Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Why I Do Long Runs By Myself

Every weekend in the winter and spring, hundreds of runners hit the Boston Marathon course for long runs. Along the way, they receive an inspiring amount of support--signs, impromptu water stops, cheering crowds and even cooperative cars.

I used to envy these runners. No one waited for me with water and a high five. Sometimes, I intentionally steered clear of the packs or waited until the afternoon, when I knew they’d be gone, in order to avoid all the hubbub.

Now, though, I happily coexist with the crowds, nodding and waving as I pass them. (For whatever reason, I often run in the opposite direction that they do.) In time, I’ve learned an important lesson: I like doing long runs by myself.

I think there are two key reasons why. First, for most of my life, running has been a solitary pursuit, a way to clear my head and, sappy as it sounds, figure out what matters. Long runs give me a lot of time to weigh the pros and cons of major decisions or simply sort through whatever may be causing me stress. Casual conversations with running buddies are great, but when push comes to shove, I need Beastwood Alone Time.

Second, I’ve come to realize that training should be tough.

I understand that support gets a lot of runners through the hell of three- or four-hour workouts (especially the folks I see training for Boston run who run for a greater reason than just running, which is certainly more than I can say for myself). I’m not one of them.

I understand that support helps mimic race-day conditions. I don’t want that. I want race-day conditions to be a veritable treat in contrast. Water stops? Awesome. Random strangers cheering and holding witty inspirational signs? Fantastic. Fuel in case I forgot / dropped my own? Outstanding.
Now, I’m not stupid. I fuel up before long runs, bring water on hot runs and track workouts and stick to well-traveled roads so I’m not far from help if anything goes awry. But when it comes time to run, I’m all business. No fuel, no unnecessary water, no human contact--just pushing myself to my limit, then pushing myself even further, all while thinkin’ ‘bout stuff.

Training should be tough because it makes you tough. Training should be tough because a marathon is next to friggin’ impossible, and if your mind, body and soul aren’t as tough as overcooked steak, there’s no way you’re going to finish the damn thing. Training should be tough because your race is a culmination of months of hard work, dedication, sweat, tears, protein shakes, stretching, eating, sleeping, fretting and pain--and if you survive all that, then, by God, you can make it through one race.

Does this make me crazy? (Crazier?) Probably. But I didn’t take my running to the next level by staying in my comfort zone. Odds are you won’t either.

Monday, March 16, 2015

7 tips for running in the rain

Saturday's long run took place in a slow but steady and cold rain. It reminded me of the Hartford Marathon, which occurred under similar circumstances (minus the snowbanks and ice). The morning of that race, I sat in my car, refusing to disrobe and check my bag until the last possible moment.

In the end, the weather didn't matter--I ran a marathon PR of 3:09:47. That, I realized, was precisely the point. Rain, like any other adverse weather, requires a different mindset than the ideal overcast, 50-degree day--but unlike blazing heat, bitter cold or blinding snow, I've learned from experience that rain can be easily overcome.

I didn't always feel that way. For years, I hated running in the rain. I'd postpone key workouts just to avoid the rain. (That's actually a bad idea: As Hartford proved, you never know when you'll face adverse conditions on race day. You need to train through bad weather.) I could get wet and dirty and disgusting in the snow, but not the rain. Don't ask me why; I have no idea.

Running a PR in Hartford definitely helped me overcome my general unwillingness to run in the rain--so much so that I didn't even bother checking the forecast on Saturday and didn't care when I started to get wet before I even got off the porch. Here's the approach I now take to running in the rain; hopefully my tips will help if you, too, fear the rain.

Dress down. I've mentioned before the general rule of thumb that you should try to dress as though this it's 15 to 20 degrees warmer than it actually is. This is especially important in the rain. At Hartford, most everyone else wore long-sleeve shirts and pants to stay warm. On the other hand, I wore a tank and shorts even though it wasn't even 50 degrees at gun time. I shivered on the line, and for the first several minutes of the race, but I didn't regret my wardrobe. Why? Less fabric to get soaking wet and therefore weigh you down.

Dress bright. If it's raining, the sun's not out. If the sun's not out, it's probably at least a little dark. If it's at least a little dark, cars may not see you. If cars may not see you, bad, bad things can happen. Don't let bad, bad things happen. Wear a bright shirt or a lightweight vest.

Get good socks. Contrary to popular belief, blisters don't need to be a rite of passage for runners. If you have good running socks, you can run through puddles all day long without getting blisters. These are expensive, yes, but you only need a few pair; I reserve them for race days, long runs and speed or tempo workouts when I know it will be wet.

Don't think about it. Easier said than done, I know, but you need to stop thinking about the rain. Remember, you'll be soaked after about 10 minutes anyway. After that, who cares how much more it rains?

Don't worry about puddles. Yes, you should try to avoid puddles; no one likes running with cold, wet feet. That said, see my previous point--you're going to be soaked after 10 minutes, and the same goes for your feet. If I have to choose between running through a puddle or flinging myself into traffic, I'll take the wet feet.

Be careful. A couple previous points touch on this, but it behooves you to be careful. It takes cars a little longer to stop and to see what's in front of them. Let the drivers win: Don't run in front of a car until you make eye contact with the driver and he or she either waves you on or cuts you off because he or she forgot the first lesson of driver's education or can't hit the brake and send a text message at the same time.

Do laundry ASAP, if not sooner. Everything I wore Saturday went into the wash once I'd showered and eaten. If you don't have enough laundry to constitute a full load, wash your clothes in the bathroom sink and hang them up to dry. At worst, find an out-of-the-way place to lay your clothes out to dry in the meantime. Your roommates/significant other/children/pets will thank you.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Renaissance of the Running Renaissance

The handful of you who read this regularly may (or may not) have noticed that it's been several months. Here's a quick update:

  • I ran a PR in the Hartford Marathon (3:09:47) even though it was pouring.
  • Five weeks later, I placed third in my age group at the South Shore Half.
  • I kept running throughout the holidays.
  • I ran my fastest 5K in years (19:17) on New Year's Day.
  • One month later, I got divorced and moved out.
  • We got seven feet of snow in three weeks, beginning on the first day of my 16-week training program for the Vermont City Marathon.
  • The snow cancelled a half marathon for which I had registered.
  • I caught a cold that has adamantly refused to go away.

I neither want nor expect a pity party. Plenty of people get divorced, and most didn't have as mutual and amicable a breakup as we did. (After our court appearance, we had lunch together.) Plenty of people suffered through the snow, and most didn't get to work from home every day. (Granted, it's because my office is several states away, and I always wok at home, but whatever.) Plenty of people missed training runs and got colds, and most didn't have the luxury of easing into training as I did. (I missed the first of five 20-mile training runs, yes, but I always miss the first of my 20-mile training runs.)

I bring this all up here because, truth be told, running got me through most of this. In the tenuous weeks before we finalized the divorce, my runs represented the only certainty in my life, the only time when I and I alone held control. I hadn't started training yet, so I had the luxury of tying my shoes, heading out the door and running as fast or as slow as I needed to. It cleared my head and reaffirmed why, for me, running is, above all, a beautifully cathartic experience.

After the divorce, and after my move, training forced me to focus. Rather than stare at the ceiling and wonder if my life would ever be normal again, I needed to figure out if that first slow-as-hell long run stemmed from nasty conditions or a genuine gap in my fitness level. (Answer: The former, thankfully.) Rather than write and rewrite an online dating profile, I needed to figure out how the hell I was going to do repeat 800s in 20-degree weather with all sidewalks and most roads still covered in a thick coating of snow. (Answer: On a side street, at midday, when no one's around, and with no expectation that you'll hit your goal pace.) Rather than eat junk food and drink beer, I needed to figure out how to cook enough food to feed myself after a long run using a two-burner electric cooktop, microwave, electric teakettle and convection oven. (Answer: Not all at the same time, unless you want to fumble with the circuit breaker in the dark basement.)

I still occasionally stare at the ceiling and drink beer, but I didn't create an online dating profile (suffice to say I haven't had to) or eat any junk food (because any world in which peanut-butter filled pretzel nuggets or maple creme cookies are considered junk is not a world I want to inhabit). That could change, but at the moment, I'm focused on training my ass off so I can run my ass off on Memorial Day weekend in Burlington, run another PR--and maybe, given my luck, qualify for Boston two and a half months before I join a new, slower age group. (Oh, yeah, I guess there's also work, and decorating my apartment, and figuring out just how many running shirts will fit in my new washing machine, and going on real dates for the first time since, well, ever.)

What's done is done. All I can do is move forward, one step at a time. Now that the snow and ice are finally gone, I can do it that much faster.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

13 Things Smart Runners Do

In the midst of the Heartbreak Hill Half, as I plodded up another hill and did my best to keep the wheels from falling off, I got to thinking that running three races in 26 hours may not have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

That, in turn, got me thinking about something else: What exactly do smart runners do?

In the hours and days after the race, I came up with a list. Revisiting it weeks later, I see that everything’s still relevant. So here’s my (unscientific, as usual) take on the 13 things that smart runners do.

Wear the right shoes. Finding running shoes is a bit of an exercise in trial and error. Don’t be afraid to run a few laps around the store to test out shoes. (Heck, a good running store won’t let you leave if you haven’t run around in them.) This is especially true if, say, you’re wearing lightweight or minimalist shoes for the first time. Finally, check your shoe size periodically.

Cross train. To butcher The Shining, all run and no cross-train make Brian a dull and potentially injury-prone boy. Too much running will wear out your joints, while failing to strengthen your core will leave vulnerable parts of your body that you don’t realize are important to running until they hurt with every step you take. Make time for cross training now and your body will thank you later.

Check the weather, but don't obsess over it. Certain workouts are worth postponing if it’s too hot, humid or cold. Eventually, though, you have to suck it up, stop making excuses and get out there. If it means running for distance instead of time, or taking a bit longer to (literally, in this case) warm up, so be it.

Fuel properly. This matters less during the race than you think. (If you’re running for less than two hours, you realistically don’t need to refuel during the race, though it usually can’t hurt.) It matters more the morning of the race, the night before and the days before, as you take in good carbs and lean proteins that you know for a fact won’t upset your stomach and leave you in the PortaPotty line five minutes before gun time.

Hydrate properly, too. This, on the other hand, does matter during the race. Don’t let weather fool you -- even on cool, calm days, you’re sweating up a storm. The water stops are there for a reason. Get some electrolytes while you’re there, too. Oh, and don’t forget to drink up the day before the race.

Wear sunscreen. Here’s where you should check the weather. If the sun peeks out of the clouds during mile 3 of your marathon, and you didn’t bother to slather on sunscreen because it was cloudy at gun time, you’ll be sorry. Always wear sunscreen if it’s already sunny, too. (My advice: Get the stuff for kids, since it has a high SPF and is formulated to withstand sweat.)

Wear a hat. I wear a hat in the summer to keep my head from burning. More importantly, I wear a hat in the spring, fall and winter to retain heat. (I occasionally look ridiculous wearing a hat and gloves with short sleeves and shorts. I don’t care.) The bulk of the body heat you lose escapes through the top of your head. Keep it in and you’ll stay warm. (My advice, again: Invest in a couple good hats that will keep you warm without overheating your head and wash them frequently so they don’t stink.)

Study the course map. You’ll race better if you know where to turn, where to get water, when to expect a hill and when to begin your finishing kick (provided you have any gas left).

Devise a smart race strategy. If you know a race has more hills in its second half, start slow. If water stops aren’t plentiful, consider bringing some water along. If you aren’t in the best shape, don’t get disappointed if you don’t PR. If the race is far away, give yourself plenty of time to get loose beforehand (i.e. don’t jump out of the car and dash to the starting line). Above all, make sure you know where and when you’re getting your post-race grub.

Know when to say when. A friend had been looking forward to the Heartbreak Hill Half for weeks, but she woke up with a migraine on race day and opted to sit it out. As much as it sucks to skip a race, sometimes it’s not worth pushing it.

Learn from failure as well as success. My positive race memories have, over time, managed to blur together. My bad trips, though -- clinging to a telephone in my first marathon, bonking in my worst marathon, fading fast during a 10-mile race in 100-degree heat -- remain firmly in my mind. It’s not that I’m a helpless pessimist but, rather, that I’ve learned lessons from these experiences and (so far) haven’t repeated my mistakes.

Put Band-Aids on your nipples. See above r/e not repeating past mistakes.

Respect the road. You share the road with fellow pedestrians, bicyclists, skateboarders, cars, SUVs and trucks. Pay attention to them all. When in doubt, stop -- it’s much better to add 15 seconds to your run than to get cursed out by a biker or hit by a car.

I could probably think of more, but I started writing this two months ago, so it’s time to call it quits. Anyone have anything to add?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Road Races That Aren't

Generally, I’m a running purist. I prefer running outdoors, I view my watch as a necessary evil and I choose races based on distance and location more so than who’s running or who’s sponsoring the post-race beer tent.

I increasingly find myself in a minority. Twitter explodes whenever there’s a race at Disney, and it seems clear that, for those runners, it’s less of a “race” and more of an experience, complete with mid-race pauses to pose for pictures. I also increasingly see friends signing up for Tough Mudder, Spartan, Electric Light and Color Runs, none of which describe themselves as races per se.

I’m honestly torn. The cantankerous side of me, the Statler or Waldorf (take your pick), sees it as a bit of a soulless way to take money from people who genuinely want to get into shape but aren’t motivated the same way that some of us are to train for and participate in no-frills road races, trail runs or triathlons with small crowds, little race support and no live band at the post-race party. (And take money they do: Those races are expensive. Buyer beware, too.) If I pay to run, I plan to run hard.

The optimistic side of me sees it as a refreshing way for people who genuinely want to get into shape but aren’t motivated the same way that some of us are to train for and participate in no-frills road races, trail runs or triathlons with small crowds, little race support and no live band at the post-race party to, you know, get in shape. The novelty of running doesn’t work for some people, but crawling through the mud, getting pelted with colorful powder or partying with an 80s cover band does.

I can’t say I’ll never run a Disney race. My wife and I vacation there often (she’s celiac, and it’s one of the few places she can eat without fear of a hospital visit), and one of our trips will inevitably coincide with one of the growing number of races in the Run Disney empire. (I also let my wife stay home when I race, since, let’s face it, the only thing more boring than running a road race is watching one, especially when your husband is a skinny white guy with dark hair wearing black shorts in a sea of thousands of skinny white guys with dark hair wearing black shorts, and a Disney race is arguably the only one that would entice my wife to tag along.) But will I actively seek out a Disney race? No.

I can’t say I’ll never run a novelty race, either. Right now, I have specific running goals. Sliding ass over teakettle down a muddy hill will ruin those plans. As I get older, and the odds of a road race PR drop to nil, who knows? But right now? No.

Heck, aside from some dollar-store garland handed to me a couple minutes before a Christmastime race a couple years ago, I’ve never even run in costume. I show up, get my bib, sit in my car, tighten my shoes, toe the line, run my ass off, finish, take my medal, grab free food and drink, stop for coffee, and head home.

That’s the way I’ve run, for the most part, since high school. (I appreciated iced coffee less back then. So, so stupid.) It works pretty well for me -- and, judging from the folks I encounter at races, it works pretty well for a lot of people.

It doesn’t work well for everyone. In fact, for some, it doesn’t work at all. If sparkly bottoms or a picture with Mickey or a military-style obstacle course or rolling around in the mud motivate people to run, I see no reason to stop them. Sure, I think it’s silly, but I suppose that doing a road race just for the running part and not the social part seems silly to a lot of people, too.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Beating the Blah: 6 Ways to Conquer a Running Rut

There comes a point in every marathon training cycle when I stop, think and ask myself, “What the hell am I doing?” It usually happens when I reschedule key workouts because of weekend plans and/or insufficient sleep and find myself doing a long run on, say, a Tuesday morning two days behind schedule.

This time around, it happened this week. I’ve been doing pretty well, it turns out, hitting my pace goals in track work and exceeding them in my tempo runs. Running itself hadn’t worn me out. Everything else had -- the jobs, the yardwork, the ever-full summer social calendar. On Wednesday, collapsed in a heap on the couch, my wife turned to me and said, “You look half dead.”

The next morning, I dragged myself out of bed for a tempo run. I extended the warmup by half a mile, figuring I’d need it. Then, a funny thing happened: I hit my pace goal for the first three miles. When I missed it for the fourth mile, I came back stronger for the fifth and sixth, finishing 10 and 18 seconds faster than my goal. One run undid a week malaise.

Running ruts aren’t uncommon. The constant pounding of the pavement takes a mental, physical and emotional toll. Proper training takes months; anything lasting that long inevitably provides highs and lows, and running is no exception. Plus, no matter how much we hate to admit it, running can be boring.

Conquering a rut -- “breaking the blah,” as I (cleverly) decided to call this post -- can happen in one of several ways. I highlighted having a kickass tempo run because that’s what just happened to me, but five other things will do the trick:

Cross-training. When I travel for business, I leave the running shoes at home and bring my bathing suit instead. I’m a terrible swimmer, mind you, but I enjoy it, so it gives me something to look forward to amid the long days, forced networking events and long nights that turn running into a chore. I return home recharged and ready to get back to running. If you’re in a rut, try biking, swimming or even walking.

Running “naked.” I run without a watch on my first few runs after marathon recovery. By not worrying about distance, pace or time, I enjoy myself more. If all the numbers associated with running leave you feeling overwhelmed, leave the watch at home for an easy run.

Resting. Never underestimate the value of a good nap. My test of whether I’m too tired: If I lie down and start to drift to sleep within 15 minutes, I skip the run. Yes, there’s value in running when you’re tired, as it prepares you for those final miles of the marathon, but there’s a difference between “a little tired” and “passing out on the couch tired.”

Racing. My ruts either fall smack dab in the middle of training or, conversely, when I’m not training for anything. With no goal in sight, I begin to wonder if it’s all worth it. Nothing changes my mind more quickly than signing up for a race. (Hint: To give yourself no choice but to commit, run with a friend or a team. Better yet -- volunteer to organize post-race brunch.)

Pausing. If nothing else works, maybe it is, in fact, time for a break. I’ve never reached this point, so unfortunately I can’t tell you how long your break should be or what you should do to pump yourself up in the meantime. But running pros take breaks, so there can’t be any harm in doing it.

We love running, and the last place we want to be is stuck in a moment that we can’t get out of. If you get yourself together, though, you won’t be able to lace up those shoes again.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Remember, Every Day Is a Gift

I haven't posted in a while. It's not for lack of effort -- I have four half-finished posts sitting in Google Drive -- but for lack of passion. Blame the heat and humidity, or the fatigue of the first weeks of marathon training, or the need to get over a proverbial hump at work. Whatever it is, I haven't felt like finishing the posts I've started. 

I'll get to them in due time. Today, though, it's time for a quick reminder to cherish what you have. 

Today I returned from Chicago, where I helped a good friend say goodbye to his brother. Earlier this year, he lost his father. How he's holding it together I can't even imagine. Another friend lost his father this spring, roughly one month before he got married. A third friend lost her dad as well.

I thought of this on last week’s run in the heat and humidity, plodding uphill a few seconds slower than my goal tempo pace. Life, health and happiness matter much, much more than any bad workout, bad day at the office, bad commute, bad customer service experience or bad argument. 

So take that three-day weekend. Give your pet that chin scratch. Watch that silly sci-fi movie. Have dinner with your friends. Call your parents. Run that race. Wear that audacious shirt. Blast that cheesy ballad. Compliment a stranger. Leave the chores for another day and have a date night. Do what makes you happy (provided you're not endangering yourself or anyone else). You never know when you won't have that chance any more.