Thursday, November 18, 2010

Confessions of A Runaholic

A beer for what ails me...
Let me be the first to tell you, this BBQ chicken pizza tastes phenomenal.  As good as the Sam Adams Winter Lager I'm using to wash it down with?  Perhaps a close second.  File this under, "Unexpected" for how I thought this Thursday night -- and week for that matter -- would play out.  Let me explain.

I could feel it coming on the week prior to the Army Ten Miler.  I wouldn't call it overtraining, but it was damn near close.  I grew increasingly sore, couldn't massage it out, couldn't stretch it out, couldn't get the ibuprofen to work it's magic.  But I powered through and ran the race anyway.

My reward? A week off...from running only.  I continued to go to the gym and continued to play floor hockey, even picking up a couple extra games in net for teams lacking a goaltender.  That following weekend, I churned out a 5K, rode 20 miles alongside my lady, then another floor hockey game.  Tuesday, it was back to the roads and a new training schedule.  I barely slowed down.  My uncle called the sluggishness "race hangover."  Hair of the dog, right?

More running and more hockey led to late nights, early mornings, and double (and even triple) workout days.  The Jersey Shore had GTL.  I had GRH (Gym, Run, Hockey).  

I got close to stopping, but like an addict, kept finding excuses to forge ahead.  I spent groggy mornings walking the dog and thoughts such as, "If I got sick, then I'd be forced to stop running for a few days" came through the fog.  Self-fulfilling prophecy.  Last week, I got sick.  What's a sore throat, though?  I could sweat this out.  So, I continued on, tackling the 12-miler with Rohan Veterans Day, followed by a 5K Saturday morning.

The tipping point.  With a day off on Sunday (from running), I DayQuil'd it up for my afternoon hockey game.  "If I can just get through this game," I reasoned, "I can take a break."  I found that most of my sentences started this way: "If I can just get through [insert physical exertion here], then I'll rest."

All at once, my body decided enough was enough and shut it down for me.  I wish I could tell you it was making some glorious glove save, gutting out a race win, or even finishing a solid interval workout. It was nothing of the sort.  In that Sunday game, five minutes remained in the third period.  We clung to a 5-4 lead.  I hunched over when the play was at the other end to keep my wits about me and clear my head.  The ball (it's floor hockey), came rolling toward me.  I reached out to set it up for my defensemen and felt the odd but familiar twinge in my lower back, just above my pelvis.  "Eff!"  I thought.  I knew what this entailed: three to four days of stiff, spasm pain in my lower back.  

And so it came to be.  I've spent the last three days gingerly moving through the days, trying to make any sudden movements and look as normal as possible when getting out of my chair at work, you know like I don't have a big load in my pants?

Last night saw the first signs of relief.  All week I imagined that knot in my back unwinding itself.  I jammed thumbs in there, hoping for any sort of release.  I spent my free time lying on my back, on the hardwood, neck craned toward the TV.  I entertained ideas of close my office door to lie down.  I crouched at my desk instead of sitting in the chair.  Co-workers walked by and asked if I was sitting at the kids' table.  Everyone's a comedian.

Knowing that I haven't been able to run all week, I've sort of relaxed and let the Type A slide away, embraced it, if you will.  I certainly feel pangs of guilt when I see the big goose egg in my running calendar for this week, and yes, the November mileage will suffer.  But, I can't remember the last time my legs and hips have been completely pain free like this.  Nor have I eaten with such abandon without worrying about how it will affect my afternoon, morning, mid-day run.  

I had the chance to run this afternoon.  I could have squeezed in that mile repeat workout or even the hill workout.  Instead, I decided to clean sweep the week and just let everything heal in total.  I'll do a shake out run with my wife on Saturday as she gets ready to run the Philadelphia Marathon on Sunday.  And I'll lace 'em up with renewed vigor next week and probably hop into a Turkey Trot.  

The point is, the lesson learned (again), it's important to give your body a rest.  And if you ignore the signs, it'll find a way to force that rest upon you.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a pizza to finish.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hazel Mountain, Ice Baths, and Bacon OR How I Spent Veterans Day

Rohan and I prepare to tackle Hazel Mountain
We had run maybe two-and-a-half miles.  The beauty lay in the fact that we hadn't kept track.  There were no splits, no mile markers, no pace checks.  It was running at its purest.  The only goal being to survive the trail, no matter how long it took.

Tearing down the side of Hazel Mountain, we glimpsed the expanse of the Shenandoah Valley to our left.  Rolling hills, rather than sharp peaks, crested and dipped over the valley floor; a quilt of fall colors sewn in red, orange, and golden patches.  We disappeared off the ridge and began to descend into broken shadows.  Leaves crunched underfoot and hid rocks that rolled our ankles and tested the strength of our cores.  A stray arm shot out here, there to maintain balance while we skated over the carpet of leaves.  "Wooooooo!" The beauty, you might say, lay all around us.  

For about a month, I'd had the notion to run the Hazel Mountain trail in the Shenandoah.  It's a trail I'd hiked twice in the past, and from what I could remember, seemed reasonably runnable with about a two mile stretch that could would require hiking rather running.  I wondered when I could pull something like this off given busy weekends and training programs.  About two weeks ago, it hit me: Veterans Day.  A random day off during the week.  My wife did not have the same good fortune as I and had to work.  I was willing to do it on my own but threw the idea out to my running partner, Rohan.  "When should I be there?" he said with no hesitation.

The waterfall that inspired an ice bath
After 20 minutes of running, we heard water crashing below us.  A side trail appeared and we veered off to make the steep descent.  A quick stream carved through the mountainside before plunging some 20 feet into a small pool.  We stopped for pictures.  As we began climbing back to the trail, Rohan turned to me and said, "How good would this water feel after the run?  We should come back and do an ice bath."
"You know that's what the elite guys do up in Mammoth Lakes.  Yeah, let's do it."

The trouble with the Hazel Mountain trail is that it lulls you into a false sense of confidence.  You see, the 10 mile loop descends for the first five miles.  Knowing this, I tried to temper expectations and effort.  But there was something about flying between the trees, hurtling fallen limbs, and crashing through streams that puts you in touch with those most primal of feelings tearing through the woods.

At one point, when the descent had ended, we made our way along the side of the mountain before turning back up.  The trail became mostly flat and let us stretch our legs, really finding our stride.  It was here that things opened up and we just flew.  Thoughts and actions became stream of conscious, no thinking, just running.  Later we compared it to running in the dark.  Senses heightened.  Awareness.

Looking out from Mt. Hazel
Sudden rustling of leaves.  Breaking of Branches.  To the left! A shock of white.  There! Gone.  The deer's tail betraying its path.  Then nothing.

But that of course ended when we reached the Sam's Ridge Trail.  

"Right turn." I called.
"What?!  Up there?"  Rohan said.
"Yeah, time to start climbing."
He snorted.  "You lead."

So we took off up the Sam's Ridge Trail, attempting to run it for as long as we could.  I started with mincing steps that slipped on the leaves sending my knees knocking into one another.  We became the opposite of the graceful predators we were minutes before.  My heart nearly pounded out of my chest and my quads groaned.  We walked.

About a mile into that climb, the talk of food came up and the tiny burger shack perched on the side of the road in Sperryville titled "Burgers 'n Things" became the focus of our desire.  They could very well be the worst burgers in the world, but every time I stop there after a hike, I inhale the first without chewing, and the second is washed down quickly with a chocolate milkshake.

"Tell me about it again," Rohan said.  "What would you compare them to?"
"I would put them in the Five Guys category.  Did I mention bacon?"
"You never said anything about bacon.  There's bacon?  We need to get this hike moving."

Rohan on pins and needles
After several false starts, we were running again.  With just over a mile to go, we decided to double back and head to the waterfall, adding about another mile or so to our day.  We peeled our socks off and stared at the water.  I stuck a toe in, then my whole foot, and elicited a yelp that I could not control had life depended on it.  Rohan laughed until he went ankle deep.  Gingerly we went in to just above our knees. I don't know if I got used to it or if my legs simply went numb, but dammit, it felt pretty darn good.  There was a light stabbing feeling, pins and needles, really.  Then we got out, I had flashbacks to playing in the snow and then running my hands under warm water.  Yeeow!

It seemed like a good idea at the time.
We ran back to the car mostly in silence, exhaustion finally overtaking us.  We got our food (two bacon cheeseburgers and a milkshake for me, a chili dog and a double cheeseburger and milkshake for him), and rode back to civilization.  

When we arrived back at my house and were freshly showered, we walked gingerly down the basement stairs and promptly passed out on the couches before the TV had even had a chance to come on.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

An Empire State of Mind

On the New York
I believe it’s come to pass that there are two types of people in this world: those who love New York, and those who hate it. My confession: I mostly fall into the latter. But when it comes to marathoning, how can New York not appear on your wish list?

I’ve spent the last couple months canvassing running friends (and strangers) alike about their thoughts on the New York Marathon. Answers have run the gamut, everything from “You must do it,” to “I’ve had no interest in ever doing it,” and “It’s going to beat the hell out of you.”

Even my grandmother has chimed in on the conversation.  It seems that her reference to running IS the NYC Marathon.  After asking how Boston went, the next question out of her mouth was, "Have you ever run New York?  When are you going to give that one a shot?"  Humph.

It wasn’t until this past Saturday that I became 100 percent convinced that I needed to run New York next year. I’ll admit that I got taken in by this year’s [running] press coverage, which seemed to me higher than usual. Of course this could be the byproduct of that effect where you decide you might want to buy a certain car and all the sudden you see a million of them on the road wherever you look.

Between Meb’s title defense, the Rookies vs. The World series, Dathan Ritzenheim’s return to the marathon, Haile Gebrselassie making his New York debut (and end), just to name a few storylines, I was hooked.

Add to that my running partner and I talking about training together and doing next year’s marathon, (his first), and the pendulum started to swing.

So, back to Saturday night. I’d committed to waking up Sunday morning and watching the NY Marathon (at least the elite race) in its entirety. Somehow I can watch a pack of 14 runners covering ground at just under five minute pace for two plus hours, but the thought of sitting through a baseball game makes me want to poke my eyes out. I digress. Saturday night: I park myself in front of the TV and try desperately to find where NBC Universal Sports is on the dial. I find it…channel 807. I had no idea our channels even went up that high.

What I stumbled upon was last year’s race, you know, the one where Meb Keflizighi became the first American male to win at NY since Alberto Salazar did it back in the 80s. This became to the American running world what the healthcare bill was to Joe Biden.

Meb Keflezighi in New York after his first marathon victory(Getty Images)
But I hadn’t actually seen the race yet. So I bought in at mile 22ish and watched Meb chase Robert Cheruiyot. Meb matched every surge that Cheruiyot threw at him. As the two prepared to enter Central Park, Meb pulled away. And the gap grew…and grew…and grew. Until finally Meb ran alone. You could hear the roar swell around him with each hill he crested. He flashed by the 400m to go sign and a huge smile broke over his face. He raised his arms. He pointed to the USA on his singlet. When he broke the tape, Meb’s hands went immediately to his eyes to soak up the tears and you could hear the heaving sobs as he made his way through the finish area. He crosses himself then drops down to kiss the pavement. Someone handed him an American flag, which he held open behind him, looked at the camera and said, “How about this?”

How about it indeed?  No need to look any farther for inspiration.

And on Sunday, I woke up -- a kid on Christmas morning -- and watched the women’s and men’s races from start to finish. I thought I might go between the Sunday Post, some coffee, some breakfast, but the next thing I knew, I got my first taste First Avenue's thunder.  Then, Shalane Flanagan broke off with Edna Kiplagat and Mary Keitany in those same Central Park Hills. My wife came down and joined me to see Shalane’s gutsy second place finish. Though Meb didn’t repeat in the men’s race, we celebrated the crowning of a new NYC Champion who’d never run a marathon in his life.

“So,” I said. “Inspired for your 12-miler?”
“Let’s get to it.”

We headed out the door, she to click off her last “long run” prior to the Philadelphia Marathon, and I carrying her water bottles on my bike.  Visions of elite runners and screaming fans danced through our heads.  I replayed the start over and over: the hordes of runners making their way across the Verrazano Bridge.  And when the lottery opened up on Monday morning, I hopped right on it and entered our names.  Fortunately, I met New York's automatic entry/qualification standard.  Now about that confirmation.

Though my wife and I each have a marathon scheduled between now and next year’s NYC marathon…we found one another in a New York state of mind.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Getting to the Pain

Growing up, my grandmother always told me, "Try something at least once.  That's the only way you know you won't like it."  She was referring to food, but today, I'm applying it to my running.

When she finally reached New York this week, some many days, months, and miles after deciding to take on what will become her first marathon tomorrow, Shalane Flanagan said in an interview with Flotrack that she had to learn patience in her marathon training.   And that patience meant stemming the inevitable pain and discomfort we all deal with when taking on those grueling 26.2 miles.  Let's be blunt: when you run a marathon, you're going to suffer.
But from what I've learned in recent races -- not just the marathon -- you can "get to the pain" as well.  I got a dose of this in the tuneup half marathon I ran back in March, and I'd say I got a full dose of it during the Army Ten Miler a few weeks ago.

This, to me, has become the physical difference between running a race and racing a race.  While it's still fun, and who doesn't love chalking up PRs, it's hard effing work.  I've read about elite runners and their coaches getting asked, "What's so and so's secret?"  Well, there's really no's the willingness to work.

What I haven't felt in my training perhaps, is that pain.  I don't mean to say that I shy away from my tough workouts.  I've spent many an evening after work, hands on knees, sucking air after a particularly merciless effort doing mile repeats or even 800s.

It's the long runs and the longish tempo runs that have proven cruel in these most recent training iterations.  My long runs have taken on a new form.  Or rather there are new elements to them.  Before, a long run was simply time on my feet.  Get out and just run for 14, 16, 20 miles.  And I still get those in.  However, in the last year, I've spiced things up with cut down runs (where the effort increases every 5K), interval long runs (run 60 mins comfortably then 20x1 min at 5K pace with a 1 min rest, wrapping up with 20 mins easy), and fast finish long runs (running the last 4-6 mi at marathon pace).  The purpose: learn to run fast while tired.

The cut down/fast finish long runs give me anxiety.  It's a mindset I need to break; otherwise, I'll put myself at a mental disadvantage during a race.  I can remember a couple of these runs in my Boston prep for this year that ended up being normal long runs because I psyched myself out of picking up the pace.

How do you know, though, unless you try it?  Today, the calendar called for a 12 mile cut down.  I spent the first 90 minutes of my morning eating oatmeal, drinking coffee, and watching NYC Marathon videos and interviews (I may have a problem).  That's when I came across the Flanagan interview.  That's when the light went off.  

So, I took off on my run this morning with the mindset that I've been through the ringer already.  I've gotten to the pain in races before and what do you know, I survived.  At each three mile checkpoint today, I spurred myself on, faster and faster, despite the terrain, despite the hills.  And you know what?  In some places it hurt.  In others the pace just flowed.  Similar to a race.  Some miles you're fighting it and you just want to turn in for the day.  Other miles, it comes on you miraculously, you're like the Traveling Wilburies and "just ridin' around in the breeze, feelin' all right."

While I won't run all of my runs this way because I don't want to leave my race out on a training run, I'm building up the mental (and physical) calluses to deal with the pain when I get to it.  Then it's not a surprise and I can call on those extra hard sessions to pull me through the tough spots.

Heeding my grandmother's advice, I'm now slurping down escargots...and attacking those runs head on, rather than stepping aside.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

When the alarm went off at 5:20 yesterday, something wasn’t quite right. I squinted at the clock in disbelief, “How had the night disappeared so quickly?” But that wasn’t it. As I came to consciousness, and the dog’s tail thwapped against the side of the bed, it hit me: there was no urgency.

I know what you’re thinking: Is there ever an urgency to get out of bed at 5:20 in the morning? Particularly nowadays when you find yourself in that perfect homeostatic balance, the one where it’s cold outside of the covers, but toasty under. Sigh. Anyway.

Since mid-July, every Tuesday morning, I’ve shot out of bed at 5:20, stealthily pulling on running clothes in the dark (already laid out from the night before) so as not to wake my wife, then jetting out the door into the still morning to meet up on the corner with my running partner.

A pair of 17:35s at the Goblin Gallop
For that extra motivation to get out the door and run, Runner’s World always mentions picking up with a running partner or group. This way, you’re obligated to get to your meeting place lest you face the scorn of standing up your partner.

Yesterday morning, however, that urgency was gone because my running partner has…moved to Maryland! For those not from the D.C. metro area, the Maryland state line is probably 15 miles from where I live, which in D.C. traffic conversion, means anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour drive depending on the time of day. But he and his wife have moved about an hour away to Annapolis, MD.

He broke it to me on a six mile jaunt, a gentle rolling three mile and out back. I remember because it was a strange morning where the weather couldn’t decide if it was still summer or transitioning officially to fall. So there we were, chuffing up one of those gentle rolls, cutting through the plumes of breath, and cursing that we hadn’t worn long sleeves, when he said, “So, my wife got a job offer.”

“That’s. Cool. Where?”
“That’s. Not. So. Cool.”

And so it went. We plotted out the remaining weeks of our runs together. It culminated in last Sunday’s Goblin Gallop 5K. We decided to combine forces and run together to push one another. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we are two runners of the same mold. Upon our first meeting, we realized we’d run several of the same races and finished within seconds of one another.

We fed off each other’s pace during workouts and brought new techniques and exercises to the table…really pushed the limits of our training, plus, just had someone to bounce off life’s biggest issues with. Like just what the hell was Sammi doing going back to Ronnie in the last season of Jersey Shore?

We finished the only way we could on Sunday: with same time. Of course this isn’t good bye. Maryland isn’t that far after all. In fact, we have a run set up for next Thursday on Veteran’s Day since we both have the day off. And there are future races. We’ve already talked about toeing the line at the NYC marathon next November, which will mean meet ups for long runs.

So, I lumbered down the stairs yesterday instead. I headed out into the crisp morning, stars still shimmering on the mirrored water hazard at hole eight. This time I took Mattie with me, who dutifully trotted along by my side. If it weren’t for the herds of deer clumped on the course, I’d have let her off the leash. She proved a good companion. But when I asked her about what she thought of the Jersey Shore finale, she sprinted off and rolled in a pile of goose poop, which, ultimately, was probably the most appropriate response.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Running into People

Running, like alcohol, can be the great equalizer.  Let me explain.  Just as a few beers can make us suddenly more social and perhaps remove that oh-so-puritan-filter, so too can running.  Take my running partner and I for example, by run number two (so to speak), we'd already dived into each others, err, daily evacuation schedule and how crucial this act is on race morning.

But, it translates in others ways as well.  I love that great epiphany when you're in a (insert forced-socialization situation here), and your ability to nod and smile is waning, when suddenly, someone utters something to the effect of, "I have to get my long run in tomorrow," or "Just tackled a 10K last weekend."  All the sudden, your interest is piqued, you swoop in, and next thing you know, you're breaking down paces, comparing interval workouts, and spouting whatever the advice du jour coming out of RW for that month.

I bring this up because I've had three synonymous encounters like this in the past week that have made me go, "Man, I really love the running community."

Mattie wins for most adorable dog.
Episode 1 - Taking on a particularly grueling hill workout (10x300m up Ox Hill...killer trust me), I jogged to a near stop on my downtime to see a an older gentlemen standing at the edge of his driveway, arms crossed, beagle at the end of a leash.  I've seen him before, but I identify him more by the white Ford Explorer in the driveway because this tells me it's time to start climbing.  We exchanged nods, and I turned to head back up the hill.  On my return trip, he was still at the bottom of his driveway.  He mouthed something, so I plucked the headphones from my ears and leaned in closer.

"Where's your dog this time?" he repeated, disarming me as I felt some slight irritation creep in at my workout's interruption.
"She doesn't do the hill workouts with me," I replied, heart rate returning to resting.
"You just running up and down this hill?"
"That's the plan."  
A beat.
"I see you out here all the time, you really are just killing it.  I actually tell a girl who works in my office about you, how I see you running up and down these streets everyday.  She's running a 10-mile race soon.  What about you?"

Consider me charmed. It's not everyday you find out you are the topic of a stranger's inter-office conversations.

"Training for the Boston Marathon, I guess.  That's the next big race I have."
"Lots of hills in that one, I hear.  This hill thing makes sense now."

And we went on like this for a few more minutes.  I returned to the workout with an extra tingling of adrenaline having known that someone was out there watching, and not just watching but getting it. 

"And I got to run with Ryan Hall..again."
Episode 2 - Last Thursday, my friend Sarah (new to the Loop, check her out) and I met up in D.C. to do a fun run with Ryan and Sarah Hall.  As I've had the fortune of running with them before, I'm lumping this post together.  Following a satisfying three mile run through the Dupont Circle area and a couple minutes of one-on-one time with Ryan, Sarah and I departed and went next door for some dinner.  With my dog, Mattie, along for the trip, we sat outside in a cramped little restaurant that didn't exactly inspire private conversation.  

Mattie turned on the charm to try and steal some of this man's pizza crust.  While I corralled her, the man leaned in and said, "So, what did you think of Boston?"  My eyes widened.  His wife, sensing my apprehension, followed his remark with, "Your shirt.  Your Boston Marathon shirt, honey."

"Oh," I said, smiling now.  "It was hard.  It was real hard!"
"Sure is.  I don't have the knees for it anymore, but I remember those hills.  What'd you do to qualify?"
"3:08:41 in Vermont.  No one told me until afterward that Vermont is the Mountain State."
"Ha!  I'll show my age here, but...I qualified when the standard was 2:50."
(Insert high-pitched whistle)

Sarah and I spent the next 15 minutes talking marathons with them until they paid their check.  What marathons he'd done, why he liked them, what were his favorites, should I do NY next year, what does he do now.  They walked out, two people we'll probably never see again, yet I felt like, through running, I'd gotten to be near friends with them in those 15 minutes.

"We all arrive at the starting line for different reasons, from different corners of world, but with a common goal in mind.  It's nice when we can take a few minutes (or miles), to share those stories with our fellow brethren."
Episode 3 - This past weekend, two of our running friends got married, and in our good fortune, we were sat at the "runners table."  Several of them I'd met at the recent bachelor party so the ice was somewhat broken.  This is a group that's been running together (and running marathons together) for more than 10 years.  

My wife and I were welcomed with open arms.  It was as if they'd been given our bios before the evening began.

"So, you're the one running Boston.  And you, you're the one who's running Philly this year.  How's the training going?"

No excuses had to be made as to why we were hydrating because everyone was.  Each person had their own long run to complete the next day, and there was no awkward, "Oh, no thanks...I have a run in the morning" excuse.  

Again, we swapped war stories from marathons past.  One guy at the table covered 28 states worth of marathons.  When asked what his favorite was, he said, "They all have their own way of being my favorite."  Ain't that the truth. Then he regaled us with miles in the snow of South Dakota where he got lost and added 6.2 miles onto his trek, how NY beat him up, the unexpected beauty of the Steamtown Marathon, and on and on.  

Beyond fast times and achieving PRs, these are the moments that make me appreciate being a runner.  You realize in these everyday exchanges that you are part of something larger.  

Nothing is reinforced like this anymore than being at the start or finish of a marathon.  My wife and I weaved through the exodus of Marine Corps Marathon finishers pouring over the Key Bridge yesterday. Some hobbled, some cried, others chatted as if it were a Sunday stroll.  We shared a knowing nod with them and offered congratulations as we went by.  We'd been there before and surely would be again.  

We all arrive at the starting line for different reasons, from different corners of world, but with a common goal in mind.  It's nice when we can take a few minutes (or miles), to share those stories with our fellow brethren.

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