Friday, December 31, 2010

Ringing in a PR

I ran the Inaugural Ringing In Hope 10K today at 3:30pm. I've done the Fairfax Four Miler as my New Year's Eve race for the past two years, but when I got an email advertising this race, I opted to do it instead. The main reason was that I really wanted a 10K PR that lined up with my other race times. My previous 10K (47:55) PR had been set on a very hilly course and I knew I could do at least a minute faster. Another bonus was that the race was at 3:30 instead of 6:30, so it would be lighter out and not as cold. The past two years the four miler has had a real-feel in the teen's, and it wasn't fun. I also liked that the proceeds went to charity.

3:30pm was an odd time for a race, so I wasn't quite sure what to do about eating. I decided to have a sandwich for breakfast and a bagel for lunch. I made sure to hydrate throughout the day and yesterday as well. The weather forecast was calling for a real-feel of 55, which is actually on the warmer side for me. I couldn't believe I was worried about a Dec. 31 race being too hot.

I wore my Pacers singlet and my red running skirt. It actually ended up being somewhat overcast and about 52 degrees, which was actually really nice. On Dec. 31, I could have been facing high winds, rain, really cold temperatures, but I think I lucked out.

My husband Greg and I got to the race, got our bibs and D-Tags, and did a 1.5-mile warmup on the course. I noticed that it was rolling hills, so I decided to use my tried and true strategy of even effort: faster on the downhills and conservative on the uphills.

Miles 1-2
The first mile was way too fast at 7:15. But the first quarter mile was all downhill. So the downhill combined with the adrenaline of a race start made for a fast start. However, I knew I'd be running that quarter mile uphill at the end, so I was glad I banked the time. For most of the first two miles, I was leap-frogging with one woman who was running a steady pace, but I eventually passed her for good.
Mile 1: 7:15
Mile 2: 7:33

Miles 3-4
There was a woman next to me who commented that we were doing a lot of downhill running, which worried her for the way back. I thought that it was about even with the ups and downs, and the only hill I was really dreading on the way back was that final one. At the water station, I took water and poured it all over my head. I was on the verge of getting too warm, so I figured the water would prevent that. Another interesting thing about this race was that it got cooler as the race progressed. Normally it's the other way around, but this time the sun was setting, and I actually did cool down during the last three miles.
Mile 3: 7:34
Mile 4: 7:23

Miles 5-6
Finish Line
Every time I run a race, I end up with some mantra that helps me through. I usually think of this mantra during the first few miles. Today it was: "It does matter". Sometimes when races are hard and I start to bonk, I tell myself that it doesn't matter, there will be other races. And that it's okay to slow down. So today I told myself early on that it does matter, and that I wanted a solid 10K PR that I could be proud of. I'm used to slowing down a lot during the last two miles of the 10K and I fully expected that to happen today, but I insisted that I would maintain a solid effort. And it worked! I actually ran the last two miles faster than expected:
Mile 5: 7:28
Mile 6: 7:28

I actually got a boost during mile 5 when I was running just behind a guy who smelled really bad. We were running at the same pace, and I didn't want to speed up, but it finally got so bad that I sped up to pass him and get a good distance ahead of him. If it hadn't been for that, I might have run a 7:32 mile 5.

The Finish
The quarter mile downhill that started the race made that last 0.2 really a killer. I stayed strong up the hill, and then there was a nice downhill for the last 0.05. I looked at my watch at the top of the hill and it was 45:55, and I told myself that I had better come in within the 46's! I was targeting a 46:30, but would have been happy with anything in the 46's.
Last 0.26 (according to Garmin): 7:26

My official time was 46:34 and I placed 4th out of 46 in my age group. There were some really fast runners there who I was eying at the start line. Simply based on what these girls looked like, I knew my chance of an AG award was slim. I placed 20 out of 225 women, which was nice-- but I am usually in a higher percentile.

Greg and I did a cooldown and then went home. He ran a two-minute PR of 44:51. He just keeps getting faster! Tonight we are going to celebrate all the wonderful things that happened in 2010 with a nice meal, Rock Band, strawberries in chocolate fondue, and of course champagne.

This was the best year of my life: I got married to the man of my dreams, we bought a beautiful home together, and I set major PRs at every distance except the marathon. Greg and I have so much to be thankful for. I'll miss all the excitement of 2010, but I know there are many things ahead of us.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Secret Sauce of Speed Work

During 2008-2009, I didn't see a significant improvement in my shorter race times. I set some major half marathon PRs, but the 5K-10K didn't budge much. (And I'm not even going to get into my back luck with marathons and lack of PRs there. . . )

In 2010, I experienced a major spike in my fitness level.

5K: New PR by 1:01 (from a 7:31 pace to 7:11 pace)
5 Mile: New PR by 2:30 (from a 7:56 pace to a 7:26 pace)

I also set a new 10K PR, but the jump there isn't as significant because the course was insanely hilly.

While there are many factors that I believe contributed to this, there is one key type of training that I think has made the most impact: interval training using a heart rate monitor to dictate the pace/effort.

In the summer of 2009, I had a few meetings with a running coach. She taught me about heart rate zones and suggested that I get a V02 Max test to determine my optimal training zones. Since then, I've based almost every training run on my heart rate. During one of our sessions, I told her that I couldn't get my heart rate high enough (zone 5b) for V02 Max improvement. I had been doing classic 400m and 800m intervals and my heart rate wouldn't get high enough for the training stimulus I needed.

She then gave me a workout that I have sworn by ever since. 3 minutes hard, 3 minutes recovery. It's that simple. She told me to start with 4 sets and that I could work myself up to 6 sets during a training cycle. She told me that my heart rate should reach zone 5b (187-189) during the second interval and all subsequent intervals, but that it probably wouldn't get up there on the first one. It took me a few tries to get this workout right. This was before I had access to a track, so I ran them on a running trail that was on a slight incline/decline. The first time, I did the first two sets too fast and ended up not being able to do the last two at enough effort. My coach told me that it was okay to walk during the 3-minute recovery jogs. She said that in order to get your HR high enough, you need to have enough recovery time to be able to get the speed you need. 3 minutes is also the magic number for the amount of time during the interval. With less time, then your HR isn't in the zone for long enough. With more time--- well-- I couldn't imagine keeping it up for more than 3 minutes!

I've been incorporating this workout into my training regularly for over a year now. Depending on where I am in my training, I will do 4, 5 or 6 sets. I almost always do them on a track, except for this week when the winds were sustained at 20 mph, so I did the treadmill. The distance usually ends up being about 0.45 mile and the pace is around 6:35-6:40 (when I started with this workout it was 6:55). This is much faster than 5K pace, which is what a lot of prescribed programs suggest for interval pace. It's extremely tough and I have to use all my mental strength to push through them. But knowing that my heart rate needs to be at 187-189 for the workout to be effective motivates me to keep the speed up and not stop. The splits of a workout from Sept. 22 can be seen here.

Endurance is my natural strength and I have always struggled to get my shorter race times to match up with the "equivalent" of their long distance counterparts (apparently this is true of only 10% of runners). But now I think that I am about equal in both speed and endurance, thanks to these 3-minute intervals.

Note: I highly recommend programming this workout into a Garmin using Garmin Training Center. The 3-minute segments are pre-loaded so that you hear a beep when it's time to start and stop the interval. Heart Rate, speed and distance for each interval is recorded without having to press any buttons. And trust me, 100% of the focus needs to be on keeping the effort level up- not fooling around with a timing device!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Altitude, Treadmill and Reindeer 5K

The only benefit of having stomach pains kill your marathon and walking the last four miles is that you recover faster than if you had expended all of your effort. As a result, I was able to run a record 24 miles in the week following the St. Jude Memphis marathon, and that number would have been higher if I hadn't taken a trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico. (By the way, I posted photos of my painful finish in the St. Jude Marathon blog entry.)

The Wednesday following the St. Jude marathon, my husband Greg and I flew out to New Mexico to visit his parents. This was my first time in Albuquerque, so I wasn't sure what to expect. His parents live on the top of a large hill, so the only option is running up and down a two-mile long hill. I thought this would be a great hill workout, but the 7,200 ft, altitude made it nearly impossible for me to run. As soon as we started running, I had a burning sensation in my throat. I did feel abnormally winded for the pace we were going, but the limiting factor was this painful burning in my throat. We ran half a mile out, turned around for the other half and called it a day after just one mile.

The next day, Greg's mother drove us to a running trail that was at about 5,200 ft. elevation and that was more flat. This was a beautiful run. The mountains were amazing and it was exciting to be running somewhere new. As we got moving, I thought it was really easy. I had no more burning in my throat and our pace was decent. We knew that we would slow down when we turned around because it was a very long, steady decline on the way out. After two easy miles we turned around and things changed dramatically. Not only were we going up hill, but we were running directly into the wind. We hadn't realized how windy it was when the wind was at our backs. After one mile of this uphill into the wind I was exhausted. But we kept going and finished back where we started. 4 miles, 9:19 pace.

When we returned home, we were disappointed to find that it was going to be unseasonably cold and windy all week, with the "real feel" in the single digits in the mornings. I was fully prepared to spend all of December running outside, expecting it to be in the 20's in the mornings. But we've been having weather that's more typical of January and February so I finally broke down and decided to go to the gym.

Before I moved into my house back in April, I did most of my runs on the treadmill. There was nowhere safe to run in my area because there was construction everywhere. When we moved into our house, I didn't even get a gym membership, because there were plenty of safe places to run. At the end of November, we finally got gym memberships, but I was hoping to use it very sparingly. But for the past week, all of my runs have been on the treadmill.

I have two main objections to the treadmill. Yes, it's boring, but I can live with that. The first is the temperature of the gym and lack of fresh air. This gym is about 70 degrees and unlike my previous gym, the treadmills don't have their own personal fans. I overheat easily so my workouts have to be slower and I don't think they are as effective. The other objection is that there isn't any variation of terrain. I know I could use the incline, but that feels completely un-natural to me and I've had friends who have gotten injured that way. So I keep it flat. Staying at a constant pace on a constant flat surface really tires my legs, so I feel like I can't run for as long as I'm more prone to injury. I do occasionally throw fast strides in, or put the incline up for a minute or so, but that's still not enough.

Unfortunately, there is no end in site to the treadmill. All of the paths I run on are now covered in ice and snow and since I run in the morning when it's dark, that's not at all safe. I really hope the stuff melts and doesn't come back for awhile, but the forecast isn't on my side. So treadmill it is.

Lifetime Fitness Reindeer Run 5K
I signed up for a 5K race at the last minute. One of my friends just completed "Couch to 5K" and she chose this race as her 5K. The race was only two miles from my house, so I just couldn't turn down the opportunity. Another reason why I wanted to run this race was to get a non-treadmill speed workout in. The roads are dry and free of snow and ice, but my paths are not, so this was an opportunity to run on the road. Greg decided not to run this one because my company's holiday party was the night before and he didn't want to have to think about racing the next day. I'm not a big drinker and I didn't care too much about my time, so the holiday party wasn't a big factor for me.

I would have liked to PR at this race, but given that I haven't been doing much speed recently, and I
just ran Memphis two weeks prior, I thought that might be a long shot. It was 18 degrees out, but there was very little wind, which made it tolerable. I wore my CW-X tights, my red snowflake skirt, a lightweight hat, white singlet base layer and Pacers long-sleeve half zip. I held "hotties" hand warmers in my hands, and put gloves over my hands like mittens. Using gloves like regular gloves doesn't keep my fingers warm enough. I only warmed up for one mile and then headed to the start area.

There was no chip timing so I put myself closer to the start line than I might otherwise have. The race director said "go" without giving us a warning or count down or anything so it was an abrupt start. I ran the first mile in 7:09 and was feeling great. The next mile had a long gradual incline, so I slowed to 7:18. After that hill, I never quite recovered to where I was on the first mile, so the third mile ended up being a 7:16.

This race did not do a good job of enforcing the cones. There were actually cars driving right next to the runners and you had to watch out for them. This didn't affect me as much as it did some other people. I was chatting with the female winner afterwards and she said that towards the end of the race, people were yelling at her to move out of the way of the cars! There were also two hairpin turns during the last 0.1 of the race, which killed my final sprint. Both of them were icy, so you had to be really careful about it. I think I lost 2-3 seconds because of those. There was no finish line timing mat, so it was difficult to tell where the finish line really was, but I think I crossed it at 22:37 according to the clock. Official results have not been posted online yet (and yes, it's been over 24 hours since the race). There were no age group awards-- just awards for the top 5 men and top 5 women.

When I walked into the high school cafeteria where the food was, someone came up to me and asked me what place I finished in. I said I didn't know, and Greg said he counted 4-5 women ahead of me. She got my name and wrote down my address because I might have won an award. This struck me as extremely poor organization. Were they just hoping to catch all the winners in the food area afterwards to find out who placed when? And shouldn't they already have my address from my registration?

We stayed for a little while and learned that I didn't get 5th place, so I was probably 6th. Darn it-- just one away from an award! But I did pass about three women during the last mile, so I was happy about that. And no one passed me during the last mile. Definitely a strong race, a good speed workout, and a chance to see my friend in her first 5K. Afterwards, Greg and I went to the gym to run 11 miles on the treadmill. I was already dressed in my winter running gear, but there was just nowhere safe to run with all the paths being snowy. They never even plowed our neighborhoods. Most neighborhoods around us weren't plowed.

My training plan for the Shamrock Marathon officially starts tomorrow. I hope I won't be stuck on the treadmill for most of it!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

An Uphill Battle for an Important Cause

I ran the St. Jude Memphis marathon yesterday morning. The company that I work for is a gold sponsor of the race because St. Jude is our charity beneficiary. As the director of marketing, I was responsible for coordinating our sponsorship and our involvement in the race. The company is relatively small, so it was quite a "high" to see our logo on all the shirts and on the huge LED scoreboard in Autozone park at the finish line.

Tour of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
On Friday morning, my husband Greg and I got a private tour of St. Jude Children's hospital. This came as part of our sponsorship. We expected the tour to be depressing, but it was actually anything but. The hospital doesn't look, feel or smell like a hospital. The focus is on the quality of life for the children. They even continue to go to school while in the hospital. There is bright artwork all over the walls and ceilings and our tour guide told us how the hospital came to be. It's really a fascinating story of how Danny Thomas, a man who had almost no money, prayed to St. Jude (the St. of lost causes) and immediately things started to turn around for him. His vision for St. Jude would be a world-class facility to treat childhood diseases that would be funded strictly by donation. The operating costs of the hospital are $1.6 million per day, and that's all achieved through donations. Of course, they could choose to sell their research and become for-profit at anytime, but if they did that, then the research wouldn't be freely disseminated and there would be special interest groups controlling things. Greg and I were both so inspired by the hospital and the generosity of all the people and organizations who contribute money to make it all possible.

The Expo

Greg and I manned my company's booth on Friday and we got very little traffic. Even though there was no shortage of runners at the expo, no one was really interested in what our technology company did. Which is okay-- we were mainly there for awareness and to show support of St. Jude. The CEO of my company ran the half marathon with two of his sons, age 16 and 12. They all did very well, considering they didn't really train for the race. (Actually, the 12-year-old trained and he ran a 2:11:02).

Race Strategy & Goal
This was not a target race for me. In fact, I wasn't even sure if I would do the full marathon based on how torn up I felt after NYC just four weeks prior. But I felt strong enough to run the full, so I decided to go for it. I didn't have a goal in mind, but I felt like I was a shoe-in for a PR, given my recent half marathon and 10-mile times. Also, given the fact that I ran a 3:51 nearly three years ago, and I was in much better shape now, 3500 training miles later. I decided that I was not going to try and BQ, but go out at a pace of 8:40 (just 9 seconds per mile faster than my PR) and then speed up at the halfway point if I felt good. I figured I would end up with something around 3:45. I ran the half marathon last year, and I reviewed my half marathon splits, which were based on feel and the elevation profile. Miles 1-13 of the full marathon are the same as the half marathon so I knew what I was in for.

The Start

Unlike New York, where we had to wake up over five hours prior to race start, we only had four blocks to walk to the start line. We left the hotel at around 7:15 and ended up walking there with my company's CEO and his kids. The 5K race started at 7:15, so we were able to see our CFO and his wife participate in the walk.

The weather was 54 and overcast. I was really happy about the overcast, but 54 was about 10 degrees higher than I would have liked. Last year, it was 27 degrees at the start line and I was really happy about that. I thought that as long as the sun didn't come out, the weather shouldn't hold me back too much.

This race uses a self-corralling system. I think it works a lot better than the assigned corrals. Instead of assigning you a corral based on a predicted time from when you registered, runners could choose where to line up. This was also a wave start, and corrals were released every two minutes. Greg and I lined up in coral 4, which included the 3:40 and 3:45 pacers. He was going for a faster pace, but we lined up at the front of the corral so that he wouldn't have to weave through people. Very well organized, in my opinion.

Miles 1-7
These miles were relatively crowded, given that both the half and the full marathoners were on the same course. My strategy was to walk through the water stations, Galloway-style, so as to preserve my legs. I did this in my marathon back in March of 2008, so I figured it would work again. I really didn't want to bonk and I wanted to play it conservatively. For these miles I was running in the 8:30-8:45 range, depending on the hilliness. I hit the 10K at 53:37, which is an 8:39 pace. There seemed to be an equal amount of uphill and downhill, and I ran based on effort. It felt very easy, but I kept telling myself that it should feel really easy.

Miles 8-13
I remembered miles 8-10 being the toughest part of the course last year, so I slowed up quite a bit-- to about 8:55. This portion was run through the woods and it's where Greg lost me last year in the half. The 3:45 pace group got way ahead of me, but I was okay with this. These miles were all uphill and I did not want to overdo it early in the race. I also remembered that the elevation profile showed miles 11-13 being downhill, but this wasn't the case. It was a net downhill, but those last few miles are all long rolling hills. It wasn't as if I was "out of the woods" when I got out of the woods. I didn't make up any time during miles 11 and 12, because they were hilly. Mile 13, on the other hand, was all downhill. I crossed the halfway mark in 1:54:30, which is a pace of 8:45. During all of my previous BQ attempt bonks, I had reached the halfway point in 1:50 or faster. So I knew I had set myself up for a smart race.

Miles 14-19
Greg finished the half marathon in 1:42:47 (a 5-second PR). He came to watch me just after I crossed the halfway point. It was really a mental boost to have him cheering for me. He also got everyone around him calling out my name.

According to the elevation profile, miles 14-20 were uphill. I figured this was a net uphill and that there would be downhills as well. I was wrong. It was just a steady climb, all the way to mile 20. I even said to someone running next to me: "Is this entire race uphill?" This was very disheartening to me because I was hoping that after a conservative first half, I'd be able to speed up during the second half, but I was still running in the 8:50-8:55 range on these hills. And by mile 18, I felt like I was running out of gas.

I had walked through almost every water station, pouring water all over my head (I felt hot, and the sun did start to peak through the clouds) and I knew I was well hydrated. I had taken my honey gels at the appropriate time, but by mile 18, I just felt like I couldn't handle the constant uphill nature of the race.

I also had to pee. I've only stopped to pee at one marathon out of the 11 I had done, but there was no avoiding it this time. Luckily, there were plenty of porta potties on the course so I didn't have to wait too long. Having to stop really killed my time for that mile and it made me realize that I was tired. This is why I hate stopping during marathons (except for the controlled waterstop walks). I never realize how tired I am feeling until I stop, and then it's so hard to get going again. But I did get going again, and I was still hopeful that I could gain back some time during the last 10K with the downhills.

Miles 20-Finish
Mile 20 was a nice downhill and I started cruising again. Suddenly everything felt good and I thought I could still PR, despite the bathroom break the slowness of miles 14-19. But I began to feel nauseated all of a sudden, and my stomach really hurt. I've been fortunate to never have an upset stomach during a race before. It happens to me a lot during long training runs, but never during races. So, I guess it was my day to finally join the ranks of the many runners who've had stomach issues during an actual race. I had to go to the bathroom really bad, and I started looking for places along the side of the road I could go. I really just didn't think I could wait for a porta-potty or a restaurant of some sort.

We were running through a residential area, and I asked someone standing outside of a house if he lived there. He said no and I said I really needed a bathroom ASAP. He told me that there were some porta potties up to the left. It hurt so much to run, but I needed to get to those porta potties, or I was just going to explode. Finally I got inside a porta potty and had a diarrhea attack. Ugh. It felt really good to finally go to the bathroom, but I realized how bad the situation had gotten. This was at mile marker 22.

The last four miles were just awful. Even though I had gone to the bathroom, the pain moved to the right side of my belly button and felt like a cramp. Every time I ran it was a sharp pain so I had to walk. It actually didn't hurt when I walked, but the moment I started running, it would cramp up. And as I expected, miles 20-26 were all downhill. It wasn't rolling hills like miles 10-12, this was just nice consistent downhill to makes up for 14-19. It was so frustrating. My legs felt good and I had a lot of energy. I didn't feel at all like I had hit "the wall" and yet my stomach hurt so badly when I ran. Other runners and cheerers told me "I could do it" and that's what you hear when you bonk. So even though I ran a smart race, and even though I wasn't bonking, I still had that embarrassing "I am walking the last four miles of this marathon" experience.

I really wanted to drop out. But I didn't drop out because I was doing this for St. Jude children. And I was also representing my company, a gold sponsor of the race. It would have been bad PR and I think I would have regretted it. The people I work with don't care how fast I finish, they just care that I do finish. Even a 5-hour marathon would have been better than stopping. If I had been doing this race just for myself, then I probably would have dropped out. But I was strong for my company and for St. Jude. Seeing the hospital and understanding the cause really helped power me through.

I was able to run for about 20-30 seconds at a time, but then the pain would get really bad. When I got to the last mile, I realized that physically holding the side of my stomach helped to some extent, so I was able to run for a minute at a time. Slight improvement.

In all 12 marathons I've done, I've never walked during that last 0.2. No matter how badly I felt, I have always run that final 0.2. But not in this case. I was in so much pain! But as soon as I entered the stadium and I knew that my co-workers and husband would be cheering, I held onto my stomach and ran through the finish line.

I finished in 4:14:38, which is my 3rd slowest out of 12 marathons.
I placed 57 of 188 in my age group, which is still respectable.

As I finished, the medical people swarmed around me, as they had seen me holding my stomach, I assured them I was okay. I felt nauseated and tired, but I knew I would be fine once I sat down for awhile. I made my way up to the suite that my company had in the stadium where everyone was waiting for me (I was the only one doing the full marathon). They were all very supportive and understanding. I was so happy I finished and didn't bail out.

Even though I am in the best shape I've ever been in (well, maybe I was in better shape in the weeks leading up to NYC) I ran my third slowest marathon ever. I went into this race with no expectations and I ran it conservatively, based on feel, and I still had a bad experience. I wonder when things are finally going to line up for me in and when I'll be able to run a marathon that truly reflects all the training I've been doing. The last time I ran a good marathon was in March 2008-- nearly three years ago. I only trained for 7 weeks, and I averaged about 35-40 MPW. For over two years now, I've been consistently running in the 40's and 50's, and my race times at other distances have dropped dramatically. Half marathon is down from 1:50 to 1:41. The 5K is down from 23:30 to 22:21.

After my experience with Bob Potts last may, I changed my perspective and I decided I wasn't going to use a BQ as a motivator. I was obsessing over it and it wasn't healthy. Since then, I've just wanted to run strong and put in good training miles. I feel wonderful about everything I've accomplished over the past two years, both in terms of my actual race times, and in terms of where I am mentally. I am much more relaxed about it now, although still as focused on training and racing to the best of my ability. So, I'm not really upset about this experience from yesterday. I'm not disheartened like I was after Bob Potts in May. I'm just wondering when I get to run a marathon when I say "Wow- I rocked it!" instead of "Oh, that was miserable." I remember how it feels to run a strong marathon. My first six were awesome. All of them PRs. The next six were plagued by injury, illness or bad weather.

I am just going to continue training and doing what I love to do-- run. My legs don't feel like I ran a marathon yesterday, because I didn't run a marathon. I walked most of the last four miles. I'm hoping to be back running by Tuesday.

If I can offer one piece of advice to marathon runners, it's that you need to love the training for the sake of the training and for the sake of it making you a stronger person. Your race might not reflect your hard work and dedication, but the important thing is that you know you've made yourself stronger.