Striding Through

Because a life well lived always finds the right pace

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No typical Boston Marathon

Preface

It goes without saying the 117th running of the Boston Marathon will not soon be forgotten. As I finally sit down to compose my own race report from the day, I do so with the luxury of knowing the clear and present danger visited upon us by Messrs. Tsarnaev has been extinguished, and that the lone survivor of the two will now face justice. While I continue to feel terrible sadness from knowing nothing will bring back the three innocent individuals who died needlessly on Patriots Day, and that those injured in some cases face a tremendously difficult physical rehabilitation, I am filled with pride and gratitude for all of the authorities who were involved in this case. From the elected political leaders to the uniformed officers and EMTs on the ground, not to mention volunteers who stepped forward, the relentless focus, unity of purpose and quiet professionalism shown by all involved in the response was magnificent. They showed unequivocally that, nearly 12 years after 9/11, that it is indeed possible to take the high road to justice. And that truly makes me proud to call this country my home. Moreover, I can’t wait to toe the line again in Hopkinton next year. I will be back.

And now for the race report…

Breaking Camp

That is, of course, a baseball phrase significant of when one’s favorite team finally leaves the comfy confines of Florida or Arizona to head north and start the regular season. But it also is a good way to characterize that time in a marathon training program where the “hard” or peak phase finally closes, followed by the taper and then the arrival onsite. For this cycle I followed the Hansons Marathon Method (earlier training updates hereherehere and here), which feels easy at the beginning, but over time builds in intensity. By the time peak phase hits, so does the sensation of having been “sucked in” to a really rigorous program. The long runs in the program are shorter than most marathon training plans recommend, but the overall volume and amount of marathon pace running are very high, much higher than I had ever done in the past. Moreover, the taper is a very short one, only 10 days. When I did my final “tempo” run under the program – 12 miles with the middle 10 at goal marathon pace – I was right on target despite running in near freezing rain conditions. Then came the taper period. Here I try to maximize easy running and get good rest, but the latter of those evaded me for a number of reasons, mainly due to outside stresses such as events at work and so on. So when I got to Boston, I can’t say I was a rested as I wanted to be, but when I had a good night’s sleep in Boston on Saturday, followed by a nice casual 3-mile trot on Sunday, I felt as ready as I was going to be. On a side note, it was pretty cool getting to meet the great Meb Keflezighi in person at the expo. He’s not only a great champion but an incredibly gracious gentleman. Later that night I got to meet Bill Rogers, who wished me luck in the race.

Lynn and I get to meet Meb Keflezighi at the Boston Marathon Expo.

Lynn and I get to meet Meb Keflezighi at the Boston Marathon Expo.

Race Day Morning

I slept fitfully Sunday night, then woke up feeling a bit dehydrated. Maybe the room’s ventilation system dried me out, I don’t know, but I quickly set about rehydrating as I consumed my oatmeal and energy bar. After breakfast I dressed quickly and was on my way to Boston Common by 6:15am. I arrived there to find only short lines for the buses; the big crowds would soon follow. I boarded a bus, chatted a little bit with a guy who stayed in the same hotel as me and browsed Facebook on my phone. I got to the athletes village and after all the water I drank upon getting up, desperately needed to make a pit stop, which of course meant waiting in a line. I guess my efforts to rehydrate went well, because I would visit the port-o-john twice more before departing the village. By the time I was due to begin making my way to the start I felt relaxed and ready to go. I was in the first corral of Wave 2 this time and that meant being held back for a while on Grove Street while the first wave took off. Then we moved forward and took our places.

And We’re Off!

As we lined up, I couldn’t help feeling a little amused by being at “the” Boston Marathon and being able to line up so close to the actual start. I mean, I could even see the starter, the emcee, the motorcycle cops. It felt like a little taste of eliteness, just a tiny bit. As the clock counted down I did my usual relaxation exercises and reminded myself, “easy out of the gate.” I knew some people would fly out of that start and I didn’t want to be one of them. At the same time, I was also cognizant of the aggressive goal I had in mind of 3:10. At some point I would need to turn it up a notch and get after it.  True to my plan as we headed across the line I stayed relaxed and ran a 7:22 first mile while getting passed by many who rocketed down the hills. I knew I’d see some of those folks again soon.

And so it went for me over the next several miles. I stayed for the most part a little bit off my goal pace, though I did drop a 7:13 in Mile 4. For the most part I tried to just stay in a positive frame of mind, smiling, waving to some friendly spectators and just enjoying the scenery and pageantry of this great race. I decided the real race for me would begin after 13.1 miles. As I came through scream tunnel at Wellesley, no kiss stops for me, I had work to do, but I began to gather my strength for that halfway point while the energetic young coeds pushed me to a 7:16 mile. I had this race right where I wanted it, I thought.

The Race Begins

Before long we passed through the half marathon point. I passed through it in 1:36:47, on pace for a 3:13. At this point while I wanted to start racing hard, I also had to be honest with myself about how much I had left. Could I pick it up more? Or was I already overextended? I still felt good but I also knew the hardest part of the course was yet to come and the early downhills had already worked my quads hard. I pressed on and stepped it up enough to reel in a number of runners who had been ahead of me the entire race. Most of them went out too fast and wouldn’t see me again. As the first of the Newtown Hills came into view I still felt strong even while the first walkers started showing. I was passing people right and left, but when the 25k split (1:54:42) came up, my pace hadn’t picked up at all, despite how hard I was now working. Determined, I dug in harder and tried to find a little more, but at 30k (2:18:23) the result was the same. With Heartbreak Hill still to come it was clear that today would not be my day for a 3:10. But a PR and breaking the dreaded 3:20 plateau that has tormented me for 5 years was a very real possibility.

The Reckoning

As we hit Heartbreak Hill I continued to leave other runners in my wake, even though my pace had noticeably slowed. I wasn’t too concerned about that, as long as I could rev it back up once we cleared Heartbreak. As we crested by Boston College, I settled in to a quicker pace, though not as quick as earlier in the race. I was much less playful with the crowds now, too, as I started feeling concern that my dream race could be slipping away. “Just hold on,” I kept telling myself, but my quads were shot. Moreover, my right hamstring was starting to tighten. And I had developed a big blister on my right big toe, which I had to hope wouldn’t pop (it didn’t). All told this day had suddenly turned hard. Really hard. I kept the corner of my eye on the tracks by Commonwealth to see if I could spot my wife Lynn in the crowd. Unfortunately she never did get to see me pass by, and I know I could have used the extra motivation. But as I hit 23 miles, and fuel tank running near empty I knew I had to go this alone. “Just hold on.” I was fading fast. With 2k to go (3:09:23) the situation was getting desperate. I didn’t want to stop and walk. I hate stopping and walking! But my hamstring was getting worse and I had no choice. When I did finally slow down to walk a bit, my legs nearly collapsed because my quads were so weak. Slowly but surely, the 3:20 beast was grabbing me back into its clutches. It had beaten me, again. I would take two more short walk breaks on Commonwealth, the last of them at Cleveland Circle. What got me restarted? A spectator, true to Boston form, who said “you in the green socks, quit walking and get moving!”

The Homestretch

As I made the right on Hereford, I swore to myself there would be no more walking, no matter how slowly I had to jog it in. Prior to the race I had visualized exploding off that final left turn onto Boylston. Unfortunately, that would just have to wait for another day. Step by agonizingly slow step the arch got a little closer. Finally, I crossed the line in 3:24:13 and only then did I realize what a favor that guy at Cleveland Circle had done me. Despite an excruciating crash in the final 5k of the race, I still held on for not only a Boston re-qualification at my current age group, but big BQ at my age group next year. Once again when I stopped running my legs wobbled underneath me. I had given everything I had today, that much was clear.  At this point my entire lower body hurt. I worried a bit that one of the volunteers would see me staggering, think I was in trouble and throw me into a wheelchair, so I worked hard to keep my bearings. Truthfully my cardiovascular system recovered quickly, it was my lower body that felt like jello. Eventually my stability started to return and by the time I made it to my baggage bus I had caught up my friend John from Chicago, who posted a 3:04 on the day. His wife Natalie, came in shortly after me with a nice 3:35 result. We chatted a bit, then dispersed, they back to their hotel and me to reunite with Lynn, but we agreed to meet up later. Those plans never came to pass, given what occurred a short while later, so I’m grateful for the time I did get to spend with them. Once Lynn and I got back together we headed for Starbucks so I could begin to get warm with a venti carmel macchiato. Not long after that the chaos ensued, with emergency vehicles going by, and large, dazed crowds in Boston Common. It was indeed a dissonant ending to what had been a great day for us all. But in the face of such a cowardly terrorist act, and armed with a new BQ, by that evening I had firmly resolved that “I will be back next year.”

Epilogue

I am now in my usual post-marathon recovery phase, two weeks of no running at all. Moreover, a severe spring allergy attack has gone the extra lengths to enforce that ban. But it has given me time to reflect on this most unusual of marathon experiences and the roller coaster of emotions it brought on. The competitor in me is still hungry to run a better marathon – and to be sure I’ll probably pore over the training data from this and other marathons to figure out how to get there – yet I am reminded of how lucky I was to get to finish the race. The fact I did is a random matter of timing, nothing more. And throughout the rest of this year, be it a small DC Roadrunners Club race, Marine Corps Marathon this fall, or Boston next year, I will run with the bombing’s victims in my heart. Because no one ever really runs alone.

2013-04-15 19.20.54

 

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I’ll be home for Christmas…and training

With my recent offseason break, followed by a frustrating foray back into racing at the Gar Williams Half Marathon at Carderock this past weekend, it’s time to put a wrap on 2012. Gar Williams wasn’t the way I wanted to end the year, that’s for sure. It was supposed to be just a training run at far less than full intensity, given I was just ramping back up to running. On top of that the C&O Towpath, on which this entire race was run, was muddy and slippery after a night of hard rain. But when the horn sounded I foolishly took off as if I was in top form. Needless to say I couldn’t maintain anything close to that pace and even bonked at around 10 miles, sheepishly slogging home the final 5k at around 9:00/mile pace, dropping from 19th overall to 29th, and finishing in 1:39:36, or about 8 minutes slower than I ran at Philadelphia just three weeks ago. So what did I learn from the experience? Well, first of all, that you can lose a lot of fitness even over a short break. Second, not to be an idiot and run as if you are in peak condition when you are not. Third, it is possible to crash and burn in a half marathon the same way as a marathon if you are not properly trained. And fourth, running a race that long isn’t worth the post-race recovery issues if you don’t approach the race properly and/or fail to stick to the plan for the day. So now I go through a few days of recovery and rehab, mainly because my right calf is still screaming at me, hoping that I will be able to start marathon training as scheduled next week. Most likely I will be fine for that goal, but it has been a humbling couple of days.

So about that training. I’m looking to get into it, and for this cycle I am actually going to try following somebody’s else’s instead of using my own home-brew method. Doing my own thing hasn’t been bad; it has, after all brought me across 9 marathon finish lines. But there is a nagging feeling I can do better. The McMillan pace conversion table, for example, shows that based on my times at shorter distances, I should be able to run around a 3:10 marathon, but I never been able to crack 3:20. I have 5 results between a PR of 3:20:41 and 3:23:52, so the consistency is there, but so is the plateau. Unfortunately, high mileage plans such as Pfitzinger are not for me, though; the times I have tried to push the mileage numbers up to similar levels I have ended up injured. I need something else, something that will get me ready to run at my desired marathon pace for the whole distance while not taxing my joints too much and hopefully allow me to still squeeze at least some of the cycling and swimming I depend on for cardiovascular endurance.

Enter the Hansons Method. I had heard lots about it in the past, particularly about its “radical” cap of 16 miles on the long runs, but always thought the plan was something reserved for elites who were already super-fit and just plain genetically superior. But then last February a 40-something club teammate of mine told me he had just used the Hansons Method for a marathon and run under 3 hours for the first time. Then in the intervening time, Hansons runner Luke Humphrey published a very detailed book on the method, including why and how it works. I purchased the book about a month ago and decided maybe this was what I have needed. In particular I like their argument that while other marathon plans do a great job of getting you ready to run the first 16 miles of a marathon, theirs trains you for the last 16 miles of the race. The other key distinguishing characteristic is the amount of marathon pace running, which parallels what another club teammate advised, that for me to get better I needed “more miles and more marathon pace miles.”

So I will give the Hansons a shot.

I should be clear that despite the lower prescribed mileage numbers, this is still a pretty intensive plan, even using the “beginners” plan as I intend to do. As for why I chose beginners, my reasoning is threefold. 1) the mileage numbers correspond well to what I have been doing, offering a slight increase; 2) the plan ramps up gradually enough that I can continue to cross-train as an “optional” activity under the plan, particularly during the early weeks (1-5); and 3) there is enough flexibility built in that I can squeeze in a tuneup race or two along the way. Actually I had been planning to run about 5 races in the club series, but I am now backing off of that a bit. I think 2 races is probably the most I will do prior to Patriot’s Day in Boston.

In short, I want to give this plan a chance to really work, and that means following it as closely as I reasonably can. The early aspects actually seem a little too “easy” given my background but the plan is designed that way, so that before you know it you’ve been lured into something where you now are working really hard. By the time I hit peak I will be at probably the highest intensity I have ever been in a marathon cycle.

The 18-week plan starts next week. Until then, I just need to shut this calf muscle up.

Half a loaf at the Philadelphia Half Marathon

The long fall season finally came to a finish yesterday at Philly, and I wanted to make it close out with a big result. But in the end I settled for something less than the PR I was seeking, although it was still a very solid result. I also used the race as a reason to put some money towards Superstorm Sandy relief efforts, which coexisted nicely with the 1700 New York City Marathon refugees that the Philly organizers allowed into yesterday’s race.

Sunrise on Ben Franklin Parkway, with a few thousand nervous runners in the foreground.

Leading up to race day I had a solid taper week. When I did my last bit of tempo work on Wednesday I hit 6:30 paces easily and that had me feeling confident. All I needed to do was get myself up to Philadelphia and run. But first I had to get through a very busy week at the office, and the long hours didn’t do wonders for my sleep cycles. Still when I got up Sunday morning I felt ready to go. I headed out of my brother’s house in Roxborough at about 5:20 am and got down to Center City easily, before most of the traffic would arrive. That gave me plenty of time to walk casually up to the start area, visit the port-o-potty and warm up a little before checking my gear. As I stripped down to my singlet and arm warmer sleeves it felt really chilly, more so than at the Windy City 6 weeks ago. But of course once I got in the corral and it filled up with other runners, that sensation ceased.

The cannon went off a little after 7am and being in the maroon corral I crossed the start seconds later. The first 2 miles at Philly are always a little bit chaotic; it’s crowded and you have to negotiate some tight turns at Logan Circle and then again in Old City. Through those miles I was 6:47 and 6:45, actually a little bit slower than I wanted to be (6:40). In mile 3 heading south down Columbus Boulevard I was a 6:39 and that had me feeling like I was in a groove. I slipped back into the 6:50s though as we started heading back towards Center City and the long stretch on Chestnut Street. When I hit 7 miles there things were looking good again, only to slow again in Mile 8 as we started climbing up 34th Street towards the Philadelphia Zoo.

And so it would be today, a roller coaster ride of sorts. It was becoming clear to me this was going to be a day where any PR was going to be difficult and that more likely I would be just fighting for the best result I could get. I don’t know if the cold conditions had something to do with it but it seemed all the way through that my energy level was just not high enough for what I wanted to achieve. I kept asking myself to give more, to dig deeper but I knew the 1:27 goal was out of reach and the 1:29:03 PR was slipping away. That was confirmed when the 3:00 marathon pacer caught me just past the 8-mile mark. Three years ago, that same pace group didn’t catch me until 10 miles, and then when it did I stepped up my pace and ran away from it. This time I could put up little resistance, though I held out hope that maybe I could make it up with a strong finish. Next I was caught by DC Roadrunners club teammate and club president Brian Danza; we chatted a bit before he moved ahead en route to a 3:04 marathon. Perhaps that chat helped motivate me to a 6:53 9th mile.

Mile 10 is by far the toughest mile on this course, as it takes runners up a long steep climb in Fairmount Park. In the years when I have run the marathon here, I haven’t had to worry about it too much; it’s just one hill on a 26.2 mile course. But in a half marathon, when I’m running significantly harder it’s a much stiffer challenge. Sure enough I fell back badly here, logging my slowest mile of the day in 7:26. Ouch.

Then it was downhill out of the park to MLK Drive and a turnaround leading to the 11 mile mark. I started thinking of it as “just a 5k” and tried to step it up again. Things got a little better but I was still on the wrong side of 7 minutes per mile at 7:04. As I passed 11, the time for excuses was gone. There was open road ahead of me and work to be done. So I pulled out to the right, away from the crowd and got busy. The fight was still in me, even if I was tired.

I went through mile 12 in 6:50, my best split in about 5 miles. I was laboring but I was going to finish strong, no matter what. As we crossed back over the Schuylkill River, past the art museum and towards the finish on Ben Franklin Parkway, I pushed as hard as I could. I took one last peak at the watch on Eakins Oval and knew there was no way I would break 1:31 but I was determined to make the best of it. As I crossed the line in 1:31:37 I knew I had given all I had for the day. And that is really all you can ask for.

So…it wasn’t the spectacular result I had craved but it was a very solid finish, my best half marathon time in over two years and an age graded result of 71.2%. Perhaps that means I am on the cusp of something big in 2013. We shall see. But first it’s time for a little off-season break, a couple of weeks to recover from a season that included a marathon and half marathon only 6 weeks apart from one another. By late December I will no doubt be chomping at the bit to start training for Boston.

My almost perfect Chicago Marathon

World Marathon Major finish #3 finally came for me this past Sunday at Chicago; actually it’s WMM #4 because I have now run Boston twice (2009, 2010), New York City (2010) and Chicago. It was also my 9th marathon finish overall. All told, it was a very good day, as the stats below demonstrate, but a bit of unfinished business remains.

Actually my first Chicago Marathon was supposed to happen a year ago. I had signed up for the 2011 event and had begun training in early summer of that year, but after a hamstring injury, then a knee injury suffered playing soccer, it was just not meant to be. Despite the summer 2011 setbacks, I managed to put together a nice Philadelphia Marathon performance in November 2011 and that gave me encouragement about making another attempt at a Chicago run in 2012.

After spending a good portion of the spring and summer of 2012 training for and racing in an Olympic distance duathlon, there were only about 10 weeks available to prepare for this year’s Chicago Marathon. Most marathon training plans are 16 weeks in length. For the first several weeks of this abbreviated cycle I wasn’t so sure I could pull it off. The body needed to recover a bit from the duathlon, and even 10-12 mile long trail runs were a slog during the Northern Virginia dog days and nights. I finally hit the 20-mile long run mark on Labor Day weekend in conditions that could best be described as miserable, close to 90 degrees and humid. But about two weeks later, as summer heat eased its way towards autumn, it all started to click into place. My second and final 20-miler of the cycle was a night-and-day difference as I cruised through it for 19 and then jacked up a fast finish in the final mile. In addition my tempo and interval workouts were now nailing the target paces. Then I topped off my Chicago resume with a solid 5k/10k double performance at the Clarendon Day Races in Arlington on September 23. As I hit the short 2-week taper period, I knew I was ready.

Lynn and I boarded the short flight to Chicago on Friday and before long we found ourselves at the expo. Having gotten that step out of the way, all that was left then was to enjoy a nice dinner and relax on Saturday. We enjoyed the downtown area a bit and that helped keep my mind at ease. As eager as I was to get it on, I was remarkably calm throughout Saturday and I even slept relatively well.

Finally the alarm sounded at 5:05 am on Sunday and having planned everything out 24 hours before it was a simple matter of eating breakfast, which ended up being two energy bars, and heading out for the 5 block walk to Millennium Park. The weather was chilly with a bit of a wind blowing but I felt well equipped for the temperatures, with a race outfit consisting of my DC Roadrunners singlet, shorts, arm sleeves, calf sleeves, lightweight gloves and beanie, lightweight merino wool socks and my new favorite shoes, the Skechers GoRun. I had my race nutrition all lined up, too, a Peanut Butter GU for just before the race, then Pineapple Roctane GU for miles 5, 10 and 15, followed by my “secret weapon,” a Honey Stinger Berry Blast gel teed up for mile 20. If an electrolyte boost was to be needed in the final 10k, I’d go with Gatorade since only that would metabolize quickly enough to help at that stage.

I said goodbye to Lynn and headed for the gear check, then made it into the B corral with about 2 minutes to spare. The anthem was sung, the wheelchair athletes were off and then it seemed like barely any time went by before the cannon for the rest of us sounded. It took me roughly two minutes to cross the line and I quickly settled into a comfortable pace. As we proceeded through the north side of Chicago I was pleased with my pacing; it was a little slower than I have taken out other marathons but I was on a sub-3:20 pace that actually felt easy. So I resolved to stay at that level…and not worry about racing until I got to 20 miles. As we headed back south I passed where Lynn was watching but managed to miss seeing her on the other side of the street.

I proceeded onward, cruising past the half marathon point in 1:39:27. Perfect, I thought and I felt no signs of wearing down. Through it all it seemed every new street we turned onto bore a new surprise from the crowds. Sometimes it was a band, sometimes a dance troupe, and sometimes a few very amusing signs. It seemed the spectator sign of the day was “Worst Parade Ever.”  Finally at 17 miles I got to see Lynn, still feeling great and thinking about dropping the hammer in a couple of miles.

Before long that 20-mile mark came up and I pulled out that Stinger gel, downed it with some water and said “OK, it’s go time.” In retrospect it’s a good thing I did step up my intensity because it turned out I was slowing down, just a little bit, despite the fact I was now starting to pass other runners in large numbers. Still I felt strong.

I saw Lynn again at mile 23 and couldn’t help but smile because I knew I was having a great run. The only question was could I hang on, or was a crash lurking in the darkness. I worried about that a little bit as the 24-mile mark approached, when I felt my right calf starting to really tighten up. Luckily the aid station was only about 400 meters past that; once I got some water in me the developing cramp went away. As 25 miles approached I knew it was time to go for broke with whatever I had left. I continued to be the hunter, passing other runners in droves and in the distance I could see the final turn towards the finish. I knew the 3:20 plateau I have been staring at for 5 years was probably going to live another day (darn it!) but a PR (3:20:40) was still in reach.

As we turned turned towards the lake we were greeted by something we hadn’t really seen all day on this course: a hill. That seemed a little cruel, especially as I was now trying to imagine myself as a half-miler rather than a marathoner. It was really hard to get it going up that hill which continued to climb past the 400-meter-to-go point. Finally with 300 to go it crested and the last 200 looked to be a downhill sprint. I gave it all I had from that point, dragging a couple of other runners hoping to draft off of me. As I approached the arch I couldn’t believe my eyes, which were witnessing the excruciating march of time. I finally lost sight of the clock as it clicked to 3:20:38. I had no idea if I would make it at this point…but I had a feeling, later confirmed, that I had come this close.

As I crossed the line I initially felt frustration over having come so close, after running such a great race, and it seemed incomprehensible that I could come away without at least a new PR to brag about. I had missed it by 2 seconds, finishing in 3:20:43. How on earth could a race so long come down to 2 seconds?! But as I had the medal put around my neck, my mood quickly changed. I had achieved some great things today, beyond just a marathon finish. The stats clearly showed that this had been my most evenly paced marathon ever, with a mere 2:14 positive split, compared with that PR day in Boston where my positive split had been about 10 minutes. Moreover, my training, which had consisted of lower mileage than any previous cycle and relied heavily on cross-training, had worked. I felt strong for the entire race. And I raced well, focusing on the my surroundings and tactics instead of being a slave to my watch. PR or no PR, it could be argued this was my best marathon ever. And let’s not forget, it was yet another BQ result, one that punches my ticket for eligibility up to Patriots Day 2014.

As I reunited with Lynn and we enjoyed a Goose Island 312 in the post-race party zone, I basked in the sunlight and satisfaction of a job well done. In the coming weeks, I’ll have plenty of time to evaluate how to build on this performance and get off the 3:20 plateau at Boston in the spring. Lots of ideas are on the table, like maybe getting a coach, but no decisions yet. In the meantime, I will enjoy the accomplishment, hang my hat on consistency: 5 marathons of my 9 have fallen between 3:20:41 and 3:23:52. And that’s a good platform from which to jump to the next level.

Spring Season Race Roll-Up

Normally I post a race report after every race I run, but in the early part of 2011 I fell off the wagon so to speak. Not with my running; that proceeded as always, but rather my reporting here. I could make lots of excuses but what would be the point? Instead I’ll just quickly bring everyone up to date.

Basically I’ve cut back on overall racing this season. After running the New York City Marathon last fall, I needed to dial back the intensity a little bit and focus on rebuilding my fitness. So the early months of 2011 saw a lot of base-building mileage and almost no speedwork. I still raced, but only about once per month, nowhere near my normal competitive volume. In March I finally started adding some speed to my training, but largely have kept to the lighter racing schedule. That may change as spring turns to summer, but I’m not sure of that yet; time will tell.

In any case, here’s the wrap-up of my in-progress spring season (I still have one more big race to go).

1/15: JFK 20k, Washington DC. This was one chilly day, about 30 degrees at the start. That may have kept a few people home and in bed but after doing nothing but easy runs I was eager to get a gauge on my fitness as I began to ramp up training. I had no particular expectations but ran quite well on the day anyway, going 1:25:45 for the distance and getting a new PR in the process. Thanks to the somewhat smaller than normal turnout, I also notched my highest finish at this event, coming in 6th overall and first in my age group. All in all a nice start to the season.

2/27: RRCA Club Challenge 10 Miler, Columbia MD. Throughout February I really ramped up the distance and added in some tempo training but the lack of trackwork was something I knew would handicap me in this highly competitive race. Not surprisingly I was a little flat this day. On a course where I had once set a PR of 66:42 (since broken), I only managed a 68:46. As with the previous month’s race I looked at it, however as an opportunity to assess what I now needed to do. The target races in April in May still loomed and those were the true objectives.

3/6: Burke Lake 12k, Fairfax Station VA. This was never a target race, more of just a hard workout on one of my favorite trails. I had modest expectations, not only because I had run the 10-miler in Columbia just a week prior but also because the weather that morning was awful. The temperatures weren’t bad for this time of year – mid-to-high 40s – but it was raining steadily, sometimes quite heavily. The skies calmed a little bit while I warmed up, only to really open up just as we lined up at the start. But off we went, slogging through deep puddle after deep puddle. It was actually kind of fun, even if the finish time was nothing special at 50:58. And the finish was good for 8th overall.

4/3: Cherry Blossom Ten Miler, Washington DC. Finally one of my target races arrived. I trained very well in March and felt ready to rock in this race. Unfortunately, I was undone by a logistical nightmare of a journey to the race. The Metro train from Vienna to the Smithsonian station took what seemed like forever and I arrived at the Washington Monument grounds with barely enough time to strip off my outer gear and get into a corral. The corral I had been assigned near the front had already left and I was now near the back. Throughout the race I weaved my way through slower traffic, probably passing a couple thousand runners, but never really settling into a consistent pace. It all made for a very frustrating day as I ran a 68:50 and was barely even tired after the race. Frankly the highlight of the day had nothing to do with my own performance but rather that of my wife, who completed her first ever 10-miler. After my finish I jogged back out to the 9-mile mark and waited for her; we ran most of the final mile together with me pulling off the course just before she headed to the finish.

4/23: Race to Stop the Silence 8k, Washington DC. This was another non-target race, one that I jumped into with fairly short notice. I did so mainly to get a tune-up for my race the following weekend, the Broad Street Run. This was a downtown affair that had a course that was flat but loaded with turnarounds, 7 in all. It was also another rainy day. I didn’t expect a PR and didn’t get one, but got a solid 32:39 result out of the day.

5/1: Broad Street Run, Philadelphia, PA. Finally the race I’d been really pointing to arrived. I had long wanted to run Broad Street but with Boston on my race calendar in previous years, I never felt I’d be sufficiently recovered in time to enter Broad Street. I had heard of Broad Street’s fast “net downhill” course and envisioned a big result in the form of a smashing new 10-mile PR. Throughout April I had sharpened my pacing and I had a good taper week leading up to race day. But sometimes even the best-laid plans can be undone and that’s what happened on Sunday morning. This time the culprit was intestinal issues that had me making numerous visits to the bathroom in the early morning. When I finally toed the line I felt dehydrated and warmer than I should have felt. On top of that the corral was extremely crowded and when we got off the line the start was slow. I only managed a 7:20 first mile, then was able to pick it up a bit, but the events of earlier in the morning limited my ability to really get after it. By Mile 6 I was starting to slip again and I fought hard to beat back a crash. I continued to struggle and very nearly slipped back over the 7-minute mile barrier in Mile 8 at 6:59. But in the final 2 I put it all back together and finished strongly, going 6:33 in my final mile. I came across in 67:32, which was 1:04 off the PR I was initially so sure I would destroy this day, but given what I had dealt with, I was pleased with the performance.

As mentioned earlier, my spring season continues. The official capper of it will be on June 5, when I run the North Face Endurance Challenge‘s half marathon trail race. To be honest I’m not really sure what to expect of this one. I certainly have no illusions of threatening my road half marathon PR. In fact I think if I break 2 hours that will be quite an accomplishment. That said I will do my best to be prepared to run well. I’ll be increasing my emphasis on trail runs, but will keep up the track work and fartlek runs. I’ll also probably knock down some long bike rides on my cross-training days. Ironically my other cross-training activity, soccer, will probably also be a help for this race because of its emphasis on quick turns and varying speeds. I’ve only done one truly “hard” trail race, so this will be something of a learning experience. But if it goes well, I wouldn’t mind adding the occasional trail race to my repertoire.

After I finish my post Broad Street recovery week, let the training begin!

NYC Marathon – a belated race report

Now that all the stories of the 2010 New York City Marathon have been told, what better time than now to put my race report out? Just kidding, of course. Actually I would have preferred to get it out quickly but upon returning from the Big Apple I found much awaiting my attention at work and at home. I’m not still not completely caught up from that deluge. But this has waited long enough. So let’s start at the beginning…

My final taper week before the marathon went by fairly quickly and before I knew it, we were on a bus from downtown DC to midtown Manhattan.  Throughout the training cycle I felt like everything was a little harder this time around than it should be. After a PR at Boston back in April and a string of solid early summer 5k results, I seemed to hit a wall of fatigue in late July. When marathon training for New York started in August, I continued to miss my targets. Something was clearly off and for much of the cycle I worried that my race was going to be a complete flop. However, as race day drew closer I felt like I was beginning to rebound and along with that my confidence started to rise.

I had hoped to get up to the city early enough to make the expo on Friday evening but traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel nixed that idea. I ended up instead going Saturday, but not before I took a little test run in Central Park, covering the last two miles of the marathon course. I felt pretty good and hoped that meant I was ready.

The next morning was an early one but thanks to the “fall back” from daylight savings time I got an extra hour of sleep. I didn’t sleep particularly well, but perhaps a little better than most pre-marathon nights. When the alarm went off at 4:30 am I dressed in the semi-darkness, ate come oatmeal and tried hard not to disturb Lynn’s sleep. I was out the door to pick up the subway by 5:15 and made my assigned 5:45 Staten Island ferry ride with a minute or two to spare.

As we got off the ferry and meandered towards the buses that would take us to Fort Wadsworth, the chilly wind whipping off New York Harbor gave us a hint of what was in store at the start. In the runners’ village, it seemed like time stood still as I waited and passed the time chatting with a woman who had come all the way from Hawaii. Then the call came for Wave 1 runners to check their gear. There was still over an hour to race time, so I can’t say I was in a real hurry to do this but I made my way to my assigned UPS van after a short detour to the porta-john. Next came the long slow walk towards the corrals; I would soon find out I was wise not to ignore the earlier call to get to this spot quickly, because at around 9:00 the corrals were closed to any more entrants.

With still lots of time to pass, I tried the best I could to stay loose in the chill, and chatted with guy named Matt from Maryland and another fellow from Florida as the women’s race started, then the wheelchair racers. The national anthem was sung, though we couldn’t hear it, and then a cannon blasted. It took about a minute for me to get across the starting line.

We were sent towards the underside of the Verrazano Bridge, which may have provided some relief from the wind, but not a whole lot. After standing for so long waiting to start, I was definitely tight and not warm at all. I took the first mile slowly as we ascended 160 feet; then in the next mile we descended the bridge. The splits reflect this – 8:17 and 7:19 on roughly the same level of effort.

As we got off the bridge and into Brooklyn it became apparent to me that all that waiting in the corral had left me with a little more liquid to get rid of than I had anticipated. I decided to resolve this matter immediately, made a stop, and thus took an 8:32 split, but after that I felt finally ready to get into my race. As we got off the highway and into the streets of Brooklyn I looked to settle into a 7:30-7:40 pace range. This was in keeping with my strategy of pacing for a 3:20 finish for the first 15 miles or so, then stepping it up if I could. As with the Verrazano, though, the ups and downs made it hard to run the same time every mile – 7:27, 7:44, 7:26, 7:34.  I took my first gel after 6 miles. Then in mile 8, I needed to stop and tie a shoe, which resulted in a 7:55 mile. Somewhere in this stretch of miles I passed Lynn and my aunt Rosemary but I didn’t hear them.

As we made our way up First Avenue it was pretty cool to see the Manhattan skyline up ahead in the distance. Meanwhile I finally settled into a somewhat consistent rhythm – 7:44, 7:3, 7:47, 7:42, 7:42, 7:46. I took another gel at 12 miles. I passed the half marathon point on the Pulaski Bridge in 1:41, a little slower than my usual half split, but in keeping with the day’s strategy. After the bridge we spent a mile in Queens and then it was onto the Queensboro Bridge.

Throughout my training, the Queensboro had been a big worry item for me. It had a long climb and it came at a point in the race where things always seem to get tough for me. As we started climbing I kept my focus on just getting up the ascent and keeping my pace steady, and things seemed to be working until I looked at my watch for the 15 mile split – 8:04. Uh-oh. What was going on? Was I tiring already? The next mile, which the bridge also encompassed, was not much better in 8:01. This was not good, I thought. I decided that once I got off this god-awful bridge I would get down to business. I took my next gel at 16 and picked it up, though not as much as I had hoped I would – 7:48, 7:49.

As we headed towards the Bronx it was becoming quite clear that even making a 3:20 today was unlikely as I dropped an 8:01 and now it really felt like I was working. My pace was on a slippery slope and I started to worry about whether I was about to hit the wall and really fall apart. I also took my last gel at mile 20 and resolved to switch from water to Gatorade. Still I was weakening. My legs were tired and my left calf was really aching; mile 20 went down in 8:22 and I knew it was time to get resourceful. So I decided to start walking through the aid stations, to both maximize my fluids and conserve enough energy to avoid the bonk. This of course meant my new pace was going be even slower but I decided if it staved off a couple of 10-minute miles it was worth it – 8:43, 8:44, 8:48.

By now we had passed through Harlem and were heading down Fifth Avenue to Central Park. I don’t remember much, other than seeing lots of people and just really wanting to be done. But still in the back of my head, was getting my backup goal of a 3:30 finish, which would still be a Boston-qualifying result. I wasn’t sure I could even do it at this point but I told myself I had to find a way to gut it out and try. I thought about the day before when I had run the last two miles of the course; “I can do this, just get to the 24 mile mark!” I had also now developed a stitch in the diaphragm, apparently from taking in too much fluid so quickly. That marker couldn’t come soon enough. I passed a volunteer who was cheering everyone along and when she saw my DC Roadrunners singlet, she hollered for me loud and gave me a high-five. For that one second, she was my best friend in the whole world, because that gave me the energy and fight I needed. I turned in an ugly 9:12 mile here but when I passed under the 24-mile banner, I knew I was back in the game.

It was now all about wanting it, and I really wanted that 3:30. I decided to cut off the fluids and let the stitch resolve itself, which it started to do. I stopped thinking about it and just pushed. I knew if I didn’t completely fall apart that I had the BQ. I started to feel a little better and as we passed under the 25-mile banner I saw that I was at 3:20 now. That told me anything but a complete crash would get me home. I wasn’t concerned at all about cardiovascular strength; I had been breathing easy all day. The stitch had subsided, too. But would my calf seize up? How hard could I push it? I wasn’t sure. As we passed Columbus Circle and turned north on Central Park West I felt confident. But I knew I couldn’t relax, had to keep working. Soon we were passing signs every telling us just how close we were…800 to go, 400, 200. With 200 I again passed Lynn and Rosemary, and this time I heard them even though I couldn’t see them. I took one last look at the watch with 100 left and finally I knew the 3:30 was in the bag. I slowed down just a little bit, raised my arms and took in the moment – 8:36, 8:21, 1:43 for final 0.2. 3:30:50 at the finish.

Looking back, I clearly didn’t have the race I really wanted to. Whether it was a product of the training fatigue or that I just didn’t have it this day, I’ll never be quite sure. But I am extremely proud of the fact that on a day where I couldn’t bring my “A” game, I still dug deep and got a very good result.  I missed a PR by 10 minutes but I still BQ’ed and added another World Marathon Majors medal to my collection. Up next, Chicago, next October. But for now, some much needed recovery time is in order.

The Road to NYC, Week 14 and the final preps

What started in the heat of the Northern Virginia summer has nearly reached its conclusion as the leaves turn from red to yellow to brown. Six days from today will enter the one of the green starting corrals at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, and at around 9:40 am, start heading for the Verrazano Bridge and Brooklyn. Three hours and twenty minutes later (hopefully, perhaps a few less than that), I will cross a timing mat in Central Park. It will be my seventh overall marathon finish and my first New York City Marathon finish.

Last week was a taper week, the penultimate one of the cycle, and it was a fairly busy one. I kicked it off with one final long run, a 14 miler on the trail near home, then gradually eased off on the intensity throughout the week, all in preparation for yesterday: a final tuneup race.

I did the Marine Corps Marathon 10k, looking to air it out one last time. Going in I figured this would be a perfect benchmark to find out where I really stood for next weekend. So I wanted put out a good, hard effort — but not too hard. As I thought about a goal, I decided that a sub-40 minute time would be a nice stretch goal, as long as I didn’t have to stretch too hard to get it.

I got up in the dark, dressed and quickly had breakfast with the idea in mind of making it to Vienna metro by around 6:15 am, which I did. Not surprisingly when I boarded the train at Vienna, the first stop on the Orange line, it was already packed, mostly with marathoners who would be departing the train at Rosslyn. Then the 10k runners proceeded on to the Smithsonian stop and the start of our race.

I had budgeted quite a bit of time, based probably on my hair-raising metro experience before the National Marathon in 2009, when the metro crawled along so slowly I barely had time to get in the corral before the gun went off. In any case, when I got to Smithsonian grounds there was still over an hour to go before start time. Not sure what to do with myself, and not ready to strip down to my singlet and check my gear bag just yet, I decided to go for a little walk to warm up the legs. So I strolled towards the Capitol for a while, then turned back and found a place to stretch. Finally I felt ready to line up, even though there was still a good 25 minutes until start.

After I nudged my way through the crowds milling around the baggage drop and got in the corral, I still had enough time to do some dynamic warming up and even a few short, quick strides. I chatted with a guy from upstate New York to pass the time and then finally, Miss DC sang the national anthem, the cannon blasted and we were off on a beeline for the 14th Street bridge.

I quickly tried to settle in and find a comfortable pace. It had been a while since I had run a 10k and I wasn’t sure what the first mile might bring. The mile marker came up while crossing the bridge and as I looked down I saw 6:13 on my watch. Um, that’s a little fast, even for someone who wants to run 39 minutes and change. I quickly sought to dial it back, but not too much. I felt a little better as we crossed into Virginia and passed the 2 mile mark while descending the bridge, as I hit 12:41 for 2 miles and felt a little more in control.

We now headed south into Crystal City where the pack started to string out. As we made a quick loop along Crystal Drive I could first see the leaders heading back from it, then after I completed the loop, seeing the masses beginning to swell behind us. Meanwhile I was trying to run efficiently and evenly, and pass people when the opportunity was there. It was in this mile I started seeing a lot of runners who had surged out in front of me in the first mile; now I was catching and dropping them.

Still I could tell I was tiring bit, too, after that hard start. As we hit the 3-mile mark near the Pentagon my split time was 19:19 and I had slowed again to a 6:36 mile. I also knew that Mile 4 would be toughest of the race mentally and that I had to start digging a little deeper. As we proceeded along Jefferson Davis highway and past the Pentagon I could feel the chilly breeze coming off the Potomac and that wind seemed to slow us all down a little bit. I ended up clocking a 6:43 for that mile, which again was too slow, but I told myself it’s OK, I had survived the toughest mile, and now get after it.

Mile 5 continued up the highway and I did start feeling better here. I worked on keeping my cadence quick and holding my form together and that seemed to help me along as I came through in 6:35 for a 32:38 5-mile split. Quick calculations in my head told me a sub-40 was just about out of the question but that a 40-ish time was vey much in reach if I just kept it all together. I didn’t worry about making a final kick in this mile, just about staying strong and running smoothly. Finally I hit the 6-mile mark, stole a quick look at the watch for a final split time (39:19) and it was time to turn up the same hill that the marathoners would soon be scaling for the completion of their race, the famous finish at the Iwo Jima memorial. Despite the uphill grade I felt pretty strong and determined that no one was going to pass me in the final 0.2 miles. I got across the line in 40:45, while not a sub-40, still a very satisfactory result. It was good for 60th overall and 5th place overall in the age group. And actually, it was a master’s PR of sorts, the best time I had run for 10k in a road race (my PR time came in a track time trial).

Once I caught my breath and started making my way back into Rosslyn (for what turned out to be a very long walk to to the baggage truck), I could tell that despite going fairly hard I was still feeling fresh, and with a good taper week ahead I would be ready for next Sunday.

So there it all is. The hay is in the barn. My resume is written. Use whatever metaphoric expression you like.  I’m as ready for New York as I can be, and that’s not something I felt I could say even a month ago. It really took a long time to hit my form this fall, but better late than never, I say. Now I just can’t wait to get it on!

Road to NYC, Ramping up in Week 3

I’m just about done with the third week of this marathon training cycle and this should be my strongest week yet in terms of overall mileage. Add in a midweek trail race and it definitely looks like a “power week” of running. There is one big hurdle to get over yet, however, and that’s an 18-miler tomorrow.

Done so far:

  • Monday easy progression run 6.4 miles
  • Tuesday 6 miles including 4.5 mile trail race
  • Wednesday double easy runs of 8 and 4 miles
  • Thursday hill repeats, total 6.9 miles

On tap for the rest of the week:

  • Friday 6-8 easy trail miles
  • Saturday long run of 18 miles
  • Sunday rest day (traveling for vacation)

About the race: there’s not much to say about it. It’s a DCRRC race I do just about every year, at Burke Lake where I frequently train. One loop around the lake is 4.5 miles. I ended up 17th overall and 3rd in the 40-49 age group, in 31:09. That’s 12 seconds slower than my result last year but the heat and the fact I trained through the race probably had something to do with that. I’m pretty certain my conditioning is much better than it was a year ago and that when I actually start tapering for some races I’ll see more optimal results.

If all plays out as planned it will be about a 53-55 mile week. I’ll be on vacation next week. While the running certainly won’t stop I expect the totals will be a little lower, but with lots of other “active” vacationing activities taking place. Then I’ll be ready to go roaring back into another big week heading towards Labor Day.

One Last Summer 5k

It’s been almost a week since this race so I figured maybe it’s time to get my race report up.

I wound up what I’m calling my “summer racing season” last Wednesday night at Bluemont Park in the DC Roadrunners Club’s 5k championship race. As I had progressed through the summer I was hoping this 5k would be the one where I peaked and maybe even cracked the 19:00 barrier. However over the past few weeks I could see that plan just wasn’t coming together. After running a 19:26 on this same course in  early June, I had since not broken 19:40. So as the championship race approached I modified my goal from sub-19 to just trying for a 2010 PR.

It’s been a hot and very humid summer, quite the contrast to the epic winter we went through just a few months ago  — it’s the year of weather extremes, apparently. I can handle heat but humidity really seems to sap me, and as I warmed up I could feel it already taking a toll. Still I tried to keep a positive mindset and was ready to go when we all lined up.

In part because of the humidity I tried hard not to plow out of the gate too quickly, to stay somewhat calm in the first mile. Sure enough I came through there in 6:12, a little slower than normal. In the second mile I kept pushing ahead and passed a few people, including someone I’d recognized from previous races who’d always beaten me. For whatever reason I’ve never liked losing to him and I was determined this time it wasn’t going happen again. As I passed him I made sure to make a strong move. Soon the turnaround came up and not far after that, the 2-mile point, which I hit in 12:45. I had dropped to 6:33 for Mile 2, not what I was hoping for, but clearly the humidity was pounding us all; my singlet was already dripping wet.

But I still had some work to do so I told myself to keep my concentration and work on the guy ahead of me. I caught him but he would be the last one I passed. Meanwhile I knew someone was coming on hard from behind. I had seen him in previous races, too, and knew he had a furious kick in him. So my mission became doing whatever I could to hold him off. As we hit the 3-mile mark I was at 19:07 and as with many 5k races, I had bounced back in my third mile with a 6:22. Still I knew Mr. Fast Finisher was behind me; as we came around a corner I threw a quick glance back and saw him about 20 yards back. I dug deep but knew I didn’t have as much as he did, so it was all about holding on. I kept pushing towards that finish, hearing the footsteps. As I crossed the line he couldn’t have been more than a second behind me. I guess I used all the real estate I had to my advantage because I succeeded in holding him off.

I ended up 16th overall in 19:45, 3rd in the 40-49 age group (results here). That’s nowhere near the lofty (perhaps unrealistic) goal I had for the race but on a hot, humid night it would do just fine.

Now my attention turns to fall marathon training. The first long run is already in the books with more to follow.  It all culminates on November 7 when I line up with thousands at the foot of the Verrezano-Narrows Bridge.

Club Race Night at the Track

Last night the DC Roadrunners held their annual mile and 3000-meter track championship races at Wakefield High School in Arlington. I had missed this event last year as I was still rehabbing from an injury and looked forward to participating this year. With so many heats of the mile to run, I considered running not just the Masters Mile but also the Open Mile, in addition to the 3000-meter.

As it turned out the masters’ race was not to be for me. It took about 90 minutes for me just to get to Wakefield and when I arrived, the Masters Mile was in progress. So I prepared myself quickly for the open mile, knowing there would be lots of younger, faster milers ahead of me. Still I hoped they’d pull me along to a fast time. But that wasn’t meant to be either. I got out surprisingly slowly — 45 seconds at the 200 mark, then picked it up to get to 400 in about 87 seconds. But I couldn’t seem to get any faster than that. My breathing was well under control but when I asked my legs to turn over faster, they just wouldn’t do it. I came home in 5:44 and 13th place, a somewhat disappointing result. It was made all the more frustrating by the fact I didn’t even feel that tired afterward, like I knew there was more race in me, that I just couldn’t seem to unlock.

After a fairly short break, it was time to line up for the 3000-meter, which was run as a single heat with about 25 runners in it. I should mention here that in addition to the mile a few minutes earlier, I had also put down 5 miles earlier in the day and that followed up an 11-mile day. That said my goal for the 3000-meter was simply to run at a comfortably hard tempo pace that I could maintain for the entire distance. I got out for  the first 400 in about 91 seconds and was able to stay close to that pace for every lap. The final time was 11:29, far off my PR but an average of 92.5 seconds per 400; I’m pretty certain I didn’t run any lap slower than 94 seconds and all but one was in the 90-93 range. It was good for 11th place overall.  I was satisfied with the fact I ran a controlled but fast pace, and hopefully that sets me up well for the final race of my summer season, the club’s 5k championship race next weekend.

Meanwhile my “Getting Started” pamphlet for the New York City Marathon showed up in the mail, providing yet another reminder of what’s in store for the fall. I’ve already begun ramping up the miles to get ready. More on my training plan in post to come soon. As of today there are 100 days to go!