Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Intervals for Lunch

Timing, as they say, is everything. Yesterday morning, my leg jittered up and down in our kitchen while I hammered away at my lap top. I eyed the clock every now and again as it crept closer to 12:00 and had to catch the drop of adrenaline that came as it got closer. I tugged at the sides of my knit hat and ran my hands over the stubble that, for a Tuesday morning, should not have been there. If only my co-workers could see me now, I thought massaging my bare legs.

No, I hadn’t replaced “casual Friday” with “pantless Tuesday.” Somewhere in between finalizing a report and hopping on a conference call, I had a lunchtime run on the day’s to-do list.

It’s not often that I swap eating time for running time midday, but with Caps tickets in the evening, a general urge to catch some extra sleep, and an open calendar from 12-1, I decided to send myself an Outlook appointment and block that time to rip off some intervals.

Similar to running in the morning, I suffer from a bit of nervous anxiety when some unforeseen event disrupts the routine. I think it’s the same reason my dog and I get along so well. With my wife on work travel, we spend our days living out one another’s routine. In fact, I think we both mark our day by her bathroom breaks and eating schedule.

Anyhow, even though I’m getting my eight hours in for the day, there’s something guilty about running at lunch. It could be the break in toil, knowing that my coworkers are still suited up (in the dress shirt and tie sense). It could be doing what I consider “fun” during the work day. Whatever the reason, I have to convince myself that it’s ok to duck out at lunch if the opportunity presents itself.

I glanced out the window one last time: a bright blue sky without a cloud in sight. I checked the thermometer on my desktop and noted the description, “abundant sunshine.” All that skepticism abruptly burned off by those “abundant” rays. I laced up my racers and stepped outside, letting go an audible sigh. Not one laced with sarcasm or frustration. Rather, it was the pure freedom as the sun hit my face.

I started my slow warm up jog and tossed a wave at one of my neighbors. I have a job, I swear. I wanted to say.

I stayed in my neighborhood to avoid any stops due to red lights or intersections. The plan called for 6x1K with 10 minutes easy on either side of the workout. I was determined to execute this one evenly as my last few interval workouts have started with the promise of fast running only to burn out down the final stretch, leaving me in a wheezing, ragged heap, wondering if I remembered how to do this.

This time, I looked at the first two and thought they seemed slow despite the effort. When my watch chirped to start the third, I roared on, feeling my feet turnover quickly, my arms pumping evenly, and my breathing measured and smooth. I looked down at the watch and clicked it, throwing a little fist pump: 10 seconds faster than the first two. And the remaining three hovered around that pace.

After the sixth interval, I slowed and checked my watch: plenty of time to spare. I relished the cool down back to my house, sipping on my water bottle, and feeling the sweat cool on my neck and cheeks.

When I returned to the house, I indulged in a shower then checked e-mail while I made lunch. It was back to work, just where I’d left it. But instead of being lethargic and tired as the morning switched to afternoon, I felt energized and ready to seize the rest of the work day.

Sometimes it’s nice to take a slice of the day for yourself.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Missed Calls and Memory Lane

I checked my watch and noted the distance: 14.93. Ok, I thought. Let’s make it an even 15 and call it a morning. I clicked my watch and came to a stop just feet away from Table Talk, the restaurant where I planned to meet my two friends for breakfast. A cold wind blustered around me but the warmth from the run still lingered. I had timed it perfectly both in terms of route and time. Or so I thought. We planned to meet at 9:30 and it was 9:27. I did a quick scan of the cramped parking lot: jammed…but not with my friends’ cars….

My wife has the misfortune of spending 11 days in a hotel in Alexandria, VA a mere 20 miles away from our home. However, her company has seen fit to put her up in the hotel with other co-workers to conduct a training. Well, I got to missing her as you might imagine, so decided to spend Thursday night through Sunday with her at the hotel. While she worked on Saturday (all day), I decided to re-traverse the routes I ran a few years ago when we lived in this area, a run down memory lane of sorts. I fastened on the zipper pouch I keep my gels in but instead dropped in my credit card and hotel room key and let out from the hotel. I decided to leave my cell phone in the room….

I took another moment to walk off the run and do a few stretches, all while keeping an eye on the lot. Instead, I only saw the line to the restaurant get farther and farther out the door. So, I decided to walk in, or at least into the narrow lobby, and wait for a table. “Three,” I signaled to the overwhelmed hostess by holding up three digits. She blew a strand of hair from her face and didn’t bother to write it down. She had some kind of system going…or maybe she didn’t. I waited in the stream of sunshine pouring in through the glass that kept me warm….

When I set out just over two hours ago, I took off down King Street’s uneven brick sidewalks toward the waterfront. Old Town hadn’t woken up yet and I shared the empty street with a sparse number of early morning runners. A sliver of solitude before the town stores filled with shoppers, tourists, eaters, and all of the above. When I hit the waterfront, I turned left and ran alongside the piers where the sun began to ripple along the Potomac. From there, I turned again onto Cameron Street, trading shop fronts for colonial town homes and a steady climb….

At 9:43, I stood among a throng of “the waiting” while we eyed each table in their various states of dining, willing the occupants to eat faster. I kept reflexively sniffing around me wondering if I smelled like sweat. The hostess pointed at me and in broken English asked if I was ready. I squeezed through the others and took my seat, nervously glancing out the window for my friends. Instead of worrying about whether or not I smelled, I worried about not being able to fill these two seats. The waitress took some time to come over. She took my coffee order and I apologized saying I’d order in 10 minutes if my friends hadn’t shown up. “Oh, I don’t care,” she said, dropping off a glass of water. My eyes shifted around the place, wondering if I should have taken a spot at the counter or…oh, God, what if they were on the other side of the restaurant and I just never saw them. I reached for my phone, but it was back in the hotel….

If the hill up Cameron Street was steep, the hill up King from the Masonic Temple was a monster. Still, I made my way up casually, not worrying about pace and enjoying the memories of marathons past as they resurfaced. I tapped old landmarks that signaled mile markers or the trees and bushes that marked the near end of a climb or the stretch where I “raced” some adversary who wanted to push the pace on the other side of the street. At the “summit,” I took a sharp left onto a trail where the wind blew harder and colder. It carried a bite and pushed the dark cloud that split the sky ahead. Blue skies and sun behind me, black and foreboding ahead. When I came off the trail, that ominous cloud opened up with…snow. The sun continued to beam behind me as the snow swirled, light at first, then heavy all at once. Then, just as soon as it came on, it disappeared. I turned around, passing our old apartment, our first place together, a small smile breaking across my face as I turned down the backside of those up hills…

I sipped on my coffee and my tension melted away. I watched the lobby spill over with people and nervously tapped my fingers on the table. They had to be looking at me, wondering why they would ever seat someone with those two seats open. Then I saw one of my friends sift through the crowd and I waved over to her. She sighed with what looked like relief and went out to grab our other friend.

They both sat down and the waitress came over with coffee for them.

“You don’t have your phone do you?”
“No, I never went back to the hotel,” I said, sheepishly. “I didn’t have time.” They laughed.
“Well, you’ll have about 20 texts and missed calls from us.”
“We got here about five minutes early but there was no place to park so we thought about another place to go to eat.”
“Oh, no! I must have just missed you. I got here at 9:27.” We shared a collective eye roll.
“We went to your hotel. Then we started to wonder if something happened to you. We got coffee at Panera and continued the search until we got back here.”
“We even checked Twitter to see if you tweeted about your run like usual. Nothing. But here you are.”
“Here I am,” I said, turning red and not from the wind.
“Just know that we care about you. Now let’s eat some pancakes.”

And whether you’re on a run through the past or a run for breakfast, it’s probably good to have a phone on you…somewhere.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Proper Way to Warmup

Short post today, readers. My running partner -- minutes before the GW Marathon Relay last weekend -- demonstrates the proper way to warm up prior to a race. Parachute pants optional. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What Ails You?

Injury Maintenance Kit: Ice, BioFreeze, Ibuprofen,
Compression Socks.
"This is going to sound weird," my friend said to me this past weekend.
"Lay it on me."
"Run your fingers along my shin," he said, pulling up his pant leg. "You feel anything?"

I gave him a quizzical look...then dove right in.

At the GW Marathon Relay this past weekend, my teammates and I huddled in the chilly morning air outside of the Greenbelt Visitors Center. While our first runner stretched, the three of us traded stories over the little niggles that seem to afflict all runners. In fact, as I sit here typing this, I'm not sure I can remember a time in recent memory where something hasn't hurt at least a little.

A knot in my friend's shin. Soreness on top of his foot. The pain above my ankle (the good one). A twinge in the hamstring or a bizarre tightness in the achilles. We spoke of them as war wounds and battle scars, and attached odd caveats to them that made them unique to us but somehow relatable to our audience.

Most of these qualifiers started like this: "It only hurts when I [insert caveat here]." Qualifiers include: walk, run, stop running, run uphill, run downhill, run on pavement, run on cement, run fast, run slow, after two miles, during the first two miles, while I warmup, while I cool down, and on and on. Of course no one ever says, "It only hurts when I run on trails" thanks to Chris McDougall.

The smart-ass response generally uttered by the non-runner is of course, "Don't do that then." *gasp!* Not doing it generally means removing that crucial verb from the sentence..."run." How dare they!

Which is why we turn to our running brethren. Because not only can they empathize with our admission of pain, but we can then tap into their vast anecdotal medical knowledge and ask, "What do you think I should do?"
“Well, I heard that blah blah.” Or, "When that happened to me, I yadda yadda." And the cure usually involves some form of stretching, icing, anti-inflammatories, massage, and in rarer cases, epsom salt and vinegar.

What you won't hear is, "So, I stopped running." Because we run to toe more than starting lines and cross finish lines, we also tiptoe around the hazy line between needing a rest day and running through. Hoping like hell that a few more miles will iron out whatever the affliction du jour is.

It makes me do things like wear compression socks to work under my dress socks, slip my shoes off under my desk and do calf raises, write the alphabet with my ankle during meetings, and...well, you get the idea.

After the relay on Sunday, we walked away from the finish line and up to the Visitors Center for our post-race food, all the while trading notes on one another's ailments post-run.

In the end, we deemed it nothing a good recovery run couldn't cure the following the day.

What ails you?

Monday, February 20, 2012

2012 GW Birthday Marathon Relay Redux

Rohan (far left in all red) set for the start. (Photo courtesy
of Bengal Richter)
A woman walked by with purpose carrying a bag of flour under her arm. We eyed one another “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” style until Rohan spoke up. “What do you think that’s for?”

“Maybe it’s for the starting line?” I questioned. We shrugged our shoulders and laughed, then Rohan returned to stretching.

There’s nothing quite like the smallness of a local race. In this case, the 51st running of the GW Birthday Marathon Relay. If races like Boston and New York are the raging keggers of youthful lore, then the GW Birthday Marathon is an intimate gathering of friends in your living room. No frills, no crowds, no buses, no choked roadways. The race takes place in Greenbelt, MD along a course of rolling relentless hills that the solo marathoners cover three times, while those weaker of spirit split up amongst three to form a relay team. The rewards, however, are just as good or better than a big race. For $22.50, you get a sweet Brooks running tech shirt and the promise of chili and/or pizza awaiting you at the finish line. Ah, life's simple (running) pleasures.

And so, my friends Rohan and Ebo completed the threesome of our team, 1 Life to Run. We cut across the baseball field and congregated in front of the neat suburban houses. A smattering of runners milled about and the cacophony of idle chitchat spread between the narrow neighborhood streets.

At 10:29, a man with a bullhorn stepped forward. He asked all the relay runners to ensure they swung the wristband as low to the ground as possible so that the timing mat picked up the chip before you handed it off to your next person. Yes, we affixed the timing chip to a wristband. If we had big Oakley’s, hot pink shorts, cotton t-shirts, and that bag of flour was actually cocaine, it could have been the 1980s. Luckily, it was a chilly morning and the potential for getting a sweat-soaked wristband to complete the final loop of the course was low.

Then…the gun. Rohan disappeared around the first turn and I looked at Ebo and said, “We gotta go. He’s pretty fine-tuned.” With 9.7 miles to cover, I knew Rohan would be at the exchange in about 58-60 minutes.

Ebo and I promptly arrived at the exchange and elected to stay in the warm car. The DC-metro area braced for “no significant accumulation” of snow starting around 3:00 and we eyed the fleece of gray clouds with skepticism and debated whether or not it was ok that we planned to wear shorts. (Spoiler alert: there was no precipitation the entire day, and yet there was a run on bottled water and toilet paper at the store.)

With the clock nearing 11:20, we hopped out of the car and prepared for Rohan to crest the hill. Sure enough, at 11:29, he appeared in what can only be described as: hauling ass. They made the handoff and Ebo took off down the hill. Lines of crusted salt streaked down Rohan’s face as he struggled to get the words out. “Hilly! Surged back and forth. The whole way. But. I put in. The miles.”

While Rohan cooled down, I bounced anxiously around the car, ducking into the woods to pee, pausing to stretch, then thinking it too early. I settled on eating my power bar and absently rubbing the glowing spot above my left ankle that had plagued me the last couple weeks. A woman and her daughter walked by talking about chocolate and peanut butter. "Who's got chocolate peanut butter?" Rohan asked. They lauhged and continued on. Fifteen minutes before Ebo came through, I went through my warmup, telling myself that this was just a tempo run, to find the flow, and enjoy the ride.

“He’s coming!” Rohan shouted.

I pulled my jacket off and tossed it into the car. Ebo, as is his trademark, came barreling toward the exchange at a ferocious pace. I took the sweatband, still fairly dry, and balanced my water bottle as I tried to slip the band over my wrist.

After a short decline, the course exerts its will upon you with a mighty short and steep climb. I focused on keeping my legs under me and not overstriding. The mincing steps helped propel me forward. When I came through the first mile, my watch beeped 6:11. I rolled my eyes and thought, “Not sustainable.” And banished the watch from my mind, deciding not to check my pace again, and to truly run by feel.

I came upon the woman and her daughter that had walked by Rohan and I. "Chocolate. Peanut butter," I gasped. They waved and urged me on.

The first 3.5 miles went by in an unsettling storm of discomfort. I paid for setting that pace from the onset and spent those early miles trying to get into a rhythm and measure my breathing. But the steady, long climbs made it difficult. I fought a side stitch and tried to distract myself with the bucolic countryside. I broke my 9.2 mile run into three segments, essentially three sets of three miles.

The course (photo courtesy of Bengal Richter)
Once I hit the halfway mark, however, I’d found the rhythm I searched for on a long, forgiving downhill that served as a reset. The sun ducked in and out of the clouds and made it just warm enough to be noticeable. I came on the marathoners and tossed a “nice job” to them, feeling guilty that I only had to complete this loop once.

Remembering the course from last year, I knew I had three significant climbs left and I steeled my mind to the task, using the downhills to recover and pick up some speed. I came through the exchange point and followed the arrow made out of flour that pointed to “Finish.” Oh! I thought as a puff of white cloud kicked up from my heels. One hill left to go, one that had reduced me to a walk this time last year. One last left turn and the road began a steady incline, just enough to let you know that you were climbing. The 25 mile marker appeared and that’s where the real work began. The road pitched upward and around a bend where it continued to climb. I shortened my stride and chuffed up, willing myself onward. I let out ragged breaths on each exhale and searched for the apex. I hid the pain behind my sunglasses and kept my face stony and reserved. Finally, I could see the hill break ahead of me. My legs turned over and I surged down the backside like a madman, knowing the last half mile was all downhill. The trail cut through the woods and I managed a thumbs up to the few fans near the finish line.

I finished in a huff, the clock just under three hours. I staggered around, tossing a head nod and a thanks to my friend Caroline who’d come to watch the race. I looked at my watch for the first time: 58:40 for 9.2 miles and thought, Not bad. Could be the jump I’m looking for.

The three of us walked back up to the visitors’ center for our well-deserved pizza.

“All in a day’s work, gentlemen,” Rohan said.


Friday, February 17, 2012

The Jump

Somewhere in the middle of the night, in the middle of a nine mile climb up Sugarloaf Mountain, in the middle of the 2011 Ragnar D.C. Relay, it happened. That moment when you’ve been training, faithfully putting in the miles, ticking the boxes off your plan, and waiting for...the jump.

A fog settled on the damp farmland behind the wooden fences lining the road. It was both ghostly and peaceful all at once. I could smell the cows but couldn’t see them. Wringing sweat and breathing hard, I suddenly felt the strength of all those miles settle in, the legs and lungs working together in perfect symmetry, and the breathing even and effortless. I dropped the pace and surged on through the night to the next checkpoint.

On my next run, an easy eight miler two days later, I still felt it. I remember humming along the road, glancing down at my watch and seeing the sub-7 pace. Really? I thought, because I felt like I wasn't working at all. It had finally happened.

I bring this up because on Sunday, I’m lacing up with two of my friends to compete in the GW Marathon Relay. It’s a small race that loops three times around that similar Ragnar leg farmland, and easily boasts one of the greatest race t-shirts out there in addition to a fantastic bowl of chili at the finish.

Last year, this race became my turning point. It was the longest I had run without any knee pain prior to Christmas. And incidentally, I’d like to put an end to this “injured at the beginning of the year” thing pretty quick. It became one of those, “Am I really running this fast?” kind of races. Call it false fitness or extremely well-rested, whatever the case, it all came together.

This Sunday will mark the end of week four of my preparation for the Rock ‘n Roll D.C. Half Marathon coming up in March. It’s exactly half way, and I’m hoping for...the jump.

You certainly can’t force the jump, the same way you can’t force someone to fall in love with you. But, oh how we court both. The jump has to evolve naturally. I hold out hope for this weekend because it’s one of those perfect race environments. I won’t have the weight of four days of hard running to carry on my legs along with five full work days and dwindling sleep. No, I’ll be well-rested, carbed up, and prepared.

I’m still at the point where running “race pace” for 13.1 miles is not a thought I can wrap my head around. And truth be told, I’m not exactly sure what my “race pace” would be given the ankle setback.

So, I’ll approach Sunday the way I plan on approaching the half marathon: whatever will be will be. When I take the handoff, I’ll temper that adrenaline, save it, and try to distribute it evenly through the race and hope that somewhere along those nine miles, I'll find the flow and make...the jump.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Back on Trail

A dark, ominous forest -- or how I looked at trails until
Two miles in. Two fingers up representing the completed 800s. Six more fingers to go. I bounced on the curb as the Tuesday night rush hour crawled by. I took alternating glances between the green light and the headlights. I had zip in my legs and energy to burn off. But it wasn’t the next interval I thought about. Instead it was the road ahead, which wasn’t a road at all but a crushed gravel trail, the Big Rocky Run trail to be exact. I was nervous. The light jumped to yellow. I took one more sip of water, waited for the last car to zoom by to make the light, then…I took off.

I suppose it had to happen sometime. I just wasn’t sure it was going to happen yesterday, and perhaps, in hindsight, that was best. The calendar called for 8x800 with a 200m recovery. I decided that could take about 7-8 miles with warmup, recovery, and cool down factored in. So I started to plan my route accordingly. Over the past few weeks, that meant getting creative trying to avoid the trails, thinking that I still needed to rebuild the strength in my ankle. But with the daylight lingering longer, the ankle sprain more than eight weeks ago, and the first of four trail races just over two weeks away, the time had come.

I wrestled with the idea all day, knowing full well that it was time to set foot back in the ocean and run the route that I’d left so many footprints on in the past without a second thought. And why make it a casual jog when I could go all in and turn it into an interval workout? No dipping my toe in the water. This was a full on swan dive.
When the walk signal burned ahead of me, I clicked my watch and bolted across the highway, took a sharp right and began my descent onto the trail. The bare branches reached up toward the clear, dusky evening. The temperature dropped noticeably and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up as the cold settled on me. I made one hard plant with my left foot and heard the first crunches of gravel beneath my trainers.

Focus on your footing but don’t dwell on it, I thought. I made small adjustments to my course as the size of the rocks got bigger or where trenches had formed. A shower had passed through in the late afternoon, soaking the ground and forming stray puddles.

I stole a look at my watch and marveled that a quarter mile had already gone by. The trail rose to meet a neighborhood cross street. I surged and shot across it and back down into the woods. My legs started to tie up from the effort but I pumped my arms harder and repeated Keep it neat, meaning my form, and felt my legs turn over quicker.

Those tired legs carried me across the creek where the watch beeped and I hit the brakes bringing the pace to a halt. I trotted on suddenly remembering that I had been previously worried. I acknowledged the thought, snickered, and went about enjoying the brief reprieve. The sun had nearly gone down but it set the sky aglow in a palette of pastel pinks that receded to purple and finally what would become the night.

I tossed a wave to another runner coming the opposite direction with an eager dog at his side. The creek burbled from the afternoon rain, and though the temperature was mild for the winter, I knew the water would be perfect for an ice bath.

When I looked at my watch again, I had just another few feet until…beep! I folded my three outstretched fingers into a loose fist and took off down the trail. One more for the set, I thought as I roared away.

With .2 to go, I huffed on, A marathon finish, I thought, whizzing by the orange post that marked the end of that trail section. I made the soft turn onto the sidewalk and carried on up the hill allowing myself a smile that I’d come through unscathed and left some new footprints behind...along with some old fears.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Carrying the Weight

Check out those quads.
First came the quick machine gun jangle of my dog’s collar. She huffed and shook her way excitedly to the front door. Then I heard the faint sounds of a woman bellowing opera in German. I half opened my eyes, only half recognizing just what in the hell was going on. The front door opened. More collar jangling. My wife’s voice. “Where’s dad? Is dad home?” Then the tumbling of paw steps up the stairs and a wet nose in my face. My wife followed along with her laughter.

“Are you ok?” she asked. “What are you doing?”
“Um,” I blearily said, rubbing my eyes with the back of one hand. The wind pressed against the windows outside and I hunkered down a little further under the covers. “I needed a nap.”
“What are you listening too?”
“It’s German opera,” I said without missing a beat but perhaps wisely missing the “duh.”
“Did you run your 14?”
“Did you go to the gym afterward?”
“No wonder you needed a nap.”

Ah, the nap. I don't think I've taken a nap since sophomore year in college. But after Saturday, I may have to reconsider. After that initial grogginess wore off -- the one where you feel slightly nauseous and out of sorts because, well, you just slept in the middle of the day -- after that, I felt spectacular.

A few years back, I remember sitting on the table at the ortho’s office as he pulled, twisted, and contorted my leg to figure out just what was wrong with that knee of mine.

“What do you do for strength training?” he asked.
I gave an arrogant sniff. “I run hill repeats and about 50 miles a week.”
“Uh huh,” he said, just as dismissively. “You should really get into the gym and lift some weights.”

Then I heard the same from my uncle. And so (many) months later, I found being injured (again) the perfect time to get into the weight room and do something about it. I recruited my friend who has a personal trainer certification to put a program together for me. I have an upper body day (Wednesday mornings) and a lower body day (whenever I can fit it in).

While those upper body days make an afternoon run a tad sluggish, I’ve been trying to find the ideal time to get that lower body day in. I knew I didn’t want to do it on a Friday before my long run. Nor did I want to do it Tuesday night after an interval workout or Monday the day before said interval workout. So, I’ve been doing it early Saturday afternoon following my long run and breakfast club meal, subscribing to the idea that you keep the hard days hard and the easy days easy. That gives me roughly 52 hours until my next run.

After getting up early to run last week and again on Saturday, “it,” as they say, caught up to me. I walked into the house after breakfast, cold-faced, wide-eyed, and slack-jawed. I went upstairs, eyed the bed, and turned away so I could quickly get out of my running clothes and into some gym clothes without being seduced into that perfect homeostasis where the air is cold but it's warm under the covers.

The gym was eerily quiet, made more so by the softly falling snow outside. I shivered watching the flakes fall onto the covered pool outside before lugging some dumbbells off the rack. I methodically went through each exercise, knowing that with each set crossed off, I was closer to that nap.

My lower body workout looks like this:

- 4x10 dumbbell squats
- 4x12 calf raises
- 4x8 deadlifts
- 4x10 kettlebell swings
- 3x10 single leg squats with weight
- 3x10 twisting lunges with a medicine ball

It takes about 45 minutes and not only chisels your legs but gives you the best night sleep of your life week in and week out.

The snow swirled around my car on the way home and the wind pushed my car from side to side. Luckily, my gym is in my neighborhood, so it’s a short drive (.8mi to be exact). In other words, it was the perfect day to pull on some compression socks, flannel pj pants, and a hooded sweatshirt and climb (gingerly) into bed, and close my eyes. And of course, a little German Opera to carry you into dreamland.

Friday, February 10, 2012

This Porridge is Too Boring

Please, sir. I'd like NO more.
If variety is the spice of life, then monotony is the gloppy porridge of the mundane.

Last Saturday, my breakfast club mates and I sat across from one another eagerly gulping at our fresh cups of coffee (our second “warm up” in less than 10 minutes). When the mugs hit the table again, we cast a long stare at one another, the road-worn and weathered faithful we’d become.

Finally someone spoke up. “I can’t do it again?”
“Do what?”
“I can’t do another out and back on the Mt. Vernon trail. Where else can we run next weekend?”

And so the plotting began.

I started experiencing what I’ve come to coin as “route fatigue,” and I define it as the point at which I can no longer mentally wrap my head around covering the same loop, path, or trail without thoughts of leaping in front of a car or throwing myself into the river popping into my head. It is the running equivalent of “Groundhog Day,”(Bing!), only instead of being trapped in Punxsutawney, I am locked in some strange purgatory that stretches from mile post 16 to mile post 5 on the Mt. Vernon Trail.

I think the first symptoms came way back in November after I completed my final 20-miler and headed into taper town. The euphoria of that "good time" faded and left me with this lingering hangover.

That same Saturday, I tried heading north on the trail toward D.C. and cutting over into the city for a few miles. The city miles helped some, but the dread of running past the airport in this interminable stretch of trail that climbs but never really seems to drop, coupled with the throngs of other runners, who for some reason think it’s ok to run four across the trail (can Team in Training work trail etiquette into their training plans, please?), flew around my head like the mosquito you continue to swat at but can’t ever make go away.

Whew. Ok, better now.

I hit this point a couple years ago, when the sidewalks and roads became impassable because the blizzards rolled in one after another like wave sets. I had one four mile loop that I could safely do without slipping or getting swiped by traffic. So whether the calendar called for six miles or 18 miles, I ran it over and over and over and over again, until my nerves frayed…


With my Saturday distance creeping back up again (14 mile cut down run tomorrow), I’m thrilled – and even a little giddy – at the thought of a “new” trail tomorrow. As we hatched our plan, one of the most important factors of course became that the route be near a breakfast place. So, we settled on the W&OD Trail, a 45 mile stretch that features long steady climbs and equal descents from Alexandria, VA to Purcellville, VA.

In the somewhat edited words of Goldilocks, “This porridge is too boring.” Time to spice things up.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Something didn't seem right. It had all the makings of a regular run, though. I flicked on my headlamp and followed the spotlight cast in front of me. Mattie turned her head as if sharing the same sentiment, "This isn't the usual routine," she seemed to say. And who doesn't appreciate a good routine more than a dog and a runner. Nevertheless, the ever adaptable creature, she quickened her steps and broke into a slow trot with me as we climbed out of the neighborhood together. 

A bright, white moon began to set into the trees and the chill started to disappear from my chest. The road leveled out and we fell into an easy rhythm that coaxed my legs awake. Once we hit the main road, the garbage truck convoy whooshed by and left a sour smelling wake for us to run through. That hammered home what was really going on here: the early morning run.

I'm an afternoon run kind of a guy. I cherish my sleep in the morning and the clarity and decompression that a good run can levy after a long day of work. But I'm also a little OCD about following my training plan. So, when faced with an evening conflict, I will sacrifice that precious hour of sleep to grope my way through the quiet halls of the house, pull on my shoes, get heckled by kids waiting for the school bus, and run through the world as it comes alive.

The transition is a tad confusing, though. I'd liken it to a minor case of jet lag. Up is down. Down is up. I'm tired when I should be awake. I'm hungry when I'm usually full. And, on the road, it gets lighter when I finish my runs instead of darker. It gets warmer instead of colder. I can't kick back after my shower. I have to *gasp* go to work. But such is life when you've got to "get your run in."

And it's uttering phrases like that that make the recent videos making their way around the internet hit a little too close to home. I'm of course referring to the "Shit Runners Say" series. There's this one that was on Runner's World and this one posted by the Brooks Hansons team.

Last night, I walked through the concourse at Verizon Center toward my seat when my cousin asked the normally rhetorical question: "Do you want a beer?"

"Nah. I think I just want a bottle of water."
She laughed. "No, seriously. What do you want?"
"Seriously, I just want water."
She looked at me like I just kicked her cat. "I have to run in the morning." Blank stare.
"How about a Bud Light, then? That's just as good as water."

Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't be an issue. I'd have already run and would have nearly 24 hours to "recover" (I'm a cheap date). But with a hill workout in less than nine hours staring in me in the face, I muttered, "I've got to get my run in. Sorry."

And so goes the compulsion.

The disruption in the routine takes its effect on me as well. Morning workouts stress me out. I worry that they will take longer than I think and will press me for time. So, I spend the night before making my lunch, my breakfast, getting the coffee ready, and laying out my clothes so that the process runs (so to speak) smoothly. Automatic. Step by step by step all the way out to the car.

And yet, I marvel at my "flexibility," convincing myself that I'm not so rigid to alter my plans to get this run in. Instead, I'm Mr. Go-With-the-Flow and will simply fit the run in elsewhere, morning, noon, night? It doesn't matter. When in fact, as I write this, I think it causes my compulsiveness to flare up even more. If I could make a color-coded spreadsheet or checklist, you can believe there would be one. Actually....

When I do get into the workout, though, that stress leaves me, much the same way the afternoon run puts distance between me and the rigors of the office. And I discover the peacefulness that comes with the cold, still morning when the roads are relatively silent and there's satisfaction in striding by dark houses when the rest of the world is still asleep or the pot of coffee is just starting to brew.

At the moment, I'm not ready to give up my afternoon runs. But, I'm willing to change up the routine to "get my run in."

Monday, February 6, 2012

Spice it Up

About two weeks ago, I sat across the booth from my friend Paul at a Glory Days Grill, working on a beer and eagerly waiting on the waitress to bring us our baskets of wings. The plural in “baskets” is not an error. I followed the food runners with my eyes, trying to get a beat on what table they might
head toward, and if indeed those greasy baskets were ours.

It was a rare night for a couple reasons, the least being that I’d already eaten dinner and was in fact having wings and beer for dessert (It’s great to be training again):

1. I was out on a “school night”

2. The Caps had scored five goals (which makes your ticket worth six free wings at Glory Days)

3. I’d actually bothered to redeem the ticket

Finally, I got a good read and used my eyes like a tractor beam to draw those baskets in. When she slid them in front of me, my nose twitched at the heat and my eyes went glassy. Jalapeno coins swam in the pools of orange sauce and my mouth filled with saliva.

About three wings in, when that orange sauce drizzled down my fingers and I’d long since lost feeling in my lips, the following thought entered my head: Could there be more to the holiday weight gain than I first thought? Dear, God…am I pregnant?

Let me explain.

First off, I realize this is not the first time I’ll compare training to being pregnant. But sometimes the similarities are just as much a reality as the food baby living in my stomach after a tempo run and two dinners.

It used to be brownie sundaes at Silver Diner -- hold the whipped cream (it only got in the way) and heavy on the hot fudge. That was for Boston. For New York, it was pickles.

Half the fun of starting a new training program is to find out what the craving du jour will be.

This time, you need to bring the heat.

These days, the spicy tuna isn’t spicy enough. I continue glopping wasabi into my soy sauce until it’s a murky and thick swamp that brings instant clarity to my sinuses. Chili and cayenne pepper are cooking staples. Spicy mustard is a good friend, while pepperoncini is a best friend, especially when it’s on my pizza.

Little known fact: you can put sriracha sauce on anything.

I poach my wife’s discarded jalapenos from her Thai food. Tabasco for the eggs, and why not sprinkle some on the sausage links…and the pancakes…and the toast that’s in the vicinity. Does it have carbs in it? Hot sauce it.

I stood for a good 90 seconds in front of the pepper section at Whole Foods trying to discern between the palette of colors, shapes, and temperatures. Decisions, decisions.

Is my life going to turn into that one Cosby show episode where all the men get pregnant and they give birth to things like sailboats, sports cars, two liter bottles of soda, and hoagies (ah, the cocaine 80s)? Does anyone have a remote clue what episode I’m talking about? I wonder what would I give birth to? Probably running shoes…so, twins. Ouch.
Anyway, back to the bar. I licked the wing sauce off my fingers (always a classy move), and used my palms to grasp my pint glass and polish off the remaining sips of Yuengling (though it could have been Bud Light at that point since I'd burned away my taste buds), the second half disappearing much quicker than the first. Then I wiped my nose and sucked air in hard through my mouth to cool off my tongue. Sometimes it just burns so good.

What are your training cravings?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Finding the Flow

Finding the flow.
I have a confession: tempo runs worry me. When I see them on my training plan, my palms get a little sweaty and I keep that run in the back of my head all week.

The planned tempo run is of course different than the actual tempo run. You know, the ones where the schedule calls for an easy run but there's something magic about the day and your pace drops naturally to tempo?

My dad called yesterday during his odyssey up 95 from Florida to D.C. The conversation, as it tends to do with us, turned to running.

“What’s the run for today?” he asked.

I inhaled sharply. “Six miles with four at tempo. Makes me nervous.”

"Just let it flow," he said.

I went on to explain that my anxiety lay in the sustained speed of a tempo run. I love my interval workouts. Whether it’s ripping off 200s on a track or 2Ks on the road, I can feel the life pumping through me and ratcheting up the adrenaline. The “torture” is generally short-lived. And if you're RunDanRun, so are the contents of your stomach. At tempo pace, it is indeed all about finding that flow, where the needle is just past comfortable but the rhythm – the tempo – carries you easily like a river's current over the rocks.

For me, it’s about finding that rhythm.

In the past, I would run my warmup and then slam down on the accelerator and try to get right into tempo pace. But when I trained for New York last summer and fall, I decided to tackle my tempo runs with more patience. I kept repeating, Let the pace fall naturally. Then I'd try to believe it. And once I (sort of) believed it, I tried to execute it. I’d ease down on the accelerator until my legs and lungs synced up into that “comfortably hard” pace.

It worked.

My watch would beep to tick off another mile and I’d glance down at my wrist and see the pace getting faster with each mile, until I’d pushed it down far enough where I was right in that tempo zone or even a touch faster and just humming along the side of the highway feeling invincible.

Yesterday, when I let out from the house, I lurched into my warmup and had to pull the reins back and remind myself that it was only a warmup and there was plenty of time for fast running ahead.

I picked a hilly three mile out and back route to throw a little variety into my training. I’d tackled the same six mile loop all week and started feeling the mental fatigue. The trip up and down West Ox road rises and falls the entire way. I vowed not to look at my watch, and instead keep the effort even over the front and back of each hill even if the pace wasn't.

When my watch beeped one mile, I chanted, Find the flow. Find the flow. Find the flow. The pace surged and dropped back depending on the pitch of the road. I kept stealing glances at my watch then chastising myself for looking. Run by feel. Feel the road. Find the flow.

The watch chirped again and showed a 15 second faster pace. I raised my eyebrows and powered on. I hit the turn around and shot down the back stretch of the hill I’d just climbed. When I hit the valley, I peered up at the long, steady climb that waited for me. Strong legs, strong lungs burned behind my eyes like a movie theatre marquee. I said it over and over, using it to time my rhythm.

I reached the top of the hill and was feeling it now. That elusive flow. Only one mile stood between me and completing the workout. I surged ahead into the darkness creeping in ahead of me, just another headlight in the evening traffic. Everything worked hard: arms pumping, legs churning. The beep. And then I slowed to a jog. I’ve learned to fully embrace the slow 10-15 minute cool down at the end of a hard effort. In fact, there are few things more satisfying.

I got back to my front step and sat for a moment before unlacing my key. I’d left my worries and my demons out on the road. Will I continue to worry about these tempo runs when they crop up on the calendar? Probably. But in many ways, it helps me mentally prepare for the hard effort ahead and teach me to find that flow.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

New Horses in the Stable

Highway robbery!
When I played hockey, I loved nothing more than getting new equipment. My favorite, my baby, was getting a new glove. I used to play goalie and I relished stretching out across the ice to snag shots out of the air and commit a robbery with every save. I honed my skills in our dark, unfinished basement where I’d relentlessly hit tennis balls against the wall and do my best impression of Patrick Roy. I won a lot of Stanley Cups down there. When I took a year off of school between high school and college to play up in Connecticut, my coach, who was not one to sugarcoat, told me, “You’re a lousy skater, but you do have a great glove hand.”

I still remember a Christmas morning when our family room had turned into a wasteland of opened presents and wrapping paper. I sat there exhausted, surveying my haul (I'm an only child). And just when I thought another Christmas morning had come and gone, my parents pulled out one last box. The old Red Rider BB Gun behind the cabinet act. I tore open the box so fast that I didn’t notice my parents staring eagerly at me. I pulled out a pristine, black Vaughn glove. It creaked like an old ship when I opened and shut it, still straining against its own tautness. It still smelled like leather and not the unmistakable cologne of sweat brewing in a zipped up hockey bag. It was a thing of beauty.
The newest addition to the stable.

So, what, you may be asking, does this have to do with running? Well, I still channel that younger version of myself whenever there's a package on our door step. The anticipation grows the moment I hit "submit." I track it online and race home from work. I head straight for the kitchen and a pair of scissors to slice open the box...and pull out a brand new pair of running shoes. Miles of possibilities are etched into those pristine treads, and oh, that new shoe smell.

This time, it's the Asics Gel DS Sky 2. Oh, how I've coveted these shoes. Finally, distance running shoes with some color, with some swagger!

I hesitated to pull the trigger on this model because I continued to make my way through the various incarnations of the Asics DS Trainer family. But my last pair, well, they just seemed incredibly wide. I remember taking them out for the first time and thinking that I had a pair of bright red clown shoes on. I wear a size 14, so it's not a stretch.

But the DS Skies, according to Running Warehouse, are the ancestors of the DS Trainer 15s, a much narrower shoe. Don't you love that shoes have genealogy now? And the thing is, they were right. I don't have to cinch up the laces on these babies like I'm starting a lawn mower every time.

And after slipping them on, I was like Cinderella headed for the ball...or out for a run. Everything just felt right. That planned easy pace suddenly slipped into a tempo run. No matter how much I tried to hold back, I just wanted to run fast in my new shoes.

In fact, I love them so much that I already bought a second pair. In orange. Don't want my horses to be lonely in the stable.

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