Sunday, June 30, 2013

These Are a Few of My Favorite Runs

The more you run, the more you find yourself covering familiar territory, both figuratively (in your triumphs and tragedies, so to speak) and literally (in running the same distance many, many times). When you're in the 'burbs, and the streets are fewer and farther between, it's even harder to add variety.
Some people get bored running the same roads over and over, but I find it helpful. I can use landmarks to easily identify mile markers, and, more importantly, I can just put on my shoes and head out the door without thinking about it too much. (This is especially true when I run at night - it means I know the sidewalks well and can point my headlamp at oncoming traffic instead.)
These are the routes I run most often:
3.1 miles. Since this is arguably the most popular race distance, it makes sense to have a 5K route around your neighborhood. Whether you're a beginner or a veteran, you'll need to get used to this distance. One tip: Run it forward one day and backward the next to avoid injury and boredom.
5 miles. This is another popular race distance. It's also a good test of how well you're progressing beyond the 5K. When you start speed work, this will make for a good fartlek or a quick tempo distance, too.
7-8 miles. I have a 7.6-mile route that I do often. This distance stands at the edge of my fatigue threshold, meaning it's as far as I can run on an empty stomach. Anything more and I need some pre-run fuel. It's a good "test" for me, to see how well training has progressed.
10 miles. This distance isn't for everyone. It may take others quite some time to get here. But there's definitely something to be said for hitting double-digit mileage. The sense of accomplishment never dissipates. Just don't make this an out-and-back route that passes several pizza places in a five-mile span. You'll just get hungry. Trust me. Seriously.
(I don't have routine routes for longer runs. One reason is that I've realized my old reliable routes aren't terribly safe -- they lack shoulders and streetlights, neither of which are conducive to safe nighttime running. Another is the fact that I tend to overanalyze my runs; by mapping them out the day that I do them, I avoid this problem.)
It helps to have short loops you can add to these familiar routes. By hitting side streets, I can add 0.4 or 0.6 miles to my first two routes and another full mile to the last two. This works well if I need an extended warmup or cool down or want to make an easy run a bit longer. It also breaks up the monotony. 
What are the ol' standby running routes and distances that you use? How do you keep them from getting boring?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

No Run Is Worth an Ambulance Ride

Friday afternoon was a great beach day -- low 80s and sunny -- but not great running weather. I managed to squeeze in my tempo workout and hit my pace goal: Two miles at 6:34 pace sandwiched between a two-mile warmup and two-mile cooldown. 

My cooldown brought me along a local road without much shade. It brought me back a couple weeks to the Amica Iron Horse Half Marathon, which was run in similar weather, only at 8 a.m. and in early June, when no one had had a chance to acclimated to the heat. 

As noted in my race recap, I ran well and finished strong. I didn’t mention a couple encounters with another runner who ran well -- to a point. Running in the sun reminded me of this. 

At about the nine-mile mark, when the Iron Horse Half course progresses onto a quiet, shaded path, I came across another runner. I’m not usually one to start conversations during a race, but he appeared to be struggling, so I reassured him that, at his current pace, he’d finished the race in under 1:30. Hearing that, I figured, would push him along. 

It did. The he passed me. I found this odd. He was still breathing heavily and, as far as I could tell, I was still moving at a pretty decent clip. I passed him back a mile or so later, but eventually he got me back again. 

I started kicking myself. (Figuratively.) Why couldn't I stay with this guy? Clearly, it seemed, the heat wasn’t affecting him as much as it was getting to me. He was still wearing his shirt, while mine was little more than a disgusting, crumpled sweat rag dangling from my hand, and he wasn't taking in as much water as I was. Oh well, I thought. I’d already resigned myself to not running a PR, so my main goal at that point was coasting along, breaking 1:30 myself and getting an enormous iced coffee once I'd rehydrated after the race. 

As I turned the corner at the 12.5-mile mark, I saw him again. This time, he was on the side of the road, and three volunteers were holding him up. I don't know if he’d collapsed or merely teetered, but it was clear that he wasn’t finishing the race. 

I suddenly felt like an ass. Having noticed his labored breathing, should I have said something? Warned him not to push it? Acknowledged that, in such conditions, a race becomes a war of attrition, and your goals mean nothing? 

I didn't then, but I am now -- not just to him, but to everyone. No goal is worth collapsing in a heap and getting poked with an IV. No race medal, engraved glass or free bagel is worth a trip to the hospital. 

As hard as it is -- after all, runners are conditioned to push themselves beyond normal pain thresholds -- sometimes you just need to dial it back. I can’t tell you when, or how. Everyone is different. But as you hit the road, the treadmill or the trails on these hot, humid days, listen to your body. There's no shame in stopping to walk, get a drink or gather your senses. 

If nothing else, remember this: Persevere through the sun and haze, and the next workout will only be easier.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

One Bad Workout Does Not a Marathon Training Program Make

This week marks the first of my 16-week training program for the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon. I’m using Run Less Run Faster, which I tried a few years ago but abandoned after a few weeks when it became obvious that I wasn’t going to be ready for a marathon. (I hadn’t registered, so I didn’t lose any money. Otherwise I would have put a lot more thought into my decision.) 

I like Run Less, Run Faster because it only requires three workouts per week -- one speed workout, one tempo run and one long run -- along with one or two days of cross training. It’s tough, but it’s also realistic for those of us who prefer to have a bit of a life. 

Being relatively familiar with the program, but having not really looked at it in a long time, I didn’t glance at the program until last weekend. First workout? Three repeat miles in 6:01. Yikes. 

Due to some not unforeseen circumstances, I ended up doing this Wednesday morning. As I’ve noted, I’m not a morning runner, nor am I a huge fan of speed workouts. And it showed. After clocking 5:57 and 6:05 in my first two miles, my body just stopped working a bit less than midway through the third mile. Just stopped. I’d reached the top of a hill, but, nope. Wasn’t happening. 

I used the unexpectedly long cool down to mull things over. Initially, I was pissed, but the more I thought about it, the more I, well, cooled down. First, this was my first legitimate speed workout in a few years. Yes, I’ve done plenty of fartleks, but no timed intervals. Second, this was my first hard run in the morning in several years. When I run in the morning, it’s always easy. Third, it was my first freakin’ speed workout. I have 15 more.

Fourth, and most important, this isn’t supposed to be easy. It is was, sidewalks would be clogged with water bottles, empty energy gel packets and other signs of folks training for a marathon. It’s hard -- damn hard -- and not every workout is a walk in the park. Yes, this one hurt a little more because it was literally my first workout, but I’ll have plenty of chances to redeem myself -- least of all on race day. One bad workout won’t keep me down.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Recovering From a Bad Trip (Or, Why I Loathe Business Travel)

My Runner's World Summer Run Streak came to an abrupt end earlier this thanks to a familiar foe: The business trip.
When I travel for work, I'm almost always covering a conference. That means waking up early to get breakfast, spending several hours sitting in keynotes, panel discussions and technical sessions, making small talk and, usually, eating a late dinner. It's a necessary evil.
I packed my running shoes this time, fully intending to run when I got to the hotel, but instead hit the hotel bar with a former colleague I hadn't seen in more than a year. Bye bye, streak.
That was Tuesday. Wednesday was a loss, as it was legitimately a 14-hour day. And then the Bruins went to triple overtime. I fell asleep at 1 a.m.
Six hours later, my alarm went off. I thought about hitting snooze 23 times, as I had the previous morning, but it was time to suck it up, hit the pool and swim for 15 minutes before moderating a panel discussion at 9 a.m.
Then it took me 21 hours to get home from the conference in Florida. (Stupid weather made my flight into Dulles land right about the time my connecting flight to Boston was taking off, and I spend the night at the airport.) Ninety minutes of work on Friday quickly gave way to a four-hour nap. Needless to say, I didn’t run Friday, either.
One 15-minute workout in four days sucks. But, just as it’s important to recover from bad races and bad workouts, you need to put bad stretches behind you, too. Celebrate the small victories -- for me, swimming at 7 a.m. on less than six hours of sleep and getting bumped up to first class on my flight home after my night at Dulles -- shake the cobwebs off your legs and get back out there.
I made up for my poor showing with 3.5 miles on Saturday and 9 on Sunday. Neither were tremendous efforts, but after four days off, that doesn’t matter. There’s plenty of time to return to form. The end of my running streak, in the long run, is but a blip on the radar. 
(I thought I had ended the Runner’s World Pun Streak, too, but I guess not....)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Fartlek's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Speed workouts can overwhelm runners of all experience levels. If you're a beginning runner and find track work daunting, you're not alone: I haven't stepped on a track since senior year of high school, thanks to many unpleasant memories and a general unwillingness (and inability) to discreetly hop a fence when no one’s looking.
That said, speed workouts also help runners of all experience levels. They build muscle, they train your legs to run despite fatigue and, well, they make you faster.
When I feel as though I would like to run fast (I refuse to quote Top Gun), I do a fartlek workout. It's fun to say, it's easy and it's quick.
Fartlek is Swedish for speed play, and the original fartlek workout included long intervals, speed work and hills. (You can also borrow from the U.S. Marine Corps and incorporate calisthenics if you’re feeling particularly badass.)
I don't go to that much trouble -- partly because hills are few and far between in southern New England, partly because there’s no way I could keep track of all that and partly out of fear that doing jumping jacks in the center of town may rob me of what little dignity I have left -- but I do give my fartlek workouts a bit of structure.
First, you need to figure out the duration of your run. (This is one of those runs where time matters more than distance.) You can do a quick, effective fartlek workout in 30 minutes. Anything longer than 60 minutes is pushing it, figuratively and literally; you're just going to tire yourself out.
Remember, too, that though you’re sprinting, the run as a whole will be slower than a plain ol' run. My warmup/cooldown pace is generally at least 2:30 slower than my 5K pace -- enough that I'm sweating but not breathing too hard -- and between sprints I’m not going much faster than a jog.
Once you get out there, do a warmup for 10 to 15 minutes. Any less, I find, is insufficient to "shake the lead out" of my legs. Any more and you might as well just do an easy run.
Next are the fartleks. I do these in sets of two to four, depending on their duration:
  • 30 or 45 seconds: Sets of four.
  • 45 or 60 seconds: Sets of three.
  • 60 to 90 seconds: Sets of two.
(Note: If you sprint for more than 90 seconds, you're edging into interval training as opposed to fartlek training. This serves a different purpose, which I’ll cover later.)
I tend to stick to 30, 45, 60, 75 and 90 seconds for my fartleks, as math is easy enough to do while glancing at a watch. My break between sprints in each set is as long as the spring itself -- i.e. 30-second fartlek, 30-second break. Between each set I'll add a minute to my break.
The number of sets I do also varies, though it's usually inversely proportional to the number of sprints in each set.
  • 30-45 seconds: Two sets of four sprints each.
  • 45-60 seconds: Three sets of three sprints each.
  • 60-90 seconds: Four sets of two sprints each.
The idea here is to give yourself a decent amount of recovery time while still pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. You may not think eight 30-second sprints in a nine-minute span will hurt, but it does. On the other hand, doing a set of four 90-second sprints will hurt like hell.
These are also inexact. If I do 45-second sprints, I don’t always do them in sets of three; there are some tricky intersections in my town, and I try to avoid sprinting through them since, well, that’s not safe. (Besides, race conditions are inexact.)
Finally, do your cooldown. This should be 10 to 15 minutes. There's nothing wrong with extending it, but don't cut it short. (If you're doing a route for the first time, and you think it may take longer than the time you’ve calculated, tack the extra time on the cooldown.) And stretch well after you've showered and refueled.
Who else likes fartlek workouts as much as I do?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

It's Not the End of the World As We Know It

Four miles into the Amica Iron Horse Half Marathon, I knew a PR was out of the question. My pace was only off by a few seconds -- I hit the four-mile mark in 26:12, compared to a goal of 26:00 -- but I knew it wasn't going to happen. 

And that's perfectly fine. 

Many of us set race goals with pure intentions but unrealistic expectations. It's not that the goal itself is unrealistic but, rather, that the circumstances necessary to achieve that goal may require proverbial planetary alignment -- zero missed workouts, a cooperative tummy, temperatures in the 60s, a bit of cloud cover, a watch that doesn’t malfunction, a forgiving course and cooperative calves, hamstrings, ankles, quadriceps, knees and hips. 

There's no shame in failing to achieve a goal if you know why you missed the mark. In the case of the Iron Horse Half, the answer's easy: It was hot. Sunday was cooler than the previous three days had been, but it sunny with temperatures in the 70s when the race started and the 80s when I finished. On my way to get post-race refreshments, another runner looked at me and said, "Go get some ice."

Admittedly, part of the reason I’m OK with missing the mark is because of where I finished -- 11th overall and 3rd in my age group with a time of 1:29:40. This was totally unexpected. All the fast people must’ve either stayed home or struggled with the heat even more than I did. (And you all know how much I hate the heat.) This was the swag I brought home:

So, getting back to my point: Missing a goal isn’t that bad, especially if it's an ambitious goal. Mine was. I intended to break a four-year-old PR by more than a minute, which meant maintaining a pace that I hadn’t even achieved during a 10K six weeks ago, and doing so in an unfamiliar race an hour and 45 minutes from home. (OK, maybe "insane" is more appropriate than "ambitious.") 

Goals aren’t for everyone, but I think they play a valuable role in making you a better runner. Goals are admittedly easier to set, and achieve, when you’re just starting out. In your first few events, a goal of "finish the damn race" is perfectly fine -- your have few expectations or preconceived notions about what you’re doing, after all, and unless you’re a prodigy you know better than to plan to come home with a big glass beer stein. 

As you continue to run, though, the race goals you set should become increasingly challenging. Simply finishing should not suffice, even at a new, longer distance. You should be pushing yourself to run strong, faster and better than before. You shouldn’t fear failure, either; all runners experience failure, and the way we respond to it and overcome it is a big part of what separates us from the general non-running population. 

That’s why the goal I set for the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon will be an ambitious one. I haven't done it yet, and I probably won't announce it when I do, but it will likely be a lofty goal that I'll achieve only if the planets align.

And if I don't do it? I'll learn from my failures, as I have before. I'll stretch, drown my sorrows in a giant coffee, drive home, take a long shower, stretch, nap, stretch, eat everything in sight, hobble around for a couple days and set my sights on my next race. Missing a goal sucks, but it's not the end of the world as you know it.