Thursday, March 31, 2011

How I Roll (Lately)

It has come to my attention (in that it's been nagging in the back of my mind for a while now) that to some, my training methods may appear inscrutable, and my blog posts an impenetrable, irrelevant word fog. To kill two proverbial birds with one stone, this post will clear up why this is what it is.

First, my training methods: Going into 2011, I was suffering from a stress fracture in my left foot (second metatarsal, a pretty common injury). Being determined to come back strong from this injury, and to seek redemption for a number of my efforts that fell short in 2010, I started with a commitment of running at least 1 mile every day for 2011. As it turned out, this was just the commitment that I needed to gradually rebuild my strength. Now, three months later, I've methodicallyl built up to running 90-100 miles per week, with no sign of burnout or serious injury (knock on wood). I don't come into each week with a specific plan for each day, but I do have a general outline of what I want to accomplish, built primarily in anticipation of, and in response to, my longer/harder weekend efforts. I shoot for one fast speed/tempo session, one slower, more grueling speed/tempo/hill session, and one long run, and fill in the rest with "garbage miles." Except not really, because, especially lately, I've been running each "garbage mile" session with purpose. I focus on improving an aspect of my form, or my breathing, or I take my run through interesting/challenging sections of terrain. In that way, not only do I get the slow-and-steady accumulation of aerobic benefits, but also the more rapid, satisfying improvements that come from increased technical capability.

Which leads me into my next thought, which is why my blog is what it is, and is written the way it is. As part of my 2011 resolution to run at least a mile every day, I also resolved (less specifically) to write more about my running. In the past, I kept wide-ruled marble notebooks, with 3 or 4 lines dutifully devoted each day to a brief description of my running (or lack thereof) for the day. I covered the traditional time/distance/weather/mood stuff that they tell you to cover, and all in all, this method wasn't bad. It gave me a benchmark for my next training cycle, and reminded me of particularly fun or amusing things that happened during my runs. However, I eventually grew apart from this practice, and, looking back, I believe that it was subconsciously because although the logs were fully satisfying the latter intent, they had hit a wall with respect to the former. That is, I could see how well (or poorly) I did on a recent workout by comparing to results from similar workouts in the past, but I couldn't see WHY I was doing well or poorly.

With that in mind, this blog contains significantly more detail about WHY (at least, in my estimation) my performances turned out the way they did, because, along the lines of high mileage, for me, explicit, extensive repetition is the way that I learn best. Some people are much better at absorbing and internalizing through thoughts and feelings, which need not be stated. Not me. I need specific, detailed analysis of what works and what doesn't. In other words, some people need only to feel the wall to push through it; I need to know what color the bricks are, what kind of mortar was used, how long the mortar has been allowed to set . . .

I suspect that there may be others like me out there, and if so, I hope that things I've written here are instructive to you. If you're not one of those people, I hope all of this doesn't bore you terribly . . . but then again, nobody's forcing you to read it . . .

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Week in Review: 20-26 March, and National Marathon Race Report

Okay, running the numbers:

20 March - 11 miles (79 minutes) around Canton, Fells, and whatever. Highlight was all of the people standing around freezing, waiting for their free first-day-of-spring Rita's (of which I was one after my run).

21 March - 13 miles (89 minutes), out to the Fed Hill run and back, not exactly running it with the group, which, given how I felt after yesterday, was not exactly bad.

22 March - 9 miles (60 minutes), Tuesday Night Track - workout of 4x(1000 @ 5K pace, 200 @ mile pace, 400m jog @ 8:00/mile pace) represented a minor miracle, as I went 4:25, 4:30+ (watch stopped), 4:30, 4:25, first time ever that after being "done," I actually came back and hit the paces.

23 March - 15 miles (105 minutes), on a rainy, vaguely miserable Wednesday night run from Canton, with tack-ons at either end. Wasn't entirely feeling this one, but wasn't feeling bad, either.

24 March - 10 miles (73 minutes), as part of my mini-taper for National, at APG, where I included a little run up and down a stupid-steep Barkley-style hill, which, given the climbing shape I'm in, didn't feel bad, and made me really wonder about doing the race for real . . .

25 March - 5 miles (35 minutes), still tapering down, passing a fire on South Clinton Street on my way back, dropping the "pace" quarter 7 seconds below 7:00/mile pace, which maybe meant plenty in the tank, or no sense of pace (yesterday's run ended with a 6:17 mile, so I was hoping the former) . . .

26 March - 27 (?) miles (181 minutes) - Okay, fine, 26.2, I guess, but with the last-minute course changes, lack of course markings, and the numerous GPS tracks reading even longer than GPS tracks typically do for this type of race, I question the accuracy with which the National Marathon course was certified. Also, dozens of times during the race, I felt bad enough to want to quit. Water under the bridge now, though, because I didn't quit, and redeemed myself after last year's debacle here.

Total Time: 622 minutes
Total Distance: 90 miles

Officially, my longest week distance-wise in 2011, capped off with a "marathon" that was 4.5 minutes short of my PR, feeling no particularly debilitating ill effects (cripplingly cramped left calf aside, but that will hopefully work itself out in time enough for my now-traditional 10 or 11 mile Sunday "recovery run"). The hidden stat here is that from 17-23 March (or up until my mini-taper), I logged 113 miles in 7 days, which might actually be a record for me (although granted, 40 of those miles were slower trail miles during the MMT Training Run).

But anyway, enough paralysis by analysis, and on to the race report:

Ever since the spring of 2006, when I entered the National Marathon on a whim, in spite of having crashed spectacularly at mile 17 of a 20-mile run just a week prior, and taking the entry mostly because Charm City Run was giving it out for free with the pair of Asics that I bought there, then proceeded to run a 3:08 and change on the then stupid-hard course that actually put runners on a rolling highway in PG County at and around the 20-mile mark (their attempt at simulating the "Newton Hills" at Boston, but really, the effect was just to make both runners and the stopped traffic irritated) . . . deep breath . . . the National Marathon has been, to me, the first running rite of spring. It's the race where I've reaped the first fruits of cold, wet, dismal days of winter training, it's the huge confidence boost that I need heading into Boston, and it's the race that I've vowed to return to every spring, from then until one of us dies.

All that said, it's been good to me, with (from 2006 forward, not on the same course every time, since the course seems to change every year) times of 3:08, 3:03, 2:59, 2:56:32 (my PR) . . . and then last year. Last year, I was supposed to pace the 3:00 group, and I gave it my best effort through 16 miles, at which point I tanked, took a bathroom break, walked a bit, and finally wound up finishing around 3:15. Which, still, compared to other crashes I've had in marathons, was a far gentler one, but, with the stakes being higher, an emotionally damaging one.

Naturally, this year, I jumped at the opportunity to pace 3:00 again. Because in case you haven't noticed, a major theme of my 2011 is redemption (if such a thing is possible) from my many failures in 2010, this being one of them. Last year, I raised the stakes here and failed, but this year, I would need to succeed to return this race to its rightful glory in my mind.

With the ghosts of last year flitting through the fog in my mind (the result of a full week of an average of 3 hours of sleep per night, something that really needs to change), I drove down at way-too-early-in the morning, and couldn't help contemplating all of this. In the pacer/elite tent before the race, I did my best to sound cheerful and confident about the prospect of hitting my ambitious 3:00 goal, while I stood next to elites (such as Falls Road's own Christine Ramsey, who went on to win the half in 1:17:01), and fielded questions from people who clearly thought my marathon PR was much faster than 3.5 minutes under the pace I was trying to hit.

To make things more interesting, nobody else wanted to take 3 hours. Sure, nobody else was signed up to do it, but considering that we had a 3:05 and a 3:10 group, surely somebody might be willing to step it up a few minutes . . . Nope. 3:00 is definitely one of those "mental block" sort of times, that seems infinitely faster than a 3:05, and adds to the pressure of the pace.

Finally, to raise the stakes as high as they could conceivably go, I would be carrying this stupid pace flag (perhaps I'll update with a picture here) and wearing a balloon on which I wrote "3:00" tied around my waist, two annoyances that had the potential to take their toll. And let's not forget the orange "3:00" bib on my back, making me a moving target for the entire race.

As we stood shivering at the start (well, lots of other people were, but I've developed quite a bit of cold tolerance this winter, so I was fine in a short-sleeved pacer shirt and shorts), I was up-front with the group that assembled around me. I told them that I had broken 3 hours here twice, on a similar course, and that I believed that, barring a bad day, I could do it again today, but no hard-and-fast promises. They joked that they would get me through it (and in a way, they did), and after a disorganized, several-minutes-late start, it was time to throw down.

I should mention that coming into this race, in spite of the high mileage and low sleep I was running on, I was feeling strong. The question was whether or not I had rested enough to be "fresh" enough for this distance at this pace. My longest run this year up to this point at a pace comparable to what I'd be doing was 15 miles, and even then, I wasn't trying to sub-7 all 15 miles. (Of course, if you believe the Brooks-Hansen philosophy, 15 miles at a fast-enough pace - which mine probably wasn't - is sufficient to run fast in a marathon, but I digress.) The point is, I had no idea how my body was going to respond to the accumulated fatigue at that pace beyond 2 hours. Today, I suppose, was a good day to find out.

I told the group if anything, I would go slow and pick it up, and, true to my word, we crossed what was, by vague consensus of GPS tracks and course markings, the first mile in a little over 7:10. Slight panic, as this was about 20 seconds too slow, but felt comfortable. We came through the GPS-consensus second mile (because there was no 2-mile course marker) on a 6:30 mile - oops. After a (GPS-measured; again, no course marker) 3rd mile at 6:35, I remarked that we needed to slow down, which was not just because the pace was too fast, but also because I started feeling hints in my legs that it might be difficult to sustain this.

Sure enough, somewhere between miles 4 and 5, the pain started. Shifting pain, in my quads, in my hips, just above my knees, just on the tolerable side of crippling, and a sign that I was clearly not "fresh" coming into this effort. This was where the thoughts of dropping out begain, every couple of minutes, as the pain pulsated and radiated. Here I was, with my 10-dollar Wal-Mart watch which just tells you the time, and no mile markers on a slightly-changed course, making me slightly uncomfortable with my progress at any given moment, surrounded by a bunch of GPS freaks, checking their watches literally about every 30 seconds and judging me, while the flag was creating unnecessary tension in my arms, shoulders, and neck, and the stupid balloon was periodically getting caught on runners behind me, pulling me back ever so slightly ever few minutes, trying to run an evenly-split near-PR time. When I thought about it that way, the thought of continuing was distinctly unappealing.

Nevertheless, thanks to this week of training, including Monday's Fed Hill run where I sped up on the way out to Ft. McHenry to pass some idiot in Nike Frees who thought he was going to house me, and Tuesday's track workout, where I came back from the dead to goal pace by the end of the workout, I had a few mental tricks up my sleeve. I made minor form adjustments to shift the pain. On the hills, I mustered my best form, powering through the uphills and riding the downhills, ultimately bringing the group back to me every time they started getting away (and there were definitely a few close calls).

At around mile 9, I passed Keith Knipling, and we made small talk about last week's training run, and then I took off - minor confidence boost. Of course, we were still not even halfway through the race, and the 1:30 half group had long since passed us (who knows what they ended up running), so emphasis on minor. And then, a man in black in headphones came up alongside me, and asked me if we were on pace. I said "I think so," and he said "you're my bus to the end," and okay, way to raise the stakes a little higher here. I felt like telling him what I had told my group at the start, that I had no idea how long I would hold on. But for some reason, the way he said what he said (and the fact that he immediately put his headphones back in, and probably wouldn't hear me) prevented me from saying it. Shortly thereafter, on yet another long, straight stretch of the course, where the apparent lack of progress makes quitting an attractive option, Ryan McGrath was on the sidelines, yelling at me to "pace that 3:00 group," and that was just enough to get me over what, in retrospect, was probably the point where I was in the most danger of dropping.

But at that time, I was far from out of the woods. Questions about the pace and the distance (everybody's GPS was consistently reading 2-tenths long, and increasing, relative to the mile markers, from about mile 5 onward) were mounting within the group, and all I could say was "I think we're on track." When we hit the half (or what they claimed to be the half) in 1:29:45, the mood within the group shifted, and I let out a perhaps-not-too-kind "there you go" in response. Assuming that the half mark was approximately correct, this was dead-on for 3:00, and everybody knew this, and suddenly, other runners in the group were offering me water and food (headphone man in black especially), and perhaps believing in the group. We pushed through to the pivotal straight stretch between mile 16 and 17, where I crashed this year. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't feel borderline about doing that this year. But oddly enough, a little magic trick I discovered here was to picture myself doing push-ups on the Perfect Pushup gadget (which I've been regularly doing since the beginning of the year), and imagine the pain of the last few. Somehow, this resulted in transfering the perception of pain at least partially from my legs to my arms, enough that I could convince myself that I was fine to keep up my current pace.

And as we passed into mile 18, and the "good" waterfront, I could feel the strength gathering, and the confidence in my pace, in spite of the physical pain, increasing. There was no way to guarantee that I wouldn't, dozens of times between now and the finish, experience the blinding pain that I felt during Club Challenge, and be on the cusp of quitting, but with about 8 miles to go, and the group gaining strength and passing all those people that went out too fast, I had this under control.

We went over the bridge without incident (sigh of relief), although I could feel my legs getting wobbly over the metal grating on the downhill, and passed the 20-mile mark in 2:16, leaving us with 44 minutes for the final 10K, and well within our goal. Still not out of the woods, though, because the nearly three-mile section along the non-scenic Anacostia, with the cold wind in your face, and the particularly cruel "turn around the bucket" at the end, was just ahead. The group, gathered behind me in a tight pack now, was pushing me through this, and as I gained momentum in this section, I could feel others start to drop back. Not surprising, since the 20-mile mark in the marathon separates the men from the boys. The man in black stuck by my side (as he had since we met - disconcertingly enough, he would actually say "excuse me" as he passed other runners to stay right on my shoulder) through this ordeal, and while I could feel my mental resolve weakening, his dogged persistence strengthened my stride with every step.

At last, we left the waterfront, and continued on the rolling road to the finish. At Mile 24 (the marker, anyway), man in black (whose name, by the way, was Daniel) thanked me for my effort and ran off, and I told him to "go for it," and one other guy, who had joined the group mid-stream after fading from his early race pace, went off with him, assisted by a bandit pacer. This left me entirely alone, as the cruel waterfront section had, predictably, caused everybody else to fall off. From here, it was a game of calculating pace against the mile markers, without the aid of the GPS-obsessives, so when I hit 25 miles at 2:50 and a few seconds, it seemed as though I had plenty of time to at least go 3:00 and some seconds in the last (mostly uphill) mile. Unfortunately, somebody's estimate was wrong, as I crossed the line, alone, in 3:00:12, 13 seconds slower than technically acceptable "pace" time, although nobody, except for the two guys who broke away from the pace group, passed me in the second half of the race.

I gratefully accepted my medal, and now, overcome with fatigue and apparent electrolyte depletion, staggered forward, coughed violently for several minutes, and then experienced the most painfully debilitating cramp in my left calf that I had ever felt, which caused me to sit down at the edge of a tent, and not get up for at least 15 minutes. In a way, this was not bad, as it was a good position for me to welcome those from my pace group who made it in near their goal time, and to chat with Keith, who finished in 3:09, and who fortuitiously had salt tablets to give me to ease the cramping. After what felt like far too long, I hobbled back to the armory to collect my things and hobble back to the car, wherever that was.

So as I write this, I assess "mission accomplished." While I would have liked to have a finishing time that looked a little prettier in the results, the fact remains that I have never felt like quitting more times in a race, but then not actually done it, than in today's race, and using every mental and physical trick in my book, I pushed through the proverbial wall, and restored this race to its former glory in my mind. This performance gave me the confidence that if I can keep up my training, and go into Boston on fresh legs, a PR (at least a small one) is well within reach. So now, if the cramping in my calf (which, in retrospect, I think I may have experienced following my 2:59 at this race) would just subside, I could go about the business of building for Boston, starting with my traditional 10 or 11 mile Sunday "recovery" run . . .

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Training For Life

It's another in a sporadic series of my musings about things that are indirectly related to running. (I probably didn't need to say that, since you were going to find that out as soon as you read past the first sentence.)

Over the past few weeks, I've been hitting some relatively high mileage (80-ish per week), and surprisingly enough, feeling the best I've ever felt at this volume. I've never actually sustained a training volume this high for this long (at least not to my recollection), and I'm noticing that very minor aches and pains, occasional sluggishness, and mental roadblocks (really? ANOTHER mile in the rain? wasn't 14 enough?), at a low, but persistent level, are the only things that are making this difficult.

Which brings me to the point, which is that perhaps this is precisely the aspect of training that brings about improvement. The phrase "pleasantly exhausted" is thrown around to describe how you should feel after a training run, and I think that to some extent, this phrase applies to that feeling that you have throughout your heavy training periods. Because really, if every day weren't just a little bit challenging, how would you grow and improve? And furthermore (I didn't really want to use that word, but when am I going to get a chance to use it again without sounding even more preachy than I do right now?), if there isn't some variety in the challenge, if there isn't some new thing to dread just a little bit each day, won't you quickly run out of ways to improve?

So maybe that oft-quoted, rarely-understood Bowerman line from that Prefontaine movie (about people who are able to find meaning in the absurd pastime that is running also being able to find meaning in the absurd pastime that is life) isn't as vacuous as I thought. In both training for a race, and in life, if you subject yourself to too much punishment, you'll just wind up broken down, worn out, and incapable of reaching your goal. On the other hand, if you constantly avoid the truly difficult tasks, you'll never be ready when the opportunity to shine presents itself.

But if you can take pleasure in pursuits each day that leave you just a little bit muddied, bloodied, and breathless, over time, you'll probably find that you've grown quite a bit, accomplished a lot, and lived a richer life for it. And, as I'm discovering, maintaining the delicate balance between labor, and enjoying the fruits thereof, is the key to all of this, and much more difficult than it seems, which probably explains why so few people truly reach their potential.

Or maybe I'm just making all of this up, and it sucks to be tired. I'm going to go and bake some bread now, because there's a recipe for it in the Baltimore Guide, and I'm calling their bluff on the quality.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Week in Review - 13-19 March, and MMT 100 Training Run #3

Okay, final edit, after running 11 miles to clear my head and lungs, and to prove that such a thing is possible the day after yesterday's 40-mile MMT adventure - the next two paragraphs were work-in-progress placeholders while I put this thing together, but I'm leaving them in to document the process.

(Preface - premature post, because there are a whole bunch of pictures I want to throw in here, but am not up to fighting the system to do right now. Come back later and the parts where it seems like there should be a picture will make more sense. Also, not proof-read, so consider yourself lucky to get this limited-edition inside scoop, before I go and correct whatever minor thing might be wrong with this.

What's this? An all-nighter to get an early start on this week's blog post? In the spirit of sleep deprivation training for the MMT 100 (at 25 straight hours awake, and couting), you bet! Here goes (EDIT - I was unable to maintain consciousness for long enough to finish this post when I started it, so you now are getting the 12-hours-later version):)

13 March - 1 semi-pointless mile (to keep the streak alive) (8 minutes)

14 March - 1 sick (as in, physically ill) mile, keeping the streak alive (8 minutes)

15 March - Back to the grind - 8 miles (60 minutes) as follows: 2-mile warmup around Patterson Park, 16x(200 hard, 200 easy) on the Ellwood side of the park, running the uphill half hard (average 38 seconds/rep), 2 mile warmdown out to the Canton Can Company Chipoltle and back

16 March - 5 miles easy (36 minutes) as weightlifting warmup, 8 miles (56 minutes) as part of the Falls Road Wednesday Night Run from Canton Square

17 March - 15 miles, including, after 20 minutes warmup, 4 "3s and 7s" (3 minutes hard, 1 minute rest, 7 minutes hard, 1 minute rest); rest was "warmdown" (1 hour, 45 minutes)

18 March - 10 miles at APG (72 minutes)

19 March - 40 miles, 10 hours, 11 minutes (activity time approximately 7 hours, 30 minutes), MMT 100 Training Run #3

Total Time: 795 minutes
Total Distance: 88 miles

In spite of two low-mileage days (due to being sick with a lung/stomach bug), I bounced back pretty big this week, posting my highest weekly mileage in 2011 thus far. Of course, nearly half of that was a result of the MMT 100 training run, but considering how successful I was in achieving my goals for that run, it definitely counts. Also of note are the solid interval/speed sessions, which helped a lot with efficiency, turnover, and pace-shifting ability, all of which are important in a run like the MMT 100 . . .

So, without futher ado, the report on MMT 100 Training Run #3.

When Dave Snipes asked me how long I thought I would be taking to finish MMT Training Run #3, off the top of my head, I guessed around 7 hours, maybe a little over. He promptly told me that if I were really serious about running that time, I should stay with Keith Knipling (one of the fastest runners at MMT, year after year) for as long as possible, so as not to get lost. Considering that Dave had previously lectured me on how easy it would be for the "big boys" to drop me at any point, I approached this run with some trepidation, and I'd be lying if I said that the half-dozen Pringles and the Mrs. Freshley's Strawberry Cereal Bar that I ate five minutes before the start were sitting well on my stomach.

Sure enough, when we took off down the first relatively flat stretch of orange trail, Keith went out ahead of the crowd, although not quite as fast as I had feared, so I decided to keep pace and see how long I could last. At the first stream crossing, where most runners would cautiously wade through, Keith barrelled ahead with impunity. I later realized/remembered that this was because at times, the Massanutten Mountain Trail could more aptly be labeled the Massanutten Mountain River, as it has the potential to degrade into a rocky, muddy mess at nearly any point along the way. Speaking of which, Keith was deftly picking his way through just such a mess on a gradual incline, and this was, within the first couple of miles of the run, where I had to decide how to respond. Often, in this situation, I decide that it's best to conserve energy, and I just drop back, eventually losing motivation to push through anything difficult, leading to a mediocre finish. For a change, I decided to pick up my feet, step lightly, and let the training miles take over, and to my surprise, I maintained my distance from Keith, and felt surprisingly good. I felt even better when I noticed that the other runner who had been just behind me before the stream crossing slowed him was now dropping back. Technical trail running what what.

Then we began the climb up the Gap Creek trail, and that's where all of the uphill training paid off. I steadily gained as we power-hiked, until finally Keith let me pass. A 100-calorie celebratory Mrs. Freshley's Strawberry Cereal Bar was in order. Of course, passing him and bombing down the hill to the Gap Creek crossing was a bad plan, since I really didn't know where I was going, so instead I cautiously stayed ahead of him (up to 50 meters) for the next 12 miles or so, on the climb up to Jawbone Gap, on the section along the orange trail on the ridge, occasionally letting him come back to me to make sure that I hadn't run off course. It was somewhere along the road down to the first aid station (at around 14 miles) that he mentioned that he was going to skip the pink/purple loop and cut ahead to the last stretch, which both explained why he had asked me while we were picking through rocks on the orange trail on the ridge if I had planned on running the whole thing and made me a bit nervous about continuing on my own.

Nevertheless, I had some pretty good directions coming out of the first aid station, not to mention six chocolate-chip cookies in my fuel belt pouch (plus the two I had eaten at the aid station, and another half-dozen Pringles), and on the climb to Bird Knob, and me and the mood ring that I bought at a 7-11 on the way to the race were doing pretty well:

And to add to the awesomeness, I actually descended from Bird Knob to the road, found the pink/purple trail, and navigated it successfully without mishap. (This picture of the trail marker is the closest thing that I have to proof of that. That, and the confirmation that it really is 5 switchbacks from the peak of the purple trail to the transition point between the purple and pink trail.)

I also had a bit of a spiritual moment on the pink trail, right here:

If this picture doesn't explain it, then I can't, either. I was suddenly filled with peace and joy. That's just how it was.

Of course, not all could be well, or this wouldn't be a run on the MMT. At the end of the pink trail (which, like most trails in the area, eventually turns orange), at the Picnic Area, I wandered around for about 15 minutes, trying to figure out where to pick up the orange trail to get to 211, given the only direction on the turn sheet of "head east" (which, in the absence of a compass, I found by staring indirectly at the late-morning sun). In the meantime, a half-dozen people who were running slower than I was, but still fast/careless enough to miss the pink/purple marker, came off of the section of orange trail that I was supposed to head down, thus solving the mystery, but irritating me, so I hauled down the orange trail to the second and final aid (two clear 32-gallon plastic containers full of junk food, and a pile of 2-liter bottles of soda and gallon jugs of water), at around 25 miles. Because I still had 12-ish miles until the finish, with plenty of opportunity to get lost, I was meticulous in refilling my water bottles, stowing a half-dozen Wegman's Brand Oreo-Style Chocolate Sandwich Cookies in my belt, and double-and triple-checking my internal vitals to ensure that I wasn't going to leave the last traces of civilization on bad terms.

Which of course gave the half-dozen accidental course-cutters time to catch up with me, and me time to marvel at how raccoon-like they appeared, rummaging through the bins for food, and greedily pouring paper cups full of nasty soda down their gullets. This is ultrarunning (stereotypically).

I climbed up to 211 and crossed the road to the white "trail," a dirt-road, powerline-cut-esque affair that was exposed to the sun (which is probably how I got burned). This is the kind of "trail" that makes me happy, so I ran bits and pieces of the climb, where ordinarily I may have walked. The turn-off onto the white single-track was excessively marked, with a huge pile of branches in the way of the straight path, and a white turn arrow spray-painted on a tree just below the white blaze.

White gave way to orange as the trail bottomed out, and the rocky climb commenced. I stopped for about 10 minutes to try to give directions to a group of lost hikers, but all I could tell them was where 211 was based on where I had come from, which they seemed no interest in. They did confirm that I was heading for the yellow Scothorn Gap trail, so it was not entirely a wasted stop. It was at this point that I started feeling the munchies, and decided that, remaining 8-10 miles be damned, I was going to Cookie Monster those Wegmann's and hope that I had enough energy to hold on to the finish.

One thing I did have enough energy for was to add a rock to the top of this carin, before bombing down the Scothorn Gap Trail:

My satisfaction with this minor accomplishment distracted me from the fact that I was out of food, and nearly out of water, when I reached this point in the course, the last place where I wasn't lost:

The trick is, the directions tell you not to continue down the road, and to turn right off of the road, and that the Aid Station is called Gap Creek (of course, this being a training run, there was not an actual aid station at Gap Creek). In fact, the correct thing to do at this point is to go further down the road and turn left, where the blue trail becomes Jawbone Gap Trail (it's that little white spot at the very end of the bend in the road). Instead, I dutifully followed what the turn sheet appeared to be telling me, and turned right and headed up the Gap Creek Trail. The situation was worsened by the fact that I recognized the trail from the morning (since both Gap Creek and Jawbone have already been covered at this point in the run), and that there were yellow blazes (that look sort of orange; see picture below) at almost exactly the distance where the turn sheet said that orange blazes should be (of course, the turn sheet also said that the trail would end at orange, which it clearly did not, and which was my first indication that something was amiss).

To make a long, sad story short, two other runners made the same mistake that I did, and through a 90-minute process of introspection and self-discovery, punctuated by brief periods of sitting down on logs and feeling hopeless, we finally correctly concluded that if we continued on the trail that we were on (Gap Creek), we would eventually hit the orange trail, at which point we could turn right and head back the way we went out at the start, and wind up in the parking area, which was nice, because if we had done the course the "right" way, we would have wound up at the finish line at Caroline Furnace Camp, with about half a mile to get back to where our cars were parked. I was not thrilled with the prospect of having to re-climb to the top of the Gap Creek Trail, then descend the rocky backside, so I ambled a bit listlessly until we hit the orange trail again, at which point I decided our logic was well-founded, and that I could get back to my car in 20-25 minutes if I stepped on the gas, so I redoubled my rock-picking efforts and started pushing 7-8 minute miles on the flats until at last I was back at the car, a little over 10 hours after this whole thing had started, and not one of the few people who had actually run the entire course correctly.

All that said, discounting the nearly 2 hours of being lost, and the half-hour of generally screwing around taking pictures and texting/posting to Facebook, my net time was about 7.5 hours, for closer to 40 miles of actual distance (including the parts where I was temporarily going the wrong way). So I really wasn't all that far off of my time goal in terms of actual effort, and, what's more important, that effort felt very reasonable and controlled. I walked away feeling as though it would be possible to run that section of the course like that (minus the Facebook-posting and wrong-turning) in the actual race. Plus, now that I've (unintentionally or otherwise) sandbagged pretty much every run since Beast of Burden in August 2010, nobody will be expecting me to do well, so I'll have the added benefit of surprising everybody on race day (assuming my training doesn't hit an unforeseen snag).

And in conclusion, the MT100s are not designed for rocky East-Coast trail mishaps, as evidenced by the cut in the toe of my shoe from a brief run-in with a rock:

No, really, though, the real conclusion here is this, which I saw at a rest stop on the drive home, and which completely speaks for itself:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lest We Forget . . . Week of 6-12 March

Welcome to a belated update, summarizing last week's antics. Being basically bed-ridden for the past couple of days delayed this, but, better late than never, right?

6 March - 40 minutes (6 miles) in the morning, 55 minutes (8 miles) in the evening

7 March - 21 minutes (3 miles) warmup before weightlifting, 88 minutes (13 miles), in part with the Monday Night Fed Hill Run

8 March - 50 minutes (7 miles) feeling absolutely awful from nothing but donuts to eat at the range all day . . .

9 March - 115 minutes (15 miles), run between 0230 and 0430 - there's some Ash Wednesday observance for you, then later on, another 15 minutes (2 miles), after work, just because.

10 March - 25 minutes, "Kilimanjaro" hill program on the treadmill, which, as I recall, was kinda difficult (3 miles)

11 March - 73 minutes (10 miles), including 5x(3 x 1/5 of a mile, or about 960 meters), on the wacky track (where one loop equals one-fifth of a mile) by Harford Community College. 90 seconds rest between reps, running at just a few seconds over 6:00/mile pace.

12 March - 76 minutes (11 miles), broken up multiple ways, accumulated over the course of helping with the "5th or 6th" Annual Pub Run

Total Time: 558 minutes
Total Distance: 78 miles

A slight drop in mileage from last week, but not too much suffering in the quality department (then again, the "quality" of 960-meter repeats, wherein the exact splits required to demonstrate effective output given level of effort are fairly obscure, is debatable). Also, the first three days of the week (counting the really-late-night Wednesday long run), plus Seneca Greenway on the prior Saturday, represent about 84 miles in four days, which is some of the highest mileage density I've ever put in (outside of a 100-mile race being thrown in, of course). Expect maybe a mileage drop this coming week, as being sick for a couple of days put a damper on my training, and as of right now, it's not entirely clear how quickly I'll ramp back up (although a couple days of rest seems to have done my legs some good).

In closing, I'm following up my discussion of "winning" last week . . . with what will inevitably be an overly-thorough overview of "success." This one has been bouncing around my head for a while, so bear with me while I knock it out:

If you've ever wondered why somebody like me can achieve (at least occasional) success, while somebody (maybe like you) always seems to finish second, then you should probably stop reading now, because this will go in one ear and out the other. And if you aren't really wondering, because you are, by many accounts, pretty successful, then there's not really a good reason for you to read this . . . but then again, a little reassurance never hurt, right?

As I see it, there are three components to success:

1. Talent: Somewhere inside, you need to have aptitude in the area in which you wish to be successful. Either you have natural ability, or you have a knack for picking up a skill quickly. Either way, there is a certain measure of judgment involved here. Knowing how much natural ability is enough, or how fast is fast enough to pick up a skill before you get frustrated and quit and blow the whole thing, is a guessing game worth millions if you're good at it.

2. Opportunity: Relative to your talents, you need to have an opportunity to make them pay off. Whether this is the opportunity that you make or the opportunity that you take is one of those "gray area" debates that I won't delve into here, except to say that in any event, you have to have your eyes open at all times, lest you miss an opportunity.

3. Will: Here's the one where I think people have the most trouble. It's fun and exciting to see that you have a talent, and it's similarly fun and exciting to think about opportunities. What is almost never fun and exciting is having the will to effectively merge the talents with the opportunities. Inevitably, strong will manifests itself in (perfect) practice, patience, and persistence.

In conclusion, to illustrate the above principles, below is a picture of the Canton Can Company Chipoltle on its "Grande Opening" night:

You'll notice that instead of the usual crying and complaining about how difficult it is to put a picture in a location where I want it in a post, I recognized that I had at least some aptitude with HTML, and an opportunity to do it right this time, so with a little bit of will to get the job done, I did it, and recognized success.

(Also note that I only ran by the Chipoltle to take a picture, but did not eat there on opening night, in part because it would have been sacrilege to eat there when I did the "Strides of March" workout on my own, and in part because it was super-busy. However, I congratulate all those who successfully ate there last night.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Winning and Losing

(I will explain the above image later, unless in the interim, somebody explains to me how to force this thing to put an image in the middle of a post. While you're at it, feel free to explain how putting a carriage return in the "Edit Html" window, without any change to the markup, creates a space between paragraphs, while doing the same thing in the "Compose" window does not.)

Welcome to another in a sporadic series of blog posts that don't consist entirely of times and distances run, or race reports. With these posts, I will try to stay out of the realm of the vast majority of content on the internet today, which seems to be divided between thinly veiled cries for attention, and expressions of cravings for various food and drink.

That said, with Charlie Sheen in the news so much lately, and with so much time for me to think about things when I'm running (particularly when I'm spontaneously running around Baltimore City at 3 a.m. on a decidedly dead real Mardi Gras, unlike the fake Mardi Gras this past Saturday night, which included some of the drunkenest mayhem the city has ever seen), every now and then, I find myself ruminating on something besides what the homeless man that I just passed was mumbling in my direction. In this case, I'm thinking about winning, and its less-popular, but often more fun counterpart, losing.

What is winning, really? In a lot of races, you can finish first, thereby "winning," but run a weak time. How valid is this sort of victory? Conversely, in lots of races, you can finish far back in the pack, but shatter a personal record. Is this "losing"?

After some thought, probably while running across the top of Federal Hill and staring vacantly at downtown, I decided that "winning" is when (because this really is time-dependent) a person, putting forth a directed best effort, achieves a goal that is both desirable to the person, as well as people within that person's circle of relevance. "Losing," on the other hand, is when a person, for any number of reasons, fails to put forth a directed best effort, and in so doing, compromises progress towards a goal that is desirable to that person, as well as people within that person's circle of relevance.

You're probably waiting for something to make that more concrete. So was I, and then I happened upon the mangled metal that you saw at the beginning of this post. And I thought, "who is winning?"

It might seem obvious that the owner of the offending vehicle (I'm guessing the ridiculous SUV with the ridiculous Virginia Tech sticker on the back, although how this accident could have occurred is still a mystery to me) is "losing." Who really wants his car (even if it is a Toyota 4Runner) all smashed up? But perhaps the owner of the car loves to smash cars (or perhaps drink or do drugs, if such things were involved in the accident). Perhaps those around the owner of the car share his interests. In that case, this is a massive win for the driver, because that is some of the better car accident debris that I've seen, especially considering that the accident probably happened at a relatively low speed on city surface streets.

Turning the camera around, was I "winning"? In my quest to maximize my running potential, this random late-night 15-mile run, on a sick stomach and only a few hours of sleep, is textbook ultrarunning conditions, and cranking out low-7-minute-miles under these conditions is a huge confidence boost, even if the fitness benefit is debatable. To people who care about that (me included), that's winning. But at the same time, there are many people out there who would question why I might endanger life and limb and endure such conditions, when at that hour, a more "normal" person would be at home sleeping, or engaging in some other, more desirable activity. The idea that either I have no alternative, or, more to the point, I would choose this alternative, casts this as "losing."

In the end, "winning" and "losing" are relative, transient states, each a function of variation in our individual goals, efforts, and circles of people that matter to us. Are you winning? Are you losing? Only you can truly decide that.

(Also, CAR CRASH.)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Week of 27 February - 5 March, and Seneca Greenway 50K Race Report

Okay, first, the numbers:

27 February - Club Challenge 10-Mile Race (we went over this already), 1:06:38, plus about 35 minutes of warm-up/warm-down, for 15 miles total.

28 February - 35 minutes of random hills on the treadmill, set to "15," whatever that means (grades between 1.5% and 11.5%, I suppose), 4.5 miles

1 March - Exactly 29 minutes of running, for some reason, in the vicinity of Patterson Park, 4 miles

2 March - 40 minutes (about 6 miles) at APG, then another 57 minutes, in part with the Falls Road Wednesday night group (another 8 miles) (incidentally, was called a "bullet in the night" as I snuck up on two women running by the park on Ellwood - this was right after a dude on the passenger side of a car stopped at the intersection of Ellwood and Eastern gave me the middle finger, because the woman driving the car - presumably his wife or girlfriend - was checking me out. Most eventful last quarter-mile of a run in a long time.)

3 March - 28 minutes at APG (about 4 miles) - would have run more, but there just wasn't time.

4 March - 73 minutes, Patterson Park/Fells/Canton (about 10 miles) in the morning.

5 March - 4 hours, 19 minutes, some seconds, about 32 miles, Seneca Greenway Trail 50K, 5th place.

Total Time: 623 minutes
Total Distance: 83.5 miles

And now, the race report:

(But before I begin, 20-second commercial break to shout out my Badwater 2011 sponsor, Natural Vitality. Their Organic Life liquid vitamins, Calm Plus Calcium, and NutraRev! are at least partial contributers to the below-described success.)

When I parked my car on the side of River Road at 6:25 a.m. on race morning, I sat for a minute, and briefly considered not running the race. Historically, Seneca Greenway has been a painful introduction to the spring running season, leaving me broken-down, hobbled, and disappointed with my time. Also, there always seems to be a section of the course that never ends, usually somewhere in the last 10 miles. Having been through this three times already, I had to wonder if it made sense to go out there for a fourth round . . .

On the other hand, just about every race that has gone well for me has started almost exactly this way (i.e. recollection of painful memories, and reluctance to start). And, the purpose of this race was to see what, if anything, the past couple of months of training had done for my running, so if I really wanted to know (instead of just sitting around wondering, hence contributing to the anticipation I was feeling as I sat there in the car), I was going to have to get out there . . .

A little background on the race: The Seneca Greenway 50K is a low-key, $20-to-enter, no-prizes, no-promises, the-course-is-probably-too-long kind of race. Which of course makes it theoretically perfect for an early-season training run . . . except for the fact that most of it is on rolling single-track. To be fair, there are no prolonged steep climbs or descents. At the same time, only about 3 miles of the course is road or road-like flat. The constant winding and up-and-down sneaks up on you and leaves you feeling pretty beaten-up, which is probably why none of the finishing times are all that fast. Given that, my goal for the race was not to run a fast time as much as it was to run a solid, strong race until about 5 miles to go, and then give it whatever I had left.

The bus to the start was noisy with ultrarunners talking ultrarunner-talk, the wait for the start was ball-peen cold (a term I have adopted for the kind of cold that's just slightly too cold to be comfortable shorts and a t-shirt, but not cold enough to complain about the cold without sounding like a whiner - you just stand there and it hits you like a ball-peen hammer), and one of the two bagels that I ate before the start was definitely dyed pink, meaning that it was probably at least two weeks old, but all in all, there have been colder, more uncomfortable starts to this race. Then again, a woman came up to me at the start because she recognized me from my Hellgate failure (apparently she was the woman who drove me back to the starting line), and also from my failure at the Ring, and then she mentioned MMT, which I told her I was doing this year, to which she replied incredulously "why would you go back after all that?" . . . to which I graciously replied that it was a bad day, and that some days will be better than others. (Emotional crisis averted.) As Ed gave us the traditional starting command to "get out of here," I felt nothing, and as far as I could tell, that wasn't a bad thing.

Of course, that quickly changed when the race turned into a track meet from the start. I wasn't entirely expecting this, as the crowd at the start didn't look nearly as fast as last year's field. But the old judging a book by its cover thing was clearly failing me here, as the early pace felt way out of line with what I was trying to accomplish, so I held back and was content to let people pass me on the first 3-mile trail segment. In the meantime, a guy asked me about my cut-up MT100s (so far, in every race, at least one person has marveled at how I could run so far in them), and I would have been less irritated with him if he hadn't said "light as a feather . . . must be nice" and then proceeded to pass me.

Once we hit the first road crossing, though, things began to settle down (i.e., people stopped passing me), and I started finding a better rhythm on the trail (this always seems to take me a few miles). For the next five to seven miles, I wasn't actually closing the gap on anybody, but nobody was running away from me, either. Thinking that I probably didn't have the footspeed to chase anybody, and knowing that going all-out wasn't my plan for the race in the first place, I kept telling myself that if I could just keep up a steady pace, sooner or later, the track stars up front would blow up, and the race would come back to me. I had a feeling that, considering that most people rarely run more than two hours at a time, at about an hour and a half, if I was still feeling okay, the tide would start to turn.

And sure enough, it did. I passed the second aid station, a couple of bottles of water, three chocolate wafers, and two generic, suspiciously-yellow Chips Ahoy-style cookies later, finding myself finally gaining ground on the three people who were in sight in front of me (including MT100-marveler). On the trail up to Mile 15, I concentrated on gradually closing the gap. The timing couldn't have been better, as I was coming in for the kill right at the aid station . . .

And then all three of them turned off onto the marathon course, leaving me alone to chew on a rock-hard ginger snap as I began the lake loop. This was a bit unnerving, since I had been keying my effort off of their gradual exhaustion, and now I was left to guess on my own how much I might have left in the tank. I didn't see anybody in front of me, and I didn't want to think about what was behind me. So I shut off my brain to the extent possible (except for the part of me that couldn't stop thinking about how I fell on two bridges running around the lake section last year), and kept my effort under control on the lake loop. It felt as though it was routed longer than last year, but maybe I just blocked a lot of last year's lake loop out.

In any case, I came out of the loop and back to the marathon split-off aid station unscathed, but, as far as I could tell, no nearer to whoever might have been in front of me in the 50K (and now, with the marathon runners on the trail ahead of me, there was no way to tell who was really ahead). Still, being in the position to pick off runners (even if they weren't in my race) was confidence-boosting, so I kept the pace steady, kept passing people, and miraculously, kept two more fake yellow Chips Ahoy cookies from being thrown up (although I could taste the chocolate-flavored bile in my throat).

It was at about this point in the race (somewhere a little past 20 miles) that it occurred to me that this was the furthest I had ever gone in this race without (1) stopping due to nature's call or (2) walking because the trail had burned me out. I attribute the former to spot-on nutrition - not too much food the night before the race, or right before the race, or during the race, but just enough to keep me going (and since my usual diet is fairly low-carb now, it doesn't take too much sugar to keep me going anymore, which is great news for my slow digestive system). I attribute the latter to all the time I've spent running on uneven ground in my cut-up MT100s, and the time I've been spending in the weight room. As I meditated on this, of course, I had my obligatory stumble of the race, on a root, uphill. Being an old pro at these now, I instinctively rolled, rose to my feet, and after about four walking steps to make sure that nothing was knocked loose, continued running the hill.

As I reached the final aid station, I looked at my watch, which didn't actually have the race time on it, since I had accidentally both stopped and reset the timer vaulting a wooden guardrail earlier in the race. By my estimates, the stopped watch incident happened around an hour and a half in, and my watch was now showing about 2:20, so with 7-ish miles to go, I was (relying on admittedly flawed memory here) about 10 minutes faster than my fastest split at this aid station, the only split I ever pay attention to, because usually by this point in the race, I am ready for it to end at any minute. But surprise! I felt strong, and people were telling me that I looked strong, and they weren't lying about it, so now I thought might be a good time to start stepping on the gas and seeing what was left in the tank.

And lo and behold, a target appeared, in the form of a big tall guy in a tri kit, taking his sweet time getting out of the aid station. I passed him as he was adjusting some trivial part of his getup, and he began to chase. Hard. Hard enough that his heart rate monitor was beeping at him every time we would climb or weave through some particularly difficult obstacle, begging for him to stop. Silently, I was begging for him to stop, while at the same time grateful that somebody was forcing me to push the pace. At the first short, steep hill, I took the opportunity to walk, and he thanked me for the nice "cadence," which is when I knew that I would pass him eventually. Over the next section, we passed a few more people, but knowing that I still had a very long 4.5 miles to go, I let off the gas a bit, and he passed me, but this was fine. I kept him within sight until the last aid station, and as we cruised in, I passed him, shoved a bunch of candy hearts in my mouth, and hurried towards that last cruel climb. Passed. (And, according to the photographer at the aid station, looking like I hadn't just run 30 miles.)

With a little over 2 miles to go, I knew that a solid finish was in the bag. Something between 4 hours and 4 hours and 20 minutes seemed like what was going to happen, although I couldn't do the math right then and there. All I knew for sure was that the race was nearly over, I didn't feel nearly as bad as I thought I would, and the candy hearts were still in my mouth, stuffed under my gums because chewing and swallowing them was too distracting at this point. So, time to drop the hammer, and as soon as I hit the road, I dumped my water bottle to lighten the load, and gave it whatever I had left, and, just to make the last mile a little more exciting, started closing in on another runner who was dying. Unfortunately, I wasn't quiet enough, because he heard me coming, looked back, and started picking it up a bit. There just wasn't enough course left for anything short of a Usain Bolt-style sprint to be good enough to catch him. As it turned out, he was in the 50K, and finished 4th, some seconds ahead of me. I finished fifth, in 4 hours, 19 minutes, and some seconds, with a huge smile on my face, tossing my water bottle into the air in celebration, and spitting out the now-useless candy hearts. (Attractive.)

As it turned out, either the course conditions were amazing (they were pretty good, but there have been better years), or the field was stacked at the top, because in the five times that they've done this, my time would have won the race twice, been two minutes short of the winner's time twice, and lost outright only the year that the course record (4:06) was set. (Who knows, a new course record might have been set this year - I didn't stick around to see the results, and they aren't posted yet . . .) I managed the mile-long deathmarch back to the car more comfortably than usual this year, my plate of barbecue not being entirely appealing, but my legs not being completely wrecked either. And, as luck would have it, as I was putting my track suit on by the car, Hellgate woman came running past, asked me how I did, and reacted even more incredulously when I told her my finishing place and time. (So there.) And thus, all business of relevance being finished, I departed. (Wearing the track suit, windows up, heat on full blast . . . never too early to start training for Badwater.)

Overall, this was a very satisfying race, since I accomplished every goal I set out to accomplish: run steady, finish strong, live to run the next day. I had an appropriate pre-race quasi-taper, an appropriate nutrition strategy, appropriate preparation for the course itself, and exerted an appropriate effort level. Could I have run faster? Probably, considering how much I had left at the end. With a less conservative start, a finish of about 10 minutes faster seems plausible; beyond that, who knows. My downhill running has also improved, although not quite to the level that I'd like. So there is definitely more work ahead of me, but this race served as reassurance that I'm on the right track, and that I have a solid base to build on. The future looks pretty bright (even if it is peppered with various foods of questionable nutritional value).

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Loose End

I was going to make this post a dumping ground for a (six-foot) bunch of random running-related thoughts that I've been kicking around recently, none of which I thought I felt sufficiently passionate enough about to create an entire post around. Then, when I started writing about each of them, it turned out that I had a lot to say about each of them, so now I have a (seven-foot) bunch of material that I'll spread out over a(n) (eight-foot) bunch of updates. (Yes, the bass from a Lil Wayne song might be bumping somewhere deep in my brain . . .)

For now, though, in response to a previous comment, the picture above shows what I did to my MT100s so they would stop making the skin on the back of my foot bleed when I wear them sockless. Essentially, I took scissors to them and cut a softer silhouette, in keeping with the original shape of the shoe, thus eliminating the offending sharp edge, while maintaining the (minimally) supportive property of the heel. (Also, I took out the insole, as it was inhibiting forefoot flexibility while providing marginal additional cushion.) The end result is a shoe that doesn't make my feet terribly sad (although the fact that the heel is not zero-drop is starting to bother me, so the next time I have something sharp within a few feet of those shoes . . .). There is still, in my opinion, vast room for improvement in the world of running footwear, but that's a subject for another post.

In the meantime, I'll just carry on cutting up what I have (shoes and blog material alike).