2011: a look back

This year was not about racing, training, injury or mileage. It was about survival, observation, change, trust and taking risks.

I ended 2010 with some resolutions. I didn’t do half bad at sticking to them. With the exception of Facebook.

January

I started the year by attempting to let go of all plans and expectations. Considering how the next few months panned out, that was probably a good call.

The year started with baby steps back into running after 2010 ended with roughly four months of no running at all due to a stress fracture. For weeks and weeks after I started back again, I had adductor pain. Since I was turning into a whale I started working with a nutritionist to try to lose weight. That turned out to be a total waste of money and time.

The depression that had been knocking at my door in the fall managed to knock the door off its hinges and come stomping into my mental foyer wearing muddy boots. It was competing with some projects I did: a podcast on eating disorders in which, perhaps ironically, depression was a hot topic, as well as what would turn out to be my final interview for the Houston Hopefuls project.

The depression won. But at least I was running again.

I also discovered some fateful podcasts.

February

On February 1st I registered for the Chicago Marathon. Because I was still thinking there was an outside chance that I might actually have a hope of eventually running an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier for 2012. Oh, the folly.

I dipped my toe back into racing, mostly to see if my sacrum would crack again. I was slow. But not ridiculously so. My body parts remained intact.

I published my third piece for Running Times. That would also be my last one of the year. I closed my business’ books today and noted that I made a grand total of $450 writing for Running Times and Runner’s World in 2011. I have not enthusiastically sought more work from Rodale since then.

I was picking up from square one of the plan (former) Coach Sandra had given me way back in July.  I got back up to 50 mpw and did some hard workouts. We were working long distance at this point and would fall out of touch soon after. That was actually okay with me. It removed some pressure.

I still kept hold of the Trials dream. But it was slipping away. While February allowed some progress on the running front finally, it was my low point mentally. The running was kind of the only thing that was working as I otherwise held on by my fingernails.

March

In early March the bear got me again. I had a dental crisis. I was in a bad, bad way. But I was taking steps in my non-running life to right my little dingy. It was hard work, involving facing a lot of very unpleasant stuff and giving it the credit it was due. By month’s end, however, I was seeing progress.

A few days later I ran Coogan’s and it was alright, perhaps even pretty good. I started to reacquaint myself with the human race too. Another good call.

Then Sally Meyerhoff died. That really affected me. I paid tribute to her at the tail end of our little podcast. I thought a lot about time’s value and what a crime it is to squander it.

During March the work I was doing on myself started to pay dividends. I emerged from the mud, escaped the clutches of the bear. But I would only get a short reprieve. Life would rear its head again soon enough.

But, still, I was running and running pretty well again at that, despite lots of little setbacks and frustrations. That was worth a lot.

April

I regained fitness, slowly but surely.

We saw one of the most exciting Boston races in years. We also lost another great.

I also decided to not go to Chicago and instead eat the registration fee and go closer to home in Syracuse. Yeah, I still believed. Dream not dead. Yet.

At the tail end of the month my stepmother nearly died of complications from heart surgery. This was an ordeal that went on for weeks and weeks. My running dropped off tremendously in April and May. I took 14 days off in May alone. Something had to go.

May

I ran one of the worst races in my short competitive career, out on Long Island. Some of life’s greatest gifts come in the form of being kicked in the teeth, and this was no exception. During this race I had the epiphany that I needed to have: I wasn’t ever going to run an Olympic Trials qualifying time. Moreover, maybe long distance wasn’t for me at all.

By this time Sandra was no longer coaching me, which was fine since I would have been wasting her time given all the changes and interruptions. I found a 10K training plan online and just followed that for awhile.

I also realized that my cat is a lot better at meditating than I am.

I started a crazy freelance gig that required a three hour commute every day and had wildly unpredictable hours (I was there until 10pm with no prior warning some nights). Nevertheless, I committed to getting up at 5am to do training. I also decided to spend the next few months trying to shed extra weight through aggressive calorie restriction.

June

By June my stepmother was better and out of the hospital. But I was full bore freelancing this crazy gig. Which had me rushing through pre-dawn workouts, and it’s never good to rush a warmup because — you guessed it — I got injured! Fuck. Again! Bad calf pull.

That had me out of the Mini 10K, which I’d really wanted to run. But, okay, whatever. Things were basically on the upswing.

July

This month would represent a turning point in many respects.

My June injury healed up. My running would start to improve in a dramatic way.

On July 4 I committed to training to run the fastest road mile I could (this year): the Fifth Avenue Mile. I finally got smart about my training, keeping the mileage low and cutting workouts from three a week to two (with any races substituting for a workout). I would remain uninjured for the remainder of the year. And I’d get faster. Good job, Julie! You can still learn things through observation.

A few days later an outstanding person from Canada Googled “marathon” and “Brooklyn,” got me in the results, and then invited me to the world premier of her show, which I almost didn’t go to because the words “one woman show” strike fear in my jaded heart. But I followed my instinct and went. And I loved it. Then I somehow managed to trick her into becoming a good friend for the absurdly low entry cost of a sandwich. Then getting to know a real performer put some crazy ideas into my head that would start to take root in the fall.

Then I had more lunch with some far flung blogger friends (and some who are closer to home). That was fun.

Despite all the lunches, I was 15 pounds lighter by month’s end.

August

My nightmarish freelance gig concluded and had a couple of weeks recovery before beginning another that was much, much saner, one that allowed me to sleep past 7am most days. My training was, I dare say, going well.

Then I capped off the month with an exciting hurricane weekend in the Poconos with two runner lady friends.

September

I had a kind of spectacular track workout.

I waxed rhapsodic about social media.

I started taking baby steps, with a small group of strangers, toward realizing a long-festering dream of performing, disguised as an attempt to get over my terror of public speaking. But I really just wanted an excuse to talk about myself and try to be funny.

I had a couple of good tuneup races (in Tuckahoe and in Riverside Park) while keeping my eye on the prize: the run down Fifth Avenue late in the month.

I had the race I’d waited three years for. I broke six minutes. Then the day just got better. It was a happy day. And you know what? I fucking deserved it.

October

I lamented the backward slide of track and field policy. I may have even changed (or at least opened) a mind or two in the process.

I considered that perhaps my running a sub-20 minute 5K is not a patently absurd idea after all.

Also, my recently listless, skinny and perpetually thirsty Zen cat was given a diabetic death sentence.

November

I got up on a stage and told a story. People laughed. Or were horrified. But in more or less the right places.

I also won a big-ass trophy.

December

I nabbed a new 5K PR in Bethpage, Long Island.

And here we are. Next stop: 2012.

What are my goals for this year? They are huge, for one thing. Mightily ambitious. They are the kinds of goals you think about setting for yourself when you read about a woman in her twenties getting hit by a truck.

Some of these goals have to do with running and some not with running.

I am not sharing them ahead of time because that’s never worked out well for me. But also because many of them are more qualitative than quantitative in nature. As such, they are harder to measure — and maybe harder to reach. Many of them are not limited to this year. I’m starting them this year, is all. I’ll see where they go and how long it takes to get there.

I will, however, let you know when I reach them. And I do intend to reach them.

Also, Zen cat is still alive, and once again broad-shouldered, energetic and no longer thirsty. Anything’s possible when you throw enough expensive cat food at the problem.

Happy New Year!

Google Search Oddities

“how injured runners keep from going insane”

Yes. I know. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. Some of us for much, much longer than others.

This is all I’ve got.

A few minutes with Jenny Simpson

Jenny (Barringer) Simpson’s running résumé is so impressive that it’s difficult to choose among the highlights. A 2008 Olympian in the 3000m steeplechase, breaker of numerous collegiate records and one American record, and, most recently, gold medalist in the 1500m at worlds — the first American woman to win gold in that event since Mary Decker-Slaney won it in 1983. Needless to say, I was thrilled to get a chance to sit down with her. Incidentally, Simpson won the Fifth Avenue Mile this year.

When you win a gold medal and walk down the street in the event’s home city, do people recognize you?
That was one of the strangest things. I left the stadium to go to dinner that night. Even on the way to dinner there were people stopping us on the street for pictures. It wasn’t just Koreans, it was people visiting, all kinds of people.

Was that odd for you?
It was very strange. Of course, I’m very flattered and want to be accomodating  and take pictures with people. But it’s just so strange to be walking down the street and having people say, “Oh, my gosh! You won the gold medal. Can we have a picture?” Two or three days later, my husband and I were supposed to meet each other at a train station. We couldn’t find each other and once we finally did find each other we needed some help in order to make our train on time. The security guard was more than happy to accomodate us because he knew that I’d won a gold medal. It’s just so strange to have a security guard working in the train station know who we were.

When you watch a race, everyone’s wearing Nike kits. But you went with New Balance. How come? What did they offer you that someone like Nike didn’t?
I had the beautiful luxury of being in a situation where I had several different companies that I could visit and ultimately choose from. It ended up being a scenario very similar to college. If you’re good in high school and you get five full scholarship offers, at that point you’re deciding what the best fit is for you. I felt like I had full scholarships from all of these places and at the end of the day I was able to decide who was the best fit for who I am and what I want to try to accomplish.

What I found in New Balance was an incredible family. From the moment I met these people I felt that they genuinely wanted to be a part of making my career as great as it could be. I wasn’t necessarily simply a vehicle for their product. They were able to communicate that to me the best. I know that they have a lot of resources, but they keep their team relatively small. All those things were really attractive to me.

They seem to reward loyalty with loyalty. When you look at someone like Khalid Khannouchi, who’s been with them since the mid-nineties — they’ve supported him through eight years of injury. It’s really kind of amazing.
One of the main things I considered when I was looking for a college was how many people went on to compete professionally after going to there. What’s the success, the longevity of their runners? So when it came time to choose a sponsor, I wanted to compare the relative size of the company to the number of people that they sponsor. New Balance is impressive in that they are incredibly loyal to the people they sign. Through the good years and bad years they take ownership of the people they signed and who’ve been with them for years. I just think that’s a really honorable thing to do.

If you run for a shoe company like New Balance, but you can’t quite find a pair of shoes that works for you, will they customize shoes for you?
Absolutely. And with New Balance it’s even easier because their factory is in the US. It’s not like you go get fitted and then they send it out to China. You can walk to the factory in Lawrence, just outside of Boston, and they make your shoes for you there. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to walk to the factory and see the people working on your shoes and on your products. That’s a whole other inspiring side of the company. They’re true to their message in that they employ US workers and keep it US made. That meant a lot to me.

I’m interested in the fact that you moved down in distance. That’s unusual. You were an outstanding steeplechaser and then moved down to the 1500. What drove that decision?
I’ve always wondered if anyone else leaving college has ever moved down. I can’t think of anyone.

Well, there’s you and Anna Pierce.
That’s true. When I was racing in 2009, everyone remembers when I went to Prefontaine and broke four minutes in the 1500. That was really a game changer for me. In that moment we realized that there was a whole other part of middle distance racing that I had an aptitude for. I went on and finished my track and cross country seasons, just as we’d planned to do.

But I always knew in the back of my mind that I had this great ability in the middle distances. So when I no longer had the opportunity to stay in Boulder, I was looking for a coach. I know how to train for a steeplechase and for a 5k. What I really don’t know is the highly specialized skills for the 800 and 1500. I looked for a coach specifically for middle distances and found an incredible match in Juli (Benson) Henner at the Air Force Academy. She’s done exactly that: taken the things I’m already good at and made me so much better.

Do you miss the steeplechase?
I do miss it. I miss it because I was so familiar with it. I miss it because I had a lot of success in it. The 1500 can be a little bit of a crapshoot. You go out and know you have a certain ability, but tactics are so important in that race. A great example is Brussels. I ran 4:03 and that’s a really great time. But I was in back, near last. So it can be really trying in that sense. You can have a great time, but a poor performance. Or you can win, but people will accuse you of racing a slow time. So in that sense you have to hold your own, and just own that you’re good at this event and that you’re going to keep getting better.

The steeple is more consistent as far as running similar times, and the event itself is definitely not as deep as the 1500. So if you’re running around seventh in the world you’re always going to place somewhere between fifth and tenth in the world.at the world championships. It’s a very different dynamic in that sense. More predictable.

All I know is that every time I watch the steeplechase, I’m always afraid for the runners. It looks so hazardous, especially when you go over the water jump.
I know! It is. I used to say that the steeplechase is the NASCAR of track and field because everyone comes to watch the crashes.

Have you raced any road miles?
I’ve never run a road mile. This is my first one. I’m very excited.

How do you think it will differ for you from a tactical standpoint?
Everyone is going to be missing that comfort of knowing exactly where you are every step of the race. When you’re on the track, you know in every moment, “I have 520 meters to go, I have 150 meters to go.” We’re so comfortable running those curves and knowing where we are. So I think it’s going to miss that level of comfort. Given how deep the field is, how good the field is, this year, I think it’s going to turn into a really exciting race.

How will you warm up for this race?
I do the same warmup for every single race and workout. I start with a short run and some dynamic stretches. Then I’ll run really easy for 15 or 20 minutes and then start my drills and my strides. All of that is really standard and set in stone. The one thing that isn’t set in stone is when you put on your spikes. That’s determined by the event. If it’s something like the world championships, where we have to go through a lot of call rooms, I’ll wait until we get into the call rooms to put on my shoes. If it’s a really relaxed race like Rieti, I’ll put on my spikes while I’m still doing my warmup.

Is that a mental transition you’re making as well, when you put on your spikes?
Absolutely. You put on your spikes and everything from that moment on is faster, a little bit more explosive, more intense.

Here’s a fly on the wall question. Those of us who are amateur runners don’t know what happens in a championship race. Beforehand, are you all herded into the same room together? What’s actually happening before we see you all out on the track?
I’m kind of a nerd, probably. But I always thought it would be interesting to write a short story just on that process, going from the warmup area to the track.

We don’t know what happens. We see you come out…
Yeah, it’s kind of a black box thing.

Are you thrown together, or are you given some space?
It depends on the venue. I’ll use the last world championships as an example. We go into the call room around 45 minutes before we go to the start line. At a typical race, that’s usually not long after you would start your warmup. So we have a 50 minute warmup and then we have 45 minutes in these call rooms.

You have to sit around for 45 minutes?
Yeah. We go into the first call room and they have to check everything. They check your bibs on the front and on the back. They have to make sure that all your logos are in compliance. They have to make sure you don’t have anything in your bag that you can pull out that’s noncompliant. Then they check your spikes, they check your uniform. They go through all of this for every single person in the field. They divide all those jobs between call room one and call room two. When you’re in call room two, there’s typically a place for you to do some strides, run around, do some drills. Call room two is where we all put our spikes on.

But while you’re in the first call room, you’re literally sitting in a small room with all the people you’re going to be racing. It’s usually really quiet. It’s kind of tense. By the time you get to call room two people are kind of shaken out again, they’re doing their strides, putting their shoes on. At that point — this what you all see — in our warmups, with our backpacks, we all walk out onto the track. At the point we usually have about five minutes, just enough time to put in one or two strides before we have to take all of our clothes off and step to the line.

Well, you don’t take all of your clothes off.
I should say all of our warmups off.

If you took all of your clothes off it might increase track and field viewership.
[Laughs] That’s true!

I want to ask you about the 2009 race in which you broke the NCAA 5k indoor record*. It was the most bizarre video, because it looked like you were running the race alone. I remember wondering how you kept up that effort while running solo. How do you run like that when there’s no one else around you to push you?
That was such an unusual situation for two reasons. For one, I was racing by myself. The other other funny thing about that video is that no one knows that anything’s going on.

Right! There are guys wandering out on the track. No one knows what’s happening.
Exactly. Something else that was unusual about that race was the track. It was something like 308 meters. A really strange distance. So the splits are in different places all around the track. There’s no way for an athlete by themselves to know the splits for a 5k going around that track. They designate someone to run around the track and give splits. I’d separated myself from the group and so the guy giving splits had to decide, “Do I give splits to the girl that’s winning or to the rest of the group that’s racing?” He made the decision — and I applaud him for this — to give splits to the majority of the group and let me go and do my thing. But at this point I’m at 2k, not even halfway into the race, and I have no information about how I’m running.

The absence of knowing where I was in the race or how fast I was going actually made me run better. It made me run so much better. I think it was a combination of no knowing — the bliss of not knowing — and the fact that I had this little bit of fear. I set out that day wanting to run 15:20. I knew that was going to be difficult to do. So I had this feeling, “If I slow down I don’t know if I’m going to be on pace anymore.” So that drove me to keep picking it up every lap. It was funny, too — my coaches are very calm, collected people. But they started looking more and more frantic each time I came around. And I was thinking, “Oh, my gosh. Is this not going as well as I thought it was?” I felt really under control, really good.

Did they think you were running too fast?
No. They were so excited. They thought, “Man, she looks so good! She’s running every single lap better and better and better.” So I just misinterpreted their reaction. They were all excited about what was going on. So it was for reasons of ignorance that I kept running harder and harder and better and better. When I crossed the line and saw 15:01 I didn’t think that was right. When you’re racing out there by yourself, I think it’s so important — and I said this about the 1500 in Daegu — to focus on yourself and how you feel. People ask me all the time, “What are you thinking about?” I’m thinking about running, what I’m doing, how I’m feeling. If you focus on yourself and forget about the time or the people around you, you’ll get the most out of yourself. That’s how I run solo races.

*I can’t find the video for this race. If anyone out there has a link, please share it!

A few (more) minutes with Shannon Rowbury

I interviewed Shannon Rowbury at last year’s Fifth Avenue Mile. This year she was as gracious and candid as she was a year ago. Rowbury was on the comeback trail for virtually all of 2011 after struggling with injuries, which were a central topic in our conversation last year. Rowbury finished seventh in the 2011 edition of the run down Fifth Avenue. She looked a little disappointed coming in, but was all smiles afterwards. Fun fact: my brother-in-law was close friends with Rowbury’s dad when they were little kids. Here’s last year’s interview.

You recently did a commercial for Dick’s Sporting Goods. I know you studied film in graduate school. What was it like for you to perform in front of the camera?
It was really fun, seeing how the professionals do it. I studied film in college and had I not gone the running route I would have tried to get involved in film production. I did some lower level things in college, but to really be a fly on the wall, watching how the pros get it done, was really cool. It gives you an appreciation for how much work goes into a 30 second spot. There was an all-day session with me. They’d been filming for the day or two before. Then they filmed the day afterwards. All of that just to go into a short commercial. Everyone was really friendly and it was cool to talk to them and learn from them. I’d love to be able to do more stuff like that, either on camera or off – both sides were really fun and exciting to me. I always wonder, when I finish with running, what I’ll do with myself. I want to have a family, but I also have too much energy to not have a career. It’s cool to observe something like that and it makes you feel like, “Okay, I’ll find something.”

You seem comfortable when you speak in front of people. Were you also comfortable in front of the camera?
I was. You know, it helps when you’re working with friendly people. They’re positive, they give you corrections, you try to adjust accordingly. Something like running in front of the camera, running is so natural, so it’s pretty easy. With my dance background, figuring out timing wasn’t too bad. I had fun with it. Compared to standing on the starting line at the Olympics or something, I thought, “This is easy, I’m not nervous at all.”

You’re defending two wins here. Do you feel like there’s more pressure on you this year since you’ve won the last two years?
Not too much. I want to win again because I love this race and it’s such a fun way to end the season. I feel like I’m a good road racer and have a good track record with road miles. This year, with all my injuries, I wasn’t sure if I’d even make the world team. To even have been able to race was exciting for me. I was very disappointed with how worlds turned out. But as I try and process everything and take in the bigger picture, I’m just excited and happy to go out and step on the starting line tomorrow, back in the US finally. And try and defend my title, try and get three in a row. It’s a great field of women and I know they’re all competitive. So they’ll all be fighting for it as well. I’m just going to do my best to be the best out there on Saturday.

You’ve always won by doing a last minute surge in the last 20 meters. Is that your strategy again this year?
Well, I don’t want to give anything away. But I think what’s neat about the road mile is that because there’s no turns, it’s not as tactical. You can be literally eight, nine, ten women across and you’re not in any sort of disadvantage. I like that about the race. I’m a tough competitor. I’ll grit it out if I have to and keep myself right in it. In every race, if you can’t hold it together the last 50 meters, you’re not going to do well. And that’s something I’ve sort of struggled with in track races. So I’ll keep working on that. Even though this is the road verses the track, it’s still a great place to practice.

I had a question about 1500 track racing. Oftentimes, when you watch them there’s almost a pattern, where in the third lap there’s this almost perceivable pause during which everyone seems to be gathering themselves for the last lap. Does the equivalent happen in a road mile?
Here it’s interesting because with the road mile it is sort of affected by the terrain. So here we have the first half mile that’s down, then up. Then you hit the half mile mark and you start pretty much going down. I remember my first year racing here, they said over and over again, “Make sure you don’t go too early. You’re going to hit the half mile mark and it’s going to look like you’re finishing. But you’ve still got 800 meters.” So I think it’s different. When you can see the finish line, straight in front of you, I think people get antsy and excited. With the 1500, because it’s laps, it can get almost predictable, because everybody has the same strategy going into it. “Lap one, I do this. Lap two, I do that. Lap three, I prepare. And lap four, I go.” When you’re on the road and you kind of have markers, but it’s harder to tell, it takes a little bit more finesse, maybe. Each person’s going to have a slightly different plan.

Can you comment on how strong and deep the field is this year?
I looked at the starting list and I was pretty impressed by it. In previous years we’ve had some international athletes, but it’s been largely US and Great Britain. This year we’ve got the top US women, the top Brit, a Norwegian athlete, German athletes. We’ve got a bunch of women, which I think is fun. For me, it hasn’t been the best year because I was injured early on but I’m still excited to go out there and race the best in the world, whether it’s on the track or on the road. Just test myself and see how I can do. So I think it’s going to be a really good race out there. We have 5K runners, we have 800m runners, so it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. You’re going to have both ends of the spectrum: people who want it to be slow with a kick, and people who want it fast from the gun, and then the milers inbetween, who aren’t really sure what we want. So, yeah, I think it’ll be an exciting race.

Can you talk about your injuries this year? What happened?
I had a series of Achilles injuries. First I hurt my right Achilles in October [2010] and struggled with that for a few months. Right as that was recovering my left Achilles started hurting. I think maybe from overcompensation, I’m not sure. But basically it was 6-8 months of struggling with that. The Achilles is a hard animal to tame because it’s different from other things. My last major injury was in 2007, when I had a stress fracture in my hip, and that I thought was challenging because you’re hip is the main joint of the body. But it’s also protected by a lot of muscles and tendons. So as long as you can be strong in other places, you can kind of get by. With the Achilles, it’s just the Achilles. So if it’s in a bad mood, it dominates everything. So I had to learn patience. I had to learn how to deal with a tendon injury, which was something I’d never had before. And manage my own crazy, wanting to train and feeling like time was slipping by. But you can’t will yourself to be healthy. You have to just give it the time that it needs.

Last year you told that your 2007 injury was ultimately a positive event because it made you reexamine your training. So did you have a different perspective this time around on being an “injured runner”?
Yes, it was different for me this year because in 2007 I was finishing college. I ended up transitioning from my college coach to my new coach. The injury was basically season ending. So I was able to let the expectations that I’d had for that year go and really focus on a long term plan for the next year. This year, I got injured at the beginning of training, so it was easy to be patient early on. But then as things weren’t progressing as quickly as I’d wanted, I was thinking, at first, “Okay, I’ve got eight months.” Then it was, “I’ve got five months.” Then, “Oh, my gosh, I have three months.” And then, “A month  and a half until USAs. What do I do?”

So that was the first experience I’ve ever had trying to train through an injury. It was kind of a gut check moment for me, figuring out why I was doing this, finding new ways to stay motivated. I still think I learned a lot of things. Competing now this past three months, over the summer, without as much of a base – we had to alter training a little bit – I’m proud of myself for still being able to do decently well, given that I missed so much. To be able to even hang in there with the best in the world off of first a month and a half of training and then three months of training. I think it gave me some pride. I was able to learn some stuff about myself when things aren’t going perfectly: what can I get? What are my strengths and weaknesses. I’m hopeful that that’ll inform my training next year and motivate me to be smart but also have that drive to be the best in the world, which I know I can be if things go well.

How do you warm up for a road mile?
My warmup doesn’t really change that much from the track. I’m a really big believer in consistency. So when I’m doing a hard workout on the track, my warmup for that is very similar to my warmup for a race. The difference with a road mile vs. a track race is that I get to run outside. When I’m doing these track races in Europe, it’s usually lap after lap on the infield because you have just the warmup area, which can be kind of boring. But for the road mile, yeah, it’s just a jog. I do my little run, 15-20 minutes. I do form drills, dynamic flexibility, active stretching. Leg swings, that sort of stuff. Strides. It’s pretty basic. I usually start my warmup about an hour beforehand. It’s fun, too, with a road mile, because you kind of get a bit of adrenaline that’s different from the track because the people are right there – it’s so much more up close and personal. So I always love that as well.

Race Report: Fifth Avenue Mile

I waited three years for this race.

The last good race I had, meaning I made real progress in, was the Steamtown Marathon in October of 2008. That wasn’t even a particularly good race experience. But it was a huge leap forward in performance. From there I struggled to improve and in the process got overtrained, injured and extremely discouraged.

Had I looked into a crystal ball back then and seen the failure, pain and frustration that was waiting for me, I don’t know that I would have bothered to keep trying. But ignorance has its virtues sometimes. As does stubbornness.

I trained for this distance, and this particular race, for three months. This was coming off of four months of injury from a sacral stress fracture last August, followed by three months of just trying to run normally again, then a winter and spring that were filled with personal crises, more injury and not much running. More sub-par races. More questioning. Then a decision in May to shelve the marathon indefinitely and do something wild and crazy: focus on the Fifth Avenue Mile.

My goal was to break six minutes.

This goal wasn’t just ambitious from a pure clock time standpoint. It also represented a leap in relative racing quality. Since I started running seriously four years ago I’ve hovered in the low 70%s age graded. My best performance was a touch over 75%. A few weeks ago at Sunset & Suds I ran around 73%. Today I nearly touched 80% age graded. That had been my goal for sometime mid-2012.

But I’m there already. What’s this mean? It means I’m good at shorter distances. I’m better at running a mile after three months of specific training than I was ever running marathons with three years of specific training. I never thought I had raw speed. But I do. Now I just need to work on raw speed endurance and I can see about 3Ks and 5Ks, perhaps some track 800s. But I’m not done with the mile yet.

I trained using a plan out of Daniels’ Running Formula. I modified it and cut out one of his three workouts a week — because I’m old, and I break down if I do three hard workouts a week — and cut down the volume of his track workouts. That worked: I got faster and I didn’t get injured. I will keep doing that.

I also visualized the living daylights out of this race beforehand. I lay down quietly and envisioned everything: the warmup, standing at the start, the gun, and each quarter, then the finish. I imagined reading a clock at the halfway point that read 2:XX and a finish clock that read 5:XX. I visualized racing in high heat and humidity. I visualized racing in pouring rain. I even visualized falling down and getting back up.

Races never play out the way you imagine them, but this was pretty close. Here’s what happened:

I got to check-in early, well over an hour ahead of my 10:45 start. Checked my bag and did, as usual, a terrible warmup. I was hot, my legs felt heavy, I had a side stitch. Absolute shit. But that was okay, because that’s how I’d visualized it. It would be fine once I was racing.

It was very humid, with dewpoints in the upper 60s and a temperature in the low 70s. I told myself over and over and over again that not only had I been training in weather worse than this all summer, but some of my best workouts had been in these conditions. “Ignore the weather. Weather like this can destroy a marathon. In a mile it’s meaningless.”

Got to the start and we had to wait and wait and wait at a penultimate start line before lining up at the real start line. It was a mad dash from the first to the second and I didn’t want to get caught a few rows back. I was in the second row and ended up nicely asking the woman in front of me if I could move up beside her. She looked a little annoyed, pissed even. But I couldn’t afford to lose a second in a slow start or getting around someone, so I was pushy.

So I’m in front. I’m in the center, so I’m not running along cambered road. Then I heard three women behind me talking about their race last year: “Oh, we went out too fast. We ran like a 1:17 first quarter.” I turned around and asked, “What are you planning on running the first quarter in?” They replied, “Oh, around 90.” Good, because I’m going out at 86 or so, so I wouldn’t have to worry about being in their way.

Two of my Harrier teammates are also in front, but they’re leaving me alone. I probably look grim and stern. I’m repeating things to myself, nearly berating myself, “You came here to race this. Don’t look at your watch. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Don’t give up. You have to apply yourself the whole way and push.”

I’d lain on the couch before we left listening to the song I played while doing speedwork. I’ll admit it. It’s guilty pleasure. The song was Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away.” I ran 100m in 17 to that song. It makes me run fast. So that was my brainwashing soundtrack, my cue for going postal. That and being hopped up on 150mg of caffeine.

I’m wearing my plain Jane Timex. While I’d love to have Garmina’s quarter (or even 200m) splits, the temptation to look at them will be too great. I need to just race and never look at my watch. The upshot is that I don’t know how fast I was running at any given point on the course.

FInally, we’re given our 30 second warning, then 10 seconds and “blam!” — off we go. I know I have to run harder than I did in Tuckahoe, and it will feel a lot harder because of the humidity. The first quarter is downhill and I fly. I’m running slightly too fast, but I’m banking time for the uphill second quarter. I’m in, like, fourth position (!), for that first quarter. Then fifth when we hit the little hill.

Sometime in the first quarter my left ear becomes completely blocked, like it’s full of water. I can’t hear anything except my own breathing, amplified to fill the entire left side of my head. It’s so fucking annoying, but I can’t do anything about it. It will stay blocked until about 10 minutes after the race. The second quarter is slower, I can just tell. But not that much slower. We crest the hill and I can hear my friend Amy Cooper screaming her lungs out at me. I’m touched but I know that if I do anything to acknowledge her it could steal from my time. I can’t afford it! I keep running.

Shortly beyond, I see a blur of bodies in black and I know they are Harriers. They are also screaming at me. I continue with my robotic running. I can be friendly later!

As is the case with track miles/1500s, the third lap was the hardest. That’s where I could feel a growing ache in my legs and the seeds of doubt really beginning to take root. I can see the pace car up ahead, and it says 3-something, but I’m fifty feet behind it and I don’t know where we are. I’m too much in tunnelvision to be able to look for the clocks along the course. Plus, I don’t really want to see them for the same reasons I don’t want to see what’s on my watch. It’s too much of a mindfuck risk.

I start to loose hope during that third quarter and I’m thinking all kinds of negative stuff: “I went out way too fast. People are passing me. I’m going to run something like a 6:10 today. This weather has wrecked my chances. I can’t run this hard alone.”

I can see the finish line. But it’s tiny. So far away in the distance. I was warned about this phenomenon. The moving mirage, like one of Zeno’s paradoxes, that tempts you with a big sign that says, “Finish!” — yet you can never seem to get to it.

I’ve one quarter to go. I have to push, just as I’m most tempted to give up. I can’t read what the finish clock says, so I’m just going with faith that I’ve raced hard enough. This is the hardest I’ve raced in recent memory. I see the 200m sign and then am able to make out the clock. It still says 5-something. But 5-what?!

As I’m about 50m out I can see it’s in the 5:40s. Okay, this is doable. I keep going. I cross. I hit STOP. It says 5:57.5. I can’t breathe. People come up and talk to me and I can’t speak. I’m drooling. This isn’t pretty.

Okay, I’m fine in half a minute. I chat with a few people, real friends and formerly those who I knew only in the virtual realm. I look around and realized that this was a competitive race. This is confirmed when I look at results — the 45-49 women were far harder to beat than were the 40-44 in terms of field depth. Where’d all these fast pre-menopausal women come from all of a sudden?

Six of them came in ahead of me. Another four in the 40-44 crowd beat me too. I was 11th masters.

I’m happy with this race, but I’m happier with what this race means: I have raw speed that I can develop; I have clues about how to train safely and effectively; but mostly, I feel as if I’ve discovered some kind of dust- and rust-covered treasure, lying in the corner, perhaps buried under all the piles of marathons. The Mile. The mile and its cousins.

Today’s race event featured two acts, actually. My race was Act 1. I’ll cover what happened in Act 2, the professionals’ races, in a post tomorrow.

Race Report: Tuckahoe Mile

Well, I won. I wish I could say this was a hard race to win, but it wasn’t. In some ways, winning was a drawback. Read on.

My winning time was not great, but it wasn’t terrible either. It’s about where I expected to be: 6:09.

I was incredibly nervous before this race for some reason. My heart was pounding right before the horn sounded. I’m not sure why. I suppose one possible reason is that it’s been so long since I raced a mile that I wasn’t sure what the right effort would be, so I was afraid of blowing it by running either way too fast or way too slow. But I think most of my nervousness had to do with the fact that this was my one chance to evaluate how I would do in a road mile prior to the Fifth Avenue Mile. What I was most worried about happening was that I would race my hardest and steadiest, yet bomb and run something like a 6:30. What would I do with that? Give up? I wasn’t sure.

Fortunately, not only did I not bomb, but I could have raced harder. This was a good realization to have today, two weeks before the day on which I need to race race. I am confident that I can run a bit harder than I did today. If conditions are right, that could get me below 6:00.

With my handy Garmin set to record 200m splits, here’s how I made out (splits are rounded up or down from the hundredths):

200: 43
400: 45
600: 48
800: 48
– 3:04 at the halfway, hairpin U-turn –
1000: 48
1200: 46
1400: 45
1600: 46

I started in the second row, since I did not want to battle the likes of Joe Garland (Warren Street) and Kevin Shelton-Smith (Van Cortlandt Track Club) from the gun. The first 200 was a little “fast”* because I was somewhat crazed with trying to not get trapped by slower runners. For the first 400 I was feeling a sharp pain in whatever the smaller quad is in the front of my left thigh. That was worrisome and partially responsible for my lowering the effort a little. But that pain ebbed in short order.

For most of the race there was just one woman ahead of me (and I’m pretty sure I was well inside the top 10 overall). She was running a steady pace so I thought I’d have trouble catching her. But I passed her at about the 1300 mark, and as that happened I kind of settled mentally and didn’t kill myself in the last few hundred meters.

I had hoped to run even 45s and then pick it up for the last 400m. But I got freaked out by a headwind for the first half that, while not strong, was still noticeable. In my last few track workouts I’ve seen how quickly — instantly! — I can go from redlining to running out of air and/or muscle strength. I did not want that to happen in the first half mile. So I held back a little more than I needed to. That U-turn stole some time too, something that will not be an issue in two weeks.

I didn’t go into this race with a goal to win, but when I realized I was going to win my competitive instincts took a quick nosedive. I should have run harder those last few hundred meters, but I’m not going to beat myself up over that too much. This was a time trial and opportunity to make some experiential observations. The race was a success in those regards.

With the information gathered, I’ll have a few more specific training goals over the next few weeks. My pace sagged in the middle, which I suspect is a confidence issue and not a physical one. I need to focus on keeping up a constant effort without being afraid of a blowup in the second half. I have two more speed sessions. In those I’ll focus on running 800s in around 2:55 and doing some 400s in the 84-86 range.

There were some familiar faces in Tuckahoe today. As previously mentioned, Joe was there to run both the mile and 5 mile races, but suffered a pull early on in the mile race. I am hoping that it’s a big nothing like some other recent twinges he’s had. Joe has some video of today’s 5 miler up, including some of me, sitting (not running, thank goodness) and receiving Fifth Avenue Mile strategy tips from VCTC’s Ken Rolston.

Taconic’s Frank Colella and Emmy Stocker also turned up, and Emmy won the 5 Miler, despite protestations that she was tired. She’s not fooling me with this sandbagging act anymore, though!

Other random details: I was the only New York Harrier there, not surprisingly. But VCTC had a sizeable contingent — around six runners. Also, I wore my New Balance Minimus 10 Road racers. They were good to race in. I will probably try them for the 5K on Thursday. I discovered that one of the race’s sponsors is Hector’s Auto Repair, the scene of many repairs to our aging Toyota. Hector is a good mechanic — and by that I mean honest, accommodating and reasonably priced. The fact that he sponsored this race did not surprise me.

And, finally, here’s an idea for you race directors out there: pin one tee shirt of each size to the wall next to the registration table. That way, runners can evaluate way ahead of time what size shirt they will want. It’s so simple and obvious, yet I’ve never seen this done anywhere else.

Afterwards I decided to take advantage of Bicycle Sunday — the closure of a 7 mile stretch of the Bronx River Parkway on Sundays in September and October, along which bicyclists, rollerbladers (remember them?) and “joggers” are free to traverse between the hours of 10am and 2pm. I had a lot of life left in my legs because after a first mile at 9:20 I was cruising along in the low 8:00s, finishing up with a final mile at 7:44, for 6 miles at average 8:28 pace.

Good. Now I can eat.

*I use quotations around “fast” because ~44 is what I need to run my splits in for Fifth Avenue if I want to break 6:00. But let’s not think about that just yet.

Training: Aug 14-20

Lots of variety this week. The highlights included a speed session Tuesday that went eerily well. Like “10-15 seconds per mile faster than the previous try at this workout” well. Then on Thursday I ripped through a 7 mile recovery run at 8:30 pace. Hey, Lady. Watch it!

The next day, I screwed up my second speed session of the week by running too fast. I was supposed to be doing 1200 repeats at tempo effort (around 7:10-7:15 these days), then shorter stuff at faster speeds. I got to the track and promptly ran 1200 at 6:40 pace. Oops. Then, 600m into the next one I was going at 5:58 (!). WTF.

Perhaps the slight twisting motion I used to look at my watch in that moment with a mixture of pride and alarm is what caused me to then pull my left hamstring. I slowed for the last 200, then tried a slower 400 and 200, but the run was over.

I spent the next 24 hours icing and anti-inflaming. It was okay enough to run on the next day. Since I’m getting sick of the running path I asked Jonathan if he wanted to go do an 8 mile run with me along the upper Old Croton Aqueduct (OCA) trail. He was up for it, so off we went.

I have not done a run with Jonathan since I don’t know when. He usually runs too fast for me (at all speeds), so it’s impractical. Today we were in sync, though. My recovery pace has picked up from 10:00+ to between 8:50-9:20 lately. We trundled along at an average 9:00 (with frequent stops for me to pick the tiny stones out of my Trail Minimi — don’t wear these on a gravel trail, kids).

It. Was. Fun.

I took yesterday off from running (although I did weights and core work), then did another quick 7 mile recovery effort this morning. The hamstring issue is still there, so I’ll baby it this week and skip speedwork rather than tempting fate. I want it ready for Harlem on Saturday.

…and Lauren Fleshman just got even more interesting

Today I had the pleasure of sitting in on a NYRR press (tele)conference with Lauren Fleshman and another 5000 champion, Bobby Curtis (whom I met at last year’s Healthy Kidney 10K). Both runners were there to announce that they’ll be making their marathon debuts at the New York Marathon in November. I only got to ask two questions, but some of the other interviewers hit on the ones I’d wanted to ask, so I lucked out.

Here’s what’s interesting about Fleshman’s marathon approach: at least in the near term, she’s not going to be trying to become a great marathoner per se; instead, she’s using marathon training to try to build strength in order to avoid the cycle of injury that has plagued her over 11 years of racing 5Ks — and (she hopes) help her improve at that distance for the 2012 Olympics.

“The marathon was never on my radar,” she said today. “But I remember when the 5K used to feel so long. I’ve gotten stronger over the last couple of years, dealing with injuries. That’s opened my mind to things that I thought weren’t possible…changing things up and focusing on pure strength for the 5K. For me, [the marathon] is kind of a means to an end, but an exciting one.”

Perhaps most intriguing about this move is the fact that Fleshman’s running history includes a lot of bouts with injury, and she tends to break down at higher volumes. Embracing marathon training, which typically involves lots of mileage, is always risky for injury-prone runners. But there’s more than one way to skin the marathon training cat, and Fleshman will be relying heavily on something called the Elliptigo, a cross-training contraption that she used quite a bit during her most recent post-injury buildup.

Fleshman will continue to use this quasi-bike while preparing for New York. “I plan to use the Elliptigo to make up for volume,” she said. “This isn’t the time to take a huge risk and add 20% volume. Now that I’m doing 70 miles per week I’ll use that as my main form of complementary running. I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried it.”

When asked if the Olympic Trials in January might be a secondary goal, she dismissed them. “That’s not on my radar right now, to be honest. I want to give the marathon a chance to help my 5K. I will try to run as fast as I can [in the marathon], but the marathon fits into the goal of the 2012 [Olympic] 5K. In a way, I feel like I’ll have two debuts: NYC this year and a post-2012 marathon. For now, it’s more of an experiment and we’ll just have to see how that goes. You’ll see more of me in the marathon, I’m sure.”

As noted previously, Fleshman’s running blog is outstanding. It provides practical information as well as an intimate view into what it’s really like to be a professional distance runner. Apparently her inspiration for starting it was Paula Radcliffe, who began chronicling her experiences online way back in 2004 (unfortunately, she hasn’t kept it up). We learned today that even runners of Fleshman’s calibre are not immune to being starstruck. “When I met Paula last year, I was so dumbstruck. I walked away. Next time, we had a great conversation, went out to dinner. I’d rather go to dinner with Paula Radcliffe than any movie star. We still chat and email and I’m lucky that she’s shared some of her knowledge with me.”

In the days since Fleshman’s impressive run in London over the weekend, in which she easily met the A Standard that eluded her at the US championships earlier this year (she came in 8th there), there’s been speculation about whether she’d get a spot on Team USA for the World Championships in Daegu later this month. I asked her what the status of that was, but she didn’t know yet. Fortunately, there was someone from USATF on the call and he confirmed that they’d just released the team start list. Yep, Fleshman’s in for the 5K, which means my Fleshman Fangirl Train will keep rolling through the summer and fall.

It’s Lauren Fleshman Appreciation Day!

When I think of the Japanese proverb “Fall down seven times, get up eight” I picture Lauren Fleshman. She gets injured, she slogs through injury recovery, she trains again, she runs fantastic races. Then she gets reinjured and the cycle begins anew. But she never gives up. And she always comes back.

Fleshman has one of the few outstanding elite blogs that I’ve found. Not only is she remarkably candid about her own running, but she generously doles out helpful advice to anyone who asks for it. She’s opinionated and well informed too, and you’ll find interesting, useful posts that run the gamut, from the rabbiting debate, to eating disorders, to building mileage and more.

Fleshman’s self-possessed manner extends to live interviews, as shown in this famous post-race encounter after the 2010 US nationals:

And here’s edited footage of her win over the weekend at Crystal Palace:

Race Report: Central Park Conservancy Run for Central Park

Well, I had a better race here than I did last year when it was, apparently, hot. Last year it was 82 degrees and 53% humidity. This year it was 72 degrees and 68% humidity. I don’t know what’s worse. Last year? Although I was verging on injury at this time last year. I ran this race three weeks before I’d suffer a pelvic stress fracture in the club championships that would sideline me totally for 3+ months, then take another 4 after that to run normally again. I was also fatter then. Fat is a great insulator, which is not so great in the summer in New York City.

So. Let’s move on.

At this point, I’m happy just to be racing, so I don’t go in with any goals other than to emerge at the finish without a new and exotic injury. A decent time is a cherry on top. But I’m not trained yet, so I’m not expecting PRs at this point. I came in at 29:16, which is better than last year’s 30:05 but well off my best on this course of 27:34. I am a winter racer, that much is clear.

Jonathan and I stayed at my dad’s place on 92nd, which was a good call. We could have a fairly relaxed breakfast (especially since I woke up 45 minutes early), then jog the 1.5 miles to the start. After that we parted ways and went to do our little warmups. To be honest, I felt like crap. My freelance gig has been exhausting and a daily three hour commute through heat has taken its toll. I also wondered if my legs were still beaten up from the Van Cortlandt race nine days ago. My strides sucked. So I stopped doing them and just figured I’d run within whatever the conditions (the weather and my own) would dictate.

On the way to the corral I ran into teammate Joni, whom I’d met just once before, way back in December at the Harriers’ holiday bash and had since picked his brain via email for an article I did about cross-training (he generously shared his yoga knowledge). It turns out he’s been injured since then. I empathized with his tale of woe. We chatted in the corral for a while and then fell silent to listen to what was one of the most honest renditions of the Star Spangled Banner I’ve heard in a while. The singer was having some throat problems and, midway through the song, she audibly cleared her throat. I thought that was great. You do what you need to do, sister. Then she finished up in full form, no longer held back by the frog in her throat.

The race started and, since we were toward the back of corral 2, it was a walk-stop-jog-stop affair as we made our way up to the start mats. As always, it was pretty crowded, but I was able to weave through people.

Going out too fast. Dammit.

I pride myself on being a runner who does not normally go out too fast. But when you race after a layoff, it’s impossible to know how fast to run. You never want to run too slow. Oh, no. Never. Not that. So this happens sometimes. What I don’t like is how long it takes to realize I’ve made the mistake and then the sense of trepidation that accompanies the realization. Oh, I’m gonna pay for this.

I felt great during the first mile. Of course. I even felt pretty good through most of mile 2. But as we rounded the turn on to the 102nd St. Transverse, my legs were not happy. So they went on strike. I must have lost about 15 seconds on that mile, plodding along. Joni passed me. “Good for him,” I thought. “At least he’s having a good comeback race.” Then, into mile 3 (which is always a bad mile, what with the rolling hills), teammate Becky appeared beside me and said “Hi.” That was nice. But she passed me, which wasn’t. Lots of people were passing me. Now I was getting mad at myself.

It was fucking hot, especially in the sun. Here is where I regretted joining a team whose colors are black and black. I made a mental note to keep bugging the management to give us a white option.

At a crest of a hill, four Harriers were out cheering. I’d seen them earlier, when I was running my folly pace. Now I just felt ashamed. But it was good to see them anyway. Being cheered at always helps, even as it brings up complicated emotions.

Toward the end of mile 3 I rallied. I enjoy the last mile of this course. It’s either downhill or flat and I always pick off shitloads of people in this stretch. It’s usually my fastest mile of the race. I picked out a bunch of Ponytail Girls and gradually ran them all down. Go, me.

Make the turn on to the 72nd St. Transverse. I like this stretch too, because I can make a wide turn (“Slingshot the turn!” in Larry Rawson parlance), pick it up and feel like a rock star. The finish is pretty close. The clock’s approaching 30:00, but I know I lost time in the start mat clog. It’s lying to me.

Cross the mat in 29:16.

Considering the crap pacing, I’ll take it.

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