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.

Training: July 3-9

It may look like I’m still injured. But I’m not.

That’s more than I can say for my training log, however. Google Docs inexplicably barfed all over it and upon exporting it out to my Mac to try to save the file, I couldn’t open it. So now I have to work with it on Jonathan’s Windows machine, which creates the hideousness you see at right. Damn you, Google. You’re not worth $528.94 a share.

I ran every day last week. And, more important, I ran pain free every day. It was good.

But.

It was also hot.

So I did lots of running inside on the treadmill.

Which was fine.

Not ideal.

But fine.

Highlights of the week included my first Jack Daniels-assigned speed session. That went well. I did not run too hard. I did my strides on a few outside runs and realized that unlike in training cycles past, I was not too tired to do the strides. Good sign.

Then I tore up Suicide Hill in Van Cordlandt and won a muffin. With help from Jonathan.

On Saturday I got some culture and some miles in Prospect Park.

And that was that.

This week’s gone well too. I ran faster than previously on some treadmill speedy stuff. On Saturday I have a 4 mile race in Central Park. I love the bizarre 4 mile distance.

On Sunday I’ll meet some long-admired kindred spirits for the first time (and reconnect with a few regulars) for lunch, one from Philadelphia and one all the way from Australia. That should be fun. I hope he doesn’t make fun of our accents.

I ordered some flamboyantly awful-looking new racing flats.

But you’ll have to wait until the weekend to hear all about those things.

How happy am I not to be injured?

Do you really have to ask?

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