Friday, April 27, 2012

Science Friday: Mind Over Muscle

Tim Noakes, a well known exercise scientist, recently wrote a review on the role of the brain in limiting exercise performance. It's a good read, more of a history lesson of the theories than a description of particular experiments. He argues at length, with clear annoyance in his words, how the science of fatigue has been dominated for the last ninety years by the role of the heart. The theory, created by Archibald Hill (told you it was old), states that during maximal exercise the muscles start to require more oxygen than the heart can provide. The muscles become anaerobic and start accumulating lactic acid. The heart then reduces pumping capacity to prevent damage to itself. In this model, the heart is the limiting factor, since it fails to provide enough oxygen. As both a neuroscience student and a runner, I can't say I agree that this theory is dominant. (Noakes cites articles written as recently as 2008 as evidence that this theory is still prevalent.)  Certainly we've all heard about (or felt) lactic acid accumulation and appreciate the importance of the heart pumping precious oxygen, but haven't we also heard about the brain? It's often said that athletes and coaches are ahead of the science. They know what works, and the scientific explanations come later. Of course, I'm brain biased to begin with.

There is one theory that Noakes rebukes that I do think is dominant, and that I did believe. According to Hill's theory, VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen that can be taken up and used, should be a good predictor of athletic performance. (Even Wikipedia says this.) Noakes cites many acticles (including one written by Peter Snell, the 3 time gold medalist from New Zealand who became a physiologist) to argue that VO2 max actually isn't a good predictor. I understand that VO2 max might not be the only factor in performance but certainly it's one of them, right? 

But back to the main argument. In my opinion, we already knew the brain's role in training and racing well. Noakes provides some evidence to help really drive the point home, such as the fact that people go harder in races than in practice, pointing to an obvious role of the brain and motivation. His best argument comes from observations of athletes at the end of an race. The finish line is in sight and you start sprinting. It doesn't matter if you've run 3 miles or 26 miles, you'll pick up the pace when you're almost done. According to Hill's theory, at this point your muscles and heart should be at their most fatigued point and not able to speed up. But your brain knows you're almost done, and so you can. 

After convincing the reader of the role of the brain, the question is what can we do about it. How can we be tougher mentally? Noakes doesn't answer this. The answer may be obvious and cliche: believe in yourself and practice that in your training. The boxes under "Centrally-acting performance modifiers" in the chart at right show some of the factors that studies have indicated play a role in mind over muscle. Swishing Gatorade in your mouth (not even actually drinking it), trying to win prize money, and seeing the finish line can all fool your brain into feeling better.  

One thing that struck me personally was at the end. He talks about how, in a close race, it's not physiology that determines the winner, but mentality. He basically says that the loser decides to lose and accepts second place. Yikes, that's a bit harsh. But he goes on: "Especially interesting would be studies of the performance of athletes competing in events in which they do not have any knowledge of the quality of the opposition." I'll admit, I Google-stalked Orange Shirt in a "my marathon is over, what the heck do I do with myself" moment. I found out she used to run for Hansons Brooks and has a 2:35 marathon PR. Are you freaking kidding me? If I had known that, no way would I have gone after her. I would have settled for second, not believing I had a shot. Obviously Orange Shirt wasn't running a 2:35 that day, but if I had know what an amazing athlete she is, I would have mentally given in. And as Noakes argues, that would have been my brain limiting my performance, not my muscles.

One of the best parts of the paper is his quotes from famous runners, ranging from Sir Roger Bannister (1st man to break the 4:00 mile, also known as Dr. Bannister, a neurologist) to Paavo Nurmi (a nine time gold medalist.) He throws in some Vince Lombardi and Muhammad Ali quotes for those non-runners. But he's missing Eminem: You can do anything you set your mind to. 

Dream big,

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Who to Pick: The Fast or the Faster?

This past weekend’s London Marathon was supposed to solidify the top Kenyans in the eyes of the Kenyan Olympic selectors. But things are still murky.

Athletics Kenya (AK) created a short list of contenders a few months ago, naming six men and six women to provisional lists. (The men's situation is a bit more complicated/interesting; I won't discuss the women here.) Results from spring marathons would be considered to get that number down to three. At first they gave one spot to Abel Kirui for winning the World Championship Marathon in Daegu last summer (adding to his previous World Championship win in 2009.) They also gave a spot to Patrick Makau, after he set the world record last fall. But after some other Kenyans kept defying standards for fast marathons, it seemed they had spoken too soon to only have one spot left. So they retracted their previous statements and created their list of six. Those six and the stats that got them on the list:

1. Abel Kirui: won 2011 World Championship
2. Patrick Makau: world record 2:03:38 (Berlin), honorary member of Team Teal
3. Geoffrey Mutai: world’s best 2:03:02 (2011’s Boston, doesn’t count for WR), won NYC in course record
4. Emmanuel Mutai (no relation to Geoffrey): won London last spring in course record, 2nd in NYC (a minute and a half behind G. Mutai)
5. Moses Mosop: second in Boston with a 2:03:06, won Chicago in course record
6. Wilson Kipsang: came 4 seconds from breaking Makau’s record last fall

All six competed in spring marathons in attempt to solidify their spot on the team (and of course, because they are professional runners and marathons are their big paydays.) Since Sunday's win at London, the talk is that Kipsang has a lock on his place on the team. The selectors wanted to see these men at their best this spring, knowing the Olympics were on the line, and Kipsang stepped up to the plate. He’s the only one of the six.

Kirui also ran on Sunday, and while he was with Kipsang for much of the race, he faded badly, finishing sixth.  Makau ran Sunday, tried to goad the pace makers to go faster in the early miles, but dropped out before halfway. E. Mutai also ran Sunday, finishing in an unspectacular 7th in 2:08:01. And with that, they became “also rans” behind Kipsang’s commanding win by over 2 minutes.

G. Mutai ran last week’s Boston, but dropped out at 18 miles with stomach issues. The heat may have been his weakness.

Mosop talked about a WR attempt at Rotterdam, but finished third in 2:05:03 behind two Ethiopians (not something Kenyan selectors like to see.)

So what does this mean? AK is set to make their decision early next week. And while I'm glad I'm not making the decision, it's still fun to think about who I'd choose. 

I think AK should pick a combination of people with speed and people with race tactics. Since the Olympics tend to be tactical, and not world record attempts, it makes sense to put someone like Kirui on the team. He’s won World Championship races. BUT, none of these other men were in last summer’s World Championship race. Many of them opted out because they wanted to race for more glory and a bigger paycheck in fall marathons. Is it fair to praise Kirui for winning a race that didn’t have some of the top guys? Makau, Mosop, and G. Mutai all won what some would consider more prestigious races last fall, and Kipsang crushed an amazing field on Sunday.

So what about speed? Obviously Makau has the WR, and Kipsang came incredibly close. G. Mutai and Mosop were faster on that fateful Boston day that doesn’t count for anything, and also broke course records in NYC and Chicago. (It bothers me that this article lists Mosop, but not G. Mutai, who beat Mosop at Boston, as one of the speedy guys.)

Makau in his Team Teal Tee.
Kipsang has the speed (his 2:03:42) and the tactics (his commanding London win when the stakes were high) to deserve a spot. I think G. Mutai does too. He may have faltered in Boston, but he destroyed records and incredibly talented fields in two major races last year; I don’t think you can leave him at home. I go back and forth on the last spot. E. Mutai is out. He hasn’t been spectacular since last year’s London 12 months ago. As I mentioned above, I think Kirui is overrated. That leaves Mosop and Makau. I can’t believe that AK would put two spring DNFs (G. Mutai and Makau) on their Olympic team (although the dropouts will be able recover faster and the Olympics are less than 100 days away.) Nevertheless, although I’m sure it won’t happen, I’m hoping for Kipsang, G. Mutai, and Makau. You can’t leave the WR holder and the man who’s run the fastest marathon ever at home. But if you’re Kenya, you're lucky to have to make that choice.

Olympic marathon selection in the US is based on a one day trial system. There are obvious problems with that style: if a top contender has a bad day, they are out. But it also removes bias and all the speculation that I've just discussed. (Additionally, people like me may get to achieve the dream of a lifetime just by being invited to the trials. If the US ever switches to the style of the rest of the world, this blog, and my hopes, will be crushed.)  Other countries, such as Canada, set strict time standards and whoever beats the time can go. Three men managed to beat their standard (how convenient), but only one woman did. (Two others are appealing.) But what would the standard be for Kenya? Even sub-2:04 has too many qualifiers. England basically picks the three fastest, but this Boston business makes even that difficult.

The equivalent to a "one day trial"  for Kenya may have been these spring races. If we only considered the races from this spring, that would mean a lot of these guys (G. Mutai, Makau, E. Mutai, and Kirui) would be out. Kipsang and Mosop might still be in the picture, but Martin Lel (second at London) and Wesley Korir would become contenders. In the above analysis, I’ve weighted some of last year’s performances over this spring’s. We'll have to wait and see if AK will instead treat these spring races as more of the trials, and choose based on that criteria.

Tune in on April 30 to hear who they pick.

Dream big, 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: Duel in the Sun

In honor of the recent Boston Marathon, I read Duel in the Sun, by John Brant. It’s a story of the 1982 Boston Marathon in which Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley battle side by side for the entire 26.2 miles. I had shied away from reading it in the past because I know the story of the race and despite being only 200 pages long, that seemed like a lot to dedicate to one two hour race. But of course, the book is about much more than the race itself. Any marathoner worth his salt packet knows what happens. (If you don’t know what happens, then you definitely need to read the book.) It doesn’t really matter who wins. As the book emphasizes, they both come out winners. But it takes a long time to realize that—many years, in fact, before the characters have picked up the pieces of their lives that their epic duel took away. For the vast majority of the book it seems they both came out losers. After the race, neither runs well again. They struggle with depression and drug addiction. In the end (spoiler alert!) they turn out just fine; they turn into Alberto Salazar, the famous coach who leads the Oregon Project, and the Dick Beardsley, the motivational speaker who makes appearances at expos and turns up in running movies. 

The book oscillates between chapters about the characters’ lives before and after the race with chapters describing the race. You finish one chapter and think “They’re in Kenmore Square, they are so close! It’s down to the wire!” and hate that you’ll have to wait until after the next chapter about Beardsley’s struggle with drugs. But by the end of that chapter, you’re thinking “Hey wait, I need to hear how he gets out of this!” before starting a new chapter about Salazar’s stint in Yugoslavia. It’s basically three parallel stories (the race, Beardsley’s life, and Salazar’s life) but all of them are engaging. It also seems to cram a lot into its few pages.

Appropriately, I read this book a few days after my marathon. As a cautionary tale of people who didn’t rest enough or recover well, it gives the post-marathon reader another excuse to skip the gym in the morning, sleep in, and eat that huge bowl of ice cream.* It will probably be hard to find a book about running I don’t like, so I’ll warn you now my recommendations may be worthless. But I would recommend this book, particularly if you only know who wins the race and not much about the aftermath. If you’ve already read it but can’t get enough of Alberto Salazar, he has again teamed up with John Brant for a new book, 14 Minutes, his memoir named for the time he spent unconscious after a heart attack (not covered in Duel in the Sun.)

On a slightly different note, below are some of my thoughts on this year’s Boston, which turned out to be an epic duel between all the participants and the sweltering sun.
  • First, I’d like to say congrats to all the finishers. All the people who struggled through the heat, ignored their watch, drank more water than they ever had, and finished happily despite a slow time. If it was me, I would not have handled the heat as well as the runners this year did. I ran Chicago 2010, which wasn’t as bad as Boston, and still was (literally) a crybaby about it. It seemed like people heeded the advice of the organizers, and hopefully enjoyed a historic run on a historic course as much as possible on such a steamy day. Although a lot of people were treated by medical staff, no major tragedies occurred. Even the elites slowed down by nine minutes each in the women’s and men’s races, which shows it was an incredibly tough day. I take inspiration from the maturity of the people who ran so smartly and I hope that the next marathon you all run will be on a beautiful, clear, and cool day. I know you’ll all get the PRs you deserve. In the meantime, be proud you ran that race; we'll be talking about it for years to come.
  • I have to ask about a reference a NY Times article made to both Korir and Hartmann taking in a lot of “water and fruit.” I watched a lot of Boston videos and interviews, and I didn’t hear any talk of fruit. Was this an error?  I’ve just never heard or seen an elite runner taking fruit in the middle of a race, but clearly Boston's conditions were special circumstances.
  • Lastly,  I want to say that while I’m sorry Geoffrey Mutai dropped out (please, let the Kenyan Olympic selectors pick him!), I can’t get over how cool Wesley Korir is. He was singing the whole way. He buys two Subway sandwiches before a race and gives one to a homeless person. He had typhoid a few months ago and didn't let it slow him. (Can Emmanuel Mutai do the same with less time?) He’s such a character and an inspiration, I hope we see a lot more of him.

*If you read the entire book just to figure out how ice cream helps recovery, you’ll be disappointed, because I made that up. But I can make up a reason why too, and it’s calcium.

Dream big,

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Marathon Match-up: Boston vs. Chicago vs. NY

In honor of Boston Marathon weekend, I thought I’d do a little head to head match up of the American Marathon Majors: Boston, Chicago, and NY. I considered a whole slew of different factors that go into a great marathon experience but I admit this is largely based on my opinion and my own experiences when I’ve run these races. (Although I did do some serious Googling of weather, prices, etc.) Feel free to completely disagree and/or leave your opinions in the comments section below.

Registration/Getting in
Boston: Famously the only marathon you need to qualify for, making some people call it the everyman’s Olympics. BQs just got harder: Men under 40 need to run a 3:05 and women a 3:35.
Chicago: Registration has closed faster every year the last few years, closing in a record 31 days this year.
NY: Works by a lottery system. Everyone signs up by mid-April and participants are randomly picked. Being from South Dakota or Bangladesh helps. There is a roughly 1:10 shot of getting picked.
Edge to: Chicago. You can always get in, provided your Internet connection is fast.

 2009 NY Poster
Swag (aka free stuff)
Boston: Long-sleeve dry-fits with Boston Marathon and the year down one side. Shirts from the years I ran (2009 and 2011) are hi-lighter yellow. Other years are more attractive colors. The posters have every participant’s name in very small letters over classic images from the race and the finish. (The jackets, which are NOT free, are a cherished symbol among runners of qualifying.)
Chicago: Short-sleeve dry-fits. 2010’s was red with the words “Bank of America Chicago Marathon 10.10.10” in a white box. 2011’s was white, with “Bank of America Chicago Marathon” over a white star. They are incredibly plain. The posters have had pictures of some of the runners whose stories they highlight. It’s a nice gesture but they are a little too focused on those people and hard to consider as memorabilia from your personal experience.
NY: Posters and shirts from the only year I ran (2009) have an image of the NYC skyline where the buildings are made of the names of the places, streets, and bridges you run through. One of my favorite T-shirts ever.
Edge to: NY. In huge, expensive races like these it seems like there should be a graphic artist to design cool posters and shirts. Chicago’s are as plain as my local 5k’s. Boston’s are better, but the best part (the jackets) you have to shell out more money for.

*Registration fees only. Hotels/food/flights not included but will be expensive for all three.
Boston: $150
Chicago: $150
NY: $255
Edge to: I trust you can figure this one out on your own.

The Course
2009: With my new jacket, in front of
the infamous course map.
Boston: Until recently, considered to be a tough course, mainly for the Newton hills that culminate in the notorious Heartbreak Hill at mile 21. In the last few years, due to incredibly bold Kenyans and a helpful tailwind, this thinking changed when the world’s fastest time was set there. (It didn’t count as a world record due to the net downhill and tailwind. This hadn’t been an issue since 1947.) Course records: men: 2:03:02, women: 2:20:43.
Chicago: Flat and fast. In the last thirty years, all world records set on American soil were set here. And they count. Course record: men: 2:05:37, women: 2:17:18
NY: The bridges are the hills, from the start going up the Verrazano Bridge to the finish through the rolling hills of Central Park. Probably the hardest of these three. Course record: men: 2:05:05, women: 2:22:31
Edge to: Chicago.

Boston: You have to train through the winter, which means a lot of dark and cold runs. You also should emphasize downhill running with some strategically placed uphills.
Chicago: No hill training required! And you can train in the summer. (This will also help you get acclimated to the heat, which can be a factor, see below.)
NY: You can train in the summer, but need to search out some hills.
Edge to: Chicago.

From the last 5 years (avg/high):

Edge to: NY. Heat is increasingly becoming an issue, especially at Chicago. Boston’s weather for tomorrow’s race is also abnormally hot, in the mid-80s.

The start
Boston: Busses leave from downtown and drop you at the start hours before the race begins. It’s usually chilly and of course the Porta-potty lines are ridiculous.
Chicago: You can pretty much walk to the start from most downtown hotels or easily take the L.
NY: Busses leave from downtown and drop you at the start hours before the race begins. It’s usually chilly and of course the Porta-potty lines are ridiculous.
Edge to: Chicago

Boston: 0.5 million, including the infamous Wellesley women’s tunnel of love near the halfway point. Can be a little desolate between the top of Heartbreak and the turn onto Beacon.
Chicago: 1.5 million, can be a little bare through miles 20 to 22.
NY: 2 million. Although an eerie silence takes over Queensborough Bridge (mile 15), the crowd on First Ave will get you re-energized again.
Edge to: NY, but any of the fans at any of these races make you feel like a rock star.

Chicago 2010: Deep dish!
Boston: Not even a contender
Chicago: Deep dish
NY: New York style
Edge to: What can I say, I’m an East Coast girl. NY style all the way.

*I mean professional runners, not P. Diddy and Oprah. (NYC would win the more traditional celebrity category.) It can be incredibly exciting to run the same race as your idols, not to mention score their autographs at the expo. All three have top tier Kenyas and Ethiopians. But where do our American elites run? I’ve considered the appearances of the top five finishers at January’s Olympic Trials in the last four years.
Boston: Desiree Davila (2011), Kara Goucher (2009, 2011), Meb Keflezighi (2010), Ryan Hall (2009, 2010, 2011)
Chicago: Desiree Davila (2008, 2010), Ryan Hall (2011, did not start in 2010 but was around to give me his autograph)
NY: Shalane Flanagan (2010), Kara Goucher (2008), Meb Keflezighi (2009, 2010, 2011), Ryan Hall (2009), Abdi Abdirahman (2008, 2009), Dathan Ritzenhein (2010)
Edge to: NY. Why do Americans shy away from Chicago?

Chicago 2010: Ryan Hall's autograph.
The finish
Boston: Amazing finish down Boylston St.
Chicago: Amazing finish in Grant Park.
NY: Amazing finish in Central Park.
Edge to: All of the above. You finish any of these marathons, you’ll be on the top of the world.

The intangibles and final score
Boston: If you are anywhere near a BQ, you already know the appeal. Qualifying for Boston catapults you to a new tier of marathon runner. Your reward is an incredible race along the infamous course, tackling the same hills and hearing the same cheers as other Patriot’s Day runners who have gone before you over the last 116 years.
NY 2009: Happy at the finish.
Chicago: If you want a PR (or a BQ) this is the race. It’s flat, it’s fast. You don’t have wake up at the crack of dawn to get on a bus and then sit at the start for hours. It’s well organized and ready for you to run your best. But you may want to start praying for good weather now.
NY: If you run one marathon in your life, you should run NY. Standing on the Verrazano Bridge with 45,000 other runners and a path before you that weaves through all five boroughs is an incredible experience. People from all over the world come to run it. The crowds are amazing and will make you feel like all 2 million of them are cheering for you.
And the winner is: Boston. It remains my favorite marathon and I hope to run there again in the next few years. It didn't win many of these categories upfront, but all around it is an amazing race and a great reward for all it takes to get there. 

Good luck to all those running Boston!!

Dream big,

Friday, April 13, 2012

Science Friday: The Wall of Carbs

We’ve all heard of carbo-loading. Big heaping bowls of pasta the night before a race. Bags of pretzels and morning bagels. We’ve known about the benefits of filling up on carbs before endurance events for a long time. See below, from a 1971 experiment. In that study, subjects ran in two 30 km (18.6 mile) races. Before one race, they filled up on carbs and before the other, they ate their normal diets. The groups were mixed (some ran the carb-filled race first, some ran the normal diet race first) and the results are shown below. Across the top is the distance, broken up into eight increments. Each line represents a different subject (their initials are at right) and the time difference between the carbo-loaded race and the normal diet race. All the subjects slowed down when on a normal diet, and in particular at the end of the race.
Ok, you knew all this already. (But isn’t it nice to see it in a graph?) What have we learned since then? Exactly how many carbs do we need to consume? Are midrace GUs necessary? Or should we carry those Sport Beans that sound like maracas the whole race? Does pacing matter? What about our individual body compositions?

Based on a 2010 paper, one thing we’ve learned is how to make more complicated and colorful graphs. See below.

Don’t freak out. I’ll try and simplify it.

In this study, which got a lot of press when it came out, Benjamin Rapoport looked at the physiology behind hitting the wall. Interestingly, he did this because he was so annoyed when he himself hit the wall in a marathon.

It’s an interesting, dense examination of the factors that contribute to marathon pace. He spells out (in equation form!) how carbs are more efficient than fat. And how higher intensities means burning more carbs. Remember acetyl coA from high school biology? Yea, that has a role. He also discusses the importance of keeping an even pace. If you slow down, you also slow your carb consumption, but if you want to hit your goal pace, you’ll eventually have to pick back up. When you do pick the pace up, your carb consumption sky rockets and you end up using more carbs then you saved when you slowed down.

In the graph shown above, he models how VO2 max and glycogen loading (carbo-loading) can influence your marathon time. Each colored line represents a different VO2 max. For example, someone with a VO2 max of 50 is modeled by a light green line. If this person doesn’t carbo-load, his projected marathon time would be a 3:42 (the light green line hits the bottom of the gray glycogen loaded box at the vertical line corresponding to 3:42). If he does carbo-load, he could break 2:45 (the light green line hits the top of the gray glycogen loading box a little past the vertical line corresponding to 2:45). Rapoport also goes into how muscle mass plays a factor (on the right) but I’ll ignore that for now. I think the main take away is how much we can gain in that gray box. You want to be at the top of that box, and therefore further to the right of the graph, in faster territory. If you do like equations and physiology, it’s an interesting paper you should give a read. Find it here

Although he focuses on midrace fueling in most of the paper, in the discussion and in interviews he notes that prerace fueling is best. Better to carb up than GU up. One of the things that got the article so much press was a calculator he created and made available online. You can enter your age, sex, weight, resting heart rate, and goal time and it will tell you how many carbs you need to consume before the race. The problem is the models explained in the paper are much more rigorous than this calculator. People’s weight and heart rate are not the same as their leg muscle mass and VO2 max. When I plugged my data in, I got a range of 3:59-2:44 for my predicted marathon time, which I found slightly unhelpful.

The most useful information I got was from an article in Runner’s World that interviewed Rapoport and asked for a simple answer of how many carbs we should eat in the days before the race. He suggested we aim to get 4 g per pound of body weight per day. For a 150 pound runner, that’s 600 grams. In a review of Rapoport’s paper and calculator, Alex Hutchinson, the Sweat Science guy, mentioned that you can carbo load effectively with 10 g per kilogram of body weight for just one day. For a 150 pound runner, that’s 680 g. Which is essentially the same, although for one day instead of three. Most conventional wisdom is a longer, three day carbo load is better, possibly because muscles can’t absorb that much glycogen all at once and so spreading it out helps. Either way it's a lot of carbs.

I suggest you take the time to count carbs, the same way some people count calories. Look up how many carbs are in the foods you normally eat before a race and count them up. Be honest with yourself. I was shocked at how many more carbs I was supposed to be getting and how far off I was. As runners who are hyper aware of what goes into our bodies we are concerned with balanced meals: protein, veggies, some healthy carbs. But in the days before a marathon you really need to be emphasizing those carbs, even if it comes at the price of less dairy, less protein, etc. Don’t overeat, just focus on bread, pretzels, rice, etc. Count what you eat and see the range you fall in. Since I started doing that I’ve drastically increased the carbs I eat before a race and have broken old PRs and avoided the wall. If you need more convincing, look again at the graph above and consider which side of the gray box you could be on.

Tune in over the next few days for a Boston infused blog. And good luck to all those running Monday! Carb up!

Dream big,

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Race Report: Charlottesville Marathon: Part 2

This is Part 2 of my Charlottesville Marathon Race Report. To catch up with Part 1, click here.

At mile 19.5, we met back up with the half marathoners and passed their finish. I so wished I could stop there. But it was back out to the lonely streets.

Mile 20, alone.
52 seconds behind Orange Shirt.
At this point, I was simultaneously losing hope and trying to talk myself back into it. One part of me was trying to think positive things, but the other part wasn’t believing any of it. I tried to channel Dathan Ritzenhein, who ran the Olympic Trials in January, got dropped from the lead pack, but didn’t give up. He knew anything can happen in the final miles of a marathon, and that someone might come back to him. Someone did, and he closed the gap to come within 8 seconds of third place. (Yes, despite his valiant effort and determination, he still lost.  That part didn’t matter to me, I was focusing on the not giving up. On the idea that anything can happen.) Maybe she would start coming back. As my training book says, the last 10k of a marathon are the miles that poorly prepared marathoners fear and that well-prepared marathoners relish. I was well prepared. It was my time to relish. My dad encouraged me, saying that the last miles were all mine. And here they were, I couldn’t give up. Anything can happen in the final miles. At mile 20, I was only a minute off my 2:52 time goal, maybe I would get it after all. Would I be happy with a PR and not a win? No, I knew I wouldn’t. But my God, I just wanted this to end.

The problem was she was not coming back to me. When we had a long stretch of road I could see her, the Orange Shirt, the motorcade. It was so far ahead, and it wasn’t getting closer. I knew miles 22-24 were flat through woods along a river, before the dreaded mile 24 hill. I couldn’t wait to the get to the river and be rid of the ups and downs for a bit. Along the river I tried to be positive. I was doing ok, considering. If she started faltering, I could overtake her. I felt like I was picking up my pace on the flats, but when I looked at my watch I saw I wasn’t. I couldn’t see her anymore, with the twists and turns through the woods. Now I just wanted the woods to end. Get to The Hill and get this the hell over with. If I could survive The Hill, maybe I could pick it up in the last two miles.

Finally, I emerged from the river and the woods. And. There. Was. The. Hill. It was enormous and she was WAY up it already. But when I spotted her, her arm swing was off. I focused a little more. She was walking! As soon as I realized it, she began running again. But her weakness had been seen. The glimmer of hope grew in my mind. I couldn’t let someone who walked beat me. My sister and fiancée were halfway up The Hill, and they ran down to tell me that she had walked, that she had told one of the guys she was with that her stomach hurt, that I could take it in these last few miles. “The faster you run, the faster you’re done,” said my sister. Okay, this is it, I thought. Once I get to the top of The Hill I give it everything I’ve got.

Except I couldn’t. I tried to run faster and it didn’t seem possible. What seemed flat yesterday on the scope out mission was not flat. I tried to think that every hill was hurting her more than me. I prayed she would walk again. Give me more hope. She didn’t.  I wondered if I would run out of space.

I knew I had to be at 2:44 at mile 25 to be on pace for my 2:52. Before the 25th mile marker, I looked at my watch. It said 2:45. And I hadn’t seen the marker yet. And then it hit me, I might not win or PR. Everything I worked for was quickly fading away. I couldn’t let that happen. I HAD to win. The fire grew inside me. I started reciting Eminem.

I had scoped out the finish carefully. I knew after the 25th marker it was a bunch of quick turns through residential streets. Run a block, sharp left turn, one more block, sharp right. There was slight downhill along a curve and then the finish was close. You still couldn’t see it, but you had to know it was there. That was the time to sprint. I had it all envisioned in my mind. I had to do it.

The final turn.
We turned through the residential streets and she still seemed far ahead but slowly, with each turn, block by block, she was getting closer.  I don’t know how, but it was happening. As we made it to the downhill curve, with about a quarter or a half mile to go, I was catching her, pulling alongside, and then blowing by. Everything in me hurt. I was literally telling my muscles to go, urging them with “c’mon, c’mon” muttered under my breath. I would have screamed it louder if I had the energy. As we rounded the curve, the motorcade was now leading me, I could hear them talking about how I came back. My sister and fiancée were there to see it, screaming their hearts out. My sister was yelling “Sprint, sprint!” and I was so scared Orange Shirt was on my tail I dug even deeper and kept willing myself to go faster. It was more pain than I’ve ever felt during a race. I kept yelling “c’mon” to myself. My Dad was standing at the final turn screaming wildly. I was winning. But I hadn’t won yet. It was still up a slope and through a shoot that would not end. I was running scared out of my mind that she would catch me and I would realize my worst fear of being outkicked. But there it FINALLY was. The finish. And I had done the outkicking.

There was no tape to break (I have always wanted to break the tape, but it will have to be a dream for another day) but when I finished I threw my arms up in triumph. I was so glad to be done. So glad the agony was over. The mental anguish of thinking I might not win, I might not PR, was over. I had done both. (I wouldn’t know until later, but my official time was 2:53:10, a PR by over 2 minutes. Eleven seconds off the 2:52 I had hoped for, but at this point it didn’t matter.) I had set a goal a long time ago of winning a marathon someday, and I had done it.
Heading for the finish, and the win.
Sometimes after a race I wonder if I could have gone faster. At Chicago last fall I held back for the first 20 miles for fear of the weather and memories of the previous year’s disappointment. I ran a smart race and was rewarded with a new PR, but when it was all done I wondered if I could have given more. At the end of Charlottesville, I knew I had no more to give. I left everything out there. It was the toughest race I have ever run. The physical pain of a hilly 26.2 miles compounded by the mental anguish of losing until the last possible second was harder than any other race. It turned out to be exactly the best scenario, what I had hoped for: to be behind, but still in contention, and to kick past to win. But knowing now how hard that was and how much it #@*%! hurt, I’ll be more careful what I wish for. I’ve heard it said that “No one really wins a marathon. You just survive it better.” I understand that completely now.

Afterwards, my family and I went out to eat. The waitress saw my finisher’s medal and wondered if I had run. I said I had, and then, as if on cue, she asked what every nonrunner asks someone who just ran a race: “Did you win?” she questioned, half laughing.

“Yea. Actually, I did.”

Dream big,

Monday, April 9, 2012

Race Report: Charlottesville Marathon: Part 1

First, a word of warning. It takes me nearly 3 hours to run a marathon, and close to four months to train for one, so I’m not going to be able to describe the race too concisely. This will be the first of a two-part story of my agonizing and painful journey through Charlottesville.

I’ve told you before why I chose Charlottesville. But I’ll let you in on one more secret, because it’s over now and there’s no harm in being honest, I also chose it because I thought I could win. Last year’s race was won in 2:57 and previous years were over 3 hours. This was my chance to get a moment to shine.

Also, of course, I wanted to PR. That’s no secret, I go into every race wanting to PR. I’m very much of the thinking that you need to be moving forward; I don’t train for 4 months to end up back where I started. Considering the course’s hills, this was a tough enough goal. But it’s a goal that I’m used to chasing.

Going into a race with a competitive goal (i.e. winning) is a completely different ballgame, one that I’ve never experienced. Marathons are massive events with thousands if not tens of thousands of people, some of whom are professional athletes or Kenyans, and my primary goals aren’t my finishing places. Mostly I’m going after time; I cared far more that I finished with a 2:55 in Chicago than as the 63rd woman. I would not have felt any differently if I had finished 64th or 73rd. I may try to out kick someone for an extra spot, like at the Rock-n-Roll USA Half, but in the end, that doesn’t really matter. The only places that really matter are the top three, if not just the winner. For the people behind them, the time and the competition with themselves is what matters.

Leading up to Charlottesville, I tried not to concentrate on winning. I didn’t want my entire experience to be ruined if I didn’t win, especially if it was completely out of my hands. I didn’t know if there were other women out there like me that thought Charlottesville could be an easy win. Maybe they had 2:45 PRs. Come race day, I could run the best race of my life, but that would be a race I would not win. And so I tried not to put all my eggs in that basket. I didn’t write about it here. I told very few people that was my goal. I tried to get myself to stop thinking about it as the do-or-die goal. A good piece of advice going into a marathon is to have 3 goals: (1) your very best, perfect day, perfect weather goal, (2) your realistic goal, and (3) your “I can live with this” goal, when you have a bad day, the weather’s bad, you cramp up. So much can happen over the course of 26 miles, there has to be some room to reassess your goals. I tried to think of winning as my #1 goal, my best day, best-case scenario and PRing as my realistic goal. Goal 3 was breaking 3 hours, and although I considered it to be a time I would most certainly get, the hills added an element of uncertainty.

As you can probably tell from this obsessive blog, I put a lot of pressure on myself going into a race. The days before I am a nervous mess. I was scared of the hills, I was worried about running the entire race alone since the field was so small. I knew that despite how much I tried to back off the goal, I would not be happy without a win. It was one of the reasons I came to Charlottesville. One of the reasons I was torturing myself with these hills. Would I be happy with second place and a PR? No, I knew I wouldn’t. I mulled over the possibilities:

1. Ms. 2:45 comes. She runs away with it from the gun and there isn’t anything I can do about it.
2. Someone sits on me the whole race, biding their time and making me do the pacing and then sprints by me in the end. That seemed like the worst possible option. I am a come-from-behind runner, I can’t handle the stress of leading.
3. I would be far and away the best runner and lead easily from the gun. This seems ideal, but would that make me slow down and not push myself to a PR? Would I be happy with a win and no PR?
4. I would be the person sitting on someone and then pull a come-from-behind win. Perhaps the best possible situation.

Turning these options over in my mind in the days and sleepless nights before the race (and through all the weeks of training) did nothing to help my nerves. I couldn’t predict who would show up and there was a part of me that knew I would only be relieved once the race started and I’d finally know what situation I was in.

Race day was perfect weather. I took my spot at the front and did my normal check-out-the-other-runners around me, which serves no purpose except to intimidate myself. There are many incredibly thin, professional looking runners at every race, and in my eyes, they always seem faster than me.

The gun went off and I was immediately in the women’s lead. Not just the lead for the marathon, but also the first woman from the half marathon or full marathon. I won’t lie, this freaked me out a bit. But I was running a comfortable pace and feeling good. The first miles of a marathon should be easy and feel slow, going too fast here is a dead man’s game. I even slowed down a bit in the third mile, trying to maintain an easy pace. Quickly, I found myself with a biker escort, which appeased my fears of running alone and finding my way along the course, which involved looping through parking lots and parks and along wooded trails. I thought, “Ok maybe this is how it’s going to be: scenario 3, all alone at the front for the whole race.” I saw my sister and fiancée at mile 3, and they looked none too impressed I was in the lead, perhaps because they saw what was behind me and what was coming. I had no idea where the rest of the women’s field was.

We head up the hill.
I'm in blue, with Orange Shirt just behind.
At mile 5.5 we take a turn and run up one of the worst hills on the course. I had spent time studying the course and drove part of it the day before, and I knew this hill and the hill at mile 24 would be the worst. I even remembered this hill from when I ran the first time, way back in 2005. Still feeling good, I headed up it. I heard a group of people coming up behind me, but they sounded like men, so what did I care. (Yes, I can usually tell women runners from men runners, they breathe differently.) But as they passed me halfway up the hill, I saw one of them was a woman in an orange shirt (no fair! her breath was disguised by the group of men!) Out of the corner of my eye, I checked her bib: red meant full marathon, white meant half marathon. There was a moment where it looked white, thank goodness. Let her go, she’s in a different race. But as she passed I saw it again, more clearly, and that bib was red. (How many times did I learn in my neuroscience classes that peripheral vision can’t see color? Don’t trust it!!) And just like that, there went my lead. Orange Shirt continued up the hill, got the biker escort, and built up a nice lead. At mile 7.5, we turn around and head back the way we came, back down the hill. You can see everyone behind you at this point, and the third place girl didn’t look far. My God, I thought, I’m going to struggle to even get 2nd.

Over the next few miles, I just tried to keep contact. I still didn’t know what to think of what had happened and what I could do about it. We were still following the same course backwards, so the others runners in the race were running by in the other direction, shouting encouragement. “She’s right up ahead! You can catch her.” I wanted to scream back, “No, you don’t understand. She just caught ME. She’s running away from me, I’m not catching her.” 

Back down the hill, alone.
So the situation had gone from scenario 3 to either a 1 or a 4. She could keep building her lead and literally run away with it or I could hang on and run from behind. As I began to realize this, I started to gain back a little hope. Her lead wasn’t extending any more. She was in front and I was where I wanted to be, running from behind. At mile 10.5, my sister told me she looked tired and I took comfort in this; she’s going out too fast, I’m going to stay right here, maybe get a little closer but not pass her. Just bide my time until she breaks. Maybe she’ll pull me along to a PR. For a few more miles, I felt good and at peace with the situation.

I was so involved with the competitive aspect, I wasn’t really paying attention to my splits. It was good I had something else to focus on, because my watch was giving me serious trouble. I wear a Garmin, which is incredibly useful because it can tell you your pace in real time; you look down and it tells you at that moment you’re running a 6:33. I usually have it set so it also beeps at the end of each mile and tells me that split. This can be annoying in races, because Garmins are not exactly accurate (and we shouldn’t expect them to be. It’s a GPS on your wrist, it’s not perfect.) In races what usually happens is it will be a little short. So after a few miles, your watch may beep, alerting you to how fast you ran the last mile, but you’ll see up ahead you haven’t yet passed the mile marker. If you go by that split, you’re going to think you’re running faster than you are. Better to wait until you get to the mile marker, and take a more official split there. (Assuming, of course, that the mile markers are accurate.) Having done the former too many times and gotten frustrated late in the race as my Garmin miles and the mile markers grow farther apart, I switched to the old fashion way for Chicago last fall. I turn off the beeps, and hit the lap button on my watch when I pass a mile marker. This requires you to see all the mile markers, but in Chicago I only missed one.

For Charlottesville, I worried about the visibility of the markers, but I decided to do the lap press option anyway. The weird part was some of the early miles were shorter than my Garmin thought: I got to mile marker 2 at 1.95 for example, whereas I usually get to mile marker 2 at 2.05 or something. This made me wonder about the markers, but again Garmins aren’t perfect so I didn’t stress about it. Until mile 7.5 when we hit the first turn around. Without realizing it, I had chosen the lap press option that also calculates a lap every time you pass a point where you previously hit the button. So when I was at mile 7, I hit the button, and when I passed back by that marker going the other direction, it told me a new split, despite the fact that it wasn’t a mile. I couldn’t stop and fix it now, so after that I gave up on hitting the button. I went even more old school and just tried to calculate splits in my head, trying to maintain as close to a 6:30 pace as possible. I knew where I needed to be at 10 miles to run a 2:52. (My goal had been to run between a 2:50 and a 2:52. When my sister and I drove the course the day before, my goal became a 2:52, barring any divine intervention that would allow me to run a 2:50 on those hills.) I wasn’t far off at 10 miles and I knew where I needed to be for the half split as well, so I focused on that.

My view for most of the race.
Orange Shirt is far ahead, with her motorcade.
(Some of the other runners are in the 8k.)
Having studied the map and elevation, I knew there was some significant downhill at mile 12, and feeling on pace and like Orange Shirt wasn’t getting too far ahead of me, I had a good patch for a few miles. I saw my family again, who assured me the 3rd place girl was way back and no threat. Then came the turn at mile 12.5 onto a new out and back part until mile 19. The elevation maps told me this part wouldn’t be too bad, but when we drove it, I began to have my doubts. Running it didn’t help. I savored every downhill, but only for a moment, because I knew I’d have to run back up it. Every uphill was torture. And something in the right side of my butt started screaming in pain. I knew this was from the hills, and I knew it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. How was I going to run another 13 miles like this? Doubts and hatred for the marathon started in. I wanted to stop. I wanted to drop out. I wanted Orange Shirt to drop out. But who would drop out when they are winning? I thought about second place and how I wasn’t going to be satisfied with that. But this race really sucked. Mentally, it was torture. The halfway mark wasn’t there (or I didn’t see it) and there were hardly any markers when we turned into the woods around mile 14. There were lots of turns and the woods prevented me from keeping an eye on Orange Shirt, who now also had a motorcycle at her side, in addition to a couple of guys and the biker escort. At the turn around near mile 15.5 it got worse. Orange Shirt got a chance to see where I was as she turned back, and I think she picked it up. I lost sight of her again back through the woods, but once again the other runners were all encouragement. Third place told me I could catch her. Orange shirt’s biker escort (he used to be MY biker escort!) commended me for keeping it close. But my God, I wasn’t believing it. I lost the guy I was running behind and felt very alone. There were times where I wasn’t even sure where I was going. My butt continued to protest every step. I had no idea what my pace was, but I figured I had to be slowing down.

After the woods, miles 18 and 19 seemed all uphill. Once again, I saw my family who tried to encourage me, but I wondered if they really believed it. I was a good minute behind this girl now and hurting. I wanted to sit down on the sidewalk with my family and just let it be over. But there was still so far to go.

To be continued....

Dream big,

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


You pretended the snooze button didn't exist. You dragged your butt out of bed while others slept. While others ate their pancakes. You had a feast of protein, glucose, and electrolytes. You double-knotted. You left the porch light on and locked the door behind you. You ran. 5Ks, 10Ks, 26.2 miles. Some days more, some days less. You rewarded a long run with a short run. And a short run with a long run. Rain tried to slow you. Sun tried to microwave you. Snow made you feel like a warrior. You cramped. You bonked. You paid no mind to comfort. On weekends. On holidays. You made excuses to keep going. Questioned yourself. Played mind games. Put your heart before your knees. Listened to your breathing. Sweat sunscreen into your eyes. Worked on your farmer's tan. You hit the wall. You went through it. You decided to be a man about it. You decided to be a woman about it. Finished what you started. Proved what you were made of. Just keep putting mile after mile on your internal odometer. 
-Nike ad

That's an old ad, but I cherish it among my pile of saved running ads. Sometimes before races I leaf through them to get the motivational juices flowing. Just reading them reminds me of all the work I've put in, all the miles, sacrificed sleep, weather woes, endless bagels. My pile of ads reminds me not to shy away from the pain, that it will be hard, and leave you gassed. That the best workouts and races take the most from you, but they give the most back. 

People always ask me what I think about when I'm running. On any given run, that varies a lot. But in a race, I think exclusively about the race. About the pace, the people around me, the scenery, the next water stop/GU stop/place I'll see Team Teal. And when the inevitable "going gets tough" I leaf through my internal store of motivational tidbits. Songs can be incredible distracters and motivators. And in my opinion, hands down, the best running song is Eminem's "Lose Yourself." Just look at the lyrics:

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There's vomit on his sweater already, Mom's spaghetti.

If that doesn't sound like carbo-loading gone terribly wrong, I don't know what it is. 
Just kidding. Seriously, the relevant lyrics:

If you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow 
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime

If you focus on those words (and the beat) while struggling running, you are almost guaranteed to get back into it. I remember singing those lyrics to myself while running my first Boston. I had just crested Heartbreak and was struggling. Then those lyrics came in my mind. One shot, one opportunity. The excitement of Boston wasn't lost on me, this was my one opportunity. Yea, maybe I run a marathon every six months so this may be a little overstated, but with all the time and energy I invest, I don't want to let it slip at the critical moment. And the thought "this is the last time I ever do this to myself" (insert curse words as needed) is at the forefront of your mind in the middle of a marathon, so this being the last opportunity seems relevant. It's your last one, better go out with a bang. (Don't worry, shortly after you finish you'll change your mind. Another favorite Nike ad that ran the day after the NYC Marathon: "Today you feel like you'll never run a marathon again. See you next year.")

Besides Eminem, my other running mantra is "this is for the record books." I realize, obviously, that my name will never be in any real record book. But what I mean is that whatever I do on that day will be written forever in my log book, online results,, etc. I won't be able to go back and fix it. I can try to qualify a poor performance, add an asterisk to explain wind or hills or stomach issues, but really the time is all that matters. I think "this is for the record books" in all my tough workouts when my pace is slipping or I feel like throwing in the towel. Whatever happens, I'll have to write that down, set it in stone, and look at it for years to come. When I think about this, it makes me want to stop making excuses and make sure that I give everything I have, so that whatever is written is the best exemplar of my performance on that day. No asterisks. No excuses. 

I know that mantra may not make sense or work for you. But I urge you to find your own, something that inspires, hits home, and is easy to remember and repeat. Obviously not something as long as the opening Nike ad, but something that resonates just the same. Maybe Eminem. 

Dream big,