New Houston Hopeful interview: Tamara Karrh

Tamara embodies a kind of runner that I was just talking about yesterday with Coach Sandra: she is a runner who has moved her status from recreational to elite without losing her love of running in the process. Once you step up training and start having to work it around other life commitments — of which Tamara has many, including four young kids — it’s easy to start to experience training as a grind, a burden. As Tamara says, “A lot of it is just the love of it. I love the training…it’s something that I thoroughly enjoy and look forward to each and every day.”

I should note that Tamara is no longer technically a “hopeful”: she qualified for the Trials with a 2:40:22 last fall. This weekend she’s going for the A standard, a 2:39:00 or better.

For the full interview: Houston Hopefuls > Tamara Karrh

Lots of good stuff

So things are a little nuts.

I just started a sizeable corporate writing job, although I capped it at 20 hours a week. It runs through New Year’s Eve. Whee! If I gave you the description of the project, you’d probably wonder why I haven’t shot myself in the face by now. But in fact, it’s just the sort of project that appeals to me. I will be making real improvements to a big mess and the work taps into some of my obsessive-compulsive content strategist skills. I’m even getting to do a little on-the-fly usability work.

I’m putting the finishing touches on my second article for Running Times, the subject of which is “what do race participants want from their race directors?” Sound familiar? Yes, there was a reason behind that survey. To round things out I did some great interviews with directors of races both large and small, along with runner Kim Duclos, of Emerald Nuts Midnight Run gatecrashing fame. Unfortunately, because of tight space considerations, I could only use about 1% of their material. But maybe I’ll use it for something else eventually. That article comes out in December (Jan/Feb issue).

In the meantime, my first paid byline, a portrait of masters Marathon Trials qualifier Tamara Karrh, appears in the November issue, which should be hitting newstands and doorsteps in about two weeks. There is a companion profile for Karrh on Houston Hopefuls. That’s scheduled to autopublish tomorrow (I think — I put it on autopilot for a reason). Now I’m just trying to find the hours to transcribe and publish the latest excellent interview with Chicagoan Julie Wankowski. I may find those hours over the weekend as I…

…jet off to Arizona for a family get together from Saturday through Monday. I’ll have much time in airports and on airplanes. I am also hoping to do some work on the Fifth Avenue Mile elite interviews I did last week. They will take the same structure as my previous “A few minutes with…” pieces. Those seemed to work well and my questions are not tied to the event the runners were here for, so I can take weeks to publish them (much as I hate to). I’ll take this opportunity to say this again: professional runners are delightful people, by and large. They seem to like their jobs and most of them are, I suspect, brighter than the average person. When I find myself sitting there talking to one of them, I still feel like I need to pinch myself.

As far as what you have to look forward to, I had great chats with Shannon Rowbury (who won the women’s race), Leo Manzano, Molly Huddle, Alan Webb and Morgan Uceny. I’ll get those posted eventually. My one mistake with this race was not taking NYRR up on an invitation to sit on the “press truck.” This is a flatbed truck that drives along at the front of the race, outfitted with bleachers, from which gawking members of the press sit rearward, enjoying a panoramic view of the race as it unfolds. Well, that looked like a total gas, if incredibly dangerous. Yeah — like I said: total gas! My hope is that next year I can run in the race myself, go shower at someone’s apartment nearby, then come back and jump on the crazy truck for the elite races.

And there’s more. I’ll be at the finish line (and perhaps also along the course) of the NYC Marathon on November 7th, serving as aide de camp to photographer Stacey Cramp, who’s shooting the event for Running Times. I get a groovy press pass, a nice Asics jacket and entre to a big party on the Friday that kicks off race weekend.

And there may be still more. Later in November, Coach Sandra, who has several parallel careers, is agenting 10 elites from all over the place (people I’ve mostly heard of and, in the case of Adriana Pirtea, met) to a 10K race in her country of origin, the Dominican Republic. I may be able to get comped on travel costs in exchange for doing a writeup. That’s a big “we’ll see” at the moment, but it should be a lot of fun if it happens.

All these developments are almost enough to make me forget that these days I am a runner in theory only. But not quite. It’s been seven weeks since I’ve gone running. Since my insurance sucks, meaning my stratospheric deductibles require that I  pay out of pocket for things like MRIs and bone scans, I am going on the assumption that a stress fracture is what ails me and will take another 4-5 weeks off (or, rather, spend another month doing insane cross-training only and not running at all). Then I’ll try a run. It will have been three months by then. If I’m still in pain, I’ll bite the bullet and shell out the thousands required to look inside myself.

This was a long-winded way of saying that things might quiet down on this blog. But only because my offline life has gotten considerably more noisy.

Except for the running injury, everything else that’s happened is exactly the sort of thing I wanted to happen when I jumped ship from my corporate gig over the summer. Let’s hear it for leaps of faith.

Training: Sept 5-18

Yellow has always meant "day off from running". I am living in a world of yellow.

I was originally going to title this post “Cross-training: Sept 5-18″ but then decided against it. Although “running” has always been synonymous with “training” the fact of the matter is that I can’t run at all anymore. So cross-training is my only training. Therefore, “cross-training” is now synonymous with “training.” I may as well drop the compound and save you a few milliseconds of download time.

A week and a half ago I joined a gym. Now I spend much of my time there. I feel like I’ve been going there for six months.

Cross-training is a total grind, let me tell you. It takes hours. There’s a lot to do: spinning, ellipticalling, weights and circuit training, general stretching/strengthening, and lots and lots and lots of pool running. And it’s all indoors.

Outside the windows of the gym the air is cool, crisp and dry. It’s perfect running weather. I have a terrible feeling that, after suffering through probably the hottest summer I have experienced since moving to NYC in 1984, I will miss the fall entirely and — if I’m lucky, that is — find myself out running in another brutal winter.

But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. I need to focus on the here and now. The exploration into what’s wrong with me continues next week. Or at least I hope it does. The person Sandra wants to send me to is proving difficult to get hold of. In the meantime, I am bracing myself for the worst. Sandra is starting to say things to also prepare me for such eventualities. Things like, “I did this pool running for two months when I had IT band syndrome and ran a good marathon afterwards.” It’s helpful and not helpful.

I got incredibly depressed on Friday evening. Meaning “in tears on the couch with vodka” depressed. I don’t usually do this, but what set it off was trying to run and failing again. Reading about stress fractures keeping people out for six months was also a contributor. And, really, it’s looking at my race times and seeing that the last time I made any real progress was two years ago.

These days, I have a tremendous amount of time to think about things while I’m driving to and from the gym, and plodding along in the pool. I often find myself wondering why I’m so driven to continue. One insight emerged during an interview with Houston Hopeful Julie Wankowski (to be published soon) one evening this week. She described her first sub-3:00 marathon in magical terms. It was one of those rare, ellusive “perfect” races. Such races are transcendental (see also: Flow). Those experiences are among the few during which I’ve felt most alive, masterful and accomplished. I offered to her that those magical races are what keep us striving mentally, despite failure, stagnation, injury and other setbacks. And they keep us training. Or, in my case, cross-training.

Runner survey: results and analysis

The results of my casual (meaning non-scientific) survey of race participants are in. 403 people responded, which I think is a good sampling. They hail from across the spectrum of runner types, from absolute beginners (“Newbies”) to professional elites (well, three of them; I wish I knew who they were).

Download the survey: “What do race participants want?”

Although I “advertised” the survey in many venues (NYRR, USATF and Running Times Facebook pages and the LetsRun.com message boards, as well as via Twitter), I suspect that close to half of the responses originated from the Runner’s World online forums. I shamelessly spammed those forums when responses started dwindling at around 180, and they picked up to a wildly healthy clip in the hours and days after hitting RW.com.

Note that I am not a professional survey maker, nor do I know a thing about statistics. I am a regular person such as yourself. Meaning an amateur.


Groovy pie charts, tables and highlights make for easy comprehension.

Since I have heavily notated the PDF of the results, I won’t post analysis here. If you’re that interested, then click the link below. I will note that there are some excellent ideas for race directors contained herein, and I was very surprised by some of the results, others not so much.

Survey respondents had some great observations and ideas. Like these!

Anyway, once again, in case you missed that first link — read it for yourself by downloading it here: Survey: “What do race participants want?”

Once again, I offer my thanks and gratitude to the 403 runners who took the time to complete the survey.

Reader contest: guess my injury and win a prize!

My coach is officially stumped by my injury. I am much improved and can do everything I want to do (and don’t want to do, like pool run) except run for more than 90 seconds. So next week I embark on seeking more outside help, from expensive people who I’m sure don’t take my insurance.

We both have several ideas about what’s wrong with my ass. Maybe you do too! To make the process of diagnosis a little more fun (actually, let’s face it: it’s not fun in any regard), I’m holding a “Guess My Injury!” contest.

It’s easy to play. Here’s how:

  1. Leave a comment below describing in simple terms (i.e., “Piriformis Syndrome,” “Illiotibial Band Syndrome,” “Brain Cancer”) what you think my injury is.
  2. From the correct answers I will randomly pick a name out of a sauce pan (as I own no suitable hats) and the winner will receive, by email, a Barnes&Noble.com gift card/pin number good for $25 in online purchases. Or at least I think they’re still good.

The contest deadline is whenever I get a fucking diagnosis.

Little progress outside. Lots of progress inside.

I spoke too soon regarding being able to run again. On Monday I did a test run and made it all of two minutes before I had to stop. This beats 20 seconds of running a week ago. The pain was not terrible, but it was there. For the little that I was able to run, I felt really weird. I’m so used to running in the pool now that I felt like I weighed 800 lbs.

Approaching the six week mark of not being able to run, I am getting pretty depressed about this situation. Especially when I see things like the Houston Marathon’s Facebook updates: “Only 20 weeks to go! How’s your training going?” Fuck you, Houston! I don’t want to hear it.

I have more massage scheduled — this remaining knot is tiny, but it’s in a critical spot (deep in the right glute, at the juncture of everything that moves during a forward stride), so it’s enough to hobble me when running, although not while walking. A tiny knot shouldn’t be able to prevent me from running, so the next step is to go see someone to discuss a possible nerve entrapment issue. I’m working on that for next week.

I hate getting faked out like that.

But I’m making tons of progress on the cross-training front, in just six days. I’m a pro at the elliptical now, meaning I can run fast intervals (200+ strides per minute) totally hands-free. I can stand up on a spin bike without whining too much. But the real progress has been in the pool. Witness:

  • Session 1: 30 mins; 8 x 45 second surges with 3 minute rests. Total fast: 6:00
  • Session 2: 35 mins; 5 x 90 second surges with 2 minute rests. Total fast: 7:30
  • Session 3: 35 mins; 5 x 2 minute surges with 2 minute rests. Total fast: 10:00
  • Session 4: 40 mins; 6 x 2 minute surges with 90 second rests. Total fast: 12:00
  • Session 5: 47 mins; 6 x 3 minute surges with 2 minute rests. Total fast: 18:00
  • Session 6: 50 mins; 7 x 3 minute surges with 90 second rests; 3 x 30 all out with 45 second rests. Total fast: 22:30

Yes, it’s boring to read. Too bad. I need to have little goals while I do this stuff or I will lose my mind. Tomorrow I go for 6 x 4 minute surges with 90 second rests. I am told that I need to work up to doing 5 minute surges as the immediate goal, and eventually work up to 30 minutes of solid hard pool running. Khalid does this for an hour. I have a goal to eventually work up to that as well. Why not?

Spinning: initial impressions

First an injury update: I am so much better that I’ve been given the all clear to go to the track on Monday and attempt a run. I can run until I feel pain, or for 40 minutes, whichever comes first.

Okay, this morning was the third day of my gym-enabled cross-training odyssey. I was told to meet Coach Sandra for the 9:15 spin class. I have never spun. I admit that the first time (about 12 years ago) that someone said they “did spinning” I couldn’t imagine what that meant: spinning around and around? Crazy Manhattanites!

No, like most things it turned out to be a case of some normal activity having been rebranded (and made expensive) by someone much smarter than I. It’s more than stationary cycling. It’s Spinning®! See? Now you can charge a lot for it.

So I apparently did everything wrong today. I’m getting used to this. First I showed up to the spinning studio to find people frantically wiping down the bikes as if there’d been a toxic spill in there. I was trying to figure out if they worked there, but they definitely didn’t, as they resembled me. So then I was trying to determine if they were from the last class, or waiting for the next one. I think it was a mix.

My first question: why bother detoxifying your bike at the end of the class if the next person is going to detoxify it themselves anyway because they didn’t trust you to do it?

With some unease, I saunter over to a bike that’s not receiving this extended foreplay from anyone. I suppose I can claim it, but I have misgivings since people seem strangely attached to certain bikes. I start to adjust its seat and, just as I’m about to climb on, a woman (who was nice about it) comes up and says, “That’s my bike.”

Why does being in this gym take me back to Junior High shop class? I don’t know how anything works and I’m in danger of sawing my fingers off. I continue my strategy of asking strangers for help and she directs me downstairs to a desk where I have to ask for a bike. She helpfully adds that if there are none available, I can come back up and see if the person who claimed it doesn’t show up at 9:15. Then it’s mine for the spinning.

There are no bikes, according to the front desk guy. So I go back up and spot one lonely bike. Sandra is still nowhere to be seen. So I wait for 9:15 and climb on it. The music starts. What I’ve dreaded: I have no idea who it is, but it’s mindless, loud and shrieky. Fortunately, this club understands its demographic and soon enough they are playing Stones, Hendrix and (meep! bad choice!) Golden Earring. Take that, Gen Xers!

Sandra comes tearing in and finds the other sole bike, up at the front, near the instructor’s. (Can you guess why I didn’t take that one?) She questions me with a thumbs up. I return the thumbs up and we’re off.

The class starts. It’s led by a woman wearing something that looks like a customer service headset. She seems calm. But in five minutes she’ll be yelling at us: “Go fast! Turn the knob a quarter turn right! Stand up! Sit down! Position 2! Saddle!” It reminds me of the sole Catholic Mass I went to one Christmas Eve (don’t ask). As happened on that evening, everyone seems to magically know what to do when. I can’t make her out half the time over the din, and I always seem to be standing up or sitting down at the wrong time.

I pedal like mad and realize that standing up while pedaling is hard. At first I lean my forearms on the handlebars, but that’s tiring. So I figure out that you need to be very straight and move your feet as though you’re stomping grapes. It’s somewhat similar to the elliptical in that regard. I also realize that I pedaled too hard during the warmup (and my legs are shot from two days of elliptical and water running) and I’m already tired at seven minutes in.

The next 38 minutes go by slow. The music helps to distract me. I can see why it’s there. Plus we’re supposed to pedal in time to some songs — but not to others! It’s all very confusing. But I eventually figure out how to pedal while standing properly (and see that doing this at higher resistance is easier than at lower resistance). My thighs are burning, as are my calves. This is what is supposed to be happening. I will be spinning throughout marathon training — three times a week. It is Sandra’s substitution for hill workouts.

Then 10 minutes of stretching. Then 30 minutes in the pool, pool running again. I’ve gotten better with yesterday’s practice. But I’m told I need to go faster. If I’m not hurting, I’m not going fast enough. This is becoming a common theme.

Then, after that, it’s back to Sandra’s massage table where I am, amazingly, a lot better. Like at 95% of perfect. I have no idea what’s happened — whether it was the last session, or the pool running or what — but I have one remaining knot (the one in the gluteus) and it’s tiny. We will still work to get rid of it, but at least when I’m walking and doing all this other stuff, it’s not even something I’m aware of.

Even if I can start running again next week, we won’t do hard running until October. I like that she’s cautious, given my history. With all this other stuff I can do to maintain/build fitness, there is no reason not to be cautious.

Next week: the weight room.

Survey SAYS!…

Well, that’s up to you, really.

Here’s an online survey I threw together to gather input from runners about what they want from race directors.

Take the survey now. You know you want to.

Various and sundry

Just a bunch of random stuff.

The injury clouds part (seemingly)

My right hamstring and ass felt — well, they felt normal today, actually. Which for me means they felt fantastic. I felt nothing there — like a normal person. No pain, no limping. Are you generally aware of your ass and hamstring? Well, me neither! I think giving $200 to a gym yesterday must have cured the problem. Ha ha. See? I haven’t lost my sense of humor.

So I hinted to Coach Sandra via an email this evening that I’d like to try running soon. In a typically terse response (English is not her native language, so she’s a telephone kind of gal), she said not to run (I picture her picturing me as a troublemaker, going all rogue on her and her plan). Or, rather, she thinks I should try again on Monday. That’s fine, as I was going to give the wonderfulness of a pain-free ass and leg time to establish itself as something that isn’t temporary.

Cross-training continues

I did another session, this time on my own, on the evil elliptical. It went better. I was able to run hands-free when “ellipticaling” (what do you call what you do on the elliptical?) normally. I still had to grab on for the faster surges I did, but not as much. I’ve determined that you need to change your form slightly when moving faster. I’ll try again on Sunday, probably.

Then, after some stretching I’ve been assigned, another 30 minute bout of pool running, also on my own. This I can confidently say that I’m getting the hang of. I was able to establish good running form, and with that I proceeded to do a bunch of 45 second intervals. It still sucks, but at least I know what I’m doing now.

And now, a few hours later, I am beat.

Tomorrow is another virgin voyage, a spin class. This is a break from the elliptical that I welcome. Also, the spin bike supposedly doesn’t engage the gluteus in the way a regular stationary bike (which I have at home) does. After spinning, it’s — yes — another half an hour of pool running. Then another aggressive session of myotherapy.

Another day, another byline

I got my second assignment from Running Times. This time it’s for the feature in the Racing section (toward the back of the magazine, after the regular features) for the Jan/Feb issue. I won’t give away too much, but I will say that I will be asking the online runnersphere to participate in a survey that I’m putting together. I hope to launch that tomorrow afternoon. Your participation is important! And I’m looking for input from the entire spectrum of runningdom, not just you highly competitive types. So get ready, people. A detailed survey is coming.

As for the first one, a profile of masters phenom Tamara Karrh, who qualified for the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials with a 2:40 (!) — that should appear in the November print edition in roughly a month.

Bye bye, Summer — don’t let the door hit you

I think we’ve seen the last of the hellacious dryer blast weather. It’s cool and lovely here. I wish I could run in it, but for now it’s enjoyable to get up and feel a cool breeze wafting in. Sometimes I just go sit outside on our porch to feel the non-heat and non-humidity. The cat is in a considerably better mood these days too.

The elliptical and pool running: initial impressions

Today I made my way up to Briarcliff Manor to Club Fit, a HUGE gym off of Rt. 100. Coach Sandra lives about 5 minutes from the gym and is herself embarking on an ambitious regimine of cross-training and will be spending 2-3 hours a day on her own fitness activities. And Club Fit was having a deal — two months for cheap (for both Jonathan and me), no long-term commitments. Perfect timing! Sandra can show me the ropes and probably train with me more days than not, assuming we can coordinate our schedules.

It’s bigger, cleaner and more well-appointed than the Y. And about the same price. For now. I’ll worry about the fact that it’s 3x as expensive annually later on.

I have never belonged to a gym. I had been to one gym exactly once in my life prior to this — a visit to my (sort of) in-laws’ gym in Pretoria, South Africa a few years back. I was totally overwhelmed that day and similarly overwhelmed today. I felt like a hapless member of some remote Amazon tribe, plunked down in the center of the Mall of America. How do these lockers work? Where do I find the tiny towels? Is it okay for me to be naked in this room? What’s this thing for?

I threw myself on Sandra’s mercy and, when she occasionally disappeared into the multi-corridored abyss, on the mercy of those around me. It worked out. I’m in at least through October. I may just keep the membership beyond that as they have a 200m indoor track and I get really pissed off about not being able to do track workouts all winter. Plus they have about 30 elliptical machines, three pools and a sauna, among other goodies. It’s a good thing I don’t have a real job, as I’ll be spending quite a lot of time there over the coming eight weeks. I’m apparently still expected to go there, even when I can run again, to do major weight work twice a week and spinning, both of which Sandra swears will pay dividends when I hit the last 10K of a marathon.

First, the elliptical. At first, this felt like an exercise machine designed by a prankster. Whee! Your feet go round and round, but you feel like you’re going to fall off the fucking thing every five seconds. So today’s session was “learning how to use the elliptical.” I started out holding on for dear life, then learned to relax my hands (which was good, because my shoulders were killing me after 10 minutes). Eventually, I got to where I didn’t have to hold on and could mimic a proper running form. I was told that this was good progress, less spastic than most. But when trying to run faster, all bets were off. I still couldn’t keep my hands off the thing, the little temptress, when trying to do faster running. I’m told in two weeks I’ll be doing intervals like a pro. Okay.

Elliptical grade: B

Next, pool running. The first thing I discovered is that the AquaJogger belt sucks dead donkey dicks. I may as well strap a large block of styrofoam to myself with duct tape. It’s about as streamlined and comfortable. The thing rides up and fucks with whatever progress I’m managing to make with my “form,” which in itself is laughable. Since I’m going to be doing a lot of this, I’m biting the bullet and buying what Sandra had on, a Wet Vest. It’s thin and it actually fits. Sure it looks like a giant diaper, but that is the very feature that keeps the thing from riding up around your neck.

Simply put, pool running is really hard. It’s difficult physically, in that getting to a point where you’re using an actual running form is hard to do. And it’s difficult mentally. You run and run and run and, while you go somewhere, it’s nowhere fast. Imagine running a 400m repeat as hard as you can while trying to push a wheelbarrow full of sand. That’s what pool running feels like. Side note: the upper body work involved is not to be sneezed at. Sandra says I’ll have incredible strength up top after about six weeks of this. Maybe I’ll be able to bench press the elliptical.

I’ll get better at it with work. But learning how to run in the pool reminds me of taking ceramics a few years back and trying to learn to “throw” clay — meaning form symmetrical objects on a wheel spinning at incredibly high RPMs. Preferably things like vases that didn’t weigh 30 lbs. It got easier, but it took forever to make even a little progress. I finally decided that I would save ceramics for my old age, when I would presumably have a lot more free time for messy, pointless endeavours. I’m motivated to move along the learning curve of this particular messy endeavour as quickly as possible so I can actually get some real training done. For my bigger pointless endeavour.

Pool running grade: C

If you don’t like reading about the elliptical, pool running, weights and spinning, then stay away from this blog for the next couple of months. I hope I can run again at some point, but I have put it out of my mind. At least I have plenty to distract me in the meantime.

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