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."

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Detox Run

One of the things I've discovered about running over the past years is that few things give you that all over exhausted feel. On some runs, it's a good thing. I've come back from many a long run just feeling that my body is completely empty of everything, not in a run down sort of way, but more of a satisfied I emptied the tank sort of way. Of course the flip side of that is the run down sort of way where I just want to curl up into the fetal position after I step through the door and go to sleep.

Then, there's what I've come to call the detox run. After the past week of what I can only call debaucherie of my body, I knew tonight's run loomed. It could have just been a simple 7-miler, but instead, it turned into penance for straying from last week's diet. Of the three or so 7-mile routes I have, they vary in difficulty, namely in hill profile. One I save only for this magical time of year where I walk out the front door for work...and it's dark. Then I return home, passing through the same front door...and it's still dark! Now is the time of resigning ones self to running in the daylight only on the weekends for long runs. So, I set out, in the dark, in my neighborhood, which is essentially a series of long uphills followed by long downhills.

I chose this route for a couple reasons. First off, I can't run the trails any more because quite frankly I'm scared of both spraining an ankle and getting jumped. Don't get me wrong, we live in a great neighborhood...but still. Second off, I've been feeling in good shape lately and remember back to this time last year when I struggled mightily with this route so tonight would become somewhat of a measuring stick. And third, I wanted to punish myself. I went in search of that empty feeling where I sweat out all the booze, butter, and beef from this past week. It may be brutal, there may be stitches in my side and labored breathing up the hills, but I know when I'm done that I'll feel that all has returned to normal.

I set out, sticking to an easy pace and found myself flowing up and down the hills. The heaviness in my legs and the utterly sluggish, bloated feeling I had all week had disappeared. I braced for the impending break down, the cement shoe feeling in my legs, and the chalky feeling of dehydration in my mouth...but it never came. I glided to the end of the route, placed my hands on my head, and began the slow cool down walk to my house pretty satisfied with the effort and ready for the week ahead...detoxed and back on the bus.

Of special note, my wife made cupcakes yesterday with homemade buttercream frosting. She also made mashed potatoes. Excited about the prospect of eating leftovers tonight and whipping up some kale to go along with it, I popped the chicken and "mashed potatoes" into the microwave to heat up. I peeked in after about a minute and noticed the pool of white fluffiness in the middle of the plate, slowly seeping around the chicken. "Huh, that's weird. Mashed potatoes shouldn't do that," I thought. So I pulled it out of the microwave and combed my fork through it. It strained through the fork tines and as I looked closer, it dawned on me: there are no more mashed potatoes...I had a side of icing for a dipping sauce. I scooped out the chicken, sucked the frosting off of it (I loathe myself), and went about eating my dinner. Dee-lish.
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