Monday, October 31, 2011

The Golden Forest

I call it the golden forest. For 50 weeks out of the year, it’s just a 1.5 mile segment of the Big Rocky Run trail. But for two weeks in mid-late October, the green canopy of leaves turns yellow, and the path glows.

Last Thursday I did an interval workout on the roads that led me, as most of my runs over seven miles do, through some segment of this trail. It became the quintessential autumn run. The scene was one that photographers might search for, writers write about, and most of us probably conjure in our heads when we think of the fall.

A thick roll of dark-bluish clouds tinged with purple stretched over the sky making the fall colors even more vibrant. The air raised goose bumps on my arms every time I stopped at a light and a small plume of my breath formed in front of my face on the deep exhales.

I clicked my watch at the two mile mark and waited while traffic zoomed by. I eyed the clouds, wondering if I’d make it through the workout without getting rained on. Cars pulled up next to me and I watched the drivers negotiate whether or not they could complete the right on red without getting rear-ended. The light turned yellow, then red. No time left to think about it. I gave one last glance over my left shoulder to make sure the cars turning right actually observed the cross walk/walk signal, then I trotted off across the parkway.

The path runs parallel to the parkway for about 200m before bending to the left and eventually snaking down below the road to the woods line. There’s a noticeable temperature drop. The air feels damper as well as cooler. The creek burbles from the rain earlier today and a pack of deer eye me to determine if I’m a predator or not.

Despite the cloud cover and the setting sun, the path ahead is unusually bright. It's as though someone flipped the light switch on in an otherwise dark room. I looked around and not one leaf is any color other than yellow. I started my quarters and though I was working hard, the effort, the traffic, the noise, the distraction all seemed to slip away on the breeze.

Leaves spiraled down in slow motion from the swaying branches and I could hear the wind gathering in the trees ahead of me. Suddenly it’s on me all at once, and running through the clusters of falling leaves is like swimming through a school of fish. Puddles dot the path and I splash through them, kicking both water and mud up my calves.

Everything about this trail depends on the run. That is to say, some days it’s a frolic through the woods while others it’s a slog that disrupts your rhythm and form. Some days I dread running on it and use a checklist of landmarks to get back up to the street. Other days, it calls to me when I haven’t run on it in sometime.

On my final recovery after the final interval, I ease back on the pace just to enjoy it for a couple extra seconds longer. When I come back to the woods-line, those dark-bluish clouds tinged with purple are spitting cold rain.

During these two weeks in the fall? It never lasts long enough.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

First Time NYC Marathoner Seeking Advice

Ah, taper time. The obsessive checking of the 10-day forecast has started. Door handles are eyed with suspicion, coughs and sneezes with disdain, and handshakes turned down. The mileage is getting lower while my appetite remains high.

That's right, dear readers, the tapering has begun.

While I fixate on having vitamin C no more than an arm's length away and rolling out my IT band every night, I'm hoping that you can provide some much needed advice (and distraction) on what it's like to run the New York Marathon.

I've run six marathons, but my resume does not (yet) include a New York Marathon.  My mind is reeling:
  • I found out that Boston begins with the Newton Hills at Mile 16. Is there a similar point in New York?
  • McMillan says, "Respect the bridges. The elevation profile is deceiving." Is he right?
  • Ryan Hall said, "Be ready to throw down at mile 22." Are the Central Park Hills that torturous?
  • What's First Avenue really like?
  • How is it getting to the start?
  • What's the runners' village like?
I want to hear from the vets who've been there before, whether it's been one time or 12 times.

What were your favorite parts? What did you dislike? What inspired you?

What do you wish someone had told you before you ran your first New York?

Drop some knowledge on me.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Last Long Run - A Hard Thing to Know

It started as most runs do, with the beep of a watch. The sky along the Potomac glowed with broad strokes of pink and orange and boats bobbed gently next to one another along the dock. A small pit of nerves formed in my stomach. I trotted easily past mile post 12 of the Mt. Vernon trail and said to myself, “I’ll be back here again…sooner rather than later I hope.” Then I let the thought vanish. There was a lot of work to be done first.

My Sherpa entourage (Mrs. Onthebusrunning and her mother) pedaled behind me. The first mile came and went more quickly than I would have liked because it meant that I only had a mile and a half until the tempo intervals began. Our group meandered through Old Town Alexandria and I took a worn trail out to Jones Point. When I looked behind me, I only saw the hedgerow I’d just come through. No bikers.

My watch had hit 2.5 miles, which meant it was time to crank the pace down for the next three miles. My legs came to life and the cool morning air filled my lungs. I knew then this was going to be a good day. I gave a couple more sideways glances while running under the Wilson Bridge only to find that I was still alone. I hoped my wife would at least catch up to me at some point so I could snag the water bottle of Gatorade from her.

I passed runners and bikers alike and let the spiraling leaves fall against my chest and shoulders while I ran under the foliage. Then I heard it, “You need coolin’, baby I’m not foolin’!” Mrs. Onthebusrunning crooned Led Zeppelin behind me. “You want some water?” she asked pulling alongside me. "You look great!"

“Um,” I huffed, checking my watch. 5.49mi…5.5mi. “That’d be great,” I said, reaching for the bottle in her backpack. I slowed the pace and got ready to cherish the next “easy” three miles.

“My mom fell,” she said. “But she’s ok.”
“Just go back and get her. I’ll be fine. Enjoy the ride.” I said. And then we parted ways.

"The boardwalk" aka just before mile post 7.
The stretch of the Mt. Vernon trail from mile post 6 to mile post 0 is a cruel, torturous serpent. The road rises sharp and fast and doesn’t afford the runner the luxury of finding a rhythm. The trail winds along upscale houses, turning over on itself several times before finally reaching George Washington’s home.

I managed the “out” of this section well. My legs rode out the climbs and accelerated the descents. When I hit mile post two, I did a quick about face and started the “back.” I slipped into a steady pace with a quick turnover. My arms pumped steadily and the sweat began to trickle down my face now that the sun was up and on me. Only a half mile to go until I hit my two mile “easy” section. It would prove anything but.

Those two "easy" miles may have been the darkest of this 20 mile gauntlet. My rest was more of climb, descend, climb, climb, descend. To say that I cruised through the first 10.5 miles would be an understatement. The rest, however….

I got a nice bump in spirit when I saw Mrs. Onthebusrunning and her mom on a bench just beyond mile post 3.

“Ladies!” I yelled.
“Heeyyyy! My mom fell but she’s ok and…..”

I heard “ok” and saw laughter so the rest got cut off. as I disappeared into another hill.

I hoped that the one mile interval coming up would bring the snap back to my legs…and it did. I took off trying to manage the pace but I wanted so badly to get out of this section of the trail, knowing the long downhill that waited for me after mile post five. I crossed over the GW Parkway and relished the newfound zip I’d find and hummed along down the trail.

“12, 8, 4, 2,” I repeated to myself during the one mile “easy.” As in 1200m, 800m, 400m, 200m intervals left to go. What I enjoyed most about this stretch was that I could train my focus on each interval, rather than the fact that I still had seven miles left to run. The work is demanding but, for me, it’s easier mentally. The hardest part for me ends at mile post 8. You leave the trail behind and reenter Old Town Alexandria. It’s still four miles but the change of scenery does my head good. The mile posts disappear until 11 so it's running by landmark rather than post to post. In my head that's somehow better.

During those last intervals, I buzzed past other runners on the trail. When the breathing grew harder, I’d catch a glimpse at my watch and see “5:45” or “5:53” and know then why I was hurting. Still, I soldiered on.

When I finished the final 200m, I fought the urge to walk, even for just a moment. I had the long climb up Union Street to go, plus another two miles back to the car.

“You’re done,” I told myself. “Just cruise now.”

I shut my eyes for a moment to regroup. I felt like I was shuffling along and it was only until I checked my watch to see that I was running “7:03” that I bucked up. During this trainin cycle, when the skies in my head get dark, I try to remember that the hurt is going to come in the race too. Every workout that I can absorb it, push through the exhaustion, and finish the workout will callus me both mentally and phyically. Shalane Flanagan calls it "getting to the pain." At mile 17.5, I got it.

I focused on good form, relaxed my shoulders and kept my stride neat. With two miles to go, the confidence surged through me and a smile broke across my face. My watch beeped to signal one mile to go. The pace fell naturally.

I saw mile post 12 and said, “See, I told you you’d be back here again,” while striding past it. I could see the row of cars and the stop sign where it all began just over two hours ago. I pretended that I had just rounded the final turn in Central Park and the gaping arching of the finish line waited for me.

My watch beeped just the same as it had when I started the run.

I got back to the car, hobbling some thanks to some tender hip flexors and tightening hamstrings. The watch read “2:14:37.”

I fired off a text to runDanrun to give him the good news. We exchanged a few more texts before I received this: “I love the fact that 10.5 miles, for the lay man is impossible, for most runners is a workout, but for the fit and finely tuned, it is merely a warm up! In NYC, when the gun goes off, let slip the dogs of war!”

Mrs. Onthebusrunning and her mom rode in about 20 minutes later. We feasted on breakfast foods and I went about the day with a quiet yet confident air about me.

Indeed, it was a hard to thing to know.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Last Long Run (Preview)

When I put together my training program for New York, I had two dates circled on the calendar. The first obviously being the marathon itself. The second, however, was not last weekend’s tune up race. Rather, I highlighted tomorrow morning’s 20 miler. My last long run.

In many ways, this workout has always been on my training plan before I tacked the whole thing on the fridge 10 weeks ago.

I call it the "Ryan Hall workout," and I remember the day it came into my life. I started scouring the web looking for new workouts when I wound up where I always do for these types of scouting missions: Flotrack. I came across a video called “Ryan Hall last major workout before 2011 Boston Marathon.” I couldn’t click play fast enough.  The workout goes like this:

2.5mi easy + 3mi tempo + 3mi easy + 2mi tempo + 2mi easy + 1mi tempo + 1mi easy + 1200m tempo + 1200m easy + 800m tempo + 800m easy + 400m tempo + 400m easy + 200m tempo + 200m easy + 2.5mi cool down
This looks awful, I thought. Then, I have to do this.

The workout ultimately fit in with the ZAP Fitness philosophies handed down to me at running camp, i.e. a long run will never just be a long run anymore. My friend Paul -- who's in the middle of Philly training -- captured its essence when describing one of his workouts this week:

“I have nine on Thursday mostly easy with some kind of torture thrown into the middle.”

But it’s that “torture” that has ultimately made us stronger runners…that and learn to appreciate a good cool down.

Typically, I try to stay away from letting my race hopes hang on one workout. But I’d be lying if I said I never placed special emphasis on particular runs. I can still remember entering the woods at Manassas Battlefield – my last long run before Boston a year ago. I had two miles to go before hitting that magic number 20.  I was hurting. My hips tightened and my quads shook knowing the series of hills that awaited them. I started to take the first hill, the one that coincidentally crests at a cemetery, and I said or rather huffed aloud, “This is where we find out.” I drove on to drop the fastest two miles of the 20.

If for some reason things don’t click tomorrow, I know that all hope is not lost. Nevertheless, I’m reminded of the scene in Once a Runner after the infamous “Interval Workout.” Denton walks quietly over to Cassidy who has just wrung himself out on the track. He feeds Cassidy from a blender before letting him submit to exhaustion. Denton tries to find the words to tell his protege that he’s ready:

“'Quenton, you…'
'I know,' Cassidy said. His eyes were still moist; he turned away. 'But it is a very hard thing to have to know.'”

Tomorrow morning, as the sun begins to crack the darkness, I’ll set out on the Mt. Vernon Trail. Following the Potomac, I’ll try and pretend that I can take in the autumn colors while my legs and lungs consume the unrelenting hills.

Ten miles out. Ten miles back. And some kind of torture thrown into the middle. Tomorrow I find out.      

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"When more than one runner is gathered _____." (fill in the blank)

Runners gathered.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote in my 2011 Ragnar Relay Redux: Why the boundaries of bowel movements suddenly disappear when more than one runner is gathered, I'll never know.
Well, it got me thinking about what other weird, fun, typical happenings...well, happen!, when more than one runner is present.

So, in the great tradition of fill-in the blank posts, complete this phrase:

"When more than one runner is gathered _______________."

I'll get you started:
- No plate of pancakes stands a chance.
- Vaseline is near by.
- The conversation (and the pace, hopefully) flows.
- We can be ourselves.

Monday, October 10, 2011

2011 Army Ten Miler Redux

The halfway mark came and went unceremoniously. I didn’t even bother to glance down at my watch. The test coming was not on my wrist but in my legs. Independence Avenue began to pitch down after 14th Street. I could see the cones on the other side of the road that would mark the exit from DC. But there was work to be done.

The 1600m the make up miles 5 and 6 of the Army Ten Miler are, in my opinion, the potentially fastest mile of the 10. The road is a straight shot down Independence Avenue. It’s the next 1600m that can challenge your will because after the U-turn around the Native American Museum, you must retrace your steps up Independence Avenue.

Do I roll or do I hold back and steel myself for the uphill? I wrestled as the leaders went by on the other side of the road. Now, I did glance down at my watch: 5:53. I smirked. I can run faster than this, I thought. And took off down the hill.

For the past year, the 2010 Army Ten Miler has been the race I’ve gone back to to find my confidence. I ran a quad-busting 59:41 that had me convinced I was invincible. During my 400 mile base-building phase, when I could push the thick summer air, I went back to that race and tried to conjure any lingering magic that might still be in my legs or lungs. It had become my gold standard.

All summer I had to remind myself when the splits weren’t what they were a year ago, “This is a different time. A different goal.”

So, when I laced up Sunday morning, I did so with tempered expectations. The circled race on my calendar isn’t the Army Ten Miler as it was last year, but the New York Marathon, exactly four weeks away. This was my tune up, my fitness check. I’d barely hit interval runs that started with a 5-something pace, so I certainly didn’t expect to string 10 miles of them together.

After a stirring start that featured homage to the fallen, the wounded, and those currently serving, the cannon fired. And we were off. I fought to shoot through gaps and get outside of a choked first mile to establish any type of rhythm. It was like trying to merge onto the beltway at rush hour. I had to stop short, constantly check over my shoulder to see if I could switch lanes, and even laced together strings of swearing that I managed to keep in my head.

I looked down at my watch expecting to see 7:30-7:45 and instead glimpsed 6:40. Huh, I thought. This feels pretty good for 6:40. When the first mile marker came up and the race crossed out of Virginia via the Memorial Bridge and into the Nation’s capital, I was happy to see a 6:10.

The crowd began to string out and I found a flow and rode it down Constitution Avenue. We turned off onto Virginia Ave for a quick climb that I used to accelerate past a few more runners, knowing that my effort would be rewarded with a long downhill before we ran under the Kennedy Center. I was locked into 5:45 pace, until I was locked up.

Finally having some space to maneuver, I hemmed myself in with a pack of six runners. Two dudes recognized one another and as the conversation continued, the pace slowed and I started nipping at the heels of the one in front of me. I cursed myself for the tactical error then dropped back a couple steps before accelerating around them and surging toward the backside of the Lincoln Memorial.

The four mile marker came and went and the first flash of optimism began to seep in. Could it be a day for a sub-60? I asked, smiling to myself. But I wasn't even halfway through the race, so I quickly buried the notion. Right on cue my breathing got heavier as the new MLK monument flashed by on the right. After all, I still had 6-7 to contend with and…the bridge.

At the 6-mile water station, I switched from water to Gatorade. My eyes lit up as the sugar coursed through me. Picture Popeye after he downs the spinach.

As this training cycle has progressed, I’ve been amazed at how well I can own my pace. I feel like I can dictate my race rather than letting the race dictate me. If I want to speed up, I can summon the energy to do it. In the past, I might need to drop the pace but simply didn't have the gas to do it.

Rising back up Independence, a younger runner cut in front of me as I began catching up to him. We played cat and mouse for about 200m before I watched his shoulders creep up around his neck. The hill and pace seemed to be taking their toll on him. I made a slight adjustment to get on his left side then powered by him. So focused on our game, I was already half way up Independence and still accelerating. I took mile 7 in 5:43.

The 14th street bridge is interminable. The very mention of it to veterans of the Army Ten Miler or Marine Corps Marathon is enough to send quivers up their quads. Its rolls are numerous and it bends ever so slightly to the right so that you can never quite see where it ends.

The crowd had opened up at this point. I closed my eyes for a moment to steady myself. You’ve got the legs. You’ve got the lungs, I said. Keep it neat. I opened my eyes and let my stride just flow. I fought the urge to look at my watch and ran by feel, catching glimpses of the Pentagon instead.

When I came upon the 9 mile marker, I did some quick math and realized I could drop a 6:45 and still come in under an hour. Instead of backing off, I let the pace drop naturally. The spectators began to thicken along the course as we rounded the Pentagon. I saw the finish line banner and let a smile break across my face. I squinted to see the clock: Does that say 58?! I thought. I pumped my arms harder, heard the snapping of the cameras and made sure I was completely over the sensor before clicking my watch. I looked down at the 56 second PR staring back at me: 58:45.

I let the moment sink in while I waited for my wife and father-in-law to come across the line. We toasted our accomplishments later in the afternoon and feasted on steak. When the alarm went off this morning, a trace of that euphoria was still there. But there’s more work to do.
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