Monday, March 29, 2010

Five Weeks Away:
My Update on Marathon Training

It's come to my attention that a few of my teammates and blogger friends want to hear more about my running and preparation heading into the final month of NJM training. All I gotta to say to these people is Why aren't you on DailyMile and if you are, why aren't you following me? If you are, then you'd see that I practically write a novel on each of my workouts complete with goals, objectives, statistics and my assessment of that particular run. I spend a lot of time comprehensively drafting these entries not because I'm a complete running geek (which I know I am) but because I want to force myself to be more focused this time around. One of the criticisms I got from a review of my last marathon training cycle leading up to 2009 NYCM was that the plan lacked direction and purpose. Many of the runs and the paces I ran for the runs seemed completely arbitrary with a narrow differential in terms of pacing. In other words, my recovery runs were for the most part too fast, my long runs were too slow and my speedwork lacked variety. I was very determined to change things this time around. So I made sure to lay out specific goal paces and objectives for each run, varied my speedwork every session in terms of tempo, intervals, and hillwork, and forced myself to run slower on easy/recovery days and run faster on speedwork days. At the end of the day, I reflect on what I did and comment on whether I successful achieved my goals for that day's run. The result of all of that work is what I choose to record and share on the DailyMile.

One thing though which doesn't translate so well to my daily musings on DailyMile is my perspectives on training in a global sense. As I take a step back and reflect on the state of my marathon preparation with the race now just five weeks away (Yikes!), I want to share how I think my training is going in each of the three areas (speed, endurance, stamina) that will hopefully translate to a PR performance in my spring marathon.

Speed - One thing I know about myself is that I'm a speed guy through and through. Although I was never a sprinter in high school or college, I think I encapsulate the attitude when I'm burning rubber on the track, sporting my lightweight racing flats, and daring anyone within shouting distance to keep my pace or get out of the way. I just love how my body feels when my leg muscles are working so efficiently and propelling my body so fast through the air that it feels at times that I'm flying! For that reason, I always expect my speed workouts to be my best quality running of the week. And thus far, this has been the case. I incorporated a bunch of Yasso 800s into the plan this year (something I didn't do last year) and surprise surprise, my legs have held up through most of them pretty well. I take every precaution not to do too many or do them too fast to avoid the risk of injury and so far my times have been right where I expected them to be. My last 800s workout saw me complete 7 sets at a clip of 2:48-2:54 each with 2:50 recovery between each. The effort was hard, but not too hard and I think I could probably go a few seconds faster on each if I really wanted to be ambitious. I feel good about them though, especially after posting a 5K PR two weeks ago, so I'm going to continue doing these about once every other week until the marathon. More recently, I've gone back to doing mile repeats as well with the hopes that the longer distance will help a little bit more in the late stages of the marathon.

Endurance - Everyone knows that doing long runs is key to any successful marathon training program. Not everyone knows though that running them at the right pace is just as important as the mileage. Last year, while training for the NYCM, I did a lot of long runs. 5 X 20+ milers and 1 X 18 miler in a span of ten weeks. Unfortunately, I ran with friends in all of them and although I enjoyed the company, the chatter and the gossip, the paces I was running with were way too slow for my purposes. I think the fastest pace I averaged for a long run last year was 7:30 min/mi and that was only when I worked as a pacer for the Long Training Run in early August! I also didn't incorporate any faster type running into any of my long runs last year and I think I paid dearly for those mistakes during the Fifth Avenue mile in the NYCM.
Fast forward to this spring. So far, I've already done 2 X 18 milers and 3 x 20+ milers with two more to go in the next two weeks. I've also been doing many more of these on my own so my pacing have been much more consistent then they were last year. On every alternating long run, I've also been trying to run a segment of the later miles at a quicker pace, in hopes that the faster finish will teach my body to become more comfortable with the faster paces in the last few miles of the marathon. For the most part, I think the endurance training is going well, although I do wish that my body would get with the program a little sooner than four miles into a long run.

Stamina - I'm counting tempo runs and hill workouts as stamina training because they involve the ability to sustain a lactate threshold type effort for a longer period of time than traditional speed intervals. In fact, I suspect that most of the time during the marathon will involve this type of running. Now, whereas I'm doing quite well in speedwork/endurance training, I am not finding similar success in my stamina workouts. I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe it's because I'm running them in the hills of Central Park and not on flat land where they are meant to be done. Maybe it's because my body has a hard time adjusting to the intermediate effort required by these workouts. Or maybe I just have to be patient and not start them at too fast a pace. Whatever it is, I find that I have a tough time finding and holding the appropriate effort. I tend to either start too fast in the first mile or two and slow down too much in the later miles or I start slow, stay slow, and have to run interval pace to make my time in the last mile or two. Although most of the time I do end up accomplishing my goal, I feel extremely exhausted after finishing one of these workouts and my heart rate is through the roof! I have a couple more tempo workouts scheduled up in the next several weeks, and I am determined to find the correct pace early in the first mile and just maintain the effort for the duration of the run. Avoiding wild pace fluctuations will be key for me as I want to learn to maintain a fast but consistent effort in the middle miles of the actual marathon.

Overall then, I think my marathon training is going as well as can be reasonably expected. Although I still have some small kinks in the system to work through, I'm fairly certain that I will be prepared to run a good marathon in five weeks. The next few weeks will be quite hectic for me as I am approaching my high mileage weeks in training while also participating in three consecutive races in three consecutive weeks. It's been so long since I've raced that I'm getting it all out of the system in one shot. Haha! I'll be running in a half marathon, a 10 miler and a 5K all in the month of April and expecting to do fairly well in all of them. It should make for a fun, speedy and exciting month of April. I, for one, can hardly wait. Bring. It. On.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Power of Perspective:
Pediatric Obesity and Running

Earlier this week, while out on a long run, I listened to an NPR podcast that discussed the capacity for different animals to think and process thoughts. One of the key points the researchers were trying to make is that unlike other animals who think very concretely, humans are uniquely capable of thinking in abstract terms. We are able to dream, imagine and ponder possibilities and make real-life choices based on these machinations. Our capacity for abstract thought also gives us the ability to approach a problem from a variety of perspectives in order to arrive at an optimal solution.

This past week, with the announcement of Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity by promoting health and wellness in America's communities, I've been finding myself having to discuss and teach this power of perspective to many of my obese patients who have been curious about the message but do not see themselves as avenues for change. Because most of the kids/parents I see come from obese families and underserved communities where the norm is to be on the heavier side, it is extremely difficult to impress upon them that their overweight is a detriment to their health, both old and young. It doesn't help either that some social advocates, researchers, and doctors choose to focus on the fact that obesity is in large part is a genetic disease and ignore the contribution of behavior and the environment entirely. As a specialist who sees and deals with pediatric obesity on a daily basis, I fail to see how impressing on my patients the message that certain genetic mutations that are largely unidentified that they may or may not have are causing them to eat more and metabolize less and become obese will help in any way to improving their long term health. It is somewhat of a fatalistic approach to take in my opinion. Instead, I choose to tell my patients that although genetics has predisposed them to a certain body habitus with its inherent increased risk for metabolic and cardiovascular complications, the lifestyle they lead and the dietary choices they make will go a long way in determining how those risks will play out. For families who have to fight this battle on a daily basis, it is much more heartening and inspiring to hear what can be done instead of focusing on things that cannot be changed. Let the experts and researches work on the gene and the genetics, I say. I'll help my patients modify what they can their everyday life to improve their health today. Sometimes, all it takes is a little change in perspective.

Lest you think that this obesity debate has nothing to do with running, have you ever not wonder how far/fast you could theoretically go? Science would have you believe that your ultimate speed is encoded in your genes. No matter how fast you train or how many weekly miles you put in, there's no possible way for us to outrun the Kenyans. On top of that, if you are in your mid-30s or older, science also says you've likely reached your max in terms of speed and efficiency. It's right there in your genes. You should just give up. But those of us who know better know that the training, the lifestyle, attitude, and the nutrition really does matter. We can maximize our athletic prowess by being diligent in the way we train, smart in the way we prepare, and healthy in the way we eat. Why else are there so many "older" elite athletes defying their age, crushing their races and taking home medals in the national and world stage?

So thanks for all the scientists and researches working hard everyday to define and limit our potential. I'm going to do my best to teach my patients the power of perspective and afterwards go out for a run!

For my sanity, please share stories of how the power of perspective resulted in success in your life - whether obesity related, running related, or something else entirely. Maybe somebody will read and be inspired to make a change. Thanks!

Monday, March 22, 2010

My Volunteer Report from the National Marathon

One of the coolest aspects of running I enjoy the most is how the motivation to run can appear in the most unlikeliest of places and in the most unexpected of ways. Whether it is a billboard next to a highway advertising a getaway trip to a destination that just happens to be the location of your next marathon or a voice mail from a long lost distant friend who just wants you to know that she's running a race to raise money for pediatric cancer, it is funny how life always finds a way to inspire us to be good runners even when we're not so actively looking...

I went to D.C. this weekend hoping to run some miles in our nation's capital, but not expecting to find any logical answers to the questions that have been plaguing me for the past couple of weeks. If you recall (you can read here if you don't), I'd been having a difficult time recently trying to juggle an increase in my patient responsibilities and an appropriate mileage/time for marathon training. I still hadn't as yet figured anything out when I boarded the megabus for my four hour journey down to D.C. early Friday morning. All I knew was that I was extremely tired (I had only three hours of sleep the night before), I would be meeting a close virtual friend and I had a job to do...

Six short hours later, I found myself at the entrance to the Armory next to RFK stadium in Washington D.C. not quite knowing what to expect. The National Marathon Expo was in full force and I was there to volunteer. I was excited, not only because I was surrounded by the special segment of the population that not only understands my passion for running but shares in its celebration and revels in the training, but also because I was finally meeting my friend Dorothy face-to-face for the first time. If you must know, Dorothy, the author of her own blog Mile Posts, is an incredible woman who wear many many hats. Not only is she a wife, a mom to two beautiful children, she's also the Volunteer Coordinator for the National Marathon this year and one of the Saucony Team Captains. And as if that's not enough, she's also an avid runner who is seriously fast, and getting faster all the time. Case in point: She won the B&A Trail Marathon a few weeks ago down in Virginia. Yeah, you read right...WON, as in First Female Finisher (read her story). How incredibly awesome, right? Now, we've been blog buddies for a long time, but we've never had occasion to meet. So when she mentioned that she was in desperate need of volunteers for National, I figured the least I could do was come down to D.C., meet her and help out putting on this great event...

Well, let me say this, if you told me D and I were best friends in a previous life, I would not disagree because even in this, our first meeting, we hit it off immediately and had immensely interesting conversations in between all the work that had to be done. For me personally, the next seven hours (plus the five on race day) were some of the most fun I've ever had. I played about five different roles and got to meet and interact with so many people, each with their unique story of how they came to register for their race (either half, full, or even as a relay-half marathon) that it's impossible NOT to be humbled by the experience and develop a deeper appreciation of the sport. The people I talked to ran the gamut from an insanely fast 2:45 marathoner who was shooting for a 1:17 finish in the half marathon in preparation for Boston to a veteran runner who was looking for this 95th official marathon finish. There was a mom who was running her first half-marathon because she lost her son the previous year to brain cancer and he'd been a finisher for five years straight and a college student who was running the race as an excuse to do something fun for Spring Break. I also talked with a coach who predicted I had the potential to run 2:40/2:45 for the marathon with the right training and a guy who was seriously worried he was not going to make the 6hr cutoff for the race. Collectively, each runner offered me a glimpse of the race from their individual perspective and made me realize that the digits on the clock isn't ultimately what really gives meaning to the running experience. it is the running experience that gives meaning to the digits on the clock. A time without a suitable story is like a book jacket without the book. In either case, it is empty and not worthwhile to own. The challenge then is to always find meaning in the work you're putting forth. Whether we're talking your day job or the mileage in training, the goal/achievement you're working hard at must be tangible and valuable to you. If it isn't, the digits won't mean very much and you'll be left to question why you bother spending the effort...

i departed D.C. a little more than 28 hours after I arrived dressed, in almost identical clothes. Internally though, I knew I left the national capital a better runner and a better person than when I arrived. I feel immensely more liberated and rejuvenated in knowing what exactly I must do to advance my work and my running. Thanks D for allowing me to volunteer and help out, and congratulations to all the runners who ran and finished this race! You all helped this volunteer immensely more than the help I was able to give back. Hopefully, next year, I'll run this course right along with you. Maybe...

Have any of you ever worked as a race volunteer? Have you ever learned anything about running while volunteering that you never learned anywhere else? Share your volunteer stories if you are so inclined. Have a great beginning of the work week!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Don't Hate the Garmin or the Techy
And a Little on Running Shoes Too!

Wow! Thanks everyone for all the interesting and insightful comments. From the high school/college track stars who've been running for 10+ years to the elder statesmen and stateswomen who's training for his/her first marathon, all of you collectively showed me why running and the running life is meaningful and purposeful no matter the goal, no matter the pace, or even when or where we train. Believe it when I say I truly salute each of you for being truly awesome and inspirational athletes. You all ROCKED MY WORD this week with your encouragement and support. Thank you.

After reading through all your thoughts and observations, I agree with the general contention that I need to deemphasize running as a daily training requirement and rediscover running for it's own sake. The hard part though is figuring out how this task can be best accomplished in a manner that makes the most sense to me. Yes I can, as many have suggested, just leave the Garmin at home and run for a specified time or to a specified place without caring, worrying or even acknowledging such essentials as speed, pace, elevation, heart rate, etc. "Heck, why don't you just throw the damn thing away," as one of my friend advised me the other day, "You know you're at the cusp of slowing down anyway, why make this painfully obvious to yourself!" I chuckle at the irony of these propositions, not because I disagree with the general premise of these suggestions - namely that I'd probably enjoy running more if I weren't so enamored with the numbers and data, but because I actually do remember the times before the age of Garmin, when the only electronic gear I wore while running was a digital wristwatch and pace calculations were mostly based on my perceived effort. Speedwork was loosely translated to running in the Central Park really fast and an interval workout was constructed around how many reservoir loops I can manage without bumping into unsuspecting tourists walking obliviously in the other direction. I can point to the exact date on my running log when my Garmin Forerunner 305 arrived at my apartment doorstep because ever since that date, my running has never been the same. No longer was I confined to just running in Central Park, no longer was it okay to know I ran "around a 7:30 pace" for "approximately 6 miles". My running log transformed from three simple columns in a composition notebook to a excel file with three separate spreadsheets. Almost instantaneously I began training better and over the course of a few short months, made greater strides in my running than I ever have before. Now, four short years later, I have learned almost everything there is to know about my Garmin and I owe much of my growth and success as a runner to my constant companion. So now do you all see why I can't help but laugh and snicker when others blame my attachment to Garmin as the ultimate source of my distress? Yes, you're allowed to say that over the course of my running career, I might have become a bit too dependent on technology, almost to a fault, but seriously is that really technology's fault? There must be a better way to handle overtraining and competitive stress than by getting rid of technology altogether, no? The whole notion of reverting to a simpler running life seems awkward to me.

On a side but similar note, can anyone else appreciate how this anti-technology sentiment is suddenly becoming the latest popular trend of the running community? (Um, barefoot running anyone?*) Why must we hate something that has for years been helping us to improve the way we live? Maybe the problem isn't with technology itself but with the way we use it? Maybe we're just not applying the technology in the best way possible to satisfy our own individual needs? Lots of blood, sweat, money, and manpower have been put over the years to developing products and services that are meant to help mankind. Maybe we ought to give these people the benefit of the doubt before we poo-poo their innovations and trash their inventions. For all the conveniences and luxuries we use yet take for granted in our daily lives, we owe them at least that much, don't we?

Just my two cents. Yes, you're welcome to disagree with me or share you're own. I'll try not to hold it against you. Have a great rest of the week and weekend.

[*I promised myself I won't get into this debate. Luckily for me, these guys basically share the same viewpoints as I and are much more eloquent in their discussions and objective in their arguments than I can ever be so go read their Q&A if you haven't figured out where I stand on this controversy. The only other point I'd like to make, which no one seemed to as yet, is that maybe it's not the shoes themselves that are the problem, but that we as runners are never fitted with the shoes that are right for our feet. In the same way that there is an optometrist who fits the right prescription lenses to the right person with near/far-sightedness, maybe it's time that there is a person whose job it is to figure out the right running shoes for the right type of feet. With the hundreds upon hundreds of different types and styles of shoes out there, I think it is foolish to suggest that anyone on their own can ever figure out the right pair of shoes to fit their needs. Not only so, but since the foot is a dynamic physiologic structure that changes in response to age, training, weather, and weight, the right shoes are going to change from year to year. So what's right this year will not be so next year. How's a recreational athlete ever suppose to figure all that out by him/herself? That, my friends, is the single biggest factor why the number of runner's injuries have supposedly increased so drastically in the last 20 to 30 years. There are simply way too many shoes and not enough knowledgeable people to help us runners decide what to wear from year to year, because if there were such people around, I can guarantee that the whole shoe vs no-shoe debate would grind to a complete and sudden halt.]

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Running for Sport or Lifestyle

Okay, I guess it's time for me to fess up. Sorry for the lack of blog updates recently. Between difficult patients, people problems, and a torrential rainstorm that literally ruined my weekend, it has just been a rough week for me to say the least. Deadlines and other obligations kind of snug up on me and it was all I could do just to manage to stay afloat. I wish someone would grant me the superpower to freeze time or at the very least add a couple more hours to the day so I can attend to all the work and responsibilities that requires my attention in a given day. I want to be the Japanese character in Heroes who can manipulate the time space continuum with his mind, or Clark Kent who can use superman powers to work ten times faster than anyone else. Heck, I'll even settle for the super intelligent but super annoying House who always manages to break the first law of the Hippocratic Oath to do no wrong but somehow always finds out the right answer. I secretly admire and envy all these people.

But unlike any of these TV characters who have physical and/or mental attributes that far surpass my own, I am a runner. And as a runner, I can usually deal with work problems and deal with social stresses by finding purpose in my runs. Lately though this has not been the case. During this past week, I've been feeling very unmotivated and uninspired to train hard for my goal marathon. I don't know why. Don't get me wrong, I'm still running like a headless chicken through the streets and parks of Queens, frightening the neighbors who never ceases to stop and stare in amazement. In fact this week, I posted 57 miles, my highest mileage since the dog days of last summer. I completed a tempo 7 miler, a hill workout, a twenty miler, and a twelve miler in the rain at a ridiculous 7:03 min/mi pace. The trouble though is that it's becoming more of a hassle to run so fast and long, and I'm not even sure I see the point anymore. Is the point really to run a sub-3 and not run marathons anymore? Or is it a personal validation of my status as a good runner and nothing more? Does it really matter what I run in the marathon anyway, or is it more about an expression of my selfish pride? If the only person I'm inspiring is me, myself, and I, then I'm not sure I can justify all this effort I'm putting forth. I rather run fewer miles, have less lofty goals, and attend to all the other responsibilities that I'm neglecting because I'm out there training so much.

After all, what is the point of always thinking about running when I'm dealing with patients yet be constantly thinking about patients when I'm outside running? Am I right? I speak for myself when I say that running should remain a sport and not become a lifestyle, like it has for me for so long. It's just that sometimes it's hard for me to separate the forest from the trees. I guess I just have to be more vigilant about it now in order to find a happier medium between the extremes.

What about you guys? If you had to choose, would you designate running for yourself as a sport/hobby or a lifestyle? I'm curious to know.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Some Post Race Thoughts and A Primer on Proper Hill Training

Thank you all for your warm congrats on my weekend 5K race. My performance and the PR was a pleasant surprise to me for several reasons. First off, as this was only my second 5K ever, I consider myself a novice short distance racer at best. So to be able to hang with some of the best NYC racers who almost all probably had experience running this distance in high school or college, is pretty gratifying for me. Secondly, I pulled off a shockingly good race despite trashing my legs on a hilly 16 miler the day prior. If I can PR and run sub-6 miles on tired and sore legs, imagine what I could do if I was adequately tapered and rested? Thirdly, so how 'bout those hills? While all the post race discussion from other racers was focused mainly on how unexpected hilly the course was, I might have been the only one who wasn't bothered at all, as evidenced by my consistent paces through all 3.1 miles. (Shhh...I know, I know. I will probably be struck down by the racing gods the next time I go running for proclaiming victory over hills!)

In actuality, it is to this last point that I want to make the focus of this post. I've received a few emails over the past couple of days asking for specific details on my hill workouts and how I incorporate them into the context of a marathon training plan. I find these questions kind of ironic because they make it seem as if I've got some astute insight on hill training that the rest of the running world isn't privy too when truthfully, I'm pretty new at this myself. As a matter of fact, prior to this training cycle during which I've been forced to run on the treadmill way too many times due to the harsh winter, I've never done a single hill sprint, hill set, or any type of hill workout whatsoever! I've always assumed that training on a hilly terrain (like Central Park) would be sufficient to prepare for a hilly race. It wasn't until I've moved out of the city and into a part of town with no natural hills but full access to treadmills that I found out how valuable dedicated hill workouts can be. Looking back now, I dare say I'm more physically and mentally prepared now to tackle the Central Park hills than I ever was running and training there every day. Go figure. So how did I get to this point and how has my approach to hills changed since I've started hill training a couple of months ago? In an effort to help my fellow runner friends, including those who will undoubtedly use this information to beat me in my next hilly 5k race, let me share with you my perspective on running hills and hill training. (Just keep in mind, though, that this is based only on my own observations, conjectures, experiences and knowledge. It is by no means the only way or even necessarily the right way. Reader discretion is advised.)

Let me start by discussing proper hill running technique. This is an important topic because if you don't have a good approach to running hills, then you won't be very successful at it no matter how often or how many hills you run. The way NOT to run hills is by increasing your effort and intensity while keep the same stride length with the hope of maintaining a consistent pace during the climb and then burning through the downhill as fast as possible to regain lost time. The truth of the matter is that you will lose much more energy fighting both gravity and pace during the uphills and running hard on the downhills than by running a little slower and conserving energy on the uphill and surrendering to the flow of gravity on the downhills. I can't claim ownership of this concept since I read it off a NY Times article offering tips on proper bridge running techniques in the days leading up to the New York City Marathon last year, but it makes complete sense to me. The way to circumvent this problem then is by shortening your stride and increasing your turnover on the uphills (think of it as downshifting on a bike) and opening up your stride while maintaining a similar turnover on the downhills (Don't brake or you'll land on your heels and burn your quads!) This will help keep your heart rate spike to a minimum on the uphill climb and allow for faster running with minimal expenditure of energy on the downhill. If you practice this approach and execute it during races, you will find that you have to "recover" less quickly than your neighbors after cresting a hill, allowing you to pass them with ease.

So that's the technique. How about some actual workouts? When I started this, I had no idea what treadmill settings to use or how to plan an actual hill workout. So I consulted with the great Greg McMillian (yes, the coach behind the popular McMillian calculator) in this Running Times article. I took the first workout and literally ran with it. The first time I tried it, I was only able to manage three sets at marathon pace (not the six as prescribed) and it was all I could do not to throw up after each one. The next day I felt so sore and had so much pain in my knees and my hamstrings that I literally could not run. That's when I realized that I needed to customize the workout to something that I could handle because otherwise it'd never get done and I'll injure myself trying. So I decreased the incline settings from the 6 and 7% as prescribed to a more manageable 4 and 5% on the next hill workout session. Because Cat Hill registers a 3.4% grade and Harlem Hill a 4.4%, I felt that I was still doing comparable work with those treadmill hill settings. After making these adjustments, I felt much better and was able to do all three sets I had planned. Since then, with every succeeding week, I've felt more and more comfortable with these workouts. I add an extra set every other week or so and can now pull off six of these without too much wear and tear on my body. Personally, I think I can probably now afford to shift the incline up another percent, but because things are going so well and I'm actually training for a flat marathon this time around and not a hilly one, I will save that experiment for the next go around. Honestly, I think the consistent hill repeats have helped me build so much more confidence running hills. I no longer dread them like I use to. I think of them now as just another 60 or 90 sec hill repeat, no matter how steep. It's really no big deal when you're used to doing 5 or 6 of these at a time!

So that's my hill training story in a nutshell. I hope it inspires someone to think about incorporate a similar workout into their regular training routine. There are so many varieties of hill sprints, hill intervals, and hill runs you can do that it really behooves you to try one or a few of these. One word of caution though. If you're trying anything for the first time, don't go all gangbusters and run 6 sets of repeats all at once. You can get injured very easily because they stress and strain your muscles in a different way than normal running. So go slow and be careful. Do one or two for your first session and see how you feel a day later. Then come back a few days afterwards and try again. Tailor your workouts to your current level of fitness and your training goals and objectives. Be flexible, experiment, and have fun with it! If you do them with consistency, you'll quickly come to realize how valuable and indispensable they are both as strength training and as a component of speedwork. So go run some hills!

Good luck!

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Lesson in Consistency:
Race Report from the Coogan's Salsa, Blues and Shamrock's 5K

In running as in medicine, sometimes the more you think you know about a particular subject the more you realize that you know absolutely jack squat!

In all honesty, by the time I lined up at the start of today's 5k race in Washington Heights, (even though this was to be my first "official race of 2010" and first as a Saucony Hurricane, I already accepted the fact that this was not going to be a stellar race for me. Given that I had been bothered all week by some discomfort in my right ITB and Achilles, likely secondary to pushing my pace too hard in the last miles of my 22 miler last week, and had gone out on a sixteen mile long run less than 24 hours ago, I had no wild preconceived notions of turning in a spectacular time on this tough and hilly course. My plan was to run this race without trashing myself physically and get to the post-race party as fast as I can trash myself there with the free beer and brunch at the Irish bar that was sponsoring this race! Last year, in my first 5K race ever, I ran this course in an amazing 18:34 (avg pace 5:59 min/mi). This year, given my injury concerns and sore legs, I was just hoping for anything less than 18:40.

Race weather was perfect this morning as we nestled ourselves inside our respective color corrals, waiting for the race start. It was sunny, it was warm (mid 40s), and I saw a few pigeons bustling about in the blue sky overhead - a sure sign of spring! Although I was in my starting corral a full ten minutes prior to the start, I still found myself at the back of the pack. I had expected this to be a crowded race, given the popularity of the post race party and the race being a points race for the local running clubs, but when you can't even see the stage from the first corral, that's a little ridiculous. I tried inching myself closer to the front once the opening ceremonies started and the Star-Spangled Banner began to play, but all that did was encourage everyone else to do the same. So I resigned myself to my position, gave my sore calves a good stretch, rubbed my new Saucony Fastwitch 4 racers (love these) for good luck and redirected my thoughts on formulating a game plan for this course.

I was in the midst of my thoughts, trying to remember what I had learned from watching a replay of the Boston Marathon on Universal Sports the night before, when the starting horn sounded. Amidst the thunderous applause of nearby spectators and a make shift Irish band playing loud bagpipe music in the background, I followed the swarming masses staggering towards the starting line. A few seconds later, I found myself crossing the mats and officially beginning my racing season for 2010.

Mile 1 - As it is with any NYRR race, the first quarter mile was crowded and congested, and it was all I could do to find some room for myself to run. Choosing to be safe rather than risk an injury to myself or others, I started my race conservatively and waited patiently for the pace of my neighbors to settle. As I did, I used the time to find out if my knee and ankle had sufficiently warmed to give forth a solid effort on this day. After a quarter mile of heavy contemplation and no pain, I dared myself to open up the pace to my perceived 5K effort.

Unfortunately, this was also where we encountered the first major hill on the course. The rise isn't big, but if you're not ready for it, it can easily sapped your energy and kill your race. I didn't consider it much, but judging from the heavy breathing and the occasional swear escaping from the mouths of my neighbors, I know they would beg to differ. Perhaps that's why I caught back up to many of the initial speedsters who had blasted off right from the get-go. After the ascent, we were treated to a nice steady downhill. I extended my stride and fought my heart to flow down the hill as fast as I could. (Mile 1 - 5:57; Coogan's 2009 5K Mile 1 - 5:55)

Mile 2 - The cruelty of the second mile is that as soon as you cross the mile 1 marker running downhill, you can see the second mile marker directly on the opposite side of this out-and-back course. In the middle of this descent, I can vaguely make out the super elite runners fast approaching the hill from the other side. Last year, I bombed this section of the course. Last year, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. This year, upon seeing fort tower a bit in the distance and the elites on their return journey back to the start, I vowed that things would be a little different.

Once the descent was over and I found myself revolving around fort tower on flatter ground, I shortened my stride and increased my turnover in anticipation of the big ascent up ahead. As I did, I reminded myself to imagine myself a cyclist shifting down gears in response to a big hill climb. A big swarm of people, larger than before, was now rolling down the big hill on the opposite side as I began my battle. Off in the short distance, I can clearly make out a couple of my Flyer teammates who have already begun to wage their own wars.

And then it was time for me to go. A half mile up a grade 3-4 hill. Hmmm, I thought, haven't I done this before? Why does this feel so familiar? Of course, of course, this is exactly what I've been practicing on the treadmill for so many weeks. The hill repeats up a level 4-5 hill. I know how to do this. Short strides, quick steps, controlled breathing. Yes, yes, I can do this.

Maybe it was the weekly hilly sets working wonders. Maybe it was just how I like to fake it until I make it. Whatever the reason, I rocked the hill climb like I've never rocked one before. The funny thing was I didn't even need to check the Garmin to tell me this. I passed so many people during this elevation gain that I felt I was literally on a bike while others were running! While others were grunting, and breathing so ostensibly loud that I almost couldn't hear myself think, I was repeating my own hill climbing mantra to myself - short strides, quick steps, controlled breathing - and maintaining my effort running up the hill. Seeing the official clock at the mile 2 maker in the 11:50 ranges only served to confirmed my suspicions. (Mile 2 - 5:57; Coogan's 2009 5K Mile 2 - 6:08)

Mile 3 - At the end of the hill, upon seeing my mile 2 time, I knew I was in line for a big PR. For a moment or two, I couldn't believe I finished that stretch at the same time as mile 1. Maybe I should recheck the Garmin, maybe I had miscalculated. No, I didn't have time. Instead for the first time in the race, I was feeling some fatigue in my quads. So I pleaded with my legs to keep the faith and keep the pace. Instead of acknowledging the soreness, I finally thought about how I wasn't supposed to be doing so well so late in this race. Didn't I run 16 miles the day before? Wasn't my knees and ankles supposed to be tight and sore? Instead, I was having no tightness, no pain, and running victoriously on the way to the finish line. I had overachieved beyond my wildest expectations. I felt instantaneously at peace. (Mile 3 - 5:56; Coogan's 2009 5K Mile 3 - 5:56)

Last 0.1M - As I approached the finish, I could once again hear the bagpipes and the wild applause of the spectators gathering in the streets on either side. I noticed that the sun had risen higher now. Neighbors from the apartment buildings on other sides were looking out onto the streets and clapping their hands in exultation. The entire street was turning into a spring carnival right before my eyes! I pumped my fists and gave a last kick on my way across the finish line to claim my first race PR of 2010. (Last 0.1M - 0:36; Coogan's 2009 5K Last 0.1M - 0:35)

Final Statistics
Finishing Time - 18:26 (PR by 8 secs)
Average Pace - 5:56 min/mile
Overall Place - 186/5629
Gender Place - 172/3017
Age Place - 33
Age Graded - 71.1%

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Recovery Weeks

On paper, this week is supposed to be a recovery week for me. On paper, this week is supposed to be low mileage and low stress. Yeah, but like most things, it hasn't worked out so well in practice. Work has been a mess, with many more patients with complicated issues than we have beds for in the hospital. Workouts have been lackluster (because I'm so exhausted coming home late from work every night) and my right ankle and knee have been giving me trouble ever since my speedy weekend 22 miler. I've also been subconsciously using my runs to blow off steam at work which translates to too high speeds for too many of my runs this week. In essence then, I'm failing at the single most important job I left myself to do this week...RELAX and RECOVER!

But then I ask myself, what is the purpose for this nebulous concept called recovery? In order to recover, must one get an a priori injury or does several high mileage weeks warrant the same level of treatment? To be honest, I've never sustained an injury before, so i'm somewhat clueless as to what that recovery process entails. On the other hand, I'm always running high mileage so I'm pretty familiar with the recovery week as it applies to marathon training. Still, I'm always surprised by the reluctance of the training mind to accept the low mileage week. It is as if we've gotten so comfortable with higher mileage that lower mileage automatically feels inadequate and uncomfortable. This is also the time when phantom pains and weird sensations crop up all over. So even though you're running low and slow, you still feel all kinds of weird and broken down. Ironic right? And the strangest part of this whole process is all the hard training weeks staring you in the face before you get to "recover" again. Are you kidding me? Is this insane? Everything is paradoxical. Everything is screwd up.

I'm still not sure about how I feel about the recovery week. This time last week I thought it was the best thing since man discovered running. This week I think it's a minor version of running hell. But the more I think, the more I realize...that in a lot of ways, this is exactly what running is all about!

But enough about me, how do YOU feel about recovery weeks? Do you welcome them with open arms or do you hide your eyes and pretend you didn't see?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ten (More) Random Things About Me

Thanks for enlightening me with your tready stories. I love hearing all of them.

Julie from her running blog tagged me over the weekend and threatened not to like me anymore if I didn't play her game. Although I consider myself a little too old to play these sort of blog games (I'm already three-and-a-half blog years old already!), in the interest of not offending Julie who's one of my favorite running bloggers, I will try to reveal some bits and pieces of me that may or may not have been apparent earlier on. Here goes.

1. I have the best penmanship for a doctor, especially a male doctor, hands down! Not a week goes by that I don't hear about how neat my handwriting is. If there was a national contest, I'm sure I'd win first prize...even if I'm scribbling notes as fast as I can. Yes, it's quite annoying!

2. Surprisingly, the city I've been to the most outside of NY is...San Francisco. I love the food. I love the people. I love the scenery. I always tell my friends if one day you don't find me in New York, look for me in the City by the Bay on the opposite side of the country.

3. I was a poetry geek all through college. Don't blame me. Blame the late Frank McCourt who discovered me in high school and described me as a passionate writer.

4. My new mantra this year is "Define Your Own Awesomeness". It came to me upon waking one January morning when out of the blue I knew I was going to be awesome that day without knowing why or how. Then I realized that each of us is awesome in our own unique way so we should get out there and define what awesome is for that specific day. It is short, sweet, but powerful and inspiring, I think.

5. The faster I get, the less confident I am about my speed. Go figure.

6. I did not play any organized sports as a kid. My lone sports highlight before running was hitting a triple over the center fielder's head to win a wiffle ball game during gym in junior high. The fact the outfielders were all playing shallow because I couldn't hit a lick made the trip around the bases that much sweeter.

7. I've never had a running injury, at least nothing serious to the point where I've had to rest for more than a couple days. The only thing close was when I broke my clavicle two years ago when I was a bit too aggressive on the slopes with the snowboard. I was forced to miss two months as a result of it. But because it was during the dead of winter and I was just a beginner runner back then, I didn't really miss running all that much. I always wonder if I'd be able to handle it as well now.

8. I have a theory about fantastically delicious foods. It's called the Seven Slices of Heaven. I believe that in this lifetime, each of us will come across seven food items that will be so delicious and invigorating that it overwhelms the senses and has the power to lift you out of your deepest depression and bring you instantaneous satisfaction and happiness. I myself have come across two slices of heaven so far. The first is White Chocolate Cappucino Cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory (a flavor that they no longer make) and the second is Strawberry Wild Fruit Mixer from Jamba Juice. I have a feeling that the third slice of heaven will reveal itself to me sometime this year.

9. Although I enjoy running in the company of others, I never feel like I'm training unless I'm running by myself. I'm intimidated to run with people who are faster than me and I tend to slow down when I'm running with people who can't keep my pace. Similarly, I'm not very competitive with others but extremely competitive with myself. That's why I don't do so well at group speedwork sessions but kick ass when I'm training and racing by myself. Sometimes during actual races, I would close my eyes and pretend that no one's around just to try to reproduce that same effect.

10. I'm totally uncomfortable talking about myself (unless it's about running) as if that's not so apparent by now.
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