Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Back to Base Camp

In the gospel according to Arthur Lydiard, a heavy mileage base shall deliver you to salvation, err, a PR. As an Arthur Lydiard convert and now devout follower, put simply, I believe in the base.

Let me explain.

Last October, just days before the Army Ten Miler – a race I planned to use as a tune up to test my fitness before the New York City Marathon – I remember moving through a nine mile run that contained a particularly torturous segment of mile repeats. With two intervals to go, I stood at a stoplight waiting for traffic to halt to start that penultimate repeat, willing myself on, knowing that I had two steep climbs to tackle in those 1600m. When I clicked the watch again one mile away, my eyebrows shot up when I saw that I had just run my fastest repeat of the set, on arguably the toughest segment of the loop.“Thank you, base building,” I said to myself.

On several occasions through that training cycle, I remember talking to my dad and saying, “I just can’t seem to tire my legs out. No matter how far I run or how fast, there’s no fatigue or soreness the next day.” Thank you, base building.

At about this time last year, I gathered my wits about me and prepared to embark on a journey to what I dubbed “Base Camp.” I vowed to take up the Arthur Lydiard tenets to “just run miles” for two months. I picked a number – 400 – and decided I would cover that many miles between June 1 and July 31.

The result?

I shaved a cool 13 minutes off my marathon PR and dipped under three hours for the first time in three attempts.

Readers of this blog know that one of my favorite analogies is to equate our training to fashioning a sword. First you have to forge that steel blade before you can sharpen it and that starts by building the base. Without sugarcoating it, it’s hard work. There were weeks that I existed in shades of exhaustion. I ground through certain runs and flew threw others. I covered the same loop on consecutive days with dramatically different results. I doubted, I questioned, I grumbled. But, in the end, when I took to the starting line on November 6, I toed it with a confidence I never had before.

And so, with June 1 approaching on Friday, the journey back to base camp begins. Except instead of looking up to see New York City as the summit, this year, I will gaze up at the Marine Corps Marathon. Two months. Sixty one days. 400 miles.

Similar to last year, I’ve started a group on Daily Mile that you can find here. Pick 400 miles or another distance and come along for the ride!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Finding Uncommon Motivation

In the middle of an easy five miler last Friday on a route my wife and I refer to as “the Lake Loop,” I spotted it. I had crested the hill I call “Sweet Leaf” if for no other reason than the cross street at the top is called “Sweet Leaf Ter.” I took a pull on my water bottle as I made my way down the backside. Several of my scheduled runs during the week had become casualties of work that demanded late nights and early mornings. If nothing else, I dubbed this a “clear your head, detox run” to clean out the trash bags piled in my head from a week of toil.

Detox runs are rarely fun, and this one was no exception. The humid air clung to me while I labored, when I caught the lime green VW beetle out of the corner of my eye. The license plate read “VRRMONT.” I smiled as the memories came roaring back and let them carry me the final 1.5 miles home.

You see, back in 2009, thanks to the McMillan Running Calculator, I plugged in a recent 5K PR and was astonished to see that my predicted marathon finish time was indeed a Boston Qualifier. It truly became a turning point in my running. From there, I set about the task of making that predicted time a reality.

And I planned for it to happen at the 2010 Vermont City Marathon.

While I trained, the Lake Loop and variations on the Lake Loop made frequent appearances in my training log. And each time I climbed Sweet Leaf, I kept my eye out for that green VW, and for some reason, pulled motivation from it. It seemed like a good sign that the very marathon I trained for was imprinted on my near daily training route, and the “VRR” implied some level of speed. Whatever the case, I adopted it.

Looking back, I suppose this isn’t completely uncommon for me. I often find my thoughts drifting away to relive races past, or visualizing races to come. Every time, I ran by “VRRMONT,” I felt a surge of energy and branded the image of powerfully cresting the race’s most major climb at mile 15 into my head, immediately followed by the waterfront finish with the clock numbers burning 3:09:59.

During those long months of grinding out training, when the excitement of beginning a program fades and the start (and finish line) is still a season or two away, it’s hard not to look for ways to stay motivated. For me, I think it’s the reason I pick a “finishing” song. It’s a song I put on in the car or iPod as soon as a particularly hard workout, good workout, or strong race finishes. I start to yearn for that song to play to reinforce that job well done…the same way I fantasize about pancakes during the last few miles of a weekend long run. For Vermont, it was Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music.” For Boston, it was Boston’s “Don’t Look Back," and for New York, it was Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” Right now, my car thumps to Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling.”

While I marked off the final meters of Friday’s detox run, I relived the 20 miler I did in the rain, the one where I ran by that license plate four times and finished with a huge smile on my face. I remember walking into the house soggy and declaring, “I’m ready!” And of course, crossing the finish line in 3:08:41 just two weeks later, soaked and raw from the rain that fell for the first 20 miles, but too euphoric to care because I was going to Boston.

What uncommon things motivate you?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ragnar After Dark

When I opened my eyes, I didn’t quite know where I was. Dark waves swallowed the flat gray light and sleeping bags dotted the beach. It started to come back to me slowly. Ragnar.

I’d finished my first run some six hours ago, a brisk nine miler that at the time I clicked my watch left me wondering how I could possibly complete a second one after the sun went down. But I reminded myself that I always felt this way after the first leg and had come to rely on the power nap. I clung to my belief that the second Ragnar run always proved the best.

I rolled up my sleeping bag and widened my eyes, willing myself awake. My teammates stirred, in various stages of sleep, some completely wrapped in their bags like burritos, others with their heads poking out and a t-shirt to cover their eyes.

Vans rolled in and the once empty parking lot teemed with 12-passenger vans. Hmm, someone could get the wrong idea. Christmas lights outlined van doors and runners crept alongside to tag them with magnets, markers, and even gummy monkeys.

I read over my leg while our van filled with groggy runners, everyone groping for some sort of food, the life suddenly returning to them.

Finally, in total darkness, we moved to the exchange point. The steady roorsh! of the waves replaced by the chatter of runners and a volunteer crying out numbers. A random cheer rose above the others when a runner came in. I used the porta-potty twice, unable to relax and eager from the anticipation. The night felt coldish but the air muggy with the ocean air. Even if I wanted to put on more than my singlet and short-shorts, I had nothing with me.

“163!” rose up above the crowd. I shed my jacket and pants and hurried to the exchange. The bracelet slapped on my wrist and I bolted from the gate, nearly side-swiped by another starting at the same time. We matched strides for 10 meters before I bolted in front of him.

The noise disappeared behind me and my headlamp cast a soft halo around me. The world grew silent as I settled in. My breathing, my footfalls, my arms pumping fell into a steady rhythm and I melded into the night. I didn’t worry about pace, but rather ran by feel and listened for my watch to beep to tick off the miles.

When I neared the first turn, the street names didn’t sync up with what I’d remembered so I cautiously carried on hoping to see the reassuring strobe of another runner’s butt blinky ahead of me. I spotted one and called out. “Are you leg 18?” “Huh? I’m runner…I don’ t know…seven?’
“Ok, thanks!”

Good enough for me. I surged on through the Cape Cod neighborhood streets. Some houses had lights on, while others had retired for the night. I wondered what they might think of the steady string of runners going by at all hours.

A man with a dog crossed the street opposite me and asked, “Where are you running from?”
“Plymouth,” I breathed.
“Damn! Have fun!” he yelled back, as I disappeared under the street lamps.
When I came upon other runners, I tossed a wave and a “Looking good,” hoping not to startle them. It didn’t always work.

The sidewalks rose and fell unevenly and roots and potholes offered an agility challenge for my ankles. I missed sighting a pothole and misjudged my step and felt the tendon running from my hamstring to my knee stretch a little too far. I cursed and made for the shoulder on the road to avoid the broken pavement.

At seven miles, my breath plumed in front of me. The night air felt cool on my hands yet the air was thick and my body slick with sweat. My vanmates drove by with an adrenaline infused whoop that carried me the remaining two miles to the exchange.

The lights of the main state road glowed ahead and I knew I had to be close. I took a pull on my water bottle, For courage, I told myself and quickened my turnover. I made the final turn and saw the row of vans in the parking lot a half mile ahead. Two laps, I told myself, meaning around the track. My leg felt tight but I was near done now. I turned into the parking lot, nearly missing the turn, and handed off to my teammate. I blew out hard and put my hands on my head.

The night run is always the best.

Check out my Ragnar Cape Cod Redux on the Ragnar Relay Blognar.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Waking up the World

Empty morning streets laid before me.
My bladder woke me up at 5:20. Then my internal clock had me up at 6:30 – when the alarm usually goes off five days out of the week. I lingered a moment longer before swinging my legs out of bed, pulling on my running clothes, and slinking downstairs. The dog followed me curiously, perpetually asking with her tilted head, “Am I going too?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that not only wasn’t she going but in 60 short minutes she’d be getting her “summer” haircut. But I digress.

I gave myself 90 minutes to squeeze in 12 miles before having to shower, throw on my Caps gear, and head downtown. Timing was everything. Mrs. Onthebusrunning was going to Crossfit. I caught a ride with her to then hitch a ride on the metro, to get downtown for the game, only to rendezvous with her across town after the game for a friend’s wedding. Whew. I’m tired all over again just recounting it.

But for those 90 minutes, the morning was mine.

When I stepped out the door and walked toward the speed hump that marks the start line, the humidity already clung to me. And it’s only May, I thought, clicking my watch and starting out. My body felt light and the pace easy while I clicked along. The steady white noise of rush hour had gone and when I made the turn onto the main road, I saw why: it was as though the world still slept. I elided over the sidewalk, flying through each intersection in the uncommon solitude.

I glanced down at my watch around one mile and noted the swift 6:50 pace that felt like 7:30s. This could be a good morning, I allowed myself to think.

I had some reservations going into this run. First and foremost, the time constraint, but second, it was my first foray into double digits since my shi--, err, less than stellar, half marathon back in March. But I had several consistent seven to nine milers over the past couple weeks to draw from. I purposefully left the GPS watch at home and instead just velcroed on my cheap-o watch, which doesn’t take into account my pace. I could just run.

The first four miles of my 12 mile loop pass along a fairly significant highway as well as a sprawling strip mall. Admittedly, it’s not the most pleasant four miles, but at mile four, the shops and noise disappear and the route rolls through a series of neighborhoods and parks. Most notably, it cuts behind the neighborhood I grew up in and I’m always pleasantly transported back to my days riding my bike on these same trails, disappearing into the woods, and splashing through the creek on boyhood adventures.

By mile six, I traded pavement for crushed gravel and wove my way through the Big Rocky Run Trail. The pace was fast and it spurred me on despite only being halfway. Sweat flung off me with each arm swing but I felt fluid and strong.

From seven to eight, the route climbs through the streets that house my old neighborhood pool. I girded myself for the climb but rather than slowing down or matching the effort, I dropped the pace. With four miles to go, I reentered the trail and the humidity grew thicker as the sun rose and baked the air under the trees. The creek trickled by off to my right.

At the trail head, I had two miles to go and jogged across the Parkway. The last two miles climbed relentlessly but I told myself that I’d be all the stronger for it despite the suffering. I knew I couldn’t let these last two miles ruin what had become a self-proclaimed “blog-worthy” run, the kind that writes itself as you run.

My neighborhood appeared ahead and wife drove by honking having just dropped the dog off. The street had grown busier since I'd left it some 60 plus minutes ago, the world finally waking up around me. My stride opened up to finish strong. I clicked my watch and took a long pull on my water bottle. The watch read 1:20:03. Sweat ran into my eyes. It burned but so did my legs, the good kind after a job well done.

We sat together on our front step and chatted for a moment while the warmish air cooled my skin. When we decided to go in, I still had plenty of time to spare…and a full day ahead of me. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Grinding it Out

I staggered around the house, a hangdog look on my face. A cloudy sky filtered soft light into the living room creating the perfect “hangover” ambiance: no bright lights, no loud noises. I avoided the light switches, wanting instead to fumble around in the semi-darkness. Mrs. Onthebusrunning came downstairs and asked, “Are you going to run this afternoon?”

I considered the question. “Decisions like that can’t be made right now,” I groaned.

It’s not what you’re thinking. It wasn’t a beer guzzling, mixed drinks, and wine kind of hangover. It was of the extreme exhaustion variety, tinged with heartache and letdown. At 12:18 a.m., the New York Rangers’ Marion Gaborik slipped the puck between the legs of Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby in triple overtime to end what had become a “New York Marathon” of sorts. When the puck crossed the line, Gaborik may as well have hit the power off button on Verizon Center because the steady hum of the crowd died in an instant.  I suppose they call it “sudden” death for a reason. The goal came so swiftly that we sat in stunned disbelief for several seconds before filing out with the rest of the “red army” of Caps fans into the humid, empty D.C. streets.

I’ve added Gaborik to the increasingly long line of Caps OT Killers who have sent me to bed disappointed in the wee hours of the morning, dating back to the late-80s. See Pat Lafontaine.

When I finally arrived back home, the clock read 1:45, and after a quick shower, 2:00 on the nose.
Four-and-a-half hours later, the alarm buzzed. I did not.

But as the day wore on, I felt life slowly returning as I regained motor skills, and the 7.2 mile run I had planned that had since been shortened in my head to a long with the dog, steadily elevated during the day to an easy three miler, to a five mile loop, to a, “What the hell, let’s knock out the whole 7.2.”

And so I did. It wasn’t the most glamorous run, but I trundled along through my trails and neighborhoods, grinding out the mileage so I could later mark it down in my log and not spend the night in self-loathing. As is often the case, there are few regrettable runs once you decide to lace up and get out the door.

And anyway, with RagnarCape Cod less than a week away, I’ll be running farther than those 7.2 miles and with far less sleep. And as the waves wash up on the New England shore at 2:00 a.m., I’ll wonder just what was I complaining about last week.

Until then, this runner needs another cup of coffee.
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