Thursday, October 31, 2013

What to Do When You Don't PR in Every Race Any More

Everyone registers for road races for different reasons. Some aim for a PR. Others want to take in the sights and sounds of a unique course. Some run in memory of a loved one. Some live for the challenge of big hills or extreme temperatures. Others still just run for the hell of it.

This weekend’s Ashland Half & 5K fell into the “just for the hell of it” category. I’d run the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon three weeks before, and “trained” all of three times since that race -- if you count a jog around the neighborhood, a 7.5-mile “long run” and a fartlek half marathon training. I knew this would be the case when I registered, mind you. I ran because a) the starting line is at the official, before-a-marathon-was-26.2-miles starting line for the Boston Marathon and b) it’s a small local race, and I like to support small local races.

My goal for this race was little more than maintaining a steady pace. I had no intention of running a half marathon PR -- the course was hilly (at least for eastern Massachusetts) and, well, I was still three weeks removed from a marathon. (I’m not badass enough to truly race like that. Yet.) But keeping a pace, I thought, I could handle. It would do me good, too, since I tend to hit the wall in long races.

For the most part, I did in fact maintain a 7-minute pace. There were a couple fast ones in there, yes, and a couple slow ones, but I was right around 70 minutes when I crossed the 10-mile mark.

Then I turned up Green Street. I’d examined the elevation map for the race, and I knew there was a notable hill in the second half of the race, but I didn’t remember where, exactly, or how steep. (OK, maybe I hadn’t “examined” so much as “casually glanced at in the car.”) That hill hurt. I slowed to a virtual crawl and gave up all hope of catching the guy in front of me. (I may have been running just for the hell of it, but that doesn’t mean my competitive streak took the day off.)

During miles 11 and 12, my pace dropped to 7:30 per mile. Admittedly, I was frustrated. Then again, I hadn’t seen such hills in several weeks (the Smuttynose course is remarkably flat). So I adjusted my goal; mile 13 needed to come in at 7 minutes, I declared.

I did. The last 1.1 miles came in under 8 minutes. I crossed the line a few seconds shy of 1:33. That’s several minutes off my half marathon PR, so I’m not exactly beaming with pride, but I am pleased with my ability to maintain a consistent pace for 10 miles and then pick it up after a couple tough miles.

Not every race you run needs to end in a PR. Your first race will be a PR, of course, as will the ones that follow; you’re just starting out, after all, and you’re getting acclimated to this whole running thing.

Soon, though, you won’t beat your best time. It usually means one of two things: You’ve had an off day (whether it’s due to adverse conditions, inadequate training, sudden injuries or overactive bowels) or you’ve hit a peak.

Either scenario is easy to overcome. If you had a bad day, examine what exactly went wrong and take a few lessons away. I did it with my worst marathon and, less than a year later, nearly ran my best marathon and beat the time I ran when I was 21. (If you can’t pinpoint a particular problem, talk to a friend.) If you’ve peaked -- if your times at the same distance are consistently within a minute or so -- then it’s time to take your training to the next level with speed work, cross training and a heightened sense of dedication.

In my case, the Ashland Half was an intentional off day. I didn’t train enough, especially since the course had more hills than I bargained for. No big deal. I know what to do next time. More importantly, I know my tired legs can handle 7-minute pace -- my goal for my next marathon -- for at least 10 miles and can get back to it even if the going gets a little tough. That lesson, frankly, is better than a PR to me.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Yes, Rest For the Weary

For many runners, “rest” is a four-letter word in more ways than one. Skipping a workout is anathema; taking time off, abject failure.

I understand where these feelings come from and can sympathize. In high school, we ran six days a week -- rain, snow or shine -- and hit the gym four times a week. We ran through coughs, colds, aches and pains. (In hindsight, many of us peaked in midseason but fell apart when conference championships and state meets came around.)

This run every day, balls-to-the-wall mindset remained with me for years, through college and beyond. Getting better, and reaching the lofty goals I set for myself, meant constantly pushing myself, day after day after day. Missing a workout -- just one -- would foul everything up. I was a runner, for cryin’ out loud. I was supposed to run all the time.

That has changed. Within the last year or so, I’ve learned to accept the power of rest. In fact, I’m writing this in the midst of a work week when I may not run at all, even though I have a half marathon tomorrow.

What happened? Well, life happened. When I started training for the Smuttynose Marathon, I had every intention of doing every workout in my Run Less, Run Faster program down to the letter. Then my wife spent the better part of two weeks in the hospital (she’s fine now), weeds took over my backyard and the second job started giving me eight-hour shifts every Saturday. Suffice to say, even running three days a week turned into a struggle. (Luckily, the second job requires enough heavy lifting and remaining on my feet to qualify, unofficially, as cross training.)

I decided to roll with it. My previous marathon had gone so horribly, horribly wrong, I reckoned, that even a half-assed effort would be an improvement. Looking at my training log, I decided to focus primarily on speed work and long runs. I was easily exceeding the pace goals for my tempo runs, so if I had a bad week, and I needed to cut one of my three weekly runs, that was the one. I also modified some speed workouts when pressed for time, since, well, half a speed workout is better than no speed workout. Finally, I slogged through my 20-mile runs, even though all three occurred in typical New England summer humidity.

In the end, it worked. Resting when I needed to helped me get more out of my key workouts. Crucially, I didn’t get sick. I also took it easy when nagging pain came on -- in my hips, once, and then again in my quad -- and didn’t let it derail all the hard work I’d put in up to that point. As a result, I avoided injury, too.

Was it easy? No, but it got better. Strange as it sounds, not being able to run when my wife was in the hospital probably worked to my advantage, training-wise; my thoughts were focused elsewhere, so staring at a gaping hole in my training was the least of my concerns. When my hips and quads ached, yes, I ranked among the downtrodden, but stretching and using a foam roller on my days off actually made my rest a bit more productive. Working as hard as I did made it easy to avoid taper madness, too, since I was ready to wind down and prepare myself for my race.

Like I said, this epiphany didn’t come easily. I’ve been running for 18 years, and it took 17 of them to realize that it’s OK to take an unscheduled rest day when you feel like crap. Yes, it sucks to look at your calendar through weary eyes and realize you’re putting off your Yasso 800s for another day, but if you’ll barely make it to the track, is there really any point in doing your workout at all?

(For the sake of perspective: When I skipped my workouts, I was usually so tired that, instead of getting up to get dressed for my run, I ended up falling asleep on the couch. Or, for runs slated for the morning, I was so tired that I took a sick day and slept until noon. That’s what I mean by “feel like crap,” not “I had a bad day at work” or “Gee, it’s starting to rain, I guess I’d better not run today.”)

Part of running’s beauty is its flexibility. Too damn tired to run today? Give yourself time to rest and do it tomorrow. Feeling a tweak in your hip? Stretch it like hell, foam roll it and take it easy in your first couple workouts. (Note: There is no innuendo-free way to foam roll the inside of your hip.)

The road’s not going anywhere -- and neither are your running shoes. Minor setbacks are an inevitable part of training. The key is to take them seriously, and respond to them accordingly, before they become major setbacks that derail your training altogether.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Autumn Running Is Awesome, So Make the Most of It

It's mid-October, which means New England is enjoying autumn: The pumpkin-flavored everything, the postseason baseball and the near-perfect running weather. It's chilly in the morning and evening, but you can still get away with wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and warm and sunny in the afternoon.
Autumn is my favorite season for running. Honestly, it's not even close. That awesome weather brings welcome relief after suffering through the summer. (Yes, other parts of the country are warmer, and more humid, but those parts of the country aren't full of people too stubborn to accept that sometimes it's just too damn hot to be outside.) The foliage makes for stunning scenery, too.
Autumn , it should be noted, differs from spring. Yes, spring starts cold and gets warmer, but the threat of a freak snowstorm looms over us until mid-April. (My mother tells a story of snow interrupting my brother's birthday party one May in the 70s.) The eventually melting snow begets mud, too, which is more widespread than you'd imagine because of all the sand used to keep roads and sidewalks free of snow. And New England spring realistically only lasts a few weeks; by Memorial Day, summer has arrived. (I've previously described why I dislike summer running, so I won't rehash it here.)
Autumn, on the other hand, provides a slow, gradual progression toward winter. This makes it easy to get acclimated to dropping temperatures -- first by enjoying them and then by dressing for them.
Here are a few ways to make the most of your autumn runs.
Especially if you're new to running, you can use the fall to see how your body reacts to cold temperatures. Try different layers, different hats and gloves, and different pants, and remember that, uncomfortable though it may be, you should be a little cold when your run starts.
Sign up for some races. October and early November are increasingly popular marathon dates, but the later weeks of November and December are filled with shorter race options. These races will serve several purposes: They'll give you goals to focus on, they'll keep you active as the holiday season commences, and, crucially, they'll lay the foundation for running through the winter.
If your races are in fact shorter, use the opportunity to cross train. Hit the bike, the gym, the indoor pool or the backyard. This will work different muscle groups, which in the long run will improve your running, and it will make things a bit more interesting. (You can even count yardwork as cross-training, provided your yard is big enough.)
Try to work out at different times. Because autumn weather is so cooperative, you can run at any time of day without fear of overheating at lunch or freezing in the morning or at night. Daylight Savings Time brings an earlier sunrise, too, so it's not quite as hard to drag yourself out of bed. Darkness does come earlier, yes, but the crisp fall air makes up for it. This also gives you a chance to see how well you acclimate to wearing a headlamp, vest and other reflective gear -- all of which are essential for safe nighttime running.
So there you have it. Get out there and enjoy the fall weather before winter comes -- though, as I will write in a couple months, winter running has its own advantages, too.
(Note: If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, please bookmark this and read it in six months.)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

One Goal Down, Many More to Go

Hours after finishing the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon, a good friend told me in a Facebook message, "It's so amazing that you continue to set new goals."
She's exactly right. After a week and a half of relaxing, catching up on the DVR and yard work, and not doing load after load of laundry, I'm ready to get back at it.
So what is next? In a week and a half I run the Ashland Half Marathon. It's nearby, it's inexpensive and it starts at the original Boston Marathon start (before it moved west a bit to Hopkinton). I wanted to run the inaugural race last year, but it fell one week before my marathon, so I passed. The timing's better this year, and I managed to recruit a couple friends to boot.
Beyond that, I'm not sure. I like running Turkey Trots, but this year, I'm traveling. (This also rules out participating in the Runner's World Run Streak, though I plan to tackle the Runner's World Pun Streak.) I may tackle a couple wintry 5Ks with some friends or maybe do my first New Year's Day race, if I can find one. I'd love to set an "adult" PR in a 5K -- that is, a post college PR, since a sub-18 minute 5K is just about out of the question -- but I don't think I'm going to set a real goal.
Looking further, I think I found my 10th marathon: Maine Coast, on Mother's Day weekend. I needed something early in the season, since I have at least four weddings this spring, and also one nearby, since I have at least four weddings this spring. I'd love to PR in this marathon -- I came within 18-odd seconds of one at Smuttynose, and I know what I need to do differently -- and that sounds like a pretty good goal to me.
I'm also pumped for the Runner's World Heartbreak Hill Half in June. I've trained on Heartbreak Hill many times -- starting with a hill workout as a high school freshman -- and love running in the surrounding area. (Plus, now the Runner's World editors can meet the guy who bugs them on Twitter.) The half is also accompanied by a 5K and 10K. I've never done more than one race in one weekend, so doing three (in this case, the Hat Trick) will be a reward worth the effort. Plus, I like hats.
I've talked about setting running goals before. It's important to have a goal in mind for each run, even if it's simply "Get out the door." Running is awesome, but as its detractors are quick to point out, it's also boring and repetitive. They're not wrong -- and that's why continuing to set goals, especially several months in advance, will keep you running through it all.

Monday, October 7, 2013

What the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon Taught Me

On Sunday I crossed the line at the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon in 3:13:21. This was good enough for 41st place, out of a field of about 940, and only 19 seconds off my marathon PR. Overall I am pretty darn pleased. Even with a good race, though, there are lessons to be learned.

As usual, I went out too fast. I passed the first mile in roughly 6:55 and the second in roughly 13:55. “(Expletive),” I said both times. (The start was so quick in part because Smuttynose Rockfest, taking advantage of the fact that it’s 2013 and all races are timed electronically, started the race in waves of waves. Folks were first grouped by pace and then send off in smaller waves every minute or so. By the time I reached the mat at the official start, I was already jogging, the group around me was small, and no one was in the way. As far as race starts go, this was one of the most efficient and sensible that I’ve ever seen.)

Then I looked around. It was a cool, cloudy and dreary day, the kind of day only a runner could love. The course was flat. My training hadn’t been perfect, but I’d done three 20 milers, all of them slogs on hot, humid August and September Sundays in New England, and I’d hit my targets in just about all of my speed workouts and tempo runs. “If not now,” I thought, looking back at my watch, “When?”

I maintained that unnecessarily fast 7-minute pace for 12 more miles. I briefly entertained thoughts of breaking 3:05 and qualifying for Boston. By the 15-mile mark, though, I’d regressed to 7:15 pace, and before long it was 7:30 and then 7:45. My last few miles exceeded 8 minutes, in large part due to an uncooperative left quad.

Overall, I ran a 7:22 pace. For months, I’d trained with the intention of running at a 7:15 pace, only to decide less than 14 minutes into my marathon to throw caution (and logic) to the wind and go faster. I didn’t necessarily hit a wall -- I never needed to walk, and even in my last two miles I was moving at a decent clip -- but I still slowed down.

Theoretically, if I’d stuck to the plan, and run 7:15 pace, I’d have finished around the 3:10 mark and PR’d by about three minutes. But I don’t regret starting too fast. Not at all.

Why? I went through the half around 1:32 -- still on pace for an admittedly unrealistic but not impossible BQ. That boosted my confidence. After an occasionally sporadic few months of training, flying through the first 13.1 miles like I did, and feeling good to boot, encouraged me to keep pushing. At a 7:15 pace, I’d have hit the half in 1:35 -- still great, still fast, but, in a way, routine.

Put another way, I took a chance. Yes, you could say it didn’t work. Look at the official results. A few folks who finished ahead of me were behind me at the half. They got stronger as I weakened. To use a phrase, I tried to run with the big boys, and I couldn’t.

You know what? That’s OK. My goal going into the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon was to beat my marathon time from 2001. I beat that time (3:22:45) handily. A PR was a “stretch” goal, something I only anticipated if the conditions were perfect. (They weren’t; it was cool, yes, but it was also windy and rainy, especially when we ran by the beach.)

Crucially, the experience taught me a few things.
  • I need to pace myself better. I knew this already, sure, but this weekend’s race further emphasized the point.
  • I’m stronger than I give myself credit for. Back in 2001 -- my first marathon -- I went through the half around 1:32, too, but I fell apart shortly thereafter. This time, I didn’t fall apart as badly. I credit smart, largely successful training.
  • I might need new shoes. My hips have hurt on my previous long runs and started to hurt in the second half of this race. I haven’t worried about it, as the pain’s present only when I’m moving and goes away after a couple days, but after a Twitter conversation Sunday night, I’m thinking it might be time for a gait analysis.
  • Last year’s bonk, the worst race of my life, is behind me.
  • Most of all, I know I can do better. If I maintained 7-minute miles for more than half of a marathon and didn’t collapse in a heap along the course somewhere, surely I can push myself further. If I strengthen my hips, or get shoes that correct my pronation, or both, surely I can push myself further.
Could I have run better? Yes. Could I have run worse? Yes -- much worse. Right now, I’m celebrating the fact that I just ran the second-fastest marathon of my life, but I’m also using the experience to find a way to make my 10th marathon the fastest one yet.

The best thing about running, after all, is that there's always another challenge to face, another goal to set and another race to run.

Friday, October 4, 2013

What It Takes to Beat Marathon Taper Madness

For many runners training for a marathon, the hardest part of training is actually the part that, on paper, should be the easiest: The taper. 

“Tapering” refers to the two- to three-week period between a final long run and race day. It’s a time to let your legs, your mind and your psyche rest after months of abuse. Put another way, it’s a time to heal, and stay healthy. before you hit the starting line. 

Why, then, do so many runners experience taper madness? 

For starters, it just feels weird. After running 40, 50 or 60-plus miles per week, we’re suddenly scaling back. We know, understand and readily accept why we’re doing it, but that doesn’t mean we like it. 

In addition, with less time to focus on training, our minds start to wander. Millions of things could potentially derail a two-mile jog around the neighborhood. Run 26.2 miles and you’re talking trillions of possibilities: Dehydration, pulled muscles, bloody nipples, wrong turns and a shortage of bagels and peanut butter at the finish line. It's even worse if you're running your first big race.

Finally, there’s the anticipation. Months of training, dedication and focus all hinge on an experience that will last anywhere from a little more than five hours to less than three hours. It’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself during the final countdown to race day. 

Conquering taper madness isn’t easy. That said, I’ve actually been pretty blase over the last three weeks. Going to two conferences for the day job, picking up extra shifts at the night job, and attending a wedding and engagement party in one evening have luckily kept my mind well occupied. (Plus, as I’ve noted a few times by now, I bonked horribly in my last marathon and know that I’ve done just about everything I can to make sure I don’t do it again.) 

Maintaining your sanity during a marathon training taper ultimately comes down to a few key steps: 

Keep yourself busy. Go to that movie, museum exhibit or show you’ve been meaning to see. Catch up on your DVR. Call your mother. Do some yardwork. 

Stay healthy. Retain the good eating habits that powered you through marathon training. Sleep. Avoid alcohol. (Unless you have a wedding and engagement party in the same night. In that case, celebrate, but drink lots of water and take some ibuprofen / aspirin before bed.) Don’t do dumb things that could result in bodily harm.

Trust your training. You made it, right? And even if you didn’t, you can’t go back in time. What’s done is done. 

Don’t overthink your outfit. Just pretend you’re packing running clothes for a few days and you’ll be fine. Seriously, though: Pack the clothes you like the most. Don’t worry about getting all matchy-matchy -- your clothes will be so absolutely disgusting by mile 15 that no one will notice if the trim on your shirt matches your shoes. 

Check the weather and, if necessary, adjust your goal. Remember, you’re most likely to achieve your goal when it’s 60 degrees, overcast and calm. Even the slightest hint of inclement weather will adversely affect your time. If you know this going in, you can adjust your pace accordingly and reduce the likelihood of both bonking and disappointing yourself. Aside from my PR race, I’m most proud of the marathon I ran in the snow -- I knew my pace would be off, so I dialed back and ended up coming as close to a negative split as I ever have.

It’s easy to drive yourself crazy during a taper, but it’s also easy to shift a bit of focus away from your marathon and back to the things you had to give up when your training was at its worst. You can’t forget the big race altogether -- nor should you -- but you can make sure it doesn’t take over your life.