. My goal was to break my record of 2:00:25 set in 2005, when I ran my first half marathon. But I really wanted to come in under 1:55, because my training indicated that I was capable of doing so.

My first mile was 9:18, and I followed this strategy (somewhat) until mile marker 11, at which point the hills began to take a toll on me. I typically don't track splits on my watch-- I just let the timer go and remember my splits in my head, and I do the math. This was the first race where I actually used the split feature. The first ten miles were paced as followed, according to my watch:

Mile 1: 9:18
Mile 2: 8:41
Mile 3: 8:51
Mile 4: 9:03
Mile 5: 8:46
Mile 6: 8:50
Mile 7: 8:32
Mile 8: 8:44
Mile 9: 9:07
Mile 10: 8:12

I was not expecting the last 5 miles to be so hilly: It was hill after hill after hill. And it really seemed that there were more uphills than down hills. Once I hit mile marker 11, I started to slow down. I usually increase my speed dramatically at the end of a race, but I simply could not do it today. I don't think I went out too fast-- if the course were less hilly I probably could have sped up.

Mile 11: 8:41
Mile 12: 9:22
Mile 13: 9:20

I ran to the finish line at a steady pace-- I didn't get my "finish line adrenaline". I think more crowd support would have helped. I didn't see any spectators during the last mile. My time for this race was 1:56:27, an average pace of 8:52. I think I ran a good race and I am satisfied with my time. Although part of me wishes that I didn't slow down as much at the end, and I could have come in under 1:55.

I have a week and a day to recover for the Cherry Blossom 10-miler. As far as rankings go, the resultson the Web site ranked the finishers according to gun time (as opposed to chip time), so it's not an accurate reflection of how I did. The competitive side of me hates that!

Lauren and I walked back to my car. As we left the parking lot, we were put onto this road the sent us off in the wrong direction. After getting a sense for where we were, we realized that the road closings from the race were causing major traffic backups. We left the parking lot at 9:20, and did not get out of the city until after 12:00. For about an hour of this time, we were just stuck on one road-- going so slow that I kept putting my car in park and stretching my legs. Just the fact that I could be taking photos while in the driver's seat says something about our immobility.

Once in awhile, we would actually get to move the car forward!!! Essentially, it took us nearly three hours to drive about 7-8 miles. We could have run faster! We could have driven to Philadelphia in that amount of time. And it's not like we could really get mad at the street closings because we actually ran in that race. Lauren and I had some good quality time to catch up, so the car ride wasn't too bad.

iPod Playlist highlights (in order):

30 Seconds To Mars, "From Yesterday"
Sheryl Crow, "Steve McQueen"
Dishwalla, "Counting Blue Bars"
Chris Daughtry, "It's Not Over"
David Gray, "Nos De Cariad"
Jason Mraz, "Can't Go For That"
The Fray, "How to Save a Life"
Eddie Money, "Take Me Home Tonight"
Nickleback, "Rockstar"
Incubus, "Dig"
Plus 44, "When Your Heart Stops Beating"
AFI, "Love Like Winter"
Red Hot Chilli Peppers, "Save The Population"
Anberlin, "Godspeed"
The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, "Face Down"
Five For Fighting, "Policeman's Xmas Party"
The Killers, "Bones"
Jason Mraz, "The Remedy"
Anberlin, "There is No Mathematics To Love And Loss"
Red Hot Chilli Peppers, "Especially In Michigan"
Rise Against, "Ready To Fall"
Better Than Ezra, "Hollow"
Anberlin, "Readyfuels"
Incubus, "Anna Molly"
Fall Out Boy, "This Ain't A Scene, It's An Arms Race"

Update: I just learned that the course may have been 0.5 miles too long. This could explain why I slowed down so much at the end. What is up with me and these races that are too long???? This was a USATF certified course, so it shouldn't have been long. If this is the case, then my time for the half marathon dips down to about 1:51. I'll keep you guys updated on what I find out.

Added a few days later:
Today, I received this e-mail message from the Wirefly National Half Marathon race director: 

We wanted to make you aware that due to a cone placement error this course was inadvertently .24 miles longer than the 13.1 official distance which race officials had mapped and USATF had certified. While your Official Time remains the same for the event, we are providing an amended section to the posted results.

A cone placement error? Geeze! I suspected that the course might have been too long, but since I didn't see the 12 mile marker, I had no way of measuring my exact splits for the last two miles. Plus, there were hills so I figured I must have just slowed down because of the hills.

As it turns out, I didn't slow down at all. It was nice that they adjusted the results to reflect this extra 0.24 on their Web site. My actual time was 1:54:18, with a pace of 8:43. This means I met my "OMG I am so happy" goal! If you recall my "This race was a success" goal was just to get under 2:00. But my goal that I really wanted was under 1:55, and I did it!

Interestingly PR pace for a half marathon is now faster than my PR pace for a 10-miler! but only by one second (8:44 vs. 8:43).

Sunday, March 18, 2007

18 Miles on a Treadmill

I set a record today for my longest treadmill run ever. Prior to today, my longest had been 16 miles, when training for the Marine Corps Marathon.

The original plan was to run outdoors. I was going to park my car, run 9 miles to a location where I would meet up with my friend, and then we were going to run 9 miles back to my car. She is running a half marathon next weekend, so it would have served as her last long training run. Unfortunately, the wind combined with temperatures in the 40's made the idea of running such a distance extremely undesirable. Had it not been for the wind, I wouldn't have minded running in 45-degree weather.

I took a pack of Jelly Belly sports bean with me (I always feel so weird eating on the treadmill) and a bottle of water and started my run. I always wonder if other people notice how long I am on the treadmill and if they think I am just obsessed with running, or actually training for something. I had to reset the treadmill three times, because the maximum is 60 minutes. I decided to reset the treadmill every six miles-- here are my splits:  

First six: 58:35 (9:46 average pace) including a walk break at the end of each mile.
Middle six: 57:35 (9:36 average pace) including a shorter walk break at the end of each mile.
Last six: 55:20 (9:13 average pace) just one short walk break at the end of mile 13.

I ran the last two miles at a much faster pace, and I felt like I could have gone even further. I got sort of bored and not wanting to run anymore at around mile 12, but once I hit 15, I got a second wind. My overall time for this run was 2:51:30, yielding an average pace of 9:31. Spread across a marathon, I would get a time of 4:09:48, which is what I am hoping for in New Jersey at the end of April.

My feet have shrunk. I have run all my marathons in Brooks Adrenaline size 6. My size 6's feel way too big now, and I am more comfortable in the 5.5's. I ran this run in my size 6's and I stopped several times to tie them tighter for more support. I am now debating which shoe size to wear during the marathon. Do I wear the size 6 like usual? Or the size 5.5? This could make a huge difference in how my feet and legs feel.

I wore a new sports bra. For me, the biggest running "gear" challenge is finding a supportive, dry-wicking sports bra that doesn't chafe (even with body glide). The sports bras designed for bustier women don't support me whatsoever and the extra wires that those bras have are painful. I've decided that the best approach is buy an Extra Small sports bra (despite my cup size) and just cram these things in there so they can't move. I tried it today with a new sports bra and it worked!

My schedule for the next few weeks is as follows:
March 24: 9 miles (if anyone thinks I could do more and not have my 10-miler suffer, chime in!)
April 1: Cherry Blossom 10-mile race
April 6: 20-mile training run
April 14: Running the last 10 miles of a 50-mile race with Michael Hayden
April 21: 8 miles
April 29: New Jersey Marathon

All you runners who are reading this, please feel free to offer advice on this plan. I haven't done much trail running, so I need to be very careful doing the last ten miles of that Ultra with Michael. If I feel like the hills and the terrain are too much, I will stop and just do a longish run on Sunday.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hills, Spit and a Mis-measured Mile

Today I ran the Van Metre 5 Mile run in Ashburn, VA. The average temperature was about 39 degrees, partly sunny.

Before the Race
You might have thought that this race was some life-altering event based on my anxiety dreams the night before. I dreamt that I was late to the race, that I couldn't find the race, that I got into a car accident on the way to the race, that I forgot about the race. Any anxiety dream you can think of, I had it. I tossed and turned all night and ended up with very little sleep.

I went to the Starbucks near my house for my usual pre-race coffee (just half a cup) and bagel. I was upset to learn that the bagel shop near the Starbucks had gone out of business, so I had to settle for a reduced-fat piece of coffee cake from Starbucks.

I drove 25 miles out to Ashburn where I parked my car, got my bib number and warmed up. There were about 600 people running this race. My goal for the race was under 40:00, (under 8:00/mile).

Mile 1: 8:00 (8:00 pace)
I had no idea what the elevation for this course would be like. Mile one featured a large hill, and I felt like I was going maybe 8:20-8:25, so I was happy when I passed mile marker 1 at exactly 8:00, according to my watch. This was the coldest race I've ever run, probably just a few degrees colder than last year's Turkey Trot 5K. It hurt to breathe the cold air. I could see my breath. I kept spitting ever few minutes. I don't know why I spit in races when it's colder.

Mile 2: 15:20 (7:20 pace)
Mile 2 had a nice downhill, so I ran it very quickly. This was my quickest mile of the race, thanks to the downhill. I was still hurting and cold, but by the end of this mile, I told myself I was almost halfway there. We ran through neighborhoods with nice, relatively new houses. I tried to distract myself from the pain in my lungs and discomfort by looking at the houses.

Mile 3: 23:00 (7:40 pace)
I was feeling really confident about the race at this point and I figured I was a shoe-in to beat my goal, and beat it by a lot! This mile was mainly uphill. It wasn't very steep but the hill seemed endless. By this point, I had stopped spitting, and was bored by the scenery. There weren't many houses around, just kind of a boring street with some construction going on nearby.

Mile 4: 31:00 (8:00 pace)
I slowed down a little bit on this mile. I was getting tired and my legs were sore from so many hills. I had been training primarily on a treadmill due to the cold weather, so I wasn't prepared for the hills. My San Diego runs had some significant bridges, and I did a somewhat hilly 14-miler the weekend before, but that was the only hill training I had done. By this point, I was averaging a pace of 7:45.

Had I continued with this average pace, I would have finished in 38:45. This was my expected finish time. I told myself that all I had to do was knock out a 9-minute mile and I would make my goal. It seemed like I was guaranteed to make my goal, especially considering I like to sprint the last few minutes.

"Mile" 5: 40:17 (9:17 pace)
Um. . . . NO. No way was this last "mile" a true mile. I was running as fast as I could. My legs were killing me, but I was sprinting up hills, and when my watch said 38:00, I was wondering why the finish line was no where in sight. I wanted to make my goal so badly so I sped up even more. I was probably going at a pace of 7:00 at this point, possibly even faster. Where the hell is the finish line!!!!!

Finally, I crossed it at 40:17, yielding a 9:17 pace for that mile. I was so disappointed. I thought to myself that there is no way that last mile was a true mile. I just about killed myself to get to the finish line. I walked around and started listening to other runners complaining about the last mile.

"My last mile was 2 minutes slower than all my others," one man said. I went over to talk to him and told him that I had a similar experience. I then heard another group of runners talking about the same thing. They were all on track to meet their goals, but the last mile took them much longer than expected. Apparently, due to the construction, they had to change the end of the course from what it's been the past 14 years. And they must have measured incorrectly. All of the runners I spoke with said the same thing. One person estimated that the last mile was actually 1.25 miles.I might e-mail the race director to find out what happened.

In any event, my official time for this race was 40:17. However, I know I ran the 5 miles in less than 38:45, according to where I was at mile 4, and the fact that I definitely sped up at the end. This just irks me to no end!

I ranked 32 out of 222 women finishers.
I ranked 7 of 41 in my age group.

Notable iPod songs:
  • From Yesterday (30 Seconds to Mars)
  • Counting Blue Cars (Dishwalla)
  • Love Like Winter (AFI)
  • Anna Molly (Incubus)
  • This Ain't A Scene, It's An Arms Race (Fall out Boy)
  • Reclusion (Anberlin)
  • Common Pleasure (Jason Mraz)
I am extremely sore from all those hills. The original plan was to run another 5 miles on the treadmill, but I am far too sore for that. If I injured myself by overdoing it during those last few minutes when the finish line was nowhere in sight, I will be really mad! Time to go relax.

Added two days later:
I just read an article on RunWashington about yesterday's 5-mile race:

When the course was run last, the runners finished the race by coming out of the woods (on a bike path) and crossed Clariborne Parkway immediately. This left a straight, slightly downhill quarter mile to the finish. This year the runners stayed on the left side of the road before circling on a cloverleaf path to run below the road, adding about 150 meters to the distance. Although the race appeared to be run on a similar course, the fifth mile splits made it clear that the race was somewhat longer than advertised.

At least now I know I am not going crazy, and I have confirmation that I met my goal. 150 meters adds approximately 0.1 mile onto the course. For a 5.1 mile race, my time was 40:17, yielding an average pace of 7:54, which means I met my goal! Spreading the 7:54 across 5 miles would have yielded a finish time of 39:32. I am really jealous of the people who ran it in the past who had the "slightly downhill quarter mile finish". That must have been nice!!!!

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

How to run a marathon: tips for race day

If you're reading this article, you already know that training for a marathon is not easy. You've probably spent nearly every day for the past six months hitting the road or the treadmill with your favorite running shoes (likely having gone through multiple pairs), not to mention the "long runs" which have consumed your Saturdays or Sundays. You've probably sacrificed time with your friends and/or family as well as social engagements.

Hopefully, you've modified your diet to reduce fat and sweets in exchange for nutrient-dense carbohydrates. Maybe you've spent your non-running hours reading Runner's World, books about marathons or perusing training programs on the Internet. Perhaps you've read blogs of other marathon runners and even connected with them via online networking. 

Turning Anxiety into Energy
You've put a great deal of effort into months of training, and finally the big day is here. Whether it's your first marathon or your 21st, you're both anxious and excited about how you will run these 26.2 miles. If it is your first marathon, you may have never run this distance before.

Many training programs recommend that your longest run is 20 miles, so you may fear that you won't be able to tack on another 10K. Learning to channel your anxiety into a positive, energized mindset is key, and that's where most of the day's focus should be: on your mind.

Today, there is no more training that you can do to build endurance and strength. You've already spent months preparing yourself physically. Today, the most important thing you need to concern yourself with is your mind. You have to remember that you've trained well for this race and that your body is capable of running the full 26.2 miles. Even if you are worried that you might not finish or that your time might be slower than your goal, you cannot let those thoughts enter your mind on race day.

There are many numbers out there about the percentage of the marathon that's a mental challenge. Some people claim it's half mental, half physical. Some people claim it's as much as 90% mental. On race day, it's 100% mental. There is nothing more you can do from a training or physical standpoint to succeed. Yes, you do need to put one leg in front of the other and run the darn thing, but for someone who's been training, this motion is second-nature.

You must constantly remind yourself throughout the race that this challenge is 100% mental and you will do well if you "run it with your mind". You have more control over your mind than your body, so focus on what you can control. During my last marathon, here are some thoughts that helped me set a new Personal Record:
  • Run this race with your mind because you are a smart runner
  • There is nothing else you'd rather be doing right now than running this marathon
  • You're so good at this!
  • Here you are at mile 21. You love this mile. You paid $5 just to run this mile
  • This is really fun!
  • (When my legs started to hurt) That's not pain—that feels good! It actually feels like a massage. I'm going to pretend that someone is massaging my legs
  • There is no such thing as a wall. The wall does not exist for you.
  • If you stop now, it's only going to make this race last longer, so stopping won't do you any good. 
Talking to yourself as a "you" is helpful because it gives the feeling of you being your own running companion and having your own personal coach.

Each Mile is its Own Challenge
Marathon runners love the feeling of accomplishing their goals. For many people, marathon running is less about the athletics and more about personal fulfillment through achieving a difficult goal.

There is no need to wait for the finish line to feel a sense of personal achievement. Each mile is its own special accomplishment. The general population cannot even run short distances of three, four, or five miles. Every time you come to a mile marker, it's important to realize that you have achieved something. Furthermore, it's important to not keep thinking about all the remaining miles you still have to run—just focus on the current mile you are trying to complete at that moment.

If you are at mile 20 and feeling extremely tired and sore, the thought of running an additional 6.2 miles could definitely get your spirits down. Even if the soreness comes earlier, like at mile 15, it may feel as if you will never make it to the finish line. These thoughts are precisely why the finish line should not be your goal while running a marathon.

Your goal is to reach the next mile marker. Once you reach that, you can feel good about your achievement of getting through that mile. Then, of course, you will have another mile in front of you, but you remember that you got through the last mile so you can certainly do one more. My mental dialogue: "Just get to the next mile marker and everything will be fine!" By thinking this way, I become very excited and energized once the mile marker is in sight. And it pushes me through the first part of the next mile.

The Power of Negative Splits
I run most of my races (marathons and shorter races) by running the first half of the race slower than the second half. Known as "negative splits" most marathon experts recommend that runners adapt this approach during the race. The basic concept is finish much faster than you started.

Most marathons have "pace groups" led by an experienced runner who will arrive at the finish line at a specified time. The purpose of these pace leaders is to help runners meet their time goal by "pacing" them, and preventing them from going to slow or too fast. Some pacers adopt this negative split strategy, but in my experience, they pretty much run a constant pace throughout the race. Where is the excitement in that? I personally become energized and excited at the notion of starting out slow and having runners pass me, and then progressively running faster so that I pass the same runners toward the end.

Many runners don't like the idea of starting out slow because they are nervous that they will not be able to run faster at the end and makeup for this time. They see this strategy as risky and would prefer to keep a steady pace. However, it's much easier to run faster than expected toward the end of the race to leverage your full power than to continue a pace that might have been too fast for you. You really never know how you will feel during those last few miles, and they can make or break your time goal. Better to be sprinting those miles because you have so much energy saved up than to be walking them because you were too ambitious about the pace.

During my most recent marathon, I ran the second half a full seven minutes faster than the first half. I set a very specific goal for the halfway point. I told myself that meeting this halfway goal was more important than the finish line goal because I could control it better. I chose my goal and did not want to arrive at the halfway point any faster or slower. If I arrived there faster, it would mean that I started out too fast. If I arrived there slower, it meant that I wasn't running as fast as I could be. I chose this halfway goal wisely based on a previous marathon, and came to mile marker 13.1 exactly on target. After meeting that goal, I told myself that I could run a bit faster, and even faster than that during the last few miles. Doing this, I shaved seven minutes off the second half of the race because I had saved up my energy.

Even though that marathon yielded a Personal Record, I am more proud of my negative splits and careful strategy than my actual time at the finish line.

Enjoy the Race
Marathons are fun! If you didn't love running, then you wouldn't have undertaken the task of training for a marathon. Furthermore, the actual race has crowd support and scenery that you likely haven't seen before.

You're a superstar today. No matter how fast you run the race, you're the one that's out there doing it and it's your time to enjoy this challenge.

Never let your competitive mind overpower your enjoyment. When you're happy and relaxed, you're a better runner and you'll find that you won't need competitive thoughts to motivate you. Competitive thoughts lead to stress and sometimes feelings of self-doubt and judgment. Check those feelings at the start line and just enjoy the run.