Archive for March, 2012

You know, sometimes it’s just the simple things in life.

I woke up on Sunday morning with our last “real” long-run on the schedule for Boston.

Sure we have a relaxed pace 20-mile run 15 days before Boston.  But that run is more a victory lap of our training program than anything else.  When we reach the driveway at the end of those 20 miles, we will be deposited at the beginning of our 14-day taper prior to the starter’s gun in Hopkinton, MA on April 16th.

Just some light speed work, a few mid-mileage runs, but no heavy lifting prior to race day.

That last 20-miler almost runs itself, as all signs point to race day at perhaps the greatest road race in the world.

But this past Sunday our last “tough” long-run remained.  Still 5 weeks from race day, too far out to see the end of the journey, but far enough along the path to know that you are tired, beat-up, worn down and your legs just aren’t as “fresh” as they were 12 or 13 weeks earlier.

Rain was falling as I started the run, as it had for the better part of the last 36 hours.  I ran 12 miles on Saturday in falling rain and wet shoes.  Looked like we would have a repeat of that on Sunday.  Time to go to work.

As I ticked off the miles one after another I thought about the final miles in New York.  How tired I became late in the race, how when the course started to fight me over the Willis Avenue Bridge and the uphill stretches in Central Park, I just couldn’t hold on to marathon goal pace – slowing :20 seconds or so per mile.

This training plan, with more mileage, more 20+ mile long runs, doubles on Tuesdays and even more hillwork than usual was all designed to fight off late race fatigue.  To make me stronger “late” in the marathon, so I could race to the finish over the final 5 miles after cresting heartbreak hill.

Around mile 8 on Sunday I decided that I would stretch the run out from our scheduled 21 miles to 23.  I had never run that far before without someone handing me a medal after I stopped.  It would be a good test in lousy conditions to see just how I handled miles 21, 22 and 23.

As I passed the house at mile 17, only 6 miles remained.  I dropped my water belt and headlamp in the yard and thundered down our street for 6 more miles of an out and back.

Mile 19 – 7:58

Mile 20 – 7:48

Mile 21 – 7:38

Mile 22 – 7:32

Mile 23 – 7:25

What started as a 21-mile run at marathon goal pace (6:52 min.mile) + :60 seconds ended in:

23 miles – 2:59:26 (7:48 pace).  2 miles longer, :04 seconds/mile faster.

The best part was how easy the final miles felt.  I knew that I could have just kept ticking them off one after another had I wanted to, all this at the end of a 74 mile run week.

I treated myself to a nice cold beer at dinner on Sunday night – one of the last I will have before the post-race celebration after Boston where I’ll either be toasting a new Marathon PR or once again lamenting a race course that continues to haunt me.  But for Sunday – it was the little things, like tacking on an extra couple of miles and a frosty cold beverage that reminded me that the best things in life are not necessarily the big ones.

On Monday, Landry woke up with a fever and could not go to school.

She was going to have to stay home for the day, which meant either Mommy or Daddy was going to have to do the same.  It turned out that I was the lucky one and got to hang out all day with my little girl.

It gave us a chance to spend some quality time together and even made a trip down to the running trail to feed a few ducks and play on the playground.

As I watched Landry pass out bread to the ducks and toddle along the same trail that Dad routinely cruises along at 8.5 mph, it served as a great reminder that this is indeed the important stuff.

Marathon times, mile splits, running 23 miles in the rain – that’s all small stuff.

The big stuff is right in front of me on a daily basis.  Helping raise Landry in a loving household, teaching her things along the way and hopefully giving her a chance to chase down here own dreams and aspirations – whether they exist as a painted line on a street in Boston Massachusetts, a classroom, a laboratory, orchestra pit or operating room.

Whatever it is that she wants to be, I only wish that she achieves all of her goals.

If you could guarantee me that right now – I would take it in a heartbeat and forget all about 2:59 at Boston.

At the end of the day, it’s the little things that make all the difference.  I don’t think Landry will care one bit if Dad hits his goal in April or finishes a few minutes afterwards.  The hugs are going to feel just the same.

Pretty awesome.

Hard to believe that we have made it to this point.  The race before “THE RACE” as it were.  The Anthem Shamrock Half-Marathon this Sunday in Virginia Beach.

It’s not often that I would travel more than 1,500 miles just to run a half-marathon, but this training cycle for Boston was put together with a lot of thought and planning.

Four weeks before Boston I wanted to run a half-marathon that would simulate my Boston “race weekend” as close as possible to complete the process of dialing in for perhaps the greatest road race in the world.

I wanted to travel, go to a large expo, manage a case of the pre-race jitters, line up in a huge event, stand shoulder to shoulder with talented runners and go blow for blow with them mile after mile.

Even our race shoes for Boston will be taking their maiden voyage on the streets of Virginia Beach.  Getting broken in for race day in Boston.

The Texas Half in January was a great event and a solid test of my training to that point on a windy, winding course in Dallas, TX.

The Livestrong Austin Half-Marathon was an even better test, tackling a hilly monster of a course and coming within :01 seconds/mile of setting a new PR at the distance executing a near-perfect race.

But to say that there was very little “race day pressure” at either event would be an accurate statement.

The race in Dallas was a smaller event, coming off of a high-mileage training week where I did not have huge expectations for a fast race.  Then on race day we received freezing temperatures and winds gusting between 20 and 25 mph off of White Rock Lake – it turned into a tough event, but one where the experience of it was far more important than any personal achievement would dictate.

Start of The Texas Half

 

Any Age Group award is a great achievement, no matter the situation – but I felt at the time that I ran a very “average” race – which was good to get out of the system as we continued to march toward Boston.

The Livestrong event here in Austin was a much larger race, with a much tougher field of athletes, but I enjoyed a lot of the comforts of a hometown race that I will not be able to lean on at Boston.

I cooked my own pre-race dinner.

I slept in my own bed.

I patted our dog on her head as I drove to the race start in my own vehicle, parking less than 1 block from the finish line.

I ran through familiar streets on a race course I had navigated 11 miles of just one year prior at last year’s Austin Marathon.  I was never out of my comfort zone and I raced well, finishing in 1:24:07 and taking 3rd place in my Age Group.

My final mile was the fastest of the day in 6:06.  I ran a near-perfect event.

But the Shamrock Half-Marathon is going to be the closest “simulation” to what I will experience at Boston from the time I arrive until the time I cross the finish line on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk.

I will arrive on Friday, make my way over to the expo and pick up Bib # 5157.

I will seek out a quality dinner on Saturday night that will fuel me well for the next morning’s race, and with thoughts of mile splits and race course twists and turns playing over and over in my head I will try to get a good night’s sleep in a strange bed.

On race morning I will wake early, obsess over the right race gear, make my way to the start area and find my place among 10,000 runners. 

At Boston that number will be more like 25,000.

Although I have looked over the course map, with the exception of the finish to the race which I will cover on my 2-mile shakeout on Saturday morning, I will race down streets and terrain that I have never seen before.

I will navigate water stops and aid stations jostling with other runners for position and in the end, try to negative split the course and run a faster second half than first.

I will thunder to the finish line, hoping for a fast time, one that will be our final indicator as to our capabilities at Boston.

If the weather is “neutral”, neither helping nor hurting our finish time, we will double it, add 12 to 13 minutes and that will be our goal time for Boston.

A time of 1:23:30 places us right at our goal of 2:59:59 for April 16th.

A time of 1:24:30 and we are more than likely on the outside looking in at a 3 hour marathon by a minute or two.

A time of 1:25:30 and well, we will be disappointed to say the least.

The Shamrock Half is a flat course – there is no question about that.  The elevation chart shows a very gradual ascent to the half-way point, less than 20 feet net total and a return South down to the finish line.

Shamrock Half Marathon Course

We will do less climbing in Virginia Beach over the entire half-marathon than we did just going up the hill on S. Congress Avenue on mile 3 in Austin.

Oddly, the flat course does not play to our strength as a runner.  We have spent the last 6 months running hills, hills and more hills.  We have been preparing for the downhill start of the Boston Marathon from Hopkinton to Newton and then the climb up and over the 4 Newton Hills to the top of Heartbreak Hill – all so that we can come off of mile 21 at Boston and race the final 5 miles to Boyleston Street.

That is what this training period has been about.  Not building static speed for the flats.  But for becoming a strong hill runner – both up and down – so that the climbs and descents become our allies on race day.

It will be interesting to see just how well we handle the flat course in Virginia, and whether our strength and endurance training is enough to hang with some of the speedsters that we will be battling with out East.

Virginia Beach is home to some tremendous runners.  It is a city much like Austin with a strong running community.  This is one of the signature events of the year.  Competition will be fierce.

Just like Boston.

Time to Sham ROCK this thing.

Lookout Va. Beach – we’re not traveling all the way out there to mail this one in.

Sunday morning.  Boom goes the dynamite.

I believe it was Dwight L. Moody who said, “Character is what you are in the dark.”

I’m not sure that he was thinking about a marathoner running hill repeats alone on a dark street in Austin TX at 5:00 a.m. when he uttered those words, but they definitely spoke to me quite loudly early on Thursday morning.

Over the last three months we have taken to “the hill” each Thursday for our workout.  Skipping only twice over the past 14 weeks during the weeks leading up to The Texas Half Marathon and the Livestrong Austin Half Marathon, we have put ourselves through some grueling workouts.

This is the same workout that we incorporated into our New York City Marathon training plan as well as our ramp up to the Austin Marathon in 2011.

We leave the house for a 3-mile warm-up depositing us at the top of the hill at the entrance to the neighborhood adjacent to ours aptly called, “Waters Edge.

For Boston instead of only running “ups”, we have alternated each week running “downhill repeats” one week, followed by our uphill repeats the next.  This was designed to help our speed, strength and climbing ability to tackle the famous Newton Hills from miles 16-21 in Boston, but also to prepare for the grinding downhill start over miles 1-14 of the course from Hopkinton to Newton.

The part of the course where quads go to die.

Things are about to get interesting.

We run each repeat at 5K effort – very close to our Lactate Threshold along the 3/10 of a mile hill which has 65 feet of elevation change.  We hit our watch at the end of that repeat, glance at the split under the street lamp, and then make a slow recovery jog back to the start.

10 times.

At the end of the tenth and final repeat, we gather ourselves and run a final mile at/near marathon race pace back to the house.

This workout which comes after two runs on Tuesday, followed by a mid-week long run of 11-12 miles on Wednesday is on tired legs.

Each repeat gets harder and harder to maintain our form and our speed.  It is grueling.  It gets painful.  At the end it becomes a mental test as much as a physical one.

Remind you of anything?  That’s right – the marathon.

The funny thing about this workout is the only one who knows that I am out there is me, my wife Dawn and the small dog in the yard that barks at me every Thursday morning each time I pass his fence.

20 times every single week.  His owners must love Hill repeat Thursday as much as I do.

But on this particular Thursday things were a little bit tougher out there than usual.

The temperature was up to 68 degrees and the humidity was 91%.

There was a SSE wind blowing 16 miles per hour with gusts 20-25.

SSE means that the wind is blowing directly down the face of the hill.  That would have been welcomed had we been running “downs” this week, but alas, we were running “ups”.  Right into the teeth of the wind.

I typically break the workout into “subsets” of repeats as thinking about running 7 more or 8 more can be very discouraging as you wrap up your first couple of efforts.

I instead run three sets of repeats, then tack on a final repeat at the end.

I run:

First, Middle, Last.

First, Middle, Last.

First, Middle, Last.

Last.

That brings us to our goal of 10X or 3 miles of hills at 5K effort.

On Thursday, after slugging it out with the hill for the better part of 30 minutes I made the turn at the bottom of the hill for repeat number 8.  It had been getting noticeably warmer on my recovery jogs to the bottom of the hill – my USA Singlet that I wore at the NYC Marathon was sticking to my chest soaked with sweat.

I glanced up the hill and felt the first drops of rain hit my face.

100% humidity hung in the air.

Instead of feeling sorry for myself or debating what in the world I was doing out there – I smiled quickly to myself and hit the watch.  Go time.

My last three repeats were as fast as my first three.  All I could think of as I slugged it out on Thursday was how much I would be able to draw on this workout, this particular nondescript Thursday in early March when things get tough on April 16th.

When the hills in Newton seem steeper than I remember from 2010 and I cling tightly to my time goal as I lose valuable seconds to the race clock.  At the bottom of Heartbreak Hill only 6 miles will remain to Boylston Street and our second Boston Finisher’s Medal.

First, Middle, Last …. First, Middle, Last.

Boston.

No runner likes being injured.  That should come as no surprise to anyone.  But every once in a while something that seems to be a set-back, can actually move you forward.  It can sharpen your focus, teach you the virtue of patience or perhaps be the impetus behind change that will help you improve more than if you just stayed the course and kept on doing the same things you had been.

Without an injured IT Band during my very first marathon, I never would have spent the time learning about runner injuries, proper training methods and increased my mileage to the point where I was able to qualify for Boston.

How else do you explain a brand-new runner, with no previous experience at the age of 40 dropping their marathon time from 3:58:08 to 3:17:43 in one year?

Without a bout of knee inflammation last year coming off of the Austin Marathon and Ragnar Del Sol Relay in back to back weeks would I have been forced onto the bike, and then into the pool?  Would I have finished my first triathlon, placing 9th in my Age Group without that set-back to my running last March?

Not a chance.  Those injuries were actually blessings in disguise.

Transition 1 - Jack's Generic Tri

Last weekend’s case of “Lace Bite” forced me in the final 1/3 of my preparation for the Boston Marathon to skip two scheduled runs.

After the first 16 weeks of training, never missing a workout, never cutting a run short and tacking on extra mileage here and there I started to think I was invincible.  That I was able to just click off run after run, A 20 miler, and another and another.  Take things up to 21 miles?  No problem.  22?  Not an issue.

But something as simple as lacing my right shoe just a bit too tightly prior to my Sunday long run, ended up humbling me.  Reminding me that this sport and this pursuit of a “near-perfect” effort at Boston is something that is not going to be easy.  I am not invincible.

I will have to fight for every second on April 16th.  I cannot simply lace up my race shoes on Patriots Day and mail it in.  If I do so, Boston is going to beat me again.

Instead I need to diligently prepare both mentally and physically.  Constantly be mindful of my body over these final 5 1/2 weeks of preparation.  Push hard on my hard days, run easy on my easy days, watch my diet, get my rest and most importantly – ENJOY THIS.

Every bit of it.  The hard runs and the easy ones, the hill repeats and the tempo runs.  Wind, rain, heat, humidity – whatever lies ahead over my final 33 runs and races covering the last 270.10 miles of this training cycle I am going to enjoy every single one of them.  Because they can be taken away in the blink of an eye, or a shoelace tied just a bit too tightly.

That is how precious full health is to a marathoner.  The race is designed to expose your weakness, whether that is the way you dissipate heat on a hot course, the way hills will eat you alive if you do not eat them for breakfast during training or how even the slightest weakness in your machine will be gradually ground down to a pulp at the end of 26.2 miles.  A tight hamstring, a sore calf, a bum ankle or even a sore right foot.  You might be able to “fake it” for 12 or 13 miles – but the marathon will get you.  In the end the race can be very, very cruel.

So after taking Saturday and Sunday off we jumped back into our training as if nothing had ever changed.

Ran our double workout on Tuesday with 12.2 miles in the morning followed by 4.5 at 6:22 pace in the afternoon.  On Wednesday morning we covered another 12.3 miles at a relaxed pace, reloading for our hill repeat session on Thursday.

We’re back in action and loving every minute of it.

Next weekend we will be racing in Virginia Beach.  Our third and final half-marathon since January 29th.

I have some expectations for this race that I will share on Monday as we preview the event – but needless to say the number one goal I have for March 18th is to enjoy every one of the roughly 10,400 strides we are going to take from start to finish. 

I have a time goal that I am hoping to see on the finishing clock as we thunder past the King Neptune Statue on the boardwalk, emptying the tank, searching for the finish line.

Perhaps we will make it, perhaps we won’t – but it won’t be for lack of trying.  That’s how this whole thing started for Dom back in 2009. 

It doesn’t make much sense to change that now.

On to Boston.

From the outside looking in I’m sure that sometimes this marathon training stuff must look pretty easy.

Joe goes out, knocks out 8, 10, 12, 20, 22 milers at will.  Runs his hill repeats, two runs on Tuesdays, races half-marathons …. no problem.

Well, it really isn’t that easy.

There are plenty of days where the muscles ache, I am monitoring a sore area trying to discern the slight difference between “soreness” and “injury”.

Soreness we work our way through.  Soldier on, do the best we can and stay the course.  It is on those days the marathoner is chiseled from stone.

But when pain and soreness is the precursor to injury – that is when it is far more important to be smart than tough.

Over the final 5 miles of my 22-mile training run last Sunday I noticed some soreness on the top of my right foot.  A runner’s feet swell a bit over the course of a long run, and it appeared that I simply ran long in shoes, or more specifically, a right shoe that was tied too tight.

I pressed on, finished the 22-miler, my best long run of the training cycle in fact, and went about my usual post-run recovery.

I ran my double workout on Tuesday, an easy paced 12-miler on Wednesday and finally my hill repeat session on Thursday.  After four days the discomfort on the top of my foot should have been gone.  But it was still there.  Nagging at me, letting me know that it was a warning sign.  Time to back off.

So this weekend I decided to skip my Saturday and Sunday runs.  12 miles on Saturday, followed by another 22-miler on Sunday.  Squashed.

I took it easy, tried to stay off of my feet the best I could, although Landry was pretty determined to make sure Dad was still chasing her around the house quite a bit.

I woke up on Monday morning, put the Tri Bike up on the trainer in the garage and rode hard for 60 minutes.  The kind of low-gear, hard-cranking workout that simulates a hard training ride up and down hills on the road.  Not just an easy spin in high-gear.

After a sweat-soaked hour, I got down off the bike and my foot felt very good.  I no longer had that nagging pain on the top/inner side of my right foot, and tomorrow morning we will fall back into our marathon training schedule for Boston.

Missed training days are just that.  Missed.

There is no reason to attempt to “make them up” or “squeeze them in” to your remaining schedule.  That approach is the one that causes runners and endurance athletes to miss even more training time due to injury, turning a precursor or warning signal into a full-fledged problem.

I may not be getting any younger, but hopefully with age comes a bit of wisdom.

Yeah, it pretty much sucked this weekend missing my runs, but they are gone.

34 miles missed out of more than 1,250 preparing for Boston will be the equivalent of removing a handful of sand from an entire beach.  They will hardly be noticed.

Being 100% healthy at the starting line in Hopkinton, MA on April 16th is all I need to be concerned with, so I backed off and played it safe this weekend.

There will be plenty of opportunities to “go for it” at Boston.  This past weekend, just wasn’t one of them.

One of the many lessons that the marathon has taught me at Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, Pittsburgh II, Austin and New York is that racing 26.2 miles is not remotely like racing the other distances.

The marathon introduces for the first time the nutrition and hydration factor in a big way, where you are essentially racing and burning more fuel than your body can store and carry.

At the Austin Half Marathon a few weeks ago I ran the race without taking any energy supplements (GU or Clif Bloks) along the course and only taking 6 small sips of water to keep my mouth from feeling too dry along the way to a 1:24:07 finish.

I run many of my training runs up to 12 or 13 miles without any water.

But on Marathon day your body can only function for so long before you start burning fat as fuel instead of Glycogen (for most runners 20-21 miles) and the final 10 kilometers or so of the race is a battle.

That is why a pacing error in the marathon has such a greater impact on your race performance than a similar error on a 10K or half-marathon course.

You can simply “hang on” at the shorter distances and you may slow by :10 seconds a mile or so over the closing stretch of the course, but not the full minute or two minutes per mile that can happen as a runner struggles through those last 6+ miles of the marathon.

Turning a goal time performance or PR into not a miss by :30 or :45 seconds, but a miss by 10 to 15 minutes.

By practicing your fueling and nutrition during your long runs, a marathoner can more or less set themselves up to handle their bodies needs for the race, assuming that the temperature and weather conditions do not throw the athletes a curve ball on race day.

High temperatures when an endurance athlete has been training in mild or cool temperatures has a huge impact as the runner has not had the appropriate period of time to adjust to the heat – usually two to three weeks.

Wind is another factor that dehydrates runners more than a calm day, even though the temperature may “feel cooler” due to the cooling effect of running into a breeze.  It is on those race days where a marathoner needs to drink even more frequently than usual to make sure they do not become dehydrated.

But the number one mistake made by more marathoners than any other is pacing.

Going out “too fast” is the death penalty for a goal time marathon.  There is no overcoming this mistake.  You will crash and crash hard.

The challenge of course is determining what your “ideal pace” or “goal pace” for the given race and race course should be.

If we assume a cool day, 45-55 degrees with light, variable winds and a sound training cycle that deposits a healthy marathoner to the starting line.  Then the race becomes one of strategy and course management.

Starting controlled over the first two miles, then increasing your effort to get “on pace” is the soundest of strategy.  The most efficient way to run a marathon is to meter out even effort (and pace) over every individual mile of the course.

Running 26.2 miles at 6:52 pace = 2:59:59

Running each mile spot on 6:52 would be the “best” way to get from Hopkinton to Boston.

But the reality of the situation is, I may not run a single mile at 6:52 pace exactly as Boston is not a flat marathon course.  In fact, there are really only two miles that could be considered “somewhat flat” – those being mile 6 and mile 8.

Most of the other “neutral” miles, that neither help nor hurt the marathoner from an individual mile time perspective are miles that feature an uphill portion and an equally steep downhill portion creating a net gain/loss close to zero.

On a course like Boston putting together a race plan is important.  Much like the Austin Half Marathon which is a hilly, monster of a course – I try to have certain benchmarks or time goals for the 5K and 10 mile checkpoints to make sure I am “on-pace”.

This allows me to run an “even effort” race, without fixating on my watch and worrying every time my pace falls above or below 6:52 min./mile or in the case of the half-marathon 6:23 min./mile.

There is a great prediction tool available at Runnersconnect.net that takes into account the grade and length of each hill on the Boston Course and assigns a mile score for difficulty.

You simply put in your Goal Time to the calculator – and it will let you know at what pace you should plan to run each individual mile to stay on track.

Pacing Strategy for Boston - 2:59:59

I won’t look at each individual mile per se, but this will allow me to break the race in Boston down into 4 chunks:

Miles 1 – 3:          20:43

End of Mile 8:      54:48

End of Mile 15:    1:42:39

End of Mile 21:    2:24:20

If we can crest Heartbreak Hill at the end of Mile 21 in approximately 2:24 and change, we have a legitimate shot at coming in under 3 hours.

Our final 5 miles would need to be run at:  6:43, 6:54, 6:41, 6:52, 6:58 with a closing push over the final 2/10 of a mile at 6:55 pace.

With significant downhill stretches over the final 5 miles of the course, the key will be to conserve enough energy to dig deep and push pace to the finish line.

Mistakes made early in the race, such as running an opening three miles too quickly, letting the downhill miles that lead to Newton, MA at mile 16 drop our pace too quickly and beat our quads to a pulp will rob us of our ability to close the race out strong.

Instead of running sub 7:00 minute miles at the end of the race, we may be struggling to run sub 8:00 minute miles.  Turning a 2:59:59 attempt into a 3:05 marathon or worse.  Potentially much worse.

These are facts, not opinion.  I know them to be true like I know that the sun is hot, water is wet and nothing tastes better after yard work than a cold beer.

The key for me is to start ingraining these times into my brain over the course of the next 6 weeks so that on Marathon Monday there is no last minute second-guessing or “going with it” as I run easy over the opening miles on rested legs and “feel great!”.

Everyone feels great at the start of the marathon.

I plan on feeling great at the end.