Striding Through

Because a life well lived always finds the right pace

Tag Archives: races

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.

Philly and a finish with purpose

Time really does seem to fly sometimes, and now I find the fall racing season to be nearly concluded. Next weekend’s race, the Philadelphia Half Marathon, will wrap it all up. For the most part my training has focused on recovering from the Chicago Marathon, then maintaining the fitness level attained for that race, and finally sharpening up my tempo paces for a half marathon as opposed to a full marathon. Now I enter a brief one-week taper period before heading up to Philly on Saturday. I’ll be gunning for a new PR, which means breaking 1:29:03. I think I’m ready to run well; the high-end goal would be a 1:27:19 (average pace 6:40 per mile) but that admittedly may be a bit aggressive. The bottom line, from a racing standpoint, is I will go out chase the best result I can get on the day. As Ryan Hall likes to say, “today I will PR for today.”

All that said, I really want to get on to the primary purpose for this post. Specifically, when I toe the line at Philly on Sunday morning I will be doing so for more than just meeting my own running goals. About two weeks ago, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy I learned that two women from New York and New Jersey areas, who I’ve encountered in various running forums such as Kickrunners in the past, had come together to organize a “virtual race” as a fundraiser in support of Red Cross relief efforts. The concept was simple, to just run the race you were already planning to run in November and using Crowdrise tools, turn it into a fundraiser that would be part of an overall campaign. It all seemed easy enough, and as someone who likes to make my running about more than just myself, I was eager to jump in and help the cause.

This is a rapid start-up campaign, in response to an unforeseen calamity, so my campaign has quickly started up in kind. We’re all trying to keep pace with the rapidly developing situation in the NYC area, and my Crowdrise website just went up this past weekend.

The bottom line is, my fundraising effort for Sandy relief efforts, centered around my race at Philly, is underway. And that’s where you come in. I’d like your help, not for me but those who really need the assistance right now. And I have already put my money where my mouth (or keyboard) is; I have donated $10 for every mile I’m running at Philly, for a total of $131. I ask you join me in this campaign and make the impact even bigger. Just click the logo above, where you can either match my donation or make a contribution of any other amount. Funds go directly to the Red Cross, not including an optional $10 donation that assists Crowdrise in processing your donation. Any amount you can contribute would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading and considering my request.

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.

Recent Races – belated report

Well, leave it to me to take 4 months to post a marathon report but here it is. In a way it’s appropriate that I do this a few days before Patriots Day, because the result sets me up to to toe the starting line in Hopkinton a year from now.

So, let’s go way back to November, to the Philadelphia Marathon. After missing time over the summer due to injury, I only had 11 weeks to train for the race, which I joined as a replacement for my original target marathon, Chicago. I started ramping up slowly in early September, with my first long run actually being a race, the Maple Leaf Half Marathon in Manchester, VT. I ran it at my normal training pace, just looking to put a good run down while my wife and I were visiting my parents in that area. I was pleased to put down a 1:41:52 that day and not even feel winded afterwards. That told me I was ready to step it up and get ready for Philly. Training proceeded quickly and on race day, November 20, I was ready. I often shoot for my “dream” goal of 3:10 in marathons, but I knew that wasn’t happening, so I focused instead on just running 7:40-ish pace for the distance with a 3:20 goal in mind. I could fade back to 3:25, I figured, but not slower than that, because I needed a 3:25 to reestablish my Boston Marathon qualification. As we headed down Benjamin Franklin Parkway I resisted the urge to get caught up in the early jockeying and dialed into a relaxed marathon tempo, and kept it there. I had one tough mile at around 18 where I ran my slowest mile of the day at 8:26 then picked it right back up. Later, miles 24 and 25 on tired legs were around 8 minutes each. But I again bounced back, finished strong and came across the line in 3:23:52. It wasn’t a PR but I was very happy with the result just the same, because I executed my race plan to near-perfection and I requalified for Boston. I’ll be there on Patriot’s Day 2013!

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!

Race report: Wilson Bridge Half Marathon

Week 8 of marathon training for New York City saw me get back to a starting line for the first time in over a month. I had signed up for the Wilson Bridge Half Marathon several months ago, lured by its timing (mid-September, good point for a fitness test), location and scenery (running from Mt. Vernon, VA to the National Harbor in Maryland), and the challenge of racing across a big bridge (bridge crossings after all, are a staple of the NYC Marathon).

Training so far this cycle has not been the easiest, starting in the brutally hot, humid conditions that enveloped the DC area all summer.  It was indeed a relief to see the humidity start dropping as the calendar flipped to September. Still I felt a certain amount of fatigue in the legs and things really seemed to come to a head the day before Labor Day, when I had a 21-mile run that turned really ugly with about 5 miles to go. Yet somehow, I bounced back from that day and by mid-week, I punched out a really nice interval workout and based on that I felt like just maybe, I was back to my old self. I then went into a 10-day taper period, and by race day I felt confident and ready.

I slept poorly on Saturday night – no surprise there, really – as I just couldn’t stop thinking about the race. But when I got up at 4:30 am, I shrugged that off, had my usual pre-race breakfast and got quickly down to National Harbor to catch the shuttle ride back to Mt. Vernon and the start.

I had trained at Mt. Vernon in the past, but always on the bike trail. Today would go parallel to that trail, on the GW Parkway. As the horn went off we all headed out from George Washington’s estate onto the parkway. I had never noticed, I guess never paid attention, to the fact that the parkway in this area is not asphalt but rather crushed stone/concrete pad. I thought, it couldn’t be like that all the way…could it? As we rocketed down a steep hill in Mile 1 it was hard to control my speed or the shock of running on that surface. Mile 1 split – 6:18.

In the second mile we started climbing back upwards a bit, and the pack at the front was now beginning to lengthen a bit. Knowing this was a fast field and it was a long race, I told myself not to worry about placement for now, just run and keep the effort consistent. I came through faster than expected, but wondering if I could sustain the pace. Mile 2 split – 6:38.

The next two miles were relatively flat but that concrete pad was still underneath my feet and it was beginning to let me know every step. We hit the first water station at 2.5. I knew I was probably going to slow down again, but that was fine with me; I just wanted to settle into a comfortable pace that would put me in position for a strong move late in the race. Mile 3 split – 6:52.

The next water station came up at the 4-mile mark and perhaps because of that I missed the chance to take my split. As in the earlier miles there were some rolling hills in this two-mile segment. I wasn’t sure after missing the split but I felt like I might be slowing down too much and told myself to work harder. As we hit the 5-mile mark there was a large group of cheering spectators watching from the overpass as we went through it. Miles 4 & 5 – 14:00.

Not happy with dropping to 7:00 mile pace, I stepped it up in Mile 6. The relentless pounding on the concrete road was definitely taking its toll, so rather than exacerbating it by overstriding I worked really hard on quickening my cadence and keeping my form together and it seemed to pay off. Mile 6 split – 6:50.

I was now at the point where it was time to start thinking about “making my move” – but maybe not just yet. In other words it was about staying strong. I took in a gel to get myself ready for that moment, whenever it would come. Still my legs were feeling every step; this course was brutal and we hadn’t even gotten to the bridge yet, though I could now see it ahead. Mile 7 split – 6:58.

We now entered more or less into Alexandria and at long last, the concrete pad gave way to asphalt pavement. It would be short-lived relief, but relief nonetheless. Unfortunately for me, it seemed the damage was done, though. I was still on a sub-90 minute pace, but had slipped off of my PR pace. I was fighting it tooth and nail, but slowly and surely, the wheels were coming off. Mile 8 split – 7:03

The mighty Wilson Bridge was shortly upon us, and we transitioned from the roadway to a pedestrian path that led to the pedestrian walkway on the bridge. As we turned the corner and headed up the bridge ramp, we climbed. And climbed. And climbed. On more concrete. Each pounding step just seemed to rip that goal time a little more out of my hands. My whole lower body at this point was hurting. I thought, how on earth could this be happening in a half marathon? I felt like I was in about Mile 21 of a marathon at this point! Still I pushed on despite some other runners who had started to walk. As we hit the Mile 9 mark, the climbing continued, unabated. Mile 9 – 7:23.

Mile 10 started level off a little bit and the remainder of the bridge crossing was reasonably flat. That is, until we came to the pedestrian footbridge that crossed over to the other side and would lead us down into National Harbor. So up we went again, passing the 10-mile mark and the timing mat on the overpass. I hit the 10-mile mark in 69:24. Quick calculations in my head told me that it would take a sub-20 5k to PR; that wasn’t going to happen today, not at the pace I was now running. Mile 10 – 7:22.

Coming off the pedestrian bridge we were now in Oxon Hill, MD having made the journey from Virginia. We got a blacktop slightly downhill stretch but another big hill loomed ahead. On top of that I could feel my left calf starting to cramp. As I passed the aid station I took in as much water as I could to try and stave it off. But I knew it would be battle with my body the rest of the way. Meanwhile, Michael Wardian came jogging by in the other direction, doing his cooldown. Mile 11 – 7:11.

We finally reached that hill and as I did the calf seemed ready to blow up on me. I once again tried to work on my form, figuring the better the form, the less likely disaster would ensue. I guess it worked, because I got up the hill, albeit slower than I would have liked. Then again at this stage I knew all the goals for the day were gone and it was all about just finishing. The course now took us onto a gravel & sand path right along the waterfront. The softer ground was a nice change but the gravel was not exactly hard-packed, and traction was definitely a challenge for legs that had already taken a beating for nearly 80 minutes. By now I was tired, physically but also tired of being beaten mentally by this race. As we slogged through the gravel and passed the 12-mile mark, I was mad, and resolved that this course was not going to have the last word. It was time to dig deep and fight back, cramping calf be damned. Mile 12 – 7:31.

The gravel path wound along and I struggled to find a faster pace. At 12.5 we hit the final water stop and I thought about taking some and then told myself, no, just run! Get to work! I pushed my aching legs as hard as they would go and finally after being passed by many over the previous three miles, now I was doing the passing again. The gravel path gave way to pavement and as we entered the National Harbor complex the crowds grew larger as spectators, bar patrons and confused tourists all got caught up in the excitement. I used that energy and pushed again for the final quarter. I was at least going to finish strong, nothing was going to stop me from that. I whipped around the final bend and there was the finish. Done! Final 1.1 miles in 7:58.

As I crossed the line I was greeted by a familiar volunteer, Lisa from the Pacers Fairfax store. We know each other well and she’s helped get me into a lot of good shoes over the years. After we shared a laugh and a sweaty hug, I quickly moved on, slammed down the water she had given me, and hoped my legs wouldn’t rebel too much.

According to my watch the time was 1:32:06 (later adjusted officially to 1:32:09). That’s nowhere near the time goal I had in mind (sub-90) but I did salvage one minor goal, to finish in the top 100 overall, not bad in a field of over 3200. I ended up 6th in the 45-49 age group, which interestingly is the same spot I finished in at National Half Marathon earlier this year when I PRed. So in some respects, relatively speaking it was a par-for-the-course performance, even if it didn’t feel that way initially.

This was one tough race. And in the aftermath, I have the DOMS to prove it. This is first half marathon I’ve ever run that made me “marathon sore” and moreso at that than several of my marathons. Without a doubt I’m looking at a recovery week now before resuming training. Would I do this race again? Not sure. But if it toughens me up for New York, it will have been worth it.

The road to NYC, Week 7: Mid-Term Exam Time

This week I’m getting a taste of what the three weeks before November 7 will be like; I’m in taper mode. It’s just a short taper of 10 days but I’m following all the same rules, of cutting back the mileage, focusing on sharpening, getting my rest, staying hydrated, and yes, resisting the urge to run more.  All this is for the weekend’s upcoming race, the Wilson Bridge Half Marathon.

I look at this one as an opportunity to get the most accurate sense possible of where my marathon fitness currently sits. Did I need to taper for Wilson Bridge? Perhaps not. I could have just trained through it, as I often have in the past when looking towards a bigger target down the road. But as the first 6 weeks have gone by in up-and-down fashion, I find myself wanting to really put up a nice number on Sunday, and considering that half marathons are in my sweet spot distance range, I’ve decided to save a little powder this week so I can really get after it on Sunday.

As for the past couple of weeks, I’ve had, as I said, some up-and-down results:

  • a 51-mile week,
  • followed by a vacation week that only saw me do 11 miles total (though I did do lots of hiking, biking and even kayaking that week),
  • a return to high mileage with another 51-mile week, capped off by a brutal 21-miler
  • a 30 mile running, 43 mile cycling week as the 10-day taper started to kick in

Until last week I really was not feeling confident about my readiness, particularly after the 21-miler went so badly. However, last week I did nail a great track session in my final “hard” workout before taper (4 x 5:00 @ 6:02/mile average pace) and that has me feeling better.  Either way, the hay is in the barn, at least for Sunday. Whether it’s enough or not, we’ll just have to see. But it’s all stacked.