Sunday, July 14, 2019

The No-Dread Tread(mill)

Treadmills and I go way back. To 2001, to be precise. I ran on a treadmill long before I even knew what a 5K race was or fully understood the concept of a marathon. Now, 18 years later, I am finally the proud owner of a treadmill for the first time.

This comes with a mixed bag of emotions, and more intense than I had expected. When I stepped on my very own treadmill for the first time on Friday after work, it felt surreal. This was mine. I had my
Using a treadmill while on vacation, 2016
own treadmill. In my house.
My mind rushed back to all the times I had run on a treadmill at a gym, and very quickly recounted the past 18 years' love-hate story with this type of machine.

This is the love-hate story.

2001-2005: Treadmill Addict
The first time I stepped on a treadmill with the serious intent of running on it was some point in 2001, at the age of 22, on a night when my step aerobics class was cancelled. I religiously attended step aerobics at my gym every Tuesday and Thursday night.  So when I found out the class was cancelled, I figured I should find some other form of cardio exercise to do that evening.

I decided I would run one mile. I set the treadmill to 5.5 mph (10:55 pace) and went. It was not easy, but I got through the whole mile without stopping or slowing down. The next time I went to the gym for step aerobics, I decided I would try to run a little faster. So I set the treadmill to 5.6 mph (10:43 pace) and ran the full mile. I loved this feeling of progress and accomplishment so I decided that I would come to the gym on non-step aerobics days to run on the treadmill and lift weights.

Every time I ran on the treadmill (which was about 2-3 times per week), I either increased my pace or my distance. By the end of 2001, I was able to run five miles non-stop at a pace of around 9:00. I was really proud of that. At some point, my step aerobics class was cancelled for good and I didn't mind too much, because that meant more time could be spent on the treadmill.

I loved the adrenaline rush that the treadmill gave me. I always ran with music and I enjoyed making mix CDs for my Discman. I was coming to the treadmill as a transition from step aerobics, which had been a transition from dance, so the music was critical. I loved being able to run faster and farther, and would sometimes mentally compete with runners next to me.

The dark side of this was that it became an addiction. While I enjoyed it, I also felt like I had to do it as a way to burn calories and keep my weight down. I was fearful that if I didn't run five days a week, I would gain weight. Some days, I didn't feel like going. In fact, I would sit in my car and just hang out there until I finally forced myself to walk into the gym and get started. Sometimes I dreaded being on the treadmill, but watching the "Calories Burned" gage go up and up and up was something that I needed.

When I moved out of my apartment that was right next to the gym, I joined the gym that was across the street from my office. I used that treadmill every night after work, and during that time, transitioned into a morning runner and so I started to go before work. As I mentioned earlier, I would also lifted weights every time I went to the gym, as that was part of my regime to stay fit and keep my weight down.

In 2005, I discovered racing. At my five-year college reunion, I discovered that they were holding a 2-mile race. I brushed it off as not long enough for me-- I needed to run 6-7 miles each time I ran. But
My first 10K, June 2005
my friend who I was attending the reunion with persuaded me to do the race, saying that I could run more miles on the treadmill afterwards. I did the race and ended up coming in first place female. I think my time was around 16:00. Back in 2005, races were not all that competitive! I won a silver cup and really enjoyed the experience. One of the other runners told me that he was planning on running a 10K the following weekend in DC. "What's a 10K?" I asked. When he told me it was 6.2 miles, I figured I could do that, since 6-7 miles was my treadmill standard.

So began my introduction to the racing world, and my gradual abandonment of the treadmill addiction.

2006-2009: The Transition to Training
During these years, I discovered marathons, learned how to properly train for races, read a ton of books about running, and started to run outside on the weekends.

I lived in an area that was surrounded by construction so I couldn't very well run out of my condo in the mornings before work. Plus, it was dark and I didn't think it was safe to run alone. So I stuck to the treadmill but took my long runs outdoors on the weekends, when I had the time to drive to the W&OD trail and could run in the daylight.

During the week, I would wake up at around 4:30, get dressed, drive 12 minutes to the gym, go
running, drive 12 minutes back home, take a shower and get ready for work, and then commute 30 minutes to work.  The lengths I went to just to access a treadmill! Finally, they built a brand new gym less than a mile from my condo, and that took only five minutes to drive to. By this point, I wasn't lifting weights nearly as much. I had a training plan to follow which often involved running for over an hour, so I didn't have the time.

The good news was that I no longer cared as much about the "Calories Burned" gage. My motivation was not to burn calories but to train for marathons and to become a faster runner.

Gym treadmill
As I stood on my very own treadmill last Friday evening, I thought about all those mornings before work when I would crank out as many as 12 miles on the treadmill. All the long runs I did on the treadmill when the weather was bad. And by "bad" I mean raining or below 40 degrees. At the time, some people in the running community criticized me for running on the treadmill too much. Telling me that treadmill running didn't count, and that I needed to get out into the elements. But I didn't really see that I had a choice, given that I had to leave my house at 7:30 to get to work on time, and I wasn't going to run alone in the dark in a construction zone.

2010-2013: Treadmills are Evil
In 2010, Greg and I moved into a house that allowed us to run outdoors in the morning before work. I was no longer surrounded by a construction zone, and I had a built-in running partner to run with in the dark. We moved into the house in April of 2010 and for the remainder of that year, I did not run a single step on the treadmill.

In January 2011, when winter became harsh, Greg and I joined a local gym that we used when the sidewalks were covered in snow and ice. Which was pretty much the entire month of January. As a result, I ended up with three stress fractures in my shins. My legs were no longer used to running on a treadmill, and 50+ miles a week on a "new" surface did me in.

That's when I discovered pool running, and met bunch of women from Capital Area Runners in the pool. I joined this group, and the coach advocated highly for pool running in inclement weather. He believed that treadmills caused injuries and should be avoided as much as possible. In my case, that was true, so treadmills became evil in my mind. Pool running replaced treadmill running for days when it wasn't possible to run outdoors.

2014-2019: Treadmills are a Necessary Evil, and HOT
As I advanced in my running career, I no longer saw pool running as a replacement for actual running, so I began to use the treadmill again when needed. I didn't have a gym membership, but the companies I worked for during this time frame had gyms in their buildings. Or, if I wanted to be closer to home, I could use the treadmill at the county REC center, and pay $9 for each run.

The problem was. . . gyms are warm. If the gym had a big fan blowing in my face, I was good. But usually there were no fans and I would notice my heart rate spiking 30 minutes in to the run. I also noticed that if I had to do speed work on the treadmill, I couldn't hold my normal pace and my legs would be extra sore in the days to come.

Treadmill on vacation, 2018
The problem was that my use of the treadmill was so rare, that my legs weren't used to it, and I would overheat very quickly. If I wanted to keep my heart rate in the proper zone, I needed to run 30-45 seconds per mile slower. Furthermore, I wasn't used to the treadmill from a mental perspective. Each treadmill run bored the crap out of me and I needed to play all sorts of mind games from calling it quits.

I transitioned to a new coach in 2014 (who still coaches me today) and he is a strong believer in the treadmill for days on which running outdoors isn't possible. I would tell him about the lengths I would go to in order to avoid treadmill running, but he encouraged me to keep an open mind about the treadmill as a training tool.

2019: Treadmill Owner
As I have written about in my last few posts, my goal this summer is to stay healthy. I've had recurrent episodes of mono in the summers of 2012, 2016, and 2018. Back in May, my coach advised me to buy a treadmill.

I was conflicted about this, for all of the reasons above, but I knew he was right: if it was really hot out, it would be preferable for me to run on a treadmill than to be outside. And having my own treadmill would make that decision a lot easier. There would be no excuses to NOT use the treadmill.  Of course, treadmills are hot, too, but not nearly as bad as 75+ degree temperatures with very high humidity. With my own treadmill, I could have a huge fan pointing at me and set the thermostat to a lower temperature. I also wouldn't have to shower in a locker room and pack a gym bag.

The price tag was also a concern. Sure, I could afford it, but did I really want to throw $2,000 at something I would use so rarely? I would only use it in the winter and summer months, and probably only 25% of the time in the summer, and less than 10% of the time in the winter. Could I justify this cost?

I reached out to NordicTrack to see if they could offer me a free treadmill or a discount to promote their treadmill on my blog and on my Instagram account. I went back and forth with their social media manager, but ultimately I decided not to accept their offer. I won't go into the details here, but it takes a good deal of thought and effort to create good Instagram content, and even more thought and effort to build a following. I didn't feel like my level of effort was respected during the negotiation process, so I decided not to work with them.

So, I did nothing. Until last weekend when it was sweltering hot and humid for my long run and I
Test run in my work clothes!
struggled big time. My heart rate was higher on that run, for an 8:40 pace, than it was in during the 5K race. Once again, my coach encouraged me to buy a treadmill. I realized that my health needs to come first and I can't be running 10+ miles in that kind of weather. Plus, it would be super nice to have in the winter with icy road conditions. Or when it's 15 degrees with a sustained 15 mph wind. As I said above, I can afford it, so why not just pull the trigger?

I ordered it last Sunday and it was delivered on Friday. I paid extra for them to set it up in my basement, and thankfully Greg was home from work to let the delivery men in.

When I saw it for the first time, I could hardly believe my eyes. A treadmill! In my basement! After all these years. And it is sooooo nice. I had done my research and for a $2,000 price tag, this really is a sophisticated machine with a strong motor. I'm not going to review it too much because of my interaction with their social media team, but it's really beautiful and I love it.

It's a conflicted love, however, due to my extensive history with these machines. I think I will feel differently now that I actually own the treadmill, as I tend to develop an emotional connection to my belongings! It basically just feels like a whole new chapter has opened up.

I plan to run on it for the first time on Wednesday, when the low temp will be around 72 degrees with accompanying crazy humidity. The heat wave will continue through Saturday, so it looks like it will get plenty of use in the second half of next week. More to come!


Friday, July 5, 2019

Firecracker 5K: Hot, Humid, Hilly. . . but Healthy!

Yesterday morning, I ran my 7th Firecracker 5K. For me, the biggest accomplishment at this race is getting to the start line healthy. I had mono in 2012, 2016, and 2018, and I had a stress reaction in my shin in 2013. I would love for this race to be a tradition, but my health issues have prevented me from running it multiple times in past years.

Staying Healthy
This year, I made a concerted effort to not get sick. That included seeing a "diagnostic specialist" doctor to get to the root cause of my heat sensitivity/immune system issues. It also included dropping my speed work down to just one day a week, and limiting the long run to 90 minutes. Typically, I run 2 speed workouts per week and my long runs are 2 hours, even when not training for a marathon.

The diagnostic specialist ran a bunch of tests on me and found that I have hypothyroidism. One of the tests also showed that my "Immunoglobin A" was outside of the normal range, which can indicate a sub-par immune system. Finally, two stress tests (blood + saliva) indicated that my cortisol levels are higher in the evening, which could be contributing to me waking up in the middle of the night, which I do almost every night.

So, I am taking supplements to treat all of this, including the hypothyroidism. I've also cut out all caffeine, including chocolate. And, I am drinking only one alcoholic beverage per week.

Finally, we had the benefit of May and June not being ridiculously hot and humid every day, and that has helped. In June, I adjusted my schedule so that the speed work would fall on the coolest morning. As a result, I've never done a speed workout in anything over 70 degrees. Until today.

Race Plan
The Firecracker 5K is known for always being really hot and humid. After all, it falls in the middle of summer! This year, it was in the high 70's, cloudy, with a dew point of 71. That means the humidity was somewhere around 95%. It was very muggy.

My plan for this race was to run it at about 90% effort, as opposed to the 100% I would typically strive to put out. I wanted to run strong, but without killing myself and putting my immune system at risk. A few days before I got sick last summer, I raced a 5K in 66 degree humid weather. I ran it extremely hard at the end because I was fighting for first place female. Afterwards, it took a full 10 minutes to feel somewhat normal again. I had been dizzy, my heart was pounding, and I had definitely over-exerted myself. I didn't want to make that same mistake again.

I decided I would run by effort, and look at the Garmin for informational purposes only! In terms of time, I had run 21:16 in 2017, back when I had three months of 5K-specific workouts under my belt, and I ran at 100% effort. I didn't expect to be anywhere close to that, so I was thinking I would be doing well to squeak under 22:00.

Before the Race
I wasn't at all anxious about this race in terms of running a particular time. I was more anxious about the potential of the race making me sick. Therefore, I hadn't even gotten my typical pre-race breakfast at the grocery store: a bagel with peanut butter. It just totally slipped my mind because it didn't feel like a race! I ended up eating some pretzels with peanut butter instead.

Greg and I arrived at the Reston Town Center at around 7:15 for an 8:00am start. I had already picked up our bibs because I work in the Reston Town Center, and bib pickup was right next to my office! We had a little time to spare, so I showed Greg around my office, which he hadn't seen yet.

We did a shorter than normal warmup (12 minutes) because it was so warm and humid. We then returned to the car where I stuffed my sports bra with about 10 ice cubes from a cooler. Greg and I also each got an Energice out of the cooler and brought it to the start line. Energice is like those Flavor Ice pops, only it has B vitamins and electrolytes. Normally, I would have this as a post-run treat, but I read somewhere that having a frozen drink right before a race cools your core.

I had never heard of Energice, but they reached out to me asking if I wanted to partner with them on an Instagram campaign and I agreed. They sent me a huge case of it, which I thought I would never use, but now I plan on having one every day. Anyway, the Energice is really tasty and refreshing and was a perfect way to keep my core cool right before the race started.

Mile 1: 6:43
The race started, and I focused on staying relaxed and keeping it easy. The first mile is mostly uphill, and my goal was to run the tangents and to keep the effort steady. Within the first few minutes, I had pulled in front of Greg. I could hear him breathing behind me for a bit, but I pulled away even more until I could no longer hear him.

Mile 1, waving to Cheryl Young
When I glanced down at my Garmin about four minutes into the race, I could hardly believe my eyes. I had imagined I was running a 7:00 pace, but I was way under that. As I said above, the Garmin was for informational purposes only and the effort only felt moderately hard, so I stuck with it. Usually in 5Ks I go out harder, but this felt one notch down from my usual effort.

Mile 2: 6:27
This mile is mostly downhill, so I maintained my effort and let gravity do its thing. I felt strong the entire time, and while I was working hard, I didn't feel like I was maxing out. When I felt my watch beep for 6:27, I was shocked. In my mind, I had thought this mile would be somewhere around 6:45. I was still ahead of Greg, but I knew the hardest part was yet to come.

Mile 3: 7:02
This mile is hard. There's a huge climb just goes on and on and on. I knew to expect it, and I vowed not to look at my Garmin. This was when the race finally started to feel like 5K race effort. Within one minute, I went from feeling awesome at a moderately hard effort, to fighting hard to "hang in there".

I began to hear Greg coming up behind me, and I knew he would inevitably catch me and pass me. He's stronger up hills than I am, and so when he passed me at 2.8, I decided not to try and follow. It wasn't really a decision, though. I wouldn't have been able to keep up.

Last 0.17: 6:55 pace
As I made the final climb, I stayed strong, but did not push to my max like I typically would at the end of a 5K. I think I probably had another gear, and could have dropped down into the 6:30's and shaved a few extra seconds off my time, but I was satisfied with my effort level at 90% so I just maintained it until I crossed the line.

Official time: 21:27 (or 21:26 if you look at the list version of the results rather than the individual
Final Stretch, photo by C. Young

version!) Greg's time was 21:14, so he gained a full 13 seconds on me in that last quarter mile!

I should also note that my Garmin credited me with a 21:00 5K. I'm not saying that the course was long, but it's interesting to know what I would have done if I had hit the tangents perfectly.

After the Race
Greg and I waited for our friend Hannah to finish, and then we did a cool down jog for about 10 minutes. After that, I went to go check out the results. Much to my dismay, I was not listed. I went to the results tent, and they said they got me crossing the start line, but not the finish line, so they had to check their back-up records for me. They eventually found me, and added me to the results. I was relieved that they had a back up timer, because it sucks not to get listed in the results!

We stuck around for the awards, and I discovered that I won first place in my age group! I was really surprised because this is a competitive race. So many fast runners show up. If you had told me at the start line that I would be winning my age group, I would never have believed it, based on who was lining up. I placed 16 out of 695 total women.

We then proceeded to brunch with Allison and Hannah, where I devoured an omelette, grits, and a huge coconut pancake.

Final Thoughts
I'm pleasantly surprised with my result-- I certainly did not expect to run this fast. Given my effort level and how it felt, I would have guessed I was running a 7:00 pace the whole time, but according to my Garmin, I averaged a pace of 6:45. I think several things contributed:

  • I'm now acclimated to the heat and humidity (as acclimated as I can get. . . )
  • My fitness level is strong, possibly helped by my recent strength training addition
  • I didn't have cumulative fatigue from running a ton of workouts in the heat
  • The ice down the sports bra + Energice pre race kept me cooler than I would have otherwise been
  • The supplements I've been taking to help my Thyroid and reduce stress have been working
In 2017, I ran 21:16 at this race and I was disappointed with that time. Today, I ran 21:27 (or 21:26) and I'm thrilled. It's really all about perspective! I'm happy to be healthy and now I know I can run a strong race without maxing out at 100% effort level in the heat.

I won't be racing again until Labor Day, but I do plan to run a 20K in August as a training run.



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