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.

A few minutes with Sally Kipyego

Sally Kipyego, 26, originally from Kapsowar, Kenya, established herself as a standout runner at Texas Tech, becoming the first runner to win three consecutive women’s titles in the NCAA Division 1 championships, among other collegiate distinctions. But you probably recognize her more recently as having won Silver in the 10K at Daegu. She’s something of a rarity in that she races well from the 1500 up to the 10K, and seems able to move up or down in distance effortlessly. Kipyego is also beautiful to watch, always running with a relaxed form and an oftentimes almost serene expression.

I’m curious to know why you’re running a mile and what it’s like to go from 10K on the track to a mile on the road.
I love the 1500. I do them, just for speed at the beginning of the year, just to get my legs going. But this is a great race that I’ve known about for a few years now. But I haven’t had a chance to participate. I’ve always thought it was a fantastic race and a great way to end the season. But every year, at the end of the year, I’m exhausted and don’t want to do any more racing at the end of the season. It’s a wonderful way of finishing the season, in New York City, on Fifth Avenue. It’s a really well-known, good meet.

A track 10K is 25 laps. I’ve always wondered, when you race that, do you ever lose count?
No. Well, for 2010 I made a conscious decision to not wear a watch on the track. In 2009 my watch was affecting every race, because all I was doing was looking at my watch on every lap, trying to get the splits. It really took the fun out of running. So I made that decision, not wearing a watch. So now I don’t look at the lap count, I don’t look at my watch and I don’t look at the time. I don’t look at the lap count until probably the last five laps. I just totally zone out and get into a rhythm. At the end of it, maybe around five or six laps to go, I start paying attention because that’s when the race actually begins. In the first 5, 6, 7k, I’m pretty low key and I just need to get into a rhythm.

So you’re finding that you’re racing better without a watch?
Absolutely. It’s made a huge difference. Because I’m not paying attention to the splits now. I’m competing. I compete. I race against people, not a clock. It’s difficult on your mind, when you’re trying to get specific splits. Maybe you’re one second off, but it messes when your mentality. “Oh, I’m off. I’m not running well. Or I’m running too fast.” If you’re just rolling with it, it’s not about the clock. It’s about how you feel. It’s a lot smoother and a lot easier on your mind. At least that’s what I find.

What are you thinking about when you’re zoning out for the first three-quarters of the race?
I go to my happy place. I have a mental picture. When I’m doing my easy runs, I go to a place where it’s really calm and quiet. It’s strange, but I always think of water. A fountain. Or a waterfall. It’s really calm, really quiet. Just breathing. I try to bring that picture to my mind and zone out and get in that place. When I do that I don’t even feel the laps going by. I just get really relaxed and feel really light on my feet. I’m just really calm. And when I’m calm, I do better.

Have you always done this?
No. I read this book about visualization and relaxation to do before races. I started to, for 30 minutes before going to bed, laying there and trying to calm myself down, trying to get a mental picture of a really quiet, calm place. The more I did that, the more I got relaxed. I started doing that in my easy runs. It’s a skill. Why not try it? Give it a shot and see. I found out that when I’m relaxed in a race, I perform so much better than I do when I’m tense. So if I can get into that relaxed state, it’s just easier on my body.

Do you do any other kind of mental training? Do you, for example, simulate races?
I will go through my races ten times, so many times before I run. When I’m getting to a race I’ve got a plan A and I’ll mentally play that in my head many times during my runs. During my long runs I’ll go through a race and think about how that’s going to play out. I guess that’s what you do when you’re doing 80-90 miles a week.

It’s a lot of time to think.
Yeah.

Do you remember the first race that you ever ran?
Yes. I raced in 1999. It was my first time racing in Kenya. It was a district meet. I probably ran some races in school. But that was [the first] proper race, so to speak, where I actually raced against people who were fast. I just ran with them. I didn’t have a goal. I just ran. I got through the finish and thought, “That wasn’t so bad.” I didn’t have a goal, I didn’t have an objective – I was just running.

Do you still race the same way? Or are things more loaded now?
There’s pressure. If it’s your professional career, you’re running for a lot more than running a race. You have sponsors. But I like the purity of running. I think it’s one sport that’s very pure. It comes with that sense of you and the track – it’s just you and the race. I love that.

So you still like running, despite all these new pressures.
I love running. The first day I came out and ran in school, I was so stressed. I wanted to perform well, and put so much pressure on myself. I didn’t enjoy running at that time. Every time I toed the line, it was about something. I either wanted to impress sponsors, or it was something else. But now I’m just so grateful that Nike gave me a chance, that they sponsored me and gave me a chance to do what I love to do, because I know now that I truly love running. This is what I love. I can’t imagine my life without running. I love the purity of it and how it makes me feel. It’s a liberated feeling and I’m grateful that I get the chance and opportunity to do this for a living.

What do you want to do when you can’t run for a living anymore?
I’ll go back to nursing. My heart is still there. Even if I don’t work in a hospital, I’d like to do something related to nursing. I would still love to do something related to health care.

How do you warm up for a road mile?
The mile is quick. 1500’s are pretty quick for me, so I’ll take a little longer to warm up. For a mile I’ll probably warm up more than I would for a 10k. I’ll do a pickup, a two minute pickup that’s a little bit faster than tempo pace. Not quite race pace, but quite high – a fast tempo pace. Just to get my heart going, get my lungs going. Just to get that feeling, where my heart rate is elevated just slightly before a race, then come down. So that when the gun goes off, it doesn’t get me off guard, my body’s ready to go.

It’s funny. Everyone I’ve asked has a slightly different warmup.
I probably do more drills for a mile than I would for a 10k. For that distance you warm up slowly, because you have plenty of time to adjust. But in a road mile, it’s a pretty short event so you have to be ready to go.

Lykkelig løyper, Grete Waitz

[That’s “happy trails” in Norwegian, at least according to Google Translate]

What can you say about Grete Waitz? She was not only an inspiring talent, but she was one of running’s greatest ambassadors. There is a huge hole left in the world of running today.

I will keep the bloviations to a minimum. That’ll be easy because I never met Grete. I saw her at the expo for my first marathon, the More Magazine Marathon, 2007 edition. She was standing there with Lynn Jennings, greeting people. I was such a newbie to the sport that I had no idea who Lynn Jennings was. But I knew who Grete was. But I was too shy and awestruck to go over and say hello! Now I kick myself for that. The next time I saw her was in 2008, when she flew by me in the back of the press truck at mile 20 of the New York Marathon, where I was watching from the curb. When I started interviewing elites last year I vowed to try to meet her at the next Norwegian Festival, but I was away during the weekend of those races in October. And so that was that.

Here are some highlights from around the web. Also, I can recommend the movie Run for Your Life, a documentary about Fred Lebow, in which Waitz has a large presence.

Fellow New York Harrier (and fellow runner of Norwegian descent, although his name’s a lot easier to deal with than mine is) Douglas Hegley’s post is worth a read. He had a few chance meetings with Waitz that tell you everything you need to know about the woman. This is the most personal blog post I’ve found about Waitz thus far. But Amy’s is a good runner up, and contains links to other great stories.

Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World has this lovely tribute.

Here’s the IAAF’s remembrance of Ms. Waitz, who, it should be noted, still holds the Norwegian record for the 1500.

Waitz was ambitious and driven, yet humble and generous. Everything a champion should be.

NYRR introduces brand new way to annoy and inconvenience its customers

I try not to rag on NYRR excessively, saving my screeds for when they’re truly justified. Here’s one that seems justified enough.

This was posted on the New York Harriers’ message board yesterday, quoting (presumably) from NYRR materials for participants in this weekend’s NYC Half Marathon.

“A participant wristband will be put on you when you get your bib at the expo. You must wear the wristband to enter your starting corral and throughout the race on Sunday. If you break or lose your wristband before the race, you must return to the expo for a new one, and your name will be recorded in our entrant database as having received a second one. If you are not wearing a wristband when you finish the race, you won’t be given a finisher medal and won’t be eligible for post-race amenities.”

Really? I have to wear a bracelet (and a flimsy one, by the sounds of it) for three days in order to be allowed to run in a race that I’ve paid the better part of $100 for? Why not just institute electronic tracking ankle bracelets like the ones they put on convicted mob bosses? Or (Jonathan’s idea), how about requiring that I wear the shoes I plan to race in to the expo for a special chip that requires I keep the shoes on (even in the shower and in bed) until I’m done with the race? How about a chip that serves as a “third eye,” implanted in my forehead and read by a bioscanner?

What shenanigans are they trying to prevent? Bib borrowing? Who gives a shit? Why does NYRR give a shit?

If they insist on playing playground monitor to racers, then why not do what every toothless, imbecilic carnival ride worker in the world knows to be much more efficient? Just use a special stamp with ink that takes at least four days to wear off. Imagine the money they’ll save on special bracelets, dealing with angry return expo visitors, and setting up and maintaining computerized tracking systems.

Sometimes I think NYRR wants its constituents to dislike them.

“Remember: you are a strong, powerful black woman.”

This is something I like to say to Jonathan right before races. There are enough gaps between races that it continues to be funny. I like to think it takes him out of his nervousness for just a few nanoseconds and gets the happy chemicals flowing in his brain right before the horn blows.

So here we have a joke with pretty good staying power. I’ve been dragging it out to the start line for a few years now. The joke is like the accordion that travels the U.S. continent, witnessing (or perhaps causing, through some kind of curse) death and mayhem, in E. Annie Proulx’s novel Accordian Crimes. Except instead of passing through the hands of hapless owners, it passes through years of hapless training and racing.

Lest I get too tangled up in this comparison and paint myself into a corner (to mix metaphors… Ack! Escape! Escape!), here’s where I’m going with this: while I may be using the same musty pre-race jokes, the pre-race training is getting some new material. Or at least a new mental approach. I hate to tarnish it with something as touchy-feely as “mindfulness,” but the way I approach workouts today is quite different than it was even a year ago.

In essence, here’s the Great Truth: I am where I am on any given day, and sometimes it’s not where I want to be. But that’s almost always because I’m not fully recovered, which means that I’m tired. Being tired is real. It’s not a weakness, nor is it something to ignore and “push through.” That’s how you get overtrained and, possibly, also injured.

Here’s an illustration: I was scheduled to do a bunch of 1K repeats yesterday on the track. It was pouring buckets of rain all day, so I moved them to the treadmill. My legs were still aching and fatigued from Sunday’s race followed by a windy 8 mile progression run on Tuesday.

So I was tired yesterday. I knew this to be true. But I decided to try the workout. That’s what you do. You try it. You don’t drop it altogether because you’re tired. But you don’t bludgeon your way through it either, for the same reason. You can get some work done, but it needs to be the appropriate amount of work, done at the appropriate effort.

The first couple of repeats went okay, although I was deliberately running them slightly slower than last time. The next two featured a rapid cratering in performance. On both, my legs died at the 800m mark and I knew I was running way too hard for the last 200m. Done! Doing more 1K repeats at too high an effort would be counterproductive: I would be doing the workout at too high an effort to gain the intended benefits, plus I’d feel like a shitty runner for the rest of the day. Who needs that?

Did I have to stop working though? Could I still do something productive? Sure. My legs were dying at 800m. So why not try a couple of 400m repeats and see how they go? I did those and they were fine. But two were obviously enough, if my labored breathing was anything to go by. I was done for the day, having logged 3 miles at high effort. I jogged my recovery miles and came away feeling okay about the workout. And about me, the runner.

To review: Sometimes the best thing to do is just run to your capability on that day and, rather than viewing the experience as a compromised workout, instead declare it a major attitudinal victory, and a minor physical one. You can also just defer the workout to a later day, although for practical reasons I opted not to shuffle workouts this week and next. But a few smart runners I know, especially those with some grey in their pelts, do this on a regular basis.

So there’s your training widsom tidbit.

I am getting a media credential for the NYC Half, although now it’s looking iffy if I’ll have time to use it. Some new freelance work has landed, two projects that start next week. But I am hoping to at least get over to the press conferences on Friday and do a few interviews. As usual, I am most interested in talking to the Media “B list”: Jo Pavey, Serena Burla, Jessica Augusto, Madai Perez (although language might be an issue with those two).

I also learned from my NYRR contact that there are no planned press events for the More Half next month. This is specifically because of Sally Meyerhoff’s death, as she was the headliner. So that’s a disappointment. If I’m free I may go loiter at the expo anyway to see if anyone interesting is there.

Jumping on the ABC meme

But only because I’ve invested 45 minutes in watching The Girl Who Played With Fire and am bored out of my skull, yet not quite ready to go to bed. Hokay.

Age: 45, turning 46 next month. Oh my fucking god. How did I get here already?

Bed size: King, baby. We’re not big people, but we do like our space. Also, I tend to punch, kick and claw in my sleep.

Chore you hate the most: Cleaning the litter box.

Dogs: Grew up with them and loved them. But not ready for the responsibility or the strange, constant “ham smell.” You know what I’m talking about.

Essential start to your day: P.G. Tips tea, Frosted Mini Wheats and WeatherBug.

Favorite color: What are you, five? No. There are too many mindblowingly great colors out there to commit to just one.

Gold or silver: I will accept either one gladly.

Height: 5′ 5.5″

Instruments you play: If we use the term “play” loosely, then I will claim guitar and banjo. I have always wanted to play the drums. I will probably eventually buy an electric bass to supplement my bad electric guitar playing.

Job title: Freelance writer, content strategist, “journalist”

Kids: Let’s just say I’m glad my sister popped out a few so the pressure was off.

Live: I don’t understand this one.

Mom’s name: Sharon.

Nicknames: Real: Jules, Juliekins, Juki, Threlly. Fake: Cupcakes, Wowzy, The Brick

Overnight hospital stays: Adenoid removal at an early age; five years ago when one side of my face mysteriously exploded into full on Ted Kennedyosity.

Pet peeve: Drivers who do not use their turn signals. I experience several episodes of rage per week due to this problem. Also, telemarketers with autodialers who greet you with, “Hello? Hello?” Sometimes I like to fuck with them by saying, “Hello? Dad? Is that you?”

Quote from a movie: “This dress exacerbates the genetic betrayal that is my legacy.”

Righty or lefty: Righty, except when I eat.

Siblings: One. Sister. Older. She used to subject me to ritual humiliation. I used to beat the daylights out of her. I could also give her piggyback rides when I was in kindergarten and she was in the third grade. We get along really well now.

Time you wake up: Whenever the Zolpidem Tartrate wears off.

Underwear: Recommended.

Vegetables you dislike: Okra. An abomination. It’s like snot encased in frog skin.

What makes you run late: I get in the car. I’ve forgotten my glasses. I go inside. I’ve forgotten where I left my glasses. Half the time they’re in the car.

X-Rays: Lots. Mostly for dental work.

Yummy food that you make: Everything I make is yummy.

Zoo animal favorite: The last time I went to a zoo was during a visit to an awful “animal park” called “Paws and Claws” in Florida in 1988. I ran out through the gift shop, with tears streaming down my face, as a result of seeing the sorry state of the animals in that place. I don’t go to zoos anymore.

Training: Feb 27-Mar 5

Here ya go.

I was really keyed up after the previous week’s long run in Central Park. I ran what was supposed to be a 5 mile recovery run way too hard, in wind and on hills, around my local streets in the Crestwood neighborhood. My adductor started hurting, so I cut it short and took the next day off.

Determined to stay off the treadmill,  on Tuesday I headed up to Scarsdale for what was supposed to be a progression run with 2 fast miles at the end. But I was really beat, plus it was incredibly windy again. So I made do with a run at decent effort, dropping the faster stuff. I knew I had a speed session and a race coming up, so there was no point in pushing things.

Wednesday featured a horrible track workout. That was unhelpful.

I spent the next few days focusing on getting mentally ready to race a 5K, since my body was not doing its fair share. One of the Harriers’ coaches sent round a “Racing Coogan’s for Dummies” document and I studied up. Then I did some race visualization. I know it sounds hokey, but I’ll try anything at this point.

That race went pretty well, although I was a minute off my PR. But I was not expecting miracles. Nor did I get them.

And there you have it. I ran a measly 31 miles, but given my performance on Sunday, that is okay. I’m becoming convinced that less is more when it comes to pre-race mileage, provided you keep the quality up.

This week I’m back up to 50 mpw, with the staples: progression, speed, long. With the exception of one fartlek session featuring Billat surges, all of my speedier stuff between now and April 10th’s Scotland 10K race is track torture. While it’s not 10K training per se, the variety of shorter track stuff mixed with progression work over hills is bound to help when I line up for that race five weeks from now. Or at least I hope so.

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