Tag Archives: tempo run

Never easy

“I just want one thing to be easy.”

I’ve been saying this a lot lately. In the last several weeks, a lot of Hard Things have piled up. Two deaths in March. Major work deadlines, for both Shannon and myself. Running and training rough patches – I’ve had this strange thing going on with my foot (which seems to be managed, though I fully plan on taking a month off post-marathon to let it get to 100%), and Shannon’s work-life balance has been so heavy on the “work” end that running has been a burden more than a release. And we bought our house, a weeks-long buildup of paperwork and endless emails and calls and panic right up until the very last moment: the lender only gave us the information to wire our downpayment to closing about two hours before our closing appointment. And then we didn’t have enough money for the wiring fee (oops). A co-worker saved me, and multiple Bank of America reps were incredibly kind and patient in the final days as we begged them to move money faster, even though they weren’t even our lender.

In the end, closing on the house was easy and relatively painless: the closing attorney was very kind and funny, and explained things to us first-time homeowners very well. And our realtor got us a cutting board as a gift. And, since we bought the house we’ve been renting the last 2+ years, we didn’t even have to move. We were pretty excited to have the whole process complete, to actually own our house.

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So excited that I didn’t notice until later that I had closing-appointment-chocolate-bowl-chocolate in my teeth for this photo.

The last few weeks of training, especially the taper, so often are rocky and fearful. You begin to second-guess everything you’ve been doing leading up to this point. Wondering if you are ready. Wondering if you are fit enough. Wondering if you could have done more, or should have done less. Wondering if that foot is going to behave, or blow up. Wondering if that missed 20-miler, that missed week of training, is going to be make-or-break. Even when you know, logically, that you’re as fit – more fit – than you’ve ever been.

Having a little extra down-time does not negate all the good work leading up to it, and the work after. Sure, things have felt harder, but that’s okay. The first several weeks of training felt so effortless, uncomplicated. Maybe this would have been detrimental. Maybe it would have had me go into the race with too much confidence and not enough respect. The marathon must always be respected. You have to be confident, but you also have to brace yourself. Prepare yourself for the fight.

I ran the Chick-fil-A half at the beginning of this month as part of a 16-mile day, mostly easy/by-feel, but with pace miles at hte end (either up to 5 miles @ MP or 3 miles @ HMP). It ended up being mostly the latter, primarily because the course is just rough. I did a good job really ignoring my watch, occasionally catching a split when I had a Pavlovian response to the sound of my watch beeping. I was mostly hanging in the 8:30s, slowing a bit later as the hills began to stack up. I saw so many friends volunteering and cheering, and it was fun to run an event without having to really suffer and push the whole time. It’s a hilly course, but it also goes through some of the prettiest parts of Athens.

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Around mile 8, during a very short respite from some of the worst hills, I found Margeaux, who had hoped to break 1:40 at this race, but who was having a rough day – similar to the day I had last AthHalf when I thought I could squeak a 1:40 half four weeks after Erie. We pulled each other along up East Campus and cutting through Five Points, and I tried to refocus her energy and thoughts on the pretty course and the gift of running. But it’s hard to pull yourself out of that dark place once you’re in it. I could hear her breathing beginning to relax when the course flattened on Milledge, and as I neared the 10-mile mark and had to pick it up, she told me to go. Shannon found me a few times, and I gave him a huge smile each time. I finished strong and with a big smile. My foot tightened up post-race but I got it to loosen up once more to run a couple cooldown miles with Chrissy (who beasted the course at marathon pace for a 1:38) and Justin (recently post-BQ-marathon and pacing 1:30).

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Probably the most encouraging moment of the last segment of htis training cycle was my last 18-miler, my last real long run. I ran the first 7ish solo and was hyper-focused on my foot: how it felt, whether it was hurting, whether I was altering my gait, how tight my left side felt overall. I linked up with friends for the next four and began to relax, and by the time we go to the Luv Run for Dustin and Catherine, who had just gotten married the night before, and whose marriage we’d be celebrating that night at their party/reception, I was having fun and feeling good. I just had a couple miles left at the very end of the group run to get to 18, and felt strong to the finish.

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Bride and her #BAMFL sisters! She looked so adorable in the Oiselle runaway bride dress! I love these ladies.
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Just a few of the friendly faces at the reception – we all clean up pretty good!

The weekend of this wedding was a whirlwind, since the very next morning, I was up at 6 am to catch a 10:30 flight home to Ohio for Passover. As it turned out, I woke up to a text message from Delta alerting me my flight had been cancelled in the wake of major service disruption from that Wednesday’s storm system. I rebooked on American, with a hop through Philly, had that flight delayed when I got to the gate, rebooked my Philly connection, and rebooked again when I found an earlier flight to a different airport. I was about 5 hours late to arrive in Cleveland based on my original itinerary, but I made it. I saw both of my parents, my 96-year-old grandfather (who still walks almost every morning – he’s my hero), and got in two runs, including a mile repeat workout on the roads and in the rain. I saw three deer during my warmup; they were maybe 10 feet from me, and when I paused my watch to look at them, they looked at me, regarded me a few seconds, then resumed eating, unafraid.

The marathon is never easy. There is no marathon without fear. But I am not doing something new, not doing anything I have not done before. I know what I am capable of. I am aiming for a BQ, but I am a BQ marathoner. That 3:34 was not a fluke, and it’s not gone and done. I need to improve my time, but I already have that capability inside me. I have to reach in and dig it out once more. I have to be ready to fight. I have to be prepared to walk across hot coals for as long as I think I can stand it–and then do it a little more. When workouts felt hard – a half-marathon pace workout a couple weeks ago that felt like hard work, and not the effortless floating of earlier HMP workouts this cycle – I remembered that I learned more from the experience of a workout that feels hard than one that feels easy. Nothing about that last 10K is going to feel easy. But I am ready for it.

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I’ve been lax overall lately about my “check in” entries in my training journal. Plane rides are a good time to write.

Work stress is still swallowing me whole. The Saturday of the Luv Run, I had a 90-minute appointment with my usual massage therapist (I’ve been getting weekly massages to keep my body happy these final weeks, a worthwhile “indulgence” to stay healthy), and two minutes into starting on my back, she remarked, “You are just a ball of stress.” We have a huge research symposium the Tuesday following the marathon. My race week distraction has to be set aside to get everything done that still has to be completed. I’m choosing to believe that focusing on work is helping me to maintain perspective. And I will have perspective on race weekend as well – set aside the work stuff, because it will be all-but-done at that point, and get in race mindset. We had a hectic, social activity filled Easter weekend, and now we’re spending this week as hermits, coming home from work, making and eating dinner, getting our to-do lists done, and relaxing. Quiet is a priority. Sleep is a priority. Wine and chocolate may be assisting a bit as well.

I streamed the Boston Marathon at work yesterday (very distractedly, since, yeah, very busy) and tracked my friends with the BAA app. I was over-the-moon thrilled for them, but my heart hurt. I was not there. I should be there. But the desire is greater. The fire burns hotter. I will be there.

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These ladies ran ridiculously impressive races. I know I can reach within myself to find some of that badassery and toughness.

I will make no excuses. This training cycle has been hard. Life never lets up – it never will. The marathon never lets up – that’s what makes it great. Racing the hot Erie Marathon branded me with a fire I will never lose. And this training cycle toughened me in still more ways. I have a couple more angels running with me this time.

Glass City Marathon: I’m coming for you.

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The bumpy road to Erie

In just over two weeks, I run the Erie Marathon in my second “real” attempt to qualify for Boston. The race is the day before registration opens (though to faster qualifications than I am currently capable of). It’s only two hours north of Pittsburgh, the beloved city where I used to live, and where I’m flying into. Not only do I have a few friends coming up to cheer me on, but my dad is driving in from Cleveland as well.

I’ve been largely quiet on here this training cycle. Part of it is blogging malaise – you let enough weeks and posts and ideas go by, it’s harder and harder to get going again. But it’s also been a fairly rough, emotional summer. I can’t really complain – I have it pretty good, and I have close friends and family members who are struggling with worse. But it’s unfair to compare one person’s burdens with another. We all have them.

This summer has been one bookmarked by tragedy. One peppered with breakdowns – in and out of running. The heat and humidity have been crushing, and more than once, it has crushed me. The treadmill and I have gotten very, very close – it was my friend for numerous shorter runs and workouts, and three long runs: two 18s and a 20, all with many miles at goal race pace.

In some ways, I’ve felt a little disconnected from this marathon. A lot of the time, it doesn’t feel real. Many mornings I feel like I’m going through the motions of a run or workout. I’m not sure what that means. Perhaps it’s just a result of having been marathon training what feels like nonstop since August 2015. Maybe it’s better to just go through the motions, have it all feel like routine, like normal, than to put too much weight on each workout, each day, each week. Maybe that’s what becoming a successful marathoner is. Maybe it’s just a part of me now.

A few things have started to feel real. Booking the flight made it feel real. Talking with my coach and with friends about the race makes it feel real. Thinking about how I’m going to bring my pre-race breakfast with me for the flight in, how many possible outfits I might pack, looking at where I can get my pre-race dinner, and where to eat for my post-race celebration. Figuring out when we need to head back to Pittsburgh to catch our flight. There’s a wedding between here and there – a dear high school friend, who is also a runner. My last long-ish run is on a Thursday as a result of the wedding festivities; not ideal, but it’ll do. I’ll feel better doing it at all, unlike having skipped it entirely last time before Albany, with that wicked cough I was fighting.

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The beautiful bride is third from the right – photo of (most of) the bridesmaids at her shower in late July.

The taper so far feels normal – the miles are gradually ramping down, the workouts shortening, the self-awareness to every niggle and pull heightening. All of my taper crazies are coming out. Actually, they started coming early. At the beginning of this month, on a Monday night Fleet Feet run, I felt a twinge. I had run 4 on the treadmill that morning and had 6 to run that night. I got in an extra mile just before the group run with a friend; it was warm out but there was a breeze, and the sky looked threatening all around. Athens weather can be bizarre: there will be pockets of showers. It can pour on one side of town, and be bone dry a couple miles away. Another friend of mine once remarked on observing that it was raining in his front yard, but not his backyard; I had lunch with someone and saw it raining across the street.

So we did a quick loop near the store, and it started to rain, at first very pleasantly. We remarked on how nice it felt, how it was cooling things, how neither of us had had a nice rainy run in quite sometime, a relief we would have appreciated at any point this brutal summer. Then, it started to rain harder. As we turned off a neighborhood street and onto a main road, maybe .2 miles from the store, it started to pour; we saw a sheet of rain coming at us, and as it did, we started to sprint, cutting across a parking lot and diving under an overhang, the rain stinging our cheeks as we did. We laughed at the absurdity of it as it continued to downpour for twenty-five minutes. A girl walking back with groceries sought the same shelter, and we chatted with her. Another runner friend snuck up behind us and kept us company as we all waited it out. Multiple firetrucks went to and fro. I had never seen such rain, and for so long.

At last, the rain cleared enough to get the rest of the way to Fleet Feet, and we waited with the big group a few more minutes – lightning delay. At about 6:30 (30 minutes later than scheduled), we headed out on our run, adjusting the 5-mile route because the trails and the intramural fields would be a disaster. I wound up alone a lot, but it was lovely – it had cooled off drastically, even if steam was rising from the pavement. I was coming down Lumpkin hill when my left upper hamstring felt…weird. Just…weird. Not painful and not tight, per se, but off. I thought about stopping to stretch it, but once the hill started going back up, and eventually flattening, it gradually dissipated. I rolled it out later that night at home, but otherwise thought nothing of it.

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It may not be obvious from the photo, but we were SOAKED (and pretty giddy about it).

Tuesday morning, I had 11 miles to do (with some strides), and planned to do the first half or so with friends. Within the first quarter mile, my hamstring and glute grew uncomfortably tight. I paused to stretch it out. It didn’t seem to be working. I decided to give it a mile to loosen, or I’d back it. Thankfully, it did; I was hyper-aware of it for a few miles, but eventually let it go. We got in 5.25 miles together, and as the group separated, I decided to just take a ride back to Ramsey to finish on the treadmill. During the break, it tightened again so I pre-rolled it, eased into the run with a few minutes of walking, and finished the miles without incidence. I did the strides, though did them slower than typical, exercising caution.

Wednesday isn’t a run day, so I was grateful for a rest day. I had already been in touch with my coach, and told him it seemed fine. I was rolling it and stretching it. It seemed manageable, whatever it was. We were both keeping a close eye on it. Thursday morning, I had a track workout – 5×1200 @ 10K pace. I had a couple miles of warm up (done with a friend, who also planned to do the workout with me, though at his own pace), and I had zero issues. It didn’t feel like there was anything there to even warm up. But a lap and a half into the first 1200 rep, my upper hamstring, glute, and groin seized in rapid succession on the left side. I got through the lap, then went to the side to stretch it out. I tried walking it out, jogging it out, nothing. I quickly gave up, and walked the mile back to Ramsey to hit the foam roller. Time to see a doctor.

I was able to make an appointment for the next morning, and I was fully resting until I got seen, so I skipped my Friday morning recovery miles. At that point, I felt okay, and the physician’s assistant (who was awesome and only concerned with getting me to the marathon healthy) palpated and tested my rage of motion and could find no pain points (of course). An X-ray of my pelvis showed no issues, other than minor impingement in the left hip, just my biomechanics. She prescribed me a 24-hour anti-inflammatory to take for two weeks, and a script for PT.

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I also did a little extra-special yoga for my hips that week. My cat didn’t really help.

Since I had no pain, I went ahead and ran my 20-miler the next day, with express instructions to pull the plug if I had issues (which I was fully prepared to do, clearly). I only ran the first few miles solo, running the rest with my friend Krystina (who had 18 and ran 18.5 because she is a saint who wouldn’t leave me) and a few others for parts. It was brutally hot and muggy that morning; 4 miles in when I got to the meetup point, I noted I was full on dripping already, and I was going through fluids fast. We walked. We wanted to quit. We soaked our heads and ponytails multiple times at water fountains. But we made it. It was the ultimate “time on our feet” exercise. I felt minor tightness in the hamstring/glute a few times, but never pain, even when I was exhausted and almost falling apart. Krystina truly saved me that morning.

Since then, I’ve gone to PT twice and have been diligent about my exercises, which are primarily stretches for my hamstring and hip flexor (the flexor also seemed to tighten in response to the glute/hammie tightening – not surprising), as well as exercises to strengthen my hips and glutes. The PT also wants to address my lower back posture – I have an inherited hyperextension, so I’m not leaning forward far enough and tucking my pelvis enough when I run, which leads to underactive glutes. I’ve had a couple small flare ups – I bagged some strides a week ago Tuesday because I felt the tightness, but I got the miles in. But other than that, it’s been okay. I had the shortest ortho follow-up in history today, and the PA was happy with my progress. The nurse who took me in to the exam room gave me a little lip at the start – “Have you been s l o w l y easing back into training, or have you been good and not running?” she asked. “Well, no one told me I should stop running, so I didn’t.”

Since the injury scare, even if I’ve bagged some miles and/or strides, I’ve had some serious victories. I nailed 18 miles with 12 at marathon goal pace on the treadmill the week following the hamstring scare. I had a sports massage with my usual person the next day, and she worked at my hamstring like never before.

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It was an extra good thing I got my hammie in working order the week that Kim came into town!

The morning I skipped the strides, I had to get to work by 7:30, and was to do 4 miles at the end of the day; attempt 1 was at the gym, until I discovered I forgot socks. When I got home and tried to run from there, I felt a tightness in my left heel (I had felt it a tad that morning) and it was uncomfortable enough that I stopped. I seem to have that managed as well – seems to be related to my calf. It’s not quite plantar fascia, not really the right spot, but similar. Or maybe it is PF. Who knows. Either way, it’s managed.

That was meant to be my (other) peak week – the earlier 54-mile planned week was the week my hamstring pain started, and I hoped to have that 54-mile week done this time, but alas. Nevertheless, and despite a mysterious alarm clock foul-up that led me to not be able to start my 20-miler that Saturday early, I nailed the 20, running 10.7 outside (in the heat – first few miles were bad, but then I hit a rhythm somehow) and the rest indoors. I felt so strong.

But the taper tantrums are still there. I heard someone coughing behind me during a presentation earlier this week, and I wanted to don a mask. Tuesday morning, on a very dark road and despite a headlamp, I managed to roll each ankle once – my right one hard, so hard I staggered a few steps. I gave it about a minute and decided to try running on it (I was less than a mile from home) and the pain went away and I was fine. The second time was less severe, but that time I screamed out curse words from frustration. I pulled it together at the end of the run, pushing through my strides even though I felt rather “meh” about it. The next morning at a meeting, I barely tapped my right knee on the corner of the table, and felt a blistering pain; it still felt bruised to kneel on to do my PT exercises the next day. Bubble wrap. PLEASE.

Yesterday, I got a second shot at that 5×1200 (though a shorter run overall). It was a few degrees cooler than it’s been…pretty much this entire summer. And I nailed it, each split progressively faster, the last one almost too fast (I blame the fact that I was getting crowded by ROTC kids, though their senior cadet seemed to be yelling at them to get out of lane one for me, which I appreciated).

Tomorrow, I have one last 18-miler, and next week the taper begins in earnest. I plan on spending this weekend getting organized for the wedding, for the last two weeks of training, for the last two weeks of eating well and sleeping well, for the last two weeks of getting into that mental place I know I need to be. The place I was before Chickamauga – confident, mentally prepared, with the right amount of nerves, the right amount of recognition for the task at hand. The readiness to brace myself for the effort. The fight. The race of my life – at least up to this point.

Yes, maybe it is okay that it all feels routine now. Before, I was becoming the runner ready to do this. Now, I am that runner.

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Halfway dreams

So, I’m halfway through this marathon training cycle. I keep waffling between feeling strong and confident – on my way to being prepared – and being completely freaked out.

So, about normal.

Will I ever stop sweating, though?
Will I ever stop sweating, though?

As with any training cycle, there have been ups (great, great ups) and downs (deep, dark, basement downs). Within the last week, the race dreams (nightmares? Not true race nightmares – yet – but not great signs if I’m at all prescient) have started. Last week, I dreamt I ran a 3:50 and was royally pissed to have worked so hard and only PR’d by two minutes (bratty? Possibly), and then my coach was asking to see my data and I couldn’t find it.

This weekend, I dreamt that I was at the start line of my upcoming half-marathon – the one that I’m supposed to race rather than run as a workout – and realized I had never gotten to talk race plan/strategy with my coach, and was full on freaking. The race never occurred in the dream, at least I don’t remember it, but not a very comforting moment.

In real life, things have been going a lot better. A few weeks ago, I had one of the worst (if not The Worst) long runs I have ever had. 17 miles of pure torture. I woke up with a less-than-stellar attitude, feeling a wave of dread. It had been a brutal week, hot and with a tropical air mass sitting over the south. It was relentlessly humid. My workouts that week had been brutal. And now I had to run 17 and it wasn’t any better. It felt awful from the first step, and I had maybe a half mile here and there of feeling less than shitty, but the rest was terrible. When I was running the last 3 miles out-and-back, I got to mile 15 (half a mile from where I needed to get to before turning around), sat down on a wall, and cried. Pulling myself together, I finished the last bit of out and turned back, forcing myself to keep going to the end, even speeding up by about a minute in the last mile. When my watch beeped the last mile and I hit STOP, I folded over and cried. It probably took me a good 10 minutes to pull myself together again.

The only bit of comfort was that everyone else was dying out there, too. George cut his run short by 3 miles. Lindsay and I took a couple walk breaks in the middle (she gutted it out and finished her planned 11). Will cut his loop short. Everyone looked like they were in the middle of a death march. We had had it.

But since then – some days by degrees, and others by huge leaps – it got better. We got stronger. The tropical air mass moved away. The temperatures started to drop, and the humidity became less than crushing (after weeks and weeks and weeks of 95% humidity on a daily basis, 85% feels downright heavenly, I tell you what). The following week I aced an 800 repeat workout and bossed a 14-mile cutback long run on a beautiful day. True, I cut short my Friday run (did like 2.3ish when I had 4 planned) because it felt like garbage, but one bad run for the week, instead of only one good run the previous week? Definite win.

The following week…I may have gotten a little cocky. With an early morning meeting on Thursday, I flip-flopped my Tuesday/Thursday and did my long track workout Tuesday morning instead. There’s usually some group workout out at Spec Towns most early mornings, but on Tuesdays, apparently it’s the Shirtless Fasties (with Coach Al – this isn’t their official name, just what I call them. Also Dustin was wearing a shirt, so it’s not a firm rule). They were cruising 800s, one dude cranking out 2:20 splits (and making it look beautifully effortless), a second group was doing probably 2:50-3:00, and I think a third group was out there as well, probably just over 3:00. I had 1600s at 10K pace on tap.

Yeah, I fucked up. I hadn’t paced mile repeats in a while, and didn’t have a good feel for my 10K pace. I felt really good on the first one but apparently I was speeding up each quarter and wound up about 14 seconds fast. I tried to slow down on the next two, but was still about 8-10 seconds fast on each. I gave it all up on the last one (stupidly), and as the 3:00ish 800 group came roaring up beside me in the last 60 meters of both our intervals, I sped up and hung on the back of the pack to sprint in to the finish.

Well, my legs and feet were crampy as HELL for the cooldown (and my calves had been yelling at me earlier anyhow because I’d done calf raises Monday for the first time in many weeks). When I posted that workout, oh boy, my coach chewed. me. out. And rightfully. I was racing in that workout, especially that last one, which was foolish.

Spoiler alert: sleeping in calf sleeves doesn't actually fix everything
Spoiler alert: sleeping in calf sleeves doesn’t actually fix everything

I foam rolled and hydrated and stretched and rested, and then was ready to crush my next workout on Thursday. I was under strict instructions to bag it if I was struggling (which I defined as “more uncomfortable than comfortably hard,” and Coach Mark agreed to that definition). Despite humidity, janky sidewalks, and darkness (who turned off the lights? Oh yeah. It’s fall), I felt unstoppable for 7 miles with 5 at goal marathon pace, nailing each one a little faster than goal.

The runner's selfie.
The runner’s selfie.

I’m once again back to traveling too much – over Labor Day weekend that same week, I was in Cleveland to see my parents and a few friends, and had 17 miles on tap with 5 at race pace.

5 a.m., eating a bonk breaker, sitting on the floor of my former bedroom.
5 a.m., eating a bonk breaker, sitting on the floor of my former bedroom. #glam

My saintly mother got up at 5:30 am and drove me into the middle of nowhere Cleveland suburbs to drop me at my start point in pitch black darkness (I ran without headphones, and with headlamp and tail blinkie on a very, very quiet road). She met me at 9.5 for a water refill and towel off, and a half mile later, I pushed through 5 miles at race pace in rolling hills. I was grateful for the shade and for conditions that felt a little better than Georgia had felt all summer (though I know folks who live in Ohio were unhappy about the weather. Pittsburgh, too – sorry for bringing the heat and humidity up north with me, guys!).

17miles

On Labor Day itself, I met up with running friend and former neighbor Liz for 9 beautiful miles full of chatting about life and work and school and BQs and triathlon and stories. And we only ran a hair too fast in places.

liz and me

I’ve started to break in my marathon shoes (or hopeful marathon shoes anyhow) – I at least upgraded to the Brooks Launch 2! Just a couple runs in, but I’m already in love. They’re smooth and springy and just cushy enough, with a perfect arch wrap. Plus, they’re pretty to boot.

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Boston Marathon registration opened last week, and I was once again infected by Boston Fever. I go back and forth between feeling confident that I’ll get there someday, and thinking that I’m kidding myself. Like that tempo run last week that I had to cut short because I couldn’t manage half-marathon pace on a crappy treadmill in the shitty med school campus gym after work (sleep won in the morning, and Ramsey at 5 pm is insanely crowded). Or that one crappy-feeling half-mile rep during 9×800 on the road (track was closed – it was annoying. And don’t even get me started on how my watch misbehaved halfway through. We’re just barely on speaking terms again). Or how it still feels hard to hold 9:00 during a 20-miler. But then I think of all the other miles I’m stacking up. Those effortless feeling marathon-pace tempo miles. I’m putting hay in the barn. I’ll keep working.

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Hay in the barn, or GU in the drawer?

Two months away from the race, I know I still have a ways to go, but I’ve already come so far. And in two weeks, I get my first real indicator: racing 13.1 at Michelob ULTRA Atlanta. I should probably make sure to carve out time with my coach to discuss race strategy. 😉

Need for Speed, and Becoming a Georgia Runner

These two things are both at odds with each other, and work in a lovely kind of harmony…but only in the long game.

Let me explain.

A lot of things happened and have been happening with this move. My whole life and routine and support system and running partner network was uprooted. I started a new job. I had to find a new network. I had to build new routes and new relationships. I had to really learn (AGAIN) how to boss hills. I had to learn how to run through weirdly cold dampness of Georgia winter (still better than up north, so I’m not actually whining – just observing) and endure the slow build up of Georgia summer heat, and then a THREE WEEK DEATHLY HEAT WAVE in June. And now we’re in another in July (but now this one doesn’t feel nearly as bad – acclimatization works!)

It’s been hard. Really hard. At first, a lot of it felt like one step forward, two steps back; some weeks it is still like that. But we’re definitely moving closer to two steps forward territory, with more infrequent steps back. Sometimes those steps backward wallop us. But we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and keep fighting.

Or at least this is what I’m telling myself. This is what I’m putting into words here, right now, for myself, really.

After recovering from Big Sur (we took a full week off, including being sick as dogs for that and beyond. ugh), which didn’t take as long as usual given we didn’t “race” it, we started building our base back at a smart, reasonable rate, and eventually adding in some fun speedwork. I also hoped to run at least two 5Ks prior to the Peachtree Road Race on July 4 – I wound up running 3, actually.

And beyond trying to get my speed back (spoiler alert: speed is there, but endurance is not), what I really was doing – without realizing – was solidifying my place in the local running community.

Running with the Dawgs 5K (Memorial Day)

I considered this my first speed “test”: I knew I wasn’t remotely fit, so I just wanted to see where I landed. This was also the first day of the Runner’s World Summer Run Streak, which we planned to do (though I had no plans to hold it farther than July 4 – and, spoiler alert, I didn’t). Shannon and I warmed up with an easy mile, and did some drills and strides, per usual. My legs felt dead and heavy, with no speed in them. My fast twitch muscle fibers felt asleep.

The race started in downtown Athens, and with the gun, we came down a nice downhill before swinging around a block, heading uphill for a bit, and then heading down a screaming downhill. I let my legs fly on it but stayed in control, jockeying a bit with another girl who kept me honest the first half but whom I lost sight of later. The first mile clicked off in 6:40. The course slid on down College Ave before flinging us onto the Greenway and sending us on some rolling hills. It was still mostly flat at that point so I stayed strong in that mile. Second mile: 6:58.

Then the course went baaaaad. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t realize until I was out there that they were going to send us where they were: we headed up Willow and took a sharp turn onto Hickory; I think there was a photographer, but I have no idea what came of those photos and I’m not sure I’d want to see them. At this point I was passing a girl I had been keeping an eye on for a while (she was wearing full length tights on a hot day so this was a very distracting thing). She was panting really hard but I tossed her an encouraging word as we climbed. And then the course turned right up Broad Street and I unleashed all the curse words (in my head – mostly) for the short but grueling segment that we climbed (3rd mile: 7:26, ugh) before heading into a parking deck (seriously) and sprinting to the finish (final sprint pace: 6:35). I shook hands with tights girl, who finished a few seconds behind me, and coughed up a lung for a while.

Time: 21:54 (7:04 pace); 4th female, 10th overall, 1st in AG

Overall, a good first effort – well off my PR and more like my 10K PR pace (I’m pretty sure my 10K PR is a unicorn now, but we’ll get to that) but I figured if I did some work I could get back there, or at least closer.

PART_1438901593629_IMG953558 runningwithdawgs AG

LEAD Athens Midnight 5K

I knew I wanted to get another 5K in before Peachtree, but when the opportunity for a bit of a novelty presented itself, I went for it: a Midnight 5K. I’d been hearing about it at group runs and had separately run across it online, so I decided to go for it. Shannon was out of town so it would just be me, but my friend Christine and I arranged to meet up.

I have to tell you though – fueling for a 5K at midnight is a bit bizarre. I got home from work around 5:30, relaxed a bit, and then took a 90 minute catnap. I figured getting a sleep cycle in wouldn’t be the worst thing, especially since I’m an old person who goes to bed at or before 10 pm almost every night. Midnight was late. I then made pancakes for dinner and ate them with peanut butter and banana while watching Netflix. By 10:30, I was heading out. I followed the crowd of running shorts and shirts in the midst of drunken bar-goers, and eventually found Christine, who brought glow sticks, because she’s awesome.

We did a short warmup, and I did some drills and strides on my own before everyone began lining up. Catherine T. (aka “the other Catherine” as I jokingly call her. To myself. Really, I’m the other Cath(ryn) because I’m a newbie not that many people know, especially in comparison) was there and was standing with some other gals on the Fleet Feet Elite Racing Team, and I joked with Christine, “I am not going to chase them. I am not.”

midnight5k starting linemidnight5k start

The race began downhill and curved onto Prince Ave and into some darker streets. I picked off a few people and tried to find that perfect 5K pain place. I opted to race without music – I’ve never done this in a 5K, but it was midnight and the roads were not closed for the race, so I wasn’t taking any chances. As we were heading up Prince, the cop escort took us around a turn and a college girl in a truck (she was behind the wheel and I’m not sure she should have been) shrieked “is this a parade??”

We turned onto some side streets and headed toward a short, nasty climb before zig-zagging down Boulevard, which rolls down for a while before rolling up a bit. I kept pushing and tried to avoid tripping in any potholes (I did get caught up on a speed bump, once each way – didn’t trip or anything, just got caught flat-footed for a second). Surprisingly, I was gaining on Catherine. I stalked off her shoulder for a bit, and pretended everyone cheering for her was also cheering for me. 😉 We traded leads a couple times, but I thought I’d lose contact with her when I fell back a bit coming back. Then as we headed the opposite way on that short but steep hill, I caught her as we rounded the next corner. Without music, I could hear her breathing, and I knew I had her. I just kept on going full tilt, heading past Pulaski on Prince (when it starts to go uphill), wondering whether or not a cop was watching the light (no one was, apparently – I got very lucky at a low-traffic moment).

The course turned once more up College and up the driveway to the bank parking lot where the finish was, all uphill, and I gave my best death face while punching stop on my Garmin.

midnight5k finish

Time: 22:06 (7:01, 6:57, 7:21; 7:00 pace sprint up the hill); 14th overall, 2nd female, 1st in AG

Given the difficulty of the course, the fact that it was my second 5K that week, and that it was at midnight? I was OK with the slower time. And I bagged an AG win!

midnight5k ag

Christine and I headed to The Place for half-priced drinks afterwards and chatted with some folks, including the race organizer, Lindsay, and another Athens Road Runners member, Tino. Both EXTREMELY nice people, who along with Will (whom I’d met separately at a Fleet Feet run) get together a lot of mornings to squeeze in some early miles. I got Lindsay’s phone number later that week, and collected the rest over the next few weeks and we’ve been meeting up pretty frequently.

I mentioned that these last few months helped me find community, and as the last mini-race report shows, I’ve definitely made some friends. But there’s another friend that Athens running lead me to that I feel I need to mention. As I said, Shannon was out of town for the Midnight 5K, but he got back late that evening. We had less than 24 hours together, but since we had a run streak to keep, we dragged our butts out of bed Sunday morning for a quick neighborhood loop. It took us a while to get out there. We tossed and turned and cuddled up and resisted the call of the road. But sometimes, timing like this is everything.

We were about a third of a mile or so into the run when Shannon said, “look, a bunny!” We live on the outskirts of Athens, so wildlife sightings aren’t unusual, and we always point out cute animals to each other. So I instantly looked around for a small, brown, woodland creature.

Instead, I saw a little white rabbit chowing down on clover in someone’s lawn. An elderly man sat on a chair a few feet away. He invited us to say hi to the rabbit, saying it was friendly. After a couple minutes of chatting, it became clear it wasn’t his bunny, but had been someone else’s, who had “released” it. Our guess is that it was an Easter gift that became “too much.” Now, this was a white rabbit. Living in a yard. In a neighborhood with cats, off-leash dogs, hawks, and coyotes. We talked to him some more about the rabbit, how long it had been there (a couple weeks), if he knew whom it had belonged to. Eventually, we had to move along with our run.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Shannon and I talked as I drove him to the airport and agreed that, since we had planned on getting guinea pigs soon anyway (after this trip I was getting him to the airport for, actually – we’d have a break from traveling), I could get the supplies (cage, etc.) that we could re-use later if we ended up getting pigs, and get that bunny out of that yard and out of harm’s way.

So I did. Within a week, we took the bunny to the vet and learned that it’s a girl, unspayed, 3 lb, and had ticks. We treated her topically for the ticks, and after very little soul-searching, knew we just had to keep her.

Sometimes you find a friend in the most unlikely of places.

That week, with Shannon out of town, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone in my running life: at Monday’s Fleet Feet run, I ran with Camille for a mile, and after she split off for the 3 mile loop, caught up to Catherine and chatted it up with her. We both ended up pushing each other pretty hard, averaging low 8:XX in the pouring rain, and having a blast. Tuesday night was the monthly brewery run at Creature Comforts, and I found myself running and chatting with Lindsay on that steamy afternoon for the 3 mile loop, before joining her, Nina, and Tino at Little Kings down the street (the brewery was way too packed) for a couple beers and some chatting. We talked running and life and Peachtree (and they got me super-pumped for the race). It was lovely.

We parted ways but not for long, since I was up at 4:45 the next day to join them and the usual crew at the speed workout at Spec Towns Track. I had been meaning to check it out, and it helped that I knew a couple people who would be there. I nailed the 6×800 workout at 5K pace and had a blast while doing it. There was a range of abilities but everyone was encouraging and kind and fun, and it was a nice, relaxed setting.

Friday morning, Christine and I met up at Fleet Feet for a hilly 8.6ish miler on a nice morning, chatting the miles away. My husband may have been out of town, but I was actually starting to feel like I belonged here.

Over the next few weeks, I found a real groove: I got my mileage base where I wanted it (30-35 mpw), went to the track on Wednesdays, and dabbled in some shorter Monday tempo runs to try to get more speed back. Wasn’t quite where I wanted, but it was something. Even better, I was finding friends – running with Christine, Lindsay, Will, Tino, and others, commiserating bad running conditions, celebrating consistent splits, and just generally having a great time.

I also managed to snag myself a Garmin 220 from a friend – new watch, and just in time, too…

new garmin

Then was tune-up 5K #3!

Let’s Move 5K

I found this one online when I searched for later tune-up races. It was tiny, local, and in a park in nearby Watkinsville. Getting there, it looked reasonably flat, though I had no clue was the course was like, since I was unfamiliar with the layout of the park. We did our usual warmup – 1 mile easy followed by drills and striders. Unfortunately, it was already 77*, wickedly humid, and the sun was baking us, just in time for the 8 am start. Oof.

I shot out of the gate way too freakin’ fast and spent the first mile slamming on the brakes. I opted out of music again, and decided to suffer in silence. There was one very brief out-and-back section that was shaded, but the rest was baking in the sun, and it was just rolling enough of a course to be noticeable. I clawed my way past a few competitors and tried to hold a good tempo without dying too early. The first mile clicked off in 6:45 and I choked out a 7:12 second mile. In the midst of the third, I found myself once again near the woman in tights from the Memorial Day 5K. She was decently up ahead but I reeled her in.

We hit a turnaround and a tiny girl – I think she as 9 or 10 – was COOKIN’ (turns out she was leading); as we passed each other, I gave her a smile (it was all I could muster) and she said “good job” and I was in awe. We headed back past a water station I once again skipped, and given that the out traffic was heading my way and tights girl was right in front of me, I made a snap decision to surge and pass her before getting caught up.

Then, there was a large gap – and Shannon up ahead. I kept up my surge pace, maybe slowing the barest bit. I came up beside him and he told me to go ahead. I choked out that I was dying. But I gapped him a little, glancing down as my watch buzzed well ahead of the 3 mile marker (new watch means figuring out how far off it tends to measure – multiple sharp turnarounds never help with GPS measurement, to be fair). 6:48. I sprinted as hard as I could and flew through the line, gasping for oxygen. Final sprint: 6:24 pace.

I finished 2nd female. The little badass girl had won!

getting AG let's movegetting AG let's move 2

Time: 21:49 (official/gun); 1st in AG, 2nd female, 7th OA

A few more workouts, and it was go-time: I managed a solid, controlled, strong-feeling Rowland Tempo, an 8×400 track workout (full workout was 10 reps but the in-town coach encouraged us to only do what we felt truly ready for, so I stepped out of two reps. It was the right call. I managed the full workout a couple weeks later!), an attempted 12-miler than ended up being 9 and change because the humidity and lack of wind destroyed my soul, a merciful break in the heat (88* at a Monday night run felt downright blissful), and a race week sharpener of 3×800 at 10K pace that felt sublime, like I was just grazing a well of untapped potential. Maybe I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I knew I also wanted to enjoy my first Peachtree experience as much as I could. I didn’t have a PR (44:02) in me, but I figured I could manage a 45:30ish, or at least break 46 at my current fitness level.

Peachtree Road Race

Shannon and I headed into ATL Friday morning for a full day – I had gotten in my 1-mile minimum streak run (in the pouring rain) and we packed up and hit the road to get to the expo nice and early…to meet team USA, including Shalane Flanagan!

peachtree packingrainy run shalane

The whole group was super nice. I’m a really awkward person in general, and especially around people of celebrity status, so I decided to just ask them questions I would ask any runner: Is this your first Peachtree? What’s your favorite part of the course? Any tips? What are you most excited for? And of course, they are normal runners. Just super-humanly fast.

Best moment, though, had to be this: we’d been waiting in line for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, and were nearly to the front (we couldn’t really see the team while waiting, not until we were basically at the front). A woman behind us suddenly asked us, “Excuse me…this is the line to meet Team USA for soccer…right?” (recall that the World Cup was going on at this point)

Shannon and I exchanged quick looks. “This is Team USA for the Peachtree Cup,” I said, trying to keep a straight face. For tomorrow’s race.”

There was a half-second of excruciating silence, and then they both tried to laugh it off. And then they left the line.

Alrighty then.

We got our signatures, got our shop on for a bit, and then wound our way back to the car and headed up to our hotel. We grabbed dinner at IHOP and tried to crash as early as we could for the early alarm.

Well, we happened to way overbudget on time – but better than underbudgeting, right? We got right up, ate some oatmeal that I heated up in the lobby microwave (Hampton Inn 4evar), lubed up, got in race clothes, pinned on bib, tripled-checked everything, obsessed over the forecast, got in the car, drove to the MARTA station, and took MARTA to the start. (btw, for anyone wondering – no, MARTA is not horrible. It’s the same as any other public transportation, only not funded by the state, so it doesn’t go many places.

Since we got there so mega-early, I got to use the portos twice (and the beautiful and clean restroom inside the Ritz Carlton once) and the MarathonFoto people were like a friggin’ paparazzi.

prerace3 prerace2 prerace1

We also got to watch the volunteers raise the enormous American flag over A corral, and in dramatic fashion, “Free Bird” was ramping up to its climax as the flag went up.

huge flag

It started to rain early on, though after hiding under the overhang at the Ritz for a while, it lightened up and seemed to vanish, only to return during the race. Oh well. We were garbage bag’d up to keep dry for the start.

corral volunteers

Around 20 minutes to go time, we did some drills and warmed up with a jog around a nearby parking deck and street, not managing a full mile, but knowing we were running short on time to get into the crowded A corral. After the National Anthem and a prayer, it was go time!

I knew the first mile was flat and maybe a touch uphill, followed by almost two full downhill miles, before the ups started. I tried to find my happy pace for that first mile, and realized that even with the wave system, it was still really, really crowded out there. First mile went in 7:33, slower than desired. The rain was coming a little harder, and I welcomed it on the muggy morning as the hills started pulling us down. I let them carry me and tried not to destroy my quads: miles two and three went in 7:11 and 7:01, making up for the first slow mile. We passed a group of proselytizers, waving their bibles and signs that said “ARE YOU READY?” On the flip side, a cheery pastor outside an Episcopal church unassumingly threw holy water at us with a big grin on his face, and a few feet later was a water cooling station.

midrace midrace2

Then came Cardiac Hill. Oh, Cardiac Hill. I had been warned. Then repeatedly comforted that training in Athens would have me ready for anything. Then warned again. Shannon didn’t remember Cardiac hill – didn’t remember any particularly gnarly hills on the course. I think his brain blocked it out. Because that hill. would not. end. Halfway up, we passed the spinal patients, in wheelchairs, many of whom would probably never walk again. I told myself, They can’t walk. I can run. Let’s MOVE IT. It gave me a push for a little while, but the hill continued to destroy my mental capacity. Mile 4 went by in 7:55, and mile 5 wasn’t much better – it flattened and rolled a bit, and I tried to recover, but I had zero fight on the uphills. 7:45. In that mile I came across Tino and we traded encouragement and groaned about the hills. Soon after, I passed him and kept pushing.

We came into midtown and I found myself astride with a young boy who was getting ample cheers from the crowd. We paced off each other for a bit and gave each other silent encouragement. Up ahead, finally, the turn onto 10th. Mile 6 clicked in 7:05, and I cranked hard.

finish

 

Seconds before the finish line, I realized I saw Shannon up ahead. I was on pace to shoot past him, and made a snap decision to just run with it. But he felt me go by and found one more gear on a rough day, and we finished practically stride for stride.

Time: 46:19

postrace2

We briefly got separated but in the end met up by the R with the rest of the Athens Road Runners, who huddled under a tree to try to get out of the driving rain, which was beginning to chill us all to the bone. So many of my friends got PRs, and it was so wonderful to hear their victorious tales.

The rest of the day was spent with family and friends, eating and drinking and being merry.

 

In the end, no I wasn’t thrilled with my performance – I felt I was fit enough for a faster day, but the conditions and the toughness of the course – and my current lack of mental toughness – got me in the end. But I gained so much in the two months leading up to the race, learning where I need to go from here, and building the support system and group to help me along the way.

And now, of course: It’s marathon season.

 

Pittsburgh half buildup: salvaging the mileage

We had grand plans for this training cycle. I was already doing 30-35 mile weeks before training commenced, with help from the run streak and my mile hog run buddy, Danielle. I was loving it. I felt so fit and so in love with the sport. We aimed to hit  a peak week of 48 miles before the half, just a couple weeks after our wedding.

HA. Fat chance.

Week before JASR week: 36 (which included cutting a long run short + cutting out a recovery run because of hip trouble)

JASR week: 19 miles (3 mile walk + 3 mile test run + half-marathon)

Wedding week: 20 miles (sleep prevailed a couple of times over squeezing in more miles. The right decision)

Honeymoon week: 23 miles

We had figured wedding week would be nuts and hoped to get in 30 miles. I think he managed that – I did not. Being in the thick of it at home with my mom, finalizing wedding stuff… not possible to get in more than 20 miles without losing sleep and therefore my mind. And the 40 miles we had planned for the honeymoon, because we hoped for an awesome gym and treadmill set up?

HA. DREAM ON.

But we still did pretty well. We ran most days we were there, and though it was often short, we did pretty decent paces. Our “long run” was about 8.5 miles divided between 4-ish mile morning and afternoon segments.

When we got home, newly husband and wife + one week, we knew we’d have to adjust our plans. We dialed back the mileage but still hoped to hit about 36-38ish and then 40-42ish for the final week.  We’d do our best and listen to our bodies, respecting their limits. I seemed to have gotten my hip under control, but I knew that was probably a fragile peace.

The first week back home, we did a little over 8.5 the Monday we both took off to regroup, I got back into a groove with Danielle on Tuesday with an easy 6, ran 1 mile + cross-trained Wednesday, and then – trading out a track workout for a tempo – met up with Kim on Thursday morning at Bakery Square for a little road redemption. With the harsh winter, I had yet to tempo outside this season. And having missed some speedwork in the previous couple of weeks, was worried I could manage it. Kim and I figured an HM tempo was our best bet, and – if you can believe it – I ran the entire thing without music. I had brought it with, but didn’t turn it on at first, looking to key into the pace. But then – it felt great! True, a couple points I kinda wanted to turn it on, and the last mile was a grind that we both sort of died on. But we kept at least 1:42ish half pace, and mostly stayed at (or under) 1:40 half pace (around 7:38). Having a suffer buddy was absolutely clutch, and we got to witness a great sunrise at the end to boot.

We were in Athens, GA, for my sister-in-law’s wedding that weekend, and after having planned a 12 miler and hoping for the middle-ish four to be at HM pace, the hills and our utter exhaustion got the best of us: we stuck out 10 miles, mostly at just-get-through-this-alive pace. Not pretty, and not very confidence boosting.

The next week we bounced back, but my confidence was still shaking. We had great runs, all easy, leading into the weekend, when we ran a 12-miler on one of our favorite routes, also all easy. The next day, of course, was Burgh 10K. Flat. Fast. Ripe for PRs.

But that was not our plan. With a lot of hemming and hawwing and whining, we decided to go with our friend Mark’s idea (well, okay, we stretched it a little – sorry, Mark!) of making it JUST  tempo run. NO RACING. We ran an easy one mile warmup, did some drills, and I was able to find Danielle, so we lined up at the start together with a plan: 7:37 average (as best we could manage) for a half-marathon tempo. My husband (so weird saying that) and I left music at home on purpose to prevent the urge to race. We picked through the crowd at the start, since it’s a narrow-ish crushed limestone trail, but otherwise reined in our horses. We lost satellites in and out of the tunnel on the out-and-back course, and my Garmin stopped at some point (I bumped it? it froze?) so for the last 2.5ish I had no real idea of where we were and what pace I should be doing. We actually nailed goal pace on the way out, but came back in too fast. And of course sprinted to the finish to finish only a second or two apart from each other. I finished in 46:18 for a 7:27 pace.

One mile cool down with all of us plus Kim later, we went to get our wings and free beers, try to defend a helpless garter stake from women screaming about it and one person stomping its tail for no good reason, we found out that my husband got 2nd in his age group, and Danielle and I got 4th and 5th! If we had raced it, we could have gone 1-2 or 2-3! Ridiculous.

20 miles on the weekend, and almost 42 on the week.  All that was left was the taper. Oh, and the race.

Miles and miles and a return to racing

First off, thank you for the responses on my marathon predicament – it was helpful! In the end, though, a lot of it came down to logistics. We don’t know where we’re going to be after September. Not to mention that I’m familiar with this race, and have lots of friends running the half, and one running the full. Haven’t figured it out yet? Well, here it is… Yep. NF and I registered for AIr Force once more on January 1st – he registered for the half, ready to dominate. I registered for the full, and freaked out. But my friend and running buddy Danielle has run the full a few times and will be doing so again this year, so at least I won’t be alone at the start line with my nervous jitters! I did the math, and if I do a 16-week training plan, I’ll have three weeks “off” between the Pittsburgh half in early May and the start of training. With a 14-week plan – which should be plenty doable, given I’ll be starting with a strong base but would also like some more “training free” down time – I’d get five weeks off. I plan on picking the brains of some more experienced marathoners when figuring out how to handle it. In the meantime, I’m still in the off-season, at least for about another month, and enjoying it a ton. NF and I successfully completed the run streak – 35 days of running at least a mile a day! – and have kept it going. I’m still making use of the one-mile-minimum days as “rest” days or days to get in more cross-training. The streak also helped us get out the door when we were visiting my Grandmom over New Year’s up in Michigan with temperatures in the single digits to negatives, and wind chill frequently below zero. I have to say, neckwarmers are clutch in that kind of weather. Also, trail shoes on the snowy roads.

Post-5 miler on Jan. 1 – the last official day of the RW Run Streak. So bundled!
You can’t see it, but there was ice in my hair.
The only way I was able to get my hands warm without a painful, frozen first 1-1.5 miles: thumbhole + thin glove over + fleece glove over that. Chilly finger tips for about a half mile, then warm.

Some of the snowy runs were better than others – painfully cold hands made me cranky for the first bit of the Jan. 1 5-miler, and a snow-packed 3-miler was exhausting. But other times the beauty of it all was energizing.

This snowmobile path was tiring to run on, but man was it pretty.

When we got home,  the cold weather followed us with the polar vortex, so I did a lot of treadmilling – I bundled like I was going outside to run just to get in my car to drive to the gym! Hello -5* with -28* wind chill!

By the end of the week, though, the worst of the cold broke and I was back to running with pals! Danielle and I ran 6 hilly miles that Friday. The next day, I went to a Steel City Road Runners group run for the first time! And it poured. But I got to run 10 miles with Kim (first 5 with NF, too), and we chatted up the storm, almost not noticing that we were drowned rats – almost.

Soaked everything

Sunday morning was the annual Frigid Five Miler! (oh hey, look how I snuck in a race report!) After a false start leaving the apartment, having left our bibs at home (luckily we were only like 4 minutes from home), we got to the start in just enough time to park at the top of the hill.

Walking into the Lodge and just starting to get scan the crowd, I was immediately pounce-hugged by Kelly (birthday girl!), and a little bit later, found my my work pal Lara. I had emailed her earlier in the week about the race, and as she’s training for her first half-marathon, she was excited to check out another local Pittsburgh race.

Pre-race group shot, taken by my guy. As usual, I overdressed.

We chatted and waiting around until about 8:50 before stepping out to the start line (dumping off extra layers in the car, which was parked conveniently on the way. We didn’t have time for a warm-up and my Garmin barely found satellites in time. And I selected the wrong playlist on my iPod before tucking it in an inner pocket and then making it inaccessible with my bib pinned over it – oh well!

Before I knew it, we were off! I had no idea what I would have in me for this race, especially knowing full well how tough the course is. The first mile is rolling but a little uphill. The second mile is definitely downhill. Mile 3 starts as a screaming downhill, then levels off and heads to some more, tough rollers. Mile 4 gets hard, then kinda levels off. Mile 5? Oh… mile 5.

My playlist was still good, just a different one than what I’d originally wanted. Honestly though, I hardly listened to it. I spent the whole time just trying to pick people off as a way to stay focused. It had been sleeting/misting and some spots were icing – I never slipped, but could feel my feet skate out behind me a few times. I found if I stayed near the middle of the road (but off the painted line), it was better.

Mile 1 clicked off in 7:16. Mile 2, with a serious downhill, was 6:56. I tried to ride hard down the screamer at the start of mile 3, and didn’t have TOO much wind taken out of my sails after it leveled off, finishing that mile in 7:01. The pace was hard, and a few times I almost freaked out – I wasn’t fit enough for this – but I focused on my breath, the fact that it was very much in control, and told my brain to SHUT UP. And I kept pushing.

Mile 4 though, man, mile 4… there’s a cruel hill, that’s not even that bad in the scheme of things, but you can feel how dead your quads are already getting from all the pounding downhills, and you know what’s coming for you at the finish, so it’s just demoralizing. I got dropped by a few people I’d passed on the downhills and flats, but kept a woman in a neon yellow/green jacket in my sights, pulling ahead and falling behind at points.  7:44. Mile 5 starts out… almost relaxing. I was trying to focus on my breathing and maintaining the fast clip while I could. All too soon – almost precisely a third of a mile into that last mile – the hill started. The ridiculous, insane, crazy hill. Two-thirds of a mile climbing about 250 feet (according to my haven’t-taken-a-math-class-since-freshman-year-of-college calculations, it’s a 7% average grade). So I tried to relax my arms, keep my torso straight and leaned into the hill, picked up my knees and just trudged up it.

Every single year I have walked on this hill. Every single year I have tried to get to various checkpoints, but have always walked at least once (maybe at least twice, to be honest). This was the year I was going to do it. I wasn’t going to walk, not even once. Maybe I’d be going so slowly it may as well be considered walking. But dammit, I’d be lifting my feet high enough to consider it running! I ignored my pace. I tried to breathe. I saw people pass me and drop behind me as some people kept grinding it out and others felt the weight of the hill in their already tired legs. The woman in neon came up behind me, but we kept fairly even going into the steepest section – when I really really really wanted to quit. But I didn’t. I didn’t pass the woman in the end, and could barely push across the finish line, but I did it! 8:52 (6:52 sprint to the finish – so I guess I did sprint a little?). 38:03 chip time.

finish1
Could never get ahead of her, but shook her hand at the finish and thanked her for the motivation to keep trying!

A few minutes later, I hobbled a little ways before the finish line and watched Kelly and another woman encourage each other across the finish line, and I got to give her another birthday/yay-awesome-race! hug after she was done. And just a few minutes after that, Lara finished! She did kickass, finishing in about her usual 5-mile time, but on a MUCH tougher course.

Kelly had to take off shortly after and Lara, NF, and I stuffed our faces with pancakes and listened to the awards. I had only half an ear on it for a while, chatting with Lara, when Shannon started grabbing my arm, telling me to go up. “They’re on 20 to 24,” I said. But sure enough, they were calling my name. Whoops! I walked up and explained that I’d been called, and that I was actually 26. They rechecked the numbers, reissued the 3rd place 20-24 award to the right girl, and handed me a medal for 2nd place in 25-29! Well, okay!

I’ve got a few more weeks to goof off, and I’m trying to get in as much cross-training as I can, and the occasional speedwork/tempo workout, usually on the treadmill. I’d been doing 7:30 tempos but Sunday’s race showed me I haven’t lost all my speed, so I should probably push myself a bit more, little by little.  Thanks to Danielle the mileage enabler, I’ve already run 18 this week between Monday and today (and we won’t discuss how many miles I ran without a 1-miler “off” day from Thursday through Tuesday). NF and I are planning to do about 10 on Saturday, and I’ve got a trail run with Kelly and Kim on Sunday.

Weekend mornings packed with running? Yes, please.

MCM Training Week 3: Packing is cross-training, right?

I’m barely squeezing this entry in, and I should really be packing or winding down and going to sleep early or something, but I just need to do a little something for me, so here it is. This week was a big epic fail when it came to structured cross-training, but packing and carting boxes and making a zillion trips up and down the stairs lugging garbage bags and Goodwill donations totally counts, right? But here’s the breakdown:

Monday: cross-train (packing)

Tuesday: scheduled for 3 miles easy – actual: 3.6 mile sanity run

Wednesday: cross-train (packing)

Thursday: 7 mile tempo run

Friday: cross-train (packing)

Saturday: 14 mile long run; cross-train (packing)

Sunday: cross-train (packing)

I know, my week is thrilling.

As if moving isn’t stressful enough, I had a really big case at work so I completely skipped going to the gym on Monday (and the rest of the week, but whatever) so I could be at the office from 6:15 am to 5 pm. I bolted out of there right at 5 and got right to packing.

For my easy run on Tuesday, I adapted a fairly scenic 4-mile loop I did the other week and didn’t actually measure it beforehand. It was a complete sanity run: I wound up bringing both my watch and my iPod, but it still relaxed me quite a bit, especially since I was just starting packing, at that stage when all you’re doing is pulling stuff out of closets and drawers and cabinets and making a huge freaking mess. I’m kind of a messy person, but big messes like that still bother me and stress me out. I’m a puzzle.

Thursday’s tempo was kind of a crash and burn. NF and I had both had partner runs scheduled, but they both fell through, so he came over to my place (he’s staying at a friend’s just a couple blocks away) and we ran the warm up together. He’s more stressed than I am – he’s proposing his thesis, um, tomorrow – but had a kickass run. I, on the other hand, succumbed to burning-the-candle-at-both-ends and sort of crashed and burned. I made it through, and I hit my splits, but I quit on nearly every tempo mile, stopping my watch and heaving and cursing and getting pissed off at myself. The only exception was the second tempo mile, which is all downhill.

It was all mental, though I know around tempo mile 4 I started feeling kind of woozy. I slowed a little and it passed, so I’m not sure what that was about. It wasn’t bad enough for me to just bag it, but I think my stress level had a lot to do with it. NF and I downloaded about the run after I finished, a few minutes after him, stretching and cooling down, and I had a little meltdown, crying into his shoulder. Then I felt a little better.

This weekend my mom came into town to help me pack, and while she slept in (or tried to, you’ll see why in a moment), NF and I had a 14 miler to get done. I realized quickly upon waking that I had no clue where either of my 22-oz handhelds were. Crap. I remembered one being in my backpack and some point, and yet it was gone. Were they buried under stuff? Did they get boxed up? Or, worse, accidentally thrown out? I woke my mom up to see if they were boxed, and I don’t think she got back to sleep. Worst daughter.

So I did my best – I carried my 12 oz and a 16 oz regular plastic bottle. It was a pain and I was starting the run in a frustrated pace. But I managed to run without listening to tunes for the first 8ish miles, draining the plastic bottle and pitching it around mile 7.5.

Foggy lens Gu break by the Monongahela

NF wasn’t up to the planned last-3-at-half-marathon pace but we managed to push a bit at the end and he helped me finish at my HM pace. The last mile was brutal – we got stuck at every single light and just wanted to be done.

Boy were we glad when it was over.

The move is almost over – at least the packing part is, but it’s funny how long the last 10 to 15 percent of packing can take – and thank goodness this is a cutback week. I’ve broken up my easy runs a bit already so I can squeeze in a few early morning miles to start my day off right: alone and in the zone. Tomorrow morning will be my last run from this apartment, my first Pittsburgh apartment, where I have lived for the last three years.

And Wednesday? We have the moving truck from 12 to 6 pm, and though we got movers for the big stuff, it’ll still be a major cross-training day. Here’s to it.

MCM Training Week 1: Getting strong

Week one of Marine Corps Marathon training is in the books. There’s something simultaneously thrilling and underwhelming about the very first week – you want to dive into something that hurts, something that counts, something that signals of the weeks to come. But you have a long way to go, a long way to climb, and you don’t want to dive straight into the deep end, or disaster.

But before I get into that, a very quick race recap – it was over a week ago now, and, well, it was a quick race! My friend Ellen found a 3K called the Sweet Sprint, a race that ended in cupcakes and was run on the flat-and-fast Eliza Furnace Trail (aka the Jail Trail). It was a distance NF and I had never tried before, so we decided to give it the college try. It was a tiny, local, low-key setting, and only started like 15 minutes or so late, which is pretty good for a first effort. It was also a pretty warm and muggy morning (some of us were bemoaning a 9:15 scheduled start in the heat of summer. But at least it’s a short race).

We also got to meet our Twitter/DailyMile (and now real life) friend Mark, who we chatted with a bit at the start and in-between warming up. About 15 minutes to the scheduled start, NF and I ran out about a third of a mile or so and did some pick-ups on the way back. When it became clear that the start was going to be late, we did a couple more striders to keep our legs warm and get the “shitty” feeling out of the fast pace. I was hoping to break 7:00 pace the whole time, but wasn’t sure how realistic this was.

We lined up near the start, eyeing the competition. Mark pointed out a girl named Danielle as someone for me to pace off of. Something about her was VERY familiar, but I shook it off and just put a bulls-eye on her ponytail so I could hopefully latch on and hang on for dear life.

The race started, and I sprinted across the line. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever started a race that fast. For the first quarter mile, my watch was reading 5:45, and I actually laughed out loud. I held onto Danielle for a while, trying to slow my pace and ease into something more manageable – something she seemed to be doing, too. I had toyed with the idea of running without music, but wasn’t comfortable enough with my level of fitness and mental capacity for the Pain Place, so I picked three power song to keep me going.

Me leading the pack! Okay, not really. But I’m on the right. Yes, we had ankle chips – that was a first!

After mile 1 ticked off, I felt like I was dying a slow, painful death. I lost satellites briefly under the overpass and my bead on my pace, so I just tried to keep pushing. With 2/3 of a mile to go (a 3K is roughly 1.86 miles, for what it’s worth), I genuinely wanted to quit – to stop and walk, or just put my hands on my knees and heave for a moment. I just tried to lighten up on the gas for a moment. When the finish banner was in sight – maybe with about .25 to go, I tried not to let up anymore, trying to real in an older guy I’d been pacing off of (I managed to drop Danielle, but she had crushed a 5K the day before and had already run 5 miles that same morning, so yeahh). I flew across the line feeling more dead than I ever have after a 5K.

Who knew there was something more painful than a 5K?

Pain Cave

But it was a great experience. Now I know where my speed fitness is, and my mental capacity (and it’ll only improve from here).

Plus, in the end there was this:

And then there was this:

Yep, NF and I both got first in our AG (and Mark did as well!). Always a good feeling, even if it’s only achievable for me at these tiny local races. 😉 This was our last short-distance race for… a while. We’ll be moving onto different pain places now.

Oh! And not to forget this detail – after the race I went up to Danielle and asked her, “didn’t I race with you at the Burg 10K?” (see also: the girl in the Boston jacket). And it absolutely was her! I ended up running into her during my easy run Tuesday morning, as well – I had changed up routes to keep things interesting, and she was running with a friend. We were both beginning to do the friendly runner wave (such a rarity) when suddenly we recognized each other and our quick wave turned into “oh hi I know you!” I love this (running) town.

Making new friends. And pretty sure I’m wiping sweat from my eyes – classy
Surveying the goods. Need to change this blog name to “runs for cupcakes.”

Okay so, week one. I’m going to try to avoid the standard day-by-day breakdown, since that gets stale pretty quickly. Plus, everyone has different goals, different strengths and weaknesses, and copy-pasting someone’s plan from their blog will do almost nothing for you individually as a runner.

What I will emphasize is that I’m trying to take these early low-mileage week (last week totaled 20 miles) to cross-train often and hard. I love cross-training, and I have a membership to a (very expensive) gym, but as soon as mileage kicks up, especially near peak, the first thing to slide is strength training. So here are a few of my goals, broken down into how this week went:

1. Lower body strength.

I got really strong on hills last cycle – I put a lot of emphasis on running hilly routes, doing bridge or hill repeats (some long, tempo-ish efforts; others short sprints), and leg-work, especially squats. I’m hoping to make Monday my leg strength day, though I realize Sunday being long run day may sometimes throw a wrench in that. For the time being, it’s doable, and will probably train my legs to push through fatigue more.  I’ve been doing a squat series from Runner’s World just about weekly, followed up with core work and Pilates side-lying series type stuff to keep my hips strong and my IT bands happy.

2. Upper body and core strength

Runners can be a little notorious for slacking on the upper body stuff. And I’m one of those weirdos who builds bulk muscle REALLY fast (gotta love genetics). I tend to keep pretty low weight for upper body stuff (15-20 lb free weights) and hit all the major muscle groups. As far as core, and I do this on leg days, too, because really – you can’t have too much core – I’m addicted to the Dirty Dozen from Oiselle’s blog. It takes about 20 minutes and hits every part of your core and just the right amount of upper body. I’m still doing cheater, sissy push-ups, but I’m planning on gradually shifting away from those into real, big-girl push-ups.

3. Nutrition

Mmm… chocolate…

Okay, well, this isn’t the only nutrition I’m concerned with. I have my pre- and mid-run nutrition plan pretty well figured out at this point. But I am trying to clean up my diet again to get lean and mean. Having generous neighbors who just give away the extra organic veggies they grow is awesome.

I’m giving the MyFitnessPal app a try for a few weeks to try to get a better idea of how well I fuel and refuel for workouts, and if I’m getting the nutrients I need in the proper balance. I’ts only been like three-and-a-half days so it’s too early to say anything (other than I eat too much salt, but seem to manage the proper carb-fat-protein balance without even trying?), but I’ll probably report back with more in a few weeks. I still hate counting calories, and I know it can be risky, but I’m more seeing just how much food I can squeeze into a day than seeing if I can come in under calories for the day (I have it set to maintain weight, in fact).

I’m also still going to my Tuesday night Pilates class every week (work allowing – I’ve gotten stuck a couple of times and missed the 5:30 class) and went to spin on Wednesday for the first time in a while (though I still feel a bit sick of it. We’ll see how frequently I decide to go). I know these classes keep my brain interested, and work different muscles in different ways, while upping the mental toughness in different ways.

So how are these things working for me so far?

On Thursday, I got to test my mental capacity again with my first longer tempo run in a while. I let tempos slide quite a bit in the off-season, and we were diving right in with a six-miler, 4 miles at tempo. My stomach had been feeling all kinds of bad for a few days (unrelated to running) and I wasn’t sure I could sustain the paces I wanted in the excruciating humidity from the near-constant thunderstorms we had been getting (like Wednesday’s “derecho”). I decided I wasn’t going to look at my watch, at all. I wasn’t even going to switch it to lap estimate, just leave it on the overall time screen.

It worked. It was still hard, and I quit twice, very briefly, for like 10 seconds apiece, but I hit all of my splits, so I’ll put that solidly in the victory section.

My cat had a really nice nap while I was gone – she has a thing for my yoga mat – so we both had a good Thursday morning.

 The arms and core workout I did on Friday really stayed with me for the Saturday long run (usually done on Sunday but we rescheduled so we could party at a friend’s house Saturday night. MyFitnessPal was pretty confused about my combined workout and eating – not to mention drinking – habits that day). We did a 10 mile loop we hadn’t done in a long, long time that included a loop of the very hilly Schenley Park. I’d done a 15-minute “ab burner” routine as part of my workout on Friday, using the Nike Training Club app (a really nifty tool, and completely FREE; more to come on that as well), and I was finding laughing, coughing, and sneezing to be pretty painful.

You know how everyone always emphasizes how much you use your core as a runner, especially on things like – say – hills? Well, I can attest to this, very strongly. The first three miles in the park are pretty much on-and-off climbing, between my tired shoulders and back, my fatiguing legs, and my trashed core, it was a struggle. But I never quit, something I fully expected to do on my first trip back into Schenley in so long, and so early in the cycle. Success! It helped that it was also a gorgeous day – it was still pretty humid, but was about 10-15 degrees cooler than last weekend’s long run temperatures. I then spent the afternoon at the pool relaxing in the sunshine and trying to erase my runner tan. I was not entirely successful.

And Saturday night? Well…

This week, I have a run with a friend scheduled, as well as a track workout, and the temperatures are sky-high again (heat index hit 102* today) so I may be ignoring my watch quite a bit again. But I guess the hotter the sauna now, the faster I’ll be in the fall.

…right?

Off-season highs and lows

But I don’t want to go for a run

(stolen from this post)

The thing about the off-season is finding a balance between taking the appropriate time off from running and making sure not to lose all fitness, passion, and routine. It’s something I’m still working on – and something that involves a lot of listening to my body, and my mind.

I’m still running unplugged a lot, or at least not concerning myself with pace, but a few exceptions came up recently. And the results were mixed.

Last Friday was our first “summer Friday” at work, where if we bank enough time earlier in the week, and deadlines allowing, we can head out at 1 pm. Since we had a nice cold front rolling through – it was breezy, mid-50s, and overcast – I headed for the trails in Frick Park. It started out great: within the first mile and a half, I saw a beautiful doe maybe 10 or 15 feet off the trail. I paused my Garmin (brought only to track distance since I wasn’t sure what route I’d take) and we watched each other for a couple of minutes, her ears swiveling like satellite dishes, honing in on every noise. She seemed unbothered by me, even moving a little closer at a point, nostrils flaring. I noticed her abdomen looked pretty swollen for such a lean beast – probably time for babies soon! A few moments later, she leaped gracefully and silently away into the brush.

She was pretty much this close. And I wish I’d had a camera with me!

After that, as the path turned uphill, my mood went downhill. I struggled on some climbs, taking unapologetic walk breaks (well, mostly. Even if the off-season it’s hard not to beat myself up for what I may perceive as giving up). But my tummy felt off, and the work week had built up on me (lots of deadlines). I was relieved when I got back to my car, and disappointed that I had had such a lousy run. It could have been anything, but I’m sure at least part of it was residual work stress, not to mention the previous day’s brutal track workout.

On Sunday, with NF in town for the holiday weekend (he was moving out of his apartment and put stuff in storage. Another good workout: packing and moving boxes), we planned a weekend run with friends and Ragnar teammates from last year, Tim and Alys. I got to do part of a long run with them in the fall when NF was recovering from a mild ankle sprain during marathon training, but this was the first time we got a real double-date run in.

Problem was, I still had the rotten taste of Friday’s run in my mouth, and we were heading out to run at Frick again – Tim and Alys live very near the park. It took a lot of arm-twisting and convincing on NF’s part to pry me out of bed, telling me pace didn’t matter, that we’d have fun, that there was zero pressure, that I would feel better once we were out there. It was also mid-50s, full sun, and beautiful. I had to get out there.

From the very first step, I felt fantastic. We stayed clustered together for a while, my Garmin on my wrist ignored, just tracking the total distance and beeping its splits to itself. We did a lot of chatting, and eventually paired off girls and guys (girls leading, natch). We got onto Nine Mile Run for a bit, with a little time on Duck Hollow before we turned back in, planning a six-mile-ish out-and-back. At this point, Tim was feeling pretty tired (PhD. is ass-kicking and he hadn’t had very much time to run lately) and NF was being cautious about his healing IT band, so they headed back on a shorter route, taking a walk break first, and Alys and I kept running, with me following her on an unfamiliar trail that started flat, then led to a massive climb that left us wheezing, but feeling alive.

Alys is super fast, but other than that, we’re honestly a really good match. We both love running, and really gutting it out, and running together, I could feel that we were quietly raising each other’s competitive hackles. I’m bad at hills, but every hard climb we came up against, she just leaned into, and I matched her stride for stride, easing my arm carriage and relaxing into it. It worked! Until the last climb, it felt great! And the last climb probably still felt better than it would have had I been alone. But even with each of us pushing – her mostly pushing me – I didn’t even need to tell her when I needed to slow up. I would go silent, unable to respond in conversation, and just slightly pull up on the pace, and she fell right in step with me once more. A perfect running partner.

Okay, so we’re not exactly like Kara and Shalane. I mean, she’s blonde and I’m brunette, but that’s mostly where it ends. 😉

We emerged from the park onto sidewalk and I was briefly disoriented, then realized we were back on Braddock. We snuck up on the boys,who had just begun to worry, wrapping up at about 6.4 miles.

Tuesday I got a surprise run: I had a long work day and figured I’d miss pilates, but was relieved when I got out right at 5 (I’d started at 7, so no morning run). Then of course pilates was cancelled, so I went on a pretty hot, but short, easy run: two miles on a familiar route, no Garmin, in 85*. I was bathed in sweat after, but it was pleasantly breezy and doable, especially for a run so short.

Thursday was another story. I had planned on a fun, tune-up tempo run to remind my legs how to maintain speed for this weekend’s 5K. Dressed in my clearly-laundry-day-saving-cutest-run-outfits-for-the-weekend mismatched best, I headed outside a little after 6. It was warm – high 60s already – and very humid – high 90s. And the air had that…smell. That dank, smoky smell of a day that is going to be absolutely brutal. It was a very familiar scent, but for some reason I disregarded this warning sign – and the fact that this went hand-in-hand with it being an air quality alert day.

Ninety seconds into the run, I stopped: on the side of the road was a tabby cat, splayed out, having bit hit by a car. I burst into tears. Being a cat owner myself, it was not the best way to start my day. I pulled myself together and kept on with my warm up, trying to recreate my previous excitement about running hard.

But comfortably hard never settled in – it just felt hard. Not a half mile in, I stopped to wheeze. I got caught at a lot of lights (sometimes because I wanted to), and quit more than once. My splits were good, but I honestly didn’t earn them. I walked part of my cooldown and began to resign myself to the fact that this tempo was a horrible idea: I felt dehydrated and slightly underfueled, but the weather was mostly to blame. Pro-tip: check the alerts when checking the weather; don’t try your first tempo in a month on a bad air quality day.

Tomorrow is the 5K – I’m waiting for NF to get back from work now and we’ll head to packet pickup – and it looks tiny, maybe 100 people. The course looks flat and fast, and is right along the river, which is something I love. There’s something magical about running right next to water, especially a river. I’m looking forward to a fun, relaxed, but speedy race experience. Sunday we’ll do a long-ish (maybe 6 miles) run on one of NF’s favorite paths.

And next week? Well, I may go back to Garmin-less for another couple weeks. Or just wait for my body to acclimate. The heat is just starting, and marathon training is a month or so away. Bring it on.

Race Report: Just a Short Run 2013 (half-marathon)

This training cycle has been a bit of a whirlwind. Last year at this race, I broke two hours – I was gleeful, finally having cracked the time that for many is the holy grail. But that bar keeps getting raised for each of us. I was ready and eager to break 1:55 at Air Force last year, but a turned ankle on a tempo run the week of the race killed that. I may have been able to race just fine, but with Ragnar around the corner and taht team counting on me, and so many weeks left of marathon training – my real A goal of the fall – I had too much to lose to risk it. Early November, during a 12 miler taper long run, I averaged 8:45 miles – which would have earned me the coveted sub 1:55 had I run 13.1

This year, NF and I decided to be pretty aggressive with our training. We’d been training smart and pretty hard for a couple of years. Last fall, we designed our own training plan for the marathon – a risk given it was our first full, but a necessity given our racing schedule in September (Air Force midway through September, Ragnar the weekend after that). With that race successfully finished, we wanted to give it another shot: design a smart and aggressive training plan for the Pittsburgh half. We’d been doing long tempo runs – the absolute key to speed over distance, no question – and longer mile repeat workouts. So with these ingredients, we added one more thing: race pace miles during long runs.

In late February, only a couple weeks into training for the Pittsburgh half, we ran the Spring Thaw, a local race that runs around a 5-mile lake loop and allows you to choose your distance at any point, adding on our dropping down mid-race. We were scheduled to run 10, and NF – sweetie that he is – agreed to pace me through the first 10 miles, which I hoped to run at half-marathon pace. I was nervous, given that we were so early into training, but with my goal being 8:40-8:50, I thought this would be pretty manageable. In the first mile, I was trying to find the pace and glanced at my watch, which NF sternly corrected. He was amazing – he watch hawked for the both of us (an exhausting endeavor) and just let me find my groove. “We’re going a hair fast, but this little slope coming up will slow us down” or “we slowed up a bit, but we’re about to go downhill a bit” or “perfect.” I’d check my splits when they beeped, and was seeing 8:3x every time, with the exception of miles during which I slowed a bit to get some water at an aid station and suck down a gel (I didn’t carry water for the race. It was cool out and there were aid stations aplenty).  When my watch hit 9 miles, I took off and wished him well – he finished up 15 on a rough day – and I cruised hope below 8 minutes, averaging 8:33 overall, 12 seconds per mile faster than goal. What a boost!

For many long runs in the past, I’ve tried kicking the last one or two miles at race pace, but haven’t done anything different than that. Now I knew I could sustain my goal pace for 10 miles, which was extremely promising. We got in a couple solid track workouts, and I nailed my splits, in addition to lengthening tempo runs, including a 7 mile tempo the week of Just a Short Run (JASR), with 5 miles at tempo. A few weeks later, we ran a 13 mile long run with four miles in the middle at goal half-marathon pace. I managed every single one under 8:30e. I was crushing my goal paces, and it was like getting confidence injected directly into my veins.

We’ve run JASR a couple times now, the first time as an 8.1 miler just as a pure long run, last year as crushing PRs for both of us (NF in 1:43:xx and me in just over 1:59, my first sub-2), so I knew it was a great course and a great race. It’s a perfect scenario: it’s a rolling to flat course with only one hill of any consequence – it starts as a 5K ice rink loop (home of the one hill) followed by 5 mile lake loops (run the opposite direction of Spring Thaw). The only problem this year, was it was scheduled for the Saturday before Easter, which was super early. NF headed home to see his family for the holiday, a few other running buddies were also out of town for similar reasons, and here I was, with huge PR dreams, only about halfway through training, and without my sidekick. True, we don’t race together anymore (unless we’re running it for fun, or the occasional time he’s rabbiting me) but we get up to that ass-early alarm, eat breakfast together, get nervous and jittery together, hold each others’ stuff as we sprint to the porto-potties, make sure we have our gels, Garmin, iPods, etc., and exchange a quick pre-race kiss. What was I going to do without my best support system?

I managed to arrange to hitch a ride with super-fast friend Rob and a couple other dudes he was driving. Friday night before the race, I got to the packet pickup without incident (the fact that it was Good Friday helped the traffic situation) and dropped a lot of bank on a new-fangled muscle roller torture device. My IT band had been squawking at me more and more as the week went on. I got some sushi for dinner (carbo-loading during Passover is hard – and yes I know I technically shouldn’t eat rice but I”m not that observant and I had to eat SOMETHING) and popped in “Spirit of the Marathon” for some motivation… and gently and slowly stretched every muscle in my body I could, from head to toe. I eased into my hips, then busted out the foam roller, lay in pigeon pose for like 5  minutes, before using the torture device on my tight left IT and almost crying in agony as it worked out the last vestiges of tightness.

Good news – no pain the next day during the race!

I woke up at 5 a.m. and heated up the breakfast quinoa I had prepared (seriously, Passover, you’re crimping my oatmeal-lovin’-carbo-loading style) – cooked in apple juice and seasoned with cinnamon and ground cloves, with chopped walnuts and apple mixed in. I was nervous. I was jittery. It felt like a 5K was imminent – a deathly hard effort, but one where a good jolt of nerves revs the engine. But a half? This was a bit much.

Rob picked me up promptly at 6:45, and we swung by and got his buddies and lots of times to wander the race site. I got in the ladies room line immediately since it was huge, and chatted with a couple of runners (and saw a Oiselle team ambassador also in line!). After some hemming and hawing, I took my pre-race Gu, sucked down water from a throwaway bottle, and headed to the start line. The 30K start was a few minutes prior (since they have to tack on about a half mile to the 5K + three 5-mile loops) and with them, Rob. I chatted with one of his buddies before going to step in front of the 2 hour pace group… and found a 1:55 pace group! The stress immediately dissipated  “I didn’t know this pace group existed!” I said excitedly to the leader. With markedly less enthusiasm, he replied, “Well, we exist.” I tried to make small talk to a girl standing near him, but she didn’t seem interested, so I just tried to get in the zone. A few minutes later, we were off!

Well, as soon as we crossed the timing mat, it was clear the pacer was going too slow. Not in an easing-into-it way either. So, the relaxing effect of his presence having already taken hold, I just took off and did my own thing. I knew the hill was in the first mile, so I just relaxed and tried to ignore pace, trying to find a groove. I kept it just under nine, especially when the double-dip hill ended with a sharp right turn into a screaming downhill. I was fine easing into my pace, knowing I had plenty of time to speed up later.

It was a beautiful morning, though it started chilly. It was the very end of March, and spring had been taking its good old freaking time arriving. It was low-to-mid-30s at the start, and I was shivering my my thin long sleeve with vest over (pockets – yay!), capri tights, cap-and-earband combo, and gloves. In fact, my fingers were numb and cold for the first 5K, my body trying so hard to warm itself. But the sun was shining and it eventually got to the low 50s, and the cool air made it a lot easier to try to push it, so I was not going to complain.

I was quickly sliding into 8:30s – faster than goal – and even a couple 8:20s, but felt relaxed and good, and was getting passed by a ton of people, which I tried to let go of. I came through 5K a little faster than expected: I think 26:3x or so. I was trying not to watch-hawk much, checking splits but ignoring my overall time except at the loops just to see how I was doing overall, especially since Garmin distance is always slightly off actual distance. I felt myself slowing a bit and took in a gel at a water station about four miles in (I again didn’t carry water, which limited when I could take a gel, and I had to really pay attention to when they were coming up if I was chasing a gel with water) and my stride smoothed out again.

Eventually I found a few sort of pacer buddies. I traded the lead with this one couple a few times, me pulling ahead on uphills, then coming even and pulling ahead on downhills (I’ve gotten better at charging hills in recent months, it seems) and a couple other folks who stayed within my sight line. The multi-loop nature of the course really helps break the race into manageable chunks, and helped me take it one loop at a time. I checked my overall distance and time when we finished the first lake loop, knowing that Kevin Smith (store owner and race director) usually mis-measures the mile markers, so my mile beeps are WAY off, but the overall distance is spot on. I came into the 8.1 mark at 8.2 on my watch, a good thing to keep in mind later in the race. My pace was still faster than goal, but I was feeling fantastic.

On the back half of the last loop, I was starting to feel fatigue creep in, as well as some chattering, doubting demons, perhaps more of the latter than the former, in actuality. The back half is more rolling uphill than down, but still totally doable, but I knew I was feeling those miles, and that I was getting nervous about when to kick, if I was going to make my goal, and any other doubts creeping in. I came up alongside a woman running a perfect pace, right in the low 8:40s. I looked over to her and asked, “half or 30K?” She was running the 30K, and I confirmed for her I was running the half. “Sorry to pace hog,” I said, “but you’re running my perfect pace right now.” “Well, then,” she said, “let’s bring you on home.”

We exchanged a few words here and there – about the course, the nice weather, what we were training for, how we were feeling, what our pace was.” My watch beeped 12 miles – well ahead of the badly placed 12 mile marker – and she said, “Don’t let me hold you back. You look strong.” I waited a bit closer to the marker, then just before I took off, thanked her for the company and pacing and wished her a great last loop.

I glanced at my overall time in that moment. 1:55 was possible even if I crawled the last .1. Let’s see just what I can do, I thought, and felt my stride lengthen and my upper body relax into the pace. It ticked down faster and faster. Just below 8 minutes. 7:50s. 7:40s. A guy I’d been chasing back and forth in the last few miles – one of my unofficial pacers – picked it up when he felt me on his tail. I can’t recall now if I passed him in the end, though I think I may have. I saw the finish line through the trees, and knew I just had to keep relaxing til I got to the tennis courts. I kicked it up a notch, then, and mentally pulled that 13 mile marker closer and closer to me. My arms churned. My legs were on fire. My lungs gasped. I beeped the last mile a bit before the marker – 7:23 pace. I felt like I was dying. I saw Shirtless Dude – a Pittsburgh running legend (yes, I know he has a name, but a lot of us just call him Shirtless Dude) cheering people in. He pointed right at me and shouted some encouragement. I managed one smile and looked at the glow, seeing the first digits: 1:52.xx. Holy shit. All mental capacity disappeared. I felt like I was running through a swamp. I didn’t grin in victory. Didn’t lift my arms like I usually did. Just leapt across the line as I was mindlessly punching “STOP” on my Garmin.

How I know I gave it my all - look at that pain face
How I know I gave it my all – look at that pain face

I stumbled through the finisher chute to grab my medal (pretty legit this year!) and wandered to the food line, knowing Rob would be finishing the 30K any minute (I joked with him that my goal was to beat him. “I’m even giving you a 10 minute headstart,” I said, “because I”m generous”). I grabbed a water bottle, banana,.a bagel, and was about to reach for delightfully salty pretzels when I remembered with a groan. Passover. I pawned the bagel on Rob when he finished, and settled for salty chips instead of pretzels, devouring the banana and sucking down the water.

Rob’s buddies rolled in and we wandered around waiting for results to be posted and nibbling on food before we packed it in. I was texting everyone like crazy about my PR, posted officially as 1:52.03. Exactly seven minutes faster than my previous PR on the same course the year before.

One thought that dominated my brain after the euphoria wore off in the following few days: Now what? Well, my reach goal is now to break 1:50 – which would require improving my pace by 9 secs/mile. Doable, but hard, and Pittsburgh is likely to be a much warmer day, and is a much less forgiving course. B goal will be to PR, even just by seconds. Otherwise, I’d like to make a respectable mid-1:50s showing and have fun. But the latter part is kind of always the goal.

Last weekend, we did a 10 mile progression run at the end of a cutback/easy week (all easy runs, lower mileage overall). We were in different states (I was in Ohio doing wedding stuff, NF was in Knoxville doing research stuff), so we just reported back to each other on how it went: 4 miles easy, 3 miles at half-marathon goal pace + 15 seconds, 3 miles at HM. I woke up to 65* temps (not hot by any stretch but it had been 30* just days before and it was like a suckerpunch of acclimation) and winds gusting to 25 mph. And the wind was only at my back during the warm up. I stared at my watch the whole time. I overdressed (did NOT need long sleeve – actually went in just a sports bra a few miles in, which I loathe doing). I went too fast on the easy part. My HM + 15 segments were perfect, but for some reason after that, I just started breaking down. I quit so many times during those last 3 miles, I hardly count the splits as legitimate. I was totally gassed the rest of the day and had zero appetite.

And yet, this week, I had an amazing 7 mile tempo run, and this morning had a 14 miler on a glorious sunny morning, and I crushed my last 3 miles at HM pace, just as planned.

Anything can happen on race day. We have two more weeks of hard training to go before our one week taper. I’m listening to my body, while trying to ignore the demons. I’m getting good mantras and power words going (which I may write about later).

So, Pittsburgh half, my 3rd PGH half and my 7th attempt at the distance – what will you bring to the table? And will I be able to dig deep enough to overcome?