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.