Where it was once called The Dark Continent, I would now characterize Africa as The Slow Continent. And I’m in South Africa, the shining beacon of modernity here. Internet connectivity means plugging a cellular doohickey into the USB port and pouring a nice big cup of tea for every page you hope to load.

No matter, though. I didn’t come here to sit in front of a computer. I’ve spent most of my time either outside running and walking, or inside eating and drinking. Copious amounts of sleeping have figured into this schedule as well.

Here’s a quick rundown of activities thus far. It took us roughly 36 hours over two flights (and lots of ass time in Heathrow) to get from JFK to Cape Town, but thanks to modern chemistry we were able to sleep on the plane and get time adjusted along the way. Our destination was Greyton, a tiny town of around 800 nestled in the Overberg mountains, around 1.5 hours SW of Cape Town. It’s a combination gay/retiree mecca, which means lots of quality restaurants and watering holes, a good wine shop and many organized activities during the day.

We were only here for one night before departing 45 minutes away to the coast to run our half marathon in Hermanus, a big whale watching destination. We stayed in a wonderful B&B, just a five minute walk from the race start and finish. The race itself was actually very funny in some ways, and one I’m proud of. Funny because we awoke a few hours before our 4:30AM alarm to howling winds. They only got worse and by the 7AM start there was a steady wind of 30mph with gusts of (I’m guessing) 50. Enough to knock over heavy garden planters and turn restaurant sandwich boards into potentially lethal projectiles.

My quasi mother- and father-in-law (it’s complicated*), Margaret and Geoff, had generously scoped out the course beforehand, noting that the entire second half was straight uphill, some on loose gravel. So we knew going in that this would not be a PR course. The wind, however, introduced a whole new level of absurdity. I can honestly say that this was the toughest course I’ve ever run. The wind was just relentless. There was one section in the middle of the race, an uphill, when we had a strong tailwind, and my split shows it. The rest of the time, though, it was mostly headwind with an occasional shift to sidewind for some temporary relief.

The course was beautiful, starting in a high school rugby field, a little bit of cross-country course in the beginning, then winding through the town and down along the very wild waterfront. Then up again through the hoity toity area in which we were staying, and back to the school for the finish amongst the stands of spectators.

Knowing the challenges of the last half of the course and figuring in the headwind, my strategy was to run on effort and not worry about pace. I wanted to pass people in the second half and really be able to race those big hills. So I ran the first half at around 88-90% effort (a little lower than I’d typically do for a half), then picked it up in to the low 90%s and finished up in the mid-90%s. I passed a bunch of people and ended 11th woman overall. I have no clue what my masters standing was. Jonathan came in 5th overall and was first masters male. But after much confusion it emerged that this was a club race and, being interlopers and mere holders of “temporary licenses” (don’t ask), we were not eligible for any awards.

As usual, I forgot to turn off my watch, but I think I just broke 1:46 (update: official time was 1:45:52). A good 12 minutes off my best time for the half. Hee hee. Lousy times and awards ineligibility notwithstanding, I’m happy with my execution and ability to perform well in abysmal conditions. I felt great throughout the race and don’t think I could have run it better than I did.

The other highlight of the trip has been the little girl next door who has a massive crush on me. In this case, she’s a Doberman-Alsatian mix. I passed her on a solo run around the neighborhood yesterday, sitting in the drive two doors down from our rental, and she happily tagged along. On the way, she made sure I knew she was the boss of the cows and the guinea fowl. Although she did cower behind me when we were threatened by barking dogs behind fences.

She was the perfect running partner, spending most of her time just off my thigh, her ear brushing me, never half-stepping. Sometimes she’d run off to explore, but never for more than a minute or two. Every mile or so she’d look up as if to say, “How far are we going exactly?” But she never stopped running.

This morning, as we headed out for a group hike, there she was again, waiting for me. We tried to shake her, but she’d have no part of it. Even putting me in a car to drive away from her only resulted in her tearing down the road after us even as we accelerated to 40 km. So she joined us on the hike, again just off my leg. Now she was becoming a problem, as we had to alter the route to take the “no dogs” path. Then she followed us to the pub. So I walked her back to her home, but no one was there. I opened the gate and led her in, only to discover that she is capable of leaping right over it. So, on a lark, I tried a command. “Stay,” I said sternly. And she stayed. So now I know the trick. Fortunately, her owners speak English rather than Afrikaans.

I have more stories to tell, but I’m due at my quasi-inlaws for dinner, so I’m off…

*As Jonathan and I are not married, I’m never sure what to call his mother in relation to myself. Further complicating things is the fact that Geoff is Margaret’s third husband. Did I mention Jonathan’s half-brother, Robbie (different Dad) and his husband, Phil? After a few drinks, it’s challenging to communicate to strangers what we all are to each other.

Fall Training: Week 2

09fall-training-02Like last week, this week had its ups and downs. The ups were two fabulous runs on Wednesday and Thursday. I was still quite tired from Sunday’s 10 mile race heading into the week, so I was grateful for the low mileage.

Wednesday’s run (which I’m thinking of as a “recovereasy run”) is new for this training cycle (as is Thursday’s). In the previous cycle, my tempo miles were tacked onto the end of the midweek midlength run. For many of those runs, I struggled to do the tempo miles at the end. So this time around we’ve separated the two workouts.

The midlength run is now to be done at aerobic effort, but on the lower end of that scale since I need to save some energy for the next day’s tempo running. We may eventually bring back midlenth+tempo runs, but not until I adapt somewhat.

I enjoyed the run on Wednesday, in which I hopped up to White Plains and back at an average of 73% MHR in a decent time of two hours.

For Thursday, I did five warmup miles on the roads at low effort (mid-to-upper 60%s MHR), then hit the track for the four faster miles. Those went well, with the bonus that I had a full floor show for the half hour that I was there. Then finished off with more slow miles back home.

And that’s where the fabulousness ended. I never really recovered this week. The Friday runs were tiring, as I expected them to be. But I was still tired on Saturday, with my legs feeling trashed, like I’d run a race the day before. I felt fine otherwise. I skipped the planned strides because doing them was out of the question. My hamstrings and quads were complaining too much.

Sunday I woke up and my legs felt a bit better, but they were still only about 90%. The run was fine until about mile 10 when I would have been delighted to end it then and there. But I was in White Plains again and had to get home under my own steam.

This was the last Bicycle Sunday, when they close traffic to cars on the Bronx River Parkway for four hours for cyclists, runners and rollerbladers. Since the route is the same one I’ll be running in a few weeks in the Westchester Half, I thought I’d reacquaint myself with the course by running home along the parkway. I’m glad I did for two reasons: first, I was reminded of how hilly the course is, which I never notice so much in the car; second, I had opportunity to do a lot of the miles on the grassy shoulder, which helped save my legs.

Both Jonathan and I were crestfallen to find, at the end of our respective Sunday slogs, that there was no ice cream truck at the finish. Only a hot dog truck. So after a 45 minute nap we walked into Bronxville for ice cream cones. My legs felt better afterward and I’m thinking this therapeutic post-long-run ice cream stroll should become a regular thing. At least until the snow starts falling.

The next couple of weeks will feature a half marathon and lots of disruption as I attempt to train in South Africa while visiting family and friends. I have a few key workouts I’d like to do and I’m hoping that if I rise early enough (or duck out for an hour in the evening) I’ll be able to get most of the planned miles in. But I’m not going to be a lunatic about it.

Douchebags! The series

This weekend I watched two recorded iron man triathlon events, one in China and the other in Idaho. People, televised triathlons offer some of the best television comedy you’ll see all season. Here’s what you get:

Announcers and competitors alike who can’t even properly pronounce the name of their own sport. They call it a “triathalon.” Like telethon. Or Toyotathon. Even the winners do this. Imagine if I went on and on about my maronathons?

And speaking of the winners, in triathlons, everyone’s a winner! It doesn’t matter if you cross the finish line first or 401st — they’ll hold up a little tape for you to…

…walk through! Yes, no one actually runs through the tape. After all, it’s only a marathon they’re finishing (which most of us consider a running event). Why run when you can meander through the tape after high-fiving both sides of the crowd for the last 30 meters?

Swimmers, slathered in what appears to be Hellman’s mayonnaise, rolling around in the grass, fighting to get their wetsuits off, sometimes with the aid of mysteriously enthusiastic volunteers. Bicyclists throwing up prodigiously while maintaining a steady 25mph speed.* Runners walking. And walking. And walking. Did you know that you can walk a lot in a triathlon and still win?

Textbook instruction on bad running form. Triathletes run like they’ve got giant staples in their backs. Bunched shoulders, arms held way out at 45 degrees from the body, no stride length. No wonder they’re too exhausted to run by the halfway point.

Even better, the coverage seems specifically designed to make the competitors look like douchebags. In the mini profiles, they’re shot from below, told to cross their arms and look like mean badasses. Then they’re forced to refer to themselves in the third person: “What does it take to beat Julie Threlkeld? The ability to swim.”

Best of all, I now understand how the average non-running viewer looks at televised marathons. The tedium. The suffering. The pointlessness of it all. We’re all douchebags in someone’s eyes.

*Unfortunately, there was no Technicolor spewing in either of these two particular events. You need to wait for the hot weather events for that.

Another day at the track

I’m usually annoyed when I arrrive at the track and it’s full of people. But yesterday was an exception.

Yesterday morning I headed over to the Bronxville High School track to do some tempo running. I got a late start and needed to run about five miles as a warmup before doing the tempo miles. By the time I got there it was probably around 8:30 already.

It was a good session, not only because the running went very well, but also because of various things that happened during the run to keep me distracted and entertained.

My assignment was four miles at LT effort. All of my training is by heart rate this time around, so my goal was to hit 88% quickly and then ramp it up to 90% for most of the run. As it turns out, I did the last mile at 91% but I didn’t notice the upped effort until I got home and looked at the data. Splits: 7:08, 7:13, 7:06, 6:49. I’ve gotten into the habit of running the last quarter mile of most harder runs at a very high effort, which explains that faster last mile.

Anyhoo. When I got to the track, I saw two groups forming, with an assemblage of odd-looking accessories on the ground. As it would turn out, the first group was the return of what I always think of as The Ladies Exercise Group. This is a group of women who look to be in their 20s and 30s — yeah, a lot younger than me — who all gather and, under the direction of the group leader, engage in various forms of synchronized exercise. On this day that meant the use of resistance bands and lots of hopping around. No slow jogging this time, though (in the past they would alternate hopping around with a slow lap on the track).

For some reason, I often find myself wishing that one or two would “defect” from their group and come talk to me about running. Unless all these women are coming back from some sort of injury, nothing they’re doing is really helping them fitnesswise. Doesn’t at least one of them harbor some curiosity or secret desire to run fast rather than engage in dreary routines with a giant rubber band?

The other group was a class learning how to ride a harness along a rope. I have no idea what this is called, but I’m sure it has a name. This activity involved stretching a rope between two poles approx. 150m apart, and placing a folding stepladder toward the far end, just off the track. The instructor stood atop the higher “launch pole.” Each helmeted and harnessed kid would climb up the handholds to the top of the pole, attach him- or herself to the rope (and a “safety” held by classmates, presumably to stop the larger kids from slamming into the opposite pole), and wheee!! Kid would fly toward opposite pole, then naturally sink back a bit where the ladder was waiting to enable an exit from the rope.

What this meant was that sometimes I’d be rounding the track with a child flying over my head. This certainly kept me alert.

Finally, in the center field was a group of little kids learning to play some sort of kickball game with a pockmarked, round Nerf-like ball (bright yellow). This would sometimes fly across the track (and I could sense some minor annoyance that I didn’t go out of my way to return it to them). The guy coaching the kids was enthusiastic as was the guy at the top of the pole. I was again reminded that I would make a lousy teacher because I would forget to say things like, “We have to stop now. But don’t worry, everyone will have an opportunity to do this!”

So the center and periphery were truly a three ring circus. The track itself wasn’t crowded; I shared it with maybe six people. One of them was a guy who’d come on when I was well into my tempo miles and was running in the inside lane at maybe an 8:30 pace.

With about seven laps to go I rounded the track and came up alongside him a few lanes out. He suddenly started running faster, determined not to let me pass him. This instinctively made me speed up too, but after a few seconds I realized what was happening. So I slowed back down to my 7:0X pace. In the meantime, he’d taken off like a bat out of hell. He lasted at that pace for about a lap and then stopped dead, doubled over. I continued on and finished my run, wondering if it was a guy vs. girl thing or if he was just competitive regardless of gender. Silly twat.

Mixes: 33 for 150

I’ve got a training plan for the next few months. Now all I need is music to make the longer runs a little less tedious. Here’s the first new playlist, which I’ll probably use for my midlength (12-15 miles) runs. It’s fairly uptempo but not the crazy, aggressive crap I listen to for the faster aerobic and tempo runs.

1. Paper Birds – The Slip

2. Airplane/Primitive – The Slip

3. Children Of December – The Slip

4. Clear Water – Anniemac

5. The Sun Smells Too Loud – Mogwai

6. Glasgow Mega-Snake – Mogwai

7. Special – Mew

8. Hawaii – Mew

9. Her Voice Is Beyond Her Years – Mew

10. Snow Brigade – Mew

11. Am I Wry? No – Mew

12. Black Hearts (On Fire) – Jet

13. (Drawing) Rings Around The World – Super Furry Animals

14. The Undefeated – Super Furry Animals

15. Slow Life – Super Furry Animals

16. Cath… – Death Cab For Cutie

17. New Killer Star – David Bowie

18. House Of Orion – Lukestar

19. Rebellion (Lies) – Arcade Fire

20. Wrapped Up In Books – Belle and Sebastian

21. Everybody Come Down – The Delgados

22. Senses – La Rocca

23. Eyes While Open – La Rocca

24. Non Believer – La Rocca

25. My Lucky Day – Jason Falkner

26. I Live – Jason Falkner

27. Under the Milkyway – The Church

28. There, There – Radiohead

29. Jigsaw Falling Into Place – Radiohead

30. Pretty In Pink – The Psychedelic Furs

31. Beautiful People – Pet Shop Boys

32. Keys To Your Heart – The 101ers

33. Lola Stars and Stripes – The Stills

Listen on Rhapsody

Fun facts about a few of these:

#4 is by Annie McIntyre, who I grew up with and saw for the first time in a few decades when we went to Oregon in the summer.

#17 is just so Bowie. It’s newer, but evidence that, unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he hasn’t lost his talent.

#27 and #30 are there purely for nostalgia. I love both these tunes, primarily for the vocal.

#32 is Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band. Their only hit.

Fall Training: Week 1

09fall-training-01Back in the saddle again.

Given the events of the spring and summer, the most important word during this training cycle is “recovery.” I whaled away last week and came into this one feeling fatigued. Still tired Wednesday, I decided to cut back the mileage from a planned 89 to 70. As it turns out, I ended up with even less than that as I decided to take Saturday off completely. I hadn’t had a day off since July and felt I needed it.

So my training has started with more of a whimper than a bang, and that’s fine. I’m going into this with a completely new philosophy and approach.

As far as the philosophy goes, I’m not going to be picking an arbitrary marathon time goal (such as “sub-3:00”) and then bludgeoning my way through workouts at specific paces in hot pursuit of that time. No, this time I’m going to train and see where I am 12 weeks from now, then base my time goal on a pace that I am confident that I can sustain. How fucking revolutionary a concept is that? Pretty revolutionary for me, but probably elementary for runners less dense.

From a practical standpoint, chasing after paces will be replaced with workouts that are completely effort based. This will allow me avoid two issues that marred my last go-round: a constant feeling of failure at not being able to hit desired paces; the compulsion to read tea leaves in the form of scrutinizing headwinds, elevations, the effects of running on snow et al. Now I’ll just go run and hit certain efforts and see what paces I end up with.

Also, as stated at the start of this post, recovery is priority one. As Kevin put it, “Rule of thumb from now on — two or more days described at week’s end as drag-ass on RLAG will result in a schedule tweak.”

There are a few other practical differences. For one, the training cycle is only about 12 weeks. The last one was closer to 19 and I felt I was running at my best right around the 12 week mark. So we’ve lopped off a month and a half.

Also, I’m determined to run at least the first two-thirds of my December marathon in the 86%-87% MHR range. My most successful race (the 2008 More race) had a lot of early miles at that effort, after which I picked up effort and pace for the last six miles and ran them at my more typical marathon effort of 88-89%. It was the best I have felt in a marathon.

What this means is that I will be doing a lot of training at my desired marathon effort. You see a glimpse of this in Thursday’s workout, in which the goal was just to run some mile repeats at 85% effort, with a longish low-end aerobic recovery. Unfortunately, I’m beginning to suspect that I have another lemon heart rate monitor, as it was giving wacky readings during that workout and during yesterday’s 10 mile race.

For the Thursday workout, I ended up guessing at effort and decided not to worry about the HRM issue. It was a good workout and it’s early days yet, so I’m not going to obsess. As for yesterday’s 10 miler, I also knew the HRM was going to be unreliable when it shot up to 80% during an easy jog warmup. The watch recorded an average of 96% effort for the whole race, which is impossible for me to sustain for 1 mile, let alone 10. I know myself well enough that I’m fairly sure my effort ranged between 89-91% average and probably peaked at around 93% in the last mile.

The race was, as most of my races are, a disappointment. I suppose it was a good thing that I went in with no expectations, since I ended up running a few seconds slower than last year. One mistake I made was running the first mile way too fast at 6:32. I knew it was too fast but I couldn’t stop myself from trying to keep the lead women in sight. I slowed to 7:00 in mile two but the damage was done. I was feeling the effects by mile four and reminded myself that I needed to treat this as a lesson. Then I had a strong impulse to drop out and spent a good five minutes fighting that off. I dug in for the second half of the race and focused on maintaining effort for the uphill and headwind-filled last few miles.

My unofficial time was 1:14:55. Good for 1st in my AG (I think — the awards were really confusing this year). I think I came in 10th, but again I’m not sure. I’ve begun to take AG awards for granted, which I need to stop doing. For those first few years those awards were always painfully out of reach. Now they’re a regular thing. Even if I’m unhappy with a race, I need to remind myself of how far I’ve come and the fact that I haven’t given up the quest for improvement.

Summer Basebuilding: Week 10

sum09-base-10I guess this is the last of the summer basebuilding. In 10 weeks I’ve gone from anemic shuffler to something resembling the runner I was in April. Where I truly am fitnesswise is still something of a mystery, since so much of my running over the past few weeks was on the treadmill.

But the outside running I did this week did yield some clues. Recovery runs have continued to be on the speedier side, mostly owing to the decent weather we’ve suddenly experienced. As a side note, for all my complaining, this summer wasn’t bad. The Hades-like weather didn’t start until the second week of July and (if Accuweather’s 15 day forecast can be trusted), we may have seen the last of it.

Or, rather, I may have seen the last of it. I’m off to South Africa for a couple of weeks later this month (where it is now late winter, headed into spring). So freakish October heat waves of the sort we saw in 2007 are of no concern to me.

Now let’s get down to bidness.

I came into the week feeling reasonably recovered, the previous week having been a recovery week. Recovered enough run a 13 mile recovery run that was, as I discovered later in the week, just a smidgen too fast for several miles. I felt good, though, so I couldn’t help myself. But I need to remind myself: recovery runs are for recovery.

I started paying the price on Wednesday. My legs felt awful, cramped and heavy — although that was mostly owing to cycle/hormonal stuff. But the extravagance of the day before didn’t help. I stopped more than I’d liked to have done during the faster miles.

Thursday was worse. The AM run was a slog. On the PM run I felt like I was running on two logs and one lung.

On Friday I was still in recovery deficit (or perhaps merely still suffering from “women’s troubles”), with my legs feeling tired and unhappy. But I did the workout nonetheless. I’m fairly happy with the splits for the fast bits, although I’d hoped for 6:45s each. I cut myself some slack, though, as there were low bridges, 90 degree angle turns and idiots with 30′ dog leads to negotiate along the way.

Saturday was meh. Actually okay, but I was feeling the miles on my legs, especially in the last two.

Today’s run was a grand experiment. It’s been ages since I’ve done a real “progression run” and I’ve been itching to do one for its mental benefits as much as for its physical ones. I was originally scheduled to run 18 miles, but I bumped it up to 20 to further test my mettle.

Upon waking at 6AM this morning, my first conscious realization was that my thighs ached. Oh, crap. Not the most auspicious start to an ambitious workout. But that’s been the running theme all week, so why start acting reasonably now?

My goals for this run for today were, in no particular order of importance:

  • Complete it in 2:45 or better
  • Run a big negative split
  • Start at 72% effort, turn up the heat throughout and run as hard as possible for the last few
  • Take in as little nutrients as possible

Missions accomplished! I finished a few seconds shy of 2:45. I ran the first half at an average of 76%. Then I bumped it up to 80% pretty quickly and ended with the last few at 88-90% effort. The second 10 mile set was a good 8 minutes faster than the first. The paces weren’t great, my last mile a pedestrian 7:30. But I knew as soon as I woke up that I wasn’t going to be running 7:00 miles today. I managed this on half a bottle of Gatorade G2 and one gel.

In all, I’m happy with the workout, especially considering that it was a less than stellar week in turns of how I was feeling after Tuesday. Now I get to see how fucked up I am next week as a result!

The sub-13:00 love train

Last last month in Switzerland, Dathan Ritzenhein became only the second third fourth non-African-born man to run under 13:00 for the 5000m, clocking a new American record of 12:56. It took 13 years for someone to break the previous 12:58 American record held by Bob Kennedy. Then, just a few days later, Matt Tegenkamp went well under 13:00 too in Belgium, missing also beating Kennedy’s record by about half a second.

Watching those two races was nothing short of mind-blowing. What shift had occurred to allow for this dramatic twofer? These were huge PRs, not just the usual incremental ones. I know it made me think about what’s possible for myself.

I was also reminded of an article from Matt Fitzgerald in Running Times late last year, How Records Are Broken, which examined the forces that push records downward and what everyday runners can learn from them. The gist being: While we hobby runners may not break any world, national or age group records, breaking our own personal records in a regular and dramatic fashion is a worthy goal — and an achievable one.

Incidentally, that article link also includes an interview with none other than the now-former American record holder for the 5000m, Bob Kennedy.

Mixes: Roche Infestation

A few years ago I was working with a couple of women about my age and I was surprised to find that they’d never heard of The Roches, a three-sister folk group to whom I’ve been listening since someone played their debut album to me, to my delight and wonder, sometime in the early 80s. Noting my colleagues’ blank expressions as I insisted, “The Roches? Robert Fripp? C’mon…” I realized just how obscure The Roches actually are.

Their music is hard to describe, but its hallmark is soaring harmonies and a distinctly off-kilter sensibility. They are talented songwriters, exceptional singers and wholly original. Who else could write an eight-and-a-half-minute song extolling the virtues of a winter coat and somehow make it work?

I put together a Roches mix for my run this morning consisting entirely of my favorite recordings from their extensive ouvre. Over the years they’ve put out a wildly inconsistent set of albums, which has been frustrating. Some albums are just plain terrible. Others are okay, but marred by unwise production choices. I still think their eponymously titled debut (which Fripp produced and plays otherworldly guitar on) is their best, but I’d credit Can We Go Home Now and Speak as two other high points.

I’ve seen them perform at various points — once in Manhattan in the mid-1980s (I think it was The Bottom Line, but it may have been somewhere else) and then again later that decade on Staten Island at Snug Harbour Cultural Center. Both shows were great. Then, about 10 years ago, I went to see one of them, Suzzy, do a solo show at the church at the bottom of my street to promote her solo album, Holy Smokes. It was, frankly, depressing to see such a talented woman performing for $15 to a room of about 50 people. But perform she did and managed to singlehandedly bring to life songs that on record had required the vocal work of three. My favorite song of that set was “Home Away From Home,” which she managed masterfully with just one guitar and voice. I still think of that song as one of their masterpieces.

Anyway, here’s the playlist. If you’ve never heard of The Roches, start with the bold titles. They represent a pretty good cross-section of their sound. If you don’t like those, you won’t like any of them.

  1. This Feminine Position
  2. Keep on Doing What You Do / Jerks On The Loose
  3. Scorpion Lament
  4. Losing True
  5. Feeling is Mutual
  6. Nocturne
  7. Easy
  8. Person With a Past
  9. Cloud Dancing
  10. Big Nuthin’
  11. Speak
  12. Weeded Out
  13. Face Down At Folk City
  14. Love Radiates Around
  15. My Winter Coat
  16. Holidays
  17. Move
  18. Home Away From Home
  19. Hammond Song
  20. Mr. Sellack
  21. The Train
  22. Quitting Time