Obligatory “year in review” blog post

Doing a “look back on 2009″ post seems to be all the rage among running bloggers this month. Although I normally purse my lips in disapproval at such conformity, I’ll jump on the bandwagon.

Now is as good a time as any to reflect upon the past year, which from a marathon racing perspective was a disaster for me. But it was not a disaster in all areas. For one, I ran some stellar races (and workouts) at various points in the winter and spring. I almost ran a stellar 5 mile race in the fall (only to DNF at 3.7 miles with a raging hamstring). And I learned a lot, oh, yes. I learned a lot — about training in general and about myself as a unique physiological running specimen.

Here’s what I learned this year:

  • High mileage results in huge gains for me, but only up to a certain point. If I run high mileage for too long, I will eventually break down in the form of either overtraining or injury.
  • If I have injured myself, I often have a short window of faux-recovery during which I can nevertheless run a spectactular race or speed session (and fool myself into thinking I’m not really injured). But if I continue to run hard after that I will get reinjured.
  • A hot, hilly long run or race will fuck me up for weeks, if not months.
  • Doing a very long and very hilly run at the end of one or two high mileage weeks is dangerous. Depending on how long I’ve been doing high mileage, chances are good that doing one of these will push me over the edge into injury, although it can take anywhere from 7-10 days to develop. Training in Central Park is an especially hazardous prospect in these cases.
  • Extreme changes in weekly mileage are a bad idea. Going from 50 to 95 (even if I’ve recently run 95 without issue) is a great big embossed and monogrammed invitation for Injury to attend my next workout, and perhaps even bring a guest.
  • If I’m feeling very worn down and don’t want to run, I need to take the day off. A few missed runs won’t destroy a season. But too many runs that I shouldn’t have done will.

Bonus realization:

  • My right gracilis muscle does not like running in weather below 20F. My left one, however, is completely okay with this.

The above lessons are hard won. But I won’t soon forget them.

As for what happened in Sacramento two weeks ago, here’s my theory: I suspect that I was undertrained for the marathon specifically. When you look back at my training in the fall, it was constantly being interrupted by one thing or another. First it was a two+ week trip to South Africa, which involved days of travel, a large time zone change, eating and drinking a lot of stuff that isn’t on the menu for marathoners in training, and big time stress in the form of all of the above along with the added treat of being a victim of major property crime. Not to mention some terrible workouts due to poor conditions (brutal heat among them).

Then I came home and had a few good weeks only to experience the first of two serious injuries: hamstring pull followed by inflamed tendon. I didn’t give myself time to heal properly from the first, piling on 95 miles after a 52 mile injured week, and the second injury came in to take its place. All told, injuries screwed up my training for close to a month total. So out of a 13 week schedule (3 of which were taper weeks), at least 6 were heavily compromised. For you mathletes, that’s a screwup factor of 60%.

I toed the line in Folsom thinking that there was a good possibility that I might have to settle for a 3:20 or even a 3:25. I might have been able to make that time somewhere else, but not on that course on that day. The downhills chewed up my quads a la Steamtown and the headwinds were just, wow.

This was all on top of whatever was wrong with me in the spring, which for the sake of simplicity let’s say was overtraining. After an amazingly good buildup from the fall into April, I crashed in May. I was a wreck in June and July, then ran in a holding pattern in August and commenced training in September, as described above.

So that was 2009. Good riddance.

2010 will bring some changes. More on that soon.

Fall Training: Week 12

Training, tapering, whatever. All I know is that the race is now close enough for me to check the weather for race day.

With the exception of a couple of quicker workouts, I’m firmly established in the holding pattern of a pre-race taper. The run on Tuesday, a little under marathon pace, actually didn’t go that well. I was surprisingly slow, owing to a mysteriously high heart rate.

I decided not to waste energy freaking out about it. It’s just one workout, right? I’m chalking it up to possible side effects of the drugs I took for my tendon for a week, plus a few nights’ lousy sleep, as well as my being in the follicular phase, which is typically when I run my worst in longer, sustained-effort workouts.

Friday’s session on the track was a blast. I love short intervals, especially when I’m running well. The hormones were in my favor for this one and my pace vs. effort shows it.

The rest of the week consisted of what I call “toodle along” runs. My legs are starting to feel very fresh and springy now, so it’s been difficult to hold them back from running faster.

The problem left tendon is back to normal in terms of appearance and flexibility, although there’s still some pain if I flex it in an extreme way. But I don’t need to do that for marathon pace running. At this point, I’d be surprised if I’m even aware of it during the race.

I was looking over the women’s results from last year’s CIM and was again reminded of just how competitive a race it is. No AG awards for me this time around, but it does look like I should be able to find plenty of people running my pace, whatever that turns out to be. Interestingly, I do see a lot of positive splits in those results. That may be the case in every marathon (I rarely scrutinize such things), but I’m wondering if the early downhills on the course tempt people to run too fast.

I plan to go very minimalist for this race. I’ll have just two data screens on my watch, each with a single readout: Time of Day (so I know when the race starts) and Heart Rate %. That’s it.

Exercise and anxiety

I used to suffer from chronic anxiety. This illness took many forms, the most pervasive of which was my compulsion to worry constantly, envisioning the worst possible outcome of any situation or endeavor. I would also brood, spending hours, days or weeks blowing up the smallest negative interaction into some sort of globally applicable proof of all that was wrong with me, my life and the world. Another delightful side effect was periodic hypochondria. But the crowning feature was the full blown panic attacks I’d suffer every few years, often with several clustered in a short period of time. If you’ve ever had one of these, you’ll know that they are intensely frightening, uncomfortable and exhausting experiences.

For years I attempted to treat this problem through traditional talk therapy. Years. Well over 10. In hindsight, I probably should have tried a more practical variety, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, but, despite rejecting many of its theories (Oedipal complex? please, spare me) I bought the psychoanalytic approach hook, line and sinker.

I don’t feel that those years I spent in the chair were a total waste of time and money. Insofar as I had a sympathetic ear once or twice a week, I think that I was helped in some ways during those years in terms of getting some perspective. But the issue that brought me there in the first place — horrendous anxiety — remained, sometimes abating for a few years at a time, and in the process convincing me that I was over the problem. But it was always a matter of time before it came roaring right back.

I’d been running 15-20 miles per week since the age of 34. Then I started upping the mileage and effort at 39 in training for my first major race, a half marathon. Shortly after I started running more, and running harder, I noticed subtle yet unmistakable changes in mood. Not just the cessation of anxiety attacks (I’d seen that before), but a lifting of the constant dread and chorus of negativity that permeated my inner mental world.

So I ran more, and I ran harder. I got better, both as a runner and in my head. The daily devil of nagging anxiety had at last been banished. I felt so much better that I finally quit therapy, a decision I’d been struggling with for several years. I didn’t need it anymore. That was about four and a half years ago. Not coincidentally, that is the longest I’ve gone between anxiety attacks since I started having them in my preteen years.

I decided to post about this after reading this article in the NY Times, which seems to bring some scientific evidence to bear on my anecdotal experience.

Of course, what this means is that I can probably never stop running. I can live with that.

I’ve seen this sort of thing before

It’s the last month or so before my goal race and, as typically happens, a host of physical issues are suddenly emerging on the horizon like thunderclouds only to recede just as quickly and mysteriously, having spared me from a soaking, or worse, a lightning strike.

Where have I seen this before? Oh, right. During every single previous training season. Looking over my logs of the past few years (you do keep detailed logs, don’t you?), I see that this is something that happens like clockwork in the 4-6 weeks prior to each marathon.

In the spring of 2007, it was chronic shinsplints. In the spring of 2008 it was a torn fascia in my right calf. In the fall of 2008 it was a general malaise that I couldn’t shake for days at a time, almost as if I was on the verge of getting the flu. In the spring of 2009 it was a twofer: a cyst on one of my left foot’s ligaments accompanied by a mysterious pain in my right quads that migrated from quad muscle to quad muscle for a few weeks. (Ironically, the iron/vitamin deficiency and/or overtraining — which eventually did me in — was the one thing I wasn’t accutely aware of.)

This time around is no different, although I’ve learned not to be completely freaked out by each new complaint. Two weeks ago, it was a hamstring pull. Yesterday, it was some sort of odd, painful ligament or tendon issue on the top of my left foot.

I dutifully take my anti-inflammatories, ice and massage the sucker, and hope for the best. If something persists, I go to the orthopedist, who at this point can probably set his watch by my twice-yearly appearances. After a completely unnecessary, “defensive medicine” x-ray, I usually leave with a good dose of cortisone surging through the area in question and a “good luck” on my next race. Did I see him rolling his eyes too?

I’m like a car that starts to belch black smoke from beneath its hood at the tail end of a drive through Death Valley in July. As long as I can make it to Sacramento on December 6 with my radiator, suspension and transmission intact, I’ll be happy.

Fall Training: Weeks 3 and 4

09fall-training-03The next couple of training logs are more for the record than for extensive analysis. I knew my training would be compromised  on the trip to South Africa. Doesn’t that make me sound humorless and obsessed? I know!

If anything, I’m amazed that I managed to run as much as I did, considering that I was drinking to excess nearly every night and part of coordinated holiday movements of six people. Although my mileage was roughly half of the planned mileage for these weeks, I did prioritize the harder miles and dumped recovery miles.

The conditions in South Africa were tough. For one, it was windy to extremely windy most days. I did some of my harder runs into a 15-30mph headwind and the paces reflect that invisible resistance.

Also, as they’re between winter and spring at the moment, the temperatures and humidity swung wildly every few days. One day it would be in the 60s and two days later it was in the 80s. And the sun there is hot. I’m sure that sounds silly, but the proximity to the equator really makes you feel like you’re baking, and I tanned three shades darker in just a week.

Finally, the place has huge hills. If you want to train for Boston or Steamtown, this is the place to go. The hills are up to a mile long and, while the grades aren’t extreme, they are steady.

Week 3 was broken up with travel. Prior to flying there on Wednesday, I did a 15 mile progression run. This went very well. As usual, I wasn’t thrilled with the paces, but I realized I had weeks of training to improve.

Later in the week I focused on trying to recover from 36 hours of travel and some upheaval as we had to suddenly change rental cottages, as the first was next to a grocery store with loud refrigeration units running all night; in the second cottage we would be burgled as the next week’s excitement. Anyway, on Friday we drove 45 minutes to Hermanus on the coast and ran the last three-odd miles of the half marathon course, then had an early dinner out among the Whale Festival revelers.

Saturday was the race, the Whale Half Marathon. A joke race, as Jonathan called it. Despite insane wind and huge hills, we both did well.

On Sunday I went for a little recovery run on my own, during which I met the second love of my life, a female dog named Harvey.

09fall-training-04Week 4 featured some harder efforts, the first of which was an 11 mile tempo run, with the harder miles run straight into a stiff headwind. The next day we went on a 9 mile hike, which was tiring not so much because of the distance or terrain but because of the speed at which we were going. We were hiking very slowly, probably at about half the pace that we could have managed on our own, and by the end of the day I had what felt like “museum legs” — that unique sort of fatigue that sets in after hours of strolling around on marble floors.

We took the next day off to deal with the aftermath of having been burgled and getting our car stolen the evening after the hike. We also needed to get ready for the arrival of two friends of Jonathan’s from his days living here 30 years ago who’d be staying with us for two nights.

The morning before their arrival we went out to do one of my more important workouts — a 21 miler with the last 10 at marathon effort. This was one of the few workouts I’ve actually had to abandon. It was a hot day and we had no way of carrying or obtaining drinkable water, plus we got a late start. By midway through the run the sun was at its strongest and it was about 85 degrees. There was no shade. I did okay for most of the hard miles, but by mile 16 my HR was soaring and my paces were dropping off. Then I started exhibiting the early stages of heat illness with just three miles to go.

I ended up lying under a tree while Jonathan ran back to the cottage (he’d been running an easy pace to my very hard pace) for the car and water. It was the smart thing to do, but a little scary. I was mad at myself because my instincts had told me that we should take the extra half hour to drive to the midway point with some water, but I ignored them.

I was totally fried by this workout for the next couple days, so took the weekend off. We still had several days of holiday making left and I wanted to enjoy the time with family and friends. I had one last hard workout planned before leaving the following week.

In the morning, in the evening, ain’t we got pills

My bathroom sink is beginning to resemble a geriatric’s. But it’s not quite as bad as the one foot square, multi-compartmented “pill pallet” an HIV-positive friend once showed me.

In the morning, I take: 4000 mg (or “four grams” — stupid Americans) of vitamin D and 400 mg magnesium citrate.

In the evening is when the real party happens:

  • Another 400 mg magnesium citrate
  • 27 mg Ferrochel* (iron) — 1.5x this twice a week (on whatever are my heaviest training days)
  • 1000 mg vitamin C
  • 500 mg omega 3
  • Birth control pill
  • Allergy pill
  • Half a 3 mg Lunesta (rarely and only as needed)

Whatever. They’re all working.

* This comes with, as a bonus:
- 60 mg vitamin C
- 200 mcg folic acid
- 60 mcg vitamin B-12
- 48 mg calcium (I’ve not idea why, since calcium impedes iron absorption)

Summer Basebuilding: Week 3

sum09-base-02Note: There was no week 2 in this basebuilding effort. I took the entire week off in an attempt to hasten recovery.

I’m somewhat reluctant to honor this week with the label of “basebuilding” lest I tempt fate. But, what the hey. I’ll be an optimist.

Basebuilding? No, not really. More like continued recovery from whatever ails me. But it was a good week from that perspective. I’ve not run “by time” (as opposed to “by miles”) since my first foray into jogging 10 years ago. And, like back then, I ran with no gadgetry to quantify the effort.

Monday through Saturday I ran with a plain vanilla watch and when I hit the halfway point of the prescribed time, turned around and headed home. I’ve noted approximate distances anyway because, well, I’m anal retentive and can’t stop myself from doing so. I’ve run my route a few thousand times, so those guesstimates are good within a few meters. But I didn’t pay attention to distance while actually running, which is what was important.

Running without constant feedback on HR, pace and distance was a challenge to get used to. But after the first run I found it liberating. I will probably go gadgetless for most of next week as well.

The two days of note were Friday and today (Sunday). Friday was notable because despite high humidity, I felt really good on my run. Good as in “I haven’t felt this good since April” good. It occured to me that this feeling is what I should have experienced during my taper, but didn’t. I’m trying not to read too much into it. I know I’m still crawling out of whatever mysterious performance hole I’ve fallen into. So I won’t get overly enthused. I am trying to remain patient, which is not my strong point.

Today’s run featured a bout of faster running, but only for the purposes of gathering some data to help give clues as to how my recovery is coming along (and to use as a comparison in the coming weeks). For a mile I ran varying paces, most of them in the 8:30 range, but I tacked on some fast running for the last .2 just to see what I could get myself down to. I managed to hit 5:46 for a few seconds. This is good news, as I struggled to get down to 6:30 during a race warmup a couple weeks back.

Whatever the issue is — overtraining, iron deficiency, vitamin deficiency, or simply the lack of a proper recovery — it’s abating slowly but surely. This makes me happy. It also helps me remain patient. Progress is exciting to see, but it’s also a reminder that I trashed myself before and it would be easy to do so again in short order, while I’m still groping my way along during this nascent state of training readiness.

On another encouraging note, the compulsive napping dropped off early in the week. Unfortunately, mild insomnia has moved into its place. But my gut tells me that it’s temporary.

So patient I will be. Next week looks a lot like this one: all running for time, 99% of it recovery pace, with a little faster running thrown in to have some data to look at. We’re building up the mileage again, probably by about 25% or so. But that’s discretionary; if I feel tired or otherwise overstretched, I’ll back off.

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