Going short

I ran a horrible half marathon this morning on Long Island. So horrible that I’m not going to write an official race report, although I’ll give a summary in a bit. But I’m glad I ran this race because I had something resembling an epiphany during the final 4.1 miles of Gallowalking. That epiphany was that I think it’s time I gave up on the marathon. It might seem strange that this thought came to mind while struggling through a race that’s half that distance, but maybe with some explanation it will make sense.

The race started out extremely well. I’d gone in with low expectations, figuring I would just run a comfortable pace for the first few miles and see what I got. I figured I’d be running 7:25s or so. I had a great warmup, a mile around a little lake and then two 90 second segments at faster pace. For those I’d been shooting for around 7:30 but found myself easily running 6:50-7:00.

The race started and I was running at 7:08 pace and feeling like I was doing a general aerobic run. Mile 2 was 7:12 and I still felt good. Then for mile 3 we turned into a slight wind and my pace dropped to 7:17. Mile 4 featured more wind and I slowed to 7:40. The wind was becoming a problem fast, but I kept working. I came through the 10K point in the 46:40 range but was aware that I was starting to work way too hard while at the same time people were starting to pass me. The effort wasn’t sustainable. The wind was particularly bad along Jericho Turnpike, a full on headwind. My pace kept dropping and dropping and I felt more and more exhausted.

Just before the mile 9 mark we had to ascend a short, slight hill. At the top of that it was like someone turned a switch off. I bonked and suddenly felt like you do when you have the flu. I had no energy left. I pulled over and started walking a bit. My average pace at that point was in the 8:30 range.

We would turn out of the wind after that but my race was over. I accepted it pretty easily. The hard part was realizing that I still had so far to go. I alternated strolling and running, mostly running at a recovery pace, waiting to hit the entrance to Eisenhower Park, where I knew it would be just a little over a mile until the finish. I ripped off my D-tags  shortly after my meltdown, but Long Island seems to have no trash cans anywhere, so I had to carry them for miles. I finally realized that I could just toss them among the cups at a water stop, and I did so at the 12 mile mark. I think the wind must have blown them, or perhaps a little bird picked them up, because my sister tracked me as far as the 99.17% point (that would be, what, about 200m from the finish?) before I disappeared.

That was a longer summary than I’d wanted to write, but I can’t help myself. It took a long time to jog-walk 4.1 miles. I had a lot of time to think. First I thought about why I might be racing this badly. I have a couple of theories.

For one, this past week was one of the most stressful in recent memory, as a member of my immediate family nearly died on Monday morning and remains in a Manhattan ICU with several aspects of her physical and cognitive prognoses still unknown. I didn’t eat or sleep properly for much of the week. I barely ran. I spent a lot of time worrying, absorbing, doing and crying. I stood at the start this morning already feeling tired.

I may have gone out too fast, but that’s not a problem I’ve ever had, so I doubt it. If  only I’d been racing a 5K today — I probably could have gotten a PR. I think the cumulative exhaustion + windy run is what did me in. I’ve had a few very good races lately, so I’m not reading too much into this one.

Next, I realized that the last time I’d felt this way was in December 2009 in the California International Marathon. In that race, I bonked at mile 15, managed to make it another 3 miles on one engine and then Gallowalked around 8 miles. That was painful. Bad races are always a drag, but a bad marathon is a huge drag. I know people who ran bad races in Boston this year, a year that featured weather so favorable that a man ran a 2:03:02. These are people who prepared and know how to race and felt fine and had a 20-30mph tailwind. And still they had a shitty race. While I’ve realized in the past that you can’t control everything when it comes to the marathon, what I’ve observed recently is that you can do everything right and be handed excellent conditions and still fail for not apparent reason.

The marathon is starting to feel like a sucker’s game, the Three-Card Monte of racing. You prepare for four to six months, turn up, hope to get decent weather, and start running. You have no idea what will happen. In six tries I’ve run what I consider to be a good marathon exactly once. The other five ranged from okay to disastrous. Most of them were disastrous. I’m sick of spinning the roulette wheel year after year, because it’s preventing me from actually enjoying the experience of running my “goal” races. And if I’m not enjoying any aspect of the races I’m training for, then why on earth am I training for and running them? That was the epiphany.

I said to my sister yesterday that at this point I’m feeling grateful to be able to train and race free of injury. I truly am. Today I realized that I’ve had a few good races so far this year, the best being the Scotland 10K a few weeks back. The others were a 5K and a 4 miler. I hate the 10K distance. But perhaps that’s only because I don’t train for it.

What would happen if I trained for the 10K distance and focused on that for awhile? It could be very useful, the way I see it. Joining a team has been a good experience, and I am motivated to run as many team points races as possible. Of the 12 points races in the NYRR series, eight of them are between 5K and 10K. There are other opportunities opening up to score outside of the NYRR milieu. There’s also the Icahn track series, in which I can race anything from the 1500 to 3200. There are some great shorter XC races, like the Van Cortlandt summer series. And boatloads of shorter road races here in Westchester and in Rockland and Connecticut.

Since late 2008 I have wanted to run an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier. That’s not going to happen. Aside from the numerous setbacks I’ve had over the past few years, there’s the matter of stark reality to grapple with. Namely, there are masters women younger and more talented than I who are nonetheless struggling mightily to achieve this dream. If they can’t get there, then I certainly can’t. I could keep trying, but time’s rapidly running out for 2012. I’m 46 years old. I think I need to recalibrate my expectations of what I can reasonably achieve.

Since 2007 I’ve been in relentless pursuit of the marathon. I’ve enjoyed the half marathon too, and I’d still like to run those, today’s performance notwithstanding. But I’ve never seriously focused on anything shorter.

Who knows? Maybe I’d be good at it.

Race plug: Sleepy Hollow Half on March 26

I don’t usually plug races, but I’ll make an exception in the case of the Sleepy Hollow Half, debuting this year. This is a race I’d like to see succeed, since late March/early April is a handy time of year to schedule a half marathon and we don’t have that many appealing choices around here at present.

Learn more about the Sleepy Hollow Half at the Rivertown Runners site > Sleepy Hollow Half Marathon

Training: Oct 10-23

The grind continues. Today marks 11 weeks since someone or something gave my running the stinkeye.

I continue to train hard using alternate methods. To break up the monotony, and make sure I’m working hard enough, I’ve started getting creative with cross-training:

Spinning: I naturally tend to work harder in a spin class than when I’m on my own. Unfortunately, my schedule does not always mesh with the gym’s, so I’m doing a lot of spinning on my own these days. I focus on getting my heart rate up, evidenced by a) a high heart rate and b) getting myself to sweat like a pig. I achieve this with lots of standing up while pedaling alternated with 2 minutes of pedaling like I’m being chased by a mob of zombies — the fast kind, not the slow kind.

Elliptical: You can do speedwork on the elliptical. You can also do hillwork, but I’ve been told to stay away from doing that because it could aggravate whatever my injury is — plus the focus for us distance runners is high turnover, strength and endurance, not being able to do the equivalent of running up stairs carrying a dishwasher. So I do surges here too, getting my reps up to 210 (and making sure I’m pouring off sweat) for 2-3 mins with 1 min recoveries. In the case of both spinning and elliptical, I note the days I’m doing intervals with a plus sign.

Weights: I have yet to have found a way to make this work creative. Although I do enjoy the fact that I’m usually the only woman in the weights area. I feel so special. Let’s move on.

Pool: I’m beginning to not mind the pool so much. For one, I’ve developed some mind games to play. But when I’ve got an entire lane to myself for upwards of an hour and a half, there are no distractions and the act of running in circles becomes meditative. Pool running is the priority among all these gym activities, so it’s where I work the hardest. I tend to “save my strength” for the pool — meaning I am conscious of not trashing my legs in whatever I’m doing before I hit the pool for a hard session, meaning anything harder than an hour’s steady effort of 72-75%. What are hard sessions? Right now it means three things: long run (80-90 mins at 75%+), fartlek session (around 18-25 minutes of short and long intervals with very short recoveries), progression run (I start at 65% and work up to 85% in 10 minute increments). Once I’m back to regular running training, I’ll still be hitting the pool 3x a week as well as doing 3 sessions of spinning and frequent weight work.

I met up with Sandra a couple days this week at the gym. She was doing a little training, but as she’s dealing with a knee problem, couldn’t do everything with me. Still, she hadn’t seen me at work in a few weeks and she seemed surprised at the effort I was putting into it. I also sent her my training log and her reaction was that I’m probably training a lot harder than I was when I was “just running.” She swears I’ll be faster when I hit the roads again as a result of this conditioning work. I hope she’s right. At least I’m getting a nice pair of legs out of the deal.

So, where do things stand right now? An MRI should provide some clues this week. If it’s a stress fracture then I guess I’m sidelined according to how serious it is. I would be very surprised if it needs surgery, but what do I know? The other possibility to be ruled out is a hamstring tear. I have not looked into what that involves because I’ve already wasted so much time Googling injury-related information. I can’t do it anymore. I’m sincerely hoping it’s merely inflammation in the joint that can be treated fairly quickly so I’m back on the road next month.

As for training and racing plans, there will probably be adjustments. In the training realm, one piece of news is that Sandra and Khalid are moving to Colorado Springs next month to pursue some opportunities she has out there, live at altitude and leave the high cost of living in New York State (and horrible weather) behind. It’s also a quicker trip to Mexico, where they spend a fair amount of time every year.

I knew when I started working with Sandra in July that this was their plan, but now it’s really happening, which has not been easy to accept. I got a mere month of road/track training in before I got injured. So that’s been a source of disappointment. But I have to acknowledge that I learned a lot about training in that month — and in the “injury months” since then in terms of how to apply cross-training (both while injured and as a supplement to regular training). Sandra and I communicate well, so I’m feeling confident that we can keep up the good work using the various modern tools at our disposal — Skype, Google docs and email. I was also encouraged to discover that the majority of the Houston Hopefuls are successfully working remotely with their coaches.

As for racing, I have no idea whether I’m going to Houston in January. If I can start marathon training in, say, two weeks, it’s probably enough time — around 12 weeks — to get me in shape to run a good marathon, if not a great one. If it’s a longer wait, another option is to train for and race the Houston half instead. I love the half and working toward a PR there would be a good stepping stone to returning to the marathon, so that’s a compromise I could live with. And if I’m completely screwed for a January race, one idea I’ve proposed is switching my plane ticket and targeting the Napa marathon in early March.

Nearer term, I would love to race something, anything, as soon as possible. Watching the Fifth Avenue Mile last month — not just watching, but limping around as a volunteer — was enormously depressing for me, as will be watching the New York Marathon next month. I don’t want to get greedy and demand a race when I should feel lucky to be able to run anywhere for any distance, which I still can’t. But I’ve appreciated in the past couple of months that, while I enjoy training, the racing is what the training’s all for. I have it my head to try to run the Joe Kleinerman 10K in Central Park in early December. It’s a carrot to chase after mentally. But, ultimately, my body’s going to be the one calling the shots.

At least I’m not living alone in Injury Land. And I have a reliable cross-training partner most days, although he recently had to drop out for a bit while battling an infection. Anyway, here’s yesterday’s quote of the day, triggered by the arrival in our mailbox of an entry form for the Marisa Fund 5 Mile Turkey Trot.

“It’s amazing to think that just five months ago, I won their 10K on that course. And now I couldn’t even win a snail street-crossing contest.”
– Jonathan Sumpter

A Hallowe’en run

Sunday October 31st will mark 12 weeks since my injury occurred. I am a lot better now. No pain in the glute/hip/hamstring. I still have issues with my right adductor, but I’ve been applying Voltaren (gel) for the last couple of days and it’s clearing up nicely. This morning I could put on below-the-waist clothing items (Matt, this is for you: undergarments!) without having to sit down or lean against something for the first time in close to a month.

Tomorrow it’s going to be 50F at daybreak. Now that I have no pain, it’s so tempting to go out and try a run. But I won’t. I’ll wait until Hallowe’en and even then I won’t try it outside, much as I’d love to commemorate the holiday with a run in Sleepy Hollow. Running someplace nice is too much of a letdown if it doesn’t work out. No, the plan is to try a few laps at my gym’s indoor track — a 12 laps to the mile paperclip featuring 90 degree turns. It’s a horrible place to run anyway, so if I can’t run there, so what. I’ll try maybe half  a mile, tops. Just to see.

Then, if that works, I’ll try again — again, inside. I’m not going to run outside until I’m sure I can actually run for more than 10-15 minutes without pain or an altered stride.

I’m dreaming of doing a pain-free two mile run to just beyond Crestwood Station and back. That’s all I want now. It’s what I think about every day while I’m in that stupid pool. Just give me two miles by mid-November. I’m really not asking for so much.

Baby lurches

If a person’s fitness can be roughly measured by how quickly that person returns to normal after doing something strenuous, then I suppose that I am becoming fitter as an injured person.

There. I said it. I’m injured. After two weeks, I accept this. I still have not gone to the ortho, for a few reasons that I won’t go into here. But they are rational ones. And I’ll go shortly should I stop making progress.

Glimpses that I am slowly lurching toward recovery include:

  • The fact that I haven’t needed to take a painkiller since Saturday. Not even a Tylenol. The pain is sometimes a little annoying, but it doesn’t make me cry anymore.
  • I am walking more or less like a normal person most of the time, albeit still with some limited mobility on the right side.
  • Instead of plunging into a pain-filled oblivion after 5 minutes of walking, I can now go for about 20 before I have problems. Even then, they are not nearly as bad as they were.
  • I can sleep on my right side again. God, was that ever (literally) a pain. Previously, I’d roll over and yelp myself awake.
  • I am not sleeping like an exhausted person anymore. I was sleeping for 9-10 hours, plus sometimes needing an additional 1-2 hours of napping during the day. I think it was a combination of being exhausted from being in pain all the time, plus my body was working very hard to heal itself.
  • When I do screw myself up with too much walking, I’m not screwed up for the rest of the day and evening. I’m pretty much back to normal in about an hour. My injury is now more like LensCrafters than the Manhattan DMV.

I spent 45 minutes today getting a tour of the White Plains YMCA. I looked into some local health clubs, but quite frankly was horrified by their reputations as snake pits of high-pressure/shady sales tactics, overcrowding and filth. The Y was a pleasant surprise. It’s huge, clean, very well-appointed and not crowded. Everyone there is relaxed, friendly and helpful. It’s slightly more expensive than someplace like NY Sports Club or Bally’s, but I can see actually wanting to go to this place. Better yet, I can see Jonathan there. He wouldn’t be caught dead in a clangy, techno-beated gym full of grunting thumbheads.

The bad news is that both the White Plains YMCA and YWCA have closed their pools for cleaning between now and Labor Day. I am hoping the Mt. Vernon Y is not also on a cleaning spree, although the White Plains staff said not to get my hopes up. I’m waiting for a reply to my inquiry.

So, in that regard, the bad timing continues. But at least I know there’s a good local resource for cross-training (I wanted to find access to an elliptical anyway). If worse comes to worse, I’ll see if I can get myself well enough to use a low-impact machine and plan to plunge into pool running (get it?) after Labor Day.

I don’t like thinking that I’ll still be a mess by then. I don’t think I will be, based on the last few days’ progress. But I have to consider it as a possibility and deal with it.

The virtual world remains a source of hope, generosity and envy for me. Patience and acceptance are the watchwords from those who have been or are now injured. A stranger, through another stranger, has FedExed me a doohickey that allows me to use my MP3 player in the pool. But those warm fuzzy feelings are sometimes eclipsed by the envy that rears its head when I see the mundane posts about runs that everyone throws up on Facebook, Twitter and in BlogLand: 8 miles with 3 at race pace, 16 mile long run, 30 minute tempo run, 4x800s, a solid 10K race. These are the runs I should be doing. Reading about other people running, and running well, is killing me with envy, despite how happy I am for them.

Meanwhile, in the real world, as I drove through Scarsdale and White Plains today, I found myself trundling along streets that I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours training hard and dilligently on for the past few years. That got me feeling very depressed indeed. It wasn’t just thinking of all those runs that ultimately led me nowhere in terms of improvement. It was also remembering how pleasurable so many of them were, and realizing how much I took running for granted. I won’t do that again.

Training July 25-31

Yesterday marked the official one month anniversary of starting work with Coach Sandra. This week was a true assbuster, the first entire week that I can apply that qualification to, although there have certainly been some difficult individual workouts in the past few weeks. But the hard work was piled on this week, three really tough sessions over five days.

The hard work began on Tuesday morning, when I met up with Sandra bright and early at Sleepy Hollow High School’s track. This is a good place to train. While the track is not as fancy as the one at Bronxville High, it’s also not crowded with amblers. There were only two other runners there. Given that Sandra was standing in lane four with a stopwatch and yelling at me, they stayed out of our way.

Okay, Sandra wasn’t actually yelling at me. I just enjoy that image. She was yelling splits and, most of the time, encouragement. I won’t go into what we did, but it was really fucking hard. She even scaled back things a little when she saw that I was struggling through one of the repeats. I felt bad when she did that but she assured me that it’s the whole point of having a coach there and it’s better to be conservative than to overtrain.

To be honest, it’s nervewracking to have someone scrutinizing how you run. I don’t come from a track (or running at all) background, so this is a new experience for me. There’s a lot of pressure to run faster when someone is standing there at each lap, waiting for you. I don’t have trouble doing my workouts alone — meaning I will apply myself regardless of who’s around. But having that extra pressure was a real motivator to pick things up when I felt like shit. After next week Sandra won’t be there for most of my track work, at least through the rest of the summer. But I feel I have a better sense now of how I should adjust the intervals as I go along.

Here’s this week’s running tip: always run your recoveries in the opposite direction. This keeps you from stressing the same outer leg/hip (your right one if you do the hard stuff counterclockwise).

On Thursday I did a longish tempo run. It was absolutely horrible weatherwise: 82F with a dewpoint of 72 when I started. The average time is slow because my warmup/cooldown was practically walking, and my tempo miles were no great shakes due to the weather (around 7:30). I did this run on the northern section of the Old Croton Aqueduct trail and it was really, really lovely. I can’t wait to run there in the fall when it’s cool and colorful. Although there is a .6 mile long section of extreme up/down hill in the form of switchbacks as you head to and from the Hudson’s edge. That was murder to run up fast.

On Friday I got a massage and discovered just how nasty I’d been to my legs over the previous days. Hamstrings, quads, calves — everything was fucked up. Even my arms hurt, especially the forearms for some reason. I wished I’d gone for a 90 minute session since 60 didn’t seem like enough. But I ambled home (it’s a short walk from my house through suburban streets) and collapsed on the couch for a few hours. I felt okay this morning, more or less ready for another epic run.

This time I tried the middle section of the OCA. I didn’t like that one as much. Much of it is a narrow track of dirt cutting through grass. Some of it is rooted and rocky. And it’s broken up by streets (including one that required a full seven minute wait at a stoplight where four streets converged), which slows everything down. My legs felt the week’s earlier abuses at the 8 mile mark, but I kept at it. Fortunately, the weather was so pleasant today that it was almost not noticeable. In the low 70s and very dry. I ran the last few miles as fast as I could, which wasn’t very fast. Still, faster than the last few progression runs. I was happy with the effort considering that it was on top of two earlier faster sessions.

Next weekend is the NYRR team championships, so the mileage and intensity get dialed down again. After this week, I’m grateful for some down days.

Training July 18-24

The adventure continues. As does the heat wave.

This past week was typical of what I’ll be doing in the coming weeks: speedwork and lots of progression runs. I didn’t cross-train as much as I’d hoped to, but I’m working on making biking and weight work more of a priority. I also got my first massage since right after the Green Mountain Relay in June. I was informed that my hamstrings aren’t nearly as tight as they were then. But my back, shoulders and neck are still a holy mess.

Monday was really, really hot again. So I did my short progression run on the treadmill. That went pretty well, considering that I’d raced hard on Saturday. Wednesday was another really hot morning at the track — 90F with a dewpoint of 68. I had to do longer intervals, which was mentally difficult.

Then I stupidly ran an extra 5 miles, bringing the total to 11, which was supposed to have been distributed over two runs: 7 at the track and then 4 recovery in the evening. I got so used to running lots of miles around track sessions last year that it’s hard to break that habit. I won’t do that again. Coach Sandra was not pleased and thought I was just being overly enthusiastic (so unlike me) or simply non-compliant. I told her that I merely have poor reading comprehension sometimes and all was forgiven.

On Thursday, as often happens the day after some faster running, my legs felt zippy. So I ran the recovery run by feel, which turned into a slightly higher effort outing. But I knew I had the next day off from running, so I didn’t worry about it.

Saturday was, once again, very hot and humid, so I took the progression run inside again. This was a horrible run. My stomach was a mess and my right hamstring felt very stiff. I ended up puttering along at 10:45 pace for 4 miles before I was able to pick things up ever so gradually and run the last few miles at a properly fast pace. Given how shitty I felt, I was tempted to abandon the workout, but remembered that if I don’t finish a week, I need to do it all over again. I didn’t want to be held back in what is the training equivalent of Kindergarten.

Besides training, it was an eventful week. For one thing, it was my first week as a non-IBMer in 7 years. That took some getting used to. I also updated Houston Hopefuls at long last. Then I worked on my first byline piece for Running Times, a profile of one of the masters runners who has already qualified for the 2012 Marathon Trials, Tamara Karrh. Originally I’d hoped to do a piece on the growth of masters participation in that race over the years, with Karrh as personification of this trend (but not the article’s centerpiece). But getting historical Trials data on short notice proved impossible, despite how annoying I made myself (in a friendly, grateful way) to the USATF. Fortunately, Karrh turned out to be a great interviewee, worthy of a profile focused on her alone. That will hit the newsstands/web in October (November issue).

This week is more of the same: track work (with Coach and stopwatch this time), a tempo run and more progression miles. I’ve been exploring the local trails, to save my legs by running on soft dirt, but also for a change of venue. I don’t actually have to be anywhere these days. I can drive to a trail. I can stop and look at other creatures’ homes. I can wander the aisles of Costco at 2:00 in the afternoon. I don’t feel a shred of anxiety over this current state of affairs. I have not felt this relaxed in decades.

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