Friday, April 30, 2010

Magic Sleeves and Training Tips for a Marathon

At the Boston Marathon on April 19, I broke the basic rule that you should never try something new on marathon day and wore arm sleeves for the first time. They were black, just like those sported by Kara Goucher, my new sports crush, when she came third at the 2008 New York Marathon. Runners asked me what I did to shave 16 minutes from my record on the distance that day. It could be a coincidence. Or maybe those sleeves were magic.

  (Fashion tip for the amateur: dress like a champion if you can't run like them. Author of Goucher's photo: Stewart Dawson.)

As for the training, I created my own plan out of two sources: the ``smart coach'' tool on Runner's World magazine's Web site and New York coach Bob Glover's ``The Competitive Runner's Handbook.''

The advantage of the Runner's World online tool, besides the fact that it's free, is that it lets you tailor your plan based on the amount of miles you are running (I was at ``36-40 miles'' weekly in January), what your current race time is (I entered 3h15, which was close enough to the 3h18m45 at my latest marathon: Boston 2008), how you want to train (I chose ``very hard'') and for how long (14 weeks.) The tool computes your choices and gives you a schedule that includes the speed at which you're supposed to run. The last entry listed a marathon at a pace of 6 min 59 a mile, or a total of 3h03m17, which I thought out of reach at the time but proved to be pretty close to my 3h01m43 finish. I would recommend the tool for runners of all levels, especially marathon first-timers who don't know yet what they're worth on the distance. It works for half-marathons and 10Ks too.

I mixed that program with a sample scheduling from Glover's book, which is my running bible. Glover adds suggestions of races -- 10km, 5km and half-marathons -- strategically placed to contribute to the training.

I ran five times a week, no more, except for two weeks when I ran six times. During my two weekly rest days, I rode for at least an hour on my stationary bike. I followed all runs and rides by 10 push-ups (I'm still pathetic at it after 3 months but getting better), core exercise and stretching. Many runners train their legs and forget that the rest of the body needs to be strong to support them. Overall, my mileage increased from about 40 miles in mid-January to a peak of about 55 miles during in March. I ran one 22-miler and four long runs of about 19-20 miles. It's a low mileage compared with some runners of similar levels, but I found over the years that cross-training reduces my chances of getting injured. The key is finding what works for your body.

One or two of my five runs were ``easy'' runs of 8 miles to 9 miles on Tuesdays and/or Thursdays, on the treadmill at the gym for most of the winter. The pace of those runs started around 8 minutes 15 seconds a mile in mid-January and peaked around 7 min 45 early April.

Every week included at least a speedwork session or a tempo run, and often both. Speedwork is my bête noire, especially on treadmill. I used to create my own: I would run very fast for one or two minutes and then slow for a minute and go back to fast again. But I realized that by tailoring them on-the-go, I wasn't pushing myself hard enough. This year, I decided to stick strictly by the Runner's World speedwork guideline. The sessions consisted of at least three repeats of one mile, at paces that started around 6 min 30 a mile in January and increased to 6 min 10 at the end of March. I jogged for half a mile in between. I also included half-miles, with shorter rest periods. I was running so hard on the treadmill machines that on several occasion people came to me at the end and asked me what exactly I was up to.

The novelty this year was that three of my five runs were with a local club, the Delco Road Runners Club. In groups, I behave like a dog: when I see someone ahead of me, I chase. That made me push harder even on days when I was tired. It also made me do silly things -- as dogs do -- such as running tempo runs (the Wednesday run with the club is a fast 5.5 miles), the day after hard speedwork sessions, when I should have been recovering with an easy run.
I wrote here about how running with this club helped me improve my personal best on a half-marathon by 7 min 15 in Manhattan on Jan. 28. Any race during the training must be a means to reach a marathon goal, not an end in itself. I used that race and another half-marathon in Wilmington in March as gauges of my fitness. Wilmington was ideally timed, three weeks ahead of Boston. It has an ideal course: with a first part downhill and a big hill in the second part, it's like a mini Boston. Wilmington was my dress rehearsal.

My long runs were on a very hilly course. Those hills almost got me in trouble in February, when I started to develop bursitis -- an inflammation of the bursa -- on my right hip. My sports doctor told me that I should ease on hill training.
``But, doctor, I'm training for Boston!" I said.
Training on hills is a basic requirement for that marathon: there's no way around it. I continued to run my long runs on them anyway and eventually the inflammation went away: my body got used to the ups and downs.

Rest is an important part of training, but most runners don't want to hear it. Last year, I was forced to stop running for 1 1/2 months after falling very ill in early June from a bacteria. Throughout the illness, which lasted about five months in total, I continued to exercise a minimum amount, starting with walking, abs and core exercise. When I got better, I focused on cycling, because it was a better way to regain strength and rebuild lost muscle than running. My running log shows 0 mile in June, 22 miles in July and 89 miles in August. When I moved to decent distances in October and November, I felt stronger than ever. There's a lesson here: in the seven months preceding the beginning of training for what turned out my best marathon, I ran 649 miles in total. That's an average of 23 miles a week, shorter than a marathon.

This year, I felt lucky I could even run at all and I enjoyed the hard training, rain or shine (or snow). Forced rest, running partners, warm arms and a bit of happiness. That was my recipe for a good marathon.

(Is this a face of ``happiness?'' Giving everything I had, and more, at the finish.)

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Accepting, Not Wanting

With 3.2 miles (5.1 km) to go before the finish of the 114th Boston Marathon on April 19, I checked my watch and did the math. To finish the race under 3 hours, I would have to run the distance in less than 22 minutes, at a pace that I had done many times in training. After running fast for 23 miles on a grueling course, I knew there was very little chance I could pull it off and that I would more likely come just a few minutes, maybe seconds, short. I pushed through the pain as hard as I could, not to reach the arbitrary goal of ``sub-3,'' as we say in runners' jargon, but to give everything I had without falling apart. On my mind was a mantra from my husband, an extract of a Taoist reading: ``Accepting, not wanting.''

I didn't aim for sub-3 in the first place for my fifth marathon. My goal was 3h10, which I deemed ambitious as it put me in the ``local champion'' category, whatever that means, based on my age and gender. My prior personal record was 3h17m36 in New York City in November 2007. New York was itself a leapfrog compared with my previous record of 3h33m44 in Austin in February 2007. Since I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2008 in 3h18m45, I assumed I didn't have that much room for progress left. In marathon goal-setting, the target needs to be ambitious, but not unrealistic. I went for the mathematical route. Theoretically, you should multiply your half-marathon time by two and add 10 minutes. Based on my two most recent half-marathons this year, which were my two best by far, that was 3h06 to 3h08. So even if 3h10 was a lot faster than I ever ran, it seemed about right. Except, nothing in a marathon happens as ``in theory.''

I lined up at the start of the race with a comment on my mind: "If you don't feel like you're going too slow, you're going too fast'' in the several first miles, Jack Fultz, the 1976 Boston Marathon winner, said in an interview in the Boston Globe.

The first half of the course is technically downhill, but in reality it's a succession of rolling hills. In the Boston Marathon two years ago, I was crushed at the end of the first mile when I saw a hill. From then on, my legs hurt. This year, I didn't let that happen. The start was crowded and I spent the first miles getting around people and trying to stay calm while runners got in my way near water stations posted every mile on each side of the road. I thought it was too many stations when more than 25,000 people are trying to run through the narrow roads of Hopkinton and Ashland. When I checked my time, even with the water-station slowdown, I was surprised to see that I was running at a pace of less than 7 minutes a mile -- that's almost 14 km/h and gives you a marathon in 3h03. Before 2010, I'd never reached that pace in races, not even in 10Ks. But I felt good -- dare I say ``slow''? -- so I wondered if my watch was broken or my calculation skills had deteriorated. I followed another advice from my husband, who played and coached hockey: let your body run the race. My body was telling me to keep going at that pace.

(Boston Marathon's elevation profile. Source: Boston Marathon's Web site.)

My strategy for Boston was simple: the race starts at mile 16. That's just before a series of hills that run through mile 21, and that's where I would make my effort. For mental fortitude, I would recall last spring, when I got so sick and weak from a bacteria in my colon that I could barely walk for more than 30 minutes, let alone run. For fueling, I planned to eat a GU energy gel at miles 8, 16 and 22, and drink water every 2 miles, starting mile 4.

I stayed concentrated but also had some fun, touching the hands of little kids alongside the road. I get a kick out people screaming my name, but the strips of white tape on which it was written progressively peeled off, starting on the right side with the letter ``e'' and then the left side with the letter ``c.'' After the initial ``Go, Cecile,'' I started hearing ``Go, Cecil,'' and then confused ``Go… Cecilia?'' "Go… Celine?" ``Eli?'' and even a group chanting: ``Go Ici, go Ici.'' To my husband's dismay, I didn't kiss any of the screaming girls holding a ``Kiss me'' sign at Wellesley College, at mile 13, at midpoint of the race. I left them for the guys, although I didn't see any of them taking the opportunity.
``Did you kiss a girl?'' I heard one of them saying behind me. ``No, I didn't. I didn't want to lose my momentum,'' the other one replied. Runners are so fun-loving.

("Wait, what's your name?'')

I ran the first half in 1h30m09. Even though it was my third-best time ever on the distance, I felt relatively fresh. Soon would come the hills, and I knew that running the second half of the race in 1h40 was now feasible. I started to feel pain in my left inner thigh but concluded that it would be manageable.

I attacked the hills heads on, checking on my fellow runners and thinking: ``This will separate the men from the boys.''
Depending on how you count and from where you count, there are four or five of them until the last one: Heartbreak Hill. I had trained hard on hills during the winter and was almost eager to see how that would pay off. People slowed down, walked or even stopped around me, so I chose to stay in the middle of the road, looking straight ahead. I have small legs and uphill is where I can get a revenge against runners who have a longer stride; it's an equalizer. I don't recall checking my pace. I knew I was going faster than ever before in a marathon, but I wasn't looking for a specific pace: I wanted to get to the top of the final big hill.

Once there, at mile 21, I realized I was on pace to finish a lot faster than 3h10. I passed 35 km in 2h30 and recalled that three years ago, at the Austin Marathon, I was approaching the 30 km sign at about the same time. I also recalled that Lance Armstrong's split at 35 km was around 2h30 when he completed his first marathon in New York in 2006 in 2h59m36. The prospect of a sub-3 crossed my mind but soon I was distracted by a sudden, excruciating pain on my left foot: a blister had popped and a nail might be lost. Something really nasty was going on in my shoe. I still had 5 miles (8 km) to go with that toe, in addition to tired legs, inner-thigh pain on both sides by now, a right calf that threatened to cramp and an upset stomach. This, to me, was the real race: the one I had decided long ago to dedicate to two people who had passed away within a week of each other in January: my aunt, who gave me my middle name, and a dear friend of my husband's. I was running for them. I kept the pace no matter what.

Every little thing counts in a marathon, especially near the end. At mile 22, I felt nauseated, but I knew my legs would appreciate some fuel for the final kick, so I forced myself to have a final energy gel, which must be taken with water, as planned. It was my third of the race and by now my technique was well-honed. I would gulp the gel while passing the water station's tables of the right side and take a cup of water on the left side shortly after. Except that at mile 22, there was water only on the right side and I was forced to run a mile with my mouth glued with the sweet, syrupy concoction, licking my lips like a lizard to wipe some of it off and cursing myself. It felt like the longest mile of the race, even though it's downhill.

After rinsing my mouth at mile 23 and mentally thanking the organization for having water every mile after all, I braced myself for the final push. The memory of those miles is a blur of pain and surprising lucidity. I focused on my breathing, which by now came with a grunt a la Monica Seles, except -- I think and hope for my fellow runners -- not as loud as the tennis champion. I started grunting when attempting to sprint near the finish of my races in January: it helps me go beyond my limits. About 100 meters from the finish, I looked for my husband, who'd been waiting there for almost 5 hours to see me just a few seconds. I spotted him at the last minute.
"Run, baby! Run!" he screamed. And so I did to the finish line in 3h01m43 and nearly passed out.

("Run, baby, run!" Signs of distress near the finish line.)

My time was less than two minutes more than my cycling hero Lance Armstrong in his debut marathon in 2006. My splits in the first half and the second half were almost even, meaning I kept about the same pace throughout. I let my body run and I now realize it did so like a cyclist, changing gears to keep an even pace through the ups and downs of the road. I placed 91st of all women, out of 9,468 female finishers. I'm still in shock about that performance, which surpassed all my expectations. What could have wanted more? Nothing.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Le Malade Imaginaire

In ``Le Malade Imaginaire,'' a comedy in three acts by the French playwright Molière that was first staged in 1673, Argan is such an hypochondriac that he wants to marry his daughter, Angelique, to his doctor's nephew, who's himself a doctor and son of a doctor. The farce, whose English title is ``The Imaginary Invalid,'' is a satire of the medical profession and France under Louis XIV. Argan is so obsessed with his imaginary ailments that he fails to see plots brewing in his household by his second wife and the doctors themselves.
In the days and hours before a marathon race, most runners are Argans. Out of the blue come ailments never heard of before and runners obsess over their origins and the affects they may have on the race.

(``What's ailing me, doctor?'' ``Le Malade Imaginaire,'' Painting by Honoré Daumier.)

In early 2007, my training for the Austin Marathon in Texas was mired in pain on my right shin. My sports doctor assured me nothing was wrong with my shin, and that I didn't have a stress fracture, as I feared. A week before the race, I ran a half-marathon in the Bronx and could barely walk the morning after. On race day, the pain went away, as if by miracle.

Nine months later, I was getting ready to run the New York City Marathon. I woke up the morning of race day with extreme pain in my big toe's nail. I could barely put my foot on the floor. It was as if ingrown nails had pierced through my skin and expanded overnight. I told my mother, who was also running the race. She said it was psychosomatic. ``I have a sore throat,'' she added. At least she hadn't gotten high fever, as happened in the evenings before some of her previous marathons. A few hours later, her throat and my nail were fine as we celebrated our times at the marathon -- a 10th place in age group for her and a personal record for me.

(``Can you check my toenail?''  Drawing of Moreau le Jeune.)

This year, six days before the Boston Marathon, the list of ailments combines old and new. The toenail pain is back. It's on and off. I also have an on-and-off sore throat: they run in the family and usually get worse as I get closer to the race. Once in a while, I have a short-lived acute pain in the right hip. And sometimes, it's the left hip. In the novelties department, my calves have felt extremely tight in the past week, and my right knee is sometimes bothering me.

The ailments aren't always imaginary. In 2003, I interrupted training for the London Marathon because of a stress fracture in the right hip and last year, I dropped out of the Boston Marathon seven days before the race after an MRI of my left hip showed a tear of the labrum, a cartilage in the socket of the hip joint. The challenge is to be able to sort the imaginary ills from the real ones.

``Le Malade Imaginaire'' is Molière's final play. The playwright, who suffered from tuberculosis, collapsed on stage on the fourth day of its run, as he was playing the role of Argan. Molière died a few hours later, in a cruel twist of fate.
In the final act of the play, Argan himself is cured from his obsession with sickness by becoming a doctor himself, in a farcical ceremony with songs and dance.
So runners, don't worry about your imaginary ailments: you'll be cured by getting a taste of your own medicine on race day -- a grueling, 26.2-mile run.

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Not Rocket Science

Training your body and mind for a marathon is akin to getting a space shuttle ready for a launch. It takes months and requires thankless hours of preparation to make sure all the pieces will work as required, whether they are muscles and joints, or computer programs, screws and bolts. I am now 11 days away from the Boston Marathon: the rocket is on the launching pad and there's nothing I can do now to improve my performance on race day. I know anything can happen on April 19, and like an astronaut, I'm hoping for good weather.
The comparison stops there. Among the bad things that can happen to me on race day are getting a cold, losing a toenail, cramping, finishing in a disappointing time or, worst of worst, getting the dreaded ``DNF,'' for ``did not finish.'' Unlike astronauts, I don't risk blasting up into the air. Also, I don't need a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

(Trying to avoid twisting an ankle at the Tyler Arboretum trail race on March 27, three weeks before the marathon. Photo: John Greenstine.)

In a May 2008 post, I described what I call the ``post-marathon blues,'' the low runners feel in the days and weeks after a marathon; after months of hard training they find themselves with a lot of free time and without a goal.
There's also a low in the two weeks before the race, when runners are tapering, i.e. cutting their weekly mileage. Picture the rodeo bull in the few minutes before the cowboys open the gates; or a Formula One car in the moments before the start; or the Discovery space shuttle a few seconds before its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 5. They're ready to burst.

(Photo by Chuck Szmurlo. July 10, 2007)
Right now, I'm that rodeo bull. I conditioned my body, and my mind, to run for hours regardless of the weather conditions. I ran several 20-mile (32 km) training runs in snow and ice during one of the harshest winters on record in the U.S. Northeast, and one epic 22-mile one under pouring rain. Because it was dark out, I went to the gym at 5 a.m. or after work to do speedwork (typically one mile at a very fast pace, followed by half a mile of jogging, repeated at least three or four times). I pushed the treadmill to just under its maximum speed of 10 miles an hour and almost vomited at the end of some of the sessions. The long runs simulate the actual length of the race (26.2 miles, or 42.2 km) and trained my muscles to run for hours, while the short bursts of speed over a mile taught my legs to push beyond their limits -- something I will no doubt ask them to do a lot on race day. In the last few hundred yards (or meters) of my miles at full speed on the treadmill, when I felt I couldn't take it anymore, I visualized the final 500 meters before the Boston Marathon's finish and went for it. The brain needs to be trained, too.
Now all I need to do is to cut my weekly mileage down to about 30 miles from a peak of about 55 miles, and go out for gentle 5 milers at marathon pace or less. You might as well ask the rodeo bull to slowly walk out of the gate and graze like a cow. Steam is pouring out of my nostrils as I write these words.

The Discovery Space Shuttle arrived at the International Space Station yesterday. The launch was a success. I'm always superstitious in the days before a marathon, so I'll take this as a good omen.

( Source: NASA/Tony Gray, Tom Farrar)