Three years later

This past weekend, I ran the Savannah Women’s Half Marathon. It was really hard (but also a lot of fun), much warmer than expected (though thankfully not very humid), and I finished 1 full minute faster than my Ath Half 2022 time last October.

Cathryn–who did most of the groundwork logistics for this trip, and I can’t thank her enough for that–got us a beautiful Airbnb in the historic part of town, within walking distance from pretty much everything, including the Start and Finish lines. She also set up reservations for dinner for us the night before at an awesome sushi restaurant, Current. The vibe was perfect, and the food was delicious.

We didn’t sleep very well that night, but that’s pretty much par for the course the night before a big race. The fact that we didn’t have to first put a toddler to bed and then wake her up, dress her, and feed her the next morning was pretty clutch.

The race started off with the 5K (which Cathryn ran) and the Half (which I ran) running together for the first few miles, so that was pretty neat to be able to run together for the first bit.

I hung with the 2:15 pace group for the first half of the race before feeling as though I hit a wall, but was still happy to have held on for that long. The rest of my race was a walk/run, trying to run every other song on my playlist. Cathryn found me around mile 11 and ran with me for a bit–which was a godsend–though it was then I realized: my breathing was completely fine. It wasn’t exactly a revelation to know that my mental fitness was lightyears behind my physical fitness, but it crystallized for me in that moment. Of course my muscles were absolutely shot by then, but I managed to run the whole time Cathryn was with me.

The finisher’s chute was pretty neat, especially on a course that didn’t have as much crowd support as I was used to from Ath Half. I came in right around 2:31:30 and promptly fell on my back on the shady grass of Forsyth Park and waited for Cathryn to home in on my still-active Strava beacon.

After the race, Cathryn and I prioritized “doing whatever we wanted to do,” which for us often involves day-in-the-life type touring around: walking, dropping in on coffee shops and book stores, checking out a few landmarks, and generally soaking in the surroundings. We capitalized on a few restaurant recommendations from Savannah natives–all of which were excellent–walked through Forsyth Park, read books at a coffee shop, dropped in on a bookstore where cats lived, and of course sampled Leopold’s Ice Cream. This whole trip, while three years in the making, was effectively our 9-year wedding anniversary (technically, it’s Wednesday, but close enough) and only the second multi-day trip the two of us have ever taken together since our daughter was born.

Savannah is beautiful, y’all. We got really lucky with weather–the humidity can get stifling, but this past weekend it felt dry–and the biting sand gnats are a constant annoyance. But it was a gorgeous weekend for a race, and a lovely weekend for a couple who have been together for 17 years this fall (!!!) to get away, relax, and run together–one of the things that really brought us together.

Ok. Now. Some multi-year context that’s been rattling around my head since last October. Ahemahemahem.

I threw together a quick Python plot using my monthly mileage off Garmin Connect, going back to Oct 2019 when I was training for the Chickamauga Marathon.

It’s pretty apparent: in the time between March 2020 and August 2020, my running went from 100+ miles per month to… basically 0. In fact, August and September were exactly 0, with some activity coming back in October. To be fair, my daughter was born in that span of time, but that alone doesn’t wholly explain the sheer cliff before it, nor the fact that my running still hasn’t recovered since.

You see, dear reader: I had registered to run the Savannah Women’s Half Marathon in April 2020. That was going to be my next race after the Chickamauga Marathon, my next opportunity to showcase my continuing improvements in the half after running a sub-1:45 Swamp Rabbit Half in Feb 2019 (I missed Ath Half in Oct 2019 because of my marathon training; just couldn’t fit the race into my schedule).

Savannah in April 2020 was also going to be my wife and I’s babymoon: a weekend getaway and race together ahead of the arrival of our daughter. We’d never visited Savannah together, and we wanted to run a race together before pregnancy made my wife too uncomfortable to run longer distances.

Then, suffice to say, COVID hit. Along with the rest of, well, everything, the race was canceled. My running fell off a cliff as stress mounted: job-related, COVID-related, and with impending baby arrival preparations. But even after my daughter was born, COVID stressors persisted as people refused to take even the most basic precautions against its spread, and my job increasingly shrugged its shoulders in response to some of the most expert voices in public health and epidemiology, ceding to volume space previously intended for veracity.

Since then, running for me has changed. Dramatically. In fact, it’s literally been unprecedented: I’ve never worked as hard or long to get through “easy” runs than I have in the past year+. I have no illusions that a lot of this is privilege speaking: I was always athletic and genetically blessed in that regard, and so when I “started” running back in 2010 I still had a very athletic base from which to draw and therefore most of my initial races, while slow for me at the time, were much faster than what I can do now.

Last October’s Ath Half (I never got around to writing a race report for that one) was a 2:32 finish time, by far my slowest half marathon time; previously, my slowest time had been my very first half during Thanksgiving in 2010, when I finished around 2:09. Four years later I’d record what still stands as my half marathon PR, a 1:41 at Pittsburgh.

Cool finishers badges!

I finished Savannah in 2:31, almost exactly 1 minute faster than last October’s Ath Half. This particular event certainly had its own challenges: it was very, very flat, which seems appealing in a vacuum, but means you’re using the same exact muscles with absolutely minimal variations in form for the entire event, something which is highly unusual for most runners unless they spend a lot of time on treadmills; it was also much warmer than I’ve been accustomed to from training, with the event starting at 68F where, for the past couple months, that’s often been the day’s high temperature.

Then there were other factors out of my control but no less impactful: work has been particularly stressful the last few weeks with the start of weekly seminars as part of an NSF grant I’m on and a pair of graduate students preparing their theses and defenses later this month; also, work began two weeks ago on long-stalled master bathroom renovations which, when completed, would give us use of our shower for the first time in over three years, but in the meantime has effectively taken our bedroom entirely out of play (far too dusty) and upended all of our at-home routines… not to mention our sleep.

Actually stopped mid-race to take this photo. GO SAVANNAH BANANAS.

Finally, there’s also the unconfirmed factor of long COVID. Back in December, COVID finally caught up with our family during our holiday trip to see extended family in Arizona; I tested positive on NYE night. Since then, about 30-40% of my runs have involved extreme chest tightness in the first mile that, frankly, feels like drowning: I simply can’t get enough air. It’ll subside after about a mile, but often precipitates multiple walk breaks within that first mile, and absolutely tanks my mental state–which has an outsized downstream effect on longer runs, tiring me out faster. I’ve been incorporating some additional stretches that open up my torso, and adding some breathing exercises before starting any runs, and they may very well be helping. It’s also entirely possible that this isn’t long COVID at all, but it’s difficult if not impossible to tease out.

I know some folks have been hit a hell of a lot harder by long COVID than chest tightness that goes away after 10-15 minutes of physical activity, and my intention here is not to minimize what they’re going through. I just want to contextualize the full extent of my experience trying to get back into running form… or, perhaps more poignantly, contextualize my experience in learning to re-contextualizing my own understanding of what “running form” actually means.

It all equates to a very uneven running comeback, and one which has required a lot–a LOT–of grace. I haven’t figured out how to balance work (which is changing, so that’s added complication, on top of what was already stressful), parenting, running, sleep, and–for lack of a better term–“things and activities that make me feel whole” (hardware/software tinkering, reading, gaming, cleaning, etc). I am still very, very burned out; I’m recovering, but it’s very obvious very quickly when I’ve pushed beyond what my body is ready for, and that can crop up unexpectedly and throw a huge and immensely frustrating wrench in well-laid plans. And it’s frustrating, oh so frustrating, to think about “how fast I used to be”–even though that kind of comparison is textbook toxic, and I know that–and then try to motivate myself to take even one more step.

There’s been a lot of anger, frustration, and self-ridicule in the past year; a lot of doubt, uncertainty, and questioning whether things will improve, or whether I can even find satisfaction with how far I’ve already come:

  • It’s hard to see from the figure at the top, but March 2023’s 64.55 miles is the highest monthly mileage I’ve recorded since June 2020, which is arguably when the wheels started falling off
  • This training cycle is the most consistent week-to-week I’ve had in a long, long time: every week since January 23 (9 weeks straight) has been double-digit mileage. Even my Ath Half 2022 training wasn’t that consistent.
  • I had a 20-mile week during this training cycle that wasn’t even a race week!

These are milestones that show huge improvements from even 6 months ago. It’s just… easy to lose perspective.

As for what comes next: I honestly don’t know.

We’re heading into the hottest part of the year, and while I’m grateful to no longer have to change outfits halfway through the day, I really struggle with the heat in the dead summer, even aside from running. I do want to establish a regular weightlifting cadence, and to that end Cathryn and I are planning to finally pull the trigger on a family Y membership. We’ve been mulling this one for quite awhile, but with Cathryn’s weightlifting outstripping the home dumbbells’ weights, and having canceled access to our university gym almost a year ago, it’d be really nice to have access to a fully-stocked gym again–and one that several of our friends (also with small children) highly recommend. I know it’s controversial, but I really like treadmills as a tool for training: they came in particular handy in Pittsburgh when there was 2ft of snow outside, and they’ve come in handy here in Athens when it was 75F at 6am. I’m also looking into dietitians who work specifically with athletes–and who eschew the toxicity of “diet culture”–to see if that will help.

Of course, all of this is predicated on some availability of time, money, and bandwidth. As I said earlier, I already feel like I can’t keep up with everything; how would I fit regular weightlifting into my weekly regimen? How will I have the bandwidth to put my diet under a microscope for a long period of time? Are we going to be able to afford any of this (especially with the aforementioned job change)?

I don’t have the answers to these questions right now, but maybe that’s ok for the time being. After all, one thing we runners are too good at is moving the goalposts: regardless of whether we missed our race’s goal or nailed it, we immediately move on to the next race and what those goals and training plans should look like. Maybe, just for now, it’s ok to leave that a little ambiguous.

Believe me: I can hear my therapist’s voice in my head, asking me if the reason I run is numbers related–is the whole point to run more miles? run faster miles? look good in race photos (see below)? or is there some other reason, what it could possibly be, hmmmmm.

To that end, please enjoy these awful, awful race photos of me. The very last might be my favorite: the photographer caught me on a down-beat and I look about two seconds from melting into the street.

And hey, maybe I’ll blog here more often ūüôā

Race Report: best laid plans

It’s been two weeks and I’m still processing this one. That by itself isn’t unusual: any event you spend months and months planning and preparing for–weddings, holidays, travel, moving, and so forth–is going to have a protracted reflection period, given how fast the event itself plays out relative to the time spent getting ready for it.

Granted, no one could possibly construe a full marathon as objectively “brief”, but in the broader context of having been training¬†in some form since late May of this year, it certainly feels like it went by in a flash.

No, the unusual part comes from a confluence of two things. The first is that I haven’t run a marathon since April 2015, so in a very real sense, this was a brand-new experience for me. It reminded me of how, after spending most of 2015-2016 sidelined by an injury, I effectively spent 2017 learning how to run all over again.

The second part is how marathons are fundamentally different from (apologies for hand-waviness here) “most other” runs. One of the reasons I love running so much is that unlike so many other things in life, when you have a bad run one day, you can always go out the next day and try again (all other things equal). Not so with the marathon: unless you’re one of the 0.000001% who run ultras regularly or full marathons every weekend, you’re wrecked after a full marathon. You need a week, maybe more, just to be able to run a¬†couple miles again, to say nothing of a full 26.2. So if you have a bad day, you’ll have to wait upwards of 3-4 months¬†minimum–more like 6-12 months for us mere mortals–before you can take another crack at it.

So after said week of sleeping in every morning, eating whatever I want, and generally being dead to world–side note,¬†man I could get used to this–followed by a week of slowly getting back into the swing of things, I’m still going through this in my head. BUT! I figure it’s time I took a shot at putting my thoughts on paper. Or blog-aper. Screen-aper? Scraper?

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Anywho.

Friday, November 8

First thing in the morning, Laura and I ran 20 easy minutes, coming out to 2 miles and change. After that, we split up and got ready to leave–The Lady and I were driving up as soon as we possibly could, while Laura and Renee were leaving later in the morning. It was a ~3 hour drive to our place in Chattanooga, and The Lady took charge driving the whole way there. I think I napped somewhere in there.

What can I say? The mountains are soothing.

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Along the way, we stopped at a Panera for lunch in what has become something of an unofficially-official day-before-a-race lunch tradition for us. The Lady got a delicious-looking salad and soup, and I got my 100% carb-free mainstay: a breadbowl of soup with a baguette side.

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Like Toby, I’m smiling on the inside.

We got to the house in Chattanooga around 1pm, well ahead of schedule: packet pick-up at the race expo didn’t begin until 4pm, and Laura and Renee wouldn’t arrive until 3. So The Lady and I scoped out the place: it was a house that belonged to a friend of ours from Athens and his wife, who were both traveling that weekend and had¬†graciously offered to let us stay there… on the condition that we dog-sit.

Because, y’know, that was such a chore [sarcasm].

SUCH a sweetheart.

I ended up passing out for about another hour, waking up to the sound of Renee and Laura arriving. Renee didn’t stick around too long–she was just in town to visit her grandparents (though she would swing by the race to cheer us on)–at which point the remaining three of us decided to hit up the expo and then get some dinner.

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My first marathon in 4.5 years, and Laura’s first marathon ever!

On the note of dinner: for some reason, I didn’t mention this in last year’s Chickamauga half race report, but that year we’d discovered this literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant tucked away in a residential area called Aretha Frankenstein’s. It was¬†amazing, and after our solid performances at last year’s half, we’d been set on heading there again for pre-race dinner. I do remember barely managing to scarf down their full stack of pancakes the year before, but given I was running literally twice as far this time, I decided to get the same thing. I swear those pancakes are like three-quarters inches thick,¬†each.

I didn’t end up sleeping terribly well that night, but I blame it more on the bed than pre-race jitters–it was a double o_O

Saturday, November 9

RACE DAY WOOOOOOOOO

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So, in a discussion with my coach a couple weeks before, we’d set up my goals for the race.

  • A-goal: I’m feeling fantastic. The race environment is like pure adrenaline in my veins. Weather is cooperating. Stars have aligned. Let’s go for sub-4 hours.
  • B-goal:¬†Feeling good, feeling strong. Going to be a slog but I’ll get there. Let’s go for¬†sub-4:10.
  • C-goal:¬†Something’s a little off today, whether it’s me or the weather. Can’t soak in the event as much as I’d like, so let’s focus on finishing strong and shoot for¬†sub-4:17 (essentially, a PR for me).

Ambitious, yes. But seemed do-able.

It was¬†cold: 28F, and [as I would only learn after the race] 90% humidity. I felt good, though definitely nervous. I’m always wondering in these last moments if there was something I forgot to do or should have done more/less of, even though that’s literally the most useless moment to consider such things–what would I be able to do about it if I thought of something?

Laura and I got in our warm-ups, and before I felt ready, it was 7:30–race time!

Our original plan to stick with the 4-hour pace group for the first half went out the window before the race even began: there was no 4-hour pace group! Nor was there a 4:15 group, for that matter. The only groups we could find were 3:30 and 3:45 (lol nope), followed by 4:30. So we shrugged and found the 2-hour¬†half marathon pace group, knowing full well we’d part ways a mere three miles in. But at least it’d keep us from going out too fast?

The Howitzer–or whatever antebellum metal-flinger passed for one a few hundred years ago–roared, and we were off!

The course went pretty much as I remembered it, with one small!big wrinkle: a 2-mile out-and-back a mere three miles into the race (yep, the split-off point between the half and full). After nailing the first three miles, we parted from the 2-hour half group and the course got noticeably sparser.

BUT! We were in for the surprise of our lives when, on the out-and-back portion, who should we see cheering us on, but none other than our training partner Renee (who’d run NY the weekend before)?!

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Renee got this great shot of us on the “out” portion of the out-and-back.

It was so unexpected–we had no idea Renee would be at the race! So it was a fantastic surprise and boost.

We whipped around, waved hello again as we passed, and then caught up to The Lady around mile 5! She’d staked out her first cheer position at a major convergence point that made it easy for her to get to the next part of the course. A great cheer squad for the first bit of the race.

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The Lady snapped this one as we went by around mile 5.

9:06, 9:10, 8:54 (oops), 9:01, 9:05

We were pretty much dead-on. I felt strong as we started in on the hillier parts of the course. Much like this point of last year’s half, I was eager to start chewing up some elevation.

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The next few miles of the course were a lot quieter–we were in the heart of the park, shrouded in tree cover. There were only a few places that could easily be accessed by spectators (thankfully the aid stations were well-placed). Laura and I kept each other company, but were mostly quiet and soaking in the thrills of the race.

8:58, 9:04, 9:09, 9:03, 8:59

Right around mile 11 was the first wobble, but it was entirely mental. As we passed the major cheering section–the course briefly turns onto a major road where there’s usually quite a bit of stopped traffic and spectators–I got a little too deep into my head and panicked.

My thoughts started racing; it was only mile 11?! I had more than half of the race left to go?! I felt my adrenaline surging as the anxiety rippled through my chest and arms. I felt like I had a weight on my chest. For whatever reason, I fell out of “lizard mode” and had a really difficult time clicking back into things, in spite of a brand-new, kickass 26.2 playlist.

Right around where I thought I was settling back in, I felt a shift in my legs and lungs: the former felt heavy, and the latter felt strained. This was definitely physical, not just mental. By mile 15, I told Laura that something felt off, and that I was going to ease up on the gas just a little and hope that my body rebooted after another couple of miles.

9:02, 9:07, 9:02, 9:01, 9:23 (uh oh)

That didn’t happen. Instead, shit hit the proverbial fan. To borrow another meme: things escalated quickly.

By mile 18, my legs were throwing cramps and I’d started to intersperse some walking time, both to let my legs relax¬†and to give my lungs a chance to recover. I also felt¬†really thirsty and was chugging 2-4 cups of water at every aid station I passed. It was unexpected, because I didn’t feel like I was overheating or had otherwise entered the race dehydrated, but holy cow I was parched now.

9:42, 10:44, 10:16, 10:35, 11:39

By mile 21, I could no longer run for more than a tenth of a mile at a time. I made the mistake of trying to run-shuffle to see if my legs would just relax, but instead my left leg went completely rigid: calves, quads, and hamstrings all locked up in unison. I could barely even walk, much less run.

Suffice to say, my mental game imploded, too. And it was the perfect environment: by this stage of the race, there were practically no one else in sight. I was on the second loop of the half marathon course, so there were no more half marathoners; marathoners were few and far between, and the spectators–already a sparse crowd–had thinned considerably.

What I couldn’t figure out was why I was crashing so hard. I’d done a full 20-mile training run on tired legs just four weeks prior and felt strong, and now I couldn’t even make it 18 after a two-week taper before having to take walk breaks. I’d trained through a brutal summer and was now running the coldest Chickamauga of any of the previous ones I’d participated in. What was going on?!

There were a lot of four-letter words. Though The Lady’s cheering never wavered (and I can’t thank her enough for that, even if I looked miserable in the moment; it made all the difference in the world).

The worst part in all this was the knowledge that, unable to run at mile 21, I had another 5 miles to go. I couldn’t fathom how. In those moments, if a sag wagon had come by, I probably would have jumped on it in an eyeblink.

Miles 21-24 were pretty dark.

13:46, 13:30, 13:43, 14:41

A couple of course guides on bicycles went by and asked if I was doing ok. Not thinking it made a difference (or, more succinctly, just not thinking by this point), I said I was fine except for needing water. I don’t know how, but the guy materialized a bottle of water from thin air. I gulped it down in pretty much one swig and immediately felt a little better, but also even more confused; it was becoming clearer that I was severely dehydrated, but¬†how that had happened I still couldn’t begin to imagine.

As I had a lot of time on my hands, I mentally went through the week before the race. I’d been drinking my usual 25oz water bottle at work (x4 daily, theoretical baseline of 100oz water / day). I had noticed that I didn’t seem to be making more bathroom trips than usual, but given how the temperatures had fallen it didn’t strike me as something I needed to worry about.

I also didn’t feel like I was overheating: running tights, gloves, ear band, and a double upper layer (thin long sleeves underneath, thicker cold gear over that) seemed appropriate for a 28F starting temperature. But I also sweat [a lot!] more than your average runner; perhaps I really should have been aiming for more frequent bathroom trips the week before the race, even with the colder temperatures in the forecast.

The last thought I had was to notice that my current predicament really and truly wasn’t mental. It wasn’t a panic-induced breakdown, my racing thoughts at mile 11 notwithstanding. No, this was¬†physical incapacitation: I literally could not have willed myself into getting back on A-goal or even C-goal pace. I was barely managing walking; it was clear that something had gone badly wrong and my race was done, whether I was prepared to accept it or not.

14:44

Let’s just say that, at mile 25 of a marathon, the logic circuits of your brain aren’t exactly firing. Put another way: there were a lot more four-letter words.

A small positive shift occurred here: I found that–after pushing myself only as hard as my body would permit without initiating full-scale lockdown, and taking plenty of fluids at each passing aid station–I was, very slowly, getting more usage out of my legs. Running for slightly longer distances before walking. Walking a little faster without cramping. Nothing impressive or transformative, but nonetheless noticeable–and lending further credence to the theory that this was all a case of severe dehydration.

12:30

By now I was back to the treacherous stone-riddled trail; I’d caught up to a woman who was also walk-running, and we briefly swapped war stories of which muscles were cramping and how often. I was able to maintain a 10-11 minute mile pace without dire pushback from my legs, so I settled in as best I could and just enjoyed the feeling of running again, however slow going it was.

While I knew I was closing in on the finish, I also knew the steady grade of the park trails would be yielding to the small but rapid course corrections of the neighborhoods we were entering. I tried to shut it all out and focus on running the last bit of the race and crossing the finish line strong.

It’s always a delicate balance: pushing with everything you’ve got left, and praying to whatever deity that your calf doesn’t seize and cause you to faceplant mere yards from the finish line.

4:36:20 official chip time

I was¬†wrecked. I had that catch in my breathing, where if I sucked in too deep a breath, I’d go into nigh-uncontrollable coughing fits. My legs were shot to hell and threatening to seize at any second, and my chest still felt like it had a 20-pound weight sitting on it.

The Lady tracked me down shortly after I’d entered the food tent (she’d threatened to shove food down my throat if I didn’t eat something–anything–after the race) and gave me one of the biggest hugs ever, offering her unconditional congratulations and unwavering support, all without asking “what happened” or “are you ok” or anything like that. They’re honest and well-meaning questions, but as a marathoner herself (and a far better one than I could ever hope to be!) she knows that race plans going awry mid-event is the rule, not the exception. I’d fill her in on the race later, but all I wanted–needed–in that moment was support, and she had it in spades.

We met up with Laura–who, in her¬†first-ever full marathon, had finished in 4:12 and placed in her age group!–and tried to get as comfortable as we could for the very uncomfortable process of forcing food down our pie holes.

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Everything tastes like chalk dipped in skim milk after a marathon. Even pizza. Even oreos.

At length, we discussed our races. Laura, having taken off at my insistence around mile 15, had slowed down a¬†little over the next five miles, hitting an average pace of maybe about 9:10, before slowing down further for the last 10K. Nothing like my implosion, though: she did incredibly well, averaging about a 10:30 pace for the final stretch with a couple of walk breaks but overall an extremely strong finish. She crossed at 4:12, faster than any of the now-four marathons I’ve run!

I went into my dehydration theory, and The Lady more or less confirmed it by informing me (then for the first time) that the humidity at the start of the race had been sky-high. I also noticed I had precipitated salt all over my face, which was a dead giveaway that I hadn’t been drinking enough fluids.

Renee (and her daughters!) came by to congratulate us both before departing to drop her kids off with her extended family in Chattanooga. We made plans to meet up for dinner at one of our favorite Chattanooga haunts, then headed back to our “airbnb” to get cleaned up and NAP.

The next day, on the way out from Chattanooga, we stopped by Sky Valley, GA to have lunch with our friend Kim from Pittsburgh who was in town for the Sky to Summit trail ultra. The four of us caught up, ate great food, enjoyed some donuts afterwards, and had a lovely time before parting ways to head home. I caught up with my coach over the phone and filled her in on all the details. She also congratulated me on finishing, and we made plans to reconnect after I’d taken some well-earned rest and recovery time (she made me promise I wouldn’t do ANYTHING that first week… it was pretty awesome not doing anything, to underscore that yet again).

Epilogue

I’ve had this theory ever since Marine Corps in 2013: my standing marathon PR of 4:17 is a “soft” PR. I’ve run 5K races in just over 20 minutes, 10K races in just over 42, and half marathons in 1:41. A sub-4 hour marathon, in theory, should be well within the realm of possible. Even a 3:45 feels like it would be within reach after getting some more experience with the distance.

This past training cycle certainly had its ups and downs. It would have been silly to expect a flawless marathon training regimen after so long since my last full marathon; hiccups were inevitable, and in retrospect should have been expected (I suspect my coach built redundancy into the training plan from the start with this exact contingency in mind). Indeed, I missed a full week early in the training cycle, and one of my two 20-milers in October. Even so, over the “official” training period starting July 29, I churned out¬†530.61 miles¬†over¬†84 runs, crushing over 18,500 ft of elevation and burning over 76,000 calories. Adding in the post-Ireland summer months increases the mileage by another 258.

That’s almost 800 miles in just over 5 months. Pretty solid by any definition.

So you’d¬†think, given my propensity for self-flagellation and minimization of accomplishments, that I would be in a tizzy over this. How, given my training, did I crash¬†so badly at Chickamauga? How, after one of my best 20-mile performances during a record-setting summer heat wave, did I put in a new personal¬†worst by almost 20 minutes?

Weirdly, I think the margin by which I set the new personal worst has a lot to do with how rapidly I’ve come to accept what happened. If, by contrast, I’d missed my C-goal by 1 minute–finished at 4:18, say–I’d probably be¬†furious with myself. Instead, by missing my C-goal by such a spectacularly wide degree, it made the facts all the more irrefutable: something outside my control went south in a hurry, and there was nothing I could have done about it.

I mean, clearly, I could have hydrated better the week before the race. But by the time I stepped up to the starting line, the writing was on the wall: it wasn’t going to be my day. No amount of four-letter wording–irrespective of volume–would change that.

The marathon is a beast. It’s unlike any of the other distances I’ve raced. Which is precisely why I knew, barely a full day after crossing the finish line 20 minutes later than any previous race, that I wanted to take another crack at the beast.

I don’t know when. I’ve barely even begun to get my legs back under me–runs last week felt good, until they didn’t, and I felt like I backslid a bit. This week they’ve been feeling good again, and I’ve been building more slowly, hoping to establish a rhythm again. Cross-training is going to be key: that fell off to literally 0 in the last two months of training, and while I don’t think that was THE reason for my performance, it certainly didn’t help anything. I also need to up my daily water intake to 125oz (5x water bottles) to be absolutely certain I’m sufficiently hydrated for these humid runs.

I’ll also need my coach’s help again. Self-training is great when you can manage it, and for shorter distances it certainly served us well over the years. But if I’m going to tame this beast, it’s going to take far more experienced people than me. To say Caitlin has been an incredible coach would be an understatement; she helped me reframe my mindset around running and rediscover how much fun it could be, even during those inevitable Mile 21s.

I also could never do it again without training partners. The Lady was and always will be my best and favorite training buddy, but the more the merrier. For the physical distances and mental grinds of the marathon, I’ve learned I’m someone who really needs the company. I do enjoy my solo runs, but for anything over about 12 miles, there’s just no substitute for someone with whom you can commiserate. So I’ll have to convince The Lady or Renee or Laura to run another one again.

But I definitely want to do it again.

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Race Report: Chickamauga Battlefield Half Marathon

Background

So, there’s been an interesting trajectory in the last while that’s probably been evident in some form or another on this blog for the past couple years, but which has really been thrown into relief in 2018:

my half marathons have been getting faster.

  • In 2014, I ran 4 half marathons, 1 over 1:50 (1 was my still-standing half PR).
  • In 2015, I ran 4 half marathons, 2 over 1:50.
  • In 2016, I ran 3 half marathons, 2 over 1:50.
  • In 2017, I ran 3 half marathons, 1 over 1:50.
  • In 2018, I’ve run 4 half marathons, 0 over 1:50.

I even made a graph:

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Y-axis is in minutes. That second data point in mid-ish 2014 is my PR (1:41:07).

This has been particularly exciting in the past year, as I’ve noticed my times trending downward. Coming off an unexpectedly strong performance at AthHalf this past October, I felt something I truly hadn’t felt in awhile:

Confidence.

The AthHalf route was new; its final 5K was a particularly challenging route. Nevertheless, I still set an “event” PR of 1:47–the fastest AthHalf time I’d run in four straight years of the event (and three different routes; hence, “event” PR). Given how challenging the route was, and how happy I was with my performance, I felt like with another 3-4 weeks of training before Chickamauga, I could make a run at the 1:45:08 time I set at the Georgia Publix Half Marathon waaaaay back in March 2015, the fastest half marathon I’d run since moving to Athens. I came close at this past April’s Eugene Half Marathon, but my goal then had simply been to see The Lady to an 8-flat average over the first 10 miles (even that had made me worry at the time, so the fact that I came within 45 seconds¬†overall of that average was extremely impressive).

I took a risk and set for myself what felt like an ambitious goal: set a new best half time for myself since moving to Athens.

At the same time, The Lady and I were discussing another interesting trend. For the past few years, our respective training regimens had diverged as she focused more on chasing a BQ: training for and racing full marathons. Given how my half marathon times ballooned over 2015 and 2016, it’s not like I could have kept up with her anyway, but suffice to say she widened her existing margin of victory with the household half marathon PR, netting a time under 1:40 and all but guaranteeing I wouldn’t be able to keep up with her except for the shortest races (I still hold the 5K and 10K family PRs, but only just).

But in the last year, things shifted. The Lady started pursuing non-marathon training again, and I continued healthy running trends from 2017 and into 2018. Consequently, we realized for Chickamauga: for the first time in years, it was a bit of a toss-up as to who might be able to run a faster time.

So, we did what any friendly but competitive couple would do: we made a contest out of it.

Not surprisingly, the¬†vast¬†majority went with The Lady. I certainly don’t blame them; I did, too! And when I say “vast”, I mean it: easily 90% or more of our friends went with her. There was one person who voted for me “out of pity,” and another because I beat them out in the final stretch of a 5K back in the summer. That was about it.

The half marathon is always a bit scary, especially when you’re not¬†entirely sure what you’re capable of going in; adding a little element of competition can help shift your focus¬†away from the unknown and to something a bit friendlier. Plus, by virtue of the aforementioned training divergence, it’d been a rare treat when The Lady and I could race¬†together: the 10 miles at the Eugene Half was a welcome, but highly unusual, occurrence. So further underscoring the fact that¬†we’d get to run together was really nice.

Race day

This year, we elected to stay in a hotel in Chattanooga. It meant a bit of a drive the morning of, about 30 minutes, but we had a much better list of options for hotels.

In the day or two leading up to race weekend, winds were blowing in a cold front. On race morning, it was cold: 33 degrees (before wind chill), with 10+ mph winds. Historically, race morning has been cold, but not that cold (36-39F) and not windy, so this broke with precedent. Furthermore, the course itself was slightly different at the start due to some construction in the associated state park.

Suffice to say, we bundled up.

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At the starting line (rocking Fleet Feet Racing Team uniforms).

Packet pick-up was a bit chaotic, but otherwise things went as we’ve been accustomed to (having run this event in 2015 and 2017): that is to say, smoothly.

Our plan at the starting line, more or less, was: start off between the 1:50 and 1:45 pace groups, and kinda take it from there. Admittedly ambiguous, but we were both operating from a position of unknown but ambitious. To that end, we both decided to completely ignore our watches through the entire race, going wholly by feel instead of by time.

We wished each other good luck, and soon enough, we were off!

The first couple of miles I remembered pretty well from previous years, including the janky/rocky “trail” that preceded the actual paved pathways through the state park. We spent those miles trading leads: The Lady would slowly pull ahead, then I’d reel her in and pass her, and so on with the yo-yo style. My surges were mostly due to feeling boxed-in by other runners (the first few miles of a big race are always cramped), but then she would catch up and pass me on downhills (I suck at downhills).

8:02, 7:56

We were keeping in pretty close range of the 1:45 group, which ended up being a bit of a mistake: 1:45 was, for both of us, our reach times, so sticking with them from the very start felt a bit like pushing our luck. Especially since we weren’t checking our watches (mine was entirely under my long sleeves, so I couldn’t just glance at it), having a pace group right in front of us would most likely pull us along.

Which it did: while I obviously couldn’t double-check the time, we were way too close to the 1:45 pace group (maybe 5 seconds behind) by mile 3, so I made a concerted effort to pull up in mile 4.

7:47 (oops), 7:56

This was where, I admit, an unfair advantage kicked in for me: prior knowledge. As I previously stated, we’d attended this event previously in both 2015 and 2017. Both those years I ran the half, so this was my third time running the half. The Lady, on the other hand, ran the¬†full in 2015, and while she had been registered for the half in 2017, ended up DNS due to a head cold. While the full marathon runs the half course twice, 3 years was a pretty long gap to retain any knowledge of the course to the point of integrating it into one’s race strategy.

To be fair, it’s not like I planned ahead, but at mile 5 when the hills began, I suddenly remembered:¬†oh right, the next FOUR MILES are rolling hills. My strength has always been uphills; The Lady, downhills. So I figured, if I could push these next four miles pretty hard, I might be able to build an insurmountable lead before the downhills kicked in.

Conveniently enough, Immigrant Song kicked in right at that point on my playlist. So I went with it.

7:46, 7:37, 8:00, 7:53, 7:41

(that 8:00 was due to a totally unexpected water stop that caught me off guard, so I came to a full stop to fuel)

I left the 1:45 pace group behind on the first hills. The further I went the more the hills came back to me, so I kept pushing in time with the awesome mid-race music on my list (great job, Past Me, setting up that list!). I high-fived The Lady at the weird hairpin loop a little after mile 6, but otherwise just kept pushing as much as I could without feeling like I was in danger of flaming out.

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Pretty sweet shot.

It was a tricky balance: I was truly testing my limits, taking a risk where a very real possibility was utterly blowing up and walking it in. But man it felt good just to be in that position again!

7:58

For those who ignore their watches entirely (this course also didn’t have any clocks along it, so beyond the relative locations of pace groups I truly had no idea what time I was hitting),¬†breathing is the key to semi-accurately assessing one’s performance. Up until now, I used my steady breathing to help quiet my anxiety about the pace I was pushing and convince myself I was doing ok. At this point, though, my breathing definitely changed: I was getting tired, and I felt like I was slowing down.

8:05, 8:05

Which I was. But at least I was consistent ūüėõ

There was one brief moment of panic somewhere around here, where I heard feet and voices gaining on me from behind. I resisted the urge to look behind me (DON’T SHOW WEAKNESS), but was worried I was slowing down so much that the 1:45 group was gaining on me. Very quickly, however–far faster than I would have expected for a 1:45 pace group–I was passed by a group of very fast-looking guys. Not the pace group, but perhaps an early group of marathoners? Or late-starters? Wasn’t sure.

Good story.

8:11

This was that janky/rocky “trail” again, heading back to the starting area. There’s a rough up-down-up dip in the trail that I don’t even remember from the way out, but that’s probably because I wasn’t nearly this tired.

Once I crested the loop around mile 13, I tried to put what I had left into the final stretch–managed an average¬†6:56 pace.

Chip time: 1:44:33

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I’d definitely ceded some ground to the 1:45 pace group, but The Lady came in behind me barely 1 minute later! She definitely made up some ground on the downhills as expected (she’s really, really good at those).

After finishing, we made a beeline for our car and changed out of our racing clothes and into new,¬†dry clothes–the wind was still in the double-digits, and while we weren’t planning to stick around for very long, we didn’t want to freeze before we could grab some food.

In doing so, we were able to catch the print-outs of preliminary half marathon results, and in a very pleasant development, The Lady got¬†3rd in her age group! Not surprisingly, I was 6th; I would have needed to knock off another 2-3 minutes to get 5th, and almost 10 minutes to crack the top 3. Still a ways to go ūüėõ

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Celebrating at the finish! (and after changing into dry clothes)

Post-race

Before freezing solid, we headed back to the hotel to clean up. We debated hanging around Chattanooga, perhaps checking out the aquarium (which was literally across the street from our hotel), but decided that our legs were pretty beat up from the effort. We settled instead on walking about 0.75 miles to the nearest Starbucks, getting celebratory mochas, and heading home.

The ride home was full of chatter about the race. Honestly I have to keep reminding myself that I technically won our little competition, because the whole thing was¬†such a blast (and because, realistically, it’s only a matter of time before The Lady surpasses me in the half again). We both did¬†so freaking well!¬†

We discussed how the summer had been such a whirlwind that largely set us back in our running. The first few months of the fall, August and September in particular, had hit the ground running so hard it’d been a massive undertaking to land as much mileage as we had. Despite all of this, we’d managed to build a solid base of consistent weekly mileage in the low-30s. Even though this only occasionally included tempo runs or track workouts, the consistent mileage by itself was both a huge factor and an amazing accomplishment by itself.

Given our collective performance at Chickamauga–at the upper end of both our expectations–we’re now thinking it may be time to bring the professionals back into the mix. We’ve had good experiences with coaches, and with the mileage base we’ve built, the next important steps will be 1) very structured running schedules, and 2) regular quality workouts.

In the meantime, we have some pretty fun races coming up: the Give Thanks 8K on Thanksgiving morning, the Helen Holiday [Trail] Half in mid-December, and an officially-unofficial Beer Mile, also in mid-December.

But after that… we shall see.

Race Report: Eugene Half

Oh hey there blog, I’ve missed you. Want to chat about a really cool race I ran about a month ago? I remember it¬†decently well. Let’s take a crack at it and just see what happens!

For those of you not familiar with the Eugene Marathon, it takes place in and around Eugene, Oregon, a picturesque college town (not unlike Athens!) that is legendary for its running culture. Hayward Field is the locus of the legend, having been home turf to such notable athletes as Steve Prefontaine and Jordan Hasay. Both the full and the half actually end on the track itself, which is of particular note since 2018 was the last year before the stadium closed for major renovations, including a full replacement of the original track that Pre and others actually ran on. So we were the last ones to share the same surface as the heroes who put the place on the map.

Our own journey began¬†super-early…

Super-early, Thursday morning (April 26): The Lady and I woke up at the butt-crack of dawn to catch a 9am flight to Portland, OR. We were lucky to be able to stay with our friends Keeley and Dave, as Keeley would also be running the half, so we were able to split an Airbnb in Eugene.

But that night we crashed in Portland. In fact, we made a point of rushing over to Portland Running Company for their Thursday group run, attended by none other than Mark Remy! We gabbed the whole 5 miles around town, and joined him and some of the PRC folks for a beer at a nearby brewery (Portland has a few of those).

Friday, April 27:¬†We hit the road for Eugene! It took a couple hours, but the drive was awfully pretty. We checked into our Airbnb, which was¬†adorable and easily one of the nicest I’ve ever stayed in.

(ignore for the moment I’ve stayed in all of about 2-3 Airbnbs)

Saturday, April 28:¬†We kicked off our day by going to an amazing waffle joint for breakfast following our morning shake-out run. After that…

…drum roll…

Infinity War! I mean, can you think of a better way of staying off your feet the day before¬† a race than going to see a movie? I won’t give away any spoilers.¬†We ended up spending the evening at our Airbnb watching¬†Thor: Ragnarok (as Keeley and Dave had not seen the complete movie).

Sunday, April 29

I haven’t really said anything about the race, or what my goals were. Frankly, I wasn’t sure. I was aware that I’d been making strides (very, very slowly) and improving my times over the past few months, but I still felt like I had no gauge for what I was capable of. Yes, my mileage was piling up, and that was¬†extremely satisfying to see, but I still felt shorthanded when it came to quality workouts like tempo runs; I tended to burn out pretty quickly.

It rolled around my head all morning as we prepared for the race, established the game plan with Dave (who would be the chauffeur and cheering section), and culminated when we got to the field in a kernel of a radically different plan.

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Right outside Hayward field!

I kept thinking about my recent half marathons; Chickamauga and the most recent Albany had been great ego boosts, but the AthHalf just the month before Chickamauga–while still a solid performance–had been bruising. I’d just completed easily my most intense training regimen in years, but I still just couldn’t convince myself that I was ready to set an ambitious goal and run it into the ground. I still had so many question marks about my fitness, particularly my fast-twitch endurance, and my mental toughness over an extended race.

So my thoughts went over to The Lady, who was gearing up for her latest run at a Boston Qualifier, having also crushed a tough training cycle, and the thought struck me:

The half and the full run the first 10 miles together. That¬†never¬†happens. Nor, really, does the opportunity to run our respective [different] races as part of the same event. So I made the decision: forget my race. I don’t care what time I get. My goal is to make sure The Lady reaches mile 10 at a flat-8 pace (a 3:30 finish at that pace, well under the qualifying time for her age group). I’ll worry about the last 3.1 when the time comes.

And I¬†actually relaxed.¬†I mean, I knew an 8-flat for 10 miles would be hard for me; I hadn’t put that kind of consecutive workload together for years. The last time I remembered even doing that pace in a half marathon was March 2015’s Georgia Publix Half. But for once I wasn’t obsessing about my own race, and it felt¬†good.

The feeling only lasted for a minute, though–once the race kicked off, I felt like¬†shit in the first mile or two. But probably because…

7:56, 7:46, 7:54

…I was going a bit too fast ūüôā I tried to rein things in a bit, but I stayed pretty much glued to The Lady, hawking my own watch to keep us on-pace and letting her do her thing. The entire first 10 miles are basically in and around neighborhoods of Eugene, so the views were cozy and beautiful.

And did I mention: the weather! It was overcast (par for the Pacific Northwest), but not rainy! And it was very cool; starting temps were in the mid-40s, which is perfect.

8:07, 8:06, 7:47

I definitely felt better into mile 4 and beyond; despite a warm-up mile before the race, it seems like I still needed a few more miles to really shake off the rust and settle in. The super-flat neighborhood stretches also helped, and my revamped half marathon playlist was keeping me pumped without overdoing it.

7:52, 7:51, 8:06

It was at mile 9 where we encountered The Hill. I don’t know what it’s actually called, but it’s pretty much the only hill of any consequence on the course. Don’t let that fool you, though, as it almost did us: just because it’s the “only hill of consequence” doesn’t mean it’s a weenie. It’s no Negley or Baxter, but we had¬†numerous folks at the Portland Running Company group run mention that this hill derailed their race in previous years.

We plowed up the hill. I had AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” blaring so I was pumped. The crowd support, fantastic pretty much everywhere, was¬†phenomenal on this hill, cheering us to the top where there were banners congratulating us on reaching the apex and encouraging us into the relief of the downhill.

It was awesome.

Of course, it was only once we’d climbed the hill and descended the other side that I realized I was definitely starting to hurt. I was also stoked that it hadn’t registered until just then! But I was almost to 10 miles, and I’d kept The Lady at a rock-solid pace (maybe even a bit faster than 8), so I needed to hang on just a bit longer.

At this point, the race exited the neighborhoods and went onto some trails. This changed things somewhat, as the route became much windier, which didn’t do much for my feeling of flagging.

8:02

It ended up being almost mile 10.5 before we reached “the bridge”, the advertised point of the half and full courses splitting. In fact, at some point, The Lady had asked if we’d somehow missed the split–we’d gone well past the 10-mile mark! Was she inadvertently now on the half course, or–horror of horrors–was I inadvertently on the full? Thankfully, no repeat of my 2012 Air Force half marathon (how did I not write a blog post on this?! tl;dr I was having the best race of my life up to that point and then was mistakenly diverted onto the full course for almost¬†a¬†full mile); the split was just farther down the course than either of us had realized.

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This was taken on that very bridge, seconds before the half/full split.

We wished each other good luck as we crossed the bridge. I hadn’t been able to get a good feel for how The Lady was doing, but I also didn’t want to bust her Lizard Mode bubble, so I let her know¬†I was proud of her, regardless of what happened.

She’s a badass, BQ or no.

Me, on the other hand–moments after the split, I stopped and walked for a bit. Partly to give myself a break, but also to take it in: holy SHIT. I’d just thrown down a flat-8 pace for 10 miles! I hadn’t done that in YEARS. AWESOME.

I had no plan for this juncture of the race, but I honestly didn’t care. So I cranked my music and kept plugging away as the trails continued. These trails kind of kicked my ass, to be honest; the weaving and all the minor bumps and dips were making it tough for me to find my own Lizard zone.

Perhaps amazingly, my last 3.1 weren’t all that far off from the previous 10 miles:

8:12, 8:14, 8:18

Managing to kick things up to a 7:04 pace for the last 0.1 (my watch measured 0.2), I finished with an overall of 1:45:43.

Which was, in my fact, exactly my best half time since the March 2015 Georgia Publix Half.

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Eugene finishers! Left to right: Dave, Keeley, The Lady, me

I waited at the finish for Keeley (also doing the half), at which point we met up with Dave (who’d enjoyed some hiking + alone time to vent about putting up with runners) to engage in the subtle art and definite witchcraft of Predicting Where The Lady Would Be So We Could Cheer Her On.

We found a spot around mile 22(ish) that was easy to get to, and set up shop. When The Lady came by, I ran with her for just long enough to ascertain how she was holding up, grab a selfie, and to remember that I’d just raced a half and didn’t have functional legs.

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Would YOU be smiling at mile 22? Like I said: badass.

(I’ll link to The Lady’s race report once it goes up)

After the race we went back to the Airbnb to get cleaned up and, unfortunately, check out. We couldn’t really even stick around to relax. By evening, we were back in Portland, though we did take this opportunity to buy a bunch of ice cream and play several round of¬†Peggle before happily crashing.

Monday, April 30: Another bright-and-early wake-up to catch a flight back to Athens. We said goodbye to our hosts, thanking them both for putting us up (and putting up with us). The flight and drive back, while long, were uneventful.

Final Thoughts

Even now, a month after the race, I still don’t know where my fitness really stands. I still burn out on quality workouts pretty quickly, but I seem to have a strange ability to maintain a sustained pace for a longer-than-expected period of time¬†if my mental game is on-point.

And maybe that’s the real take-away here: my physical fitness is absolutely, definitely, positively coming back. More quality workouts, especially tempo runs, would certainly help things, but the sheer volume (and lack of injuries KNOCK ON WOOD) has done wonders on its own. What’s still missing, what would¬†really get me to the next level, is an improvement in my mental game.

Annnd I’m still kinda stumped on that one. As the summer months close in, and the temperatures and humidity skyrocket, mental toughness will be the name of the game; so in some sense, I can count on a baseline level of development through simply maintaining this volume through the summer. But I’m still¬†hungry for getting on the hunt again: a sub-1:45 half marathon that puts my PR on notice, a 45-minute 10K, or even a pair of sub-7-minute miles strung together.

I’ve come a long way in the past 12-18 months; the progress is tangible. If nothing else, Eugene was an indicator that, if I can get my mental game in order, there’s a lot more progress to be had.

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Oh Pacific Northwest, you so purty.

Injuries and All-Binny (Albany Half)

Yeah yeah, it’s March already and this is pretty much my first blog post of the year, despite saying I would blog more often. It’s a work in progress.

At any rate, January started off well, but February was marred by my first injury of the year: some kind of inner knee muscle/tendon pull. I can’t be more specific because I’m honestly not sure what it was, but during runs I was starting to feel a “pull” in my left knee (inside the right part of the socket). I thought perhaps it had something to do with a really tight inner left groin tendon I’d been trying to stretch over the previous couple weeks, but even now I have no solid proof.

You can see the progression of it pretty starkly:

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After recording my highest single-week mileage since April 2015 (!), I was starting to feel that pull during the workouts the following week. It’d go away–like it was a muscle that needed to be warmed up–but by the time Saturday’s long run came around, it wasn’t going away. Hence, a 2.6-mile run was all before I bagged it.

The next week was rest, followed by cross-training of ellipticals and rowing machines. I did try to run on it that first Thursday on the treadmill, but quit after only 0.4mi as I could feel the pulls getting tighter with each step. Wasn’t worth it.

In addition to heavy cross-training, I also brought back some single-leg workouts I picked up from PT back in Pittsburgh. All that together seemed to do the trick: I ran 8 pain-free miles the following Saturday, and then slowly upped my mileage over the next week with no problems.

I’ve since been congratulated many times on showing restraint in how I approached the injury, and the abundance of caution I exercised. I missed 100 miles in February (had 82.98), and my race fitness for the Albany Half this past weekend certainly took a hit, but a week off running that results in missing a small mileage goal and slightly degraded tune-up performance versus potentially multi-week (multi-month?) downtime? I’ll take the former, thanks.

Which brings me to this past weekend: the Albany half marathon!

This is actually our¬†third year participating in the event–Strava was kind enough to remind me of this fact and show me the trend over those years in my performance.

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SPOILER ALERT I’m improving!

This year (as with every year, I think) I went in with pretty low expectations. The Lady and I had just had a¬†brutal work week, including at least one night for both of us where we didn’t get more than a few hours’ sleep. And I’d missed a week of training a only a few weeks before, courtesy of the aforementioned injury. Still, I was hoping to put in a performance at least on par with last year’s. Furthermore, The Lady was treating the race as a tune-up for Eugene, and with her job promotion formalized on Friday, she wanted to see just how much wind she had at her back! And I, of course, wanted to see if I could keep up ūüôā

Things certainly started off with a bang: I got a little caught up with the fast-packers, especially since The Lady was out to see what she could do at the halfway point for our Eugene race in late April. The first few miles were a bit faster than I’d originally planned:

8:04, 8:10, 8:06, 7:51

Still, I’ve internalized over the past few years that one should not look a faster-than-anticipated mile gift horse in the mouth. Instead, consider it a gift of buffer space if needed later in the race when things aren’t clicking quite as well.

Somewhere within the first mile, one of our own Athens Road Runners snapped my picture.

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Mile 1 and Feelin’ Fun.

I kept considering slowing down, but around mile 2.5 was a water stop, and I was slowly passed by a group of steady-paced racers, and I just decided I’d hang with them for as long as I could. I was also intent on focusing¬†only on the mile I was on: do what felt good, and worry about the later miles when I got there.

8:00, 8:08, 8:08, 7:56

Still rock-solid pacing, though after the very first mile I didn’t look at my paces, opting to go entirely by feel. I was also definitely starting to feel the pain at this point, my week off from running thrown into sharp relief. I yearn for the days when flat-8s for 13.1 miles feels like a manageable workout instead of a race, but that was not this day.

8:14, 8:11

At this point, I definitely had to start letting that pacing group go, as I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. There was a long, uncovered stretch on a main city drag around mile 8.5; it’s right when things start getting hard, it’s completely unshaded, and it’s long and straight and pretty much flat as a pancake (with a slight uphill, if anything). That one hits pretty hard, and I knew it would be a slog from there.

8:31, 8:21

Yeah, definitely in pain at this point. I was still focused on just the current mile, but I had resumed checking my mile splits, which didn’t help my mental game. I did, however, blast Wonder Woman’s Wrath (and again as I neared the finish). That helped.

8:30

This was really freaking painful. I felt completely gassed and just wanted to cross the finish line. I will say, though–I didn’t feel any of what, until now, had become almost a refrain of being angry with myself at this point in the race for not performing as well as I thought I should’ve been. Certainly a mental game improvement!

The Lady got some pretty awesome pictures of me coming into the finish at a surprisingly-brisk 7:17 pace for the last 0.3 (ok, 0.1, but my watch measured 13.3 so):

I crossed the finish line at 1:48:16 (unofficial), which set a new course record for me by about 15 seconds!

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It’s all in the headband.

It wasn’t a hammer-drop shatter-the-ceiling outing; it was a 15-second improvement over last year, though about 90 seconds slower than last November’s Chickamauga. And it’s still a good 7 minutes beyond my still-standing 2014 half PR. But it did tell me a few valuable things:

  • My mental game is slowly improving. My focus on each individual mile is a small, albeit crucial, step forward. I can’t run with reckless abandon if I’m counting down the miles the whole time.
  • Taking some time off if something is making running physically uncomfortable is always, always,¬†always a good decision. Even if you rage against it at the time.
  • It’s slow, sometimes agonizingly so, but physically I seem to be getting back into things as well. The last three years have been marked by an almost token ~1:53 half marathon time, but in the last year I’ve seen more 1:48s than 1:53s. That’s still a ways off from my PR, but again it’s a definite sign of progress.
  • Snickers are delicious.

In a couple weeks I’ll be doing a fun 15K trail race, and then in late April it’s off to Eugene, OR for the half marathon, while The Lady aims for her second BQ!

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Just keep running, just keep running, running, running…

I’m getting stronger. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, but I’m undeniably getting stronger.

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A few weeks ago, I recorded a weekly mileage of 38.07. That may not seem all that amazing, but I haven’t hit a 1-week mileage in excess of 38 miles since my Big Sur marathon training in late March 2015, nearly 2 years ago. It’s been a¬†long. damn. time.

Last October, I ran the Ath Half in 1:48:52, a 5.5-minute improvement over the previous year. Just this past week, I ran the Albany Half in 1:48:24, the fastest half marathon I’ve run since the GA Publix Half almost two years ago, also in March 2015. It’s been a¬†long. damn. time.

As has been a regular mantra here of late, I still have a long, long way to go. I’m still barely within sight of my half marathon PR of 1:41–set back in May 2014–and I haven’t done speed work in so long I have to actually sit down to think about what a 7-minute mile would translate to on a per-lap basis.

My mental game is also an utter disaster. I seem to have completely forgotten how to push when I’m entering the pain cave; I mentally cringe and try to hold the pain at bay (which, of course, does nothing except exacerbate it) instead of accepting it and feeding off it. My brain runs at a million miles an hour, just like it does at work, which all but keeps me from settling into a rhythm and letting the miles just tick by.

And holy crap, I can¬†NOT give myself a break. Remember just a few paragraphs ago when I mentioned this year’s Albany Half? By all objective measures, and especially in my specific context, I performed extremely well. Intellectually I understand that, but emotionally I just cannot convince myself I ran a good race, that I’m improving, and that I should be proud of my performance. All that registers on an emotional level is that I’m still 7+ minutes away from taking another crack at my PR, and jfc my mental game is shit.

I know at least some of this is, as always, the fault of the crazy stress levels I’m feeling from work. I’m 300% overextended with no end in sight until at least July; every week is a new version of finding a way to squeeze 100 hours of work into 60, which invariably means dropping the ball on some things, pushing off others, and outright sucking at whatever’s left. Running may be an escape, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s still a function of everything else that’s going on.

One of the few reasons¬†I’ve managed to stick with it is because everything else is also a function of running.

It’s March already, and I still haven’t outlined a concrete set of 2017 resolutions. Or, as of last week, Lenten resolutions.

There are definitely some things I want to do that I know would help across the board. For instance, yoga 5x/week: I did this back in grad school for several months, and the results were absurdly awesome. The problem is when the debate inevitably arises between sleep and yoga, guess which one wins 95% of the time.

I also want to start regularly incorporating core work and weights. For the latter, I’ve already been semi-successfully bringing back “DropAndGiveMe.” But core work has been nonexistent, as allocating time for it has largely run into the same conundrum as yoga.

Speed and tempo work are things I’d like to do regularly, but as long as I’m getting the miles in, these won’t be too difficult to mix in.

Finally, I need to get my diet back on track. Through January and half of February it was pretty good, but I fell off the bandwagon. Stress snacking is one of my less-healthy coping mechanisms, but definitely something I can work on without a huge additional time investment.

As I’ve said, I don’t really know how I’m going to implement some of these. But I suppose it’s a lot like my running. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to get back to making runs at my PRs, but somehow, I’ve kept plugging away when I’ve had no desire to. As a result, every measure says it’s been paying off. Progress has been agonizingly slow, but undeniably measurable. Maybe that’s a good way to approach these resolutions: even when it isn’t pretty, even when it feels like it isn’t working or I would be better served by forgetting about it¬†this time and trying again tomorrow: just keep plugging away.

Just keep running!

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Finish chute photo!

Race Report: Holy crap, where did that come from?!

To those of you who stop running because it became tiresome and grindy: I absolutely get it.

The last year of running has been the¬†most unproductive and least enjoyable that I’ve ever had. It’s come from a really bad combination of 1) stressful job that hasn’t let up in this time frame, and 2) bad, lingering injuries that have been extremely slow to heal. I’ve had to mentally put myself in the position of essentially starting from scratch, albeit with the knowledge of having once run 5×1600 with 6:20 splits and a half marathon PR of 1:41.

“Frustrating” is putting it kindly. So when someone expresses their own frustration with running, or dreads going out for a run, or drops it entirely for these reasons, I totally get it.

But if you manage to catch a glimpse of light at the other end, a whiff of progress out of the seemingly-endless grind, it is beautiful.

With very few exceptions, my running the last several months has been consistent down to the week: mid-20s’ worth of mileage.

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It’s just that so little of it was actually fun. That¬†the majority was during the¬†absolutely horrific summer we suffered through this year probably didn’t help much, but an enjoyable run in this stretch was the exception, not the rule.

Sheer determination to hit 20+ miles each week, seeing how many weeks in a row I could do it, and stubborn refusal to give up on it¬†were¬†just about the only reasons I kept going out every day. That, and trying to keep my endorphin levels as high as possible with the stress of work. If I wasn’t running, I wasn’t working out, period. And I needed to work out.

So I kept running. But it wasn’t confidence-inspiring; if anything, it did the opposite. When almost every run hurt, my already-dim view of my own abilities¬†only drooped further. It probably doesn’t come as much surprise, then, that when Ath Half rolled around, I was just hoping not to thoroughly embarrass myself.

<Aside>

You can argue that one’s¬†finishing time ultimately doesn’t matter. And you’d be 100% correct! The problem is, once you actually hit the road, that just doesn’t matter anymore. The fact that I haven’t¬†run a half marathon in over 2 hours since 2010 weighed heavily on me as I considered possibly exceeding 2 hours in this race, given how miserable my runs had been.

I was telling everyone ahead of Ath Half that I just wanted to come in under 2 hours.

</Aside>

Truthfully–as runners do–I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to come in under 1:55, since my 2015 Ath Half time was somewhere around low-1:54. C’mon, I thought: at least make a run at last year’s time, right?

But I had absolutely no gauge for what I could do. The last half marathon I’d run in recent memory was the brutal downhill Scream Half, where I posted a respectable 1:53, but the¬†insane¬†elevation change obviated any possibility of comparison. Plus, that was all the way back in June. I had no barometer against which to infer my limits.

And, because the aforementioned summer sucked so freaking much, I wasn’t putting much stock in my abilities. Hence, sub-2 sounded like a treat to me.

Enter race day.

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Up and at ’em, rise and shine!

One of our running buddies, Jonathan, was¬†the 1:40 pacer. A bunch of ladies on the Fleet Feet running team were going to hang with him. Going in, I figured I’d stick with the group for the first mile for the lulz, then just coast the rest of the way to the finish. An eclectic plan for sure; it also betrayed just how not-seriously I was taking this race.

(and belied how much I was dreading it)

Still, the weather was quite a bit nicer from Ath Half 2015. That year, it was muggy as hell, and I suffered quite a bit as a result. But while the more pleasant weather was certainly welcome, it did nothing to assuage¬†the dark recesses of my mind worrying about the hills on the back half of the course. They’d be there no matter how nice the weather was.

Thus began the race.

It was clear within the first couple of blocks that I wasn’t going to stick with the 1:40 group; I let them go pretty quickly after the start. Still, I knew I was being pulled along at a decent clip by all the folks around me, so I focused on slowing down.

8:06

Cool! But too fast, let’s try to draw it back a little.

8:01

Wow, that’s neat. But still too fast. Pull back on the throttle.

8:02

Hmm. Is the throttle busted?

7:58, 8:02

Yeah: first 5 miles of the race in 40 minutes flat. I was not expecting that. But at the same time, I knew it was the flattest 5 miles I’d get, so I really, really needed to slow down, no seriously guys, for real, time to slow down.

Somewhere around this time, I caught up to The Lady, who’d fallen off the 1:40 group. I walked alongside her for a bit, checking in and making sure she was ok. I was also confident at this point that I no longer had to worry about living through my WORST NIGHTMARE of coming in over 2 hours (by my math, would’ve had to run 10-minute miles for the remaining distance for this to be a problem).

Turns out, we weren’t far from the next water stop, at which point The Lady stopped there for a bit to collect herself, and I started back up running again. I could feel that my legs were definitely getting heavy, and we’d only just started with the hills.¬†Welp, I figured,¬†I wasn’t going to set any landspeed records anyway. Let’s just see what happens.

I was¬†mentally kicking myself at every mile, as I kept watch-hawking. I couldn’t seem to help myself; I was going by feel, but at the same time felt an overwhelming need to check the distance, check my splits, blah blah blah. I knew it was mental, that my mind wasn’t the honed, sharpened, hardened diamond it had once been, and as a result I was doing things and engaging in habits that were counter-productive in a race environment. But the discipline just wasn’t there. I tried to shake it off and just keep on going.

9:24

Yep, definitely slowing down (though I did walk this mile…).

7:54

Huh, apparently not.

8:23

This is where it started getting hard: the hills kept¬†coming and my mental game wasn’t¬†improving. Turning down some extremely rolling terrain, I tried to focus entirely on the relief I still felt that it was nigh-impossible at this point to finish in over 2 hours.

Still, that damn hill coming out of River Rd is effing¬†brutal. I used the water stop there as an excuse to stop and re-tie my right shoe, which had become loose enough that it was becoming a distraction. I recalled at the starting line it had crossed my mind to double-knot my shoes, then something shiny must’ve come along. Go me.

8:54, 8:47

At this point I¬†was coming¬†into the home stretch where we loop around the stadium a few times. It’s both electrifying (lots of cheering sections) and deflating (so close to the finish for so long). I was still allowing myself to slow considerably on uphills; I’d like to say it was because I was refusing to walk at any point, but really it was because I was just mentally lazy and knew that I’d come in under 2 hours, so who cares about shaving off a few seconds on this hill.

Then I finally did the math–wait, I’m less than a mile out and barely into the 1:40s? I CAN BREAK 1:50?!

!!!

8:30

I tried to kick, I honestly did. My legs were burning pretty good at this point, and my chest felt like it was being compressed by an anvil, but for once in the entire race I managed to push my mental laziness aside and give it everything I had left–an average¬†6:43 pace.

1:48:52

I couldn’t believe it.

I just finished Ath Half–ATH HALF–not only faster than last year, but¬†under 1:49!

For comparison, here’s the mile-by-mile breakdowns of Ath Half 2016 versus last year:

One hell of an improvement!

This is not to say¬†I’M BACK B#^*%ES. I still have a ton of work to do. My cadence fell off considerably, especially in the last few miles. Given my foot issues from the last year, cadence is the one thing that I absolutely cannot slack on;¬†it¬†needs to stay above 160, preferably around 170.

Speaking of slacking, my mental game is a joke. I had absolutely zero capacity to settle in, let the world around me disappear, and just let go and go. I kept glancing at my watch at least a couple of times each mile, I kept oscillating between worry about the next hill and worry about embarrassing myself. And I had no ability to push myself in the last few miles, instead getting lazy and just slowing down, even though I clearly still had gas left in the tank. Speedwork and tempo runs will help with this, though.

And hills–in a not-so-distant previous life, a source of¬†strength and motivation–have become borderline intimidating. That’s a little worrisome; downhills have always been hard for me, but it’s helped that I always got a boost out of uphills, even if it was only psychological.

But! Yes, there is, in fact, a “but.”

There’s a core here worth building on. Something has clearly been clicking for the past several months, to the point where I could run a sub-1:50 under less-than-ideal conditions; my previous sub-1:50 performance was at last year’s Chickamauga Battlefield half marathon. Absolutely perfect conditions–extremely gentle hills, near-freezing temperatures, and perfectly sunny–and it was still a¬†squeaker: I came in somewhere around 1:49:57, and only after redlining the last two miles to do it.

I had time to spare this year, on a much harder course. Time that, of all things, I spent being mentally lazy on the final climbs. Had I really pushed myself that last 5K, who knows how¬†much room under 1:50 I would’ve had.

I’ve been telling people how this past year has basically felt like starting over from zero, except with all the knowledge and experience of “I¬†used to be able to do this…”, which has made it so easy to be so hard on myself. It’s been true in a big sense: I’ve had to accept limitations I haven’t experienced since I started running, and at that time I was blissfully unaware of said limitations.

That’s made it hard. Really hard. Which is why I¬†understand if you’ve been in this¬†position and have chosen to walk away and try¬†something else. And who knows: maybe this race was an anomaly and running will go right back to sucking in the near future.

All I know is something clicked at Ath Half, and for something to click in a half marathon, something has to be clicking for weeks before that. Plus, I told The Lady years ago that I would retire when I broke a 1:35 half marathon; can’t stop now that I’m making headway toward that goal again!

Sprinkles Are For Winners!

*waves* I’m not dead yet!

So, first things first. The Lady and I were recently in our old stompin’ grounds–fabulous Pittsburgh–for the Pittsburgh Marathon Relay. We’d formed a team a few months ago with Kim as our fearless leader, a team named “Sprinkles Are For Winners.”

The relay runs the full marathon course, split up over 5 runners who each cover some distance between roughly 4.5 and 6.7 miles. As The Lady and I had never run the full, there was an entire 13.1 miles we’d never run before, so it seemed like a good opportunity to see the full without actually having to run the whole 26.2 miles. And, y’know, see Pittsburgh and the folks there whom we love dearly ūüôā

The race itself more or less went off without a hitch, albeit with a few wrinkles with respect to the weather. It was a lot more humid than anticipated due to in-and-out rain (which was also unexpected), and this made things a little tricky, but overall it worked out ok.

We stayed with Kim and her husband Scott in the Pittsburgh suburbs, and managed to absolutely¬†pack our schedule with friend-visiting time. We arrived in Pittsburgh on Friday morning at 9am–yes,¬†arrived at 9am; I’ll let you do the math–and spent the rest of the day meeting up with The Lady’s work buddy Lara, some of my former graduate school colleagues, and dinner with Matt and Maria, before heading to Kim’s for the night.

The next day was more running around. First, we went for a shake-out 3-mile morning run with Kim, Michael, and someone named Octavius or Jonathan or Maximillian or something, and his lovely wife Jill.

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Courtesy of Ferdinand. Or was it Randall? (that’s me on the far right)

Following the shake-out, we hit the Expo! Woohoo!

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Always a blast.

At the expo, we once again ran into Ellen, as well as Kelly and her family. Following the expo was a strategy session with Kim, a delicious pre-race dinner with Kim and Scott, and glorious, wonderful sleep.

The relay itself was pretty awesome. Our first runner, Danielle, was also running the¬†entire full, so once she handed off to our second runner Shay she just kept going. I was the intrepid third runner, stationed around mile 10¬†of the course. I was excited to run my leg, as it started near where the half and full races diverged, so I’d briefly get to see some familiar sights before stepping off onto a course I’d never run before.

Of course, the elevation of my leg was…interesting.

Yeah.

I went out feeling fairly good, and climbing Birmingham Bridge wasn’t too much of a problem, but there was this offramp that took us onto Forbes…that beat me up pretty good. I was definitely hurting after that.

I didn’t set any landspeed records–8:38 average pace, which for the 10K it essentially was is definitely on the very slow side for me–but I finished intact, handing off to The Lady in Squirrel Hill, right next to Bakery Square.

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Kim saw me around mile 5 and snapped a photo. I was deep in the pain cave at this point, but thanks for the awesome shot!

After The Lady dashed off, I took some time to hang around Bakery Square, get some coffee from the adjacent Coffee Tree Roasters, and generally take things easy before hopping back on one of the convenient relay buses that took me back downtown for the finish.

Soon enough, The Lady handed off to our anchor and fearless leader Kim, and The Lady and I managed to meet up at the finish with [almost!] our whole team.

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4/5 (runners 1, 3, 4, and 5) of team Sprinkles Are For Winners!

We hit up Burgatory afterwards for some glorious burgers and spiked shakes before getting cleaned up and hitting the road back to good ol’ Athens.

It was a really fun race weekend. Exhausting for sure–we spent the next week trying desperately to catch up on sleep. But not only did we once again have the privilege of running through the city we’d fallen in love with, but we got to see a large number of the people who made the city so special to begin with. We don’t see them nearly often enough and it was great to catch up doing the very thing that effectively introduced us to each other all those years ago.

As a bonus, the Danimal and Sarah were in town, too! They both ran the half marathon–Sarah’s first ever! They joined us for post-race celebrations at Burgatory, and a wonderful time was had by all.

There’s more to be said–lots more–but I wanted to go ahead and reassure the MASSES WHO READ MY BLOG (lolololol) that I’m still alive, still running, and especially in this case, still having a lot of fun ūüôā

 

It’s the journey, not the injury

Like I mentioned in my previous post, the longer I’m out due to injury, the more I’m convinced this will ultimately be a good thing for my running psyche.

Allow me to explain using two races I ran in the last weeks as Exhibits A and B, respectively.

Sunday, Sept 27: Pittsburgh Great Race 10K

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, The Lady and I returned to the city we are still as madly in love with as ever (disclaimer: we really and truly do love Athens and the wonderful¬†people we’ve met; doesn’t mean we don’t still miss Pittsburgh, too) for a wedding: Kim and Scott (go ham)!

It was a beautiful ceremony, and so very Them. It took place at North Park, an exceptionally picturesque park that’s far enough outside the main Pittsburgh area that deer are a regular sighting (also host to such events as the Frigid Five Miler, Spring Thaw, and Just A Short Run). The ceremony itself was intimate–maybe 70 people in attendance–and took place under a pavilion on a day that God Himself was probably proud of: mid-60s, a gentle breeze, low humidity, and barely a cloud in the sky. It was, in every possible way, perfect.

But it just so happened their wedding coincided with the Great Race, Pittsburgh’s annual 10K that has as much personality as the city that hosts it. We couldn’t pass up the chance. Even with my injury, I felt my foot could handle 6.2 miles, and with all the cycling I’d been doing felt confident my cardiovascular system could keep up.

I went into the event knowing I wouldn’t be setting any PRs; in fact, I wasn’t going to try, not even for anything close. The Lady had to use the race as a training event and stick like glue to her goal marathon pace (8:12 min/mi), and I felt like sticking with her would be plenty given my complete lack of running mileage the past month.

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So that’s precisely what I did. I soaked in the sights and sounds to a level I rarely ever have at this event (been too busy in previous years gunning for a PR), and all the while felt¬†great. I wasn’t officially pacing for The Lady, but I also had to be careful: I noticed I would keep speeding up to a sub-8 pace without realizing. Come mile 5 and the infamous Boulevard of the Allies climb, The Lady said I was more than welcome to take off if I was feeling good; she would stick to her own pace.

I pushed an 8-minute mile 5 (nothing spectacular), a 6:45 mile 6 (not too shabby!), and a 6:23-pace last quarter-mile before crossing the finish line at¬†48:41. Definitely not a PR (almost exactly 6 minutes long), but I’d had a blast and felt great¬†the entire time. I was truly on Cloud 9.

Yeah, I was definitely sore the next week: muscles I hadn’t used in almost a month had suddenly been called upon to run a hilly race at a reasonable clip. My lungs, quads, and hamstrings were more than up to the task, but all those little stabilizing muscles had a serious case of WTF M8. Furthermore, my foot was pretty pissed at me the rest of Sunday;¬†while it felt great during the race, it tightened up very quickly afterwards, so I made the decision that I would skip the next weekend’s half marathon in Atlanta and resume healing.

Sunday, Oct 4: Michelob ULTRA 13.1 Atlanta

…at least, that was the plan. Until I recalled that The Lady and I had signed up for the ATL Challenge and had already completed the first of the two required races back in March. I wanted that medal, dammit!

Of course, if it was just the medal, I would have been disappointed but not enough to switch strategies. I noticed that come Monday (24 hours later), my foot was feeling¬†better. As in, better than before I’d run the Great Race. So I started aggressively icing each night after work while making plans for completing the ATL Challenge.

Like the Great Race, I had no plans to attempt a PR. 100 miles of cycling each week, while certainly more than sufficient to maintain a baseline level of cardiovascular fitness, does not for a long-distance PR prepare one. But I was still nonetheless confident my fitness level could carry me through the race standing up.

Come race morning, me and the 7.2 miles I’d run in the last month (Great Race, plus a 1-miler on Sept 4, the only other time I’d run) lined up at the starting line, with the lofty goal of a sub-1:50. The Lady, meanwhile, was using the race as a training tune-up: she had her coach’s blessing to open up the throttles and see what she could do. With that, The Lady took off at the start, while I settled into something that felt comfortable.

A few things I very quickly realized within the first three miles:

  • This humidity was going to be a problem: I’d drained 2/3 of my handheld within the first few miles and my body temps were still skyrocketing.
  • A sub-1:50 wasn’t going to happen; 8:24 min/mi just didn’t feel¬†comfortable, and I had no intention of feeling¬†uncomfortable within the first few miles of a race that was effectively doubling in one morning my entire running mileage for the last month.
  • Holy. Hills. Batman.

Really, that list could be condensed into just the third point (with the side addendum: there were 11 aid stations advertised on the event website, but only 5 on the actual course). The hills were brutal. They were fast elevation changes that zipped up and down, leaving the runners very little on which to build some momentum before shifting yet again.

Michelob ULTRA elevation chart.
Michelob ULTRA elevation chart.

…and yet, I felt strong. I felt focused, alert, and in control. I wasn’t breaking any speed records, but I was consistently staying within the 8:30-8:45 range every mile, regardless of terrain; in fact, only mile 3 broke 9 minutes (9:07); the rest were below 9, often solidly so. Helping even more was a steady, misting rain that started around mile 5: it perfectly countered my rising body temperatures and kept them stable through the rest of the race, allowing me to preserve what was left in my handheld water bottle in case of emergency.

I kept cruising, feeling strong, taking the hills at a slow-but-steady pace and chewing up the miles. I¬†high-fived The Lady a few times as we passed each other on out-and-backs, cheering her on. The only hiccup was around mile 9, when I discovered my calves were¬†really hurting but I couldn’t figure out why.

And then it dawned on me: I haven’t been running, so my calves weren’t¬†used to absorbing the shock from my midfoot-to-forefoot strikes, and the Great Race was too short for this problem to surface. Cycling is great for your quads and hamstrings, but doesn’t do a whole lot for your calves. The last couple downhills I had to switch to heel-striking to give my calves and ankles a break, but¬†I made a mental note to start¬†mixing some calf work into my workouts.

I crossed the finish line at 1:53:10, again setting no speed records but nonetheless giving me an immensely satisfying finish, especially considering 1) the humidity, 2) the lack of aid stations, 3) the omg-hills, and 4) my complete lack of running mileage.

Also got my hands on this supaswank challenge medal (in addition to the regular finisher’s medal [not pictured]):

13.1 from the Georgia Half Marathon, and another 13.1 from the Michelob half.
13.1 from the Georgia Half Marathon, and another 13.1 from the Michelob half.

Again, I’d felt great throughout the race. The hills were brutal but I never stopped having fun. The pace was a good workout but it still felt comfortable, giving me a¬†huge psychological boost toward keeping doing what I’m doing while making me all the more antsy to get back to running full-time. My foot was somewhat pissed the rest of the day, but I’m waiting to see if it does the same as before and feels¬†better following the initial 24 hours post-race.

Conclusion

Technically, I’m still injured. My foot definitely still hurts when I walk, some days worse than others. I’m still not going to run on it during the week (dooming myself to miss even more group runs with Fleet Feet and Athens Road Runners), and I’m going to keep hitting the bike as much as I can to maintain my cardio fitness.

But I’m cautiously optimistic that my foot is–slowly–healing. I’m thrilled that I can still race and hit certain milestones. And I’m stoked that I enjoyed those races as much as I did, that I’m chomping at the bit to get back into running form. I miss running. And I like that I miss it.

I needed this break from running, without a doubt. Now I want to do everything I can to get back into it.

Race Report: The Hilliest Marathon Evar

Upside of running a marathon on the opposite coast: it basically forces you to take a vacation, unless you really want to fly back within 24 hours of touching down (not this guy).

Downside of running a marathon on the opposite coast: holy 500 unread emails, batman.

BUT ANYWHO. BIG SUR!

West coast best coast?
West coast best coast?

This whole trip was a very interesting logistical ballet. While the race was on a Sunday, we flew into SFO on the previous Thursday, giving us a few entire days to get settled beforehand. Afterwards, we left on that Tuesday, giving us yet another day after the fact to stretch our aching legs and tour around before cramming back into a tiny metal tube flying at 35,000 feet for several hours.

It turned out to be a brilliant plan.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday: Pre-race

She is SO EXCITED for the 6-hour plane ride.
She is SO EXCITED for the 6-hour plane ride.

The flight was long, but uneventful. The wild card, I noticed in class I was teaching the previous day, was a tickle in the back of my throat that, historically, signaled the onset of a head cold. With hardly 72 hours to go before a marathon, I was more than a little worried that this could be problematic. So we tried to accommodate by making sure we got plenty of sleep and fluids.

That first evening, we stayed in a hotel right next to the airport. Pretty much rolled out of the plane and into bed.

Friday morning, we rented a car and drove the ~2 hours from San Francisco to Monterey.

It's a surprisingly long drive, especially if you're still a little jet-lagged.
It’s a surprisingly long drive, especially if you’re still a little jet-lagged.

The plan was to arrive by lunch time, both so we could get to the Expo in plenty of time, and so we could meet up with friends of ours from Pittsburgh who were also running–Danielle (The Lady’s running buddy!), and her husband Jose (who ended up not running). We met them for lunch at a nearby crepe restaurant (omnomnom) which, not at all coincidentally, was a block away from the Expo.

We picked up our bibs, bought a bunch of really cool swag–they had some awesome stuff there!–got all the information we needed on the buses that would drive us to the starting line at oh-God-o-clock the next morning, and by the early afternoon we were all wrapped up!

Danielle and Jose wanted to spend the rest of the day in San Francisco, but since The Lady and I had just come back from there we were loathe to make that drive two more times in the same day. Instead, we planned to meet up the next morning before parting ways; The Lady and I made our way to our hotel further up the road, which turned out to be a lovely inn about two blocks away from Cannery Row. So we took the opportunity to do a little bit of sight-seeing!

It was nice to get out and about, particularly since we knew we’d be spending all of the next day lounging, giving our legs as much rest as possible before the marathon.

Not too much rest, though–that Saturday morning was a group shake-out run with several Runner’s World reps, including none other than Bart Yasso!

You're jelly.
You’re jelly.

Fun fact: we actually got to meet him before the Pittsburgh marathon a few years back, but this was the first time we really got to run and chat with him. Wonderful guy with boundless energy who thrives on meeting new people, especially runners.

After the shake-out, we went back to our hotel, got cleaned up, and lounged the rest of the day. Bedtime was early, as wake-up was super early: around 3am.

Sunday: Race Day!

At this point, nearly two months out from the race, I honestly don’t remember how early it was that we woke up. But I do know the buses left sometime in the 3am range, so it was¬†early. The bus ride itself was a good 45-60 minutes over Highway 1; very rolling. I somewhat dozed in and out; it was still pitch black out, so it’s not like I could really enjoy the scenery anyway.

We arrived at the starting line–seeming civilization in the middle of nowhere. Fortuitously enough, we encountered Danielle, and huddled together until the sun came up.

The start was right around 7am. The sun had only just started coming up an hour before, and the landscape as it came into view was, simply, breathtaking.

We had a few minutes to warm up (darting between runners) and generally attempt to shake out the butterflies, but soon enough, the starting time arrived. After a few announcements, the race director wished us good luck…and we were off!

Miles 1-5

The whole course was beautiful, but the first few miles almost felt like I was alone on the western coast of the United States. It was absolutely beautiful; there were giant trees to both sides of the road, killing the wind but also keeping out the rapidly rising sun. There were almost no crowds to speak of; the occasional house or lodge we passed by might’ve had a handful of people outside watching us go by, but other than that it was just the quiet pitter-pat of running feet punctuated by the occasional conversation between runners.

I loved it. Really helped me settle in, mentally. Plus I’m just kind of a nature freak: being by myself out in the great quiet embrace of Mother Nature is incredibly calming and soothing.

The road itself was, as advertised, rolling. The first 5 miles were a net downhill of 250ft, but there were certainly uphills as well as downhills on the winding road. We kept a fairly consistent sub-9 pace: 8:52, 8:40, 8:38, 8:44, 8:51.

Miles 5-10

With the exception of the last mile of this stretch, it was a significant net uphill. Gone were the cover of the trees; we had emerged along the California coastline, and the wind made its presence felt. It was absolutely beautiful; we could see the waves crashing on one side, and on the other the rolling hills complete with grazing cattle (we could even hear them; we imagined they were cheering us on). The Lady in particular recalled how there was a solid 2-mile steady climb during this stretch, where you could see the entire two miles; the road was a straight shot the whole way. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I felt pretty good. I had settled in nicely, and while our pace had slowed due to the climbs, I was enjoying myself.

Given that we weren’t aiming for any particular time goal, we stopped¬†a couple of times to take pictures of the scenery.

We stayed solidly in mid-9s territory: 9:04, 9:03, 10:08, 9:25, 9:48.

Miles 10-15

Ok. Here’s where things got interesting. I’ll show you, and then describe it to you. Here’s the elevation chart as compiled by Strava from my GPS data of the race.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 11.55.49 AM

That spike in the middle, ladies and gentlemen, is known as Hurricane¬†Point, and this elevation chart isn’t exaggerating: it is indeed a straight climb for two miles, during which you ascend just about 500ft. It’s not rolling; it is, quite literally, a straight climb. Mile 10 is the worst–you gain over 300 of the total 500ft in just that one mile.

Thankfully, I had my game face on and chugged up the hill, feeling surprisingly good the whole time. The Lady stuck right with me, too.

Upon reaching the top of the hill, we thought about stopping for another photo op, but the wind up there was¬†crazy. I don’t know how strong it actually was, but I do know that, in the small amount of time¬†that my foot was off the ground when I’d lift it to take another step, the wind would blast it sideways. My bib rippled, crackling loud enough to make me worry it would get blown off. So we kept moving.

We got a bit of a reprieve with a fairly lengthy downhill. At precisely the 13.1 mile mark, we reached the famous Bixby Creek Bridge. Of course we stopped to take a few photos.

And yes, as per Big Sur tradition, there was a pianist on a grand piano here. Absolutely delightful.

Despite Hurricane Point, we still made pretty good time on this stretch, keeping our mid-9s pacing on average: 9:48, 10:28, 9:53, 8:46, 9:54.

Miles 15-20

We were still cruising pretty well. I was definitely feeling the fatigue creeping in, but I still felt strong. However, for whatever reason, my GI tract decided to stage a revolt at this point. At mile 16 I had to make an unscheduled pit stop (The Lady had made one several miles ago; we were making excellent time so far, given our frequent photo stops, pit stops, and the general hilly course), after which I felt immensely better. Hashtag runner problems.

This was also where the course started deviating more inland, away from the coast. Kind of sad, though it did mean the wind eased up a bit. However, the sun was starting to get pretty warm, and while we did move further inland, there wasn’t a corresponding increase in tree cover. Instead, the surrounding area seemed to turn into farmland. The shade was a bit spotty.

Still we pressed on at a pretty decent clip: 14:13 (pit stop), 9:33, 9:42, 9:46, 9:47.

Miles 20-25

You know “The Wall” that runners talk about, and the concept of “hitting” it? That’s pretty much what happened to me at mile 20. One minute I was fine, the next minute, I¬†really, really wasn’t.

I call this maneuver the
I call this maneuver the “Final 10K Shuffle-Step”.

I wish I could say it got better, but it really didn’t. While this probably would have happened anyway, my sneaking suspicion is the head cold I mentioned at the beginning hit full force here. Marathons put a ton of stress on your body, and one of the ways that stress¬†manifests is by shredding your immune system. Most of the time this isn’t too much of a problem, but if you’re already getting sick, running a marathon will kick the disease into overdrive.

I was having a hard time breathing without launching into coughing fits that had me doubled over. My legs wouldn’t cooperate. It was painful.

The Lady, incredibly, was hitting a stride. Where I evidently kept her in the game for the first part of the marathon, she was the single reason I kept pushing forward past the 20-mile mark. 11:29, 11:31, 10:57, 12:38, 10:55.

Final mile

I had an amusing revelation the day after Big Sur. We ended up driving by the finish line to meet up with Danielle and her husband before they left town. I recognized the finish, remembering the tents and the people cheering us those final agonizing miles. But as we drove past the finish line and into where miles 25 and 26 had been, I startled to realize:

I had no recollection of it whatsoever. Even on the drive back, when we were driving¬†in the exact same direction along the course that we’d run–towards the finish–I couldn’t place the surroundings. They were completely unfamiliar to me.

That’s to illustrate that, while I don’t remember the course in that final 1.2-mile stretch, I¬†vividly remember the pain I was in. Again, if not for The Lady’s gentle but constant encouragement, I don’t know how I would have dragged myself across the finish line.

Finishing time:¬†4:26:11¬†(according to the official Big Sur finisher’s book)

The immediate aftermath was painful. The lead in my legs began to set almost immediately after I stopped¬†running, and it hurt. A lot. I think The Lady was honestly worried there was something wrong with me aside from the whole “just ran a marathon” thing. It took the better part of the ride back on the bus before the pain in my legs¬†began¬†subsiding.

We went back to the hotels, cleaned up, and rested. My legs, while completely beat, were functioning semi-normally by that evening. I couldn’t yet tell how bad my head cold was going to be; given how badly I knew I’d just trashed my immune system, I imagined the virus would be¬†rampaging through my body virtually unchecked for the better part of the next 24 hours.

(turns out, that was prescient: it took about that time before things really got bad)

By that evening we were both feeling decently well rested–and HUNGRY–so we took a short walk to a nearby burger joint. It turned out to be perfect.

Photo Apr 26, 20 49 48

It was very much a local mom-and-pop establishment. We were even treated to a group of retired folks who had organized themselves into something of an orchestra, conducting a regular practice session in the middle of the restaurant. So not only did we have a warm, inviting atmosphere in which to chow down on burgers & fries, but music from adorable retirees as well. It was perfect.

We slept well that night.

Monday, Tuesday: Post-race

It turned out to be a brilliant decision on our part to sacrifice two work days for the purpose of easing ourselves back into civilization. It gave us time actually enjoy traveling.

Since our hotel was all of a few blocks from Cannery Row–and therefore the beach and the Monterey Aquarium–we spent plenty of time checking out both. It was a convenient way to stretch out our legs a bit, and let’s face: beaches and aquariums are awesome. We had a lovely time.

Monday late afternoon, we said goodbye to Monterey and road tripped back into San Francisco to spend the night with my college-friend-turned-badass-Bay-Area-developer Amanda and her roommate. We don’t get to see each other very often anymore–what with living on opposite coasts and all–so it was a treat to be able to hang out with her for a night and catch up.

Oh, and we got along just fine with her apartment’s third, and furry, inhabitant.

Meet Jake the Cuddle Monster. He will cuddle you to death.
Meet Jake the Cuddle Monster. He will cuddle you to death.

Come Tuesday morning, as Amanda was departing for work, we packed up as well, said our goodbyes, and headed for the airport and home.

Epilogue

This was one of the most bipolar marathon training sessions I can remember. Granted, I’ve only been through all of three (I guess, technically, four? I ran the 2014 AF half but trained as though it was the full) so I’m not exactly working with a large sample; each training session is likely to have its own “first”s and “most”s for a few more yet to come. But the move to Athens can’t be discounted entirely, either; we were here all of two months before we started training. Kind of hard to imagine there¬†wouldn’t be some bumps in that particular road.

Also, I was coming down with a head cold four days before the race.¬†And as predicted, about 48 hours after the race, my immune system had recovered enough to discover that my body was¬†saturated with whatever virus it was and flipped every alarm switch to DEFCON 1. tl;dr I was the most miserable wreck all of Tuesday for the drive to the airport and the flight home, what with a runny nose,¬†splitting headache (that ibuprofen didn’t even put a dent in), and general lethargy. In that light, it’s kind of amazing that broke down at mile 20 as opposed to, y’know, mile 1.

All that aside, it’s still tough for me to shake the disappointment with what appeared to be a second consecutive 20-mile breakdown. At both Marine Corps and now Big Sur, mile 20 has been a wall that has thus far been¬†insurmountable; I’m¬†rolling, until that crucial final 10K where the wheels abruptly fall off.

And yet…there’s this neat feature on Strava where it attempts to intelligently discern how much of your workout you actually spent in motion. Since I don’t stop my watch during races (why would you?), it had the data to come up with a guess of what my time would’ve been minus the 2 bathroom breaks and¬†3 photo ops. Any guesses?

A 9:47 min/mi pace (for reference, my average pace for my official time was 10:10 min/mi). Any idea what my current marathon PR pace is? 9:47 min/mi.

So discounting the bathroom stops and photo ops, I ran Big Sur–in all its crazy elevation changes, with a head cold, and after a relatively subpar training cycle–at the same pace as my PR.

That gives me a glimmer of optimism. It also means it’s time to get back to work.