Thursday, July 3, 2014

Can an Old Marathoner Learn New Speed Tricks?

     I have spent the past couple months trying to turn a cruise ship into a speed boat. On July 9 at 6:45 p.m. local time in London, I’ll see if it sails.
     After winning the J.P. Morgan Corporate Challenge race in New York last year, three coworkers and I are headed to the series championship to represent our company in the mixed team competition.
     So far so good. It’s an exciting challenge, a rare chance to run as part of a team and an opportunity to go back to London for the first time in almost 10 years.
     Except for the distance: 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers).
     One of my greatest sources of frustration as a runner is to be only marginally faster in short races of 3 to 6 miles than in a marathon. If you think I’m exaggerating, don’t.
Take 2013:
-- April 15: Boston Marathon: 26.2 miles at pace of 6:39 a mile.
-- June 1: Moorestown, New Jersey: 5 miles at 6:36 a mile.
-- June 12: J.P. Morgan Challenge: 3.5 miles at 6:34.
     I am being generous with myself here. Those results were among my best. My worst running moment was probably an October 2010 women-only 5K (3.1 miles). I ran at a 6:46 pace (not much faster than 6:56 at the 2010 Boston Marathon six months earlier) and finished behind the 12-year-old winner and her 10-year-old sister, who passed me just before the finish line. Ouch.

(Can an old cruise ship become a speed boat in 2 months? Photo credit: vastateparkstaff)
     I have a poor track record on shorter distances partly because I don’t specifically train for them. Those races are often a means toward the greater goal: the marathon. I also have poor form (I tend to lean backwards when I run fast) and poor race strategy. The psychological fortitude -- or stubbornness -- that carries me through marathons becomes a mental barrier in short races: I'm stuck with the idea that I suck at them.
     To overcome all of the above, I laid out a plan I called ``more torture/less pleasure.'' It involved weekly speedwork (my bête noire), weekly hill repeats (another unpleasant experience) and weekend 5K races. I also cut ``empty” miles -- the nice, long trail runs sans watch I love so much in the summer.
     During the Tuesday group workouts (repeats of 400, 800, 1,200 or 1,600 meters, in various combination), I once again could barely run faster than my marathon pace (6:45 in the 2014 Boston Marathon). A sample from my June 10 training log: 5 times 1,200 meters at 6:34; 6:41; 6:44; 6:51; 6:44. It was a hot night (above 85 degrees Fahrenheit) and we ran around a muddy soccer field, but those are just excuses.
     To help break the mental barrier, G., a member of the group who used to compete in pentathlons, told me to start an upcoming 5K in Philadelphia as fast as I could and hold on as long as humanly possible. I ran the first mile in 5:57, then couldn't hold on. Coincidentally -- or not? – G.’s wife, an experienced and fast runner, paced herself in the first mile, passed me and won our age category. I still credit G. for my improved time (19:36 for a 6:19 pace) on that June 15 race.
     Our group coach advised me to enter as many 5Ks as possible with runners who would push me harder. So on another hot and humid evening earlier in June, I showed up at a race organized by a church to raise money for child victims of violence. It was a good cause and a professionally timed race, so I assumed fast runners would participate. When I saw the crowd of about 50 casual runners, I grew anxious. A man who did look like a more serious runner approached me, checked me out from head to toe and said, ``You're on your own!" I still feel guilty for stealing their race and winning by some 30 seconds ahead of the first man, but I had come to train. I didn't tell anyone that I was disappointed by my time (6:25 pace).
     I was even more disappointed by another 5K later in the month (6:34 pace). The Wilmington course was hilly, my legs were toast from hard training earlier in the week and a picture of me at the finish line showed me leaning backward. But that’s training for you. You can’t always run your best time.
     Overall, I have become a faster runner on the distance in the past six to eight weeks. I’ve even started to find masochistic satisfaction in speedwork. (I wouldn’t use the word pleasure).
     London, here I come.

(Typical backward-leaning technique: at the 2011 Pocono Marathon's finish.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Run Fast, Write Slow

   I'm not prone to crying. At the Boston Marathon this year, I came very close to tears -- twice. It took me two months to write about it.
     The first rush of feelings took me by surprise the day before the race. On my way to pick up my number, I walked toward the site of last year’s bombing on Boylston Street. The crowd was unprecedented: people wearing Boston Marathon 2013 gear, families, teenagers in skinny jeans. We were all lingering around, taking photos and remembering.

Boylston Street, the day before the 2014
     After crossing the finish line, in reverse, I stopped by the spot on the sidewalk where the first bomb exploded. I lingered several minutes and walked away. After a few steps, I felt a lump in my throat. Strangely, it hit me when I had my back to the site, not when I was facing the place where a child had been killed and many others injured in 2013. I couldn't explain why, and I felt I had no right to be teary. I was safe in a hotel room nearby last year at the time of the bombings.
     On race day, the crowds along the course were also unprecedented. It’s hard to find appropriate superlatives for Boston 2014. If ``awesome” applies to the latest smartgadget or cats-squeezing-into-tiny-things YouTube compilation, I don’t know how to describe the thousands and thousands of people who came to cheer us runners. To nonrunners, I often describe the Boston Marathon as the Super Bowl (for Americans) or the World Cup (for the rest of the world) of my sport. Boston 2014 was Super Bowl/World Cup to a power of 100.

En route to Boylston Street, transported by the Boston crowd
I was prepared for the second rush of feelings. I knew that by the time I made the last turn on Boylston Street and saw the finish line about 200 yards away, I would be physically and mentally drained, probably hallucinating, and vulnerable to deep emotions. The sidewalks of Boylston were packed -- even more so than in past years, if possible -- with people screaming, encouraging us, telling us ``You made it" and ``You're awesome" (yes, that word). No, you, crowd, are awesome. The tears came back. Thank you, Boston crowd. Did I tell you I love you too? Two months have passed and I can now coolly look at the stats and facts of my race.
I ran in 2h57m03, my second-best performance on the distance, my third marathon under 3 hours and my first marathon as a master (as in older than 40). It was enough to stay (barely) in the top 100 female runners (99), and while I was 2m42s slower than my 2013 record on the distance, it was a satisfying time considering that my training was marred by a broken wrist and snowstorms. I am almost sure that my use of the word satisfying to describe a race is also a first. Recovery is not quantifiable, but I would rate it among the best post-marathon recoveries I ever had. My muscles were less sore in the days following the race than after my first (slow) run in January, after a month-long hiatus post-surgery. My first conclusion from the rapid recovery was that I must have run a conservative race. My second conclusion was that my first conclusion was nonsense. My pace had collapsed in the final miles, as it often does in Boston, and I got passed by about 10 strong female finishers in the last one. According to my splits, I ran the last 4.5 miles (mostly downhill) in 6:56 a mile, two seconds slower than in the previous 6.2 miles (mostly uphill and including the famous Heartbreak Hill), and 10 seconds slower than my average for the full marathon. Talk about a weak finisher. The stats don't back up the theory of a conservative race. I sank at the end even though I was trying to give everything I had. But within minutes of my finish, I was again full of energy (thank you, adrenaline) and I spent most of the afternoon walking around. Last year, too, I walked most of the afternoon and part of the evening in the aftermath of the bombings. Walking post-marathon might be part of the secret for a fast recovery. Or maybe I was too conservative. We shall see at Boston 2015.
Boyslton Street on race day

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Unprepared for Boston, and Ready to Go

      Another spring, another Boston Marathon, my fifth in six years. The same obsessive anxieties over the minutia of training for 26.2 miles (pace, schedule, long runs and muscle pain), the same debilitating insecurities about my racing ability. Everything else is different this year.
      A year ago in Boston I was in a hotel room, basking in the glory of my best performance on the distance earlier in the day, when two bombs exploded at the finish line about 200 yards (200 meters) away. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured. Lives were interrupted or altered forever on a beautiful day that was supposed to be all about having fun while supporting thousands of runners crazy enough to endure hours of physical suffering voluntarily (and for a fee). I was safe in my room, both close to the horror and protected from it. I was spared while others got maimed, and at the end of that long April 15 day, after walking for hours in the streets of Boston, I came back to my hotel inside the 15-block crime scene and committed to return in 2014.
      My words at the time were that I would go back ``even if I have to crawl the distance." I didn't really mean it. I had just run the best race of my life in 2h54m17 and was the fittest I may ever get. Fast forward March 2014 and the crawling doesn't sound as far-fetched as it did then.
     My running problems started in September when a stomach ailment and a sprained ankle kept me off the roads for two weeks. When I started again, it was for casual runs without a watch. I indulged in my latest passion, hot yoga (vinyasa), twice a week.
     When I run a spring marathon, I try to keep the previous summer and fall seasons low key. It's my slacking-off time: I force myself to restrict running to no more than four times a week and I try to avoid pushing myself too hard. Slacking off can involve going for a fun run of a couple of hours on the trails, but just for the heck of it, not for a particular purpose. Come December I start thinking about my training, but I deliberately don't kick off my official plan until January to avoid peaking too soon -- physically and mentally.
      Given my lack of mileage in October and November, I decided to build back some endurance during December. The ramping up would culminate with a top-secret plan for the 27th: On my 40th birthday, at home in the French Alps, I would run the 13-kilometer (8.1 mile) local climb up Col du Granier. The mountain is like a childhood friend. I woke up to its sight every day from age 3 to 17. I've hiked to the top many times with my family, and I ride my bicycle up its pass when I spend summer vacation there. I had just never run it.
       The Philadelphia winter ruined my grand scheme: On Dec. 10, following the second of more than a dozen of snowstorms, I stepped outside of the house, fell on ice and crushed my right wrist. I flew to France a few days after surgery, sore and sorry for myself, for a vacation that wouldn't involve much physical activity after all (unless you count re-learning to tie a ponytail or wash one's hair). I did force my poor father to dust off a decades-old stationary bike that was rusting in a cold pantry downstairs. I rode there daily while doing homemade physical therapy on my wrist. It involved a lot of waving my hand like a royalty and worked well to regain flexibility and strength -- but wasn't as helpful for my marathon training.

(First run in a month, with stump.)
       When I returned to running in mid-January after a full month off, I made the ultimate rookie mistake: I ran 12 miles, way too long for a first run. I knew this, of course, and still couldn't help myself. I paid the usual price -- sore muscles that prevented from running for four days.
       Now I had to contend with a new feeling: the fear of falling. The weather didn't cooperate. The third-snowiest winter on record brought a total that's almost as tall as I am (about 60 inches, or 1m52). That has led to countless treadmill sessions and challenging long runs on the few roads that were mostly cleared of snow and ice. On my first 19-miler Feb. 17, a pickup driver yelled at me, calling me crazy and telling me to ``go run elsewhere." If only I could (have), I would (have).
        I'm obsessively returning to my training log in early 2013, checking how fast, how long and how hard I ran a year ago and comparing it unfavorably with 2013. I was running faster and longer. But this year, I'm probably running harder, coming off a much lower base. Needless to say, my training has lacked races and weekday group runs (which would have involved running at night on ice), the two best ways to improve speed.
      A week ago I did participate in a local 5-mile race, running 7 miles to and from the race to make it a long run. There were about 50 of us, and the start got delayed by a very angry looking fire chief who asked us to ``run on the sidewalks" (amid piles of snow and black ice). After he finally let us run on the street, I started hard -- it had been such a long time since I'd raced that I didn't know whether to push or hold back. I had one female ahead of me -- a 14-year-old kid -- and one female breathing down my neck -- a 38-year-old who eventually won. The course was hilly, I was slow, and my legs were weak and painful. My watch failed to start, and the course wasn't marked, so I was in the dark about my pace. With what I estimate was less than a mile to go on a very hilly course, I saw the kid starting to fade. As I caught up, I encouraged her: ``Great job! You're young, I'm old! I'm sure you can run faster than me!" She stayed with me for a little while but lost steam at the very end.

       My pace is just a reminder of how slow I have become: I ran 5 miles at a 6:50 pace (about 14km/h), 12 seconds slower than in Boston 2013. And last week I ran another race, a 5k, or 3.1 miles, barely faster than my 2013 marathon pace. It was fast enough to win the race (due to lack of female competition) . It restored a bit of confidence, but as I crossed the finish line, I thought,  ``in Boston, I'll have 23.1 miles to go''…
      Here I am 1 1/2 months away from the race, toiling away during training. I'm under-prepared and prepared to underperform, but not before giving it the best I can. It's the least I can do for the bombings' victims. I'm Boston ready.
(5k trophy -- St. Patrick theme -- restored a bit of confidence.)

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Friday, October 11, 2013

I See Dead Skunks

Running is more than a sport to me. It’s a way of life as engrained in my daily routine as breathing and sleeping. It’s my anxiolytic and narcotic, taking the worries of the moment off my mind and keeping me sane. By spending so much time on the roads, I also get to know which house is for sale, who’s got a new dog and where the dead skunks are.

Within hours of arriving at a new location, I’ve got to run. I usually check online ahead of time to find the best roads or trails. I’m a kitchen-sink researcher, reading local runners’ blogs and printing maps that I try to memorize before leaving, so that I’m already familiar with the roadways when I arrive. In the pre-Internet days, I wasn’t as well-prepared. I still tried to make sure to avoid certain neighborhoods of, say, Atlanta, before sunrise or after sunset. I’ve run in the summer heat of Marrakesh in long sleeves and leggings, back and forth on a main large road near my hotel, because I determined it was the only safe way. I’ve run in streets of Los Angeles where car is king and hardly anybody uses the sidewalks. I got to see sides of Vienna, Prague, Edinburgh and Washington, D.C., that I would have missed otherwise. When there’s really no other way, like during a hurricane or a winter blizzard, I’ll run on treadmills at a hotel’s gym.
Running on the flat roads of  the shore.
I come back from running with a wealth of information. When I’m not training for a marathon and my runs aren’t predetermined by a specific plan, I practice what I call running usefully. On vacation on the Atlantic Coast last month, I used my first run to check the opening hours of the wine store and the supermarket (in that order), as well as yoga classes at the local gym. On my first trip there last year, I knew more about the place after a few days than my husband, who spent his summers there as a child. There’s a boardwalk here, a path there that provides access to a fishing spot. Needless to say, I also know where working public bathrooms and water fountains are: those are the basics for a runner. Jogging with my dog Gatsby is a plus: I get to know where the rabbits, cats and fox hang out.
Boardwalk run in September, after the summer crowds are gone.
 At home, my running proves useful too. I double as a human GPS when we need to drive anywhere within a radius of 10-15 miles. When a road is blocked by a fallen tree or construction work, no problem: I probably know a back way. 
If you’re looking to buy a house, I can be your real estate agent. After moving to the area in 2008, I ran through the housing market's bust and its return. I know which houses have been for sale and for how long. I’ve tried most of the roads: I can tell you which ones are safe for pedestrians, and which ones aren’t.

If you’re a pollster, I can help too: I know who’s voting for whom, in local or national elections, from the signs on their lawns. If you’re afraid of large barking dogs, I can tell you which roads to avoid and if you want to see llamas or goats without going all the way  to the zoo, just ask me. I know where they live.
I see dead skunks when I run, more often than I want. (Photo from public domain.)


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Guest Blogger: The Non-Running Spouse (Running Widow)

I'm married to a non-runner. He is entitled to his own opinion and happens to be a damn good writer. The views he expressed here are solely his and do not in any way represent the view of the Author of this Blog. 

``The thinking here was that I would write a guest entry to Cécile's blog as the non-running spouse. If it's bad she deserves half the blame.
When we first became an item, I had the notion I would have to become a runner or something: To enjoy life together would require us to enjoy the same pursuits and to pursue them together, and I didn't figure her for fly-fishing.
But soon I realized she loved me for who I was and what I did and didn't expect me to be at her side for however many godawful miles she was peeling off that day. Later it occurred to me she probably enjoyed that time to herself. So we achieved a balance.
These people, they are driven. You don't try to shape the experience. You just accept them and support them and get out of their way, because they're going to run. They'll find the hour. They'll work it in however they have to. You can stay in bed.
I got accustomed to how she runs her schedule, which would become kind of a clock to me. Every day, every day, she will have that hour or more. I learn when those hours are likely to fall and what they mean at the time. I learn what she's trying to accomplish and I try to put myself in her situation and, when she asks me, dispense advice based on what I'd do. That's about it. That and ice.

However when we were very new, I used to fuss a lot more. I'd get in my car and leave water bottles on her routes -- because I'd offered to do so out of a desperate need to belong to the cause -- or meet her somewhere with a bottle. On one of those meetings, a hot summer afternoon when she was logging 15 miles (24 kilometers) or more, and before I had grasped the idea that I could calculate her arrival time, I showed up too early and sat in the car for 20 minutes. This drew the attention of the (very) local police, who descended on the Moose Lodge parking lot just as Cécile was arriving. As she jogged up to the scene -- the scene being my car surrounded by two or maybe three units -- the officer in charge immediately surmised: "She's training for a marathon and you're waiting with water."

I also came to accept that at any given location, she would soon know it better. Finding our way to the reception of an out-of-state wedding was now simple because Cécile had run past the place a few hours before.
So I became a running widower: the time apart, the complexity of mileages, your runner's doubt, the laundry. It becomes a comfort.

Cours, ma chérie.''

At the Boston Marathon in 2012, during a heat wave.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

Boston Marathon Under 3 Hours: So What?

     It was sunny when I finished the Boston Marathon. I stopped my watch and walked, congratulating runners around me. After a few yards, I saw one of my running role models being interviewed by TV. It meant I, a 39-year-old amateur, had finished the race just behind Joan Benoit Samuelson, two-time Boston Marathon winner (1979 and 1983) and first female marathon runner to win an Olympic gold medal (1984). Now 55, the marathon legend is still very fast. I was overwhelmed.
     ``She's my hero, my inspiration!" I told one the photographers at the back of the media crew surrounding her.
     About an hour later, none of this mattered. Two bombs killed three people, including an 8-year-old boy, and injured more than 260 who came to support runners at the finish line.
         A week later, I still struggle with guilt when I think about the race. The mere thought of running a marathon, let alone being proud of a personal record and brush with a running celebrity, feels selfish and inappropriate.
      For months, I had conditioned my body and my mind toward a single goal, making every detail of the preparation disproportionately important. Looking back at that morning of April 15, all of those details seem pointless.
     Consider my main concerns as I woke up at 5:30 a.m.: I dreaded about being cold while waiting for the 10 a.m. start. I agonized over what kind of arm sleeves I would wear. I fretted that my watch, which had been malfunctioning, would stop working altogether. I reflected on my goals for the race, my fourth Boston Marathon, visualizing each portion of the now-familiar course. I would try to run the first half in 1h27, a pace of 6:38 a mile (14.6 km/h), leaving me just under 1h33 for the second half to cover 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers) under three hours. The plan was ambitious -- I had broken three hours only once, a 2h59m19 in New York in 2011 -- but still within reach since my record in Boston was 3h01.
     As I walked to the school buses that would take me to the start, a bottle of water mixed with Nuun -- a self-dissolving electrolyte tab -- exploded in my bag. All of the bag's contents got drenched, including the throw-away clothes that would have kept me warm before the race. I panicked. How absurd it now sounds.
    This year my qualifying time meant that I was closer to the front runners in the corrals that help stagger the 23,000 runners' start in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. I warmed up amid runners -- mostly men -- with numbers in the 1,000s. (Mine was 2,985: in Boston, the fastest your qualifying time, the lower the number.) I remembered the words from my husband and mental coach (``Don't let it get to your head"). There was no risk: I didn't seriously think I belonged. I was just a tourist.

Feeling like a tourist among triple-digit bib numbers
       I started faster than my goal, and probably paid for it with side stitches about 5 miles into the race. Stitches are new to me: They appeared during training this year and even forced me to walk during a session of speed work -- a first. But I decided to stick with my pace of about 6:30 a mile: I was now in the race and had to give everything I could. The people of Boston, as always, carried me in moments when I contemplated quitting: the crowds cheering the U.S.'s oldest marathon, in its 117th edition this year, are like professional supporters. A lot of them have more experience cheering than we have running in Boston. That makes the attack on a group that was out for others even more heart-breaking.
     I passed the half mark in a time matching my personal best on the distance, 1h25m47, knowing that I had yet to make my biggest effort. I always tell novices that the Boston marathon starts mile 16 with the first of a series of hills. But once again, I was wrong. The hills weren't the hardest part for me -- I had trained for them. The last 5 miles of downhill following the hills were the most grueling.

The face of grueling pace
     It’s hard to describe the amount of pain I inflicted on myself as I pushed through: Everybody's threshold is different. One sign that I started to reach my limits is that I got confused about my pace. The numbers on my watch weren't adding up in my head anymore. I felt a new sensation in my legs -- they were giving way -- but I wasn't clear-headed enough to recognize it as a possible sign of lack of fuel. I had forgotten to take a last gel and drink Gatorade for a boost of sugar in the last miles, as I usually do.
     Five miles for a trained runner is easy. But for a runner in pain and distress, it's more than half an hour of digging into resources that may not be there. I was slowing down, not sure I could make it. My pace dropped to about 6:50 a mile in the last 3 miles, and about 7 minutes in the last mile. No matter how hard I tried to keep the pace, my marshmallow legs weren't responding: my torso was getting ahead of them.
     The crowd at the finish line, in wild screams, transported me. I crossed the line in 2h54m21, surrounded by cheers that would turn to terror an hour later.
    I was 55 minutes faster than at my first marathon 11 years ago in Paris, and 67th woman overall. Ten women 39 or older ran faster than I did, all but one in their early forties. The exception was Joan Benoit Samuelson, 4 minutes ahead of me. I like to pour over numbers and statistics because I can handle facts. I can't handle emotion. All I feel about my race is: so what?

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

I'm Just a Boston Marathon Runner

                I'm just a runner. I don't know what it feels like to be a mother who loses a son, a friend who loses a best friend, a father who loses a daughter, an aunt who loses a nephew. I don't know what it feels like to lose a leg in a bombing, to bleed on the sidewalk nor to learn a family member is maimed in a hospital. I only know that I will be back running the Boston Marathon next year.
                I won't be back because I'm strong or because I want to show them -- the killers -- that I'm not scared. I won't be back because I'm tough and resilient after those grueling hours spent training for endurance races. I won’t be back to prove anything or send a message to anyone. I wouldn't know what kind of message to send or to whom. I won't be back to show life goes on, even though it does and must.
                I'll be back because it's the only way I can honor the victims of the April 15 bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon, and the city mourning them. On that sunny day, I was in the marathon. I did what runners do: I pushed my legs really hard, enjoyed the support of the cheering crowds, crossed the finish line happy about my time, retrieved my belongings and excitedly called my loved ones while walking back to my hotel. I was safe in my room when I heard the first explosion, then the second. I wasn't hurt nor was anyone I know. But just 200 yards (180 meters) away, an 8-year-old boy and two others lost their lives. More than 170 were injured and some will never walk again. I was close in distance and far in fate. I can't help the victims and their families. I can't console them. I can't save them. I can't undo their pain.
                I did know pain earlier that day, but a different kind:  the kind that I inflict on myself. Suffering is a choice when I run and train. I have the freedom to stop when it hurts. I can decide to push my body beyond its limits and then push harder. Choice is a luxury the victims and their families don’t have. No one can stop the unbearable pain inflicted by others.
           That's why I'll be back next year. I'll do what I can: run.

Happier times before the marathon's start with Tomas...
.. and Alex....
At the finish line, under the same clock that marked 4h09 when the first bomb exploded in images broadcast across the world. Same place, different fate. 

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Friday, March 22, 2013

What Did I Do Right?

     In running, as in life, I tend to focus on what I failed to do, or didn't do enough or didn't do right. Last week I wrote that my training for the Boston Marathon, in three weeks, was flawed because it lacked races and group runs. I said that Wilmington's half-marathon last Sunday would be a test. I passed. I ran in a personal best, more than 1 minute faster than in 2012, my previous record on the distance. That means I must have done something right.

     There's no magic in running: To become faster, you need to train faster. Speed-training runs can come in various flavors: speedwork, or repeats of half-mile or mile at an extremely fast pace; tempo, usually 3 to 5 miles at a very fast pace; and the unfortunately named fartlek (speed play in Swedish), bursts at a crazy pace over a few hundred yards/meters off a regular-run pace.
     Whatever the flavor, I find them unpalatable. I wrote last week that I felt as if I butchered my speed sessions this year. The main reason is that I'm unable to keep up with the program I downloaded from Runner's World's smartcoach tool (I have used it over the past four years, in combination with my homemade plan, and recommend it for everybody, from newbies to seasoned runners). The pace for speedwork and tempo leaves me out of breath and struggling after a few minutes on my treadmill. So I've been cutting the length of the repeats and doing more of them. I've been doing more fartlek, which I find easier. It was apparently enough to gain some speed.

     I'm also wondering whether my weekday, so-called easy runs on the treadmill helped me. I have a special technique (perhaps I should find a name for it, preferably not involving the word fart.) Because I find running on a treadmill a lot harder than outside, I never can start my sessions at 7 minutes 30 seconds a mile (8 miles per hour), the recommended pace for my easy runs. I start at about 8:30 (7 mph) and increase the pace every minute by 0.1 mph until I reach 9 or 9.5 mph. Then I come down to 7.5 mph (which then feels very slow) to resume my gradual increase of 0.1 mph per mile until I reach 9 or 9.5 mph again and drop down again to close to 8. The idea is that at the end of the session I will have averaged a faster-than-7:30 run, while not feeling like it was too hard. Those runs may be partial speed sessions in disguise: on a 50-minute session, I may spend at 10 to 15 minutes at a faster pace than a sub-3 marathon speed.

     My long runs may be another factor for my faster half-marathon. Owning a Garmin watch that indicates my pace has changed my approach to those runs. Until about a year and a half ago, I regarded them as a distance to accomplish. In the winter, I dreaded the prospect of being on the roads for more than 2 1/2 hours, fighting the cold, rain or snow. Now I see them as a succession of one-mile runs. When I started training in January, I aimed to maintain a pace that averaged about 7:30 a mile, following the guidelines of my plan. I realized I was going faster and started to push downhill to 6:30 or below to compensate the slowdown from uphill portions (there's barely any flat road around where I live). Uphill, I would endeavor never to go over 8. With that technique, I was soon averaging 7:15 without really trying to go fast. On my latest 21-miler, I dropped to about 7:05. A Garmin watch will never replace the emulation of a race or a run with faster runners, but it did give me an incentive to push a bit harder.

Matching colors: Caesar Rodney Half Marathon in Wilmington is my dress rehearsal for Boston
     Sunday, after rejoicing for a few minutes at my new record of 1h25m47 in a half marathon (enough for a second place in my age group and sixth female overall), I reverted to my old habits and reflected about what I could have done better: a stronger finish and pushing harder downhill, among other things. Personal best or not, I know this to be true for every runner, from novice to elite: During a marathon, anything can go wrong.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

What's Wrong With Hermitic Training?

This year I trained almost exclusively on my own for the Boston Marathon: no club run, no competitive races and no one but myself on the long runs. It wasn't by design but the result of a litany of excuses, including poor planning, working long hours, post-work appointments, sleeping in and the flu. As the weeks passed, it became obvious my training was flawed. I decided to make it part of the game, as a test: Can I run a successful race after a mostly solitary training?

(Can you spot me training near St. Lichaa hermitage? Photo credit: Guillaume Piolle.).
Running a marathon is by definition an individual pursuit: You'll be on your own the day of the race anyway, said my massage therapist, a former professional female triathlete who still completes Ironman events in under 11 hours. True, but on race day I'll be surrounded by thousands of others who will inspire me to surpass myself. The same goes for training: running with better runners is the best way to get faster. That's why I always urge fellow runners to incorporate races into training, ranging from 5Ks to half marathons.

Races are more fun than trying to run fast on your own, especially on a treadmill, a torture device that is essential to my weekday speed sessions during the winter. They are also a good opportunity to get used to prestart jitters, to hone strategies and to fail: It's better to be disappointed by a training race than the race itself.
(Torture center with view, down in the basement.)
I kick-started the training for my past two Boston marathons with a 10 mile (16 km) race in Wilmington in January. The race, hilly and appropriately named "Icicle," is a great gauge for evaluating where I stand in terms of pace and a chance to grab a little award for my age group -- a morale booster. The race is about three months before the Boston Marathon so, even if I don't perform well (I ran 2010 at a slower pace than my eventual marathon), I know I have plenty of time left to progress.

This year I missed the Icicle race because of the flu, which grounded me for 10 days. The only other race I'd scheduled was a local 5K fun run, which I incorporated in the middle of a 20-miler. My plan was to get out of my comfort zone on a distance I'm not very good at by trying to follow the leaders as long as I could. It panned out when the fast 20-somethings apparently stayed home on that snowy day. After about 500 meters I was alone in front and stayed there for the rest of the distance.

Small local races can be very fast or very slow, depending on who shows up. I could have run a few more since. But I didn't: There was always an excuse.

Back in 2010, I wrote how running with the Delco RoadRunners Club helped me get back to running after a long illness and win my first award in a New York City half-marathon. Two months later, I ran the Boston Marathon in 3h01m43, a personal record at the time. There's a lesson here: Camaraderie makes you run faster. I see it as almost vital during training: talking about running gets some of the steam off my obsessive-compulsive mind.

It's good to be able to share stories that would bore non-runners to death. Most runners are over-sharers: we love to talk about our pace, injuries, pains, training strategies, types of shoes/socks, chafing and bowel movements. We have no shame. This year, I was unable to join my club on weekdays. I kept my insecurities about my training flaws mostly to myself. My husband has suffered the collateral damage of my lack of socializing with other workers. I try not to burden him with tedious tales of my runs, but I often can't help. Before he can utter the question "How was your run, honey,?" he usually already knows my pace, whether I'm happy about it, which muscles hurt and a few other details. 

I keep going back to my training log for the 2011 New York Marathon, the only time I finished under 3 hours. I check my pace and weekly mileage and inevitably find that my current training is inadequate for a repeat. But I like one entry: a half-marathon on Oct. 15, 2011. I ran it in a disappointing 1h30. Four weeks later, in New York, I ran the first half of the marathon in 1h27 and finished in 2h59m18. When I feel bad about my training, that log entry is like a chocolate bar.

With four weeks left before the race, I can't undo the wrongs. I continue to doggedly, solitarily follow my training plan. My speedwork has consisted of uninspired sessions on my basement's treadmill. I feel like I butchered them. I was often so tired after a day of work (I'm at my desk at 6:40 a.m., so no time for exercising before work) that I postponed those sessions day after day, until there was only Saturday left to do them. It is another quirk in my training this year: I would not recommend speedwork and tempo runs the day before a long run (which I usually do on Sundays). Those sessions belong to midweek.

Perhaps I got a few things right. I ran my long runs faster than I used to. They're no longer 20 milers. They are 20 one-milers, and in each I try keep a steady pace. My last long run of 21 miles averaged 7:04 a mile, which is "only" 12 seconds slower than the pace I would need to finish in 2h59m59. It restored some of my confidence. Not a lot.

Next Sunday will be the end of my hermitic experience: I'll be running a half-marathon in Wilmington with my club. The course -- downhill followed long uphill -- makes it a mini version of Boston's. I always use it as a dress rehearsal, perfectly timed four weeks before the race. This year it will be a public test of my private training. 

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Guest Blogger Angus Breaks Three in Sydney

I met Angus ten years ago, when we worked together in the London office of our company. Rain or shine (mostly rain, this being the U.K.), my teammate would show up at the office before dawn in cycling gear after biking in the dark through the streets of London. After a stint in Malaysia, Angus now works in Sydney, where he ran his first marathon in less than three hours on Sept. 16. You can tell from his report that he's a writer by trade:

``My second marathon in Kuala Lumpur in 2009 had ended badly. Fearful of dehydrating in the humidity, I drank too much electrolyte and vomited at 30km. After passing halfway in 1h30m, I walked over the line at 3h43m. Moving to Sydney that year, I knew I had to get back on the horse. It took three years.

I had always wondered how fast I could go if I devoted myself to running, so six months ago I threw myself into training. Approaching 38, I knew I might be too old to get faster, but I joined a club anyway. All in, I thought. I ran hill repeats and went to weekly track sessions, my first in 20 years. I bombarded the coach with questions, trying to find my target. I ran 3hr24m in Hong Kong in 1999. Surely I was fitter and stronger now. Should I dare to dream of three hours? Did I even have the right to talk about it?! Strange what running does to you.

And so the obsession started. I read and re-read Cécile's three-hour race report. Ninety percent mental, 10 percent training, she wrote. Not much comfort. All the same, I started to finish weekend runs at three-hour pace, wondering if it was even possible to hold it for 42km (26.2 miles). I trawled internet forums, then I bought a GPS watch and locked the racer at three-hour pace.

Secretly I doubted myself. I feared a spectacular second-half collapse, Malaysia-style. In the weeks approaching the race, I told friends I was aiming for ``close to'' three hours, even 3hr15m, scared of setting a target I'd miss. But privately, I knew I would have to try. The coach warned me the three-hour pacers might start too fast, beyond my sustainable threshold. My plan: hit halfway at 1h31m and accelerate, hoping weeks of speed work would, well, work.

And so on Sunday Sept. 16 I stood under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the girders filtering the early morning rays. The starter said it was 13 degrees (55 degrees Fahrenheit). Perfect, if true. It felt warmer.

Angus, looking strong, passes by a famous Sydney landmark.

I put the brakes on for 10km, letting others pass me, and tried to stick to 4m19s for each km (6m56s per mile). I guessed I needed to leave something, but not too much, in the bag to give me a chance on the home stretch. I gave up a few seconds on the inclines and took them back going downhill. I was concentrating hard, running my own race.

My fiancée threw me a bottle of water and a gel at 16km, as agreed, but it stopped feeling easy shortly afterwards. The work began at about 18km, earlier than I had hoped. I passed 21km at 1hr30m30s. So far, so manageable. Losing focus several times, I dreamed of the line. I ridiculed myself for even going there!

Sydney's marathon has many loops and bends, designed to add distance without taking runners too far from the city. On one hairpin, I saw the pacers creeping away, running in the opposite direction, more than a minute ahead. I strapped myself in for some hard kilometers, clocking 4m13s pace until the 30km mark. I felt a surge of energy, before the last 9-kilometer loop that retraces itself back to the Opera House and the finish.

Now, writing this account has already been therapeutic, because I feel like I'm among friends and fellow lunatics. You guys know the score. I'm only a beginner, but I know marathon running is painful. That's our dance. Let me purge myself some more.

My body was screaming to slow down, and my mind fought to overrule it. I repeated catchphrases, threatening myself with shame if I relented. My brother had told me not to hold back. Feeling nauseous, I discarded my gel and skipped water stops.

At 35km, the two pacers were closer and I could see they had dropped most of their group. I started to crunch numbers, breaking the race into digestible chunks. With 3km to go, I was on target. I eased up, losing concentration for a few minutes. As I looked at my watch, I forgot the final 0.2km, a tiny distance that could still add almost a minute to my final time. After 40km, I entered a trance, frothing at the mouth and losing all the form gained from months of training. As I approached 42km, I knew it would be close. Driven only by obsession, I overheard a voice at the roadside telling his friend as I passed, legs and arms flailing: ``He's going to fall over.'' He was right. It felt like I was running through liquid, my legs working unevenly and independently.

Crossing the line, my legs buckled and I caught the side-barrier for support. A stranger asked if I was alright and a wheelchair appeared. I don't remember getting to the medical tent, but it took an hour of icepacks to bring down my temperature from a little over 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit), and a liter of saline in my right arm before I felt well enough to walk.

They were brilliant, the volunteer doctors and nurses. Next to me, another runner was having seizures. Someone else in the tent had run the race in thermals and had literally cooked himself. My fiancée was there. It was worth it. I had broken three hours by 28 seconds.

``It felt like I was running through liquid.'' Pain is the price to pay for a marathon under 3 hours.
As I lay on the bed, I reflected on how much the mind could push the body beyond healthy limits. I wondered where that might end, ultimately, and I felt a little guilty. But I also felt a wave of elation, just as Cecile described in her blog. Selfishly, I indulged! I felt lucky, happy and carefree! And then I swore I'd never do another. Already I'm regretting saying it.''

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