Sunday, December 11, 2022

Jingle All The Way 15K

This morning I ran the Jingle All The Way 15K in Washington, DC. The 15K is a fun distance, but rather uncommon. The 10-miler is much more popular here in the DC area with the Army Ten Miler, the Cherry Blossom 10-miler and the GW Parkway 10-miler. As such, I had only run one 15K previously!

My other 15K was in January 2015 in pouring rain. Part of the course was flooded and I ended up running 9.5 miles according to my Garmin. My main goal there ended up being to survive without getting hypothermia. I was underdressed for it being in the mid 30s with rain, and I was happy just to finish in a time of 1:12. 

I did run this Jingle All The Way race back in 2007 when it was a 10K. But never since! 

I chose this race for a few reasons. First, I had a free entry. Well, not exactly free - I had registered for a 10K in March of 2020 that got cancelled. The race management company didn't start up racing again until 2022, and the choices for deferral were a 4-miler in March, or this race. So I chose this race. Seems crazy to finally be using a registration fee from nearly three years ago!

This race was also my tune up for the Houston Marathon, which will take place in 5 weeks. I typically prefer to run a half marathon as a tune up, but those are difficult to find this time of year and I didn't want to travel. 

Before the Race
I slept very well last night. We recently bought a new mattress from WinkBeds. And it makes such a difference. I didn't find my old mattress to be uncomfortable, but I think the memory foam trapped too much heat. So both Greg and I have been sleeping better than ever for the past two weeks!

For breakfast I had some almond butter pretzels and a Maurten Solid, along with plenty of water. We left the house at 7:10 for a race start of 8:30. There was no race day packet pickup, and one of my friends had gotten my bib from DC yesterday. I had driven to her house to get it. She ran the 5K so I didn't end up seeing her on the course.

We parked and then I got a text from my friend Anna saying she was also running the race. Perfect! Greg and I walked to where she was parked and we warmed up together. Greg is unfortunately still injured so he was on photo duty. 

I somehow got the timing wrong and didn't have enough time to run my full warm up of two miles. When it's cold I typically need at least two miles to get the legs to move fast. I only ran 1.1 miles, but I included strides. I also jogged in place at the start line. I took a Maurten CAF gel 10 minutes before the start. 

The weather was really nice. I give it a 10/10 on my race weather scale. 42 degrees, completely overcast and almost no wind. I debated giving this a 9 because with the overcast sky, it was extremely cold when I finished and I could not wait to get warm. It was like 42 with a "feels like" of 32! But for running, I think it does get a 10 out of 10. 

Strategy and Goals
My goal was to run a sub-6:50 pace. My 10-mile PR is a pace of 6:47, so I figured if I could do that today, I would be very happy. I think my 10-mile PR is my strongest PR out of all of them. And the McMillan Calculator agrees. The 10-mile distance is truly my sweet spot. 

I would count this race as a PR if I was able to beat my 6:47 pace from that 10-miler. My strategy was to run even pacing and just hold on to the sub 6:50 as long as possible. The course was pretty much flat, so I didn't have to factor in hills. 

Miles 1-3
The race started in a pretty narrow area, which was surprising. But after about a minute of running things really opened up. I felt amazing at the race start. I was running a pace of 6:50 and it felt totally manageable. Almost like half marathon pace! I was very encouraged. Sometimes the first mile feels stale, especially with a shorter warm up. But this mile felt amazing and it flew by.

Miles 2 and 3 also felt really good. I couldn't tell exactly how many women were ahead of me, but it didn't look like too many. Historically there have been many fast women at this race, so I thought I would be lucky to place in the top 10. I definitely knew I was in the top ten during these early miles. 

Mile 1: 6:50
Mile 2: 6:48
Mile 3: 6:42

Miles 4-7
I was pretty shocked by that 6:42, but I had told myself in advance not to let a fast split psych me out. Who knew what I was capable of? I took a Maurten gel at 4.5 and it went down easily. It was around this time when I passed a woman who had been ahead of me. I had been gaining on her for the past mile and I finally passed her. I was feeling energized and confident! I don't have too much to say about these miles, other that I tried to hold a steady pace and think positive thoughts. 

Mile 4: 6:47
Mile 5: 6:49
Mile 6: 6:50
Mile 7: 6:51

Miles 8- Finish
After mile 7 things suddenly got very hard. My energy level was high, but my legs started to feel heavy. All of a sudden, they just didn't want to move at the same pace they had been. I tried to fight it and really lean in, but I had to work much harder to maintain my pace. And I wasn't able to run as fast as the first seven miles. 

This is when I started to regret my tempo workout from Thursday. On paper, it hadn't seemed like that big of a workout, but when I was finishing it, I realized my legs were getting tired, and that was not a great sign for a Sunday race. That workout was 15 minutes at marathon pace (7:12), 10 minutes at half marathon pace (6:51), 5 minutes at 10K pace (6:32) and 1 minute at 5K pace (6:21). All with 2 minute recovery jogs. This ended up being just over 5 miles, which was pretty long! 

So during the 8th mile, I was regretting that workout as my legs did not want to move. Regardless, I stayed positive and focused on retaining my place in the field. I knew my goal of a sub-6:50 pace was slipping away, but placing well in a competitive field would be a nice confidence boost. 

Things went from bad to worse after I hit 9 miles. It was only 0.4 to go, but my legs were not having it. I didn't have any final kick and that was my slowest portion!

Mile 8: 7:01
Mile 9: 6:57
Last 0.41: 7:11 pace

After the Race
I met up with Greg and we looked up the official results. I ran a time of 1:04:35 and was the 5th overall female. A top five finish at this race? I'll take it!

We watched Anna finish and then I wanted to leave pretty quickly. I did not want to stick around for my award because it was really cold and my Achilles were hurting. Racing sometimes causes a flare-up, and sometimes not. They feel decent now, but they were definitely on fire after finishing. All I could think about was getting home to my new bath tub.

Final Thoughts and Key Takeaways
I'm happy with how this race went. I definitely think I could have run a sub 6:50 pace for the whole race if my legs had been fresher. They were the limiting factor, not my energy level. And I had averaged a pace of 6:48 all the way up through mile 7! 

Mentally I stayed positive and I kept pushing hard even when my body wanted to slow down. Great mental toughness training for Houston. 

Most importantly I had fun. This was a festive race with a scenic course in DC. It was a unique distance and a great challenge. Now back to training for Houston!

Friday, November 25, 2022

The Turkey Trot is Sacred.

When others were suggesting that I run the Philadelphia marathon after Indianapolis and Richmond were a bust, I gave a firm "no." I will probably never run the Philadelphia marathon. Why? It's only 4 days before Thanksgiving! That would mean no Turkey Trot. And the Turkey Trot is Sacred.

I have been trotting since 2006. From 2006-2018 I ran the same 5K race. It holds so many memories for me. In 2019, they didn't have enough volunteers so they didn't hold it. I was saddened by this, after having run the race for 13 consecutive years. But I found another one that I liked and ran it. It offers both a 5K and a 10K. I ran the 5K in 2019 and the 10K in 2021. There was no Turkey Trot in 2020.

Aside from tradition, the Turkey Trot is sacred because it almost always has good weather. I have only experienced "bad" Turkey Trot weather maybe twice. My ideal racing temperature is around 35 degrees, and late November mornings in this area average around 35 degrees. In addition to good weather, I am usually coming off of a marathon training cycle so my fitness is sharp. Nearly all of my 5K PRs have been set at Turkey Trots, and I rarely expect to PR that distance outside of a Turkey Trot.

This year, I didn't run my goal marathon due to abnormally warm weather. That meant that my fall goal race was actually the Turkey Trot. 

Goals and Strategy
I really didn't have a great indication of my fitness. I knew I was in good marathon shape because I had logged several marathon pace runs, with marathon pace averaging 7:15. But as for my top speed - I wasn't quite sure. I ran a track workout one week before the 5K, and it didn't give me a ton of confidence. I was supposed to run 1600m at 5K pace, and then 1200m also at 5K pace, followed by 800, 400, 200.  Well- the 1600 was 6:38 and the 1200m was a pace of 6:34. This did not bode well for setting a PR, which would require a pace of under 6:26. 

I figured my ultimate goal would still be sub 20:00 (and maybe a sub 19:58 PR) but more realistic was something around 20:20.

The first mile of this course is uphill. The middle mile is mostly flat. The last mile is downhill. It's fast if you know how to pace it properly.

Because I ran this race in 2019, I had Strava data to refer back to. My splits back then were 6:35, 6:41, 6:12. And I had just run a half marathon PR two weeks earlier in 1:30:58. So my strategy was to try and make that second mile faster and keep the first and third mile the same. That middle mile is basically flat, but I ran it slowly in 2019 because of a sustained 20mph headwind. Without the wind, I had a decent chance of being faster there. 

Before the Race
I had a Maurten Solid about 2 hours before race start along with some water. I didn't have insane urges to keep going to the bathroom like I normally do on race morning. I went once, and that was enough. Maybe it was because I felt pretty chill about this race, I didn't have "butterflies" in my stomach. 

We left the house at 7:10 and arrived at 7:35.  The race started at 8:25. I started my warm up at 7:55, with a plan of running for just over 20 minutes. I took a caffeinated Maurten gel at 8:10 (15 minutes before the race start). My feet were going numb during the warm up and things felt a little stiff. But after some faster running, everything started to feel decent. 

I wore my adidas Adios Pro 2 shoes. I had been wearing the ASICS Metaspeed Edge for my summer 5Ks due to the lower stack height and that close-to-the-ground feel. But I noticed that those shoes make me heel strike while watching a video of a track workout. They also don't feel as bouncy as the Adios Pro 2. Another option was the New Balance Super Comp Pacer. I wore this shoe for the track workout I mentioned above. Clearly they weren't doing me any favors and the fit was sloppy around the heel. I did enjoy the ride and the lightweight feel, but I needed something more locked in for racing. 

After the warm up, I put my jacket in the car and headed to the start line. Greg is recovering from his groin injury, so during this time he was figuring out the best place to take pictures. At the start line, I said hi to my friends Hannah and Cheryl. 

On my race weather scale, this gets a 10 out of 10. I would actually give it an 11 if I could. And I can because it's my scale, so it gets an 11 out of 10. I couldn't dream up anything more perfect. 35 degrees, partly sunny, no wind. Not even a hint of any kind wind. I wish I could put this weather in a bottle and save it for all races!

Mile 1
Mile 1: 6:34
I had studied this mile closely in my Strava data from 2019 and I had run it during my warm up. As I said above, this course can be very fast if you pace it properly. I went out very quickly, probably around 6:15 because I knew that once the hill started, I would be slowing down. About a quarter mile in, it was time to run uphill. I kept my effort level hard and powered up that hill. I focused on engaging my glutes swinging my arms, and getting to the top. It's not a very steep hill, but it does last for most of the first mile. I kept telling myself that the race would get much easier once I was at the top. 

I saw my split was 6:34 and this was perfect. I wanted my split to be about the same as 2019, and I had run this one second faster. Yes!

Mile 2: 6:29
I should mention that I was not at all focused on where I was in the field of women. I saw my friend Hannah at the start line and knew she was ahead of me but other than that I wasn't sure how many women were ahead of her. There was even a turnaround point and I didn't even think to look at the runners on the other side - I just stayed focused on pushing really hard.

I told myself that this was the most important mile because I had the opportunity to shave some time from my 2019 split. The final mile would be downhill and I would rely on gravity. But this mile- this mile required focus, the ability to push really hard and tolerate discomfort. I think many runners are afraid to push really hard during the middle mile of a 5K because you still have over a mile to go. But if you know that the last mile is going to be all downhill, you have the confidence to push super hard in the middle mile, and that's what I did. I passed a few people during this mile.

I was so excited when I saw that my split was 6:29, which was 12 seconds faster than my 6:41 from 2019. WOW. 

Mile 3: 6:07
At this point, I knew I was likely to PR. And I had to keep telling myself not to get emotional, not to get too excited. I still had work to do. If I let myself get too happy about this, I would coast along. And it's not a PR until you cross the finish line so I actually had to get there, and get there fast. I'm an excellent downhill runner and I flew by quite a few runners. I could really feel the shoes propelling me along too- this is where the carbon fiber plate really shines. 

Mile 3
The Finish and Beyond
I ran the final kick at a pace of 6:07 which shows I was happy to keep things steady versus finding another gear. As a result, I didn't have to dry heave at the end. I think my dry heaving comes not from the overall effort of the race, but the fact that I go 100% balls-to-the-wall during the last few minutes and then suddenly stop. With my pace steady, didn't have the urge to dry heave.

But my first thought was "I could have run that race faster". Is that true? Maybe I could have pushed even harder on the final mile. It sort of felt easy because it was all downhill. I guess that's' the beauty of a course that starts uphill and finishes downhill. You get the hard part out of the way without killing yourself and the rest feels easier than it should for race effort.

Greg looked up my result online and found that I ran an official time of 19:41. Well, this was surreal. This was not something that should have been possible! I couldn't even run a sub 6:35 mile on the track last week. Imposter syndrome immediately kicked in. It was the shoes. It was the fast course. It was the weather. It was everything BUT me because I am not a 19:41 5K runner. Nope. That time is too good for me. Was the course short? My Garmin had 3.09 but on Strava, other people who ran the race had distances of 3.1.  And my average pace according to Garmin was 6:23, so this would still be a 19:50 at 3.1. So yes, I did PR. How did that even happen when I felt like I could have run a faster last mile!? Wow.

I guess this is what happens when you train for a marathon for 3 months and then instead of the marathon, you run the 5K. So yes, I deserve this time. Yes, I earned it. (I'm slowly starting to convince myself that this time isn't "too good" for me). 

The results had me listed as 4th female, which was a bit of a bummer because there was prize money at this race. But then my friend Hannah and I realized that there was only one female ahead of her, and she should have been second. Unless we somehow missed her? This is still under investigation, but it's possible I was the third overall female. I don't care all that much, a 17-second 5K PR is enough of an award for me.

Does this make bib number 69 my lucky number?!  Maybe!!

Later that day, my friend Meredith texted me and told me she ran the Virginia Run Turkey Trot (the race I ran for 13 straight years). WHAT!? I thought that race was not being held. I'm on their email list and never received an email about it. I'm in the community Facebook group and it was never mentioned! But apparently, yes, it happened. So next year it's back to my traditional Turkey Trot race. I can't believe I broke my streak and missed it this year. Would I have run a time of 19:41? Maybe not, but there's something really special about that race.

Now for the really important part: the cake. I settled on a Dairy Queen Blizzard cake. I know it's cold out and ice cream isn't as appealing as it would be in the summer. But let's face it, I will never PR when it's warm out so if I ever want a PR Blizzard cake, now is the time. We haven't gotten this cake yet, but we plan to get it tomorrow and decorate it with 19:41. 

Cheryl and me after the race

Monday, November 14, 2022

Towpath Revenge

I've got the fall marathon blues! As in, I did not race a fall marathon or half marathon. But at least this decision was all mine and wasn't forced upon me by injury or illness. So I can still train happy and and healthy for the next marathon in Houston. 

Plan A, B, C and D
After I bailed on Indianapolis due to the forecasted warmth and humidity, I had hoped that Richmond would be a different story. Unfortunately it was even warmer in Richmond than it was in Indianapolis. What are the chances of that happening on two November weekends in a row!

I was also considering running the Outer Banks Marathon on Sunday, which initially looked to be cooler. But as the race approached the temperatures started to rise on that one as well. So, that meant I wouldn't be running a fall marathon, despite months of training. I accepted it and knew it was the smart decision, but it did leave me feeling a little sad. 

To top it all off, I had originally been planning a birthday celebration for Friday the 11th (my actual birthday), but then I moved it to Saturday when I thought I would run Richmond, and then I cancelled it altogether when I thought I would run the Outer Banks. So no birthday gathering with friends, but I did get to see my sister, brother-in-law and nieces! And Greg and I made a cake. 

After scouring every race directory I could find for a Sunday option (Sunday was much cooler than Saturday), I did find a local half marathon on the C&O canal towpath. The towpath is a gravel/dirt trail and not a surface I am comfortable racing on. Too many puddles and rocky areas for me to feel confident going full out. Plus, my Achilles doesn't enjoy when I can't land totally flat-footed. But my desire to pin on a bib and do SOMETHING was overwhelming, so I signed up for it and decided to run it as a workout.

I had run the course twice in the past, both as part of marathons that I did not finish. In 2010, I never intended to finish and hadn't brought enough fuel to finish. The goal was to use it as a training run. In 2012, I had planned on running the marathon at my easy pace, but still dropped out due to anxiety. 

I hadn't run that course in over 10 years and I didn't remember it very well. I remembered that it was decent enough to run on, but not something that I would do at max effort. As for the elevation, I knew it was a net downhill on the way out and a net uphill on the way back.

Half Marathon Workout 
This race was called the "Freedom is Never Free" half marathon, put on by Bishop's Events, which hosts low-key races each weekend in DC, MD and VA. Most of their races are on unpaved surfaces, although there are a few that are paved. I've run several 5Ks and one 10K put on by them and they are always well organized, fun and friendly. During Covid, they continued to hold most of their races because they did not require road closures. 

Running on a rocky surface removed the pressure of trying to hit a certain pace or time goal. I wasn't racing this as an all-out half marathon. I was shooting for marathon pace or maybe a bit slower. I thought somewhere between 1:37-1:39 would be a good range. My primary goal was to have fun, get in a good workout, and experience the race environment. Even though it was a workout, having a timing mat would provide accountability so I wouldn't quit if things got hard. I would also be getting "revenge" on a course that I DNF'ed on twice.

The temperature was a wonderful 45 degrees, which felt so amazing after "Summer's Revenge".  But the cold front unfortunately came with wind, sustained at 14 mph, which would be a headwind during the second half. And that's also the net uphill part. So the way out would be a net downhill tailwind and the way back would be a net uphill headwind. On my race weather scale, this gets a 7. The same as the Hartford Half. By way of comparison, I would have given Indianapolis and Richmond both 2's. I decided to wear lightweight arm sleeves to protect against windburn, which I have gotten in the past from running directly into a high headwind for miles at a time. 

Before the Race
I drank half a serving of the Maurten 160 drink mix during the 2 hours leading up to the race and a Maurten Solid. I decided not to carry a water bottle because I don't need much water for a half marathon if I'm pre-hydrated (and I was) and it's cool weather. I would take water from the water stations. 

The race was only a 25-minute drive from our house. No hotel or flight needed! Greg and I arrived, parked, and I got my bib. 

I warmed up for 1.4 miles which enabled me to get used to the surface. I was wearing the New Balance Fuel Cell Elite, which in retrospect was not the best choice. I probably should have stuck to something with a lower stack height to be closer to the ground. And the "bounce" of the carbon fiber plate is mostly wasted on this surface, at least in my opinion. If I had it to do over again, I would have worn my Nike Odyssey React, which is my typical long run shoe. It's lightweight, responsive, and lower to the ground. 

This was a small race with 87 runners. At the start line, one woman approached me and introduced herself as an Instagram follower! I love meeting Instagram runners in real life. After that, another woman said she recognized me from Instagram as well. She asked me what pace I was aiming for and I told her in the 1:30s and she said she was shooting for a 6:15 pace. I told her she wouldn't be pacing off of me! (She ended up running a time of 1:24 for her FIRST half marathon. Amazing!)

Miles 1-5
I decided to go out conservatively so I could mentally/physically acclimate to the surface. Even though I had warmed up on the trail, I had warmed up slowly. Now it was time to get comfortable pushing a little harder.

Even though this race only had 87 runners, I was leapfrogging with a group of about 3 other runners for the first 4 miles. I would fall way behind whenever we had to leap over a puddle! I have zero ankle mobility and an insanely short stride. Thus, I have no "leap" confidence. I would either stop and then leap, or walk around the narrow muddy edge of the trail to avoid the puddle. I'm also not great at drinking water from cups at aid stations, so I stopped and walked with my water. I took a Maurten gel at 15:00. 

Miles 1-5 consisted of me getting ahead of the pack and then falling behind at a water station or a slippery part of the trail. And then catching back up, passing everyone, and then falling behind again. Even though the first half of the course is net downhill, I didn't really notice it. It feels mostly flat. There were a few short uphill and downhill sections that stole momentum because they were so steep and short, but nothing too intense. 

Mile 1: 7:44
Mile 2: 7:19
Mile 3: 7:32
Mile 4: 7:27
Mile 5: 7:27

Miles 6-9
I saw Greg during the sixth mile. That was definitely a pick me up. At this point, I was leading the pack of three (including myself) and I felt strong. The pack included one woman and one man. The first place female was WAY ahead of us and there was another female between our group and her. So this other woman and I were females #3 and #4. That's another reason why races are so great to run as workouts - you have other people around you pushing you and motivating you to work hard.

The turnaround was a rude awakening, as I knew it would be. Hello headwind that I didn't feel when you were a tailwind! Only 6.55 miles to go!

I told myself that I definitely should be able to maintain my pace for the second half. I hadn't exerted that much effort on the way out. It would definitely be harder with this headwind, but I could do it.

I saw Greg again at around mile 8, only this time I was 3rd in the pack of three. But I intended to speed up. Being in this leap frog situation for 8 miles reminded me that we all have good patches and rough patches during races. Times when we feel strong when we think we can up the effort, even if it's small. Or times when we feel like we need a little breather and have to back off just a bit. I took another Maurten gel at 55:00. 

Once I got to mile 9, it felt like I was running harder than marathon effort, even though my pace was slower than marathon pace. I guess that's what happens when you are running on a rocky surface uphill into a headwind!

Mile 6: 7:23
Mile 7: 7:32
Mile 8: 7:34
Mile 9: 7:34

Miles 10-Finish
I found myself running side-by-side with the other woman so I decided it was finally time to say something. "We got this!" She replied with "You are making me run faster than I should be going!" I forget how I responded but then eventually she said "I know you are soon going to speed up and go rushing ahead and I won't be able to keep up." I said "We'll see," or something to that extent. 

It was during the 10th mile that I pulled ahead. I didn't know by how much but I decided to increase my effort level substantially. Unfortunately, a harder effort did not equate to a faster pace. I slowed down a little bit. But looking at the elevation and and the wind during the last four miles (that's where most of the uphill part was) it makes sense that it would be much harder to maintain the same pace I had been for the first 9 miles. 

So I pulled ahead and it got really hard. The last 2 miles felt like true race effort. It was such a battle and no matter how much I pushed I felt like I was running in place with that headwind, which had picked up since the race start and was now more like 16-17 mph. The good news is that I cared less about mud puddles and became much more confident on the trail. I didn't slow down as much during those slippery sections on the way back. 

I saw Greg right before turning off the trail and heading for the finish, which was about 30 feet off the trail. My official time was 1:39:35. The other woman finished shortly after me, 9 seconds to be exact. But she started after me, so her chip time was 3 seconds faster than mine. As such, she won the award for 3rd place female, and I won the award for 1st place in my age group. I'm totally fine with that! 

She told me that her goal was sub-1:40 and I helped her get there. She said she didn't think she would have run as fast if I hadn't been there. It was a PR for her and this made me so happy. I love pacing other people and helping them reach their goals. Honestly this was the highlight of the race for me. I was the unofficial sub 1:40 pacer! The guy who was running with us came in a 1:39:03.  He had pulled ahead of both of us somewhere around mile 9.

Mile 10: 7:38
Mile 11: 7:38
Mile 12: 7:46
Mile 13: 7:41
Last 0.18: 6:57 pace

Final Thoughts and Key Takeaways
Initially I felt very "meh" about how this went. I didn't feel confident in my fitness because I had to run at race effort during the last 2 miles for a pace that was slower than goal marathon pace. It shouldn't have been that hard to run that pace. So I was kind of down about it.  

But after some reflection, I changed my mind. 

This was not a paved surface, I wasn't getting any "help" from my carbon plate, I had to fight a strong headwind, and it was a net uphill during those miles. So yes, the 7:40s felt like half marathon race pace. And I didn't get discouraged while I was running slower than I hoped - which is great practice for when I am running a goal race. 

I actually have to give myself credit for perfect pacing on this one. My splits indicate that I "fell off" when in fact I increased the effort into the headwind and up hill the last few miles. To be so consistent on a surface that I'm not comfortable on is really a big win for me. 

This race wasn't about testing my fitness or seeing what kind of half marathon shape I was in. It was a "celebration" of all my training. The fact that I can go run 13.1 miles on an unfamiliar surface on a windy day and stay strong throughout is a testament to my mental strength. 

I'm glad I did this because it was a nice "change of pace" from my typical weekend long run. It was a great workout and I got to experience the race atmosphere. I helped someone run her first sub 1:40. The alternative would have been my typical neighborhood long run and I think that would have been depressing given how badly I wanted to race. So, this was a great idea and I was happy to get some revenge on the towpath.

Fun fact: I was the first finisher over the age of 40 -- both male and female!

Up Next
My next goal race is a Turkey Trot 5K and then the Houston Marathon! I am thankful that I am healthy and in a good place to resume training. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

What's My Purpose?

I started working directly with coach Greg McMillan earlier this year. Something we focused on from day 1 was our strategic approach to my running. What were my long and short term goals? What would be the best way to achieve them? 

My primary sentiment was this: At the age of 43, I believe that I am at my peak or very close to it. The time so see what I am truly capable of is now. The past year has been rough with the torn adductor, getting sick with Covid, and then having that SI Joint issue right before Boston. Is this a sign that I can no longer train at the intensity of previous cycles? Or is it just bad luck?

I wanted to run both the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon and the Houston Marathon (10 weeks apart) so I would have two shots at a fast race in the near future. And then I would focus on the half marathon in the spring of 2023.

Strategic Planning
Coach Greg heard me and came up with a plan. Since summertime running is very hard on my body and I have a tendency to get sick if I push too hard in the heat, he thought that "getting through the summer" would be the best approach. So over the summer, instead of running my typical off-season mileage of 50-55, I was averaging about 40 miles per week.

I was nervous that such a low training load wouldn't set me up for success in a fall marathon, but when I set a course PR at my annual Firecracker 5K, I realized that this approach was working for me. Even better, I had more energy than I typically have in the summer, and most of my runs felt strong. 

Then marathon training started. The training load increased, but it was still notably lower than what I had done for past cycles. Coach Greg's rationale was that after everything I had been through in over the past year, he wanted to get me to the start line of Indianapolis healthy. Indianapolis would be a "stepping stone" race for Houston and future marathons to see how much load I could safely handle. 

The theory was that I didn't need a huge fitness bump to set a marathon PR. I've actually been in shape to run faster than my my 3:15 PR for several marathons: CIM, Harrisburg, and Two Rivers. But each of those races had circumstances that prevented me from performing to my full potential come race day. In each of those training cycles, I had set PRs at other distances - just not the marathon. So all I really needed to set a marathon PR in Indianapolis was to re-build endurance, get to the start line healthy, and have favorable weather conditions.

Training for Indianapolis
My training for Indianapolis was uncomfortably low compared to what I was used to. I logged 55-65 miles per week as opposed to the 70+ weeks I was cranking out for the past 4 years. And instead of two hard workouts during the week, there was only one hard workout plus a long run. 

As the race approached and we were greeted with unseasonably cool temperatures throughout the first half of October, I cranked out some really impressed workouts. Notably, 18 miles with 12 at marathon pace of 7:15 average. And that run didn't even take too much out of me. I recovered very quickly from it.

So. . .  everything "worked" as planned!  With less mileage and fewer workouts, I was fit enough to run a marathon PR. I was not injured or sick, and I felt fresh on my final workouts.

Weather Woes
One week out from the race, the forecast was looking to be on the warm side. Starting in the low 50s and finishing in the low 60s. Moderately humid. This would be similar to the race weather I had at CIM in 2019. I knew a PR wouldn't be possible for me because I am hyper-sensitive to humidity, but I figured I would still run it with an adjusted goal. I would try to run faster than my CIM time and set a "humid PR". But every day the forecast got warmer and warmer until the starting temperature reached 60. At that point, I started to wonder: What would I be getting out of this race? Would would my purpose be?

I didn't have any good answers. Was I looking for a new experience? No - I had already run the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon. Was I looking for another finisher's medal? No - I had plenty of those. Was I looking to test my fitness? No - I couldn't get an accurate gage on that with warm/humid temps. Was I looking to qualify for Boston? No - I have Houston for that. 

My purpose for running this race was for it to be my "stepping stone" that would kick off future training cycles. To build my confidence that I can run a strong marathon and not be recovering from an injury or illness. Could I still get that in warm and humid conditions? Probably not, considering the recovery time would be extended. Knowing my body and how it responds to humidity - I don't think it would be wise or responsible to put myself through that kind of stress. My risk of illness would skyrocket and then I wouldn't be able to bounce back and train for Houston. 

What about husband Greg? Greg is unfortunately still injured with something similar to my Osteitis Pubis/Adductor tear. He has not run in four weeks and therefore was not planning on running Indianapolis either. I am optimistic about him running the Houston marathon or at very least, the half marathon.

New Game Plan
Coach Greg and I discussed my options and he advised against me running Indianapolis. He agreed that there would be no point in doing it and that it would likely prolong my recovery. This goes against everything that we've been working towards: feeling good and fit when running a marathon. He reiterated that this was a stepping-stone race anyway, and not the main goal. 

The former version of myself (before I went through sports psychology, wrote the book, transformed my mentality) would have bailed on the race because it wasn't PR weather. And it's important that I make a distinction in my own mind that this is not what's happening here. It's not about a PR - it's about my health, about feeling strong, and getting back on the right track with marathon running. 

Not running Indianapolis saves me over $1200 in travel expenses, plus two vacation days I would have taken off work. The Richmond marathon is next weekend which is a relatively short drive, and just one night in an inexpensive hotel. So at the moment, I am eyeing that one. Coach Greg advised me to run the half marathon unless the weather was going to be really cool. Now that Houston will be a 9-week turnaround, I don't want to risk a prolonged recovery from warm temperatures. So the plan is:

  • If the weather is warm, I will run the half marathon as a fun run/training run
  • If the weather is in the high 40s to low 50s, I will race the half marathon full out
  • If the weather stays below 50 degrees for the entire race, I will run the full marathon
The possibility of the half marathon excites me. I had a bad day in Hartford a few weeks ago and I'd love to see what kind of half marathon I can run with full marathon training behind me. And that would make me even fresher for the Turkey Trot 5K. 

I am surprisingly not upset about any of this. I was definitely frustrated and bummed when the Indianapolis forecast first came out, but I got over it quickly and accepted my new reality! Coach Greg has given me a new perspective on my running and I'm happy to be healthy and to have had such a successful training cycle. If it doesn't end with me finishing a marathon, I'm totally fine with that. I'm looking at the bigger picture and enjoying the journey.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Hilly Hartford Half!

I ran the Hartford Half Marathon yesterday. I chose this race because it was four weeks out from my full marathon (I like to run a half marathon 4-5 weeks out) and I had never done it before. It was also a quick flight and I had heard good things about it. 

When looking at the elevation profile, I had been looking at the 2021 course on Strava. It looked a little hilly, but nothing crazy. I knew that it wouldn't be as fast and flat as my PR courses, but I was excited about visiting a new state; I had never been to Connecticut. 

My training leading up to this race had gone really well. Even though the mileage was less than what I typically do, I had run some fast workouts so I felt like my speed was coming along. Key workouts included:

  • A set of 8 x 800m (with 400m recovery jogs) which averaged 3:10, and the last 4 of them were all under 3:10 (3:08, 3:06, 3:07, 3:09)
  • An 18-mile run with 11 marathon-pace miles averaging 7:21.
  • 3 x 10 minutes at tempo pace with 2 minutes recovery jogs, and the tempo miles averaged out to 6:51.
Unlike last fall, this fall actually started in late September so we had some nice training weather. 

If this course had been flat, I would have tried to PR. I don't necessarily think I am in the best shape of my life, but close enough that I would have gone for it. My PR is 1:30:58 from 2019 and I have run two marathons that were 1:31:xx. So when I am at my fittest and the course is flat, right around 1:31:00 is what I can do. 

Elevation Profile
A few days before the race, I realized that the 2022 course was not the same as the 2021 course; It would be hillier. The 2022 course had 428 feet of elevation gain according to Strava, and 450 feet of gain according to FinalSurge (my training log). Depending on where you train and what you're used to, this could be perceived as very hilly or not that hilly. At least on paper. If you ran this course in person, there was no way you could not think it was hilly!

Elevation profile, according to Strava

Given the elevation profile, I decided I would aim for a time of 1:33 (a pace of around 7:05 for 13.2 miles). I figured I could probably run 1:31-1:32 on a flat course, and hills would add an extra minute. 

It was 49 degrees at the start, warming to 51 by the finish, mostly sunny, with 10 mph winds. Pre-race, I was going to give this an 8 out of 10 on my race weather scale. But there were portions that were super windy, and when you are running up hill into the wind, that just sucks. So while I was on course I downgraded this to a 7 out of 10. 

Before the Race
We flew to Hartford on Friday, landing at around 2:00. It was a very quick flight from Dulles; only 50 minutes in the air. Our hotel was next door to the race expo, which was super convenient. By 3:30, we had checked in, gotten our bibs and settled back into the hotel. I made sure to hydrate really well. I drank plenty of water + electrolytes all throughout the day.

Greg had been planning on running this race, but last weekend he injured his groin on a long run. It's similar to what I had in the spring of 2021 only I don't think his adductor tendon is torn. He hasn't run since and will probably take another week off. Unfortunately when it happened he was on the W&OD trail and had to walk back to the car for over 4 miles. He wasn't heart broken about not being able to race, but he's definitely not happy about the injury.

We went to Salute for dinner, which was about half a mile from our hotel. This was one of the best pre-race dinners I have ever had. The garlic bread was amazing. It was fresh from the oven and you could sink your teeth into it. . . and it was like heaven. I had pasta with red sauce and chicken. The pasta was freshly made and the service was wonderful. 

I slept really well. I didn't find the bed to be particularly comfortable, but they had nice pillows, which is rare in hotels. I slept straight through from 8:30-3:15. I had no pre-race anxiety dreams. (I often dream that I missed the start, or that the race is an obstacle course), I was awake from 3:15-4:00, but then fell back asleep for another hour. I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to go. 

For breakfast I had a banana, almond butter pretzels, and the Maurten Drink Mix 160. I got dressed in my McMillan singlet, Tracksmith Twilight Split Shorts, and adidas Adios Pro shoes. I went with the original version of the shoe for this race.

Star Spangled Banner at the start
We left the hotel at around 7:20 for an 8:00 start. I warmed up for just over a mile on what I thought was the half marathon course. When I was done with my warm up, I noticed that there were no corrals. And I couldn't find Greg, who said he would meet me at the entrance to the corral. As it turned out, I was at the start line of the 5K. I had a brief moment of panic, but then realized that the half marathon start line couldn't be that far away. 

I found the half marathon/marathon start and Greg was at the entrance to the corral. I handed him my gloves and my jacket and he wished me well.

I was in the corral for about 10 minutes before the race started. The National Anthem was sung and then the governor said a few words. I was in corral "A" which was the first corral behind the elite athletes. I felt relatively calm, but definitely excited to be at the start line of a race.

Miles 1-4
The marathon and half marathon started together and only stayed together for the first mile. So the first mile was pretty packed, and it was hard to get into a good rhythm. The unusual thing about Hartford is that the marathon course is not at all the same as the half marathon course. After the first mile, the courses split off and they don't merge together until the finish line. The half marathon goes through west Hartford and is much hillier than the full. The full marathon is mostly flat until the last few miles, or so I have been told.

I ran the first mile in 7:13 which was right where I wanted to be. The plan was to start out around 7:10-7:15 for the first 3 miles and then speed up to half marathon pace after that, hopefully 7:05. I knew that the biggest hills would be during miles 5, 8, and 11, so I wrote those miles on my arm. That way, if i was slower on those miles, I wouldn't worry. I would make up the time on the downhills.

Mile 2.2
After we split off from the marathoners, I figured I would get into my groove and things would start to feel more controlled. But I still felt like I was trying to find my groove. We had a 10 mph headwind, so I tried drafting, but that didn't work very well. Very few portions of this course were flat; it was either up or down for 90% of the time. 

I saw Greg shortly after mile marker 2. That was about the time I wanted to take my first gel, but I didn't want to be taking a gel in my photos, so I waited until I passed him. He was on the opposite side of the street so I sped up to pass a few people to get a good view of him. 

I felt flat, but I didn't worry because I figured my caffeinated gel would perk me up. The pace felt hard, so I decided to keep it steady. If I averaged a 7:10 pace instead of 7:05, that would be fine. My legs didn't seem to have their normal pep or power, which was weird. In workouts they had been feeling awesome, and I even allowed myself a taper for this race. I hadn't done a hard workout since Monday - and even that was only 30 minutes of work. So there was no reason for the 'dead legs' feeling. 

Mile 1: 7:13
Mile 2: 7:11
Mile 3: 7:11
Mile 4: 7:15

Miles 5-9
Mile 5 was the first of the "big hill" miles. What surprised me most about this race was that it wasn't just the "big hills" - I think I could have handled those. It was all the smaller ups and downs that really wore me out, which I wasn't physically or mentally prepared for. As experienced as I am, I still find it hard to translate elevation profiles into knowing what it will actually be like when I am racing.

Back to the "big hill". According to FinalSurge, this hill had 79 feet of elevation gain and 5 feet of loss. Thus, my average pace was 7:46. I had assumed that I would probably run this at around 7:30, but it was much harder than I expected. And I didn't have a ton of energy to really push.

A hill like that early in the race can really kill your legs for the rest of the race. I ran the Hanover half marathon a few years ago, which had 150+ feet of climbing right at the the beginning. And after that my legs never recovered. I ran a time of 1:37:47. I didn't expect Hartford to be anything like Hanover, but the overall elevation gain was pretty similar.

I don't think the hills were the only reason I slowed down so much. It was a low-energy day for me, despite my good sleep, my proper fueling, the nice weather, and lack of digestive issues. I feel like I did everything "right" and yet I was running much slower than planned with little pep. Thankfully, I recovered during the 6th mile with a split of 7:08. That's more like it! 

I took my next gel at 1 hour into the race, and really hoped it would give me the energy I needed.

Mile 8 was the next big-hill mile. And I think it was around this point when the 1:40 pacer caught up to me. I knew I was not on pace for my original 1:33, but I also knew I was nowhere close to approaching 1:40 territory. This pacer must have been blazing fast for 1:40!

I ran mile 8 at a pace of 7:46 - the same as mile 5! At least I was consistent. 

Mile 5: 7:46
Mile 6: 7:08
Mile 7: 7:27
Mile 8: 7:46
Mile 9: 7:22

Miles 10-Finish
I didn't feel like the race was getting progressively harder like it normally does in half marathons. It was about the same level of hardness from mile 4 all the way to the finish. It was harder than it should have been early on. And then at the very end I didn't have the pain I normally feel. But yet. . . I couldn't go faster. "This doesn't hurt too much, but I physically can't give any more." 

This is a long winded way of saying I probably could have run a few extra miles at my average race pace, but I could not have gone any faster. 

Heading to the finish line
I kept a positive attitude, I had fun, I high-fived the spectators who had their hands up. I didn't get discouraged. I focused on keeping my form strong and powering through. There were a few people I leapfrogged with the entire race. They passed me going uphill and I passed them going downhill. I was happy that by the end of this game I was ahead of most of the leapfrogging squad. 

Just before the finish I finally passed that 1:40 pacer. I have to assume that he lost most of his group because he would end up running much faster than 1:40. It felt nice to be so strong at the end. Mile 12 was my fastest mile of the race in 7:04.  I said above, I wasn't "dying" out there or in a ton of pain. It was basically a lack of energy and with no pep in my step. It wasn't a bonk or a crash - it was a steady slog all the way through.

Mile 10: 7:16
Mile 11: 7:24
Mile 12: 7:04
Mile 13: 7:19
Final 0.27: 6:45 pace

After the Race
I had a nice sprint to the finish, and crossed with an official time of 1:37:14. That was a 7:20 pace on my Garmin - not sure of the official pace. I placed 10 out of 224 in my age group.

I walked through the finish line chute, got my medal and heat sheet, and then found Greg. I was exhausted and not in the best mood. All I wanted to do was get back to the hotel and rest. 

We walked just over half a mile to the hotel and it felt so good to get out of those clothes and into the tub. My hands had gone numb and my arms were cold. The rest of me was hot. My body is not good at distributing heat evenly. 

We had a 2:30pm flight out of Hartford, but it was delayed by nearly 3 hours. This really ate into our day because we didn't get home until 7:30. We grabbed take out on the way home, ate it quickly and went to bed. 

Final Thoughts and Key Takeaways
This is obviously not the race I hoped for, but there are definitely some positives to take from it. There's really no way to know for sure why I felt so sluggish, but I have a few theories. It's probably a combination of all of them. 

1. I underestimated the difficulty of the course. Maybe this is actually a decent time for me on this course, given that I am not a strong hill runner. 

2. My legs were tired from marathon training. I don't really buy into this one too much, because I have PR'ed half marathons during marathon training cycles. But once again, a hilly course demands more out of your legs, so it could have played more of a role here than on my flat half marathons. 

3. Just an off day. We all have them, probably likely that this was my off day and I'd rather have it today than during my full marathon.

4. Post-covid heart rate issues. I was 99% sure my covid heart rate issues were behind me, but my heart rate during this race was really high for the paces I was running. My heart rate suggests that I could not have pushed harder, even if I had the energy. According to my heart rate, I ran this at an extremely hard effort. I REALLY hope this is not the case, because if it is, it will always limit my racing potential and I will never race long distances as fast as I used to.

Some people have suggested that it could be an iron deficiency of a vitamin deficiency, but if that were the case, I wouldn't have had such strong workouts leading up to this race. I felt great during those!

Now for the key takeaways, starting with the negative and then moving into the positive:

  • It was disappointing to be so far from my goal, and to place 10th in my age group. At large half marathons in the past (Wineglass, Columbus) I have won age group awards. 
  • My goal marathon pace is 7:20 and yesterday's average pace was 7:20. That doesn't bode well for it being my full marathon pace in 4 weeks.
  • Since this race didn't boost my confidence in my marathon abilities, I will work with my coach on workouts that will get me closer to my goal. I've had quite a few marathon pace workouts, but maybe I need more half marathon pace workouts to increase my lactate threshold
  • This race was a good workout for the marathon!
  • Not sure if this is good or bad, but my heart rate had me at half marathon effort or harder
  • I ran 13.27 miles according to my Garmin; I need to do less weaving
  • I got to experience a new race and a new state
  • I had fun
  • My effort level was consistent throughout the race; I didn't bonk or crash
  • I kept a positive attitude, and didn't give up mentally
  • My fastest mile was mile 12, which has never happened before in a half marathon
  • I am healthy and not injured
  • Objectively, 1:37 is a solid half marathon performance
  • I will be very thankful for a flat marathon course
I got it done. I ran a steady race. Now I am more hungry than ever for some fast times. 

Saturday, September 17, 2022

End of Summer Training Update

We've reached that time of year when it's darker in the mornings and evenings, leaves are starting to fall off the trees, but yet here in the Washington DC area. . . it's still warm and humid! A few updates on how

it's been going.

Race schedule
My race calendar looks like this:

  • October 8: Hartford Half Marathon
  • November 5: Indianpolis Monumental Marathon
  • Thanksgiving: Turkey Trot 5K
  • January 15: Houston Marathon

There are 10 weeks in between Indianapolis and Houston, which is a very quick turnaround, but I wanted to do it for a number of reasons. I've always wanted to run the Houston marathon (I've done the half twice) and I also want a season to focus on the half marathon as the target race, so I will be choosing a target half marathon in late March.

New Training Approach
While I've been using McMillan coaches for 8 years, this is my first marathon cycle working directly with Greg McMillan himself. Up to this point, my weekly mileage has been in the low 50s and the marathon is just 8 weeks out. This week I will climb into the upper 50s, but that is still low for me. 

But optimizing training is all about experimenting. I've typically done well with very high mileage (in the high 70s) but there have been a few occasions when that has burned me out. And given that I have TWO marathons I'm training for, why not experiment with the first one with some lower mileage?

The thing is. . . mileage is just one piece of the massive training puzzle. Other pieces include the types of workouts, the frequency of workouts, fueling/hydration, stress levels and more. I think it's easy to get hung up on weekly mileage because it's a tangible, measurable thing. And as someone who loves analytics, mileage is definitely something I can get too focused on.

When I ran Boston last spring, I had to take 25 days off for Covid, and then another 9 days off just weeks before the marathon. And when race day came, I felt as fit as ever. I learned that I don't need to be so rigid with my training. I have a coach who is renowned for his approach, knows 100 times more than I do about running, so I am putting it in his hands. 

That said, the key to an effective coaching relationship is the communication. It's important for him to receive my feedback on how the runs felt so he can tweak the plan as needed. I am also experienced enough to tweak the plan myself in terms of moving days around.

After years and years of running 70+ miles per week during marathon training, I think I have established a solid endurance base. Endurance has always been my strength, so the ability to work on speed without having super tired legs is worthwhile.

The past 5 weeks of training have been all about TRUST. I have trusted that I am in better shape than my paces suggest due to the heat and humidity. I have trusted that the lower mileage could really work for me. I have trusted that runs that feel bad are a product of tired legs and/or the weather.

A few key workouts
I'll recap a few of my workouts here so you can get a sense of what training has been like.

17.6. miles, 8:52 pace on September 3. It was warm and humid so I kept it really easy. Although when I got back home, I started to see black spots and my vision was slowly getting more and more black. I lied down on the kitchen floor and felt horrible for a few minutes but then I was fine. While everyone struggles in the humidity, I have found that I am susceptible to heat exhaustion and it's not entirely safe for me to be running this kind of distance in the heat. But I did it and survived. Hydration was a major focus for the rest of the day. 

9 x 1000m Cruise Intervals with 200m recovery jogs on September 5. Nine might seem like an awkward number, but Coach Greg prescribed 8-10 so I thought 9 would be a happy medium. I was encouraged by this workout. I was extremely consistent with my paces in the 6:44-6:50 range and everything felt controlled. Given the humidity and short recovery jogs I was surprised I could run at that pace for so long. 

Marathon Pace workout: 10 miles at 7:37 pace on September 10.  Greg's company sponsored a local 10-mile race which meant that many of his co-workers were running it. We both signed up for this last spring and my intention was never to race it full out. Due to the humidity, I adjusted my goal pace from my actual target of 7:15-7:25 to 7:20-7:30. This was not smart. I KNOW that I need to adjust more like 30 seconds per mile in the humidity, not just 5! This meant that I ran the first half of the race too quickly and by mile 6 I felt like I was running half marathon pace just to maintain it. And then it felt like a 10K, followed by a final mile up a 120 foot hill that was a death march. So I ended up averaging 7:37, which is probably what I should have targeted initially, and it would have felt much better at the end. 

20 miles, 8:27 pace on September 16.  I did my long run on a Friday this week. I have a 10-mile marathon pace workout on Tuesday and looking ahead, Tuesday's weather is the hottest of the week! So I decided to move that marathon pace workout to Monday, but I wanted two full recovery days post 20-miler. So today is a rest day and tomorrow will be an easy day.

This 20-miler did wonders for my confidence. It was cooler and less humid and running a pace of 8:00 towards the end of the run felt like 8:30 a few weeks prior. It's amazing how much weather matters! My average heart rate for this run was 154, and it was also 154 for the 17.6 miler. But this run was further and faster by 25 seconds per mile! So that kind of tells me that maybe 25 seconds per mile is what I need to use in terms of adjusting for the humidity. 

New Balance SuperComp Trainer
Shoes I am loving & not loving
Road Runner Sports gave me a pair of the New Balance SuperComp Trainer in exchange for a review of it on my Instagram. I didn't ask them for this shoe and I had never heard of it. But once I learned about it and wore it on a few runs, it quickly became my new favorite shoe. 

I don't like wearing carbon fiber plated shoes in training because I like to save that magic for race day. And this shoe does have a carbon fiber plate. But it's meant to be a training shoe due to its weight. It does feel heavy in the hands but light on the feet. And even though it has an 8mm drop, it's more friendly to my Achilles than the ASICS Nimbus, which has a 13mm drop. This is not at all what I would have expected, but I guess it has to do with how the shoe fits me overall and how it changes my stride. I've worn it for two long runs, including the 20-miler, and it performed like a champ. 

And as for "saving the magic" of carbon fiber plate for race day - I feel like I am at a disadvantage with the heat and humidity so the carbon fiber plate levels the playing field! 

As for the ASICS Gel Nimbus, I think I have fallen out of love with that shoe as quickly as I fell in love with it. I really loved the Nimbus Lite for long runs, but when they came out with Version 3, it was too big for my feet. By the time I realized this, it was too late to exchange the shoe for a smaller size. (The downfalls of letting shoes sit in your closet for too long). The regular Nimbus 24 initially felt great but the more I ran in it, the more I realized it was too big as well. I kept stopping during runs to make the laces tighter. Additionally, the arch support in the Nimbus 24 is way too noticeable. 

It's possible that the previous versions (Nimbus 23 and Nimbus Lite 2) were simply superior shoes and maybe the upcoming versions will be better. But as for now, I am not nearly the Nimbus fan I once was. 

My current rotation is the New Balance SuperComp Trainer for long runs, the Adidas Adios Pro 2 for races, the Brooks Ghost 14 and ASICS Nimbus 24 for easy runs, and the Adidas Adios 4 for speed work.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

South Africa: Zebras Crossing Lodge

With a name like "Zebras Crossing Lodge" this place had been on my bucket list for over five years. On Instagram I follow #zebras and this lodge kept coming up. What attracted me to it was that the zebras come up to the pool! It's a private game reserve with only six rooms, and you basically just chill out with zebras. 

Zebras Crossing Lodge was the perfect final stop after an action-packed safari in Botswana. The Chobe Game Lodge guide dropped us off at Kasane airport, where we checked in for our 2:00pm flight to Johannesburg. This airport was insanely small and it seemed as if our flight was the only one departing out of any of the six gates. It was delayed by about 30 minutes and it felt like we were waiting forever. We were so eager to get to Zebras Crossing!

Thankfully the flight was short (under two hours) and when we arrived back into Johannesburg, customs was very quick. After baggage claim, we were greeted by someone who escorted us to our driver. A nice Mercedes was waiting for us and we climbed inside for a two-hour journey to Zebras Crossing. As we drove the sun set and with the darkness I was lucky enough to fall asleep for about 20 minutes. When we arrived at Zebras Crossing Lodge, we couldn't see much of anything in the darkness, but we were taken to our room immediately.

Even though our accommodations at our previous lodges had been incredible, this was by far the nicest room. It was extremely spacious and the bed was huge. Even bigger than a king size bed. Most notably, everything was decorated with zebras! Zebra artwork on the wall, a zebra sink stopper, zebra blankets, a zebra keychain for our key, zebra pillows and more. The bathroom had a walk-out shower and it was so cool to shower outdoors! The water at this lodge came from nearby springs and was perfectly safe for drinking and bathing in. 

After we settled into our room, we went to the main lodge area for dinner. There was a family of three staying at the lodge as well. But they would depart the following morning and we would be the only guests at the lodge for the remainder of our stay. 

They had a table set up for us and the dinner was delicious. I can't even remember what it was anymore, but all the meals at Zebras Crossing were excellent. I looked outside at the pool, but there were no zebras. I asked the other family if they had seen zebras and they said absolutely, the zebras had come up to the lodge. I couldn't wait!

Dinner table Zebras Crossing Lodge

It's really hard to describe the feeling of being at Zebras Crossing lodge. Greg used the word "magical" and I agree with him. Inside of our room and inside of the main lodge, there was a feeling of total peace and relaxation. The main lodge had a wood burning fireplace, which felt amazing with the temperature falling into the 50s in the evening. There were cozy couches and cushions and zebra artwork adorned all the walls. The lights were dim. The lodge was surrounded by nature. It was comforting, welcoming, and unlike any place I had ever visited. I couldn't believe we had finally arrived at the place I had wanted to visit for over five years!

The next morning after breakfast, we went on a bush walk. Zebras Crossing Lodge is situated on a private game reserve. From the photos, I thought maybe that meant 10 acres of land or something. But it was much, much larger than I had expected. This was both a good and a bad thing. Good, because it meant the property was expansive. Bad because it meant the zebras could be anywhere on the property, not just by the pool. The manager told us that the property had 25 zebras in total. We didn't see any zebras on the bush walk, but it was nice to get some exercise. There was really no place to run around the lodge, as I had anticipated.

After the walk, I changed into my zebra swimsuit and sat by the pool waiting patiently for the zebras to arrive. My swimsuit was covered in zebras and I had a matching cover up as well. I waited, waited, and waited. But they never showed up! We ate lunch, we read books, I dipped my legs into the pool. Some ostriches came by, and we could see some impalas. But alas, no zebras. I was disappointed, but because the lodge was so beautiful and relaxing, I was still in a really good mood.

There was supposed to be a zebra in this photo

We ate dinner and even though an entire day had gone by without seeing any zebras, I was still happy to be there. 

The next morning, we had breakfast and took another bush walk. We walked for just over an hour and there were no sign of the zebras anywhere. Actually, the lodge manager could recognize some zebra hoof prints, but he couldn't tell when they were from. After years of following this lodge on Instagram, what a disappointment it would be if we didn't see any zebras!

We waited patiently by the pool again for them, and when they hadn't arrived by 2:30, we decided it was time to go for a drive around the property. The lodge manager took us on a drive and we searched high and low. We even stopped for a snack and a drink at one point as we took in the scenery from a scenic view point. As we headed back to the lodge, we finally found them! There were about 8 of them hanging out near the owner's house. And they definitely did not disappoint!

I was expecting to view them from the vehicle, but the lodge manager told me to get out of the vehicle and approach the zebras. He encouraged me to pet them on their noses, and to stay in front of them (because they will kick you if you are behind them). I walked up to the zebras and most of them didn't seem to want me around. But one pregnant female took an interest in me. And even more so once the owner came by with a carrot for me to feed her with. She did not have a name, so I named her Zella. And the lodge manager said he would send me a WhatsApp message when she had her baby. 

I had so much fun playing with the zebras while trying not to get kicked or bitten! But the sun started to set so it wasn't long before it was time to head back to the lodge. Thankfully we were the only guests at the lodge so the manager was able to accommodate our desire for zebra searching!

For our last night, the lodge staff really went above and beyond to make things special for us. They knew it had been our anniversary, so they put rose pedals, candles, balloons, and champagne in our room, all set up on top of a zebra blanket. It was so beautiful!

I am not sure if the above video will work or not (I have never tried uploading a video to blogger). 

Anyway, our final day of our vacation was filled with zebras and relaxation and love!

The next morning, we packed our bags and got ready to depart. We both wanted to stay longer at Zebras Crossing Lodge, in the hopes that the zebras would come up to the pool. They fed us one final gourmet meal before we departed:

Zebras Crossing Lodge was a truly magical place to relax and connect with nature. As the only two guests, the staff made us feel like royalty and attended to our every need. I loved the zebra decor, the warmth of the fireplace, and the comfort of our room. 

It was a two hour drive back to Johannesburg airport, but it would take us a total of 31 hours to get from Zebras Crossing to our front door! We were rested and prepared for all the travel. 

Getting Home
The trip had been a total success. No illness or injuries or major disruptions. Everything had gone as smoothly as possible. There hadn't been much to buy in the way of souvenirs, so Greg and I tried to find stuff to buy at the airport. Unfortunately, there wasn't much there that we liked so we settled on a magnet. I did, however, buy a bracelet with zebra charms on it from Leroo La Tau. And a t-shirt that said Botswana with an elephant on it.

Of course the best souvenirs are the photos and the videos and the memories. We plan to make a photo album and create prints of the amazing photos Greg took. We have plenty of empty wall space just waiting for safari animals to adorn it!

After browsing the airport shops, Greg and I hung out in one of the business class lounges. The Emirates lounge was closed so we were directed to another lounge. Our flight departed at 2:00 and we landed in Dubai 9 hours later. Our plan was to stay awake on the first flight so we'd be nice and tired for the second flight. The second flight from Dubai to Washington Dulles would be 14 hours. 

In Dubai, we hung out in the business class lounge, which was really nice. I was even able to brush my teeth. The security was pretty intense, though. We had to go through security after stepping off the plane. And then we had to go through security again before stepping onto the next plane. We ate a full meal in the business class lounge so once we were in flight, we could sleep without having to worry about eating. 

Unfortunately, they really want you to eat! They served three separate meals on the flight home. Even though it was a "red-eye" (departing Dubai at 3:00am and arriving at Dulles at 8:00am) - they woke us all up mid-flight to serve lunch. Yes, they called it lunch. Who eats lunch in the middle of the night!? Yes, I was annoyed by this - and I couldn't simply refuse it and sleep because all the lights were on and all the utensils were clinging and clattering. No amount of noise cancellation or eye coverage would drown it all out. So. . . we ended up only sleeping 3 hours on that 14-hour flight. Even though Emirates business class is very nice, if you are considering it, keep in mind that food is prioritized over sleep!

Finally, after 31 hours of travel and 23 hours of flying, we were back home. It felt good to be back, but I definitely miss the zebras and everything that Africa had to offer!