Monday, August 23, 2010

Magic Shoes

Jack had his magic beans.  Tomorrow, I shall have my magic shoes.

In my OCD world, there's always room for more superstitions.  Although "superstitions" can be such an ugly word.  I prefer the term "routine."  Yesterday, I watched a quick video on the pre-race track workout that Galen Rupp does before his next 5,000m race.  I made a couple quick mental notes about his dynamic warmup routine, incorporated them into my own this afternoon, and lo and behold, I believed I was more limber than ever before.  I cranked out my 5x1,000m workout with, I wouldn't say ease, but with a renewed freshness.

When relaying this to my wife, she asked, "Do you think it's real or just a psychological thing?"

"It worked, so I don't care what it was."

When approaching speed workouts, I have what I like to call my "fast clothes."  It's usually a newer singlet or pair of shorts that have earned their way up the ranks by either successful workouts or breakout PRs in races.  It's a mindset (or illness, what can I say).  And this goes right down to the shoes I lace up.  For speed workouts, for races, there is always a varsity pair, and God I hate giving them up when they've worn their course.

Reading Kenny Moore's book, "Bowerman and The Men of Oregon," there's a chapter that discusses Bowerman's magic shoes.  He used to build custom racers specific to each of his athletes, but he'd only let them out of the box on race days.  For the runners, the shoes took on a mythical status.  As if each time the box opened and they slid their feet into the magic shoes, the race was on.

I've certainly had my share of "starter" shoes, the ones that came out on race day, tapped the night before by slipping the timing chip through the laces.  You know, give them time to mentally prepare for the task at end the next morning. 

When I went to Boston, I wore the shoes I had qualified in on the plane and around town, and let them pass on their good karma to the shoes I'd be racing in (holders of 5K and half marathon PRs).  

And, it is with great anticipation that I wait for the UPS man to come tomorrow to bring me my next pair.  But these are special.  For months, my dad and I have been talking about the benefits of racing in flats or trainers.  In fact, the speed development podcasts I worked from this summer began with the elites and their coaches talking about doing these workouts in "racing flats."  I didn't have those.  For me, my old Asics would have to do.

Then last month, my wife and I found ourselves in a Pacers, perusing for new gear, when I decided it was time to find out what was so great about these shoes.  The saleswoman was amazing.  She sat with me, explained why I should be racing and doing my speed workouts in them, and what shoe I should be wearing.  I listened.  I took it in.  It all made sense.  But I wasn't converted...until I slipped on a pair.  It was like an extension of my foot.  I took 'em for a quick loop around the block, already taxed from a 12 miler that morning, but felt  a light bounce in my legs.  Quelle difference!

And so, on a particularly stressful day at work last week, I pulled the trigger on the shoes.  I am now a proud owner of the Asics DS Trainer 15 (the white/black/lime coloring), and I'm in love.

I have a tempo run scheduled for Wednesday afternoon and can't wait to take 'em out for a spin to see what these magic shoes are all about.

Do you have a magic pair of shoes?  Or any other must-have piece of gear that puts in you the fast lane?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Over the River and Through the Woods...

There's a scene toward the end of Braveheart where everybody's favorite belligerent is kneeling before the magistrate waiting for his sentence.  When Wallace says nothing, the magistrate dooms, "Then on the 'morrow you shall receive your purification."

That's how my last two runs have felt.  I have only myself to blame.  

My wife and I celebrated our five year anniversary over the weekend with killer seats to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Crosby, Stills, and Nash.  While the concert was typical Tom Petty, "raising hell and causing chaos," as he said at the first show I saw him in, I decided that the best way to carboload for the week would be to drink more beer than I typically consume on a weekend, let alone one night.  I woke to a searing headache on Monday morning with a nice bout of nausea, and my best laid plans to take the day off went to waste as I had to come into work for a three hour meeting in the afternoon.  

I made it my mission to gulp down as much water as I could throughout the day to get some semblance of hydration back because the calendar called for 6x800m, and the weatherman called for a 90 degree afternoon with that life-sucking caveat that it would feel like 99.  

Sure, I could have skipped the workout, postponed it for a day, but it's not like I was muddling through the lost middle weeks of a training program.  No, instead, it was week 1, day 1, workout 1 of my Army Ten Miler program.  I couldn't take a pass on the first day.

I started having flashbacks to the summer before my freshman year in college, when I dutifully followed the workout plan given to me by the Holy Cross trainer to get us ready to hit the ice when I got up to school.  I had slacked off somewhat during a week when I was entertaining a visitor.  Sleep deprived and exhausted, I said good bye, turned around, and my dad was holding his car keys and stopwatch.  "We're going to the track," he said.  "Get changed."  I slunk away, back rounded, and eyes wearing the heavy burden of defeat, to pull on some shorts and lace up.  And boy did I slog through those two mile repeats in that mad Virginia summer.  That was a workout from about 10 years ago and I still haven't forgotten it.

I wouldn't say I suffered through those intervals yesterday, but I certainly sweat out any remnants that lingered from the night before.  It was nearly the detox run of all detox runs.  Nevertheless, I shook off the early sluggishness and found my body settling in to the pace it should have been running at: 2:37s quickly replaced by 2:32s and 2:30s.

Today, I feared more of the same.  I postponed my normal Tuesday meet up with my running partner to Wednesday morning so I could gain at least another hour of sleep.  Of course, that meant grinding out what was supposed to be an easy five miler in the sweltering heat.  

I decided to take my five miler into the woods for a trail run.  I hoped that running under the canopy of trees on the Fairfax Cross County Trail would provide some shade and knock a degree or two off the thermometer.  Things progressed pretty well in the beginning.  But the fatigue came on like a heavy blanket, the accumulation of not sleeping, skipping an afternoon snack today, and not eating enough at lunch.  Essentially, the theme of this week has been bad decisions.  

The sweat flung off me while I dodged roots, jumped over fallen trees, and tramped through the creek.  I was exhausted.  But there was something purifying about it as well.  Something about flying through the woods, soaked to the bone from both sweat and water, to cleanse the spirit. 

I clicked my watch to end the run, let out a long exhale, and savored the empty, hollowness that comes with summer running.  The sharp smell of ammonia filled my nostrils, further proof that I hadn't eaten properly today, but I knew it was only a short drive home to recover...the right way.   Hoping today was the last day of my purification.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Are You Ashamed of Your Running Mix?

If you're going to be slogging along on a mid-August afternoon run, you may as well have some good tunes piped in to help you along.  That's where I found myself today.  Without my running partner to help evaporate away the miles, I turned to my trusty iPod, cued up the "On the Bus" playlist and set out.  Wednesday is tempo/fartlek day, and the calendar called for 4 miles at tempo pace with a mile warmup and cool down on the front and back end.  

I trotted along to get things loosened up, which doesn't take very long when the temperature reads 97 and probably starts with a 1 if you factor in the humidity.  Dreadful.  But I had some U2 going on, some old school rap, and even a little Motley Crew to pound out those first miles.  

Then around the 2 mile mark of my tempo miles, as I was flying down the backside of a hill, trying to convince myself that I could press on at this sub-6 minute pace in the heat, I started to chuckle when the next song came through.

Before the big reveal, I recently had a request from two separate work colleagues who were getting back into running.  They wanted me to burn my running mix onto CDs for them to add to their iPods.  At first, I thought, "No problem."  But as I watched each cut burn, I started feeling a little self-conscious.  My ears went flush and I realized the horrible thought that my playlist may actually embarrass me.  

Let's be honest, most running playlists take some careful selection, trial and error, etc.  For me, I've heard songs on the radio that I feel like could be killer tunes to help fire up the adrenaline and push me up some hill or through the last miles of a long run.  Only to find out that when that song does come on, it only leaves me empty and disappointed.  Sorry, Bon Jovi, "Wanted Dead or Alive" just isn't getting the job done.  But a song I'm on the fence about, say, U2's Desire, comes through and gets the arms pumping and the legs churning.   Then there's my old standbys that have been with me for years: Metallica, Linkin Park, Cypress Hill, and Ram Jam.

Then there are the songs I've simply ripped off of the Washington Capitals game.  Rev Theory's Hell Yeah?  You won't be disappointed.  I still remember the first time it came on.  I was in the final 2 miles of a 16 miler at Manassas Battlefield, I was so pumped up, I started fist pumping across the field.

And that of course brings me to those, shall we call them, "other songs."  They're the ones that come on in the car.  When you're alone.  You cast a sideways glance to make sure no one else is watching, or more importantly listening, and then you ever so subtly reach for the radio knob and turn that volume UP!

I did end up burning those discs for my colleagues.  And as I presented them, I did so with a disclaimer.   Something to the effect of, "Look, there's stuff on here you may not like.  But know that it works for me.  You might be surprised.  Just give it a try.  And for God sake's, whatever you do, don't judge."

They say ok and it ends there.  Until they get to the *sigh* Britney Spears.  Then I have some explaining to do.  It's not that I like's just that, well, it's good to run to dammit!  She keeps a good beat!  

So, I rounded the corner of my Ox Hill loop today, turning into the backside of the neighborhood, charging up the Sweet Leaf Street hill, when she came on.  I'm not proud of it, but it helped.  And then, of all things, the new Enrique Iglesias song came on.  Yes, I downloaded it.  Yes, I think it's good to run to.  Yes, you may judge me.

Anyhow, what I've come to realize is that, our tastes in music are as different as the running shoes we choose to wear.  Some are good.  Some are not so good.  And as the saying goes, they can't all be winners.  

Ashamed? No.  Bashful? Perhaps.  Picking up the pace when Lady Gaga comes in?  You know it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Interval Workout

The chapter begins "'An interval workout,' Cassidy once explained to a sportswriter, 'is the modern distance runner's equivalent to the Iron Maiden, a device as you know used by ancient Truth Seekers.'"

Over the years, I've found myself mentally preparing and physically bracing myself for the interval workouts appearing on each training calendar.  It's a case of steeling the mind for the pain you're sure to endure...and knowingly -- and willingly -- inflicting it upon yourself.  There's something raw about intervals, the reduction of the body into a primal state of survival as you take counterclockwise turn after turn around this interminable torture device.  It's also where we learn the most about ourselves.

As I mentioned previously, normally my training programs conclude with some sort of race.  This one, the only end goal was simply to get faster and prepare me for the next calendar.  So, this became the circled date on my calendar.  As Bruce Denton said, "This is where you find out."

I walked from the far corner of the parking lot, cutting across the soccer field to avoid the questioning gaze of onlookers at the high school I was surely trespassing on, and really had no right to be at.  High school boys scooped and flung lacrosse balls back and forth at one another from a field looking out over the track.  To them, hopefully, I was just some faculty member of no consequence out for an afternoon jog.  With a deep exhale, I dropped my keys and water bottle by the finish line and set off on my customary one mile warmup trot with some 100 meter striders mixed in.

The warmup is always sluggish.  My body seems already to be rebelling against the effort.  The breath is abnormally labored and the form is sloppy.  The strides feel taxing.  I relish the 10 minutes or so I take to stretch and do some plyos.  In my head, I'm simply catching my breath.

It's a hot one.  My arms already glisten and sweat drips from the brim of my hat.  The sun eases down behind the the spires of trees that ring the west side of the school and cast a merciful shade upon the backstretch.   

I spend a couple last seconds rationalizing the workout to myself.  Somehow trying to break it into smaller, manageable chunks: it's only five miles; it's only five miles with periods of rest even.  But no matter how simple I try to make it, the fact of the matter is, the work still has to be done.  I ran paces through my head one more time (no slower than an 85, that computes to a 5:45 mile).  No more stalling.  I toe the line, click my watch, and am off....

The first one is alarmingly easy.  I complete the loop in a 79 I know I'm going to regret in about 30-40 minutes.  I trot slowly around the curve that will serve as my 100m recovery.  Down below, near the edge of the woods, a pack of deer regard me with caution.  I swing beyond them with a lingering look before disappearing around the bend.  Somehow, it's already time to go again.

The first set disappears quickly but not smoothly.  I feel like the rest is too short and the effort for each interval is tremendous.  My chest burns from the humidity (and the air quality alert explains that later).  I try to visualize the smooth flow of a river, getting swept up in a current, but the hard, raspy breathing only conjures thoughts of thrashing about in my river trying not to drown.  I take the 200m jog at a shuffle to gain as much back as I've lost.  After the 100 recovery, it nearly seems like an eternity.

Rather than accepting my 85 threshold, I'm stubbornly fighting to grind out anything close to 80.  The second set passes nearly as miserable as the first does.

Before I get ready to start again, I take a long swig of water and look around.  The deer have long since gone.  Short, shrill blasts from a whistle and barking orders tumble down from the lacrosse game.  Sweat flings from my arms with each stride, so I can only imagine how hot they must be with pads on.  It dawns on me that we're all toiling, all striving toward an end goal.  Unbeknownst to the other, we're suffering in our own way.

It's at this point that I tried to pull a song into my head.  I don't run my intervals with an iPod.  I want to be fully aware and in touch with what's going on.  But, usually there's some song (good or bad) that plays on a loop in my head, and normally it's some line that I cling to and repeat as a mantra.  Tonight, there is nothing.

Each arduous effort kept blending together.  Because the rests are so short, I keep tally on my hands: reps on my left hand, sets on my right.  Each completed set is like a slash against a prisoner's cell wall.  Sometimes, I dash across the line dramatically, hands to knees and sucking in deep, haggard breaths; others I simply trot through, click my watch, and start the slow jog to recovery.

It's until mired in the middle stretch of set three that I settle into a rhythm.  A slow tightening begins to draw across the tops of my quads.  Yet, I swing around the second turn as if fired by a slingshot.  With a 100 meters to go, everything relaxes and the thrashing stops.  The movement feels effortless.  I click my watch and look down at a 78.  I have life.

I start the next one and in my head, I reason that if I can somehow just coil like a spring around those curves, I can unleash a smooth almost floating stride down the straights.  And so I do.  To the point where the curves became 100 meters of waiting.  I'd experienced this during my 200s.  I'd repeat "coil, coil, coil, coil....release!" in my head and come barreling down the straightaway.  

Each rep simply comes and goes.  I lock into some in-tune yet detached state.  Those 78s become 77s.  The monumentalness of the workout subsides and it just becomes another training session.  

Then my right hand has four fingers in the air.  One set to go.  One measly mile.  I call on past "final miles" from races, from training runs, from any place in my catalog of memories.  "It's only one mile.  Anyone can run one mile," I say.  

I try to run it like any other set, but I find myself counting down each rep: 300, 200, 150, 100, click!

The sun has disappeared in total behind the trees.  A warm breeze blows across the track.  Three fingers on the left.  Four fingers on my right.  The starting line approaching.  One lap the track.  In my head, I know I'm finishing on a straightaway and I just need to maintain that same rhythm I've found back all those reps ago, and just let the current carry me.  Click!

I take the first turn with a renewed quickness in my step.  My strides eat up the ground and droplets of sweat fly from my pumping arms.  I hit the halfway in 38.  A wry smile crosses my face as I accelerate out of the final turn.  My eyes lock on the finish.  All the form drills, all the core routines, all the early alarms, all the flat strides, the hill strides finally coming together in one perfectly flowing machine.  The lactic acid begins to wrap around my legs like a vine but still I push.  

When I break through the line, I continue my trot and let my momentum carry me around the track one more time.  I look down at my watch, knowing what would most likely be there.  I let out a "Yeeooow!" and bring my arm up to what I already know is there: a 75.

A smile breaks across my face and doesn't leave until I get home.  The adrenaline carries me through the rest of the night until my wife and I settle down on the couch.  I promptly pass out at 9:00 and sleep just about straight through until my alarm goes off at 5:20 to head out in the dark, once again, onto the road.  

Though the workout, "the interval workout," was a success, there's still more work to be done.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The "Once a Runner" Workout

If you've read John Parker's Once a Runner, you are most likely familiar with the chapter simply titled "The Interval Workout."  For those who haven't read it, consider picking up the book now that it's out in wide publication to really get the context of this chapter and workout.  Love it or hate it, this book is often considered the gospel of the sport.

I still remember my first reading of this book (I've returned to it many times since).  My dad, a runner for the University of Florida back in the mid-late 70s, crossed paths with the author during his time there.  He brought up the book's name a few months before Christmas 2008, said he'd been trying to get it but simply couldn't find it.  I thought I'd do a little digging of my own.  It was elusive.  

I exhausted all resources.  Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble, used bookstores, all to no avail.  Finally, I found several copies on eBay...for well over $100 a copy.  People were serious about this book.  What was so mythical about it?

Apparently when Parker first self-published it, he used to enter local road races wearing a sign on his back that said something to the effect of, "If you beat me, I'll give you a free book."  He didn't give away many, but those he did came out of his car's trunk.

My Mom and I decided to go in on the book together, knowing how much it would mean to him (which it did; there were tears).  I eventually won it for a cool $150.  For a book! 

The book came in October.  With three months to go until Christmas, I couldn't just let it sit around.  I mean, I had to find out what all the hype was I dove into it...and finished it the next morning.  The name of this blog is actually from a throw away one liner that stuck with me while reading the sequel, Again to Carthage.  

I ended up winning my own copy of the book months later.  The woman I won it from (on eBay once again -- only $90 this was the deal of the century) turned out to be the mother of a high school cross country runner.  She bought the book for him and now that he and she had read it, wanted to pass it along to another runner.  We exchanged a couple e-mails about it.  It seemed as though everyone had a story about this book, their reasons for pursuing it and the way it affected them as different as the reasons they chose to run in the first place.   This became one of those books where you could refer to characters as if you're on a first name basis, guys you'd go to the bar to drink with, or meet up with for a morning run.  Parker builds such a connection....

Anyhow, I digress.  The culmination of the book, in my mind, comes when Cassidy is asked to put himself through the interval workout that begins with 20x400m with a 100m jog between each rep.  This is the setup.  It takes off from there.

For myself, I'm nearing the eighth and final week of my self-proclaimed speed development program.  After grinding through the hellish 5K two weeks ago, I decided to forgo signing up for another 5K to round out the program, only to battle the heat all over again, and be disappointed by a non-PR.  Instead, I'm waiting for the fall to come to take my new legs for a ride.  Monday, August 16, I'll make the transition to my Army 10-miler program.

But there must be something, right?  Some payoff?  Some mark that everything you've done has worked, has made you a better runner, was worth the sacrifice, the early mornings, the interminable laps around the track, the double dips, the achy quads, the quivering hamstrings...etc.

My defining mark will be this workout.  I embarked on the speed plan after reading about Ryan Hall's summer plans to get back to basics and develop his raw speed for 10 weeks before going full on into training for Chicago (apparently it paid off because he won the U.S. 7-mile Championship at Bix two weeks ago).  This was one of his workouts.  And funny enough, last month's Running Times including a McMillan column talking about speed workouts for runners that included, of all things, 20x400m.  The universe is clearly calling me toward this.

When I think about this workout, I go back to the summer of 2008 when I started all this speed training, qualifying for Boston business, and a 12x400m workout with a 400m recovery between each was a drain.  I've come along way in two years.  This far?  We'll see.

As the chapter says, "It's one thing to write down 20 quarters with a 110 jog, and quite another to carry out those instructions." Monday night, I'll lace 'em up and head out to the track for one last workout.  There are moments that I'll want to stop, gasp in exhaustion and clutch my knees, but I'll have to dig deep to push through it and think back to all those other workouts that I've filed away and persevered through.  That's how you find out.

Monday, August 2, 2010

What a Difference a Couple Degrees Makes

Nearing the halfway point of my 12-miler on Saturday, I was somewhere along the point of my loop I refer to as the bacon strip.  I ditched my singlet at mile four and felt completely unencumbered.  My wife rode along side me, donning a backpack with, yes, my four-miles-worth-of-sweat singlet, and a couple water bottles for her and I to share.  The sun was out.  The air was cool.  And I just flowed along.

The bacon strip's final summit came into view and rose up and over it.  Something, again, seemed different.  The normal chest-burning, sweat stinging, total exhaustion that I had come to know on runs lasting longer than three miles this summer didn't come.  Sure, I braced for it.  Waited for that agony where you have to dig down deep just to keep your legs turning over and fight the overwhelming instinct to walk.  It never came.  

I turned to my wife and said, "This is gonna be a good one today."  

I built this run up all week.  I hadn't done anything over seven miles since the 4th of July.  A weekend of camping, a weekend of nursing a spasming lower back, a 5K, and humidity so thick that the trees had least in my eyes they did.  That's what I faced in July.  And I saw my grand plans of developing speed whilst maintaining a solid distance base melting away.

Some call if false fitness.  Others say that the body remembers.  Whatever the case, I smoked that 12 miler on Saturday.  The pace was such that my wife and I made plans for the rest of the day, for Sunday, and for our upcoming 5-year anniversary all during the run. The time simply flew by as fast as a 12 mile run can go.  

And while I mentally prepared/worried myself about this run all week, I knew the grand factor would of course be the temperature.  We came off of the hottest race we'd ever run in...a grueling 100 degree 5K the week prior, plus the aforementioned "halo-tree incident."  I get that Virginia is supposed to be warm in the summers.  And I also get that there are those out there reading this and playing sad songs for me, knowing that they go out and do it in hotter weather than I.  Seventeen or so odd days of 90 degree plus weather is a big deal here!

Alas, with this dread in mind, I monitored, the 10-day forecast, and as soon as it came into view, the hour-by-hour.  I thought my eyes had deceived me.  Certainly, in the last week of July, it must be some mistake: 66 low/81 high.  81!  That meant that I could even sleep in and still get out in some better weather.  I couldn't believe it until it happened, however.  After all, I fought through thunderstorms that rolled in like sets of waves on Thursdays.  Each mile repeat I squeezed in between storms.  The humidity became unbearable.  I dropped four pounds of water weight.  

After we moved past the bacon strip, my legs started turning over faster, naturally.  Didn't have to force the pace.  It just happened.  And so it went like this for the remainder of the loop.  We remarked that it actually seemed cool enough to feel like fall.  But let's not get carried away...we can dream.

As I returned to the track today, I cranked out 600s, 400s, 200s, and 100s completely drenched.  Indeed, the weekend proved only a brief respite from the heat.  But, what a difference a couple degrees can make.  Only five days until Saturday.
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