Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Changing Plans: WWKD?

Sometimes when looking for the answers to those pressing running questions (Barefoot or sneakers? Supplement with strength training or not? Have the extra cookie after a long run?) I think about what the elite runners do. What do the best in the world, with the advice of renowned coaches, sport psychologists, and physiologists, do? And, because she is my idol, I ask specifically: what would Kara Goucher do? (WWKD?: Sneakers, strength train, probably skip the cookie. Hey, I didn't say I always follow this advice, just that I think about it.)

Ever since getting back into running a few years ago I have trained by myself. I ran on a team in high school and loved it, but when I went to college I didn’t think I was good enough or dedicated enough to make it as a collegiate athlete. I don’t regret that decision, but I know I missed out on a great learning opportunity. Training with other like-minded runners, especially runners that are better than you, is a sure-fire way to improve.

I think self-coaching has gotten me pretty far. I put the most effort forth when the motivation is self-generated. When I was a kid and my mom would ask me to clean my room, I'd whine and complain and half-ass it (sorry, Mom.) But on the days when I actually wanted to clean my room (which was incredibly rare; again, sorry, Mom) I would go overboard organizing and putting everything in its rightful place. The same goes for training. In high school, when my coach would tell me our workout for the day, I would diligently run the workout, but only give enough effort to show that I did it. I never went above and beyond. (This is why I wasn't very good in high school.) Now I coach myself and have nothing to prove and no one to please except myself. Because I'm only pleasing (or hurting) myself, I'm more motivated to follow the plans and also follow through. Like Inception said: “The subject's mind can always trace the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake."

What does this have to do with Kara Goucher? Last summer, a frustrated Kara worried she wouldn’t make the Olympic Marathon team. She trained primarily by herself or with her husband (who she claimed would let her make excuses), and she realized she needed some hard working women to keep her honest. She left her coach, and just a few short months before the Trials she started running with a new group, which included her “rival” Shalane Flanagan. It wasn't an easy decision, but at the Trials a relieved Kara held on for third (and a place with Shalane on the team.) Currently the two are preparing for London together. (The site Run the Edge tells the story of their training; it’s great for all Kara fans.)

I’m no Kara Goucher. But if you read this blog often, you know I have big goals, and I’m not always satisfied with my progress. I’ve talked about taking next spring off from marathons to train for shorter races; I know improving my speed will help my quest for marathon PRs as well. But whenever I think about doing that, I wonder how I’ll pull it off. I know how to train for marathons, the workouts, the weekly mileage, the paces to hit. I don’t know how to train for shorter stuff. I also know that when I hit the track alone it’s a little lonely. It’s not easy to rip off killer splits when it’s just you and your watch.

So What Would Kara Do? She’d swallow her pride and go find some fast women to run with. And so (drum roll please) I’ve decided to join a running club. A friend of a friend told me about it, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity at the perfect time. It won’t be easy; I feel out of my element and completely intimidated by the talent of the women's team. I’m sure I will get my butt kicked for the next few months, but I know that’s exactly what I need. It means a few changes to my general plan: instead of taking off next spring, I’ll be focusing on shorter races this fall and skipping a marathon. (That means no Philly. Is this just an elaborate scheme to avoid a rematch with Brother? Maybe so, but I'll never tell!) I’m back to taking it easy now, rather than trying to rush through some quick races in the next few weeks. Next spring I’ll return to the marathon and hopefully a big PR.

I don't think I need to worry anymore about motivation or slacking off in workouts. I know these women will keep me honest and help me get to a new level of racing. It means getting my butt kicked for a while, but it’s what Kara Goucher would do.

Dream big,

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tempo Trouble

I haven’t been too great at tempo runs as of late. (Or ever?) During Charlottesville training, my times for marathon pace runs, track workouts, and tune-up races all improved from past training cycles. But my tempo runs stayed squarely where they were last fall. I tried to be comforted that I was able to pace them more evenly; last fall I ran the first half faster and died in the end, this spring I was able to keep my pace consistent. But that was little comfort; I couldn't seem to string together something a little long and a little fast. In the lead up to the marathon I just tried to focus on everything that went well, and ignore those workouts that didn’t.

But no more ignoring. That race is over and it’s back to the reality of tempo runs. The idea is to run a few miles (I usually do 4-7) at a "comfortably hard" pace. It's supposed to be a little slower than 10k pace, closer to half marathon pace. You shouldn’t feel like you’re dying or even racing full out, but you should be eagerly looking forward to the end and slowing down again. I can't seem to master them. I always feel like I'm dying even though I'm not running all that fast.

Yesterday I tried a shorter tempo than usual, hoping that I would do well at the easier distance. I did 2x2 miles tempo (translation: warm-up, 2 miles fast, 1 mile jogging, 2 miles fast, cool down.) Another bomb. I ran it slower than my marathon pace from Boston a year ago. (I repeat: TWO miles at a time, slower than last year’s 26 mile pace.) Since it was shorter, I wanted to get close to 10k pace, but I ran even slower than my pace from my first ever 10k (two and a half years ago.)

It was humid, so I could blame that. (And I probably will complain about summer running in a post soon. Summer temps haven’t yet hit DC, but the humidity has.) But I can’t leave it at that. Clearly there’s a weakness here, which probably accounts for my lackluster 5k and 10k times. Thankfully, I do run much faster in races; sometimes surprisingly so considering some of these workouts. A few weeks ago, I wasn't able to run 2 miles at my projected 10 mile pace, but then did relatively fine in the race a few days later. Imagine what I could do if I could actually nail the workouts!

Dream big,

Friday, May 18, 2012

Back on Track*

*Literally. Metaphorically to be determined.

Yesterday I hit the track for the first time since the marathon. I’m set on trying shorter races before the next marathon training cycle starts (which always sneaks up on me sooner than expected!) so I’m at the track trying to get some speed back in my legs. Serendipitously, this month’s issue of Running Times had an article about stepping down from marathons to 5ks. It outlines some track workouts for the marathoner turned 5ker. Perfect.

The first is a set of 200m repeats: 5x (5x200m) at 5k pace. Translation: five 200-meter repeats (1/2 lap of the track = ~1/8 mile) with a 30 second jog between each repeat. Then a three-minute jog before doing another 5x200m, repeating this cycle until a total of 5 sets are complete = 5 x 5 x 200m = 5k.

The idea behind the workout is to get your legs turning over quickly again. It seems a little silly to be doing 200m repeats at this pace (5k pace for 200m is not fast), but I know I wouldn’t be able to run a straight 5k at that pace, so there is work to be done and this is just the beginning. The workouts progress each week to 400m repeats, then 800m, and so on, all done at 5k pace, until you can string together some 1k repeats at goal pace.

I was able to beat my goal time in all my 200s. I thought it felt a little too easy, and so on the last set I tried to pick up the pace, but ending up running the same pace as the rest. Perhaps it was harder than I thought. I think my real problem is not so much the turnover but being able to sustain the kind of pain of a 5k (different than marathon pain) for a long time (again, “long” has a different meaning here) but that’s what the progression is for. Also, since I beat my goal time, I can confidently move onto the next workout.

One catch to this workout: my $10 Target watch doesn’t record that many splits, and I don’t bother with a Garmin at the track. So I had to memorize all those splits until I could get home and record them in my log. Psychologists used to believe the brain was capable of holding only 7 items (words, numbers, or sounds) in its memory at once. (I’ve heard this is why phone numbers are 7 digits.) In these tests, people have to remember both the item and the order it came in the list. People can employ strategies where they group meaningful items together (“chunking”) and it’s now thought that the limit of 7 isn’t a hard and fast rule but depends on what type of item you’re trying to remember (number vs. word), how you can group them, etc. It’s been proposed that 4 chunks may be closer to capacity. (Look at that, I stuck some science in here. Happy Friday.)

Ok, but I have 25 things to memorize. They are already conveniently arranged in meaningful “chucks” (the five sets) so now it’s a matter of memorizing the actual times. People that are memory champions are able to memorize a deck of cards in less than 1 minute by assigning each item a vivid image. They let the images tell a story, which they then recall back. I didn’t have to get that crazy, but I did try to use images to remember the numbers. Since I had sets of 5 things, I counted on my fingers and toes. (Yep, just like when I was three.) I imagined my hand flat on a table. If I hit 42s, I imagined my finger coming up off the table; 41s the finger was flat on the table, 40s the finger was bent over. (Fortunately, I was pretty consistent and didn’t have to think of other finger configurations.) The pinky on my left hand was the first repeat, the ring finger the second, etc. After one set, I'd picture the whole hand and all the fingers' positions and then I moved onto the next hand, then each foot. After 4 sets, I had to lap back to my first hand again, but that wasn’t difficult. I suppose you could keep going like this until either your head explodes or your legs give out, your times slip, and your imaginary hand configurations get too grotesque to visualize. I didn't have to go that far, and by the time I got home, I was able to recall all 25 times in order.

Overall it was a good workout and it didn’t leave me completely tanked, which means I’m ready to move on to the next one. Maybe I am metaphorically "back on track" as well. Either way, I’ll only have to remember 15 items (400m and 200m times) next week.

Dream big,

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Thanks, Mom

A new commercial for  P&G, an Olympic sponsor:
When I was younger, I was obsessed with the idea that I would become an Olympic gymnast, despite being over a foot too tall and not all that great at gymnastics. My parents didn't discourage it. My Mom even built a little balance beam in our backyard. When I gave up that madness, Mom took me to whatever sport struck my fancy next. Before I obsessed over gymnastics, there was T-ball and ballet. After gymnastics, I delved into soccer and basketball, before finally finding cross country and track. In high school, my sister and I competed on different teams (meaning twice as many meets, twice as much driving, twice as many pasta parties), and my parents still managed to make it to all our races. Now, my parents continue to come to my marathons and every race of any distance they can make it to.

We're not all Olympians, but our moms still put in Olympic worthy effort. Thanks to all the moms for supporting our dreams, now matter how crazy, or how much they change.

Love you, Mom.

Dream big,

Friday, May 11, 2012

Science Friday: Fatty Diets Lead to Bigger Waists & Bigger Brains*

*Not in a good way.

Neuroscientists used to believe new neurons weren’t made in the adult brain. They thought that once our brains are done developing, that’s all we get. We now know this isn’t the case; in very few places in the adult brain, we can detect new neurons being created. One of these areas, the hippocampus, is important for memory. Interestingly, exercise has been shown to increase the number of hippocampal neurons. (This is old news, but still pretty awesome.) Additionally, the subventricular zone has been shown to contain new neurons which incorporate into a pathway important for smell. Recently, Blackshaw and colleagues detected newly born neurons in another area of the brain called the hypothalamus, an area important for the regulation of eating and drinking, among other things.

In this study, the researchers used a special technique that labels neurons that have recently been born so they can be distinguished from neurons that have been around for a while. With this tool, they found a particular type of cell, the tanycyte, to be actively dividing (making new cells) in a region of the adult mouse hypothalamus called the medial eminence. They performed a couple of tests to show the new neurons were active and functional, meaning they had a purpose and were being put to use by the surrounding cells.

This is the first study to suggest adult neurogenesis (creating new neurons) plays a role in weight regulation. What’s interesting to me is the reciprocal relationship between the body and the brain. If we eat stuff that’s bad for us, it affects our* brains in ways that tell us to eat more and move less. It's probably best to eat healthy than try to battle that double whammy. But if you do splurge, resist the urge to sit around all day and get out and be active. That way your hippocampus will grow (better memories!) while your waist and hypothalamus don't. 

*These studies are in mice and shouldn’t be extrapolated to humans. But like all good wannabe scientists, I’m going to anyway.

P.S. Happy birthday to my Dad, the inspiration for my scientific endeavors.

Dream big, 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Race Report: Broad Street 10 Miler, aka the Family Duel

Brother and me joking around at mile 1.
With very little warning, they started the race. No countdown, no "Ready, set, go." Just BAM! And we're off. Brother and sister fighting for the title of fastest 10 miler in the family. First mile flies by, we don't even notice the mile marker until we hear other runners talking about it. We see our family cheering wildly, decked out in Team Teal shirts and holding a reversible Brother/FiancĂ©e sign. We run side by side for the first few miles. Around three miles, there's a slight break and I'm losing, but I dig a bit deeper and catch up on the downhill. Can't get dropped just yet. Instead I make a slight move, and a gap opens. A mile later, we're back to side by side. One more move, and I'm alone in front. Around mile 5, we round City Hall (the only turns on the point to point course) and I think I see my competition fly by. Crap, I'm losing again and I didn't have a chance to keep up with that flash of speed. I hold my ground, keeping my eyes on my competition, and keep on ticking off the miles. Mile 6, more family cheering wildly. I can't make out what they're saying, but I think it's something about how I can catch up. The miles are taking their toll, I'm slowing from our original fast pace, but the gap isn't widening and I'm not fading back any further. Mile 9, Team Teal is out again. The Rocky theme song is playing, I'm almost there. About a quarter of a mile from the finish, there is an archway and people raise their hands to pose for photos. Suddenly, sprinting by on my right, is my actual competition. Whoever I've been keeping a careful eye on ahead is the wrong person. I answer back with my own surge, pass them back, and realize I've been leading the whole time. And we're so close. I see the finish up ahead, hold my lead, and win the family duel.

"Beet Teal"
A great race, a great story, and a great finish. Except it wasn't mine. That was my Brother's experience from Sunday's race. Mine was the experience of the person who was actually losing from mile 4 on, and who ended up losing the family competition. When Brother heard the cheering for me (I was 20 yards behind), he mistakenly thought they were telling him to go after me, since he saw another girl of my size and complexion run by in pink tank top. He didn't realize it wasn't me until my ill planned surge. I mistakenly thought the photo archway and people raising their arms was the finish and put on a sprint. (Having run this race before, Brother knew better.) I realized when I saw people continue running past the archway that it wasn't the finish, but it was too late. I wish I had the energy or will to Lopez Lomong it and keep pushing until the actual finish line, but I didn't. I'm not beating myself up too much though. I was purposefully and wisely taking it easy after Charlottesville, and there's no need to be in amazing shape right now. I was happy I was able to keep some resemblance of speed (my previous week's workout hinted otherwise) although my ten mile split from the half marathon I ran back in March was faster. Of course, I don't like losing, but Brother was more set on winning this competition and even made a shirt expressing his desire to beat me (see photo.) Personally I like when we work together more in races (he paced me at Boston and we ran a half together before that) but there's talk of a rematch this fall. (How lame is it when the loser says they don't like these duels?) It will be back at my favorite distance (the marathon) but back on his turf (Philadelphia.) I'm 2 for 2 in poor showings in Philly (I ran a disappointing half there in the fall of 2009), so I'm hoping the tables turn before this fall. 

The family: Team Teal members and Broad St. finishers.
Afterwards, we both agreed that the race validated what I've mentioned about the brain's powerful effect. When Brother thought he saw me run by at mile 5, he had a gut feeling it wasn't me, but his brain told him to ignore it. He convinced himself that was me and kept pushing. He heard our family cheering "Go Teal" but his mind turned it into "Go get Teal." When he did realize the actual situation, as I came sprinting by, he suddenly got both a surge of hope and a surge of power and was able hang onto the lead. For my part, I know I gave up after that archway. I settled for second family member. I could have attempted another sprint, but my heart wasn't in it, and so I lost. I may have had better times going into this duel, but he had more desire and so he got his win. No matter, I'll be back to my competitive self before too long, and certainly before November.

Dream big, 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

On to the Next One

It’s been almost four weeks since my marathon. In that time, I’ve slept in, splurged on junk food unworthy of training days, gone for some embarrassingly short runs, and tried to enjoy the time off. Except that, I’m a runner. So I spent my time off thinking about when I could get back to running.

For one thing, I’m not entirely satisfied with my Charlottesville performance. Yes, it was a win and a PR, and I’m still thrilled by that. I gave my best that day. But, as you know, I have big goals, and a PR of two and a half minutes isn’t going to cut it. Yes, yes, the hills, they were terrible. But there’s no way to tell what I’d have done without the hills until the next one. And so, on to the next one...

A few days ago, I signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon. It will be fast and flat and hopefully I can get a solid PR. Also, there was something about Charlottesville that didn’t make it feel like a real marathon. My legs felt it, for sure, but the atmosphere felt less like the Main Event that I make marathons out to be. Philly is bigger and more legitimate than Charlottesville (10,000 in the marathon, visible mile markers!), although not quite as big a spectacle (read: expensive) as NYC or Chicago. Hopefully there will be a bunch of women that I can latch onto; I’m not looking to run alone again. Also, I’m excited to run a race I haven’t run before; the last three have been repeats. And as Team Teal has its roots in and around Philly, hopefully they’re happy to hear this news.

So I’ve signed up and secured my spot, but training won’t start until mid-July. In the meantime, there’s fun to be had at shorter distances. I’m hoping to run some 5ks and 10ks in the coming weeks and to try to improve my PRs so they are not so embarrassing next to my marathon one.

But first I’m running the Broad St. 10 miler in Philly this weekend. I’ve never raced this soon after a marathon (4 weeks), but I couldn’t resist signing up since I’ve wanted to do this one for a few years. A bunch of friends and family are running, including my Brother who has challenged me to a sibling rivalry. He lives in Philly and is intent on winning on his home turf. In the last few weeks, he’s been getting into shape, while I’ve been seemingly decomposing (see above). I’ve been running a little, but always watchless, not caring about the pace, just how my body feels. I’m always impressed with people that can run successfully a few days after a marathon, pick back up their mileage, run some speedwork. I am not one of those people; I feel beat up and slow after a race and I’m careful to give myself all the recovery I need. Last weekend I was feeling like the old Runner Teal again, so yesterday I wore my watch for the first time. I was hoping to do a mile or two at the pace I want to run Sunday. I thought it would help boost my confidence that I hadn’t lost everything. It backfired. I don’t know if it was the humidity, the little sleep I got, or the chocolate bars I’ve gorged on since the race, but I bombed. I couldn’t keep the pace for one mile, I’m not sure how I’ll handle ten. The good news is I’ve never run a 10 mile race, so automatically I’ll PR. (This is the standard line of thinking. But what if I run slower than half marathon or even marathon pace? Then my ten mile split from those races will still be faster. This is seeming more and more realistic.) I know I can’t base a race on one workout, but I haven’t been doing any workouts so that's all I've got. I keep thinking about a 10k I ran a few years ago on very little training a few weeks after a marathon. I surprisingly PRed and Brother said it was because I hadn’t lost as much fitness as I thought I had. (It’s all mental!) This is what scares him going into Sunday. Either way, instead of thinking of this as a race that I’ve stayed in great shape for, I’m thinking of it as a race to kick off summer racing. And if the sibling rivalry fizzles, I’ll be back in Philly in November. Just saying.

Dream big,

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

An Extra Lap

The talk among track nerds this week is Lopez Lomong's debut 5k last weekend. You may remember Lomong as the flag bearer from the 2008 Olympics, an honor bestowed on him for his incredible life story as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. He grew up in South Sudan and was captured by rebel soldiers at age 6. He escaped, literally by running to Kenya.  He lived for ten years in a refugee camp before being given the opportunity to come to the US. After becoming a US citizen, he ran the 1500m in the Beijing Olympics.

He had never raced a 5k until last weekend. The video of the final laps of that race is below.  

Lomong kicks away from the rest of the field, amasses a huge lead, and crosses the line in triumph. He thinks he's done and he's won. BUT, he miscalculated. He was a lap short and has a whole lap to go. The officials let him know, and he gets back to running. He STILL manages to beat everyone else in the field, despite slowing, stopping, regaining his form, and running a lap more than he thought. He set a world leading time in the process (meaning no one has run a 5k faster this season.) While the season is just beginning, it's still an incredible feat to run that fast in your first 5k, beat a talented field, and have stopped in the middle of it. 

It reminds me of the coaches that make you run X number of intervals and then tack on one more when you think you're finished, teaching you to always have something left in the tank. When he realized he had another lap to go Lomong thought "No way, it's not going to happen." But he got back to it. It also proves a point I talked about last week. When you think the finish line is close, you're able to pick it up. Furthermore, if that finish line is moved further away, you can still keep it up, even when you think you can't. Lomong proved that Sunday. He might think it was an embarrassing mistake, but I think it's inspiring. 

Dream big,