Monday, July 29, 2013

Running Through the Dog Days

In New England, the term "dog days of summer" refers to the hot, hazy and humid days we typically have between the Fourth of July and Labor Day. (Yes, it’s hotter, hazier and more humid elsewhere, but we often get all three at once. Plus, let’s face it, we wouldn’t be New Englanders if we weren’t complaining incessantly about the weather.)

For many, these conditions coincide with fall race training plans -- and, not coincidentally, a spike in half-full but fully nasty loads of laundry, electrolyte consumption and smothered hot dogs eaten with absolutely no guilt whatsoever.
That’s the glorified part of summer running. The tough part is getting out there in the first place. But I’m getting better.
I like cold weather running. (When cold weather returns, I’ll explain why. To do so now would just be mean.) I hate hot weather, period, whether I’m running, walking, doing yard work, or sitting two feet in front of a window air conditioner. Once I start to sweat, I can’t stop. It’s so bad that my friends, God bless them, know better than to plan events that involve long hours in the hot sun.
I hate hot weather, but I like running fast. And, as more than one person on Twitter has put it, “Suffer in the summer, fly in the fall.” Work your way through tough conditions in July and August, the saying goes, and your autumn race will seem like a walk in the park.
So I've been taking my own hot weather running advice while, at the same time, slowly overcoming my fear of the sun when it makes sense to do so. (I've found, surprisingly, that track workouts are good candidates for warm weather runs, thanks to the frequent breaks.) Each run, in turn, gets a little bit easier, and the heat affects me a bit less.
You know what? Running in the heat ain't so bad. And if it'll help me fly in the fall, even better.

Friday, July 19, 2013

My (Somewhat Pathetic) Marathon Bucket List

Most runners have a bucket list of races they want -- nay, need -- to do in their lifetime. Some even aspire to run a marathon in all 50 states. 

I have no plans to do so. I’m cheap, for one, plus there are many parts of the United States I have little desire to take one step in, let alone 40,000 or so. I also really, really don’t like to travel, as I’ve pointed out. Finally, I’m not a fan of enormous marathons such as New York and Chicago. They overwhelm me. (Though I do have a very unbiased exception, as you’ll see.) I prefer smaller, local marathons within a reasonable drive. 

However, seeing Big Sur 2014 sell out in like an hour got me thinking about my own marathon bucket list. Admittedly, it’s not very long, nor is it terribly specific, but it gives me something to strive for, even if it's decades away.

Boston. It’s the original, for cryin’ out loud. Plus I live less than half a mile from the course. I’ll endure the huge crowds at the start in Hopkinton to run in what’s arguably the greatest marathon of them all. 

Mount Desert Island. This one’s in Acadia National Park in Maine. It’s a beautiful setting for a tough race full of hills. Definitely not one to run if your primary goal is a BQ. 

Bay of Fundy. This one’s in Lubec, Maine. This tiny town, the easternmost in the 50 U.S. states, is across the bay from Campobello Island in New Brunswick. You run in two countries. (Passport required.) It doesn’t get much cooler that that. 

Big Sur. A few folks I know ran this year, and their pictures were so amazing that I was convinced to run it at some point in my life. 

Disney. My wife has no interest in running, and for that reason I let her stay home and sleep when I get up at the crack of dawn to go run a race. But Disney is her favorite place on earth, and if I run this one I know she will be there, waving some sort of sparkly princess accessory, as I cross the finish line. Then she’ll tell me to go shower. 

Somewhere in Canada. I'd love to embrace my Canadian heritage (my dad was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario and my family is sprinkled throughout the Great White North), so any of a number of marathons in eastern Canada -- Ottawa, Quebec City or either Toronto marathon -- sound great to me. (Montreal is now part of the Rock n Roll Marathon conglomerate, so that's less appealing.)

Bonus: Antarctica. I’ll never be able to afford this, and spending so much time on a boat before I run would be drive me bonkers, but running with penguins might actually be cooler than running a marathon in two countries at the same time. 

Since this list is a little pathetic, help me out. What marathons are on your bucket list? If you’ve done them, did they live up to the hype? If you haven’t, how are you going to make sure you get there?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Morning or Evening Runs: Pick Your Poison

As it begins to get (choose your favorite expletive) hot here in New England, I'm increasingly considering early morning runs. As I've repeated here, I'm not a morning runner. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and sometimes I have little choice but to hit the road only slightly after dawn. (Not today, though. Damn cats woke me up twice in the middle of the night, so I just snoozed right through the 6:30 a.m. alarm.)
From my experience, here are the cons of morning vs. evening runs. (Why just the negatives? I'm a smartass.)
Mornings are early. And the warmer the climate, the earlier you need to get up. A friend in Texas is running at 5 a.m. to beat the heat. No thank you.
Evenings are dark. It's cooler after sunset, yes, and running in the heat sucks, but you must wear reflective gear, including a headlamp. And what's attracted to bright lights after dark? Bugs. Yep.
Mornings are sluggish. It takes longer to warm up because you have to wake up. Getting up early, for me, isn't the issue. To wake up, on the other hand, I need to shower, eat and have a cup of coffee (or five). I'm not doing that before a run. That's just silly.
Evenings are unpredictable. Early sun can give way to late thunderstorms. Your boss can schedule a last-minute 5 p.m. meeting. Lunch can disagree with you (or, if you're busy or forgetful, not happen at all). Or 1,234,567,890 other things can happen after you wake up.
Mornings are early. Yes, I said this already, but it bears repeating. You burn the midnight oil? Watch Conan? Own pets who love to wake you up in the middle of the night? Yes? Then you're hitting snooze.
Evenings are busy. Like eating dinner at a normal time? Meeting friends after work? Showering only once a day? Actually relaxing at the end of the day? Yeah, I thought so.
In a perfect world, I'd always run in the morning. It leaves me energized for the rest of the day, due in no small part to having accomplished something great before I even get to the office. I also wouldn't have to spend as much time weighing my water vs. coffee consumption.
Then again, I wouldn't have stiffening legs as the day dragged on, a hankering for lunch at 10 a.m. or a need for a nap in the early afternoon, either.
In the end, it makes sense to stick to what works for your work, school, life and biological schedule. Old habits die hard, after all -- and if you do want them to change, it takes time and effort. 
You can’t, ahem, wake up one morning and decide that you want to run in the morning. You have to make a conscious effort to change -- record Conan instead of watching it live, lay out your running clothes before bed, make a date with someone who actually likes getting up at the crack of dawn to run, and so on. You won’t like it -- and, as I can attest, it may never work -- but you’ll never know if you don’t try.
Whatever you do, though, be safe. Leave the headphones at home and, if it gets too hot, dial it back a bit. Remember, no run is worth an ambulance ride.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Run to the Hills

Eight miles into this week's 15-mile run, I met an old friend: A hill.
As long as I can remember, hills and I have gotten along quite well. (I thank my high school cross country coach, who dragged us to Heartbreak Hill, Nashoba Valley Ski Area and other God-forsaken spots for hill workouts.) In crowded races, I almost always pass folks on hills and often use them to begin a surge or, if nothing else, regain momentum lost.
This hill hit me hard, though. I don't know why. My route was a familiar one (heck, it used to be my drive home from work), I was running well (I'd eventually finish 20-plus seconds faster than my target pace) and the temperature had finally dropped to a relatively comfortable level.
For eastern Massachusetts, it's a decent hill -- probably half a mile, and steep enough that your quads burn even after the terrain levels. As I ran on Wednesday, I remembered ascending the same hill a couple winters ago, when it had been about 70 degrees colder, quite a bit darker and a teensy bit more slippery.
Suddenly the present didn't seem so bad. As I have many times before, I held form on the hill and coasted home.

Don't get me wrong. Hills suck. But powering through them will only make you a stronger runner. There's a reason I remember those workouts from high school, along with the topography (but not the name) of several streets in my hometown. Simply put, those workouts worked.
The next time you do a familiar run, scope out the hills. The time after that, turn the run into a fartlek workout: Sprint up the hills and rest in between.
Or, if there's a hilly neighborhood nearby, and a street bisecting it, run intervals on the side streets. Initially, aim for a pace that makes you breathe hard but isn't an all-out sprint -- after all, you should do several intervals. The stronger you get, obviously, the faster you should go. 
Hills take a toll on your quads, so be sure to stretch well after your run, and don't do hills more than once a week. After a few weeks, those hills will get a bit easier -- and, in your next race, you very well may find yourself leading the charge up the biggest hill on the course.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Why I Never Run With Headphones

Every year, my hometown hosts a 2-mile race on the Fourth of July. It’s a great way to kick off the day’s festivities, which also include a parade and a bunch of booths on the Town Common sponsored by local organizations and offering games, the work of local arts and lots and lots of food. 

The race itself is a bit of a zoo. The logistics are great, the spectators are great (the last mile and a half follows the parade path, where folks often set up their lawn chairs and blankets long before dawn) but the field is crowded, and every year there are more and more little kids sprinting like bats released from hell at the start, only to die about 400 meters into the race, that I legitimately fear some sort of trampling incident. 

I’ve run the John Carson Road Race more than any other -- several times as one of those annoying kids, every year of high school and a few years after that -- and definitely have plenty of fond memories. Chief among them is sprinting to the finish alongside a former assistant high school coach a few years ago. We gave each other plenty of crap over the years, both of us taking it as easily as we dished it out, and I was glad to see that he was still getting after it. 

I haven’t done the race in a few years. For starters, I don’t go home very often. In addition, I seem to get slower every year, while the field remains just as fast, with the latest crop of sub-11-minute high schoolers darting out after the gun, never looking back and leaving old men like me in the dust. (Note: I know many of you reading this are probably older than I am. You know what I mean.) 

That said, this race means a lot to me. It’s the reason I never run with headphones.  

John Carson, in this case, wasn’t a late-night TV host. He was a promising high school runner in the 1980s. According to lore, my town was full of such runners back then, regularly winning conference and state championships. My teams tried to replicate that success, with mixed results. (No thanks to me. I was seventh man on the cross country team on a good day.) 

One day, John went running along a set of train tracks while wearing a Walkman. He didn’t hear a train coming. The first paramedic on the scene was his coach -- and, later, my coach. (Not the one I bumped into a few years ago.) He was the last one to see John alive. 

I’m rarely tempted to run with music. I usually use the time to think -- sometimes about my run, but mostly about other stuff. Whenever I’m tempted, I think about John Carson. Sure, I’m a safe runner -- I stick to sidewalks and crosswalks whenever I can, I wear reflective gear at night and my shoes are obnoxiously bright -- but I’m also easily distracted and refuse to risk something awful just so I can listen to some tunes.  

Many in my hometown call it the Fourth of July race. They’re not necessarily wrong. But to me, it’ll always be the John Carson Road Race. And I will never forget why.