Monday, December 28, 2009

16 Weeks to Boston

Sixteen weeks from today, I hope to be reclined somewhere in a comfy chair, legs elevated, family surrounding me, a cold pint of beer in one hand and a Boston Marathon medal in the other.  But as Bruce Tuckman's novel on the Boston Marathon elegantly puts it: the road to Boston is a long one.

I built a one week down period into my training plan to have some time to heal up, rejuvenate, and not have to worry about hitting the roads during the busy Christmas week.  This proved a fortuitous decision with much of "the Blizzard of 2009's" remnants still hanging on (and glazing over for that matter).  So, I spent the week as a time for all these things, but also as one of reflection.  Yesterday evening, I pulled down by self-proclaimed 10-week Boston Buildup plan from the fridge, and replaced it instead with the 16-week plan I just got a week ago.  

I got a bit of the jitters putting this one up there because it's no longer about the build up to the build up to the build up. This is the actual plan with the last workout being to run my first Boston Marathon.  I took these thoughts out on the road with me for my first work out this morning.  I'm not working this week so I'm fortunate to start this program with leisurely mornings of long dog walks, prolonged stretching, the run itself, and whatever cool down (stretching, ab workout, foam roller, recovery shake) time I need.

Today's work out on the long road called for an easy 40-50 minute run, which I translated into my 7-mile route that I haven't run in some time because it's dark by the time I get home and a good two-three miles is in the woods.

I think the program begins at a fitting time.  With 2009 winding down, don't we generally take this time to reflect on the year past and look ahead to the coming 12-months?  As I dipped into the woods today, patches of snow still covered the thick bed of leaves and the creek flowed quickly by thanks to the runoff of melting snow. It was here that my thoughts took a run of their own, back through the many miles covered (and not covered) through 2009.  It was about this time last year that I turned over that calendar page and swapped out training programs to get ready for the marathon that would lead me to my eventual date with Boston.  

I came down with a nasty case of the flu in March and missed one race but luckily came back strong enough the next week to PR in the National Half Marathon and drive my confidence up for May.  April became my monster month where I ran the highest weekly mileages of my short running career. 

Confidence soaring, May arrived and after blowing through my last 20-miler, I nearly won the 5K my wife and I run in every year that snakes through the neighborhood I grew up in.  A week later, I came down with strep throat, just a seven days before the Vermont Marathon.  I kept this mostly quiet, took a couple extra days off work, then boarded the plan to Burlington with butterflies in my stomach and a sting in the back of my throat.  It wasn't enough trying to run a marathon I'd been training 14-months for, but now I had to worry if I would be healthy enough to run it.  The day before the race was the first day I woke up without any trace of a sore throat and vowed to run anyway.  

It worked out pretty well.

The elation of the BQ wore off a month later when I re-injured my IT band and spent the next two-three months running no more than 2-miles at a time.  Things started to click once again in August and my thoughts turned to the Army Ten-Miler.  Not sure if things would hold up, I ran a 65:02, a six-minute plus improvement over the year before.  I of course had the "good karma" beard to thank for that.

After three holiday 5Ks and a 10K (that include PRs for both distances), I'm here, staring at day one of my Boston Plan and three days remaining in 2009.  I still have one more PR to set for this year, a four-mile race we're running on New Year's Eve that, last year, we fought through in the howling wind and blistering cold.  

Day one is checked off.  15 weeks and six days to go.

It's all part of the greater good, getting me down that long Boston.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Running (in, under, through) the Blizzard of '09

Let's be clear, the Washington, D.C. Metro Area doesn't get dumped on often, at least not in the snow sense.  In fact, I believe I was in high school the last time we had a snow storm of this magnitude.  It is indeed a magical thing, the kind of storms that make the frontpage of the Washington Post, under headlines such as "D.C.'s Big Dig" and send kids (and adults) clamoring to news sites and channels for the latest closings. 

Now that the snow has stopped, the cars have been dug out, the plows are put away are still churning away, it's time for some reflection on the "Blizzard of '09," the "Storm of the Century," or whatever the news stations are calling it at this moment.

My most excellent boss let me work an impromptu half-day on Friday, which led to an impromptu 12-miler Friday afternoon under one of those ominous gray skies, where it looks like it could open up and snow at any minute.  It's not often the weather man predicts 10-24 inches for this area, and often times, it comes in rain rather than snow.  At 9:00 p.m. the snow came.  I groggily ambled upstairs after pouring over my new Boston program to a veil of white on the deck out back. 

At around 12:30 a.m., the veil had become a blanket and the golf course illuminated in white.  Mattie disappeared off the deck for her "one last pee" of the night, and if not for her black spot, she would have been in complete disguise.  We took a moment to stare out the back and take in the quiet stillness of the snowfall before heading up to bed.  When we did turn the light out, it could have been 7:00 in the morning the way our room lit up from the curtain of snow falling outside.  We fell asleep to possibilities.

The next morning had the feeling of Christmas.  I opened my eyes remembering something potentially important waited for us.  With each lucid moment coming on, I remembered the snow.  I flew out of bed and charged downstairs, taking stairs at a time, to get to the back window and see just how much snow had fallen.  I felt like a little kid again.  Peeling back the curtain, snow had already piled up near a foot on the sliding glass door in the back, and showed no signs of stopping.  The cherry blossom trees lining the golf course bent with the weight of the snow on their branches.  And poor Mattie was nearly up to her shoulders in snow when she hopped out on to the deck to do her business...which is exactly where she did it.

We had a leisurely breakfast, but I was still bound and determined to get a "recovery" run in.  My wife and mother-in-law suited up to play out on the golf course (picture the brother in "A Christmas Story").  I laced up for my run in some old running shoes and two layers of socks.  I stomped across the deck and up the hill to the 5th hole green when I sunk in to my knees.  "Hmm," I thought, blinking back the flakes.  "This may not be as easy as last time."

Nevertheless, I tromped on with visions of Rocky bounding through Siberia in one of those excellent training montage videos we all know and love.  Well, I wasn't even to the 7th hole (recall we live on hole 5) yet and I was miserable.  You know how you have grand visions of running on the beach and how majestic and carefree that seems...until you actually do it?  The sand is soft and you're exerting crazy amounts of effort but not getting anywhere, yet your heart feels like it's about to burst through your chest?  That's what running through 14 inches of snow is like. 

Still, I channeled the article from that morning's Post about a local D.C.-man who had just completed a marathon in took him over eight hours.  I trudged on.

Sure, I could have gone back, but I didn't want to be accountable for that.  Yes, it hurt.  Yes, my quads screamed.  Yes, icicles had begun to form on my eye lashes (see photo below).  Yes, the snow came down so hard I couldn't see far in front of me.  But, NO.  I would not quit.  And I'm glad I didn't.  I simply changed my perspective. 

I certainly didn't run the whole way, I may have had a heart attack if I had.  When I got tired, I walked.  When, it was hilly, I took a breather.  Each time I took a moment "for reflection," I looked around and listened.  Visibility was low.  I could barely see from one end of a hole to the other.  I turned my head skyward to watch the confetti of flakes pouring down on me.  I happened upon a herd of deer that looked at me as if they couldn't figure out why I was out there either.  We stood and admired one another for a minute or so before I carried on and they leapt into the great white yonder.  Geese trumpeted while slipping along the frozen water hazards.  And the snow-storm quiet disappeared from time to time with the tinkling of sleet grazing bare branches...and my face.

I returned to the house soggy and exhausted, but with enough energy left to bound through the snow drifts with my wife, mother-in-law, and dog.  I earned the chocolate chip cookies we'd make later and even the beer we walked a mile out and back to get from the grocery store in the early evening.  Truth be told, we went for sugar and flour to make the cookies, but I figured we should have beer as long as we traipsed out that far.

Sapped of all our energy, we sank into the couch in PJs once it got dark outside.  It was Christmas card perfect: the tree lit next to us, the snow still falling outside the window, the hot chocolate steaming. *sigh*

We went to bed to the same scene we had 24-hours ago: snow lightly falling, although instead of beginning, it was tapering.

Today, I'm home from work and still a little sore.  The roads still aren't totally clear (we live in Northern Virginia afterall).  But instead of fretting about not getting out to run, I'm still enjoying the view from our kitchen window out back at the golf course and reaping the benefits from the monster core workout shoveling snow can deliver.  Sometimes it's nice just to take a step back and enjoy a run for the scenery rather than for the time on your watch.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Geekin' Out

Perhaps this is a familar scene to you: The starting line looms a mere 12-14 hours away.  You're sitting around the dining room table.  The pasta and red sauce are steaming.  The water glasses are full.  The conversation is flowing.  But what do well-tapered runners with too much energy and anxiety discuss the night before a race (or really over any social gathering involving the fleet of feet)?  We talk about our training.

I found myself in this position before the Army 10-miler with some friends.  To non-runners, this might seem dreadful, so much so that bamboo shoots under the fingernails may appear more pleasant.  I remember Joel McHale making some comment on the Soup about his friends boring others with their marathon training tales *sigh*.  But I love these conversations.  Picture the scene from Once a Runner prior to the Wannamaker Mile when Bruce Denton and Frank Shorter are trading training stories...only less cool and much slower.

I always want to hear about how my friends and fellow runners are training, what they're eating (or not eating), and outlook for the next race, especially if we're toeing the line together.  As I've mentioned in a previous post, we all arrive at that starting line from different places and for different reasons, and I love hearing about how people got there.   It was over this meal when my friend brought out her new garmin watch, and her fiancee stopped the conversation whilst chuckling to himself.  "What's so funny?" she asked.
"Runners," he said.  "I can't believe how much we're geekin' out tonight on this stuff.  It's great."

Where am I leading you with this, you may be asking?  Well, my fantastic parents indulged me this year and purchased a 16-week training plan put together by Greg McMillan to get me to the starting line in Hopkinton in April.  I've been on the hunt for what training program I'd use.  To get to the Vermont starting line, I used the Runner's World SmartCoach, and that worked very well - I qualified afterall.  But since adding the variety of workouts to my plate over the last 10-weeks, I wanted something a bit more sophisticated and customized.

Once my dad gave me the green light, I had hit purchase mere seconds after hanging up the phone with him.  Waiting in my inbox the next day was a seven page questionnaire asking about me, my running background, current training (over the past 16 weeks), upcoming goals, race I was prepping for, and on and on.  It was intense and took me all weekend to fill out. 

When I sent it back in on Monday morning, I eagerly checked my mail each time I saw I had a new message.  Of course, this morning became the one morning I hadn't thought about it (a little banged up after a holiday party last night), and it had arrived. 

I haven't gone through each workout yet.  We'll file that under "Awesome Friday night plans while waiting for your wife to get home with her mother."  But, that is actually my plan tonight, particularly because it came with a seven page document explaining the workouts, a nutrition guide, marathon specific runs...and more.

To say I'm excited (and geekin' out) would be the understatement of the week (considering how some of this week went).  The bonus is that my dad and uncle will geek out with me as well on this.  After opening the program, the next move was to hit the forward button.  There's already a Sunday night phone call planned to discuss.

Readers and followers of this blog will recall how I like a good plan, and training plans have become a staple.  There was a Mark Remy blog post earlier this year following a marathon he ran over one weekend.  A coworker asked if he wanted to go for a run and it paralyzed him.  Without a plan, who will tell him how far to run, how fast, and what type of run it should be?  All valid questions.

With one week to go on my pre-buildup program, I started getting antsy.  But now, I can sleep easy knowing that the next 16-weeks of my life will be planned out (running-wise that is), and it will be there for me, tacked to the fridge, each time I go into the kitchen. 

Speaking of, it's time to eat!  That's what happens when your boss let's you work a half day and you squeeze in an impromptu 12-miler since it's supposed to snow 10-20 inches this weekend.  I say let it snow...and I'll see you on the golf course.  If anyone needs me, I'll be geekin' out tonight with my shiny new training program!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When You Can't Let it Go

Tonight, I planned to blog about getting stuck in what I've come to call a "route rut," i.e. running the same route over and over again, week in and week out, and the utter monotony that ensues (thrilling, I know).  But my run tonight didn't exactly turn out how I had planned and I wanted to capture it.

Normally, I try to compartmentalize the work side of my life from the running/home side .  As trying as this can be at times, I can normally shed the burden of a tough work day within the first mile of my run.  Tonight, unfortunately, was not one of those nights.

I had a particularly frustrating day at work (no need to relive it here) - and the plan was to let the run melt that frustration away.  The workout called for 5x1200m followed by 4x200m.  I've been doing intervals through the neighborhood, meaning that I run these on some substantial hills but it's worked out well over the last eight weeks. 

I finished the first one in 4:07 and felt like I paid for it.  I sucked some major wind by the end but the recovery jog felt ok.  I headed out for the second one, felt like I was cruising, really pushing it and feeling the flow.  Clicked stop on the watch: 4:19, "What the f&*%?!?"  I was pissed.  There was some self-loathing, a little berating. 

Then I tried to pull it together, telling myself I still had three left to run.  I reached back to my days as a hockey goalie and tried to liken the situation to letting a goal in.  There was that moment of let-down and a question of confidence, but the trick was to simply keep it to a moment and move on, put it passed me.  Embracing that idea tonight, I set off on my third interval. 

It was worse.  And each one after was two seconds slower than the last.  The frustrating part was that I felt as if my legs were really churning.  On the odd loops, I ran through a strong headwind.  On the even loops, the uphills outnumbered the downhills.  I just couldn't get it to click.  When my legs got really heavy, and the lactic acid storm raged like a hurricane, the events from the work day seeped back in and seemed to sap whatever strength I had left from me.  I pushed harder and harder.  I called it a character run, reminded myself they couldn't all be great, remembered the PR from Sunday, and knew this was the third of three tough days in a row.

I took an extra minute after the 1200s were finished to refocus for the 200s.  Slingshotting around the turn, I again went into the storm but pumped my arms, willing them to lead me forward.  I clicked the watch: 27 seconds.  A shining spot on an otherwise dark workout. 

The 200s salvaged this cold interval night.  I wanted to get this down tonight to look back on when I not only encounter other bad workouts, but also for the good ones.  I just have to acknowledge the moment the puck slid across the line and then forget about it so I'm ready to make the next save....

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dance to the Music - and a New 10K PR

Back in my hockey days tending goal for the College of the Holy Cross, we had a small tradition that I doubt many would even remember, but it was something that stuck with me: after each win at home, we'd return to the locker room and someone would put on Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music."  We bounced around the locker room celebrating our victory, which sadly were few and far between that year.

Nevertheless, I resurrected this tradition when I began my training for Boston in earnest about this time last year.  I used it for races and tough (but good) workouts alike as a celebration of my efforts and their returns.  Many a time, I tore down the backroads of Fairfax after an interval workout, Sly blaring out the windows, and me singing, "All we need is a drummer...for people who only need a beat," at the top of my lungs.  It's not a pretty sight, or sound for that matter. 

At first, this tradition was just something for me.  But one Saturday following a particularly good long run down the C&O canal and back, one in which my lovely wife accompanied me on the bike as my camel, we got back in the car and I went for Sly.  There was a confused look on her face matched by my knowing look as we "listened to the horns blow."

"What's with this?"  she asked.
"We're celebrating a good workout."
"Really?  With this?"

Then I proceeded to tell her the story.  Low and behold, it is now our tradition.  Imagine my surprise when she asked if I had brought it with in the car, followed by e-mails at work that included the lyrics to the song, and finally, she'd serenade me with it while she was in the shower.  I'd go as far as to say that if we got married again, "Dance to the Music" would be our song.

So, this morning, I had Sly cued up and ready to go as we settled into the car and drove into D.C. for the Jingle All the Way 10K.  I've been looking forward to this race since we completed it last year, when I surprised myself by going sub-40 (39:51) for the first time.  With all the speedwork I've been doing, I thought perhaps something special might be in store.

What I hadn't counted on was the weather.  The weekend forecast called for the infamous Northern Virginia wintry mix on Sunday morning.  I fell asleep with trepidation last night, the garbage bags already laid out for the start, and my quiet hopes of a new PR perhaps slipping away.

Instead, we were greeted with gray skies, a light mist, and a damp 35 degrees.  Not ideal, but not terrible.  We got a nice warmup jog in to stave off some of the cold, then crammed into the starting corral.  With little to no fanfare, the race suddenly started and we were off down Ohio Drive, the Potomac on our left and the D.C. monuments shrouded in fog on our right.

Marine Corps Marathon alumni will know this stretch as Haines Point, the point in the race at which all crowd support disappears and you're suddenly out there...alone...for three miles...nearing not only mile 20 but also the wall.

The one redeeming quality of this course, however, is its flatness, making all that quad-strengthening hill training finally pay off.  My goal was to go out, run a consistent pace for the first 5K and pick things up from there if I could.  After running the majority of mile-1 in the grass to get through the hordes, I hit the first mile marker in 6:15 in relative comfort and decided to lock in there.  I shaved a couple seconds off that pace for the remainder of the 5K and finished in 19:24. I curled around the halfway mark still confident, still feeling strong and decided to increase the stride.  At mile 5, I had to start digging but knew I could gut out one more mile and lap around the track. 

The deceiving end to this course is that you can see the finish line from about a half mile out so the instinct is to start kicking there.  Having made this mistake last year, I held back and didn't throw the hammer down until the 6-mile marker.  With just a 400 to go, the arms started pumping for the line and the legs churned.  I picked off three more runners within the last 100 yards and clicked the watch.  Before I could look, I had to get the vomit-urge to go away, i.e. hands to knees, sucking air.  I finally got the courage up to check out how I fared: 38:10!  A 1:41 improvement on last year.

I pondered how 2009 has truly been the year of PRs and joked with my dad tonight that 2009 may not have been a great year for the economy or our wallets, but I can always look back on my running as a bright spot.

Once my wife crossed, we made the soggy walk back to the car as the rain had started to come down.  As soon as we changed into our race tees, we shared a kiss and a grin, then let Sly take it away from there...all the way to PR post-race pancakes, eggs, and sausage.

Do you have a celebration or feel-good song you rock out to after runs?

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Lunch Time Run

As a runner As someone with self-proclaimed, mild OCD, I enjoy a good routine. In running terms, this means a late-afternoon/evening run that begins as close to 5:30 as possible. The planning that goes into this runs deeper than I originally thought and only revealed itself when I decided to change up this routine.

I essentially realized that from the moment I wake up in the morning to the time I turn out the light at night, I’m prepping for the day’s run. It starts with what I eat at breakfast, snack on mid-morning, shovel in at lunch, snack on at 3:30, and consume post-run through bed time.

Yesterday, I tinkered. I’m fortunate to have a very understanding boss (who hopefully is reading this), and she lets me head out for my runs on occasion during lunch whenever the situation calls for such a thing. I’ve done this a couple times before with moderate success. Then there was that disaster of trying to run in the morning before work, which completely back-fired – I was ready for bed at 8:30 every night and walking around in a general fog, but that’s a post for another time. That whole food intake quantity and timing thing is difficult to change but I may have it down now. With hockey at the inconvenient time of 7:00 last night, I didn’t want to miss out on my run. Thus, the tinkering had begun.

In addition to the tinkering, I had a tempo run planned. Tempo runs make me nervous. I try to play it cool and tell myself it’s only another training run, but I heap some pressure on my shoulders because they are certainly a targeted workout. My uncle told me, “If you want to run fast…you have to run fast,” and aside from intervals, tempo runs are the best way to accomplish that. So, now not only was my schedule off, but I had an important run to crank out as well.

I kept my 10:00 yogurt appointment, but instead of waiting for lunch, I downed some pretzels as well too to stave off the oncoming noon hunger. At 11:45 a.m., I trudged downstairs to the bathroom to change and go through the obligatory office niceties: “Ha, going for a run? Pretty cold out there. How far you running?”

“Six miles.”
“Six miles! I don’t want to drive six miles, heh heh.”

And so on and so forth.

The W&OD trail runs just past my office, so I’m able to hop on that and do a quick (HILLY) out and back. On my warmup mile, I found my thoughts drifting toward work-related tasks, but once I got into the tempo portion, everything else melted away and it became just about me and my run, i.e., that “this is my time” feeling. And yes, it was windy. And yes, it was cold, but I felt alert and refreshed once I made the turn back into our office parking lot.

The worst and most tragic part of the run was nothing related to the run itself. I forgot my shower sandals at home and had to brave the office shower *gasp* in naked feet.

Returning to my desk, I wolfed down my lunch and enjoyed the post-run euphoria that had startled to settle in. This is both a good and bad thing. Normally, I’m home and the wind down time begins for the evening. (Note to boss: stop reading here). The wind down time had officially begun and I descended into a semi-lucid state where I could close my eyes at any second and fall fast asleep.

I made it through the day, however. One of my colleagues bolstered my spirit with some homemade chocolate chip cookies. By the time I got home, I was rested and ready to get to my hockey game for workout number two.

When I did finally get home, the only thing on my mind was food. After devouring a plate of meatloaf and the grilled cheese I’d craved since the final buzzer rang, I fell into a deep, exhausted sleep. Maybe there’s a new routine brewing here. Nah.

Do you ever get out for the mid-day run during the work week?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"I need you in Vegas this weekend!"

One of the best things, I find, about being a runner, is the sense of community, sharing your passion for running with others.  It's with that thought in mind that I introduce my good friend, Bill: high school friend, best-man at my wedding, converted trail runner, and tonight, guest blogger at "On the bus...Running."

"I need you in Vegas this weekend!"

That's how my Thanksgiving holiday started -- not with a festive wish, but a text from a live events producer/close friend tempting me with the city of sin. I called, "We're doing a flash mob, I need Murisa to dance and I need you, too. Free room at Planet Ho(llywood) for the weekend."

We were off. In car #1, Greg (my roomie/friend of 25 years) and Seth (our mutual friend). In car #2, myself and Murisa ('the girlfriend'). As my compadres salivated over the prospect of drinking, dancing and general tomfoolery, I had something else on my mind: a Red Rock trail run.

I don't particularly like "running." I was a sprinter growing up, and running on a treadmill or the road doesn't wet my willy. But trail running? To quote iconic rapstar Flo Rida, "Oh, hot damn, This is my jam."

I have the luxury of a trailhead 400 yards from my house, and while living beneath the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign in L.A. has its disadvantages: tourists, tourists, and yes, tourguides, Griffith Park makes it all worthwhile. It was at Griffith that I discovered my love of trail running (and concurrently developed my sixth sense of avoiding horse poop).

Fast forward past a delightful Friday of vodka-induced escapades to Saturday afternoon at Red Rock. I immediately set out to find a trail at the still-under-construction Visitor Center (not surprisingly, they finished the gift shop first). And that trail was? PINE CREEK CANYON.

The scenic drive around Red Rock is consistently breathtaking, it never gets old. By the time it was finished, I was on to the day's a 5K and make it back to Planet Ho for 4PM rehearsals. It was 2:33. Crap! (I'd offer another Flo Rida quote, but none were demonstrable enough of the situation.) I was time-pressed, and no matter how much I love the energy boost from PowerBars (full disclosure: I work with PowerBar), it would be a challenge navigating a new trail and getting back to the car in time to drive home to the Strip. I was already stressed.

So I mixed it up. At a ripping pace in the chilly air, I did what any time-pressed trail runner would do...I started climbing mountains. I'm still not sure why, but it was more fun than sticking to the trail and running into Canadian tourists. By the time I ascended a small, steady mesa, I ran into a father and his young son, bonding. "Howdy, gents," I spat out, my smoky breath leading each word. Soon I was back on my own, quickly realizing why I have a non-sexual love affair with Red Rock: there's simply nowhere like it to clear your head.

I recalled the experiences I've had at Red Rock: with my college roommate, helping him ruminate the end of his 6-year relationship -- with the owner of this blog, learning that Vegas isn't only about booze and gambling as we happened upon a frozen waterfall in the desert -- by myself, putting things back home in their proper perspective.

-- and this trip, vertically climbing a mountain because I thought there was a way back to the main trail. I was wrong, and I slightly injured my shoulder, but I was happy to have the time to myself since I had no idea what was coming next...

P.S. I'm heading back to Vegas this Friday. God help us, everyone....

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Ryan Hall Run Report

Standing at the Pacers running store yesterday, my friend Caroline and I chatted away, catching up on all things running (she just completed Ironman Florida) and all things life.  It was a crisp 29 degrees outside, but, unlike the day before, the sun shone high in a cloudless sky.  The murmurs of runners in all shapes and sizes, clad in a wide array of colorful winter gear, filled the narrow walls of the store.

In mid-conversation, I lost Caroline's attention.  She looked past me with wide eyes and a subtle head nod to the left.  I turned in the direction of that subtlest of glances and stared, starstruck as Ryan Hall waded through the crowd of onlookers.  If not for the boyish, California face, the one I've seen plastered on covers of Runner's Worlds, headlining hundreds of articles, and generally mentioned with anything to do with America's Next Great Distance Runner, he could have been any one of us there for a Sunday morning run in the Virginia cold.

I actually missed him at first because, for whatever reason, I pictured someone taller; however, he's a modest 5'10" and thin as a shadow.  Donning a black asics hat and matching jacket, Ryan moved through everyone with hands casually tucked in his pockets, and the look of someone who had not a care in the world, least of all becoming a champion marathoner.

Of course, as the shockwave of recognition rippled through the store, the cell phone cameras and *cough cough* those who brought their own cameras, came out, and suddenly, Ryan and Sara Hall had created their own red carpet entrance.

But maybe that's just how I saw it, because watching them and listening to them chat with all of us, you realize that these are two of the most down-to-earth "folks" you could meet. 

We set off on the snow-slicked sidewalks of Arlington, making our way along the Potomac River with monuments poking above the skyline just across the way.  The Pentagon came up on our right and turning the other direction, the rows of crosses that make up Arlington Cemetery.  Ryan stuck to the middle of the pack.  Caroline and I (or at least me) counted on him making his way up to the front, but it never came to fruition.  Instead Sara was within a stride's length of us for the majority of the 6.5-7 mile run we covered. 

It's moments like those that you realize how much you can take for granted living in a place like D.C.  We came across the Memorial Bridge, the Lincoln Memorial standing in our way, and I turned to my friend with the water shimmering below us, the Jefferson off in the distance to the right, the Kennedy Center to our left, and just said, "Can you believe we live here?"

Our group of 40ish runners drew some interesting looks from the tourists sharing the Mall with us.  We got some frightened looks as if they'd just gotten caught in a freak stampede, others waved (including an entire class of students posing for a picture with the reflecting pool behind them), some huffed in irritation, but most of all, I thought, not one of these people know that they've just been passed by an Olympic marathon runner.  And just like that, we'd disappeared past them.

I love seeing the reaction of people who've never been to D.C. before, as I believe Sara hadn't.  The group turned down toward the reflecting pool and ran under the canopy of trees that delivers you to the coloseum-like World War II Memorial and up toward the Washington Monument.  Every now and again, Sara would turn to catch a glimpse at Lincoln or stare down the long reflecting pool, 2.5 miles ahead to the Capitol building.  "Just incredible," she said, with a beaming smile.

And it is.

Once we got back to the store, Sara cracked to the group, "Good job, everyone.  We beat Ryan," to which everyone laughed with appreciation.  "Got to keep his confidence in check," she added, crossing one leg over the other to begin a quick post-run stretch.

When Ryan did get back, he and Sara graciously signed autographs and spoke some about the Hall Steps Foundation they recently started, something to be greatly admired.  I think both realize their mortality as runners and are using their "celebrity" status to create something that extends far beyond the world of running.  My friend thanked them for what they've done thus far with this foundation and both looked a tad surprised and grateful that someone reached out to them about something other than running.

I, however, tapped into Ryan's head for some advice on a first-timer running Boston.

"Don't go out too fast," he said, his mouth curving up in a half-smile.  "That was my problem."  We both laughed.

Caroline and I returned to our car, autographs in hand.  She summed up the morning best, "I think there are few things that could have made this a better Sunday morning."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Running on Frozen Blog

"Taking back the golf course," my wife called it.  When the alarm went off this morning (a brutal way to begin a weekend), I braced myself for the D.C. letdown, i.e. the prediction of snow one night, and the reality of rain or cloudy skies the next morning.  Accumulation: 0 inches.  Today was not one of those days. 

The rain woke me up around 4:30 a.m. but the flurries began around 9:00.  With a writers group meeting scheduled for 9:30, I harbored hopes for the sky to open, and the snow to come down in earnest while we met, paving the way for my much desired golfcourse run.  By 9:30, I had to hope no more.  The four inches predicted turned into six or seven.  And what's more, it snowed all day long.

So, when I returned to the house at 12:30, I bundled up, added an extra layer of socks,broke out the fleece lined tights, and stomped through the couple inches that had already settled on the golf course behind our house and set out for a 10-15 miler. 

I decided on my drive back home, slipping and sliding over the accumulating slush on the road, that today's run wasn't going to be about times or paces, it was just about enjoying the scenery.  In essences, I just wanted to get out and run for the sake of running. It was more liberating than I anticipated it being.  The golfcourse is a 5-mile loop if you follow the golf cart path (when you can see it), so I thought two loops for sure and a third if I felt up to it.

On the first go round, Mattie came with me, taking off in a bolt of white fur across the plain of snow.  She was only distinguishable by her one big black spot.  And I couldn't help but smile as she tore across the fairway, legs splaying behind her like they couldn't turn over fast enough to catch up to all of her excitement.  She gleefully face-planted a few times and others merely stopped to lay down, bury her nose in the snow and fling it up on top of her with her snout.  If my dog could be in ecstasy, today was it.

Without having to worry about pace and elapsed time, we simply took moments to stand around and watch the snow fall.  We slipped and slided.  And on the particularly steep hills, I tip-toed up and down, and eventually gave way to a full slide down the slopes.  I had officially become the childhood version of myself on a snow day.

At points, it was as if Mattie and I were running across a snow globe someone had just picked up and given a good shake.  In others, we communed with the wildlife.  First she chased the geese back into the water hazards.  Then, around mile 1.5, I had begun a rapid ascent and watched her disappear over the other side of the hill.  I, however, was the first to spot the deer appearing at the back of the hole on edge of the woods.  Any attempt to reign her in proved futile.  Mattie found the other 19 lurking behind this one and took off into the woods after them. 

I called her name, annoyed at first, then with more urgency as I watched her disappear after the deer through the woods.  I followed after her, waiting for her to get outrun and then looking to come back to me.  Well, I'm glad I went in because she ran right past me and didn't notice until I called to her.  And so she returned, tongue hanging out the side of her mouth, head between her shoulders, not because she was ashamed she ran away, but sorry she didn't return with a deer.  Ah, noble creature.

I returned Mattie to the house after my first loop and caught up with my wife in the kitchen.  She toiled away, locked in our office all day, writing a grad school paper.  I was able to coax her out for my third loop, which we tackled together.  It was a blessing to have her with me.  Despite the veritable Winter Wonderland, I still had covered 10-miles to that point, in the snow, on a rolling golf course, and had begun to feel it in my calves and quads.  But, we chatted the entire way, and it was her first trip both running the golf course and in the snow.

"Taking back the golf course" is what she called it.  "Put that in your blog," she said. 
"How are we taking back the golf course?" I asked.
"You need to write that the runners and children frolicking in the snow on this perfect Saturday took back the golf course with their sledding, and running, and snowball fights from the overweight, beer swilling golfers who have to use carts on this path."

We plunged through the snow, hand-in-hand to the back deck and pulled open the sliding glass door, red-faced, and soggy-shoed.  The golf course had become ours.  It was the perfect end to a beautiful run.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Running with Ryan Hall and Other Weekend Adventures

A little known fact (unless you're my wife): I am a tremendous Ryan Hall fan!  Ever since he won the Aramco Half Marathon and the New Yorker did an in-depth spread on his development as a runner in Big Bear Lake, CA and eventual run toward the Beijing Olympics, and of course countless other articles and features delving into his life, I was hooked.  God bless Universal Sports (and my dad for sending me the url) and their live, streaming coverage of the 2009 Boston Marathon.  So, imagine my excitement when an e-mail from Pacers arrived in my inbox last week, plugging a run with Ryan and Sara Hall.  Holy crap!  

Apparently, Ryan and Sara are going to be in the D.C. area talking about the recently launched Hall Steps Foundation, and to promote it, they'll be doing a 6-mile run with any runners willing to go lace 'em up and hit the road with them around the D.C. Monuments.  THEN, they'll be doing a meet and greet, signing autographs, etc.  I am willing.
After I calmed down, I went for the magazine basket and flipped through the New Yorkers, Running Times, Economists, and....thank God, the Runner's World issue with Ryan on the cover.  I'll be toting that along with me in addition to a camera while trying to walk (or run) the fine line between avid fan and creepy dude.  One of my friends will be joining me (for both the run and after), so hopefully she can keep me in check.

If this wasn't enough of a thrill for the upcoming weekend, the weather forecast is actually calling for snow tomorrow.  A few days ago, we were looking at 30s and rain, but now, we're "likely" to get 2-4" starting around noon.  With a 15-miler on the agenda, this might spell disaster; however, I LOVE running in the snow, particularly in the middle of the storm. Sure it's a little more hazardous and you have to cut the pace back, but there's something I love about trotting through that "snow-storm" quiet, hearing your footsteps crunching behind you, and seeing the trees turn white.

My original plan was to run on the W&OD trail, a steep, rolling 7.5 out and back.  Instead, I'm trading one steep and hilly course for another: the golf course behind my house.  This gives me the chance to meander along the golf cart path or step off into the grass for a little extra cushion on the joints.  Plus, the course is gorgeous during a snowstorm, and I can bring Mattie along, off her leash.  Doubtful that she can make it the full 15, but I bet I can bring her along for at least one or two of the three loops.

Am I excited for this weekend?  That would be the understatement of the century!  Details to come throughout.  Happy running!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Scheduled Maintenance

When I climbed into my car yesterday morning, and the yellow wrench lit up indicating that it is indeed time for another oil change, a thought occurred to me: our bodies are like the cars we drive. We expect them to perform day in and day out, whether we’re going short or going long.

Like any machine, no matter how well it runs, it’s going to breakdown from time-to-time, particularly as the miles accumulate. But as they tell you with your car, you’ve got to take it in for scheduled maintenance once in a while. If you don’t, you start hearing those abnormal sounds, the kind that call for pause, the music volume goes down, and you listen with narrowed eyes.

If there was a yellow wrench to light up on my body, it would have been going off on Monday night. I went out for my easy Monday night recovery run (in the rain yet again) and something just felt off. I kept the pace light, my breath barely elevated above a huff, but I couldn’t get my body to follow. My legs felt achy, my sides sore.

Around mile 2, I began to climb and started thinking how remarkable it had been that I ran a 5K PR Thursday, wracked up another 5.2 on Friday, then had that amazing 13.5 cut-down through the woods on Saturday and was no worse for wear. Famous last words.

Reaching the top of the hill at mile 3, I felt an all too familiar tightness in my right IT band – the injury (that nagging, stubborn injury) sidelined me for most of the summer. And I wondered if I’d have to spend the next few weeks, anxiety ridden on my runs, wondering if at any moment it was going to start hurting again. Instead of slowing down, I did the equivalent of turning up the radio volume to pretend that grating, out-of-the-ordinary sound wasn’t there.

I trucked on, completing my easy 6-miler and the subsequent striders that follow it. I still felt tight and limped slightly. Visibly agitated when I returned, I felt that pending dread that comes on when the car needs to go in and you’re bracing because it could cost some major bucks – or in this case, time off the roads.

I essentially hit the panic button and went into maintenance overdrive. It started by popping two Motrin. Then I hit the shower and blasted it with cold water – an old trick I learned from my college hockey trainer. Starting warm, I held the nozzle to the outside of my knee, then closed my eyes whilst turning the knob clockwise. Well, there may as well have been icicles shooting out. My breath left me and I grit my teeth, but finally, it went numb and I could only feel the cold droplets falling on my feet. Sweet relief. As the blood returned and that old feeling you had when you were a kid coming in from playing out in the snow and your feet burn as they thaw came on. It felt glorious…life returning.

After showering, I headed to the basement, stretched for a half hour, foam rolled, then slapped an ice pack on it and reclined on the couch with my feet up. I’d like to say it stopped here, but I continued. Before crawling into bed, I took “the stick” to it then emptied a packet of Biofreeze onto the entire outside of my leg. Once in bed and asleep, I let (prayed) my body heal itself.

When I woke up, it was a little stiff, but felt pretty good. I made sure to get up and walk around during the day at work, but the ultimate question still hung in the air…do I still do my interval workout or push it off until Wednesday? I rolled my fingers over it all day, hoping that awful crunch was gone…and by lunch time, it was.

Around 3:00, I decided to go for it, see how it felt on my warmup and proceed from there. Naturally, the workout wasn’t an easy one, 4x2000m followed by 4x200m. My second trick (torture?), other than the cold water in the shower, is to put heat on it while I’m stretching prior to a run. That seems to loosen things up nicely.

Heading out on my 1-mile warmup, I felt a little tight in the beginning but knew that any downhill running would be the true test…I passed. Crisis, thankfully, averted. I completed the workout, didn’t give a thought to the IT band until I got back to the house and realized that I hadn’t even thought about it during the run. I repeated the above “maintenance” last night and am taking a much needed day off today. Fortunately, no long term costs incurred.

Now, about that oil change on the car.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cleansing the Spirit

Runningchick6560 had it right yesterday when she posted on my blog, "I'm ready to put the Thanksgiving gluttony behind us."  My wife expressed a similar sentiment this morning, vowing to rid our fridge of all the Thanksgiving leftovers, because her 5-milers simply weren't cutting it.  No, pardon the pun, we'd have to go...cold turkey.  I also reached my limit, though mine came last night.  We drove out to a friends' house for dinner and Rock Band, and I inwardly gasped in horror when they brought out their Thanksgiving leftovers for us to gorge on.  Don't get me wrong, they were delicious, but the food baby had returned, and my turkey counter clicked once more making it four meals in a row involving Thanksgiving-related food.

Two detox runs in a row, except today's called for a 100-minute run (70 mins at 65-70%, 25 mins of intervals - 30sec on 120sec recovery, 5-minute jog).  I had no idea what my body had in store for me, but I can say that at 9:00 when I woke, the puffiness in my face and otherwise lethargic feeling that consumed me down to my bones, gave me a pretty good indication.  

I had thoughts of just going out from the house and running my 12-mile loop with a few extra loops around my neighborhood to make up for the extra time. Then I thought about going out to the Battlefield.  But yesterday, my wife drove over to the Fairfax Cross County Trail for her 5-miler.  This is a trail she and I have used over the summer for some easy runs.  I used it to build strength back up after hurting my IT band (again) prior to the Army Ten-Miler, namely because the opening stretch is pretty flat and the surface is forgiving on my joints.

Plus, I haven't done a trail run in quite some time, and while I thought of today as a detox run, I decided to rebrand it as a cleansing run.  A good friend of mine and I met up in Vegas over the summer and did a week long hiking, camping trip.  One of our stops was Zion National Park (see profile picture) and I came across the following quote that we embraced as our mantra for the week: 
"Break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."
And so it was with that in mind that I laced up and set out to, not only complete my long run, but "wash my spirit clean."  

The day could not have been more perfect for it.  Under a wind-washed sky, I took off down the dirt trail, breathing in the crisp November air, and leaving everything else behind.  Trail runs always evoke in me a savageness that running along a highway lacks.  You're getting in touch with that primal side of yourself, bounding through woods like a predator after its prey or calling on the flight instinct to run for your life.  I stomped through puddles, kicked up mud from three days of rain on the back of my legs, and grimaced at the branches clawing at my shoulders.  

I also discovered that the flat 2-miles of trail I ran on prior to the Army Ten-Miler are an anomaly.  For about a quarter mile, my quads burned on a particularly rugged set of switchbacks that brought me up and over a slight mountain.  Then there was the straight uphill climb that chopped up my stride and brought me nearly to using my hands to help myself up.  The trail follows a creek that carves through the Fairfax woods, and at one point, I snuck up on a pack of deer that had wandered down.  They ran what seemed like parallel to me for a short time before breaking off into their own savage run.  

I mean running with deer? This was truly the perfect run.  And I really embraced that primal instinct during the intervals.  In 30-second  increments, I took off and tore down the trail, as the hunter, as the hunted, I'm not sure which.

When I clicked my watch and walked back up to the car, between the trees that poked out like thin spires against the naked sky, my body felt empty, completely exhausted, and even...cleansed.  

Back at the house, that satisfying emptiness turned into ravaging hunger.  I opened up the fridge and made...a tuna sandwich.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Buddy System

Fresh  Hungover after yesterday's 23 second PR  Thanksgiving day feast, I opened my bleary eyes to find Mattie sitting by my side of the bed, tail going like a propeller, her eyes, her judging brown eyes, fixed on me.  I stumbled out of bed, the headache creeping behind my sinuses, and went straight for the coffee, then for the orange juice.  The dog let out an exasperated sigh as she plopped down next to me in the kitchen, as if to say, "You did this to yourself."

It was 9:30 and I remembered somewhere between bottles of wine last night, my friend and I talked about going for an easy 5-miler today.  I figured I had about 2-2.5 hours to talk myself into that as well as prepare my body for it.  This is the same friend who ran his first 5K yesterday, debuting at a smoking 6:48 pace.  I think he's hooked.

I've talked about the value I get (at least mentally) from the detox run, that reluctant yet sweaty and often gut wrenching run that follows a night (or week) of gluttony.  So that's essentially what I had in mind this morning: if nothing else, I'd sweat out that food pouch that suddenly appeared around 5:30 yesterday evening and only seemed to grow in girth with every piece of pie thereafter.

At 11:40, I fired off the 30-minute warning text to my friend, he replied a couple minutes later, and my fate was sealed: it was on.

In addition to the swishing of Mattie's tail this morning, the wind whipped at our townhouse adding that extra element or roadblock to wanting to get out there today.  Still, the bruised clouds rolled in and as I debated whether or not to pull a hat on, it started spitting.  Leaves spun in loose tornadoes around the yard and the pine trees bowed in unison.  The sun peeked through in shafts but did little to raise the temperature. It's indeed fall in Northern Virginia.  "Brilliant," I thought.  Betrayed by the hour-by-hour forecast.  When it says 20% chance of rain, who really takes that seriously?  Beyond the debate of should we run, should we not, came hat and gloves?  Hat, no gloves? Neither?  *sigh*

At 12:15, my friend and I met at my front stairs and trotted off on the 5-mile "lake loop" course. This was somewhat of a new experience for me.  It's been quite a while since I've run with anyone.  My wife and I trained together for our first marathon back in 2004, but in terms of running, have gone our separate ways.  There's been the occasional run with my dad when we've visited and vice-versa.  It's not something I'm averse to, rather, the situation rarely presents itself.  Either people's schedules conflict, fitness levels/goals are different, or for whatever reason, I find myself out there alone.

Today was great, however.  My friend normally runs through our neighborhood so this gave him a new 5-mile loop to add to his repertoire.  Plus, we chatted for the majority of the run, which took some of the sting out of climbing the hills, and ensured we kept the pace nice and easy.  It was also fun to have someone along side me to "enjoy" the headwind and the random moments of rain showers that passed through as quickly as they came on.  Like many have said, the fact that we'd made this commitment the night before held each of us accountable for pushing through to get up for this run.  The conversation flowed from piecing together last and making plans for this evening to swapping stories about bonehead motorists and future plans to bike the entire W&OD trail.  Before I knew it, we were coming out of the trail and into the 1-mile homestretch.

Will this happen again?  Perhaps.  He's a morning runner, while I'm an after work runner.  But who knows, some weekends or days off may align our schedules.  At least for today, we used the buddy system to push one another through and make that food pouch just a little smaller.

Did you use today to trot yesterday's Turkey off?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

T-Day PR

Famous last words to my wife: "I think I could be in for something special at this Thursday's race."  As the king of karma and creating bad juju and all those other superstitious labels, I regretted it the moment it came out of my mouth.  In my head, it was the equivalent of saying "shutout" with three minutes to go in a hockey game.

Anyhow, I toed the line today, and I say this loosely, because I was one of 3,168 people this morning.  A more accurate description would be, I was crammed into the masses.  I'm used to the half mile or so of weaving and starts and stops, in a 5K but today was pretty rough.  Trying to move to the outside to get onto the sidewalk, I missed my window and ended up taking a sharp, 90 degree turn to get out to the left shoulder (aka the lane of oncoming traffic) much to the chagrin of the police patrolling the race.

Mentally, I felt more comfortable out there but as the 1-mile marker slowly approached, I dreaded looking down at my watch seeing what kind of time I'd have to be making up.  Before glancing down, I thought, "It's just a fun 5K.  Go run your sub-20.  Enjoy it.  Your legs are a little banged up from the week. Kind of a sub-par warmup.  Just cruise."  Then I looked at my watch: 5:57.  Ok, that would explain why I felt a little fatigued.

My friend and I drove the course yesterday after picking up our packets to get a handle on the hills.  This proved a wise decision since you could barely see 75 meters ahead of the fog that rolled in overnight.  Now we knew when they'd be coming.  Mile 1-2 also became the hilliest section of the race in terms of elevation gain.  I called upon my weeks of hill striders and interval workouts and powered up and ahead of a lot of the field and made some ground back.  Mile marker 2 came out of nowhere: 6:15.  Contrary to the way I felt after Mile 1, I felt some juice in my legs still and thought I had a better mile in me still.  So, the stride got a little longer, the turnover got a little faster, and the pipes opened up.

With the fog, I couldn't see the finish line but could hear the announcer.  I feared that I'd go into my final kick and that voice wouldn't get any closer.  That's when I saw the crowd of people lining the shoulder and knew I had to be close.  I threw the hammer down and sprinted to the finish.

I caught the 8 as last number on my watch (my shirt covered the rest of it) and thought 18:58.  A smile crossed my face, happy to have broken 19.  After ensuring I wasn't going to throw up, I took a peek at my watch and....18:28!  I chuckled and then thought, "Did they measure the course right?"

Final stats: 29/3,168; 8/256 (19-29); 18:28/5:57 pace

If I had any doubts that this training program was working, they have since been wiped away.  A 23 second PR will do that for you.  After that first thought, my next one was, "Let's go eat some turkey!"  And it's with that that I conclude this Turkey Day post.

Hoping everyone has a happy Thanksgiving and successful Turkey Trots today!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Running Through the Storm

For the last two days, a storm has settled over the Washington area. With it has come troughs of rain, chilly winds, and the general gloomy pall that seems to accompany consecutive gray days. However, with no thunder booming or lightning crackling, I've seen no reason to stay inside, or God forbid, pound on the hamster wheel known as the treadmill.

So, after throwing back a few extra vitamin c chewables, I pulled on my waterproof jacket and headed out on the roads of my neighborhood. Last night the program called for a recovery run, and while I wanted to take the day off, I couldn't afford to and still get all my miles in this week. Rather than making it a 7-miler, I took it down to 5 and finished with 4x(3x30m) on a medium incline hill. Blinking back the rain, I felt the badness from my legs get flushed away and my legs return to normalcy....believing in that recovery run.

Actually, I've really come to enjoy this basic aerobic runs. While every run has a purpose, this one is simply to go out and run...doesn't matter how fast, and I feel better, looser, and stronger when it's over. It doesn't hurt that I feel pretty hard core going out there in the rain. Right? I mean don't we all (a little bit) feel bad ass after heading out into the rain after, before, during work and answer that fateful exchange: "What did you do last night?"
"Well, I ran and then..."
"Wait, you ran?"
"Yeah...what? Oh, I mean it's just a little water."

But there are other storms out there. Tonight was night two of the rain storm that doesn't seem to be going anywhere until Thursday. That wasn't the issue, though. Tonight was about forging through the lactic acid storm that raged in my legs and at times felt like a hurricane. I wondered if the three consecutive days of running would eventually catch up with me. I'd had some IT-band tightness going on, which brought on a rigorous healing regime last night of stretching, foam roller, icing, bio-freeze, and "the stick" before bed. Over the top? Perhaps. But I felt great this morning. That is until I set out on my second interval tonight.

I haven't been going to the track for these workouts lately, partly because the Flint Hill Football team hates me, partly because I've been getting out of work late, and partly because I've heard how incredibly hilly Boston is (beyond heartbreak). Therefore, I've been running my intervals on the hills around my neighborhood. Tonight called for 6x1000m. The odd intervals featured more downhill than uphill. The evens the opposite.

I. Suffered. On. The. Evens.

I got about 400m in and felt the lactic acid swirling in my legs and locking up the muscles. I envisioned vines wrapping around my calves and hamstrings, tightening their grip and slowing me down. With every stride, I tried to imagine those vines ripping, but just couldn't make it happen. The rain picked up but I had retreated into myself to try and take cover from the storm raging on the inside.

Everything flowed on the odd numbers and it became a matter of finding a rhythm on those even ones. I kept trying to focus on my turnover, churning my feet and repeating the cycle. I turned the corner to head back to the house and hit that uphill each time, and each time it me back...harder. I was able to keep each rep within four seconds of the last but I paid for it each time. On that last set, weathering that storm one more time, all I could think about was that well-deserved day off tomorrow to get ready for Thursday's Turkey Trot. I'm hoping by then the storm will have passed.

Does any weather stop you from getting out there? How do you weather the storms during your training runs?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Warming up...for Thanksgiving

What could be better than having Thanksgiving dinner? Having TWO Thanksgiving dinners! As luck would have it, my cousin-in-law, who lives not far from us, insisted that we have a Thanksgiving dinner with her because she has to travel to a wedding this week. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a fabulous cook. The offer, quite frankly, was too good to turn down.

Similar to signing up to run a Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning, I felt I had to “earn” this pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving. What better way than to crank out a 15-miler?

Recalling my 15-miler from two weeks ago, I went into this one with some trepidation. I checked the weather forecast religiously this week to find the optimum day to run in case we experienced one of those freak Indian Summer days. Fortunately, the high only hit 55…ideal!

Still, my wife and I just could not get started this weekend. For me, I think the two hockey games and late nights, all while trying to squeeze in my workouts, had finally caught up with me. We moved through the house in a haze of exhaustion on Saturday and ended up putting in 11-hours of sleep Saturday night.

Waking up groggy and zombie-like on Sunday morning, I walked Mattie as a warmup to try and clear my head and get the juices going in my legs. Then, I laced up the kicks and set out.

Rather than heading out to Manassas Battlefield, I decided to stay local and run from the house. But instead of mapping out a 15-mile route, I ran my 5-mile lake loop three times. Similar to the Battlefield, it rolls, both up and down, meaning that no part of my legs is neglected…calves and hammies on the way up and quads on the way back down.

Plus, I’ve been experimenting with a new training program that adds some element of speed work in each workout with the exception of one straight up aerobic run of 40-50 minutes. So, this 15-miler was a cut down run, i.e. starting at 7:30 pace and cutting down 20 seconds per mile every 5K.

What I like about this sort of run is that it forces me to start slower and warmup naturally and pick up the pace as I go…what I don’t like is that running sub-6:30 after pounding out 12-miles is BRUTAL. That’s about where the self-loathing began but as I rounded the corner back into our neighborhood, my spirits lifted, and I started to focus on what I had just accomplished, rather than the suffering part of it.

With each run like this, I learn to push that exhaustion threshold just a little bit more. It’s that good pain, the kind that you know isn’t leading down the road toward injury, rather that you’ve pushed yourself to the aching point. What makes it worth it, to me, is soaking in the post-run/accomplishment euphoria that follows, and channeling the confidence that comes with it into future runs. I’ll always have the memory of that run, and runs like it, to call on when the going gets tough.

Of course, the euphoria eventually wears off and I’m left with the fall out. Yesterday it was the feeling that someone had taken a bat to my legs a la the hobbling scene in Misery. I did some yoga stretching and hit the foam roller pretty hard. It helped…but…I yearned to slide under the covers and just let my body heal itself.

Until I could do that, however, I stuffed my face for an hour with roasted chicken that just fell off the bone when I carved into it, homemade stuffing and cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and apple pie. I am sufficiently warmed up for Thursday’s feast and ready to take on the week’s upcoming workouts, including Thursday morning’s Turkey Trot.

What are your Turkey Trot/racing plans between now and Turkey Day?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When Quesadillas and Red Cabbage Collide

First thing's first: I. Love. Food. In fact, I think it's one of the most glorious and potentially underrated reasons to start running. I know I'm not the only runner who feels this way. Looking back on my highest mileage months during my Vermont Marathon buildup, I remember this startling revelation: I'm always going to be hungry. Cereal and banana for breakfast. Oatmeal and yogurt at 10:00. Almonds and apricots at 11:00. A full lunch. A frozen waffle and pretzels around 3:30-4:00. THEN, I'd get my run in. After that, all bets were off. I walked around the house with my mouth hanging open, jaw unhinged, prepared to chew and swallow whatever happened to fall into it. And the best part? I couldn't keep weight on. To say my bones were slippery would be an understatement.

But like a pregnant woman, it wasn't so much the quantity, but the random cravings. Back then, it was sausage. The Monday morning after my long runs, the only thing I could think about was a greasy sausage patty with one egg over medium snuggling up to it, both neatly resting between an english muffin (pause to wipe away drool).

Where was I? Ah, yes. As the mileage odometer continues to climb, I'm seeing - or rather tasting - those same cravings. There will always be a special place in my heart for the sausage, but last night it was something completely different. I'm embracing the old adage, "Give your body what it wants." Well, last night, my body couldn't decide what it wanted, it just knew it wanted many things.

I pulled double duty last night. Following yet another 9-5 day of training, I cranked out a 6.5 mile recovery run after work to clear the mind-numbing haze that had settled. By the time I got back to the house, it was time to pack up my hockey gear, chug some gatorade and shovel in a peanut butter sandwich before heading out to my game. Normally I play on Thursday nights, but I filled in on a friend's team for their absent goaltender. I couldn't bring myself to let a running workout slip away, however.

When the final buzzer sounded (a 5-3 victory I have to mention), I climbed into the car and my only thought (after, "do we have any biofreeze at home?") was "what is for dinner!" Mind you, it was 9:45 by the time I got home. Nothing was defrosted. My wife had fortunately gone on a cooking blaze this past weekend and made a crock pot full of red cabbage for the week. It has bacon in it...need I say more?

But I couldn't subsist on red cabbage alone. I wanted, check that, I needed a salad brimming with walnuts and carrots. More carbs, though. Oh, dear God, there's brown rice in the fridge. Yes, yes, that'll do.

I pulled the fridge open and started grabbing everything out of it whilst chugging a chocolate milk protein shake. That's when I saw it: tortillas, salsa, cheese, green onion. How could my brain have missed this? Probably too delirious with hunger. While the red cabbage turned in the microwave, those tortillas sizzled on a hot pan, cheese melting in between. Only the laws of physics kept me from eating faster.

Mattie eagerly watched this unique culinary display with intrigue and perhaps some reluctance, as if she knew the potential G-I dangers. Still, she followed me down to the basement as I balanced a plate perfectly divided into thirds: red cabbage smoking, brown rice steaming, spinach salad (yes!) overflowing with carrots and walnuts, and, the coup de gras, a quesadilla perched atop it all.

I feasted. And once the plate was completely licked clean (not much exaggeration), I tottered upstairs, head heavy with satisfaction and sleep coming on. Up one more flight, I slid under the covers with my book and woke again only briefly to my wife coming home from class.

When I woke up the next morning, I found my stomach in good shape, and my body demanding more...cereal this time. Red cabbage for breakfast would just be ridculous. Although did I mention it has bacon in it?

What do you crave after hard workouts...or any time after runs?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Going to "Europe" Long Run Style

As runners, let's face it, we're a quirky bunch. We embrace the eventual breakdown of social norms with every snot rocket we blow, every phlegm wad we spit, and every pit stop we make in the bushes. These external "quirks" merely scratch the surface, because, as I hope you can relate, for every external quirk, there's an equally odd internal one. I didn't fully recognize this in myself until my long run yesterday. Here's a small glimpse into my window:

The first shade of doubt began to set in when I glanced at the clock: 9:15 a.m. I'd gotten a good amount of sleep, limited the alcohol and grease/fat intake the night before at the Capitals game and yet...I still woke up feeling groggy and stale.

I traipsed downstairs, Mattie trailing behind me (the source of my awakening) to be let out, trying to convince myself that I could shake the cobwebs from my head. An english muffin and a few mouthfuls of gatorade later, I set out for Saturday's 12-miler with apprehension.

I spent the first mile going over what had been a superb week of training, trying to pinpoint the reasons why I felt so sapped of energy. Perhaps the extended hours of mind-numbing training on the job and subsequent days of cramming five days of work into two had finally caught up to me. Like a stubborn car on a cold gray morning, I just couldn't get the engine to start.

I checked my watch at the first mile, 6:58...perhaps the pace had something to do with it. I tried to pull it back. Mile two: 13:50. Ok, even faster. Not good considering I had 10 miles to go, 20 minutes of intervals sandwiched in between, and sets of hills that would come like rolling waves just when I would begin to get tired. Cue the quirks.

Quirk 1: I talk to myself a lot on my runs. I used to be an ice hockey goalie (already dubbed the weirdos of the hockey world), and constantly waged war on negative thoughts with positive actions.

Between miles two and four is a looooong downhill that I typically use as a recovery/preparation stretch to get ready for those hills and reset my focus should I be struggling. Today was a struggling day. I had that same fuzziness in my head that seeped in last Sunday, except rather than getting it at mile 11, I had it at mile 3. Should I phone it in, turn around and hope for a better day tomorrow? Am I *gasp* getting the cold one of my co-workers kept breathing on me all week? I recalled, once again, a moment in John Parker's "Again to Carthage," in which Cassidy tells himself never to judge the effectiveness of a run until you're two-miles in.

I descended into the final stretch of that downhill, coming upon the last stoplight for 6-miles (i.e. my last opportunity to stop and grab a quick breather), with those words echoing in my head.

I watched the cars slide by in the flat steely morning light and visualized my hands reaching into my head, grabbing all the negative thoughts, sifting through them with my fingers, and then crumpling them up and tossing them on that curb...I didn't want them following me the rest of the run.

When the light turned green, I trotted across the street and kept playing this scene in my head:

My wife: "How was your run?"

Me: "Really crappy for the first four miles, but then awesome from there."

Quirk 2: I name a lot of the sections on my run, particularly the hilly ones.

The problem with that downhill section is that it leads into a steady mile of steep climbs and descents that I've come to know as "The Cabell's Mill Gauntlet." Giving it a name means it's something tangible, something that can be overcome, rather than just this abstract portion of a loop. This allows me to chant things like, "Run the gauntlet, run the gauntlet." Or, on a 3-mile loop, the cross-street at the top of one hill is Sweet Leaf Drive...hence, "Sweet Leaf, Sweet Leaf, Sweet Leaf." At the top, there is none sweeter.

My favorite chant, however, is one that I can take from one run to the next. It began on my beloved Manassas Battlefield loop earlier in the spring. The terrain is far from flat, and in fact, makes clear the importance of maintaining the high ground in battle. On my third loop, I came to one such hill that is short but steep and gives you that extra burn in your lungs and fatigue in your calves. I kept saying, "Up. Up. Up." Until I reached the top and said, "You're up. You're up." And continued chugging along. As I recovered, I smiled to myself in that long run delirium thinking that I was actually in "Europe." So, now, on my way up hills, I say ridiculous things to myself such as, "What's your favorite continent?" "Europe." "Where do you want to go right now?" "Europe." And so on and so forth. If nothing else, it lightens the mood of an otherwise very serious situation.

So, it was with great courage that I decided that this crappy run would actually turn around on the Cabell's Mill Gauntlet, and, oh! what a triumph it would be to know that that was indeed the case. And somehow, it was. I found my stride there on the second hill and found myself rising easily as I crest it and descended again. From there, everything seemed to settle into place.

At the conclusion of that portion, I still had 7-miles to go, but those remaining miles felt smooth by comparison. A tale of two runs, indeed. The scene I had made up starring my wife came to fruition after I came through the door.

Those are two of my quirks that I actually just shared with my wife for the first time, who is now looking at me with loving perplexity.

What do you do or say to get through your runs when the going gets tough?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Over Training...and Not the Running Kind

Much has been said about over-training. You know, the point where you've trained and trained and trained (with little to no rest), but instead of getting faster or being able to run farther, you start breaking down, resembling a groggy, bleary-eyed zombie...a shadow of your former self. No one wants to be around you and really, you don't want them to be. Well, that's not what this post is about...exactly.

For the past three days, I've been in training at work...I shall not bore you with the details. By the time 5:00 has rolled around, I have taken on the over trained, bleary-eyed zombie persona.

I thought perhaps today I had moved beyond this ugly Jekyll/Hyde transformation, it was after all my first day back at my desk for the entire day this week. I strangely found myself not only wishing for this but also thankful that it's a five day week so I can catch up. Yes, you read that, right. Let's absorb...and move on.

What I had not anticipated was the awful side-effect of staying late at work during daylight savings, i.e., the dark-to-dark day. I still had a tempo run to get after on my training schedule and few free nights/days remaining in the week to get it done. I lumbered into the house, shoulders pulled up to my ears, swearing, and stumbling into things. My neck still carried the stress of staring and clicking on too many excel sheets, putting out fires, and pecking away at the keyboard. Plus, it's been raining here for a few days contributing to the low morale and lower motivation.

Nevertheless, I changed into my running clothes, just hoping to crank out my workout, another line through the to-do list, and move on to getting dinner started.

I leashed up the dog, strapped on my iPod, and headed out the door. I've taken to using my warmup mile as Mattie's evening walk. On that front, so far so good. I don't think she's figured out that it's actually running yet.

Dave Matthews piped through my headphones (an awesome version of Warehouse that I love to warm up to because it's pretty high energy but nothing too heavy like the rest of my running mix) but I wasn't really hearing it. I was still in work mode. But then, we rounded the curve on to the main road about a half mile in (two Mattie pees later), and something magical happened.

I became aware.

Not of the pending to-do list that waited for me in the office tomorrow. Not of the meetings that I'd have to sit through. Not of the articles I'd have to write. Not about anything that had happened during the day. I became aware of myself, of my surroundings. Of the way the wet wind stirred the leaves and the way the street lights reflected off the storm clouds covering the sky. I was aware of the current of breath flowing in and out of me.

You could call it a zen-like moment; a runner's high. Whatever it was, I felt good. Detached from everything else going on in my life except for that one thing: All I had to do was run. And I as I zipped along, the pace coming easier, I kept repeating, "my time, my time, my time," over and over because that's just what it was. This six-mile tempo run was all for me, and for no one else.

I dropped the dog off at the house and headed back out to complete the speedy part of my tempo run, revived, rejuvenated, and aware. Whatever may come tomorrow will come and I'll meet it head on. But when I take to the roads again this weekend, next week, and beyond, no matter what the workout is, it will be mine. And no one else's.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Believe in the (Recovery) Run

Perhaps you've seen them: the relatively new Nike running ads that center around the theme "Believe in the Run." Some of them are pretty clever, and I'd be lying if I said I hadn't cut one (or three) out and hung them in my cubicle at work. Covering up the life-sapping "Benjamin Moore cubicle gray" walls that surround my desk at work is for another post.

In the last couple weeks, I've come to make this mantra my own, only modifying it slightly to read, "Believe in the Recovery Run." A recent issue of the Running Times featured a column by legendary coach Roy Benson (somewhat related side note: he coached my dad at one point), where Benson dared readers and runners alike to be man (or woman) enough to do a real recovery run. That is to say, run at a pace that may seem impossibly slow or easy and leaves you questioning whether or not it was worth the time to lace up the kicks and head out on the roads. American runners have often been criticized for doing long and recovery runs too fast and speed workouts too slow.

I am just as guilty as the next. Sometimes I feign ignorance, glancing down at my watch at the end of a so-called recovery run, knowing full well the time is going to be much lower than it should have been. Really though, who am I trying to justify this to?

So, it was with deep resolve (and manliness) that I headed out for a recovery run last night. One of my bargaining chips the day before in that God-awful long run was that at least I had Monday off. What happened? Life, essentially. No other time to squeeze in some of these runs this week, so I sucked it up and headed out.

To ensure a slower pace, I took my unsuspecting dog with me, who has pretty much refused to run with me over the course of the last year. I knew that taking her would force me to run slower, if only to coax her to keep going.

I thought about this run all day – including whether or not to do it all. In fairness, I was in an eight-hour training staring at a computer all day, so it weighed heavy on my mind. In particular, the tightness that seemed to run from just under my left butt cheek all the way down to my Achilles.

Still, Mattie and I headed out, in the dark, at a nice easy pace. We eased our way into the run. Me, trying to find my stride and fall into a nice steady rhythm to get the legs functioning again. Her, accepting my running proposal but stopping every twenty feet or so to both pee and contemplate. Seriously, the choppiness nearly made me turn back not a half mile in. That and the temp was creeping up around 70 again.

My consolation came from an earlier decision to scale the run down from seven to five, particularly given the long-undulating hills of our neighborhood. And so we went.

That’s when it happened. About a mile in, Mattie took her “running like a good dog” post, out in front of me and to the right. And that rhythm I searched (hoped) for, fell into place. The endorphins flooded in and here we were, running like a well-oiled machine. The tightness in my hamstring eased, the literal pain in my butt disappeared, and my breath would hardly have disturbed a tumbleweed of Mattie’s fur collecting on our hardwoods.

We returned to the house 38-minutes later, each slightly panting and parched. My mind felt awake for the first time all day. The dog got her exercise. And that nagging tightness that brought thoughts of impending injury doom on my left side had vanished. What’s more, it stuck with me through the night, i.e. there was no awkward, hobble to the bathroom walk this morning when the alarm went off. When I got home tonight and set out for my interval workout, my legs were more fresh than they’d been in a few weeks.

Believe in the Recovery Run. Manliness achieved.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Feeling the Heat

At mile 11.5, I knew I was in trouble. The gatorade sloshed around near the bottom of my bottle, maybe three more generous sips left. The sweat started to crust around my eyes and forehead. My head started to get a little fuzzy. I had officially entered the house of pain...with four miles to go. That's when the bargaining began: Just make it to the top of this hill then coast down the backstretch. Just get to the shade, it's cool in the woods. Just pull back the pace, but not to a walk. None of it really worked.

Cue the berating: you can't make it four more miles, sissy? You ran an effing-marathon a few months ago. You're going to run Boston in April? Not bloody likely. And so on and so forth....

Finally, acceptance. I ran/walked the next two miles (mostly walked) and felt good enough to run (jog) the last two.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. You see, it's November here in Northern Virginia. I ran intervals in long sleeves last week. It was cool. It was chilly. It was glorious. Over the years, I've found that given the choice between heading out for a slow ten-miler in a half foot of snow or slogging through a six-miler in the August Virginia humidity, get out a second pair of socks, bundle me up, and smear the chapstick on, because I'm going snowshoeing. There were others who cherished yesterday's stray warm day. I cursed every step.

Sit out on the porch with a cold beer. Drink your morning coffee with the Sunday Post on the deck. Soap up the car. These are all commendable pursuits when the mercury rises to 70-degrees. Do not put running on my list. I walked into work today and had this conversation about three times:
"It was beautiful this weekend wasn't it? What great weather for your 15-miler. No? Why are you looking at me like that? Ok, ok. I'm sorry I asked. It's just that it was sooooooo gorgeous."

Perhaps to some it was. And trust me, I realize I'm complaining about 70-degree weather -- in November -- and I'm probably alone. One of my friends says she thrives in the heat. I cannot relate.

My grand plan was to head out to Manassas Battlefield. I romanticize this loop. In fact, it's one of my favorite places to run. It's certainly a demanding, hilly loop, but there's something about running over the footsteps of history, where Confederate and Union soldiers probably ran for their lives. My favorite section is the final mile back up to the visitor center, but, that it's the final mile is not why I love it. You've in been in the woods climbing and descending for a little over a mile and the quads and lungs are starting to burn. You know the clearing is coming but not soon enough. Then you run past a cemetery and do a quick check to make sure it's not for you. Finally, rounding one last turn, there's a break in the woods and you emerge onto this expansive field that unrolls before you. Cannons line the top of the ridge, aimed back toward stone bridge. A surge of adrenaline spurs me on as I storm across that field, imagining the cannons firing behind me.

Today, however, the romance had died. Normally, I run the loop three times and just enjoy the foliage and what I imagined to be a cool fall run in solitude. Instead, I barely found a parking space. The sun beat down from a cloudless blue sky. I looked ridiculous wearing a long sleeve t-shirt over my running gear. I broke a sweat while stretching. Still! I shook all this off and started thinking about the fall colors, the deer I'd probably see, and the sheer exhausting satisfaction I'd get from completing my first long run in some time.

I started out past the second line of cannons and descended into the woods. Driven by optimism, I didn't make a face or the unmistakable "get the hell out of my way" cough at the family who insisted on walking four abreast across the trail, carrying walking sticks, and hiking packs. No! You let them enjoy their day, I said. As they moved aside, I tossed them a wave and carried on. Not 100 yards farther, I nearly rolled my ankle on a branch covered by all the dead, brown leaves that should have been on the trees for me to enjoy. Apparently, all the leaves fell when I was on my exotic safari in Kansas City last week.

And the run pretty much continued in this fashion. I've had crappy starts like this before, my first loop nearly bringing me to my knees only to be followed by a negative split, loop of my life on round 2. Today, though, was not one of those days. I kept telling myself it was an exercise in perseverance, a character building run that I could draw from in future races. That may be true. However, I think the odds are I'll think about this run and think, "Man, remember that hot day in November and how AWFUL that run felt."

I got home and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening moving from one place in the house to another, eating, then falling asleep.

At one point, I managed to drag out my laptop and hit up The ten-day forecast looks favorable asthe low will once again descend into the 40s, and I can look forward to packing away the summer gear in just a few days. To Old Man Winter, I say, "Come on in, the cold is just fine."
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