Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Day Of Fun in Coney Island
Race Report from the 2009 Brooklyn Half Marathon

Wow! What an adventure I had in Brooklyn yesterday! It’s rare that I can perform so poorly in a race (by my standards) and yet feel like the day was a total success! It just proves to me one thing: I need to travel outside of Central Park for races more.

The Brooklyn Half Marathon is the third in a series of five NYRR Half Marathon Grand Prix races that takes place throughout the year in each borough of New York City. Although I have been a member of the NYRR since 2005, I’ve never run this particular race before. I’ve heard that compared to the other Grand Prix half marathons, Brooklyn is held on one of the milder courses with minimal changes of elevation other than what you will find in Prospect Park. The little wrinkle that was added to this year’s edition is that the race will actually start inside Prospect Park and end on the boardwalk of Coney Island instead of the other way around like in years past. This was welcome news for us runners because it not only promises a faster finish but more fun, food, and entertainment after the race as well.

At the Start
I arrived at the start of the race this morning anxious and excited, not knowing what to expect. On the one hand, I felt fully recovered from Boston and was returning to the place where I found so much running success two months back (in the Cherry Tree 10 miler). But on the other, I knew I didn’t prepare well for this race – having done two speed workouts (one unexpected) this week after running 50 miles the previous week. My sleeping has also been subpar in recent days and my fuel/hydration plans got tossed out the window when hospital work reached crisis level the previous day. Combining these factors with the fact that although the temps were in the mid sixties, it was sunny and a bit humid on race morning and they were expecting 10,000+ runners to circle the park twice while sharing the same two-lane road, I stood at the starting corral looking down at my shoes, wondering what this race was going to hold for me.
After a few minute delay waiting for the roads to clear, the final instructions were given, the national anthem was sung, and the starting horn sounded, signaling the start of the race.

Miles 1-4
I situated myself a few rows behind a group of four faster Flyers in the blue corral when the race started deep in the recesses of Prospect Park. My game plan going in was to run conservatively through the park in the first six miles, hold on steady to ten miles, than sprint the last three miles to the finish. So as I jostled with my neighbors for running room in the first half mile, I told myself not to get carried away and run my own race.
I found my comfort zone by mile one and breezed by the first loop without too much difficulty. I was tickled by the fact that even though I was consciously holding back and climbing the hills with a comfortable effort, I was recording each mile time at or slightly below my PR pace (6:30 min) through the first four miles. The only thing that annoyed me in the early going was the paucity of water stations that were set up along the course. For all the drama and hype NYRR created this week by posting a heat advisory on their website for this race, you’d think there would be more Gatorade and water available than every 2.5 miles! Although I took care to slow down at every water station to take in as much as possible, I’m sure it wasn’t enough as I could already tell I was getting a bit dehydrated entering the second loop.

Mile 1 – 6:19
Mile 2 – 6:30
Mile 3 – 6:25
Mile 4 – 6:18

Miles 5-8
The second time through the park was interesting, annoying and at times downright chaotic. As we made our way around the course sticking to the right side of the road, starting at mile 4.25, we were joined by the masses who were just now coming off the corrals on their first pass through the park. Although there were cones set up every few feet to delineate the running lanes, it wasn’t enough to keep the first loopers from meandering over to our side of the road. What made it worse was that some of the runners had no clue which loop they were on or which side of the street they were supposed to run on! If I weren’t running myself, I would’ve considered the entire scene quite comical. The kicker was that because there were no stations set up on our side, everyone who wanted water had to swerve back over to the left side of the road and dodge the onslaught of slower runners in order to get their fluids at the mile six water station. Trying to negotiate the swarming crowds in between the hills, the meandering course, and my ever decreasing hydration state took much more effort than I planned and threw me into a wild frenzy. By the end of mile six, I was mentally done with the people and the park and wanted like hell to just get out of there and have some running room to myself.
Since I anticipated to be leaving the premises right after mile six or thereabouts, I was frustrated that the park was not through torturing me until a little before mile seven. Although I was still averaging a PR pace when I exited the park, I could tell that my physical battles in the last few miles took a heavy toll on my body. I trampled through Mile 8 finally out on the open parkway holding back fatigue and the psychological demons as best I could.

Mile 5 – 6:43
Mile 6 – 6:39
Mile 7 – 6:28
Mile 8 – 6:29

Mile 9-11
It was apparent to me by this point that I was fading fast and fading quickly. I took a gel and shortened my stride in order to conserve energy. Yet, even as I was struggling to maintain my sanity and my pace, I couldn’t help but appreciate the beautiful sunshine, the lush trees, the cool breeze and the peaceful atmosphere on our side of Ocean Parkway that was closed off to traffic. The situation felt a bit surreal to me, as if I was running the race in a dream. The road to Coney Island stretched out for miles in front without an end in sight.
As I began to slow, others began to pass me, which made the struggling that much more discouraging. With each step, I bargained with my legs to keep running despite the exhaustion and heavy fatigue. Just make it to the next half mile…then to the tree…then to the lamppost. With each landmark, the next one down seemed miles away. Eventually, I took a walk break at the mile 10 water station and drank 2 cups of Gatorade and 2 cups of water before I started battling and running again. I focused on staying in the pack that I was in and thought about the fun day I would have at the beach after as I counted down the tenths of a mile until the next marker.

Mile 9 – 6:43
Mile 10 – 7:13
Mile 11 – 6:55

Mile 12-13.1
Although the 11th mile remained a struggle, I caught a second wind of energy once I passed the mile flag and realized there was two miles or about thirteen minutes of running to the finish. I began picking up the pace and slowly passed by the same people who had pass me by a little while earlier. Even though I was exhausted and hungry and my heart seemed like it was about to explode out of my chest, I ran faster and faster, with thoughts of only getting to the finish line as fast as I could occupying my mind. The last mile was a complete blur to me as I closed my eyes intermittently and sprinted down the boardwalk as fast as my tired legs could carry me. Eventually, I reached and crossed the finish line with my arms raised triumphantly toward the sky. This was certainly not the performance I was hoping for, but given the course, the conditions and my lack of preparedness for this race, to finish a little less than a minute off my PR isn’t so shabby!

Mile 12 – 6:32
Mile 13.1 – 7:03 (for 1.1 mile)

Final Statistics
Official Time – 1:26:27
Average Pace – 6:35 min/mile
Overall Place – 202/9413 (2.1%)
Gender Place – 190/5074 (3.8%)
Age Place – 57/2106 (2.7%)
Age Graded % - 68.6
Flyer Men – 3rd Place

After the race, I cleaned up a bit and met a bunch of my Flyer friends for a self-guided tour of Coney Island. The weather was sunny and perfect and the atmosphere very festive as runners took hostage of the town on this Saturday morning. We walked along the boardwalk, rode the Cyclone, ate hot dogs and fries at the original Nathan’s and imagined how life must have been back in the old days when this Brooklyn neighborhood used to be the happening place for our parents growing up. It's a shame that a wooden roller coaster and a cranky ferris wheel are all that remains from a historic amusement park that was once considered the summertime entertainment capital of the city.

Eventually, after we had filled our bodies with endorphins and replenished our bellies with food, we took the subway and left Brooklyn. As we traveled back along the same route that we took that same morning, we wondered aloud why NYRR would ever even consider ending this race in Prospect Park rather than out in the boardwalk at Coney Island. I for one would love to repeat this same adventure next year!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Q&A: The Fourth Question – Speedwork
Tempo Runs & Interval Training, Part II

Hi Everyone! I’m back. Sorry for being a little MIA on my blog and yours over the past few days. Professional and social responsibilities outside my control (think swine flu and balcony BBQs) have stolen all my blogging time recently. To be honest, I have been cheating on my recovery too and running a lot more miles than I’m supposed to (can you say 50 miles last week just on a whim!) So yeah, there’s definitely not enough hours in the day for deep running thoughts when that happens. Thanks anyway for all the comments/questions on the previous posts. I will answer all of your questions and catch up with blogs when I’m done with my real-life emergencies…Now back to the topic at hand.

In the last post, I discussed the value of tempo runs and interval workouts for marathon training. In this post, I’d like to discuss how I incorporate each of these speedwork components into my own training plan.

Although I like to credit myself for being a brilliant coach in devising the perfect marathon plan for me, the bulk of the work was really done by Pete Pfitzinger since most of what I’ve learned about marathon training is derived from his work. In general, I divide a sixteen week marathon training program into four four-week cycles. Although the framework of each cycle is constructed on the same four individual elements – speedwork, long runs, general aerobic runs, and recovery runs, I try to accentuate different aspects of training in the different cycles. For example, in the base building phase, I try to improve my endurance, which means longer general aerobic and long runs with shorter and less intense speedwork sessions. In the strength building phase, I will replace interval workouts with short hill repeats. At the same time, I keep my long runs at 16-18 miles and run my general aerobic runs over hilly terrain. In the race preparation phase, I run long hard tempo runs (12,14,16 miles) and longer but easier long runs (22, 24 miles). Here, the general aerobic runs are kept easy and slow, almost at a recovery effort to allow sufficient rest between all the tough, hard workouts. I like to schedule races to simulate marathon effort during this phase of training as well. Finally, the last cycle is spent mostly tapering, with one final long tempo run at marathon pace or close to it, and the longest long run of the training cycle in back-to-back weeks before the final drop in mileage leading to the goal marathon.

To specifically address the issue of speedwork during training, I usually schedule one workout a week devoted entirely to speed. Within each four week cycle then, the breakdown is 2 tempo runs, 1 interval run/hill repeats, and 1 race week (where the speed session is replaced by a road race). The distance of my tempo runs have ranged from 4 miles to 14 miles dependent on the cycle and how far along I am in my training. Although I schedule goal paces for each tempo run, I try to go through each tempo run to keep a fast but relaxed effort for as long as possible. I have found that this technique works better for the later tempo runs than for the earlier ones because I tend to freak out and start too fast in the first few sessions. It is only with training and experience that I come to be more confident in knowing that I can maintain a certain tempo pace for a longer distance that allows me to be calm and relaxed when I start. It is intriguing though how the cycle repeats itself no matter how many times I’ve gone through the peaks and valleys of training.

As for running intervals, which I on average will do once or twice per four week cycle, I usually try to do 800m or 1600m repeats at a fast and aggressive pace. Although I start out only being able to do 2 1600s or 4 800s, by the last cycle, I’m usually able to carry though 4 1600s and 8-10 800s. I like running 1600s because it approximates a mile effort and allows me to practice how I should run the last mile of a marathon. As I’m running, I imagine myself gliding effortlessly through the track like a well-oiled machine, matching my breathing to my turnover and stride. I have to concentrate hard to not race all out in these workouts while at the same time moving fast enough and avoiding the pitfalls of bad form like overstriding or leading too far forward or too far back as I run. It’s a sucky workout for sure, but I always find myself running with better form the next day.

So that’s my rundown of how I incorporate speed into my marathon training. If you want a more detailed description of how to optimize your training plan, check out this Pfitzinger post, or alternatively, if you are in the market for something a little less conventional, check out this article from the Running Times.

As for me, I’ve got some last minute training to be done for a half-marathon this weekend. It’ll be my last race for least a few weeks so I’m hoping to turn in a good performance. If I have time, I’ll try to fit in one more Q&A before I close this chapter. If not, the next time you hear from me will be a race report. Either way, you’ll hear from me again before too long.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Q&A: The Fourth Question – Speedwork
Tempo Runs vs Interval Training, Part I

Now that we understand why it’s important to run slow(er) on your long runs (which, like many of you, I struggle with constantly), let’s move on to talk about a subject that I’m much more familiar with and love talking about…SPEEDWORK! My inquisitive reader continues…

Second, I have noticed (or I think I have) you don't do interval trianing for marathons, is that right? Just curious to your philosophy behind tempo runs vs intervals for marathon training. If you do both, when you do them? I feel like tempo/lactate threshold runs really help me out, but my training schedule doesn't have them towards the end. Instead, it goes into VO2 max intervals.

First of all, I’d like to commend my reader for another great question. She always asks the best questions, doesn’t she? In fact, the question is so awesome and the answer so important to everyone hoping to BQ or just run faster in marathons in general that I’m going to tackle this topic in two parts. In part one, I’ll try to explain, in layman’s terms, what tempo (or lactate threshold) running and interval training are and what physiologic roles they play in development of a marathon runner. Then, in part two, I’ll share how I’ve used each of those speedwork components in the past in my own marathon training as well as give some general guidelines on how you can incorporate them into your own training plans.

Part I – What is tempo training, why run intervals, and why should I care?

A. Tempo Runs

Anyone who has ever tried to run a race for time knows that the last mile is always harder and requires exponentially more effort to run than the first. The main reason that occurs is because as the distance increases while our physical exertion is kept at race effort, more and more lactic acid is being produced locally in our leg muscles and at a faster rate than what our body can do to metabolize and carry them away. As a result, we feel increasing fatigue and the inherent performance properties of the muscles decreases tremendously. That’s why it takes much more energy to pick up the pace and sprint in the last mile than it does to start a race at that same speed. A tired muscle full of lactate is the mortal enemy of runners because it not only results in pain and fatigue but the muscle itself just doesn’t work as well either. Tempo training then is the mechanism by which we adapt our bodies to running at a faster pace while still maintaining good efficiency so that we can delay the onset of lactic acid production begins. In other words, since lactic acid is a byproduct of anaerobic (without oxygen) respiration, we will minimize the rate of lactic acid production if we keep our running above the pace at which lactic acid is produced, which is referred to as the lactate threshold.

The purpose of a tempo run, or a lactate threshold (LT) run, as it is sometimes called, is to increase anaerobic threshold. They are run at 85-90% of your maximum heart rate, which translates to about 10-20 seconds per mile slower 10K race pace. They are usually done over 4-6 miles (~20-40 minutes) or even longer at peak training after an appropriate warmup, to be followed by a suitable cooldown.

B. Interval Training

Intervals on the other hand, are much shorter and are run much quicker. They are short segments (400m-1600m) run back-to-back at 95-98% of maximum heart rate (or about 5K race pace) with a recovery time equal to the length of the interval run time between each segment. Depending on the session and the length of each interval, a typically interval workout would involve running 3 to 8 of these segments, again with sufficient warmup and cooldown. For example, since my 5K pace is 6min/mi, my interval workouts are usually 3 or 4 x 1600m at 5:50-5:55 with 6 minutes of rest in between.

The purpose of interval running is to increase VO2max and the aerobic capacity. VO2max is the maximum speed at which oxygen can be absorbed by the lungs and delivered to the working muscles. I likened VO2max to the top speed of a car. Since nobody can sustain running at 100% of their absolute maximum speed for very long, this is intended strictly as an anaerobic workout. For this reason, the important point to remember when running intervals is to keep each segment short with an effort close to but not “all-out” and with sufficient rest time in between each segment to allow for proper recovery.

C. A Conceptual Model

In order to help some of you who are new to speedwork better understand the similar but distinct benefits of tempo and interval training, I’m going to use the functional model of our lungs as a conceptual model.

Ordinarily, going through the normal activities of daily living, we take about 12-20 breaths a minute, using about 25-40% of our lung capacities. With exercise, both of those parameters must increase to fulfill the oxygen requirements our muscles need to sustain the workout. Without even realizing it, we take deeper breaths and increase our rate of respiration to match the physiologic demands of our body. Although it would seem logical that the product (Lung Volume x Repiratory rate) should equal the oxygen requirement during exercise, this is not the case because our body is somewhat inefficient at utilizing all the oxygen absorbed by our lungs during each respiratory cycle. As such, the real formula for the metabolic quotient is more like (Lung Volume x Respiratory rate x Percent Efficiency). Therefore, we always must breathe a little deeper and a little harder to compensate for the inefficiencies of the system in order to get the job done.

Okay, so what does this have to do with speedwork, you ask? Well, speed training in a nutshell alters the mechanics of the body to make the system work a little better during intense exercise. Tempo training specifically increases the efficiency by which oxygen is utilized during each respiratory cycle, while interval runs increases your maximum lung volume so that you can (theoretically) take deeper breaths as you run. So as you can see, both types of speedwork work on different factors of the metabolic quotient to increase our ability to handle faster and longer runs and delay the appearance of lactic acid and fatigue.

(For the experts among us, I realize this is an over-simplified description of the benefits of speed training, but I’m just trying to explain the basics so people who are not so familiar with these concepts can understand the terms a bit better. There will be more resources at the end of this post for those who want to dig deeper and explore all the technical details.)

D. Tempo Training or Interval Runs, Which is Better For Marathoners?

Okay, so if interval runs increase VO2 max and our overall top speed and tempo training increases running efficiency, don’t they provide similar benefits for marathoners looking to run faster and improve their times? The answer might be surprising to some (it was to me when I first started training) but no, they really do not provide the same benefits. There are several reasons for this. First, the effort required to maintain a race pace over 26.2 miles is more similar to the sustained effort put forth in a long tempo session than to the quick energy bursts necessary to run short fast intervals. Second, since marathon pace more closely resembles tempo pace than interval pace, the specificity of training is higher when training at tempo speed because it teaches the body to practice at an effort close to what will be required on race day. Third, because running a marathon is almost entirely an aerobic exercise, it makes sense that we would have better results if we spend more of our time training under aerobic conditions (tempo training) rather in anaerobic conditions (interval training). The fourth, final, and in my mind the most important reason that tempo training is much more beneficial to marathoners than interval training is due to the fact that those of us who are pretty consistent runners and have done some racing/speedwork in the past are already running close to our physical VO2max anyway, so that the tiny incremental increase we might expect after intense interval training really doesn’t contribute that much to our overall running speed. (Remember that in practice, we spend very little time running close to our VO2max anyway, especially during a long endurance event like a marathon.) We get greater returns for our time and effort when we teach our bodies to become more efficient at oxygen transport and delivery, which is the crux of tempo training.

However, a word of caution. Although I’ve been singing the praises of tempo training and agree in principle that it should make up the bulk of speedwork during marathon training, a few interval sessions in between all the heavy miles can actually be quite helpful. Interval training not only reminds the body once in a while how to run fast (and yes the body operates on a use-it-or-lose-it physiologic model) but it also helps to correct posture and form problems when running (mainly because the body instinctively reverts to the most efficient running form when running at top speed). In fact, when I’m at the peak of marathon training and find myself running a lot of sluggish miles, I will often run an impromptu interval session to wake up the fast-twitch muscles, correct my posture and re-establish good running form. So yes, even if it plays second fiddle to tempo runs as far as marathon preparation goes, interval training is still important and deserves to be incorporated into every good marathon training program.

That concludes my introduction to speed training for marathoners. For those who are new to speed, I'd just like to say, What are you waiting for? For your sake, I hope I clarified the terms a bit and didn’t confuse things too much. (If I did, please ask either in the comments or by contacting me. Remember there are NO stupid questions!) In the next post, I’ll give examples of what I’ve done in terms of speedwork during marathon training and discuss a bit how to fit them into your own training plan. Thanks for reading and happy running.

For those who would like to read more into the topic of tempo training vs interval training as it relates to distance running, please visit the following sites for additional information:

Monday, May 18, 2009

Q&A: The Third Question – LSD Pacing
The Benefit of Training Slow(er)

Thanks all for your congrats and supportive comments on my 10K PR race report. For your sake I’m going to stop questioning why I run these short races as I inexplicably do well even when I don’t specifically train for them. What I am going to do instead is answer more reader questions…

Over the weekend, I received a question from a reader on marathon training that intrigued me a bit because it addresses something I feel I need to work on in my next training cycle. She asks…So what’s your take on the whole idea behind the long slow distance (LSD) runs. Using all the calculators, etc, they always say to do long runs pretty slow, much slower than I do them. How do you approach your long runs? Do you run them at the prescribed slow pace (30-45+ sec slower than marathon pace) or do you just run by feel and effort? I am never sore after my long runs, and don't quite get down to marathon pace until the end of them, but am I losing the whole idea behind them since I am not getting as much time on my feet?

Well, I did a bit of research on this one because I KNOW I have made similar mistakes in the past. Unless I’m running with a friend who’s slower than me, I always find myself running a lot faster than the recommended pace when I’m out for a long run. Sometimes it’s because it just feels easier to run faster. Other times it’s because I just want to get the torture test over with as quickly as possible. Most of the time though, I have to admit, it’s simply due to laziness and lack of focus on keeping a relaxed pace. Again, I have this addiction to speed sometimes that’s ready hard to get a hold of!

So why is this bad? Why is it not good to do your 20 mile runs at 7:10 pace if your goal pace is 6:52 and your recommended LSD pace is between 7:22 and 8:00 miles? Well, first you have to understand the intended benefits of an LSD, which Pfitzinger outlines here. If I were to incorporate all of these objective into a single theme, it’d be to increase the body’s ability to sustain peak performance for an extended period of time. The key thing to realize is that the LSD is meant to be a constructive, rather than a destructive mechanism of training. What this means is that in the theoretical sense, you are supposed to have more muscle mass at the end of your LSD than at the beginning, which in essence means your body should be actively recovering while you’re running! So if you’re running your long runs at a pace that is faster than your muscle recovery pace, you’re engaging your aerobic system to bring down glycogen and destroying muscle fibers which essentially defeats the purpose of an LSD. Does this make sense? (This is not to be confused with marathon-pace training which is meant to be a hard race simulation type of workout that should be part of the race preparation phase of training and not the endurance building phase which an LSD is meant to be a part of.)

A second reason to keep the effort slow on your LSD is to decrease the necessary recovery time from this workout to the next. What is the point of running an LSD run hard (an oxymoron of sorts?) if it will take you a couple of days to recover and create a hiccup in your marathon training? Again, it goes back to the idea of keeping LSD as a constructive run rather than a destructive one (like intervals and tempo runs)

A third reason why it’s helpful to hold back your pace on LSDs, or so I’ve learned, is to simulate the situation on race day when you must similarly restrain your effort during the early miles even though you’re feeling so great and strong right after the long taper. It’s an opportunity to learn discipline and focus, which as I’ve come to learn, is so very important for success in a long distance race, such as a marathon. Finally, as the mileage increases, from 16 to 18 to 20 to 22 and perhaps 24 miles, the long run pace should feel appropriately hard by the end. If it isn’t, and you find yourself having to fight through the slow pace even after the 20 and 22 miles, your marathon race pace may need some adjusting.

Going forward, my recommendation and my plan for surviving the LSD, is to follow instructions and hold back the pace for the first half before gradually speeding up to about MP +10-20 seconds/mile in the second half. I will probably resort to running with others for the first half in order to keep my heart rate at a conversational pace and running the rest on my own if I want to finish somewhat faster. I can’t and I shouldn’t trust myself to run by effort and feel anymore for these LSD runs.

Thanks to the reader for her question. I hope this was somewhat informative. (For those who would like to know what their appropriate long run pace should be based on your marathon goal and/or a recent race performance, you can plug your numbers in the McMillan Calculator or the Training Calculator at Runners’ World.)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Defining “Good”
Race Report for the Healthy Kidney 10K

We interrupt this ongoing Q&A series to bring you a special report…A race report! Only this isn’t just any old report about any old race. It’s my own personal reflections on the Healthy Kidney 10K that took place this morning. Why is this race so important? Well, for one thing it is a professional race which draws a lot of international runners from all over the world, all vying for the $20K top prize for first place. For another, it is a points race for all the New York area running clubs. This means that the top dogs from all the local running clubs will be racing against each other to score points for their team and bragging rights over all the other clubs. Every year, this race gets so competitive that I’ve heard it referenced as The Throwdown in Central Park, The Rumble in Manhattan and The Six Mile Mayhem, just to name a few. For those in my running club who care about such things, it was important that I ran this race since by default and not by choice, I’m considered one of the top dogs in my club. For me, however, I was running this race with a slightly different agenda.

Pre-Race Agenda
Unbeknownst to most other people because it happened Thursday in a dark underground bar out of earshot of most everyone else, a friend and fellow Flyer announced to me that I needed to be yelled at. This was somewhat curious to me since I hadn’t been yelled at out in public since the time I was at a bar and offered to run around an NYC block with an open can of beer only to be stopped by a cop standing right outside the front steps. I asked my friend what about my running offended her so, and she told me that I need to be yelled at for never acknowledging that I’m a “good” runner. “Oh, that again!”, I thought. I don’t quite remember what else she said (because I was already semi-drunk, not because I wasn’t paying attention) but I’m guessing it was about taking what I have for granted and about never being satisfied with my race results and race times. I know she was concerned because it seems like I’ve been racing so much this spring that I haven’t even allowed my body to physically heal after Boston. She probably senses my frustration at the diminishing returns I’ve seen in my spring races thus far, even if by other objective criteria, all my race times would be considered “good.”
I thought about her words for a long time that night and the next day (probably more than I ought to for a passing comment), trying to figure out if I had somehow lost my perspective as a runner. If I’m a marathoner, why am I so adamant on racing and performing well at all these short distance events. If I’m not, then I should stop pretending and just concentrate on the short stuff. All this switching between marathons, half-marathons, 4 milers and now a 10K is taking a physical toll on my body and leaving my mind a bit fatigued. Right now I feel I have my feet in both camps and as a result is really a master of none. So, I made up my mind the day before this race that I would use this 10K as a litmus test for my short distance racing. It had been exactly a year since the last time I ran a 10K, which coincidentally was also at this same race last year, and I wanted to see if I could put forth a good effort despite having run two grueling races in the previous two weeks and having had no time to train for this race. Last year I PR’d at this race and completed the last goal in my running Trifecta. This year I vowed to PR again if only to prove that my short game is up to par with my longer ones and I shouldn’t give up on running the shorter races just yet.

Race Morning
I woke up this morning especially jazzed for a good run. I had eaten the right foods, hydrated like a fish out of water, and slept like a boar the night before. I thought I gave myself plenty of time to get over to the start but still found myself scrambling to be on time. No matter, I thought to myself. I had eaten breakfast and gotten a good bottle of Gatorade in me on my way over so I knew I was fueled sufficiently for a good race. The weather was unseasonably mild on race morning which made conditions perfect for running. Unlike yesterday afternoon when it was sunny and hot when I went over to Randall’s Island for my easy 4 mile pre-race jog, there was a light breeze and plenty of cloud cover by the time I made it to my starting corral. Because the weather reports early this morning predicted rain in the late afternoon, the possibility of the skies opening up never really crossed my mind.

At The Start
I exchanged pleasantries with a few of the faster Flyer guys, and situated myself a couple of rows behind them. Although I’m miraculously a BLUE (first) corral runner today, I feel like anything but when I’m surrounded by the colored singlets of other racing clubs in the tri-state area. I perhaps should have dropped back to the RED (second) corral since I’m not as competitive as all the others and would feel less intimidated there, but by the time I recognized my lapse in judgment, the corrals had already collapsed, we were moving forward and the final instructions were being announced. Oh well, no choice now but to buckle down and run my own race. If my friend were listening, I’d offer her another reason why I’m not “good”. I feel so uncomfortable next to other runners who are!

The Race by Miles
Mile 1 - As soon as the horn sounded, I forgot about my own agenda and started to run. At first, I followed the pack around me as they scooted and danced around some slower runners. Although the field was packed with 7500+ participants, it wasn’t long before I found comfortable running space and hit my stride. I left my group and allowed others to pass. I was careful not to burst out of the gate but kept as much in the tank as I could running comfortably up the West Side. It was slightly discouraging to see packs of runners streaming by as I stuck to my own easy effort and resisted the gravitational pull of all the faster runners surging past. In my mind, I fooled myself into thinking I wasn’t racing against anyone but against the higher purpose of my own internal clock. [Mile 1 – 5:59]

Mile 2 – I was beyond shocked when I saw my time for Mile 1. My, oh my, this pace is faster than my start for last week’s 4 miler! This is against race protocol. Abort mission now! I warned myself as I fought like hell to gradually decrease the speed. The pacing plan as I had envisioned it before starting the race was to go out a bit below PR pace (6:20), keep it steady through the 5K, climb through Mile 4 with as little deviation as possible than burn down Cat Hill and sprint the last mile to an awesome finish, a PR, and a negative split. I was a bit disappointed that I ran out so fast but was intrigued that the effort and the pace felt so comfortable. I hear someone call out my name on the sideline and it startles me. I didn’t recognize the voice but felt grateful that even amongst this field of giants, little old me is not so anonymous. A little drizzle began to fall as I carefully maneuvered my way over to a water table to grab a drink. Being as uncoordinated as ever, by the time I got to pinching the top and taking a sip, barely any water remained. I tossed the cup away in frustration and continued back on the road. [Mile 2 – 6:11]

Mile 3 - This pace is better, but still not what I imagined I would be running here. Where was this speed when I needed it last weekend at the 4 miler? Instead of getting upset, I decide mid-race to see the bright side of things. My lightning quick first two miles means I’m about forty seconds ahead of PR pace. Wahoo! Suddenly, the rain which began as a light drizzle in the middle of mile 2 turned into a monsoon-like downpour! I’m charging up and down the first portion of Harlem Hill, trying to tread through the wet treacherous pavement as carefully as I can. I tell myself not to get flustered but remain calm even as I’m starting to feel the wetness affecting my stride. Miraculously, within five minutes, the rain disappears just as suddenly as it came. "Instant air conditioning," I thought as I crossed the mile 3 marker. [Mile 3 – 6:20]

Mile 4 – Just as the rain stops, I begin the climb up the second portion of Harlem Hill. From reviewing my race report and notes from last year, I knew this was going to be the hardest mile of the entire course. Not only is there an elevation gain of more than 70 feet right at the outset, there are a number of smaller climbs throughout this trek which draws comparisons to the Newton Hills of the Boston Marathon Course condensed into a single mile. Last year, I labored through this mile in 6:46, some 29 seconds slower than the previous mile, and 23 seconds above my average pace for the race. This year, I was more much prepared and used some of the energy I had kept in reserve in the earlier miles to maintain a faster and steadier pace. I saw some Flyer supporters right at the mile marker which thrilled me to no end. I gave them a thumbs up sign as I triumphantly strolled through. [Mile 4 – 6:30]

Mile 5 – I knew I was supposed to fly through this mile with Cat Hill close by and the end not too far ahead, but since I knew by now that I was in store for a big PR day, I didn’t have the heart to be reckless and tempt fate by running too fast and risking a leg cramp. I considered myself fortunate that up until now, my right hamstring and knee, which had given me trouble in varying degrees in my past two races, have been functioning admirably without complaint. Even through the rolling gauntlet of the Central Park Hills, my body was passing through injury-free. I was grateful and very happy. It didn’t matter to me that a few guys and gals were speeding past me now. I am on cloud 9, keeping the effort, tempering my pace, and running my own race, on my way to a grand PR. [Mile 5 – 6:17]

Mile 6 and The Finish – Alas, even knowing you’re near the end, the last mile and change can be quite grueling. I feel the culmination of general fatigue from running three races in three consecutive weeks and find the gas tank somewhat empty to fuel a final kick. A few runners pass me in the interim. A quarter mile later, I pass some of them right back as I am determined to run strong to the finish. The distance markers pass by deceptively slow. 800m to go…400m…I dig deep and hold off the surge of a female runner trying to pass me. 200m…I see the fluorescent digits on the clock above the finish line flicker 39:00 and realize that I’m within striking distance of sub-39. I drive my arms, lengthened the stride and quicken the pace in a mad dash toward the finish. I clench my teeth and fist and absorb the cheers from the crowd as I completely empty the tank and power through the final meters. Once over the mat, I slump over on the side, collect my breath and check the Garmin. The time 38:59 smiles back at me. I had done it! [Mile 6 – 6:21; Last .2 – 1:16]

Final Race Statistics
Finishing Time – 38:59 (0:45 PR!)
Average Pace – 6:17 min/mi
Overall Place – 253/7532 (3.4%)
Age Group Place – 48/1669 (2.9%)
Age Group % - 69.6
NY Flyers Rank – 6

Final Assessment
Just to give you all a sense of how competitive this race was, compare my result this week to that of last week. Last week, I didn't even run a PR but ended up in 33rd place overall. This week, I ran a big PR and ended up my own age group! Wow, how crazy!
Still, I’m quite proud of my performance in this race since it is my 3rd PR in my past 5 races and second in the last three weeks. Despite not scoring for my running club (top five individual times score) and not pulling off a negative split, it really was a good confidence booster for me as I head toward the summer. (On a side note, I am also psyched that I finally completed one of the goals for the Laminator Pentathalon I invented as part my 2009 Running Resolutions – 10K in 39:00. Wahoo!)
As for the question of whether I’m as “good” in the short races as I am in the longer ones, I think it remains to be answered. I think I still have so much to learn in both arenas that I know I haven’t as yet discovered my full potential. “Good” just isn’t something I’m willing to entertain as long as I know there’s room for improvement.
One of my other friends told me at the finish after hearing about my PR today that even if I’m not the fastest runner he knows, I’m definitely the most versatile. My response to him: Dude, you just don’t know enough runners =P

Have a great weekend everyone and thanks for reading my race report!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Q&A: The Second Question
The Importance of Base Training

The second question I’m choosing for my Q&A comes from a reader who just trained for and ran a spring half-marathon. She asks, “Now that I’ve completed my half and am so ready to tackle the full marathon distance, what should I focus on for the next month before my 16 week marathon training program kicks off in the middle of June? On the one hand I feel as if I should recover a bit before starting marathon training, but on the other hand I don’t want to drop down my mileage and lose the fitness that I have now. What strategy would you recommend?”
Let me start by acknowledging that since no two runners are built the same or have the same training history, there are going to be varying opinions on this subject. Although I will share my personal perspectives on the matter (since the reader wanted a response from me), I don’t claim my approach to be the only or even the best way. I encourage the reader to pursue more authoritative resources than what I can provide to find a more definitive answer to her question.
The way I see it, a successful marathon training program consists of four phases: base training, endurance training, speedwork, and the taper. The work done in each of the four training categories complement each other to build a stronger and faster distance runner. In my mind, the phase that is most neglected is the base building stage. At least some, if not most, of us do not readily take the time to build a strong running foundation of ~30 miles per week before we embark on full marathon training. As runners, we would much rather skip the mundane warm-up or recovery miles than deal with aimless and spontaneous running that seemingly has no purpose. However, I’d argue that the slow maintenance base mileage not only serves as an effective starting point for full marathon training but offers the mind a slight psychological reprieve between training cycles as well. Remember that “wherever the mind goes, the body will follow” and that the mental training is just as important as the physical one.
The key to remember is that during base training, miles are meant to be run very slowly. Speed workouts are optional, if not strongly discouraged during this phase. In fact, in the strictest sense, there should be no racing whatsoever in this invisible first month of marathon training. The physiologic reason is that maintenance miles facilitates and builds slow-twitch muscle fibers which offers the athletes stamina and endurance while racing encourages the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers which allows one to run much faster but also burnout much quicker too. Since base training is meant to provide a general framework upon which subsequent and more specific distance targeted training is built, having muscles that can sustain longer workouts is much preferred.
So more specifically, I would recommend that my reader take about a month to transition from half-marathon to full marathon training. During this base training month, there should be about 4-5 runs a week (3 short runs during week with a longer run on weekend) with a total mileage goal of about half of what you expect peak mileage to be during training. Again, time and pace isn’t so important, so feel free to leave the watch at home. The goal is to set up a schedule of consistent runs during the week and allow the body a period of adjustment. The smoother this transition, the less chance of injury later on when the miles get longer, the pace gets quicker and the training in general gets tougher.
Hope this answers the question to some degree. The only caveat I’d throw out there is that I’m such a fan of the short distance race that I find myself not adhering to the “no racing during base training” rule, even though I know it somewhat defeats the purpose. Oh well, what can I say? Do as I say, not as I do? I’m just answering the question from the perspective of a newer runner who isn’t so comfortable with the marathon distance or the training. The rest of us who are more experienced will always have our own personal biases on how we like to train. Now, I know there are many other opinions on the importance of base mileage training, so feel free to chime in.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Q&A: The First Question
Racing Back-To-Back Marathons

Now that I’m officially DONE reporting on my running of the 113th Boston Marathon and DONE writing about my races (half-marathon PR, and 4-Miler not so PR), I’m going to take a break from talking about MY running by instead talking about YOUR running. In other words, I’m going to spent the next couple of posts addressing some reader questions I’ve received over the past month. I’ll start with ones that the most people have asked about and move on to ones that I find most interesting. Hopefully, you’ll find them somewhat insightful or entertaining, even if they are not useful…

The first one I’m going to tackle involves a scenario that is common to all of us marathoners. The basic premise: You set your sights on a hard but realistic goal for a particular marathon (For me: Sub-3; for reader: BQ). You develop a training plan and train your heart out for said goal. You feel ready for race day. However, during the marathon, something happens (an unexpected injury, GI issues, bad weather, bad running karma, etc) and you feel short of your goal. You cross the finish line a bit disappointed, feeling as if you could’ve or should’ve run much better. Question: Can I recover well enough in the next 2, 3, or 4 weeks to try again in a backup marathon within the next month, or should I restart on a new training cycle to try again in a marathon next season? My body isn’t so sore and I don’t want to lose my fitness/training.

I’m sure everyone has had similar thoughts right after a marathon that didn’t quite meet expectations. I had them, this reader had them. Heck, even Kara Goucher had them. In fact, the day I got home after Boston, I was already scrounging through the marathon calendar trying to see if there’s another one I could run within a month. I knew intuitively that this was a bad idea, but I didn’t know why. Maybe Coach Salazar was just off…Kara could’ve run London 2 weeks after Boston, can’t she? I thought to myself at the time. I didn’t know. So I spent the next few couple of weeks thinking about it some more and here’s my take.

First of all, I think the minutes, hours and days right after a marathon is NOT the time to plan out next one, whether your experience during the race was good or bad. Your mind and body has just undergone the shock of running a really long and hard race and is not yet ready to make sound rational decisions. Secondly, I think running a marathon (if you ran at close to race pace) destroys the body in ways that we cannot fully appreciate. If you ever run a hard 10K or half-marathon a week or two out from your marathon, you’d know what I mean. Even though by then you’re walking around normally and feel somewhat “recovered” ,you find out 2 to 3 miles into your race that you are still fatigued and sore. That’s because different muscle fibers regenerate at different rates. So even though your larger muscle groups that carry out your normal daily activities have almost fully recovered, your smaller ones, which are recruited later on in the race, haven’t recovered at all since the marathon. Again, that’s why there’s a rule to take 26 days of rest for a 26 mile race. But what if you just walked a quarter or even half the marathon because of an issue, either injury, fatigue or GI upset, can that marathon count as just a training run so I can run another in a couple weeks or so? My response would still be no because it will likely cause more harm than good and you won’t know or realize until you’re caught in the mid-later miles of your second marathon.

Another thing to realize is that despite the significance of personal goals, the time standard is still an arbitrary number. That number is as important as we ourselves assign them to be. And since time is a continuum, there will be new time goals to shoot for once we are done with the current one. Whether it’s sub-3 or a BQ, the important thing is to enjoy the process of achieving those goals, and not be so caught up in the goal itself. Easier said than done, right? Yeah I know, but I’m working on it too.

My last point on this question is that we should never think our marathon training as wasted if we don’t achieve a particular time in the race. These training cycles are built on the success of a previous cycle. So even though the race result wasn’t up to par with the training, the training you have undergone will equip you well for your next cycle. That’s what I’m telling myself to motivate me for NYCM training in the next couple of months.

I hope I did some justice to that question. How do you guys feel about racing back-to-back marathons without a break? Let me hear you in the comments.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Bagging the PR for Beer and Sangria
Race Report for the R Baby Mother’s Day 4 Mile Race

If you had a choice between beer and sangria on a balcony versus a possible PR at a not-so-important 4M race the next day, which would you choose? Yeah, it was a no-brainer for me as well. So, it should come as no surprise to anyone that today’s Mother’s Day race wouldn’t be so stellar for me. Yet, despite breaking my pre-race abstinence rule the day before, forgetting to hydrate or eat afterwards, getting home past midnight, and rushing to the start with just an orange for breakfast, I STILL thought a PR could be possible. What can I say? I’m stubborn that way.

The astute among you should have realized by now that I’ve been racing somewhat frequently this past month. Given that I have not yet fully recovered from my crash and burn at the Boston Marathon three weeks ago, ran a half-marathon PR at Long Branch last week, and is now running this four-miler on Mother’s Day, that’s a whole lot of racing going on. I know practically, I should be resting this week in preparation for the bigger race, the Healthy Kidney 10K, happening next weekend, but realistically I just had to enter and run this race because the sponsor is R Baby and all proceeds go toward improving the quality of care of babies in emergency rooms all over the city. I have both worked and consulted on cases of babies being mishandled and misdiagnosed in emergency rooms because of lack of appropriate staffing and supervision and so the cause was near and dear to my heart. Because of that, I had to run this race no matter how inconvenient it might have be to the rest of my running schedule.

With that background, I arrived at the start with some angst and trepidation. The weather was perfect for running this morning-58 degrees with sunny skies and a cool westerly breeze. I met many of my friends (some who’ve never run a race before) at the entrance to the start, congratulated everyone for running, and situated myself in the front of the corrals.

By the time the squealing horn signaled the start of the race, I found myself somewhat boxed in on the side of the road. I waited for an opening to pass but never got a chance until we reached Cat Hill. I managed to find my pace somewhere during the climb, but my effort was somewhat harder than I expected. After cresting the hill, I eased my breathing through the net downhill second mile. Although my pace was somewhat better in this stretch, I still struggled to synchronous my breathing to my turnover. This was somewhat frustrating since I’m usually at my peak by the start of the second mile. Instead, here, with the tough hilly Mile 3 up ahead, I knew I was in trouble. I made the turn at the 102nd street Transverse knowing I was on PR pace but fading fast. I made it through the third mile as best I could, but never found the right breathing rhythm or the power to drive the hills that I’m accustomed to. As a result, I ran a very slow 3rd mile and by the end, knew a PR would not be in the works for me that day. I ran mile 4 in a semi-daze, feeling as if I had no energy to push. My legs were sore, perhaps as the aftermath of the 20+ miles I had ran Thursday and Friday, and just not responding to my commands to speed up. I could also still feel some mild tightness in my right hamstring which affected my stride. In the end, I sort of stumbled through the finish line rather than race through like I always imagined I would. The final time was 24:45, about 7 seconds slower than my PR. I’m slightly peeved, but knew I made many mistakes in the past 24 hours that affected my performance.

Oh well. Sometimes you have to allow yourself to live a little and not be a P.R. hog in EVERY race. I’ll do things right this week and prepare for a better performance in a more important race next Saturday.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mom’s out there. Soak in this beautiful day for all it’s worth.

Mile-by-Mile Splits:
Mile 1: 6:10
Mile 2: 6:05
Mile 3: 6:22
Mile 4: 6:08

Final Statistics:
Finishing Time - 24:45
Average Pace - 6:11
Overall Place - 33/4635
Age Group Place - 9
Age-Graded % - 68.8%

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Memories From My First Boston
The 2009 Boston Marathon Race Report
Part 5 – Beyond The Finish Line

Just to complete my race report, I’m going to share all that went on physically and psychologically after crossing the finish line. Although I no longer feel the same about these things as I did back then, I’m going to state the facts and emotions as truthfully as I can at that time for two reasons. First, I need to stay true to the report so you all can understand and appreciate how I was feeling at the time. Second, I want to capture the moment for my own sake so that a year and ten years from now, I will remember what I look and felt like after finishing my first Boston. (In other words, read for your own pleasure and discretion, but no need for the votes of sympathy afterwards…although as always, comments are appreciated!)

Without further adieu, I present to you the final chapter of the Boston Marathon race report.

After the Finish
By the time I arrive past the most famous finish line in all of marathoning, I was no longer in control of my physical self or my emotional self. Even as I was exhausted, hungry, fatigued, and cramping faster in more muscles in my legs than I could identify, I was pushing away all of the volunteers who were being so nice in offering all forms of assistance.

As I alternated between stretching and limping gingerly ahead, mentally I was still trying to figure what went wrong out there at mile 19.5 that so suddenly wiped away all the great pacing and racing that I had done up to that point. I just couldn’t understand how my physical body could have turned against me so quickly when it has always responded so well to adversity in training. When I finally had the energy to click my Garmin to find that I had missed my PR time by one second, I was devastated and almost started to cry. Luckily, at that same moment, a couple of the runners extended their hands for a congratulatory handshake, forcing me to collect my emotions temporarily and respond in kind.

The Quest for The Unicorn
I continued limping and limping and limping. I looked around, expecting someone to wrap a Mylar blanket around me and hand me my medal already. Unfortunately, although there were plenty of volunteers offering assistance to us finishers, there were no one handing out blankets or medals. I force myself to continue limping. At the one block mark, they hand us the post-race food and goodie bag. At the two block mark, they finally cover us with blankets. But where are our medals? I kept wanting to ask, but couldn’t force out the words in my fatigued state. Dammit, I just want my medal already! I kept thinking as I inched forward with the crowd. In my delirium, I found myself in such a panic, thinking that I had failed sub-3, failed to PR, and now won’t even get a medal to show for my efforts that I finally broke down and cried. After that point, everything became somewhat of a blur, as I allowed the tears and the sweat to cloud my vision and drain some of the frustration and emotion that had building all day. Right there and then, I told myself that I never want to run another marathon ever again even as I knew that I would break that promise as soon as I got the opportunity.

Eventually after limping and walking for what seemed like an hour, but in actuality was only four blocks, I got directed to the side of the procession where a volunteer removed my chip from my shoe and finally hung a medal around my neck. I was so relieved to finally get my unicorn ornament that I kissed it as soon as I got it! I’m not sure if it was justified, but it was one of the most sentimental moments I’d ever had in my life. I became much happier afterwards as I congratulated everyone else around me on their accomplishments and thanked the volunteers who were all still cheering and offering as much assistance as they could.

It had gotten cloudy and cold all of a sudden. I was shivering as I walked to the baggage buses where I was handed my dropoff bag with my warm and dry clothes. I picked a location towards the back of the bus and proceeded to change everything right there on the spot. It took a long time to negotiate my cramping legs out of my race shorts and into long warmup pants. As I was changing, I selectively hear all the runners around me regale each other with their PR stories and race times much faster than me and I couldn’t help but be jealous and disappointed once again. Even after I finished changing, I stayed where I was for another ten, fifteen minutes to listen in on some spontaneous race reports and soak in the post-race atmosphere.

Leaving Boston
The biting wind and dropping temperatures became somewhat harder to bear as the afternoon wore on. After I had recovered physically and psychologically enough to move again, I pampered myself a bit and got a post-race massage before walking back to the hotel for the longest and most relaxing post-race shower I’d ever taken. By the time I was done, it had been about two hours since I had crossed the finish line and F.L. texted to say she was just now done with her race was waiting for me at the hotel lobby. I hurried down to meet her. We grabbed a quick bite at the Au Bon Pain around the corner and did our best Amazing Race impression by rushing over to South Station to catch the last bus out of Boston to NYC that day. While FL slept most of the way back to town, my mind was somewhere else, thinking about all that had happened, and how I would never ever forget my first Boston.

Wrapping Up
In the end, looking back at all that transpired on race weekend, I had a great experience traveling to Boston and running the marathon there for the first time. The people I met all around town were friendly and nice; the volunteers were spectacular, enthusiastic and very helpful; the crowds all along the course were energetic and lively (especially when I needed them the most at 19.5), and the race organization and logistics were top-notch and efficient in every imaginable way. Even though I personally did not have the best race performance, I can say without a doubt that everyone should have the opportunity to run this race just once in their lives. To be out there, amongst the crowd, running the ultimate distance with the best athletes in the sport, really gives you a sense of honor and accomplishment that cannot be easily translated to words. I feel tremendously privileged to have participated in this event and have no regrets about how I prepared or ran my race. I hope in future years when I can no longer sustain the level of fitness and training necessary to qualify for this race, I can look back and be proud of my performance here as well as inspire others to do the same in their own races.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Halfway to Redemption
Race Report from the Long Branch Half Marathon

Before I conclude my thoughts and give a synopsis of what went on after I crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon, let me take a short break (from what some are calling my own narcissistic pity party) and tell you all about the half-marathon I ran this weekend. Now, I know there are many who question my decision to run this race so soon after Boston. In fact, a concerned blogger last week e-mailed to ask “Um, Lam, what kind of recovery program is this?” But I figured that since I’ve run this race once before (see Exhibit A – last year’s race report) and know that the course is pancake flat plus the fact that many of my friends would be out there running either the full or the half with me, I could just do this as a fun run if I really didn’t feel well and still enjoy myself. Besides, if the weather cooperated, there was the possibility of turning race day into a full beach day. Now, how fun would that be? So yeah, in the end, the decision to run this race was really a no-brainer.

Heading Down to the Jersey Shore
Because Long Branch is located in the southern New Jersey as part of the Jersey Shore, it is actually quite far away from the city. On race morning, those of us traveling down from NYC had to wake up at 3-4am to take the 5AM NJ Transit train that would take us to a station that was within walking distance of the start of the race. Although I had only about 4 hours of sleep the night before and couldn’t doze off on the train for the life of me, I was still feeling quite awake and ready to race by the time we got to Long Branch. I dropped off my bag at the expo, went to a portapotty one last time, and headed over to the race start. Since there were no corrals or waves or even designated pace markers, I was anxious to start near the front to avoid the inevitable congestion after the gun goes off. On my stroll over to the front from the back, I ran into JoyRun, who was running the full marathon. We chatted for only a few seconds because the scheduled start was only minutes away and I needed to find my buddies near the front. Little did I know that once I carefully situate myself where I thought I should be near the front of the pack, there was a 28 minute delay to the start of the race. Apparently, there was an accident on one of the roads we’d be running through. So we had to wait for a police escort to guide them out and re-clear the roads before starting. After many false-starts and more stalling by the M.C., the countdown finally ensued at 7:58AM. A few moments later, we were off and running!

Miles 1-5
Winds and rains dominated the weekend forecast for much of the northeast, and we knew even before we arrived that Long Branch would be the same. Although the rains hadn’t yet officially come in by the start of the race, it started to sprinkle by mile 2 and continued to rain off and on pretty much the entire day. Knowing that I was facing a bad weather day and with my physical recovery from the marathon not fully complete, I established very modest expectations for myself at the beginning of this race. My goal was simply to redeem myself somewhat from my disappointment at Boston by proving that I am a better runner now than I was last year. In order to do that, I wanted to run this exact race in almost the exact weather at a faster time. For reference, I ran this race in 1:27:28 (6:40 avg pace) in last year’s race, which at the time was a 28 second PR for me. I also wanted to implement my new half-marathon racing strategy of running the first ten miles at a good and comfortable pace before gradually picking it up in the last 5K until I’m running at top speed by the last 1.1 mile. I have learned from my early 2009 race experiences that this racing style not only lends itself to fast and strong finishing times when the plan is well executed but it also trains the body to run negative splits over the long haul. Anything beyond these goals would just be more icing on the proverbial cake.

Early on in this race, even though I felt I was letting the elites take off while consciously holding back to run within myself, the first mile still ended a bit too fast for me. But instead of carrying through and holding on to this blistering pace like I’m apt to do in previous races, I slowed myself down purposely to a more manageable pace over the next two miles. By mile 4, I felt I had hit my zone and was happy with where I was in terms of my leg cadence, heart rate and breathing. Traveling behind a pack of three younger girls who were running side-by-side a few steps in front of me, I was quite comfortable just to stay where I was, take in the scenery and just drift. By the end of mile 5, almost unintentionally, I realized I was carrying a PR pace and feeling great.

Mile 1 – 6:12
Mile 2 – 6:23
Mile 3 – 6:27
Mile 4 – 6:33
Mile 5 – 6:33

Miles 6-10
Unfortunately, somewhere in mile 6, when the rain started to get heavy and I found myself having to dodge puddles on the street, my right hamstring and knee started acting up again. The involved muscles, which were the same one as those that cramped during the Boston marathon, weren’t actively screaming so much as just merely complaining and letting me know that racing a half marathon less than two weeks after racing a full really isn’t such a good idea. Sadly, I had to let the girls go as well as about a dozen other runners as I forced myself to decrease my cadence to a turnover rate that would appease my right leg. Again, I had to deal with the awkward feeling of allowing my legs to dictate what my heart and lungs couldn’t in the middle of a race. It took me about three miles to get readjusted to this new slower pace. By mile 9, as I rode the only blip in elevation for the entire course and passing back a few people, I gradually realize that my legs were no longer being so disagreeable. I charge the hill a bit harder and take the descent a bit faster. I take a GU in three bites and anticipate slowly speeding up and taking control of the last 5K.

Mile 6 – 6:42
Mile 7 – 6:45
Mile 8 – 6:45
Mile 9 – 6:39
Mile 10 – 6:35

Miles 11-13.1
I had wanted someone to focus on overtaking as I prepared to run the last 5K progressively faster than the miles before. But since we were so spread out by this point that I haven’t been in shouting distance of passing or being passed in the last mile and half, I turn inwardly for my motivation to keep running faster. Luckly, the last couple miles of the course is sort of out-and-back, allowing me to see and interact with runners at mile 6-8 on the other side of the double yellow line as they came toward me. Honestly, I was running too fast to pick out any recognizable faces amidst the crowd, but I must have heard my name being called out at least a dozen times within that mile. I felt bad not knowing sometimes who called me but figured I’d thank them later when they identified themselves. I did get to see JoyRun again, looking strong running her marathon, which was so inspiring to see. Eventually, I crossed the bridge, made a left and found myself on the boardwalk again bounding for home. Once I knew I was on the cusp of a great race with only a mile or so left to go, I dropped the hammer and ran as fast as I could down the straightaway to the finish line. Although there was no one to pass and my footing was precarious on the wet pavement, I finish the race strong and with fervor. I can say I held nothing back in that final mile and finished with a much better time than I expected…and a new half-marathon PR!

Mile 11 – 6:29
Mile 12 – 6:27
Mile 13.1 – 6:40 (6:03 pace)

Final Statistics
Gun Time – 1:25:22
Chip Time – 1:25:16 (PR by 0:28)
Average Pace - 6:30 min/mi
Overall Place – 34/4636 (0.7%)
Age Group Place – 7/282 (2.5%)

The funny thing about these results was the fact that even though I achieved my goal and ran almost 2 and a half minutes faster this year than last, my age group placement remained exactly the same and my overall placement dropped by 8 places! Seriously? Is racing really getting that much more popular or do the really fast guys just intuitively know which races I’m entered in so they can gang up and make me feel generally incompetent. Haha! I am loving and savoring my new PR because I think it was well-earned and legitimizes my contention that I’m a better runner this year than I was last year (and still improving!), but still, I can’t help but wonder what I’d ever have to do to have a chance to hang with the top dogs.

Congrats to all the road warriors who ran such great races this weekend. There are a lot of great race reports out there this week (and too many for me to even attempt listing them all). I’m getting excited to move on from Boston in anticipation of my next marathon just reading you guys.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Memories From My First Boston
The 2009 Boston Marathon Race Report
Part 4 – Heartbreak, The Last 10K, and The Finish

Mile 19 – A Mile of Calm
After conquering two of the four notable Newton Hills, I know I am half-way done tackling the toughest portions of the course. Although my pace had slipped to a few seconds about 7 minutes the past two miles and my heart rate began drifting about 170 for the first time in the race, I continue to run calm and steady, knowing the push to the finish is just two miles and two small speed bumps to go. The road levels to a gradual downhill at this portion of the course, allowing my legs a short reprieve and the opportunity to regain my form and stride. With Heartbreak Hill looming so large in the distance, I do not dare speed up like some of my comrades who were using this decline as an excuse to surge ahead. “Either they are veterans and are accelerating here by design or they are amateurs heading for a cataclysmic blowup in the next mile or two. I’ll find out soon enough!” I thought to myself as I shot them a glance as they passed by. The crowd is thicker now and louder than I remember them a few miles back. Some of the college kids were offering us beer disguised in cups meant to hold beverages of another sort. Unlike earlier when the frequent interactions between marathoners and spectators made running near the sidelines somewhat entertaining, few runners here were paying any mind to the roaring crowds spilling onto the course like crashing waves over a sandy shore. In my head, I hear nothing but my own synchronous footfalls hitting pavement as I follow the running caravan due east toward Boston. (Statistics: Mile 19 – 6:58; Overall Time – 2:09:33 Overall Pace – 6:49)

Mile 20 – A Physical Lockdown
Since Rover the Garmin hadn’t yet learned to report exact distances (or accurate paces for that matter) and I lost all ability to do math after about the first mile, I’m not sure what my overall pace is at this point in the race. However, as I pass by the mile 19 marker and see the next hill a bit further off in the distance, I know I am still south of goal pace by a few seconds per mile. However, I also know that I will need to avoid catastrophe scaling Heartbreak if I am to have any shot at breaking 3. The sun has climbed a bit higher in the sky, but it struggles to fight off the wind, which has also gotten stronger as morning gives way to midday. I make my way down Commonwealth Avenue and quickly arrive at the foot of the third Newton Hill. I lift my eyes, see the crest and quickly realize that this ascent is fairly short. “No big deal. A Cat Hill!” I mutter to myself as I begin the climb. Looking straight at the top while imagining myself as a gazelle, I scale the hill triumphantly and eagerly anticipate what’s to come next. Because the back side of this hill is speedy, narrow and straight, many runners are galloping past me like thoroughbreds chasing for the top prize. I was already planning my tactical assault on Heartbreak when a sudden jolt of intense pain in my right back leg stops me dead in my tracks. The awkward sensation was so unexpected that it took a few seconds for the neuronal message to register. Apparently, right here at mile 19.7, without any previous foreshadowing or pain, my right hamstring, the one that was slightly strained many weeks ago when I ran the last mile of a tempo run too fast, inexplicably decides to lock up on me and throw a tantrum. Within two seconds flat, I am transformed from a free running gazelle to a stand alone mannequin, unable to make the slightest movement with my right leg. I am embarrassed and petrified. As my mind desperately searches for answers, I lift my leg to take a step but find the shockwaves of intense pain radiating throughout my entire right leg simply too excruciating to bare. Beyond the cacophony of footsteps scampering every which way around me, I hear voices from the crowd yelling my number, urging me to “Walk it off!” and “Stretch It Out!” For a few seconds, while instinctively stretching and massaging my right hamstring, I think about admitting defeat, calling it quits and limping off the course. After all, the NJ Marathon is in a couple weeks and if I can figure out what went wrong and recover well enough, I can just chalk this up as a hard training run and try again for sub-3 there. Best of all, since I’m completely anonymous amongst these runners and spectators anyway, no one has to know! But as soon as the thoughts became coherent, I remember all of my bloggy friends back home who are right now tracking me. I remember the sign that Margo prepared and sent me the night before. I remember my running friends who have used my journey to Boston as inspiration for their own running. I remember F.L. who is dealing with injury issues of her own and running this race with me anyway. Most of all, I remember the race I am running in and know I’d never forgive myself if I DNF’d my first Boston. Besides, what am I going to do, throw away my celebration jacket and just pretend I never came? So, soon after I stopped, I make a new promise to myself that no matter what, no matter how, I am bringing this sorry body, crummy leg and all, across that damn finish line! Miraculously, once I realize that quitting was no longer an option, I feel my body relax, which allowed the tension in my right leg to dissipate. I am still in throbbing pain, but can almost as a dare force myself to take a few steps. Upon realizing that I did not crumble to the ground like I had feared, I begin to walk very gingerly as best I could. And after walking slowly for what seemed like another eternity, when in actuality was only 5-10 seconds, I begin to wonder how long it’d take me to walk the remaining 6.5 miles to the finish and how long it’d take my left leg to stiffen up too once I am walking. So I force myself to start running again. I define “running” extremely loosely in this context because although in theory I am carrying my body from point A to B as fast as I can given the circumstance, in practice, my forward motion compares more favorably to an interpretation of the triple jump (hop, skip, and a jump) than a run by any stretch of the imagination. It must have been quite an inspirational sight to see because once I began moving, the ovation I received from the generous crowd of marathon spectators was louder and more boisterous than any I’ve ever gotten for anything I’ve ever done in my life! (Statistics: Mile 20 – 7:47; Overall Time – 2:17:20 Overall Pace 6:52

Mile 21 – The Heartbreak Hill
I blink twice hard once I see the digits from the horrific mile flash across the Garmin display. I climb Heartbreak with the knowledge that quest for sub-3 is officially over. I am disappointed in myself even as I know there really wasn’t much I could do about it. My troublesome hamstring continues to throb with each uncertain step as I make my way up the hill that has gradually become synonymous with my outlook on the race itself. It feels somewhat anti-climatic to be running up this historic landmark now that the pace and time no longer matter for me. Although many has described it as the longest uphill mile you’ve ever run, my review of this mile is rather modest, as it closely resembles the 5th Avenue Mile at Mile 23 of the NyC Marathon, only that it’s less steep and quite a bit shorter than it’s NYC counterpart. It is also somewhat less decorated than I’d imagined as I hardly even know I was there until I was at the top staring at a sign in the crowd that read “It’s All Downhill From Here”. To be honest, I was somewhat disappointed upon reaching the summit since I was expecting more and had so much left to give than what the numbers would show afterwards. (Statistics: Mile 21 – 7:24; Overall Time – 2:24:44 Overall Pace – 6:53)

Mile 22 - The Graveyard Mile
Once over the top, I see the city skyline unfold off in the distance and feel again the palpable excitement of the crowd. There is a festive atmosphere here as the runners all around me celebrate their conquest of Heartbreak by tearing down the steep and lengthy descent. I cannot join in the revelry with my slow and awkward gait so I slide off to the side to avoid the impending stampede. As the multitudes run conveniently by, I see and feel the derogatory stares from runners I had passed many miles back. I thwart their glances and turn my head. A thousand uninhabited tombstones follow my gaze and greet me as I scamper painfully by. I curse myself and wonder aloud why I’m hurting so bad and being subjected to such ridicule and shame. (Statistics: Mile 22 – 6:57; Overall Time – 2:31:41; Overall Pace – 6:53)

Mile 23 – Beacon, Brookline, and Misery
It is becoming cloudy and cold as I turn onto Beacon Street and enter the town of Brookline. Despite the harsh headwinds impeding our arrival into this suburban town, the last of its kind before Boston, the locals around here don’t seem to mind. They are grilling burgers out on second floor balconies and dancing in the streets to loud music pumping out of frat houses and bars. The roar of the crowd lined four to five deep is almost deafening as we approach closer and closer to our destination. Unfortunately for me, despite their affectionate outpourings of support and wild displays of joyful exuberance, I have just about given up on my race by this point. My leg is crampy, my quads are burnt, my gait is uneven and awful, and my pace is unrecognizable to me. The only solace I have is the knowledge that I’ll be done with marathons for a while after the next few miles. I try again to speed up beyond a comfortable pace with the intention of getting this torture test over and done with ASAP but my hamstring seizes up in anticipation of a preeminent cramp. I return reluctantly to a slow manageable pace even as I know from experience that my heart and lungs are capable of so much more. (Statistics: Mile 23 – 7:26; Overall Time – 2:39:07; Overall Pace – 6:55)

Mile 24 – An Emotional Ride
I continue on through Beacon St, running almost in fumes. I am hurt, angry, depressed, disappointed and extremely tired. For the life of me, I cannot imagine why I ever thought THIS would be fun. As I am about to slip further and further away from the marathon and the crowds and into my own world of pain and self-loathing, I remind myself to speak to the one person who never fails to bring clarity and perspective to mile 24 of every single marathon I’ve run. I have a secret and emotional rendezvous with my sister who I can see and hear most clearly when I’m at my worst. I start by telling her about my life, my running, what has changed and how it’s changed since the last time we met at mile 24. She listens attentively while I discuss with her why I think running this race and inspiring others to do the same has made me a better man. Despite my physical pain which is making this spiritual conversation more difficult than I’d imagined, I ask for her forgiveness that I have forgotten the main reason I run marathons which is so I can share these silent, powerful and private conversations with her that no one can listen to or see. My sister does not communicate with an audible voice, but I feel her presence none the same. She wants me to know that I am a good runner and a good man, like none other she’s seen. She tells me she’s proud to be a sister of a Boston marathoner, just like I should be of myself, and urges me to seize the moment and run as happy and as free as I can. Before reaching the next marker and leaving this conversation behind, I say a prayer of gratitude, tell sis I’ve really missed having her around, dry my eyes with the underside of the bandanna on my forehead and return to the race with a renewed fervor and attitude. (Statistics: Mile 24 – 7:27; Overall Time – 2:46:34; Overall Pace – 6:56)

Mile 25 – The CITGO sign
I finally arrive at downtown Boston where the giant CITGO sign up ahead shines against the dark and overcast sky like a giant beacon of effervescent light guiding us toward the finish line. The headwind which started as a breeze coming over Heartbreak has gotten significantly worse as the afternoon wears on. By this point, everyone is his own worse enemy as I see more than a few runners walking and limping off to the side. I myself am caught in no man’s land as I alternate between running, shuffling and waddling. The sharp cramps in my leg have subsided to a constant but dull gnawing pain as I struggle against my better judgment to finish off the race. Kenmore Square and the legendary Fenway Park pass me by but I can no longer lift my eyes to enjoy the majestic scenery. All I can afford to think about is putting one foot in front of the other in whatever gait that won’t aggravate the right leg and getting to the CITGO sign that seems to be moving deceptively further away from me with each and every step. (Statistics: Mile 25 – 7:28; Overall Time – 2:54:02; Overall Pace – 6:57)

Mile 26 and The Last .2 – The Final Push
Eventually, I arrive at the CITGO sign and almost instantaneously pass through the Mile 25 marker. I react to the juxtaposition and become livid with disgust. For some reason, I had thought that the CITGO sign marked the end of the race. From seeing signs from the crowd declaring “Almost There. 1.2 Miles To Go!” I wanted to curse the whole world and drop dead right there on the course! Suddenly, no doubt suffering from a delirium brought on by extreme anger and utter disappointment, I stop caring about the precarious nature of my leg and make up my mind that I will run like hell for the finish line. Right there and then, I started running. Fast. Down the rest of Commonwealth and the right onto Hareford and finally the left onto Bolyston, I ignore the fatigue, the pain, and the screaming pretenses warning me to stop. I don’t look up to soak up the atmosphere and the crowds like I always imagined I would but just kept running and counting the steps until the finish. As I did, I must have passed 10-20 runners during that last mile. It was a small consolation prize for missing the original mark and gutting it out to the end. I keep my drive and do not stop until I cross the finish line in front of the Boston Public Library where I was imagining a more triumphant victory 24 short hours ago. I stop my watch and immediately see that I had finished a second behind my PR time despite carrying what I thought was a ferocious pace in the last 1.2. I am extremely disappointed once again even as I know I had absolutely given it my all just not to limp off the course, not to DNF and finish what I had started in the toughest and most physically challenging marathon I’ve ever run. (Statistics: Mile 26.2 – 8:19; Final Time – 3:02:21; Final Average Pace – 6:57)

*Addendum and some pictures to follow. I apologize for the tardiness of this last update, but it has been extremely difficult for me to recapture these moments and re-tell my tale. Please don’t hate me for it! I’ll explain further in a subsequent post. I appreciate your support and your patience.
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