Sunday, March 26, 2017

Feeling Fresh

It's now been three weeks since the Myrtle Beach Marathon, and my legs are finally feeling fresh after some rest and reduced mileage weeks.

Saturday, March 25th
This recovery period has come at just the right time because work has gotten extremely crazy lately. I've been meeting with our CEO multiple times a week, and preparing for those meetings has resulted in long hours and additional stress. I'm not complaining-- I truly enjoy my job and the challenge that it brings. But suffice it to say, I'm grateful that I haven't also been trying to run 70+ mile weeks for the past three weeks.

My next race is the Cherry Blossom 10-miler, which is one week from today. My focus has been recovering 100% from the marathon and doing just enough speed to keep the legs moving. I will essentially rely on my marathon fitness as my training for this race. I qualified for a special "seeded" bib, and I'm excited to be lining up at the front of the race. Here's a recap of the past few weeks.

Week of March 6th
Mainly rest, with three runs that equated to 7 miles total. It was nice to have some time off running, and I indulged in good food and sweets! I see the week after a marathon as a week to chill out physically and mentally, and I certainly did that as much as possible. It was also a great opportunity to get more focused on my friends' running as I wasn't at all focused on my own.

Week of March 13th
This week was all easy running, and I even gave myself an extra rest day which wasn't in the schedule. The snow and high wind advisory made it an unappealing week to be outside, and combined with the long hours I was putting in at work, it was a mentally exhausting week.

Tuesday, March 14th
Monday's run (30 minutes) felt fine, but Tuesday's run (40 minutes) wasn't all that great. My hip was tightening up and I definitely could feel that something wasn't right. On top of that, we had 20+ mph sustained winds, so the run wasn't at all enjoyable. Because of my hip, and the fact that the wind got even worse on Wednesday-- strong enough to tear some of the siding off of our house-- I took an unscheduled rest day, and pushed everything back by one day. On Thursday, I was back at it with 50 minutes, which yielded 5.8 miles. By the time my "long" run of 90 minutes rolled around on Sunday, everything felt 100%. My total mileage for the week came in at 34.9

Week of March 21st
This week felt like an actual training week again. I'm hoping that the really cold/windy weather is behind us and I'm grateful that it's getting light in the mornings again. When there's ice on the ground like there was last week, I won't start my run until it's light enough to see the icy patches. Which makes it challenging to get into work on time. Last week I had to sacrifice drying my hair. I guess something's gotta give sometimes!

Monday: 5.8 miles easy at 8:41 average

Tuesday: 6.4 miles, including 15 x 30-second strides. This was my "foray" into faster running post marathon. My first few strides were kind of a shock to the system, but by the end of the workout I was down to a pace of about 6:25. This is actually a bit slow for me, since I usually run 30-second intervals at a sub 6:00 pace. But I wasn't worried. The point was just to get my legs moving quickly, not to set any records.

Wednesday: 5.2 miles easy at 8:42 average

Thursday, March 23rd
Thursday: 7.7 miles, including 4 at tempo effort. This was my first actual workout post marathon and I had no idea what to expect. Greg came with me and said he would simply try and keep up with whatever pace I set. I figured I probably lost some fitness and my legs might still be tired from the marathon, so a good target would be 7:00 or slightly under. During this past training cycle, I ran my first ever tempo run at a sub-7:00 pace, so I figured being right at 7:00 would be good. But as always, I run these things by feel and my Garmin paces were quite shocking: 6:52, 6:51, 6:52, 6:40. This is an average of 6:49! I had plenty of gas in the tank at the end, and I could have kept going at that pace.

This gives me a huge amount of confidence for the Cherry Blossom 10-miler. Provided it's not too warm or windy, I think I can run a pace of 6:50-6:55 by my Garmin. Anyway, it feels great have a "new" tempo pace and to know that I've gotten to another level with my running. For about 4 years (2010-2014) my tempo pace was 7:25. And it's steadily gone down since I started working with Coach Andrew.

Friday: 5.2 miles easy at 8:29 average

Saturday: 10.7 miles at 8:26 average. Greg ran with me and kept telling me that I was pushing the pace. I honestly was not pushing the pace at all and I felt really strong. It was only 19 degrees on Thursday morning for my tempo, but it was 55 and sunny for Saturday's run. Spring in the Washington DC Metro area is so unpredictable!

Sunday: 3.4 miles easy at 8:43 average.

Total mileage for the week: 44.4

Future Plans
I'm registered for the New Jersey half marathon on April 30th, but I'm leaning toward not actually doing it. Mainly because it involves a 4-hour drive, a hotel stay, and it would take up the entire weekend. I typically love weekends like these, but I feel like I have been SO busy lately and I might just prefer to stay home. I think that setting a large marathon PR and then running a 10-miler four weeks later makes for a solid spring season-- not to mention the 5K I am doing in mid-April. It might be nice to focus on shorter stuff after Cherry Blossom.

But I am not making any final decisions until after Cherry Blossom. It will just depend on how I feel physically and mentally. Usually I'm such a rigid planner and I like to have all my races scheduled out months in advance (which is why I am registered for New Jersey).  But I'm starting to see more value in simply "rolling with the flow."

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Recovery Reflections

Now that I've had some time to truly process the race, I have a few additional thoughts I'd like to share.

First of all, this week has been a shock to my system. I took Sunday-Wednesday off completely and I don't think my body knew what to do with all the energy it would have spent on running. Without fail, I woke up between 2:00-3:00am each of these mornings, and was awake for at least an hour. In fact, on Monday morning, I woke up at 2:30 and never went back to sleep.

Physically, I haven't been feeling the affects of this lack of sleep, but I've been moody and cranky.
The combination of little sleep and zero running is not something I'm used to, and I've found that my tolerance for "annoying" things this week was close to zero.

I ran for 20 minutes on Thursday morning, which seemed to nudge my body back to normalcy in terms of its regular rhythm. Of course, all of this will go to hell now that we've lost an hour of sleep to daylight savings time.

PR Cake for Greg and Me
In spite of all of this, plus the busiest week at work I've had since I started this job last September, I was able to reflect more on my performance at the Myrtle Beach Marathon last Saturday. Greg and I made ourselves a PR cake to celebrate our achievements when we returned home, and I began to think more about how a 3:21:54 "tasted." I've been wanting to experience this for so long, and I finally had a taste of running a super fast marathon. What did it mean to me? Let me back up a bit.

Before the Race
When Greg and I sat down for dinner on the Thursday evening before the race, I noticed how at ease I felt. This was such a huge contrast to how I used to feel in the days leading up to a marathon. I used to feel like there was a monkey on my back, or something hanging over my head. I wasn't at peace mentally. It's moments like these, when I truly feel like a more relaxed, peaceful person, that inspired me to write my book. Overcoming race anxiety was a life change for me, and I didn't realize just how negatively it was affecting my sense of well-being until I was able to move past it.

I mentioned in my race report that I slept well the night before the race, and that was mainly due to the fact that I had a peaceful, relaxed state of mind. Sure, I was excited, but excitement is a feeling, whereas my previous anxiety was a state of being. It was all-encompassing.

One of the most important mental skills I've learned in racing is to stay emotion-neutral. It's helpful to stay focused on the task at hand and not be impacted by things outside of my control. Anything can happen during a race, especially if it's as long as marathon, so I've found it helpful to be "immune" to my surroundings and completely focused on my race execution. This includes my pacing strategy, focusing on the mile I am in, my nutrition/hydration schedule, and being aware of the course. Some people take the approach of feeding on external things like crowd support, scenery, etc. Greg is like this. He likes to be distracted. I, on the other hand, find it mentally taxing to think about anything other than running.

When I reached the halfway point, a thought briefly crossed my mind: I'm doing it. For several years, my anxiety would cause me to slow down as early as mile 8, and by the halfway point I would drop out or simply give up because I knew I wouldn't reach my goal. Once I started working on my issues, I would approach miles 8-13 hoping that this stretch wouldn't be the end of my race. The thought came and went very quickly. As I said above, I was emotion-neutral throughout the entire race. But I did take a mental note that I was at the halfway point, running a 7:40 pace, still feeling like I had plenty of energy in the tank.

Mile 22
I didn't write much about miles 22-26 in my race report. I slowed down by about 10-15 seconds per mile, which I think is to be expected during a marathon. In retrospect, I wonder if I could have pushed a little harder and endured a little more pain. But I actually had a thought during mile 24: "If, after the race, I question if I could have pushed harder, the answer is no. I am pushing as hard as I can right now and everything hurts so much." It's always easy to go back and wonder what you could have done at a certain point in the race, but remembering that thought re-assures me that I did leave it all out there and perform to my full potential.

At that point, I knew I was going to set a huge PR and BQ, but I refused to let myself think about that. Even though those are very motivating thoughts, I felt like I needed every ounce of mental energy to convince myself to keep pushing hard. I couldn't afford to think about anything else other than maintaining the effort because if I stopped thinking about it, I would surely succumb to my body's desire to slow down.

As I approached the finish line, I didn't feel any more or less excited than I would at a 5K. Like any other race, I was focused on my final kick and getting every last bit of speed out of my legs. Afterwards, I was excited about my performance and my time, but not as excited as I have been about previous races. I think I "neutralized" myself so much that the positive emotions just weren't as strong as I would have expected them to be. Maybe it just took awhile to process. Maybe it still feels surreal.

Just yesterday, I saw someone on Strava run a 3:25 marathon and I thought to myself "wow- that's so fast." And then I realized, "wait a minute-- I just ran a 3:21." So maybe the process of realizing I'm at a whole new level as a marathoner is just taking its time to settle in. Maybe part of it is that I don't define myself by my running like I used to. I can run a fast time and have it be just that- a fast time. It's not life-changing. It's not like I'm a new person.

I was far more emotional when I crossed the finish line of the Shamrock Half Marathon last year, and I think it's because I realized how much I had to overcome to run the race that I did. In 2010, I DNF'ed the full marathon. In 2011, I couldn't run the race because I was injured. In 2012, I DNF'ed the marathon for the second time. In 2014, I was the only person on my running team who didn't set a half marathon PR, because I let the wind slow me down substantially. Everyone was getting faster. Everyone else conquered the wind. I was slower and I couldn't handle the wind. So I was literally holding back tears when I crossed the half marathon finish line in 1:33:36, in even windier conditions, setting a PR by over two minutes. That was the ultimate redemption.

Even though I'm pleased with my performance, my age group win, and my large BQ, this week
Post-race with my medal
seemed like a normal week. I didn't do a ton of "basking" and at times I had to remind myself to relish in my accomplishment. It could be because work was extremely demanding and I had to prioritize my mental space on that.

The Sky's The Limit
My next marathon will the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in November. I was registered for it last fall, but due to having mono all summer, I was unable to run it. My coach thinks, and I agree, that I can still run faster in the marathon. I'm not sure what I will be targeting there. Definitely sub 3:20, but how much "sub" is to be determined.

Greg informed me this morning that he'd like for Indianapolis to be his first BQ attempt! I'm so excited because I really enjoy coaching him and watching him improve. I definitely think he's capable of qualifying and I hope they don't change the standards for 2019.

The Cherry Blossom 10-miler is my most immediate goal. The last time I ran this race was in 2014, with a PR of 1:15:26, which is only 10 seconds per mile faster than marathon pace. I'm really excited to see what I can do coming off of this training cycle, particularly since the 10-mile distance is probably the most "enjoyable" in my mind. You get to run it hard, but not for as long as a half marathon, and not quite as painful as a 10K. A happy medium.

As for my recovery, I ran on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday of this week, each for 20 minutes. My total weekly mileage is 7! My legs feel mainly recovered, with just some minor lingering soreness in my right lower hamstring. Next week I will be running a bit more, but everything will be easy. I won't get back into speed work until the week after next. Do I miss marathon training? No. I'm happy to have a break from it. I think I'll be ready to be back in full force come August, though. In the meantime, shorter races will be the focus.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Faster than I could have dreamed of

About four years ago, when I was working with my sports psychologist, he asked me what I thought my fastest possible marathon time ever would be. I told him that I believed I was capable of a 3:30, which seemed fast at the time, and the notion of running even faster than that didn't seem realistic. For years, I had plateaued at around 3:50 and even though I believed I was physically capable of
Myrtle Beach Marathon 2017
faster, I knew I had some mental roadblocks to overcome.

Fast forward to the Spring of 2015 when I finally qualified for Boston and ran a time that truly reflected my physical abilities, now that the mental barriers were gone. I was elated with a 3:35, and thought I was very close to, if not at, my lifetime peak.

But once I learned how to relax and not put pressure on myself, I opened up a whole new world of possibilities. The following summer, my coach had me work on speed and I trained for a half marathon instead of a full. Over the course of six months, I dropped my half marathon PR from 1:41 to 1:37 to 1:35 to 1:33. And the following spring, while training for Boston 2016, he upped my mileage 60-65 miles per week, running seven days a week, which built my endurance.

Boston ended up being a different kind of victory. With its 70 degree sunny weather, I was happy to finish the race in one piece and I realized that running a "fast" time wasn't realistic in those conditions. However, it did leave me wondering what I could have done. So I registered for the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, which would take place in the fall.

But God had different plans for me. I ended up spending 12 weeks with mono, unable to run or do much of anything. It was a difficult time for me, despite all my best efforts to stay positive, but I resolved that once I recovered, I would get back out there and start training for a marathon ASAP. My coach was conservative about my comeback and I spent about five weeks doing nothing but easy running. It bored the crap out of me, but I trusted my coach. By November, I was finally back to racing and doing harder work outs.

My coach finally agreed to me running the Myrtle Beach marathon. I chose it because it was known for being a fast course with good weather. And it was early in the spring, which would allow me four weeks to recover and then run the Cherry Blossom 10-miler. So I trained through December, January and February, averaging about 65 miles a week, with 3 weeks above 71 miles. I ran seven days a week and from the start of the year until the race, I only had two rest days. I never thought I would be capable of training at this level without getting injured. And I never thought I would be starting a marathon at a 7:45 pace. But here I am!

Training Cycle

The taper went pretty well except for Wednesday, when I felt like I was getting sick again. I was having trouble focusing at work, I felt like my head was in a haze, and my throat was a little sore. It took me over an hour to drive home from work, and I found myself getting abnormally angry at the situation since I was so tired and just wanted to get home. I told myself not to freak out, but part of me was convinced that I was getting sick again and I wouldn't be able to race. Turns out this was just taper madness, or a possible result of the decreased mileage. My body is so used to running lots of miles each morning, and I had only run for 40 minutes on Tuesday, and 30 on Wednesday. Thursday was a rest day and that's when Greg and I drove down to Myrtle Beach.

We had all day Friday to go to the expo and check out the course. We drove most of the course and discovered that there was a mini-golf course at mile 20 which had zebras! I would get to run by zebras!

Before the Race
Race morning went like clockwork for Greg and me. Greg was running the half, with a goal of a sub-7:00 pace. The race had a 6:30am start time (another reason I chose it -- get it done before it gets too hot!) so we were up at 4:00am eating our bagels and bananas with peanut butter. I had decided to take a different approach to hydration with this race. I hypothesized that I had a tendency to over hydrate
Everything is ready to go!
during races and it would cause issues. I did my training runs this cycle on less water, but made sure to keep myself much more hydrated on a day-to-day basis. This really worked for me, and it was kind of liberating to not feel like I had to be drinking so much water the day before the race and during the race.

Thankfully, I had slept relatively well the night before the race and the previous night. I actually fell asleep with my head on Greg's chest at 7:30 on Friday night. I was up for about an hour in the middle of the night, but then went back to sleep for another restful 2 hours.

The weather was forecast to be nearly ideal: sunny and 36 at the start, warming to 46 by the finish. We'd have a headwind from miles 8-18, but the forecasts all disagreed about how fast it would be. The most I saw was 15 mph, which I thought would be annoying, but manageable.

Yet another reason why I chose this race: easy logistics. Our hotel was literally two blocks from the start line. This allowed us to stay in our hotel room until 20 minutes prior to the start, with the ability to use the bathroom. We took our UCAN at 6:00 and by 6:15 we were approaching the start line. The race has about 5000 combined participants. The 1:45 half marathon pacer was standing at the very front of the race, and there was no corralling system, so there were many slower runners who started farther forward than they should have.

It took us a little longer than expected to get to the start line, but I stayed calm as we literally approached the corral during the National Anthem. I felt relaxed, confident, and ready. It also felt a little bit surreal. I had been thinking about this race every day since November, and it was finally here!

Miles 1-5
I settled into a comfortable pace pretty quickly, and it was only crowded for the first three miles. It amazed me how many conversations were going on around me. I can understand a little dialog, but when running at marathon pace or half marathon pace, the last thing I want to do is talk. These miles went by pretty quickly. My plan was to start at a pace of around 7:40-7:45 and just take it from there. The paces felt really easy, so even though I'd never started a marathon any faster than 8:20, I was confident. Greg zoomed off ahead after the first half mile, and I noticed he was having trouble weaving through the crowd.

Mile 1: 7:47
Mile 2: 7:42
Mile 3: 7:41
Mile 4: 7:42
Mile 5: 7:37

Miles 6-10
Everything was still feeling really good, and during mile 7, I ran past two people who recognized me
from my blog and my Instagram. One of them is someone who I follow on Strava, but I didn't know who the other person was, so please comment and identify yourself! I chatted for about a minute with the person from Strava, Bronwen, and she told me she was going for a 3:30. It would have been nice to have run with her longer, but she mentioned wanting to dial it back and I was actually in the mood to get a little faster.

At mile 8, we turned into a headwind. I knew to expect this, as I had studied the course map and wind direction beforehand. I knew that miles 8-18 would all be directly into a headwind, and I just had to hope it wasn't too bad.  I would estimate (and Greg agrees) that it was a sustained wind of 10-12 mph. Nothing horrendous, but definitely challenging. Unfortunately, the crowd had thinned out too much to be able to draft off of anyone. And I kept passing people, which was good for my race, but not good for trying to draft.

Mile 6: 7:40
Mile 7: 7:40
Mile 8: 7:35
Mile 9: 7:41
Mile 10: 7:37

Miles 11-15
I hoped I wasn't screwing myself royally by running in the 7:30's so early in the race, but I was keeping the effort steady. Plus, I knew that the last 8 miles would have a tailwind, so hopefully it would get easier.  (Okay, the last 8 miles of a marathon are never "easier"!)
Mile 12, just took my UCAN

The half marathon runners turned off and the course really emptied out. There were now even fewer people to draft off of, and I suspected I'd be running alone for most of the rest of the race.

I took my UCAN gel at mile 11 and it went down pretty well. I had been carrying a bottle of water the entire time and I was drinking from it about once per mile, but only in very small amounts that would be easy on my digestive system. Most of this section of the course was shaded, which was good because even at 40 degrees, direct sunlight can feel too warm. With the wind, though, my hands were starting to get really cold. I was having trouble holding onto my water bottle with my nearly numb hands, so I tossed it at mile 14.

I hit the "half marathon" mark at 1:39:17, which is a pace of 7:34. I put "half marathon" in quotes because this was actually mile marker 13, not halfway. According to my Garmin, I hit the halfway mark at an average pace of 7:40.

When I got to mile 15, I still felt good, but running was noticeably harder than it had been at mile 5!

Mile 11: 7:41
Mile 12: 7:36
Mile 13: 7:36
Mile 14: 7:38
Mile 15: 7:35

Miles 16-20
Okay, enough with the headwind! Miles 16-17 were tough. The wind was picking up, there weren't many runners around and these miles were actually slightly uphill. On the plus side, we had a really
nice view of the ocean, and I used that to distract me from the discomfort I was beginning to feel.

Finally, at mile 18, we turned around. It felt great both physically and mentally because now I just had to run straight to the finish, with a tailwind most of the way. It also energized me to be able to see runners on the other side of the course.

Now that I was no longer carrying my own water, I had to remember to take water from the stations. I could probably only take in 3 ounces at each station, but that was enough to get me through. At mile 20, I came upon the zebras! It was such a nice pick-me-up. I also took six honey stinger chews, which I thankfully was able to take without water. Those went down well and I knew I'd be be good from a fueling standpoint for the remainder of the race. Nothing left to do but focus on running.

Mile 16: 7:40
Mile 17: 7:40
Mile 18: 7:39
Mile 19: 7:30
Mile 20: 7:32

Miles 21-Finish
Even though the race was starting to feel hard, I didn't feel like I was going to crash, and I knew I had enough time "banked" to run a really great time even if I slowed down. But I didn't want to use that as an excuse to slow down, I just used that as a way to stay positive about the race.

At mile 23 there was a small out-and-back, and as I was coming out of it, I saw Laura, who I had met on Instagram. We had followed each other's training every day and I was so excited to see her just a few minutes behind me. This meant that she was at least 5 minutes ahead of her goal! It totally energized me to see a friendly face, and it made me smile. Being in a good mood that late in the game is so important. It's easy to get stuck in your own head, thinking about how hard it is.

At mile 23, I realized that I was slowing down a little bit, but I told myself just to maintain the effort as much as possible. As with all marathons, 3 more miles to go seemed like an eternity. Everything in
Approaching mile 26
me wanted to stop, but of course I knew that would be a horrible idea.

Finally, I approached the intersection where Greg said he'd be, and I saw him jumping up and down and cheering for me. He snapped some photos and then ran with me for about 30 seconds. It was nice to have him there so close to the end. He pulled off as I approached the final turn and I was able to find a faster gear and pick up the pace a little. We had suddenly merged with the half marathon runners so I had to weave around a few of them, which was an unwelcome challenge at that point. As I approached the finish line, I glanced at my watch and saw that I could run 3:21 if I gunned it. I gave it everything I had, and finished with a time of 3:21:54.

Mile 20: 7:32
Mile 21: 7:42
Mile 22: 7:45
Mile 23: 7:51
Mile 24: 7:52
Mile 25: 8:05
Mile 26: 7:55
Last 0.2: 7:29 pace

After crossing the finish line, I felt a little like death. I very slowly walked through the finish line chute and my Instagram friend, Laura, was close behind. I used her boyfriend's phone to call Greg and it wasn't long before we were re-united.

Once he got me settled on a grassy knoll with my space blanket, he headed over to the results tent and came back to told me that I had won my age group! I was elated! I thought I might win an age group award, but I never expected to come in first.

Finisher Certificate
After the awards ceremony, Greg ended up carrying me back to the hotel. I was able to walk, but because my hip was killing me so much, we were going at a snail's pace. Everyone we passed told Greg what a great guy he was! If it hadn't been for that, we might still be walking back.

Greg crushed his goal of a sub-7:00 pace and ran a 1:29:49. He's gotten so fast lately!

I'm still processing this race, so I don't think I've gotten as excited yet as I will be! On the one hand, I'm shocked that I set a PR by over 13 minutes. But on the other hand, this was the time I was going for and I was confident I could do it, so I shouldn't be all that surprised! I qualified for Boston with an 18:06 cushion. And to think that I spent 7 years of my life agonizing over getting a 3:40. Just letting go of the obsession and enjoying racing is so much easier!

I'm pleased that:
  • I had a generally healthy training cycle with only a minor cold and an infected blister to cope with
  • I found a new hydration strategy that works for me (more water is not always better)
  • I got lucky with the weather
  • I was able to execute on my race strategy, including my nutrition plan
  • I left it all out there on the course. At the end of the race I had absolutely nothing left in the tank!
  • I placed first in my age group, out of 105 runners.
  • I'm elated with my huge PR and BQ!
Myrtle Beach Marathon Medal

I would definitely recommend this race to anyone who wants to run a fast marathon. It's logistically very easy with hotels within close proximity to the start/finish, the beach area itself is really nice, and the race is well organized.

Overall, this is an experience I will remember for the rest of my life and I'm so happy I was able to share it with Greg.  Up next is the Cherry Blossom 10-miler!