Thursday, December 11, 2014

Race Report: California International Marathon (CIM)

This is a doozy of a post. But if you've been following this blog, you've been waiting a while for this one. I promise it's worth it. 

BEFORE - The Warm Up

After Raleigh, I was on the phone with my sister, explaining—as usual—why I actually was not completely satisfied with my new half marathon PR (1:19:28). The truth was I wanted a 1:18 because I had read that translated to a sub-2:43 marathon, the time I needed to qualify for the Trials. I explained to my (understandably frustrated) sister that I was disappointed because I wanted to go for sub-2:43 this season, and now I lacked the half marathon result to back me up. But even while complaining, I started talking around it.

“Ahh, I’m still going to go for it, probably. If I go for 2:43 and blow up and run 2:48 or 2:50, I’ll be bummed, obviously. But if I play it safe and run 2:46, I’ll still be bummed. I don’t want a 2:46. I want a 2:43. Might as well give myself a shot.”

My sister (bless her heart, we share the same reach-for-the-stars genes) encouraged it. So did my husband, despite knowing he would bear the brunt of Disappointed Teal if this plan backfired.

Still, I needed at least one piece of evidence that it wasn’t bat-$#*! crazy. My remaining marathon pace workout was the last chance to do something 2:43 worthy. The previous two had gone well, exactly on target: 10 miles at 6:21 in early October, 13 miles at 6:18 in late October. Knowing my race day confidence hung on the last one, I nailed it, running an average of 6:12 pace for 16 miles, exactly my goal pace for a sub-2:43. (6:13 pace will squeak you under at 2:42:53 but eek, that is too close for comfort. 2:43:01 does not get you to the Trials.) And so, with that workout, I was all in for sub-2:43. I was going for it.

And I damn well better fight with everything I’ve got, because CIM was easily the best opportunity I had at sub-2:43. I had a (nearly) flawless season, and who knows if I could put together another season as good as this one, without injury, sickness, etc. Also, CIM was encouraging people to get the standard, providing pace teams and financial incentives. The weather looked pretty close to ideal, and ended up being even more perfect than predicted. The course is net downhill, one of the fastest around. Although it isn’t really “around” me, as I—and my husband and parents—was traveling across the freaking country for this race. I damn well better make it worth it.

As I tried to force my brain to soak up every bit of motivation and positivity I could, fear tried to elbow its way in. Not every workout was encouraging; many of the last few were done in cold, driving rain. The times were slower and the paces felt harder, a discouraging combination. Was I falling apart in the end? My disappointing performance in Boston hung over me like an ominous cloud. If this one also went poorly, I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull myself up and try again. I didn’t want to deal with another post-marathon depression, or put my husband through that. I had to break 2:43.

We’ve had a bottle of champagne gathering dust for a while, no big reason to pop it. At one point I thought, “We’ll pop that when I break 2:43.” I wanted to write <2:43 on it, saving it for that occasion and that occasion only, but then I thought I better not. If I didn’t get it, it would just serve as one more reminder of disappointment. But then I thought if I didn’t believe in myself enough to do that, what the hell was I doing? You can’t go into a race not believing. I took out a Sharpie and scribbled on the bottle. Before we left for Sacramento, my husband put it in the fridge. It would be chilled and waiting.

Our flight to the West Coast got cancelled, rebooked, and delayed. We arrived in Sacramento at 3 am East Coast time on Friday night, which was not helping my pre-race stress levels. I struggle to get enough sleep as it is, and there went a few more hours.

Saturday morning, after my shakeout run, I was feeling better. As I gently stretched and listened to pump up music, I felt awesome. I’m ready! This is it! And then—suddenly, like a lobotomy to the part of the brain confidence comes from—I completely fell apart. What the hell am I thinking? How could I expect to run twenty-six miles at 6:12 pace?? That is completely insane! I was putting so much damn pressure on myself, it was surely going to end in disappointment. 

My husband took me in a big bear hug to silence my hysterical, dry-heaving sobs. I don’t remember what he said, something along the lines of “shut the hell up, you’re going to do great,” but in a more loving way. It worked, and I just tried not to think about the reality of the situation too much for the rest of the day; through the expo, carbohydrate feasts, and failed attempts at naps, I tried to just think positively and focus on my cache of motivation. Not about the reality of 6:12 pace for 26 miles.

One small and simple piece of motivation that has worked for me all season is from Kara Goucher. In one of her Driven episodes on Flotrack she talks about her race in the 2007 World Championships 10,000m. Alberto Salazar encourages her to go for it. (“If you play it safe and kick into tenth, what’s the difference if you go for it and blow up and finish tenth? But which strategy actually gives you a shot of doing something big?” Sound familiar?) He tells her to “stay on their butts.” With a lap to go, Kara is in 5th and pleased, no one expected her to do that well. But then she has an epiphany, that she could do better than 5th, that she isn’t really giving her everything just yet. She tells herself, “Kara, just try.” She musters up her remaining energy to pass two people and nabs the bronze medal.

It’s simple, but that stuck with me. Are you really trying? Just try. That mentality got me big PRs at ten miles and the half-marathon. I planned to rely on it again at CIM.

On Sunday morning, after another restless night, I got out of bed shaking, either from exhaustion, or nerves, or both. Just try not to think: put on your race kit, eat your bagel, get to the start. Don’t think about the reality.

In an attempt to calm my nerves, I made my final decision of the training season: I’d stick with the pacer. He had relayed his plan before the race: a slight negative split, with 6:15-6:17 miles for the first ten and then cut down in the second half. That scared me a bit, I was planning to run as close to evenly as possible (6:12s the whole way). I wasn’t sure what seeing splits over pace would do to my confidence. And I wasn’t sure I could run 6:10s or faster in the latter stage of a marathon. I planned to run the first mile with the pacer, to prevent going out too fast. Then I’d see how I felt from there. But in the final moments of freaking out, I decided I would stick with the pacer no matter what. I was handing this stranger my dream and trusting him with it. But the effect was calming.

Kara’s words popped up in my head. But they weren’t “Just try” like I had expected. Instead, it was “Stay on their butts.” Get with that pacer, and glue yourself to him.

DURING – The Race

The first mile was too fast, even with the pacer. Another girl in the pack (of maybe thirty people) made a snorting noise. Um, hello, that was a 6:00. Too fast. What are we doing? But the next few miles we settled down. People were chatting, the pacer was breaking the ice, making jokes. The first of the elite water stops (which had stressed me out before the race, as they meant twenty-plus women converging on one table to grab their individual water bottle, all while running 6:12 pace) passed without much incident. People who missed their bottles were offered sips from those who had theirs. We were a team, a swarm heading for a mutual goal. One woman laughed and said, “This is the funniest race I’ve ever been in,” referring to the pacer and his jokes. It was true; the pressure of the biggest race of my life was dimmed by the lighthearted atmosphere. I relaxed a bit, so much so that I missed mile markers 2 and 3. I didn’t care. My fellow dreamers were nodding or cheering approvingly as we came through them on target. At four miles I decided I should probably start paying attention to the splits, but I did not plan on leaving this group anytime soon, or ever.

Stay on their butts.

Water bottles designed for high visibility and easy grab-ability.
Besides Kara’s words, I had other mantras planned. I had listened to Eminem on repeat; along with “Lose Yourself” (my ultimate favorite), this season “‘Til I Collapse” had been particularly powerful. But during the race, as I thought about the enormity of this marathon and this goal, instead of my tried-and-true rap songs, I found myself singing something else.

Despite being of the boy band generation—and thus knowing every single word to that song—just that line repeated. You’re all I ever wanted…. It was annoying, an endless loop. But it had the intended effect. In the moment, it did seem like this was all I ever wanted.

Through the 10k, through ten miles, I stayed glued to the pack. There was some jostling at turns and water stops—not something I’m used to experiencing, as I don’t race on the track and jostling pretty much ends at mile 1 in a marathon—but no major incidents. I was just trying to turn off my brain as much as possible and focus on what the pacer was saying, or the next time I’d see my family or have to cut over for a water bottle. Don’t think about how there’s 18, 17, 16 miles left to go. One of my teammates was just ahead of me. He had run a 2:42 at CIM last year, and here we were, poised to do exactly that today. His presence was calming and the cheers from his family an added boost.

Also, in addition to Chris Mocko, our official pacer, the other pacer—who would take us through 20 miles—was Kim Conley, the 2012 Olympian in the 5000. It’s not everyday (any day?) you get to run alongside an Olympian for 20 miles, and I reminded myself to be keenly aware of the awesomeness of the situation.

Stay on their butts.

In the pack at mile 8. The man with the visor is our amazing pacer.
One thing that was stressing me out was the targets Mocko had said for the two halves. When one woman asked, I swear he responded with something like 1:21:41 for the first, and 1:21:21 for the second, but that didn’t add up. I spent a few miles (seriously) debating this. Did I hear him wrong? Can I not do math? Crap. But still, I would not give up running with this group. First because I didn’t have a single morsel of belief that I could go faster, and second because it was so unbelievably amazing to have someone try to distract you for 26 miles.

You’re all I ever wanted…

We came through the half in 1:21:16, and the swarm breathed a collective sigh of relief (some cheered) that we were right on pace. I was relieved because—proving that I cannot do math mid-marathon—I mistakenly thought we were ahead of my planned 6:12 pace (we were actually a few seconds slow). Either way, we had not gone out as slowly as I worried, and we didn’t have the daunting task of trying to speed up in the second half. My coach later pointed out that 1:21:16 would have been a half-marathon PR a little over a month ago. Fortunately, I did not think about that. I was actively trying to not think about anything. Not think about how we were only halfway. Not think about how that was the easy half, and it was going to get much harder. But with every mile, it was getting more and more difficult to not think. I tried to get as close to Mocko as possible so I could focus on what he was saying, not on any doubts trying to squeeze their way in.

He asked us to dig deep for the next few miles, and I remember thinking, “And then what? We’ll be digging deep from here on out.” He was right though; miles 13-19 are always the toughest. It’s where I’ve fallen apart too many times, and I stationed my husband and parents in these miles so I would get a boost when I needed it most. I reminded myself I had done 16 in practice, and had added 3 miles with each workout. If this was just a workout day, I could at least get to 19 miles, so let's just take it mile by mile until 19. Surprisingly, I didn’t need any other mental pep talks just yet. I wasn't falling apart. I was still in this, despite the pace and the distance we had already covered. I saved my stores of motivation (mantras, people to think about, encouraging tidbits) for later. Try to get through one more mile without having to fight too hard. Each mile ticked by and I was still doing okay. I just tried to blur everything out but what Mocko said about television shows, non-alcoholic beer, or that guy in the tutu. And I sang silently in my head.

You’re all I ever wanted…

Still with the pack at 19. (Kim Conley is half off screen on the right.)
We hit mile twenty at 2:04:15, 15 seconds slower than 6:12 pace but still under 2:43. Barely. Was it enough? (I didn’t/couldn’t calculate it then, but we were just 5 measly seconds under 2:43 pace. I am incredibly grateful that I didn’t realize this at the time.) I was still feeling relatively okay, considering. I could do this. Kim Conley left us with some words about how awesome we were doing. Um please, you’re an Olympian. This is unreal.

I had been trying to stay in the front of the pack, as close to the pacer as I could, so that I could hear him well. After twenty miles, I looked around and realized there weren’t many of us left. Some had picked it up; I could see them forging on just ahead. But others had fallen back. Mocko asked the remaining three of us where we wanted him to be, just ahead or alongside. It was time to get serious. The gauntlet had been thrown down, only instead of competing against each other, it was us vs. 2:43. This is it. The final few dreamers in the final few miles.

The final few dreamers.
A feeling of desperation seemed to hang in the fog as we got closer and closer to downtown. I started tapping those mental reserves that I had saved. I hadn’t fallen apart at halfway or at 15 or 19. I was here, on the other side of the wall, in the part of the marathon I tell myself that I always shine. Mocko reminded us to think about the people that got us here, that always support us, which is exactly what I had been telling myself. I thought of my husband, my family, my teammates. But mostly I thought about Lauren.

Lauren was our teammate who was killed walking across the street at the 2012 Club Cross Country Championships. Monday would be the two-year anniversary of her death, and as I ran in Sacramento, my teammates back home were jogging a memorial run in her honor. On a team full of NCAA superstars, Lauren had a similar story to me; she didn’t run in college, but started running on her own, shaping herself into a GRC-worthy athlete. Lauren also shared my goal to run in the Trials, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she would have made it. She had the crucial combination of an enormous work ethic and incredible grit. I had dedicated this race to her, and here I was in the final and hardest miles. Lauren wouldn’t have given up even a second here, and dammit, neither will I.

With 5K left, Mocko doubled his efforts to keep us going. “Twenty minutes and only a 5K left. You can run a 20 minute 5K, c’mon!” That’s true, stranger, I can run a 20 minute 5K, but you have no idea how shockingly close that is to my PR (Reminder: I am terrible at 5Ks.) And, hello! I have just run 23 miles at 6:12 pace. Holy crap, am I going to screw this up? I can’t. I have to make it.

One step at a time.

Keep pushing.

Stay on their butts.

You’re all I ever wanted…

For Lauren. Do it for Lauren.

I started worrying. Was this pace really fast enough? We only had a few seconds to spare at 20 miles, what if we lost that? Was this 20-minute-5K-pace? I was freaking out we weren’t going fast enough, but also fully aware that I could go no faster. At mile 24, Mocko told us we had 14 minutes left. 14 minutes? Is that enough? I can’t do math anymore. If I run 6-flat, that gives me 2 minutes to run 0.2. Is that enough? (Spoiler alert if you do the—actually very easy—math.) I wasn’t sure. I also wasn’t running 6-flat. Shit. I gotta move. This is it. THIS. IS. IT.

So I pulled slightly ahead of Mocko and the other girls. Mocko had told us not to look at our watches (what’s the point? Just freaking run AS FAST AS YOU CAN) but I was looking at mine every other block. I had to be sure I was still going fast enough. (What would I have done if I wasn’t??) My Garmin seemed to be hovering around 6 flat and I just tried to keep going at that pace. I knew the final turn was onto 8th Street, but I made the mistake of looking at a street sign and seeing 29th Street. Oh God, so far to go.

As we neared the park and the turn onto 8th, pretty much everything was a blur. I heard my mom screaming, but the fact that she was there (I hadn’t expected that) didn’t register as surprising. Everything seemed to be in some universe outside of where I was; I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other. I glanced at my watch one final time as I neared the mile 26 marker. I had two minutes left, and only 0.2 to go. My math ability came back to me. I could run 8-minute pace and still make it.

Holy shit, I’m going to make it.

I had imagined this moment hundreds (thousands?) of times, on training runs, pre-race sleepless nights, hard workouts. For years, it was a non-descript finish, but more recently it morphed into CIM’s finish. The clock would say 2:42 something, I would sprint towards it, throw my hands up and thank God, touch my LWR patch in remembrance of Lauren, and then break down crying.

It was almost exactly as I pictured it, except I started crying as soon as I made the turn. It was overwhelming and unbelievable. Even though it played out exactly as it had in my dreams, I couldn’t process it. In the final 200 meters I was completely overwhelmed by emotion. Somehow my legs continued surging forward despite my breakdown from the neck up.

I did it. 2:42:13 (chip time).

2:42. Olympic Trials, here we come.
AFTER – The Cool Down

The rest continued like the dream: I threw my hands up and thanked God. I know everyone has their own religious beliefs, but the way this season has gone, the way that race went—so completely perfectly—cannot be rationalized (by me, at least) to be anything less than the work of God. Running that fast, achieving this dream, was a religious experience. So I thanked Him for it. I couldn’t have done it otherwise.

Next I had my moment for Lauren. I couldn’t have done it without her either. And when I run in the Olympic Trials in LA, I know she’ll be there with me too.

And then I continued my emotional breakdown. Basically I just spun around in circles, crying, hugging my husband, crying, hugging my mom, more crying. I couldn’t (still can’t) freaking believe it. I found Mocko—my savior—and gave him a big hug and more tears. I cannot thank him enough for pulling me through the entirety of that race. I could not have done it without him and my last minute decision to put my faith completely in his hands seemed like another work of God.

Sharing disbelief and tears with Mom.
I found my dad, my other teammates, called my siblings. More tears. We went out to lunch and celebrated, and have basically been celebrating since. I still cannot believe it. Sometimes I remember that it has really happened and want to jump up and down or dance around (possibly to *NSYNC?). I don’t think I’ve frowned since 9:42 Sunday morning. I can’t begin to express what a huge deal this was for me (um hello, it finally validated the name of this blog), or my immense gratitude to everyone who helped along the way. The outpouring of congratulations has only proven that my tear ducts are, in fact, bottomless.

It still feels like a dream, like my final 200 meters are just the imaginary finish I’ve been picturing for the last five years. Did that really happen? Can I really say (like I did a few paragraphs ago) ‘when I run the Olympic Trials’? It seems like a dream.

Because it was. Like I said, dream big. It’s the only way it will come true.

Always believe.

Dream big, 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Race Report: Raleigh Half Marathon

A 1:20 half marathon is one of those alluring, round number barriers that begs to be broken. (Earlier this year, an interesting study came out about how there’s an uptick in finishers just under barriers like this. A 2:59:59 marathon is so much more enticing than a 3:00:01.) I’ve wanted a sub-1:20 for a while now and breaking it this season would give me elite status at CIM, an added motivation.

After nightmares of Philly were replaced by much better memories of Army, I thought I had a sub-1:20 in the bag. I even thought—on a really great day—I could possibly go sub-1:19. That’s crazy to say, and I didn’t tell anyone that. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself; the primary goal for the Raleigh Half Marathon was sub-1:20. I’d go out at 6:05 pace (1:19:45) and see how I felt at halfway. Maybe—like Army—I could slice some more off in the second half.

On paper, the course seemed fair: a few hills, but doable. It was a bit windy, but cool. I started slightly too fast, but the first couple miles were downhill. In mile 3, I tried to relax and reel in my pace, but then missed the mile marker. By mile 4, I realized I had slowed way too much. Crap.

From the elevation chart, I had told myself (and my teammates) about two major hills: one from mile 4-5 and one from mile 8-9. Worried by the slow splits for miles 3 and 4, I knew I had to snap back to race mode and get through mile 5 strong, despite the hill. I managed to hit mile 5 just a hair too slow, and was comforted when I made up some time on miles 6 and 7. Although I again missed a mile marker, I saw the 10K split was just a few seconds off my Army 10k split (before I picked it up in the second half). At this point, negative splitting didn’t seem so plausible, but my mental calculations told me I was pretty much right on 6:05 pace.

But up ahead loomed mile 8, with the second (and seemingly last) big hill. I figured I’d slow, but at least after that the hills would be over.

I eagerly awaited the end of the 8th mile and the end of the hill, but it seemed to be dragging on forever; we were still going up. Eventually I realized I had missed another mile marker (where were these things?); mile 8 had long ago ended, and yet, the hill had not. At every turn I thought the course would flatten, but it didn’t. I wanted to catch my teammate in front of me just so I could commiserate about these incessant hills.

When I finally did get the splits, it was discouraging: miles 8 and 9 were way too slow. Though mile 10 was better, I didn’t make up any lost time. In these miles—from 8 on—I got angry. I anthropomorphized the course, as if it was some evil entity out to get me. At mile ten—realizing I was in serious jeopardy of missing my sub-1:20—I got even madder. Damn you, Raleigh Course, you think you can take my 1:20? No way. I need it. I need the confidence it will bring me before CIM. I need to prove to myself I am in PR shape. I could not keep letting the hills slow me, I had to make up time. I could not let this course steal my 1:20.

As we turned onto the last section—an out and back from mile 11 to the finish—I was relieved. There wasn’t much more to go, and, best of all, it seemed flat. Then the split for the eleventh mile came. 6:16. I cursed, out loud. The guy next to me didn’t know what to make of it. Sorry, dude: it’s 1:20 or bust. I was still over, still slowing. Falling farther behind, instead of making up time. Like I said, $*!#. 

The problem was I didn’t have much room left to make up time. Like a chase pack that let the leader get too far ahead, I worried I’d run of out space. I had to get going now. I couldn’t let 1:20 slip away, not by one second or ten.  I needed to start dropping seconds, fast.

So I put everything I had into picking it up. I missed the 12th mile marker, but it didn’t faze me, I was just sprinting to the end. Even though we were running straight down the road, it was impossible to see the finish because there was—cruelly—one more hill. Up and over the last hill, I would not relent until I saw those numbers on the clock. As I got closer, they were clearly flashing low 1:19 (Thank God!) and all I had to do was push through the line before they crept any higher. I did, in 1:19:28. (By my dubious post-race analysis, I ran the last 2.1 miles at 5:49 pace.)
Part of the prize for 3rd place: a painting of the race.
A new PR by over two minutes, third place woman, tenth overall (male and female). The PR, combined with prizes (see above) and sweet swag (two (!) t-shirts and local brews in the beer tent), should have taken away my anger at the course, at the hills. Instead, despite everyone’s excitement about how well I’d done, I was oddly slightly disappointed. (Note: this actually isn’t odd for me. I am rarely satisfied, as I’m always looking for more. My family and friends know this and get frustrated accordingly.)

Of course I’m happy I broke 1:20, the big barrier that seems to mean something significant when you get on the other side of it. But somehow I thought it would be easier, that 1:20 was a sure thing and I’d be creeping in on sub-1:19. In reality, I landed smack in the middle of my two goals (1:19:28). But being so far off in the second half and essentially sprinting (or a marathoner’s version of a sprint anyway) the last two miles didn’t feel like a roaring success. It was scary, a jolting reminder that a few bad miles can take everything away from you. There are no guarantees. You have to fight for every PR.

And that’s the real success, the thing I’m most proud of, that I’ll take with me to CIM: that I fought. I was close to not making my goal, and I didn’t give up on myself. I didn’t make an excuse like I have in so many other recent races. When it got tough, I toughened up. I didn’t relent. CIM certainly will not be easy, I’ll need to fight for it. Not like Boston 2013 or Boston 2014, but like Raleigh 2014.

Dream big,

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Thin Line

So far, I’m having the best season of my life.

Here’s the problem: I’m scared I’ll lose it at any moment.

Of course it is always more enjoyable to be running well than running poorly. I cannot/will not/am not complaining about running well. But… I’m stressed nonetheless.

After Philly, things clicked and then took off. I snapped out of the either self-induced (overtraining?) or DC-induced (the swamp of humidity?) funk I had been in since late August. I gained some confidence from my workouts, used that to set a big PR at Army, and have kept rolling ever since.

But I’m scared.

Scared I’ll run one mile too many, tweak an old injury, create a new one. Overstretch, under-stretch. Over-train, undertrain.

In the midst of my August Funk, I slashed my miles. Now I’m feeling good—better than ever—should I ease the mileage back up to my early season hopes? Or I am feeling good because of the lower mileage? I’ve opted for some in-between mileage purgatory; but is that still too high or too low?

Will I peak too soon? Am I peaking now?

Will my stress about hips and injuries and other imminent disasters hold me back? I thrive off high mileage and gain confidence from logging it, but I’d rather be cautious than hurt something. Will playing it safe backfire? If I never push myself, how will I get anywhere?

A week ago, I flipped through last season’s running log. I thought it would prove how much better this season is going (I’m doing everything right this time! I’m crushing every workout! Fall 2014 Teal could kick Spring 2014 Teal’s butt!) The problem with that seemingly innocent—albeit cocky—tactic? I was in better shape last spring than I remembered. I ran some of my best workouts to date and was feeling great going into Boston. But the marathon was a disaster. Am I setting myself up for the same disappointment? I continue to blame dehydration and not appreciating a warm day, but maybe it was peaking too early? Overtraining? Too much, too soon after the injury? Undertraining? Too cautious after the injury? Being overly ambitious? Will I make the same mistakes?

Despite this inner game of flip-flop, my workouts continue to improve. Fall 2014 Teal could kick Spring 2014 Teal’s butt. But, of course, my ambitions are higher, too. So the mental battle continues.

Maybe I just need something to worry about. Isn’t this the challenge of running and racing well? Pushing our limits is an experiment. Finding the perfect balance is part of the process. It’s a thin line between agony and glory. And we won’t know which side of the line we’re on until race day.

So all these questions will remain questions until December 7th. Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day for some, but D-Day for me. On that day I’ll know where I stand, if I’m going to win the war. I’ll get the answer to all these questions… too late to do anything about them.
It's not until we get to this line--the finish line--that we
know which side of the thin line we're on. 
But, first things first: this weekend, I’m shutting down the questions of over or under. Instead, I’ll focus on running the Raleigh Half Marathon, where I hope to set another big PR, suppressing all negativity as I go. Hopefully the result will prove that Fall 2014 Teal is better than ever and ready for battle on December 7th. 

Dream big,

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Race Report: 2014 Army Ten Miler

A patriotic shot from the Army Ten Miler.
When was the last time I had a good race? It’s seems like I’ve run race after race that has fallen far short of my goals. Through these disappointing and frustrating months, I’ve wondered if I lost some of my old grit and determination. The going gets tough, and I give up. Mid-race, I drown myself in thoughts of not being able to keep up, that this is crazy, that I’ll never be the runner I want to be. And sure enough, I race poorly and retroactively make excuses: it was too hot, too humid, I was dehydrated/sick/low on iron. I needed to stop giving up on myself. But first I needed a reason to believe that I shouldn’t.

Soon after Philly—one of my Worst Races Ever—I felt better. I did a tempo run and actually hit my goal pace, for possibly the first time in the history of RunnerTeal tempos. I felt like I had more pop in my legs at track practice. A marathon pace run was faster than ever before. I felt…. great.

But would I be able to translate this into a race? I haven’t in so long. I felt great in the spring, but Boston was a disappointment. I had to race well for once, to prove to myself I could.

And so I made a plan for the Army Ten Miler. It’s simple. Silly even. No Negative Self Talk. Anytime I thought I couldn’t do this, couldn’t keep this pace, couldn’t keep running, I would just bat it away. Bury that thought somewhere else. Because most of the time when you think that, you are still doing it: still running, still keeping the pace. Often, it’s only after you tell yourself you can’t that it becomes true.

The more literal (and perhaps less lofty) plan was to go out at 6:05 pace. That would be a big PR and seemed intimidating, but given my string of good workouts I tried to stay confident. The optimistic side of me thought if I made it through five miles at 6:05, I might even be able to pick it up. The pessimistic side of me was told to shut the hell up.

My pace in the early miles was a little erratic. My first mile was slightly too slow, the next too fast, then too slow, then too fast. There were some slight inclines and declines, so I blamed that. I relied heavily on my No Negative Self Talk strategy. I didn’t berate myself for a fast mile or a slow one.

No Negative Self Talk was simple, actually, and surprisingly not as impossible as I thought it might be. (Clearly, I was having a good race, but the cause and effect is perhaps debatable.) Whenever I had a negative thought I just ignored it. Thought about something else. Focused on my breathing, on my stride, on relaxing. Told myself I could keep up this pace, because I was so far, so shut up, Pessimistic Teal.

By five miles I was slightly ahead of 6:05 pace and feeling good. Great, let’s keep it rolling and see what happens. I had long ago given up on my early season hope of sub-60, but now I wondered: how close could I get?

So I continued to bat away any negative thoughts and take it one mile at a time. When I saw they had a marker for the 10K, I thought, “You know, this is probably a 10K PR.” The clock flashed 37 something, and, sure enough, it was. (My previous PR was 38:05.) One PR down, one to go.

The endless bridge.
Soon after the 10k, the course turns onto an endless bridge/highway. You’re on the thing for nearly two miles. I was still feeling good by the start of it, but at the end, as the highway rises slightly, I had had enough. I wanted to be done with the bridge and the race. This is when it got harder to bat away the negativity. I can’t claim I was pure positivity in the last few miles, but most importantly, I did not give up on myself.

Trying to will positivity into my legs.
We looped around some more on the other side of the bridge, and once again I had no clue where the finish line was. I heard them announcing other runners, cheering for the people squeezing in under an hour, and still I could not see the finish. I just tried to push, push, push (no negativity!), to get as close to 60 flat as possible.

My official time was 60:19, the second new PR of the day. (My average pace was also faster than my 5K PR pace; I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I hate am terrible at 5Ks.)
Eyes closed, but legs pushing.
Do I wish I could have run 19 seconds faster? Sure, who wouldn’t? But I honestly don’t know where those 19 seconds would have come from. I did not have the confidence to go out any faster than I did, and picking it up significantly in the last two or three miles didn’t seem possible. I always start off the season with really ambitious goals, but this time they’re not so far from my grasp. (Which is good, because I've got plenty more for this season!) Mostly, I feel rejuvenated. This was the first race in a long time where I didn’t give up and decide I couldn’t do it. So sub-60 be damned, I’m pretty satisfied with my new PR.

And my new strategy. Think positive, people.

(Also, don’t give up. That race in Philly was completely awful, but the workout it became helped me later. Never give up, even on the really terrible days.)

Dream big,

Friday, October 10, 2014

Pumpkin Infusion

Happy Pumpkin Mania!

I may seem late to this trend—apparently pumpkin season started back in August before pumpkins were actually in season—but I held out until Official Fall. (Each season deserves its proper time!)

As seemingly everyone knows at this time of year, pumpkins are awesome. A lot of the flavors we associate with pumpkins are actually just the spices used in pumpkin pie: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. Adding these spices to nearly everything isn’t a bad idea: cinnamon may help control blood sugar, while ginger has anti-inflammatory properties.

But adding actual pumpkin—along with the spices, if you so choose—is a better idea. Pumpkin is full of fiber and vitamin A, a vitamin important for your eyesight and your immune system. You can also use it as a replacement for oil and eggs in brownie and cookie recipes, although you lose the pumpkin flavor that way. Pumpkin seeds have lots of protein (8 grams in a half-cup), healthy fats, and minerals like manganese, magnesium, and phosphorous.

Pumpkins all around: oatmeal & tea, muffins, and Mr. RunnerTeal Homebrew.

But pumpkins aren’t just delicious and nutritious. How else can you embrace this trend as a runner, besides doing your next run through a pumpkin patch? Here are a few RunnerTeal ideas*:
*Not guaranteed or even at all likely to work. Please do not sue for pumpkin-related injuries, arguments with farmers, or fueling mishaps.
  • As weights: Hauling all those cans of pumpkin back from the grocery store (city dwellers) or pumpkins back from the patch (country folks) is a good arm workout.
  • As balance balls: Find a great, big, very round one and lay it on its side. Do your core work, stretching, etc. while balancing. Ignore strange looks from puzzled farmers.
  • As foam rollers: Using the smaller, bumpier pumpkins you discarded for the balance ball exercise, roll out those tight hamstrings, quads, and butt. (And seriously, extra bumpy is a plus.) For the city dwellers, a can might also work, particularly the larger sizes.
  • As energy gels: Here you’ll need the fake, candy-corn ones. They are full of carbs: six candy-corn pumpkins have 37 grams of carbohydrates, compared to 25 grams in GU. But... the pumpkins also have five times the sugar, close to twice the sodium (good for salty sweaters?), and no potassium, which is probably why Brach's does not appear at running expos... yet. 

If those ideas aren’t your flavor, below are some of my favorite pumpkin recipes*.
*Much more likely to work, or at least be delicious. Guaranteed to cause fewer strange looks than those above.

Dream big and pumpkin spice it up,

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

(Non)Race Report: Rock-n-Roll Philly Half

Sunday was the latest battle in Philadelphia vs. RunnerTeal. I was taking on the Rock-n-Roll half and—for once in Philly—I wanted a win. Even a loosely defined one.

The best part of the day was when Kara Goucher spoke to me. In the elite area before the race, I was standing behind her in the porta-potty line. The race coordinators were yelling about how we all needed to get to the start, but the line wasn’t budging. Kara turned to me and asked, “Can’t we just pee behind the porta-potties?” I tried to say something helpful, but instead made a useless nervous giggle/noise. She disregarded my pathetic-ness, hopped out of line, checked out the situation, and—deciding it was a least semi-private—announced to the line, “Yea, I’m going to make this a thing.” Apparently, Kara Goucher is quite humble about where she pees. (Although, in stressed moments before a race, aren’t all runners?) Post-race, I had the chance to redeem my lack of skills interacting with running celebrities when Deena Kastor came up beside me at the dessert table. I wanted to ask, “How did you do, Deena?” as I hadn’t yet heard if she had broken the Master’s World Record. (She had.) Instead, I stood there pathetically and watched her eagerly select a mini-cupcake (red velvet, for those wondering).

The fact that the best part of the day was a pee-related incident with my idol says something. The day did not go well.
Changing socks. Not generally a photogenic moment,
but you can play Find My New Best Friend in the background.
After Kara and I became fast friends, we headed to the starting line. As I stood in the corral, bopping around to the music to stay loose, watching all the spectators snap photos of the elites, I thought, “You know, this is pretty awesome.” And not just because someone decided (incorrectly, as it turned out) that I was worthy to stand at the front. The start of any race is awesome. The music is going, the city streets are cleared just for us runners, spectators are out to repeatedly tell us we are awesome. I was reminded of what Mary Wittenberg says at the start of the NYC Marathon: “The city awaits you.” Sounds pretty sweet, let’s go.

So go we did. And then it got decidedly not awesome. My very loose “plan” was to go out at 6:15 pace for the first five miles and then see how I felt. If I was in good shape, I’d pick it up from there. If not, that’s okay, it’s early in the season; I’d just try to maintain.

I hit a fast first mile and a slow second one, but by 4 miles I was pretty much right on my planned pace. Mile 5, though, was way too slow and I could tell picking it up was not an option. In fact, dropping out entirely seemed much more probable.

I debated this for much of the next mile. Again, it was a replay of the last time I raced here. (Why do I keep reliving races?) Dropping out around mile 5 is the ideal giving up spot; you’ve just looped back by the start/finish area and can easily duck out and pretend today never happened. But I realized that dropping out was not so ideal (obviously!) because not only would I have given up on the race, I also would have given up on a solid workout for the day. In my world, all things revolve around the marathon, and being in terrible shape for a half marathon does not give you license to do nothing. The marathon looms, and it’s Sunday Runday so you better do something. I gave up on the race, but tried to salvage the day. I’d keep on plugging along and take it as a workout.

Mile 7. Enjoying having a cheering squad/paparazzi to help me through the "workout".
The fact that I was no longer racing relaxed me only slightly, I was still upset as to what terrible shape I was in. My splits edging closer to--and becoming slower than--marathon pace didn’t help. (I’m hoping to run a marathon faster than my average pace from Sunday, so, even as a marathon pace workout, it wasn’t great.) My time was embarrassing (“Um, who invited this girl to the elite area?? She is not worthy to pee anywhere near Kara.”) and I wish I could erase the whole day. Sadly, I can’t. It was humid, but I’m pretty sick of making excuses. There will be other chances, I hope (although perhaps not to tell Deena that red velvet is always a good choice).

Whatever Sunday was—a non-race, a workout, a glorified stroll along the Schuylkill, a pathetic embarrassment on all fronts—it was not a win. That means the score is now:

Philadephia: 7
RunnerTeal: 0

A few other runners enjoying their race/workout/Schuylkill stroll. Next time, Philly.
Dream Big,

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Philly Curse

This weekend, I take on the first of the season’s races: the Rock-n-Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon. Unfortunately, I don’t have such a great track record in Philly. I’ve bonked, I’ve lost, I’ve not even started.

Here is my score sheet for running in Philadelphia:

Six attempts to run in this city. Six different disappointments. What’s the deal, Philly? I grew up not far from you, I’ve got family in the area, I even carved a pumpkin in your honor. Can’t you cut a South Jersey girl some slack?

C'mon, Philly. Return the love.
When I signed up this year, at the beginning of the season, I had high hopes for reversing this Philly curse.

The beginning of the season is always a clean slate. Anything is possible. The calendar of races stretches out ahead like a perfectly crafted path of potential PRs; it might as well be full of rainbows and candy, there for the taking. From Candy Cane Forest and Gum Drop Mountain all the way to the Candy Castle, it’s the Candy Land board of races. Everything will go perfectly! I will be faster than ever! PRs all around!

But then, you know, reality sets in. 

I had a couple of weeks where things were clicking; I was getting stronger and faster. Then I hit a rough patch (the Molasses Swamp?). I felt sluggish, had a couple of bad workouts, my hip tightened. My body needed a break so I gave it one. I took my scheduled recovery week even easier than planned, and by the following week my body felt 100% better.

But the damage to my head—to my confidence—was done. I don’t feel like I have the workouts under my belt just yet to really kill it at Philly. It is still early in the season, so maybe that’s okay. Maybe no Candy Cane Forest just yet. I'd be happy to just run comfortably strong for the whole race and not implode in the second half like I’ve done often lately, and always when in the City of Brotherly Love. I don’t really know what that will turn out to be, pace-wise and time-wise. The plan—or lack of one—is to try to ease into it, see how I feel, and try to pick it up in the second half. Hopefully the sluggishness of a few weeks ago is truly gone. If I can just run a strong, solid race, I feel like I'll break this curse. And I'll raise my arms in victory (however small) when I get back to the Art Museum, Rocky style.

[Photo courtesy of Susan Smith.]
You know what they say: the seventh time’s a charm... ?

Dream Big,

Friday, August 15, 2014

Science Friday: Chasing the Runner’s High

A few weeks ago, my mom asked about advice for a family member who just started running. “She’s complaining she can’t get that runner’s high yet. It’s still not very fun. How long does it take?”

How long of hating running before you love it? How long, despite the sweat in your eyes and the exhaustion in your legs, until you cherish it? Like a morning cup of coffee, you crave it, you need it. Gimme the good stuff. You become addicted to the runner’s high, that feeling where a run becomes relaxing, calming, cathartic. But it doesn't come with every run, and it doesn't start on your first trek out. What causes the runner's high and how can we get it? 

The runner’s high is classically blamed on exercise-induced release of endorphins, the body’s natural morphine, its natural pain relievers. Recently, another class of molecules, endocannabinoids, has shared some of the credit. Endocannabinoids are the body’s natural THC (the active ingredient in marijuana), its natural calmers.

A brief foray into how the thinking has bopped around a bit: Endorphins were initially held responsible for the runner’s high because they could be detected in the blood after exercise. But endorphins are too large to get from the blood into the brain—where they would need to be to affect mood—so their role was dismissed. Some even took this to mean the runner’s high was a hoax. Researchers desperate to prove the runner’s high was real discovered that endocannabinoids are made in the brain following exercise and lead to a sense of calm. Voilà. Endocannabinoids stole the show. But the endorphin proponents would not be silenced. Advancements in neuroscience allowed them to see that endorphins are actually made in the brain as well. The moral of all this back and forth research: endorphins and endocannabinoids deliver a one-two punch. Less pain, more calm. (Also, the runner’s high is real, and don’t tell a researcher who runs that it’s not.)

Back to the main question: how many pills do you have to pop to get the high?

Most of the endorphin research is focused on endorphins in the blood; the more recent discovery of brain endorphins means there hasn’t been much written on the intensity or duration of exercise needed for their release in the brain. We do know that exercising at over 75% VO2max (75% of maximum aerobic capacity) caused a spike in blood levels of endorphins. For cyclists pedaling at about lactate threshold (roughly equivalent to tempo run effort), endorphins increased after 60 minutes.

After an hour at lactate threshold (when lactate is produced and
cleared at an equal level), beta-endorphin increases in the blood of cyclists.
We might speculate that brain endorphins would follow a similar pattern. The study that found endorphin release in the brain only looked at one time point—after a two hour run. Two hours was long enough for the participants to have both a surge of endorphins and good feelings. Below is a graph of how they felt after doing nothing (rest) and after running. Happiness and euphoria increased significantly. Interestingly, fatigue didn’t change at all. (I told you long runs are energizing! Or at least not as exhausting as you would expect.)

VAMS is a scale for evaluating mood. Following a run, levels of happiness
and euphoria were significantly increased compared to rest. 

(Mostly unrelated—but too hard to resist—aside: if you feel so inclined to go for a little bike ride during labor, the ensuing endorphin release can help with the pain of delivery. Let me know how that works out for you.)

Endocannabinoids are released in a similar way. In one study, endocannabinoid levels increased after an hour of running or cycling at a moderate pace. In another study, researchers looked at thirty-minute runs of varying intensities. After a slow jog or a medium intensity run, endocannabinoid levels skyrocketed. However, after a high intensity workout (or an easy walk), there was no endocannabinoid increase. In the paper, the researchers say, “High intensities lead to limited changes in mood or affective state.” I’m not sure I entirely agree with this. Maybe because I have been a running addict for years I have built up quite a tolerance, but I think the really tough workouts can be some of the most psychologically releasing. After they end, of course. 

Luckily, both these molecules get released under the same conditions: moderately intense exercise, a solid tempo or a long run. These also happen to be the workouts that might require an extra push to get through. Our brain senses that and kicks on to give us the good stuff when we need it.

As for beginners, the news is less heartening. It takes a while before you can start grinding out these intense workouts or logging hour-plus runs. Fortunately, other benefits of running (strength, energy, weight-loss, health) may be more immediate. Take comfort that with each run you’re many steps closer.

This week, our family’s newest runner finished her first 5k. I’d say she’s well on her way.

Dream big and keep getting your fix,

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Race Report: Crystal City Twilighter 5k

Saturday night was my second attempt at the 5k in three weeks. I hoped it would be a repeat of two years ago: disappointed by a less than stellar Firecracker 5K, I came back for revenge and—bolstered by the presence of my teammates—set a PR on the darkening Crystal City streets.

Given how slow my 5k PR is compared to my longer distance PRs, it shouldn’t be difficult to break. I’m not in prime shape now, but my PR was set at this same midsummer, off-peak race. I wasn’t in prime shape then either, so I couldn’t use that as an excuse. Coach had said a 5:55 first mile would feel comfortable. I wasn’t quite confident that comfortable would be the appropriate adjective, but it sounded reasonable and was PR pace, so I was game.

Warming up with the GRC ladies.

I hit the one mile marker at exactly 5:55, and it did feel comfortable. Running a second mile at 5:55 would certainly not be as easy (or comfortable), but I felt good and I had teammates both at my side and just ahead to gage off of. As we hit the turn-around, I felt like I could be slowing, but I seemed to be improving, or at least maintaining, my place in the field. I figured I was running close to 6:00 mile pace, which would still be good enough for a PR. But as I passed the two mile marker, I realized I had slowed much more than that. Crap, crap, crap. I had to get it back in the last mile. I couldn’t pull a Classic Teal and give up. And it didn’t seem like I was. The effort felt different than the Firecracker race; I didn’t feel like I was unraveling, it felt like a PR effort. Maybe I hadn’t reclaimed 5:55 pace, but I was churning along, not throwing in the towel. K caught up to me, and having her there gave me a needed push.

I didn’t have a great sense of where the finish line was (the course was new), but I thought I could identify one of the intersections close enough to start pushing. The problem was I was mistaken, started picking it up, and realized too late we had not yet passed the aforementioned intersection. Oh well, at least I tricked myself into running faster for longer. Like last time, I struggled to see the finish line in the dark until we were pretty close. I kicked as best as possible, but had no clue what the time was; the clock was blinking nonsensical numbers. I didn’t know how I’d done until I had walked away, caught my breath, and finally peaked at my watch.

18:56. What? Five seconds slower than my PR. I was pissed. The effort felt like I earned a better time than that. I knew that I had slowed in the second mile but it didn’t dawn on me that instead of making up for it, I had actually continued to slip.

This morning I looked up the official results, which shows me six seconds slower than my watch time. (It also shows equivalent gun and chip times, even though I started a couple seconds back.) I thought I finished closer to K, but apparently not. Officially I didn’t even break 19 minutes. This just keeps getting worse and worse. 

Officially or not, my time was slower than 2012 when I had just joined the team. Have I not improved in two years? (Actually—although I currently feel like wallowing in this recent failure—the reality is I have improved at every distance except the 5k. Sadly, the only other distance where my improvement was almost negligible was the marathon, which, of course, is the one that matters most to me.)

The truth is I don’t really care about 5ks. I care about what this means for my other races and bigger goals. To hit my September goal, I need to run the same pace as Saturday for 13.1 miles—i.e. ten miles further. To hit my October goal, I need to run faster for longer (10 miles). To hit my December goal, I need the confidence gained from nailing the other two. I know it is the beginning of the season and real training hasn’t begun, but is the real training enough to give me an extra 10 miles at that pace? Enough to get me to go ten miles at a pace I can currently (maybe) hold for only two?

Let’s hope so.

Dream big (even when results tell you otherwise),

Friday, July 18, 2014

Science Friday: Oxidative Stress is Hot Stuff

In last week’s post, I discussed hot weather training and how its benefits persist even in cold weather; since your body has to work harder in the heat, you are forcing it to toughen up. This translates to improvements that last even when the stimulus is gone. (The same way training at altitude pays off at sea level.)

This week, I came across a study that discusses one of the ways this may occur, i.e. one of the ways heat forces lasting improvements. Here, subjects biked for an hour in different temperatures: 45° (cold), 68° (room temperature), or 91° (called “warm,” but this warm-weather wuss would call that “hot”). Afterwards, the subjects were kept in their temperature-controlled rooms for three hours. (It’s unclear what they were doing for those three hours. They were given dry clothes, something to drink, and got to lay down, which sounds like a perfect recipe for a post-workout nap, but they were periodically poked and prodded by the researchers, so maybe not.) Blood samples obtained over the three hours were examined for markers of oxidative stress. When oxygen is broken down by mitochondria to produce energy (as happens normally and to an increased extent during exercise), reactive oxygen species are also produced in the process. Oxidative stress occurs with the overproduction of these species, which are thought to damage DNA and accelerate aging and disease. (This is why people tout antioxidants, which sop up these species.) In the study, the subjects that exercised and recovered in the warm room had the highest levels of oxidative stress.

But oxidative stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Like weight lifting or running, it causes a stress to your muscles that forces them to rebuild stronger. In this case, oxidative stress encourages cells to make their own antioxidants and increase mitochondria, which make all that wonderful energy. This increase in oxidative stress in the heat may be one of the explanations for the benefits discussed last week. Just like heat demands us to deal with less blood pumping to our muscles, it also forces us to deal with reactive oxygen species. The muscles clean up the mess and patch us back up, better than ever.

I wished the experiment had also examined differences between exercising and recovering in the heat. (A way to test this would have involved everyone first exercising in the heat, followed by half the subjects recovering at room temperature and the other half recovering in a hot room.) Recently, there have been warnings against going overboard on recovery aids. In some regards, the soreness, inflammation, and—in this case—oxidative species caused by a run are a good thing. Ice baths, ibuprofen, or perhaps even cooling off in a comfortable room may cut your body too much slack. The researchers didn’t test that here, but it’s an interesting idea.

Antioxidant supplements have come under fire recently for a similar reason. As I described in a post about vitamin C, taking antioxidant supplements (which contain a much higher dose than found naturally in fruits and vegetables) may block our bodies’ adaptations to exercise. (An interesting take on why fruits and vegetables are better than synthesized pills is here.) Again, it’s a case of overdosing on recovery; trying to force your body to bounce back, when the best improvements are made by letting your body recover naturally, with whole foods, time, and perhaps even a post-run nap in a warm spot.

Dream big,