Friday, May 31, 2013

How You Run Matters More Than Why You Run

Anyone who's been running long enough will be confronted by a one-word question from the curious skeptic: "Why?"

My answers usually vary depending on my mood, but the best answer, I feel, is "Why not?" I'm not necessarily trying to be abrupt or dismissive. Frankly, the real answer is long, complicated and much more than the questioner bargained for. 

Besides, the more far interesting (and valuable) question is "How?" As in, "How have you managed to keep doing something so boring for so long?" 

I think about this from time to time. It's equally natural and sensible to do so; running without self-assessment can be counterproductive, if not harmful. Besides, as your "why" for running shifts -- in my case, from "don’t be laughingstock of cross country team" to "avoid the freshman 15" to "maintain my sanity" to "find the fountain of youth" -- your "how" has to change, too. 

Here's how I keep myself motivated these days. 

Set goals. Of course, there are ambitious race goals -- PR at a certain distance, conquer a new distance, run in a kilt while maintaining a shred of dignity, and so on. I try to set a goal for every run I do, though. It’s easy for workouts -- complete your tempo at this pace, do this many fartleks, run this many miles in your long run without collapsing -- but it’s much tougher for the random runs. 

I recommend setting a goal that has little to do with distance, time or pace. Run past that bakery downtown and see if it’s open on Sundays. Break in new running gear. Try a new route for the first time. (I don’t like to do workout-y runs on brand-new routes, so this works quite well.) Setting a goal like this also has the added bonus of ensuring that you don’t think too much about your run. 

Connect. I run alone. It’s my catharsis. But I’m not isolated. This blog is an obvious example of how I connect, as are the outlets I use to share it (Twitter and Google Plus). Joining a running club can certainly help, though here I’m a hypocrite, as I have put this off for years now. 

Log your progress. For years, I did this in a monthly planner than my dad got from his bank as a free gift. (And by "got" I mean "took off the counter," but that's neither here nor there.) This year, as I’ve mentioned, I started using dailymile, which has the added bonus of connecting me with other athletes as well. While overall mileage is important, it's also good to log your pace and how you were feeling. Pace matters for speed workouts, but it's also worth logging for other runs, especially since, as you improve, your "slow" runs are going to get faster. How you feel, meanwhile, will, over time, help you pinpoint things such as weather, fuel or time of day that are throwing your runs off the rails. 

Learn from failure. We all have bad runs, whether they’re workouts, races or otherwise innocent Tuesday evening jogs around the neighborhood that result in a twisted ankle, tree branch to the face or off-color remark from some moron passing by. I detailed this in the tale of my worst marathon ever, but the point bears repeating: Learn from your mistakes, then set them free. Dwelling on past failures only dooms you to repeat them. 

Get back to "Why?" For some, it's a near and dear charitable cause. For others, it's a weight loss goal. For others still, it's a new distance or new PR. For me -- and for some of you, I suppose -- it's because running is so ingrained in your psyche that it’ll never go away. 

"Why?" is an important question, it turns out, and for many runners it might be the largest motivating factor of all. But letting "Why?" supersede "How?" in importance is a bit shortsighted. The former is existential, but the latter is pragmatic. The former is sunshine, rainbows and hugs; the latter is a long run interrupted by a storm, a tempo run on insufficient sleep and a race in scorching heat. "Why?" will get you out the door. "How?" will get you to the finish line -- and beyond.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Runners, Don't Be Your Own Worst Enemy

Per Yogi Berra, ninety percent of baseball is half mental. Baseball has nothing on running, though.
There are roughly 123 million things that can ruin your run. Nearly all exist solely in your head, meaning they only crop up because you have all kinds of time to let your mind wander.
  • There's doubt, first and foremost, and its close friend, fear.
  • There are nagging pains that you can easily convince yourself are going to manifest as horrific injuries.
  • There are rude, clueless and preoccupied drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians who, though indeed present, are best ignored.
  • There's the weather, which is at any one time too hot, too cold, too sunny, too overcast, too rainy, too windy, too humid, too dry, too foggy or even too perfect.
  • There's fuel strategy, which can leave you too hungry, stuffed, dehydrated, with a sloshy stomach or in desperate need of a bathroom.
  • There are shoes, which can be too tight, too loose, too light, too heavy, too old, too new or, if it's raining, too wet.
  • There's your watch, which can taunt you for falling behind your pace or convince you that, since you're ahead of your intended pace, something catastrophic is around the next corner.
Put another way, it's all too easy, as a runner, to be your own worst enemy.

For most of us, one factor among the many listed above (or one I omitted) tends to wreak the most havoc. For me, it's the fear that slightly missing my target pace will all too quickly force the wheels to fall off completely.
This happened yesterday on my final longish (7.6-mile) run before my half marathon. I was aiming for a 7-minute pace, which would have had me finish in about 53 minutes. Three miles in, I was under 21 minutes, yet I was convinced that it was only a matter of time before I started falling apart.
Why? I have no freakin' clue. I wasn't feeling 100 percent -- but, then again, who actually does on a run? It was warmer than it has been, so my mouth dried up more quickly than usual. I'm fairly certain my left shoe wasn't as tight as my right shoe. And on and on.
So what happened? I finished in 51:02, close to two minutes faster than I'd planned and with a 6:42 pace. All that worrying for nothing.
Time and again, we're our own worst enemy when we run. When things start to go poorly, we expect the worst. When things go well, we still expect the worst.
It doesn't have to be this way. Part of the beauty of running -- a fundamental reason that I've been doing it for more than 17 years -- is the way it so easily and quickly helps you shed stress, responsibility and worry, putting a frenetic life on hold for as long as you'd like.
Shutting off an active mind is hardly easy, but the sooner you learn to do that, the sooner you stop being your own worst enemy and the sooner you start running free, fresh and, before you know it, fast.
So how do you achieve that peaceful, easy feeling?
One way is counting -- breaths, steps, passing cars, squirrels or whatever you want to focus on. Another is to contemplate your post-run meal; this has gotten me through many a long run. Turning off the watch is another option, though it obviously won't make sense for certain workouts.
The best strategy for me, though, is to try not to think about what I'm doing. On Monday, I ran better when I stopped looking at my watch, trying to gauge how far I'd run (my watch predates the GPS) and thinking about whether my left quad was starting to tighten up. When I looked ahead, put one foot in front of the other and just ran, I felt better -- and I ran better.
My strategy admittedly isn't one size fits all. It may take months, if not years, to find your proverbial happy place, and you may stumble along the way -- literally, if you try trail running, or figuratively, if you try new approaches and they just don't work. You'll likely succeed in a series of small victories, too, rather than in a single seminal moment that redefines life, the universe and everything. (Hint: It's 42.)
But just like you'll never finish a race if you don't start, you'll never know how to get to your happy place if you don't try.

Friday, May 24, 2013

I’m Going (Runner’s World Run) Streaking!!!

Monday marks the unofficial beginning of summer -- which, as I’ve noted, is not my favorite season. I spend many a day as close to a fan or air conditioner as possible, and the heat and humidity make me grumpy. (Cue comments from peanut gallery.) 

Monday also marks the beginning of the Runner’s World Summer Run Streak. The aim is to bridge the gap between spring and fall training programs at a time when it’s easy to fall off the wagon, have a few too many servings of potato salad and lose some of the strength and stamina you’ve worked hard to gain. 

I don’t have to worry about the potato salad -- I despise mayonnaise -- but, since the Winter Run Streak helped me get back on my game after my disastrous fall marathon, I figure I’ll give the Summer Run Streak a shot as I bridge the gap between my upcoming half (the Amica Iron Horse Half Marathon on June 2) and the beginning of training for my fall marathon (the Smuttynose Rockfest on Oct. 6). 

The concept of the streak, for the initiated, is to run at least one mile every day between Memorial Day and Independence Day (39 days in all). During the winter streak (Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day), I made it 12 days before stubborn toe pain sidelined me. Of the 12 days, I ran a short, 1.5-mile-route at least six times -- meaning, it’s actually not as hard as it sounds. There is not, as far as my virtual friends at Runner’s World attest, any actual streaking involved. 

In addition to the run streak -- which I’ll be participating in via the #RWRunStreak Twitter hashtag so as to not bore you with all the details here -- there is the prestigious Runner’s World Pun Streak (#RWPunStreak). Frankly, I take far more pride in this streak. Anyone can run 39 straight days, but coming up with running repartee for 39 straight days is not for the faint of heart.

Anyway, the Runner’s World Summer Run Streak is a great way to kick off your summer and prepare you for the grind that summer running can be. Give it some thought,and happy running!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

How to Play It Cool on Your Summer Runs

I hate the heat. I’m cranky whenever the temperature exceeds 80 degrees and pretty much useless when it’s any warmer or even the slightest bit humid. I often joke that I should summer in Nunavut. 

Of course, my hatred of heat must be balanced with my love of running. Strong summer running, after all, begets peak fall marathon performance, which lays the foundation for inspired winter training, which convinces you to give everything you’ve got in your spring races, which further emphasizes the need for strong summer running, and so it goes. 

It pays, then, to run smart in the summer. Here’s what I’ve learned through the years. (Note: My experience is limited to the humid but comparatively cool New England summer. If you live in Texas, Arizona, Arabia, the Australian Outback, Southeast Asia or anywhere else where the summer is downright miserable by comparison, you may have to modify these rules a bit.)

Avoid the sun. A lot of runners hit the road early in the morning. I struggle with morning running, so I do the bulk of my summer runs in the evening. The downside: Bugs looooove to flock to the light of my headlamp. 

Wear sunscreen. Even if you try to run when the sun’s low in the sky, odds are pretty good that at least one run during the week will be in the early afternoon. Take an extra minute to put on sunscreen, especially on your face and especially on your nose and ears. (Trust me.) If you sweat a lot, as I do, and don’t want your eyes to sting like hell, wear a cap; this lets you get away with not putting sunscreen on your forehead. 

Fuel up. You don’t want to be That Guy who’s scaring children by running around the neighborhood covered in salt because he’s too dehydrated to actually sweat. Bring water with you. You also don’t want to pass out on someone’s lawn because you didn’t eat anything before your run. If you have a long run planned, consider bringing fuel with you. This is especially true if you have a long warm-weather race on your calendar, since you need to know how your body will react to taking in more fuel than usual.

Put on sunscreen again. Because you probably missed a spot the first time. 

Slow down. Shortly after you begin to run, your body will ask your brain, “Are you serious? Really?” Tough workouts are an imperative part of training -- after all, you won’t get faster if you don’t push yourself -- but you need to be careful, too. Run for distance, not time, and knock a minute or two off your usual pace if it feels like you’re running inside a sauna. If you must do a fartlek or interval workout in the heat, take longer breaks between sets and be judicious with the water. Better yet, save those workouts for the morning or evening. 

Hit the water. Because who doesn’t like hopping in a pool, lake, river, fjord, canal, estuary, reservoir, pond or ocean when he reeks of sweat, sunscreen, tears, dirt, Gatorade and pain? 

Shower smart. Few things are more annoying than getting all sweaty, taking a shower and then getting sweaty again five minutes later. After you’ve done your business, stand under some cool water for a couple minutes to clean the remaining filth off yourself and contemplate life, the universe and everything. Then, since your bathroom is probably about 120 degrees, towel off elsewhere (preferably five inches from your AC unit or an oscillating fan). 

Rehydrate. Summer’s the time of lemonade and iced tea. There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of either, but don’t forget to drink lots and lots and lots of water. Consider fruit as you rehydrate, too -- seriously, who doesn’t love watermelon?

Did I miss any summer running tips? Anyone from less hospitable parts of the world (including Nunavut) have advice to share?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

It's Gotta Be the Shoes

I had a couple conversations (in the 21st century digital sense) about running shoes recently, and they inspired me to throw a little something together. 

The first began as a chat about marathon recovery lessons learned, continued with a brief discussion about running as an exercise in lifelong learning and ended with a case of oneupsmanship; in poker terms,  I saw a runner whose career began in Nike Free and raised her a pair of basketball shoes. I won that pot. 

The second came in response to a comment on my last post, when I read another blogger’s most recent post and learned that she recently discovered she’d been wearing shoes one size too small. I did this, too, for several years, only mine were one size too big. (In my defense, I'm a guy, I don't think about shoes and I thought it was perfectly normal to spend five minutes before a run tightening the hell out of one's shoes.)

As the previous paragraph demonstrates, I don't know a ton about running shoes (or shoes in general, for that matter). But, as the "runner" at work and among my friends, I’m often asked for recommendations. This is what I tell folks.

Get your stride assessed. Go to a specialty running store, or even to a doctor, and have your running stride looked at. The right shoe will depend on whether your heel, midfoot or toes hit the ground first, as well as whether you land on the inside or outside of your foot. (I'm lucky enough to have a "normal" stride. Please don't hate me.) 

Don't skimp. My everyday wardrobe reads like an Old Navy catalog. In other words, I'm cheap. But I splurge on running shoes. Why? Good shoes prevent injuries. 

Ask around. Runners are loyal to their brands. (In my case, it’s Brooks.) They also love to talk about running. So if you need a shoe recommendation, ask and ye shall receive. (Probably way more than you want, in many cases.) The Runner’s World Shoe Finder is a good resource, too -- it helped me decide which lightweight shoe would work for me. 

Break 'em in. Whenever I get new shoes, I wear them to my retail job a couple times to break them in. From there, I'll do a couple easy runs. I won't do a speed workout or long run until I feel comfortable. For the love of all that is good and pure, NEVER wear a brand-spanking new pair of shoes in a race.

Know when to walk away. Conventional wisdom says you should replace running shoes after about 500 miles, and fewer if you use lightweight shoes. I often exceed this milestone for two reasons -- one, I keep my "least old" shoes around for running in inclement weather (so my news ones don’t get gross), and two, I'm cheap. I've never felt the ill effects of running that 501st mile in a pair of shoes, but if you've had the same pair of running shoes for a few months, it may be time to replace them. (One sign that they may be worn: The sole looks like crap.) Given that new shoes take time to break in, too, you may want to get new shoes before you actually need them. 

Approach lightweight shoes with caution. Full disclosure: I wear lightweight shoes and love them. That said, I've been running for a long time, and I made the transition slowly, even more so than with the usual new pair of shoes and at a time when I wasn't training for a marathon. I also had some experience with them as racing shoes (we called them "waffles") in high school and college. If you're new to running, your feet, knees, calves, quads, hamstrings and IT bands need all the support they can get. If you want to consider lightweight shoes, ask a few friends (not just one) or talk to your doctor / trainer about whether you’re ready. Also, be warned: The effects of puddles, snow banks and blunt objects are magnified when you wear lightweight shoes. 

If the shoe fits, wear it again. As I said, runners are loyal to their brands. When we find a shoe we like, we often buy a second pair shortly after getting the first. When the next version of our favorite shoe comes out, we'll first stock up on the old version (since it’s probably on sale) and then get the new one. Why not? When you step up your training, you’re going to wear as many as several pairs of shoes in one year. 

Reassess. Your body changes as you age. I had no idea my feet were smaller. Your stride may change, especially as you lose weight, get faster or increase your mileage. If something doesn't feel right, it may be time to think about your shoes. Yes, you paid good money for that pair that may suddenly start pinching your toes or the top of your foot, but in the long run, getting yet another pair of shoes is less expensive than multiple trips to the doctor. 

Plus, you can just wear those extra shoes for yard work.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

What ‘Running Renaissance’ Means to Me

My first post promised a prompt explanation of why I chose “Running Renaissance” as the name for this blog. Yeah, yeah, this isn’t very prompt, but I’ve been mulling it over, and I think I’ve figured out how to best explain myself. 

As I noted, I’ve been running for 17 years. This works out to more than half my life. That said, my running hasn't progressed on a continuum but, rather, has hit peaks and troughs, both of which are worth examining to fully understand why I feel like I'm in the midst of a running Renaissance. 

My running life can be roughly and briefly divided into four time frames. 

Fast Times: August 1995 - October 2001

This is when I grew the most as a runner, from the guy in basketball shoes to the guy who, if memory serves me right, ran a sub-30 5-mile cross-country race as a college sophomore. I fully identified myself as a runner, even though I was never the fastest on the team and sometimes to the chagrin of my college roommates, who had to smell my stinky running clothes. (I learned that hanging them out an open window only goes so far.) 

This era ended with the 2001 BayState Marathon. It was my first 26.2 miles. For 16 miles, I maintained a 7:10 pace, which was setting me up nicely to qualify for Boston. (This was when BQ for men under 35 was 3:10.) Coincidentally, 16 miles was also the length of my longest training run; after clinging to a telephone pole for dear life, I walk-jogged my way home. 

Strange Days: October 2001 - October 2007

I ran less during these years. This was an accident of my calendar -- first the last three semesters of college were busy as all hell, then I was working the wonky hours of a newspaper reporter and finally I had a 45-minute commute to my next job. I never stopped altogether, mind you, but let’s just say weekday runs were few and far between. 

Things picked up toward the end. I squeezed in my second marathon, the 2006 BayState, but a bout with runner’s knee during my taper led me to take things slow. Naturally, I took this personally and vowed to come back stronger. I recommitted to training, raced more and ran my marathon PR at 2007 Baystate -- 3:13:02. (Why BayState? It’s flat, it’s fast and it’s 15 minutes from my parents’ house.) 

The Wonder Years: October 2007 - November 2012

Missing a BQ by three minutes naturally had me dreaming of sprinting down Boylston Street and into the arms of an eagerly waiting throng of supporters. It never happened, of course. My BQ attempts all failed -- I fell short of distance goals during training, I neglected speed workouts, I spent an inordinate amount of time pulling weeds in my garden and, simply put, I didn’t take training seriously. The nadir was the 2012 Manchester Marathon, during which I bonked like I have never bonked before and ran a PW of 3:51 and change. 

The Renaissance: November 2012 - present

All runners wallow after a bad race. This is especially true for marathons, as we spend months preparing for a single race that can fall apart for any number of reasons. After Manchester, I brooded for several days and even went so far as to question whether I had even one more marathon in me. 

Then I stopped feeling sorry for myself. (Like all runners do when faced with disappointment.) I signed up for a Turkey Trot and surprised myself with a sub-7:00 pace over 5 miles. I committed to the Runner’s World Run Streak -- and, just as importantly, the Runner’s World Pun Streak. (I lasted about 12 days until my toe started to bother me and I opted not to push it, but it was still pretty fun.) I signed up for dailymile so I could join the 21st century and stop tracking my mileage in a day planner. I committed to a general yet flexible schedule that included at least one speed workout each week. 

Along the way, a funny thing happened: I started getting faster and feeling better. My 5K, 5 mile and 10K race times dropped. My training runs got faster. My thighs burned a little more after speed workouts. My flexibility improved (albeit from a fairly low baseline). Despite my Manchester debacle, I started to get excited about the prospect of running another marathon. 

"Renaissance" is French for "rebirth." Over the last few months I’ve undergone a running rebirth of sorts, to the point that I’m almost -- almost -- as fast as I was in high school. Age and amount of gray hair aside, the difference is that I’m not going to take this for granted. It took me more than a decade to get back to this point, and this time I’ll be damned if I let it slip away again.

Monday, May 6, 2013

What I Learned From My Worst Race Ever

My worst race, by far, was the 2012 Manchester Marathon. 

(Before I go any further...It’s actually a very nice race. Runners start and finish downtown, the shirts and medals are nice, and I saw the funniest sign to date: "Keep Pushing! (That’s What She Said.)" Plus, the 2012 race was the same weekend as the cancelled New York Marathon, and Manchester managed to accommodate 750 or so displaced New York runners without any trouble.) 

Where did I go wrong? Let me count the ways. 

I went out too fast. I do this a lot. It’s fine in a 5K, 10K or even a half, as there’s no wall to hit. But I should’ve known the 7:10ish pace I started with was not going to last. 

I didn’t wear pants. It was cold and windy, as it usually is in early November in northern New England. (For those who cannot distinguish the New England states, New Hampshire is always cooler than the Boston suburbs.) Shorts were a bad life choice. 

I trained poorly. This, of course, is the biggie. My longest training run was a 30K (18.6 mile) race a few weeks beforehand. I should have done at least one, and probably two or three, long runs after that. I did not. The other thing I forgot: New Hampshire is far hillier than Massachusetts. My legs were NOT ready. 

I hit the wall around the 19-mile mark -- not surprising, in hindsight, given the length of my longest training run. I’ve bonked sooner in a marathon, but never this hard -- never have I ever walked more and jogged less in the waning stages of a marathon. Never have I ever more seriously contemplated curling up in the fetal position on a random lawn along the course, to be discovered days later by a man poking me with a rake as he attempts to commence yard work. 

After finishing in 3:51 and change -- nearly 20 minutes slower than my previous worst time and more than 30 minutes slower than my goal -- I spent several days in the typical post-marathon contemplative phase. This is where most runners wonder if they will ever qualify for Boston, curse they day they first laced up their running shoes, frantically search the Internet for another marathon to run, seek solace in friends who have been through the heartbreak and disappointment themselves, enjoy booze for the first time in months and nap -- often all in the same day and sometimes all at once. 

For the first time, I truly wondered if I was really cut out to run a marathon and not completely suck ass in the process. I also took my time coming back. After a marathon, I usually shy away from physical activity for one week and running for two weeks, only to get stir crazy and go for my first run after about 10 days, but this time my first run was 16 days after the race. I needed the extra time to pull myself together, frankly.

And this points to the one thing I did right regarding Manchester: I let it go. I learned my lessons, of course, and know now that I can’t amble to the starting line and expect to run a great marathon time. I know I should run hills, plan my training carefully and wear pants.

But I’m not going to dwell on my experience any more than I have to. I have many more marathon memories to make, and I fully intend for them to be happy ones. The next time I pass out on the grass, it’ll be from exultation, not exhaustion.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Schedules Are Made to Be Broken, Too

Some runners love their routines. They get up at or near the same time every day, they do their long runs at the same time every week, they fuel and refuel the same way for each run, they don the same outfit for each major race and so on. Other runners, not so much. 

I’ve been in the “not so much” category for most of my adult life, following high school and my early days at Emerson when we actually had enough men to register a team. 

When you’re not training for something, this works well, as you run whenever you damn well please, thank you very much. When you are training, though, it’s often your undoing, as the lack of structure can easily cause everything to fall apart. I speak for experience here, as most of my marathon training “programs,” devised neatly in my head, collapsed thanks to a packed schedule, fickle New England weather or nagging doubts zooming through the back of my mind so prevalently that I convinced myself it was worth staying in bed and doing my long run Tuesday morning instead. (Note: This is never a good idea.) 

I’m trying to take a different approach these days. While I’ve not yet officially begun my fall marathon training -- that will start in about a month -- I’m nonetheless trying to get into the habit of planning a running routine.

Roughly, this is what I have:
  • Sunday: Long run or tempo
  • Tuesday: Easy day or short speed
  • Wednesday: Long run or tempo
  • Friday: Easy day or short speed 

(Cross training, in the form of unloading an 18-wheeler full of heavy boxes of products for The Container Store for the better part of three hours, happens every Thursday night and the occasional Tuesday night. As that Planet Fitness ad puts it, I pick things up and put them down -- only I get paid to do it.) 

This schedule is far from advanced. But that’s OK. It’s meant to be flexible because, well, life intervenes. This week, I scheduled my “long” run -- 10.4 miles -- for Wednesday evening. I had time and the weather was nice, so why the hell not? I ran quite well, too -- faster than I did in my recent 10K race, if I am to believe my watch. And this worked out nicely, because I felt like crap this morning -- as some wise men from Seattle would say, I was “feeling Minnesota.” (And looking it, too.) 

There are a couple Aesopian morals here, I think. One is that there’s nothing wrong with playing things by ear, provided you know you can pull off a run without hurting yourself. (I’d covered the same distance two and a half weeks ago.) The other is that this type of flexibility makes it easier to deal with little setbacks. Today’s fartlek workout ain’t gonna happen, since my neck can barely hold up my head, but knowing that I squeezed in a good workout on Wednesday, and that I might be able to do one on Sunday if I take care of myself, helps me overcome the minor disappointment.

No running schedule ever goes according to plan. Life gets crazy -- friends or family visit from out of town, the weather sucks, work gets insanely busy or any one of 345 other roadblocks are thrown at us. That’s why training is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. It’s taking advantage of the days when you’re looking and feeling California so you don’t lament the ones when you’re feeling Minnesota.