Saturday, February 16, 2013

Love Rox Half Marathon: 13.4 Miles of Chaos

Or 10 miles, depending on who you are. . . but I will get to that later.

I have this recurring dream where I'm running a race and it turns into an obstacle course, and then I somehow get off course. I think I'm winning when the truth is I'm just going the wrong way. The most common obstacle is a staircase, and when I get off course, nobody is around to tell me where to go. That dream came true this morning at the Love Rox half marathon in Richmond.

I registered for this race about three weeks ago, per the advice of my coach. He likes the idea of running a half marathon tune-up race four weeks out from a goal marathon. Love Rox in Richmond was perfectly timed for this, and with a 10:00am start, I could drive down the morning of the race without having to deal with a hotel.

Being the inaugural year, I thought there might be some hiccups. However, Richmond Multisports, the organization that was putting this race on, had a good reputation for organizing triathlons. The race website seemed very professional and it had a fun Valentine's day theme, with elements such as "proposal hot spots" along the course where you could propose to your loved one during the race.

The course description was also very attractive. The website advertised,  "The course is very flat with the exception of some small gradual inclines up to the Lee Bridge and a few short steps down to the Canal Walk before you hit the Capital Trail along Dock." I raised my eyebrows at the "short steps down" part, but I thought I could handle a few steps down during a half marathon. Having run this race, I can honestly say this description is completely inaccurate. In fact, I would characterize it as very hilly and the "few short steps down" were more like 4 major staircases-- two up and two down. (Photo is below).  Sure, a lot of courses say "fast and flat" when they are actually rolling hills, but there is no way you can characterize this course as "very flat" or even "somewhat flat".

Anyway, I went into the race a tad skeptical, but open-minded and optimistic about what the course would bring.

Before the Race
Greg and I left our house at 6:15 and arrived over an hour ahead of the 10:00am start. Greg did not run this race and came just to support me. What a sweetie! I noticed there were only about 10 porta-potties which seemed insufficient for a race of 1,000 runners. I used one right away, before there was any line. I tried to use one again about 25 minutes before the start, but the line was huge and I didn't want to wait out in the cold rain for it.

Patricia, Me, and Jessica pre-race
Greg and I waited in the semi-warm tent for the race to start. There was a huge print out of the course map, in which the start line had been moved. This seemed like a last minute change because it hadn't been communicated via email or on the website. I wondered why they moved it and what that meant for the course distance, but nobody seemed to know.

I found my CAR teammates Jessica and Patricia who were also skeptical about the course and organization. We said we were just going to "go with it" whatever it ended up being, but we weren't expecting greatness from the race course. We did a quick half-mile warmup and then it was time for the race to start.

The race website advertised chip timing, which I interpret to mean a starting mat and a finishing mat. Well, the new start line wasn't actually a start line. They gathered us all onto a grassy area and told us to stand between two cones. It ended up being an extremely wide start, and we'd all eventually end up running on a path after just 0.1 mile on the grass. (Oh yeah, and running on grass is another part of my recurring race dream. I hate doing it.) Below is a photo of this start line, if you can even call it that. The path on the right hand side of the photo is where all these runners merged onto after just 0.1 mile. Yeah, total congestion.

Mile 1
They counted down from five and then the horn honked. I just couldn't believe how ridiculous this start was, but I figured I'd be on a nice race course soon and the "ghetto race" feeling would end.

We started running and maybe about half a mile into it, we ran down a staircase, and then up a staircase. These were not small staircases or "short steps" by any stretch of the imagination. I didn't think this was right because I thought we would just run down a staircase-- not immediately back up another one. We got to the top and I was just running along starting to get into a groove post-staircase when I noticed that the people ahead of me didn't know where to go. The leaders started yelling out "where do we go?". Seriously, nobody knew where the course was. Finally, we realized we had to go back down the staircase, and we never should have gone up it to begin with. So in addition to the four "planned" staircase runs, a lack of direction made us run six staircases, and definitely lengthened the course. By the time I saw mile marker 1, my Garmin read 10:00. (The plan was to go out at a pace of around 7:45-7:50).

Miles 2-3
Everyone seemed so pissed about this. I actually thought that they would declare it a false start, stop the race and have everyone start over. That would have been a good thing, but no, the race continued. At that point, I pretty much new a PR wouldn't be happening, unless I somehow made up that time. I stayed optimistic and continued running.

We ran underneath a railroad track and a bridge, so the Garmin got all wacky. I had thought that even if I didn't get an accurate time due to the course screw up, at least I'd have good Garmin data. Well, not true. My Garmin data for this race was all over the map. And if you include miles with staircases, I ran those probably about 10-15 seconds per mile slower than if there had been no staircase.

It was cold (upper 30's) and raining. We weren't running on asphalt but other surfaces, like the sidewalk that's made out of those little rocks. And concrete. And there were tons of potholes everywhere. Someone posted on the race's Facebook wall afterwards: "The ducking through the flood wall was awkward. The potholes and uneven terrain made injuries a serious concern."  I agree, the course was not safe on many levels. The terrain was just a small part of that.

I stuck with Jessica and Patrica during these miles and we were taking it all in stride. I said "well, at least they have proposal hotspots!" Patricia said, "you guys both better propose to me!" And I said "we should all three get married on this course!" Obviously, the race management was focused on the wrong aspects of organization.

We hit a water station and Patrica couldn't get water. I was holding a bottle, so this didn't affect me, but she literally had to stop and wait for someone to get her water. This happened multiple times throughout the race.  There were not enough volunteers and the ones who were there didn't seem to be paying attention.

I have Garmin splits for this portion, but they are totally inaccurate due to running under a bridge.

Miles 4-5
Up another staircase and we were finally on what seemed to be a typical race course. Here is a photo of the staircase that we ended up running up 3 times, and down 3 times-- Greg took this photo of me running up (in the red shirt).
Yes, this is a serious staircase! You don't want six of these in your half marathon!
I lagged behind Patrica and Jessica on the staircase and didn't catch up to them afterwards. The gap between me and them got wider and wider and I started to get frustrated and lose confidence. Physically, I just felt like I was expending way too much effort to be at mile 5 of a half marathon and mentally I was drained from how horribly the course was designed. As I watched Patricia and Jessica fade away in the distance, I had some interesting self talk:

I think I'm just going to drop out. The time I get won't be an accurate reflection of where I am fitness wise, which is one of the main purposes of a tune-up race. I feel like shit. I don't want to have to run a second loop of this exhausting course. There is no way I will be able to maintain this pace for the rest of the race. This just isn't my day. When I see Greg at mile 7, I'm just going to call it quits. I'll still have legs fresh enough to do a long run tomorrow and salvage some training for this weekend. This course is a joke and it's not worth my effort.

What do I really want out of this race anyway? And that question made me think. Seriously think. All these months working with a sports psychologist, trying to focus on the process and not the outcome. And then the question became a good one-- What can I get out of this race? What will I miss out on if I quit?  

A lot! I'm not running this race with the sole purpose of PRing. I want to prove to myself that I can push hard when things get tough. I want this run to boost my confidence for future races. Even if my time sucks, I want to feel like I put out my best effort. Quitting is not my best effort. I know that I am of similar ability to Jessica and Patricia and there is no reason why they should be so far ahead of me. I can catch them, I know it! I am going to surge now and start putting forth some serious effort. I might crash later on, but I am going to push for it now! I'm going to race this one!

At that point, I put my foot on the gas and started passing people. I sped up quite a bit and the gap between me and Patricia was getting smaller and smaller. At one point, I passed a guy who said to me, "where are you going?" I laughed and then wizzed by. All of a sudden I felt energized. I felt good again! Wow!

I am so proud of myself. I just proved to myself that I can turn a negative attitude into a positive one by focusing on the process (not the race result) and by doing so, make myself feel better physically. It's amazing how much my improved mental state made me feel. I was peppy again and excited to be in a race.

Back to the race, this was an unsafe course. The road was not closed off to cars, so we had to run on a sidewalk. Not an ideal surface for someone with a history of stress fractures. Some people were running on the road anyway, myself included. I kept on passing people and surging ahead until I finally caught up with Patrica. Yay! It was great to be running with her, and I was able to feed off of her positive energy.

Miles 6-7
Aside from my improved mental state, another factor that came into play was that I think I just start to feel better once I hit mile 6 of a half marathon. In Disney, I didn't really feel good until after I got out of the Magic Kingdom, six miles into it. And so, I learned something valuable-- I can expect to not feel all that great the first few miles of a half marathon. It will get better, so I should  hang in there.

Another staircase! And very slippery surface!
There was a very steep downhill, (the same one that ended the Richmond marathon last fall) and I felt like I really had to hold back to prevent myself from falling. It was so steep that it was unsafe, and many of the Richmond marathoners I spoke to afterwards agreed. Not only was this hill steep, but we couldn't run on the road-- we had to use the sidewalk, so it was particularly slippery. No fun.

After mile marker 7, I knew to expect Greg, who was waiting for me with a replacement water bottle. I later learned that he was also helping out as a course Marshall, directing people on where to go. Since they were so light on volunteers and people didn't know where to go, he was actually directing people. One person actually made a rude comment to him, as if he was part of the course management.

Greg also noted that some people were coming down the staircase way before the leaders of the half marathon. He figured out that these folks actually missed the out-and-back because they were mis-directed, so their race was only 10 miles. Not only does this screw up their race, but it screws up the rankings for everyone else. Who knows how many people only ran 10 miles and are competing with people who ran the full course? Really horrible mis-management.

Miles 8-11
This race also had a 10K, which ran one loop of the course, but started at 10:45. This means that Patricia and I got to spend our entire second loop passing slower 10K runners. This might not have been an issue if we weren't forced onto narrow sidewalks and if there wasn't a portion that was an out-and-back, further crowding the course. It was really mentally draining to have to constantly be passing people.

Patricia and I couldn't really run side-by-side because we had to keep passing other people. It just sucked to have to run the entire race on the sidewalk and not get to use the road at all. They really should have closed off the course-- especially if they were creating a situation where half marathoners would be passing 10K runners for the entire second loop.

Even still, we kept each other in check, encouraging each other to stay strong and that we didn't have much farther to go.

Miles 12-Finish
Downhill finish, before the cobblestone
Hills. That's all I have to say here. Oh, and snow. It started to sleet/wet snow during the last two miles which made things even more interesting. But back to the hills. We had already done these monstrous hills on loop one and now we had to conquer them a second time, right at the end of the race. I toughed it out and stayed strong, screaming all the way down the hill because I thought I would fall over.

Even before we ran down the hill that was the same as the Richmond marathon finish, there was another even steeper downhill before that which I was certain I was going to fall on. And of course, all this while passing 10K runners.

At the bottom of the hill, about 30 feet before the finish line, we had the privilege of running over some serious cobblestone. It wasn't a long stretch, just enough to make you slow down considerably during what should be a final kick.

We crossed the finish line (there was no mat) and I was so grateful to be done with that race.

Trying to pass two 10K runners before the finish, cobblestone in background

I met up with Greg, who had a big bouquet of roses for me! I am so happy I actually finished the race because I would have felt guilty if I hadn't.

As was a common theme, Patrica went searching for the post race water and couldn't find it. I think she eventually did, but it wasn't at all obvious. I was freezing cold and so was Greg and the idea of sticking around for post-race festivities did not at all appeal to me.

We were curious about age group awards (not realizing there were people who only ran 10 miles who would be skewing them anyway). We couldn't tell from the results if we won anything but we suspected we didn't. My name actually didn't even appear in the results. I finished a few seconds behind Patricia, and her time was 1:43:xx but there was no record of me. The results aren't online yet, but I will update this blog when they are. My Garmin got 13.34, I think Patricia's was 13.4. Another teammate had 13.5. Sigh.

I actually got a lot out of this race. A lot more than I would have thought given the crappy organization and course.

  • I've proven to myself that I can get over a mental slump in a race
  • I've proven that getting over a mental slump also makes me feel better physically, and speed up when I am already thinking I am at full effort.
  • I can put forth a solid effort and run a strong performance, even when I know a PR is out of the question
  • When things don't go as expected, I can adapt and make adjustments
  • I hit my "sweet spot" at around mile 6 of a half marathon, so I shouldn't worry if I am not "feeling it" before then.
  • It helps to run with someone else. Especially with someone who has a great personality like Patricia, and who can help keep me motivated and positive.
  • When things get tough during a race, I can remind myself what I am capable of physically and do it.
I have no official time, splits that are inaccurate and slower than they would be on a non-staircase course, and definitely no PR. But I ran very strong. Some of my miles clocked in as fast as 7:16 (not under the bridge). Others were closer to 8:00 due to staircases and hills. I was completely inconsistent pace wise, but very consistent effort wise once I made the decision that I was going to try my best.

A very valuable learning experience, and I'm glad I raced this one. Would I do it again next year? Definitely not.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Peak Week! (Part V)

Continuing with my tradition of blogging about my "peak week" of marathon training, I wanted to write a detailed report of this week, February 4-10. My total was 60 miles.

My weekly mileage hasn't been this high since the spring of 2010 (which I actually didn't blog about). After getting stress fractures in January of 2011, I decided I would try lower mileage for awhile, with swimming and pool running as cross training. This cycle, I removed the swimming and pool running and returned to higher mileage, along with strength training-- particularly core work. I am very thankful that I haven't gotten injured and that I've felt energized for the majority of my runs.

Previous Peak Weeks

The Big Picture
I know that many marathon plans "peak" 3 weeks out from race day. I prefer to peak 5-6 weeks out in terms of mileage and then do some tune-up races and some marathon pace workouts for the remainder of the cycle.

There wasn't a point when I "officially" started marathon training. I did create a 22-week plan when I was recovering from mono, which I have kept very closely to. I prefer to see myself as simply "training" rather than "marathon training" because it puts the focus more on the work itself and less on the end result.

Monday: 11 miles easy, avg. 8:46
I love starting the week with a 10-11 mile run. Technically, I refer to anything over 10 as a "medium-long" run in my log. I've discovered that if I truly keep these runs easy, my legs feel fresh enough for a interval workout the next day. This run went very well, but my legs did start to feel a little tired during the last mile. That's to be expected and if my legs never felt tired during a run, I would think that I could probably be doing more. It was 25 degrees and windy and I ran my typical residential route.

Tuesday: 8.5 miles, including 4 x 1200m
I did this workout with my team at the track in Arlington. It's a 25-minute drive to get there, and then 40 minutes to drive back to the gym near my office where I shower because of rush hour traffic. But it's worth it to run with such a great group and to have the coach encouraging you each lap. I warmed up for 2.4 miles, and then we started the workout. My times were 5:10, 5:01, 5:01, 4:58. Pace-wise, these are in the low 6:40's. I didn't look at my Garmin during the run, and although the coach was calling out splits at each lap, I have zero ability to do the math when I am running fast. I wasn't targeting any particular pace, I just put out an effort level that felt appropriate for 1200's. Recovery between each was a 500m jog. I then cooled down for 2.1 miles, giving me 8.5 for the day.

Wednesday: Rest + Stretching/Strengthening
Wednesday has been my scheduled rest day for most of this cycle. I know it would probably be ideal to have complete rest rather than to do core work and weights, but it's so hard to fit in strength training on the days when I am running so many miles.

Thursday: 10 miles, inc. 6 tempo avg. 7:29
On Thursday, I ran 2.5 miles warmup, 6 miles tempo, and 1.5 miles cooldown. I prefer a longer warmup in the winter and a shorter warmup in the summer, for obvious reasons! I don't think I have run a 6-mile tempo since the fall of 2011. I wasn't at all intimidated by this run because I knew all I had to do was keep my heart rate between 172-179 and I'd get the desired benefit. No pressure to run a particular pace. It was a pretty good morning for a tempo run-- 27 degrees and very little wind.

Mile 1: 7:31 (165 avg. HR)
Mile 2: 7:25 (174 avg. HR)
Mile 3: 7:34 (174 avg. HR) - net uphill
Mile 4: 7:32 (176 avg. HR)
Mile 5: 7:30 (176 avg. HR)
Mile 6: 7:15 (176 avg. HR)- net downhill

It definitely nice to finish on a downhill! I was very pleased with how I kept my effort level consistent and my heart rate reflected that.

Friday: 5.5 miles easy, avg. 8:44
I was pleasantly surprised at how peppy my legs felt after the previous day's tempo run. This was not a nice day for running- very cold, windy, overcast, but I got it done.

Saturday: 20.6 miles, avg. 8:56
I ran the Rock Creek Park loop with my teammates. A wind advisory was in effect, with sustained winds form 20-25 mph and higher gusts. The temperature was in the high 20's so this was really not ideal long-run weather. The wind kept waking me up the night before, so I hadn't slept well. In fact, for various reasons, I didn't sleep well this week at all. It didn't seem to affect my running, but I do want to make sure I get back on the right track with my sleep.

This Rock Creek Loop is much more challenging than my typical 20-mile residential route. The last 5 miles are noticeably downhill, but you pay for that in the first 15 which feel like they are primarily uphill. The coach recommends we hit marathon pace for the last 6 miles, which I did, but because they were all downhill, the 8:00 pace felt at the end of the run felt a little easier than the 9:00 uphill pace earlier in the run. I guess I'm just not used to so many hills. Once I finished, it felt great to have that run behind me, especially with such windy conditions.

Sunday: 4.4 miles easy, avg. 9:02
My legs felt great after the previous day's long run, but once again I didn't sleep well so I was pretty tired. I took a nap afterwards, so now I feel better.

It feels awesome to be logging this type of mileage and feeling good. I think I've finally found a training formula that works for me that I plan to repeat in future cycles.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Never Ending Story Comes To An End

"The sphinx's eyes stay closed until someone who does not feel his own worth tries to pass by."

The Sphinx in The Never Ending Story
In the past, this is what the start line of a marathon was like for me.

I would cross the start line full of anxiety and self-doubt (although I didn't recognize it as self-doubt at the time) and the sphinx's eyes would open, zapping me as I crossed the start line. About 8-10 miles into the marathon, my body would start to feel as if it had been completely zapped and all of my running abilities magically taken away from me.

As I the start line draws closer and closer, complete with sphinx, I am trying my best to prepare so that I don't get hit by the sphinx's rays. Or maybe I'll even be strong enough to remove the sphinx completely. 

Nearly a year ago, I received a blog comment that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I have to admit that this comment irked me because I wasn't about to give up on the marathon. But I realized that I would continue to have DNFs if something about the equation didn't change.

The short story is that I had two marathon blow-ups in a row due to the heat, which made me put extreme pressure on myself to perform at subsequent marathons. So even when heat was removed from the equation, I was still subconsciously worried and doubting myself. And then it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I became so fearful that I would bonk again that inevitably, I would bonk. 

What am I doing to take the anxiety/self-doubt out of the equation? Two major things, and they're connected.

1. I "feel my own worth" as a person, not just as a runner.
2. I'm focused primarily on the process of the race, not the outcome. 

I will feel my own worth when I pass through the sphinx.
I value myself based on who I am at my core, not on the the things that I achieve. I'm thoughtful, sensitive, motivated, passionate, and a deep thinker. Nothing will change these core attributes and lately I've been taking the time to recognize them more and more through my actions and thoughts. I bring my passion and drive to my running, and there is no race result that will ever change that.

I'm focused on the process, not the PR.
Even though I recognized that focusing on my marathon time was contributing to the anxiety, I didn't know how NOT to focus on it. I wanted so badly to run a marathon that reflected all my hard work and I couldn't ignore that desire. Now, I don't need that result to validate my hard work or the fitness level I have attained. I've gotten so much out of my training, as I mentioned in my last post, and nothing will take that away from me. Months and months of hard work are far more meaningful than how my body decides it's going to perform on just one day. And as I said in the previous post, I'm not doing the training with the focus of the marathon as the goal. Although I have structured my workouts so that I will be prepared to run the marathon that I'm registered for, I don't constantly find myself thinking about "what does this workout mean for the marathon"? I just don't think about that anymore. I've stopped speculating.

I've proven that I can focus on the process and tie emotion to that. For each race I've run since I recovered from mono, I was primarily focused on my training and my race strategy- not the outcome. I've never really liked the "just do your best" motto because I wanted results. But now I see that there is pride in doing my best and I am not in complete control of the race result. I'm not a machine, and my body performs differently on different days. I've accepted that and have therefore set more realistic expectations.

Everything happens for a reason. When my sports psychologist said this to me, I was thinking of it on a spiritual level. For example, I didn't get mono because I caught a virus but because I was supposed to learn something from it. (It's true that I got it from the virus, but when I think of why I got it, I think of what I was supposed to learn). He was talking more on the scientific level: I've had six marathon blow-ups for very specific reasons: heat, lack of sleep, race anxiety, stomach distress, etc. If I remove those elements, then there is no reason for a 7th blow-up.  If it's hot, I will adjust my pacing strategy to run slower. I can prevent lack of sleep and anxiety by removing the pressure I put on myself to perform. I now know what I can and can't eat before and during the race, so I can reduce the chances of stomach distress. Things are changing, so there's no reason for me to think I'd have another blow-up.

Here's me at my next marathon: