Why hello there, neglected blog *hugs* Guess it’s just you and me, eh?
In case you’ve been living under a vacuum-sealed rock for the past three months, there’s been a worldwide outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 and its subsequent viral infection, COVID-19. Georgia’s stats haven’t looked great, and it’s still too soon to tell what kind of an effect the phased re-opening is having, but here we are for the foreseeable future.
Just before the country shut down sometime in March, I was busy training for the Savannah Women’s Half Marathon in early April, en route to–hopefully!–a second crack at the full marathon in as many years sometime later this year. Obviously the former didn’t happen–the race was postponed to November with virtual participation an option up to the physical November race date. I still haven’t decided exactly what I’m going to be doing, but suffice to say, immediate plans went up in smoke.
In the four weeks leading up to the shutdown, I was struggling a bit to find a rhythm in the new spring semester, but I was still pretty much universally killing the workouts and long runs–a clear sign that, while not perfect, training was definitely going well.
The next four weeks were, in retrospect, surprisingly productive on the running front, though I suspect pure inertia had more to do with it than anything: it was a plank of familiarity in a sea of unknowns. I managed a 36.7 mile week the first weekend of April, when I was supposed to have raced in Savannah.
And then the wheels really came loose.
Two workouts, two long runs, in four weeks. The end of a semester that felt like it had barely begun–courtesy of a total and near-instantaneous shift from in-person to completely online barely three weeks prior–hit like a freight train. Along with, y’know, the existential weight of surviving during a worldwide pandemic.
Running was burning the candle at both ends. I couldn’t pry myself out of bed in the mornings to get a run in, but neither could I fall asleep at night after an exhausting day of existing.
I wish I could say there was a silver bullet to maintaining a running regimen during a global pandemic: some kind of magic wand that consistently carves out time and energy to make runs happen and enjoyable. Instead, there was a lot of frustration, a lot of doubt, a lot of anger and resentment and questioning whether this was really something I should be putting my time and energy into trying to make happen.
Was I just being lazy? Or would getting out there do more harm than good? Was this something I should push through, training myself in the process and building my mental fortitude? Or was I priming myself for a massive burnout down the road? What about my physical fitness? What about how exercise positively affects brain function?
All questions without obvious answers. Also, all pointless spinning.
There is no silver bullet. But there are the following tenets:
Get enough sleep. I can’t emphasize this one enough. Loss of sleep is one of the first symptoms of a higher stress baseline, and it cascades into literally everything else. So this is the first thing to address. If you’re not getting enough sleep, the effectiveness of all other downstream mitigation strategies will be blunted at best, utterly negated at worst. Biggest bang for buck is right here.
Prioritize. And be honest about it. These two points go hand-in-hand, because what we sometimes think of in a single instant as our top priority actually has more leeway than we think. What really is your top priority right? What really needs to get done? And what else can wait?
Do what makes your heart sing. Those other high-priority things with some flex to them can wait until you’ve recharged a bit. Yes, you would do more harm than good by trying to get them done before you’ve rested. I’ve run on 1 hour of sleep before; it’s always utterly unproductive at best, and though this thankfully hasn’t happened to me, it could result in a devastating injury because of my fatigued state at worst. If a nap is going to be what helps in the long run, take a nap. If it’s playing a video game, play a video game. If it’s reading a book, read a book. The other stuff can wait.
My coach and I, in lieu of the half marathon, had planned on a 10K time trial on May 9 as a way to maintain some structure and keep up some motivation. Given the difficulty I had training through April, I asked to push the time trial back a week (see above: Prioritize). As a result, I got a complete week of training in last week–all 33 miles, including a solid workout and a crushed long run. This week, I’ve been on track, and we have a plan for tomorrow’s time trial. I won’t be setting any landspeed records–that 42-minute PR is going to be waiting awhile longer–but it’s giving me something to shoot for.
Wish me luck! And you can bet there’ll be a nap afterwards 🙂
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
Saturday, November 9
RACE DAY WOOOOOOOOO
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)?!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream is an antidote for worldly fatigue.
Homemade Sky Valley, GA donuts.
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.
In that both words have eight letters and start with “m”.
It was fairly early in 2019 when I made the decision to run my first marathon in over four years. In receiving an award notification for the NSF CAREER in late mid-December 2018, I was now reasonably confident I would sail through my tenure approval process and be given the chance to stick around for foreseeable and moderately unforeseeable future. With the 2015 Big Sur marathon retreating further into the rearview mirror, I wanted to get back into the long distance game before I completely forgot how to fuel for anything over 13 miles.
I also, genuinely, wanted to take another crack at the distance that has vexed me all three times I’ve attempted it: a slow-burn meltdown in 2012 at Philly, a lithium-ion crash at the 2013 Marine Corps, and a head cold at the aforementioned 2015 Big Sur that yielded a brilliant 20 miles followed by a final 10K march so miserable I literally don’t remember it.
That process was anything but smooth. As much as I would flail and rage against it, life still happened.
June was brutal, but relatively successful: with the exception of a missed race (just couldn’t make Rabun happen this year), I hit the mileage goals. The quality workouts, however, were another story: I was having to cut back on difficulty on almost every one–a sprint here, a rep there. The heat and humidity were already at their worst and I just wasn’t acclimated. A lovely trip to the mountains with dear friends helped break up the cycle a bit and generally relax while still acclimating.
By comparison, July knocked me on my ass. While I did manage to finally halt my four-year slide at the Peachtree Road Race and clock a faster time than last year, it was still comfortably above 50 minutes; the halcyon days of southern summer swelter had arrived in force, and simply stepping outside required Herculean strength and resolve. I also had to deal with a small twinge in my knee that took me out of running for a week. Certainly didn’t do my ability to acclimate any favors.
Flyover at the start of the 50th Peachtree Road Race.
Morning tempo workout at SciPy in Austin, TX.
Took a picture almost identical to this in February of 2017, also while out on a run.
Melting post-workout in the Athens, GA summer heat.
Nighttime in the Tucson, AZ desert is actually perfect for running.
It was raining and miserable on the morning of Rabun.
This nugget I’m carrying has hiking interleaved in her DNA.
In August, we started the formal 16-week marathon training program. By this time I had a “base”–that elusive concept referring to one’s baseline abilities and assumptions that we’re starting some epsilon away from scratch–and instead of maintaining weekly mileage while increasing difficulty, I could start alternating each week with increased mileage and increased workout difficulty. Of course, the start of fall classes did nothing to help the process go smoothly, and the fact that I was slated to teach the single course I was least prepared for (of the five I’ve ever taught before) ensured that this month felt completely chaotic.
…at least, until September rolled around and left no doubt that it would be perennial contender for Most F*#@ing Absurd Month. My quality workouts actually went well, but I had two spectacular blow-ups in long runs this month: one was entirely my fault (pro-tip, don’t drink margaritas the night before a long run) while the other I blame on the still-Venusian weather. Real life did a real number, too–The Lady and I traveled three of the four weekends in the month: one to West VA for a friend’s wedding (with a stop the night before at UNC Chapel Hill…not exactly “on the way”), one to Pittsburgh for my first-ever invited seminar and to visit The Lady’s brother and his family, and a third to D.C. to serve on my first-ever NSF review panel.
I’ll always love Pittsburgh.
Running through the UNC Chapel Hill campus early in the morning.
We may have been out in the middle of Nowhere, West VA, but they did have miles and miles of rails-to-trails that were perfect for a 16-mile long run.
This ended up being a solid workout run through the D.C. suburbs, despite being at nearly the end of my physical rope.
That last trip to D.C. was at the end of September and start of October, which was also supposed to coincide with my first 20-mile long run of the cycle, but I was so burned out at this point I ended up getting sick and not running a single mile of that 20. In the subsequent weeks of October my running improved considerably, but at this point we were solidly in Peak Month and everything was hard. The shortest long run was 18 miles, and the weekly mileage regularly topped 45. While the weather was slowly cooling off, we still had frequent mornings with temperatures over 70F and above 90% humidity. And despite out-of-town travel dropping to zero, I was now in perpetual catch-up mode at work.
Which brings us, at last, to November. The “Taper Tantrums” are in full swing: I can fall asleep anytime, anywhere; everything hurts, even parts which have no reason to hurt; short runs feel terrible, and longer runs slightly better. I feel completely tapped out at work, and when I get home it’s all I can do to keep from scarfing down literal pounds of leftover Halloween candy and avoiding egg nog like the plague, lest it turn my blood to lead and all but guarantee that my marathon will end within the first mile.
I honestly don’t know what to expect from this marathon, partly because I haven’t had a chance to discuss with Caitlin yet, but also because of the simple fact that it’s been 4.5 years since my last and life has been so life in the last six months that anything between Phawkes’ 3:20 predictions (“Phawkes” is the name of my Garmin Fēnix) and my standing 4:17 PR seems well within the realm of possible, even plausible.
FiveThirtyEight linked their marathon pace calculator from last year in time for this year’s NYC Marathon, and for giggles I punched in the information they wanted: 35 miles/week (average) training, a 1:44:52 half marathon time on a moderate course (Swamp Rabbit in Feb 2019), and a 51:29 10K on a hard course (Peachtree this past July). Here’s what they thought:
Seems as reasonable as any. But enough with reasonable.
Every fall it seems like the conceptual thunderdome of “which is a better metaphor for life: football or marathons” crops up. I spent a significant portion of my formative years having the football metaphor drilled into me: the gridiron as a stand-in for all the challenges and uphill battles you’ll fight on a daily basis, with the guarantee that you’ll get knocked down repeatedly, and the mark of a successful player is the ability to get back up to [likely] get knocked down again and [maybe] make a play.
16 years later (jfc I’m old), I embrace that metaphor with considerably less enthusiasm. While I don’t think it’s outright wrong, it’s definitely misleading: there are only so many times you can get back up before trying again could, literally as well as figuratively, be dangerous to your health. To that end, I’ve increasingly found the marathon to be the superior metaphor: it’s a long grind, especially with the training, and has its share of ups and downs. Sometimes it will feel great, other times you’ll wish you’d stayed in bed. There’s no shortcut–I’ve found one can “fake” their way through a half marathon without training, but with a full it’s just impossible unless you’ve put in the time and effort. Critically, you can’t put it all on the line at the very beginning; it’s not a sprint, so you better go out hard but make sure you’ve got something left for when the going gets really hard.
I may be training for a marathon, but I’m also actively running one. I nailed a huge PR last December and took some time to recuperate a bit. Unfortunately, this fall, I attacked the hills a bit before I was fully rested and it hurt like hell. It’ll make me stronger down the stretch, but only if I take care of myself now. But in that recover-while-training synchrony, I’ve been frustrated by what feels like simply treading water: workouts where I’ve had to cut out reps because it was just too humid out, or long runs I had to bag because I was under the weather. Meanwhile, I’ve yet to get further than a week ahead in my teaching, I’ve pushed a couple grant deadlines, and I outright canceled my appearance at a top conference in October. In isolation, these felt like misses in my training, milestones I should have been able to hit but didn’t. Was I not training hard enough? Did I need to push even more? Maybe I could make up for it by cramming in more later?
It’s crazy how often the same identical neuroses crop up in marathon training and everyday life, and are handled oppositely. I get a small tweak in my knee? Take a week off, no worries, especially since it’s early in training; Big grant deadline? Push through it, pull an all-nighter if you have to, then back to work first thing in the morning because I haven’t made the lecture slides yet. Conversely: three weeks in a row of travel, feeling sick, sure I’ll take a day off from work; three weeks in a row of travel, feeling sick, but if I skip this 20-mile run it’s the end of the f#@!ing world!
I love what I do; I also hate my job with every fiber of my being. So, too, do I love and hate running marathons. Maybe I’ll give marathons a slight edge in sum because I often run to escape work, but never the other way around. Also because I can eat a lot more donuts while running marathons than I can sitting at my desk.
This is all to say: I’ve really, really missed this grindy, miserable, wonderful event, and I’m excited and terrified to see what I can do on Saturday morning. But no matter what happens, I’ll feel better again, I’ll have fun, and I’ll have the world’s best cheering section the whole way.
Things have been chugging along at a good clip across the board, but mostly my absence has largely been due to burnout: I’ve been taking this summer to actually recoup and recover, rather than fill up my first non-teaching semester in 3 years with more-and-different-but-really-just-status-quo stuff.
I’ve still been active running–continuing my 100+ miles/month streak that started about this time in 2018:
Normally July is a beast month, but two weeks ago I noticed a pulling in my right knee. Since I’m really set on doing my first marathon in four years this November, and I’d had a pretty stellar June, I didn’t want to push things too hard too soon, so I took a full week off and then slowly built up again last week (without issue, thankfully!). Consequently the mileage was well under where it would have been, but I’m simply grateful for being able to keep running.
Speaking of the marathon! I’ve hired a coach–Caitlin Kowalke, who owns Fearless Feet Running. We’ve been working together since early May when we started base-building, and as of last week we are now officially in the 16-week marathon training cycle.
I can’t say enough–she’s been fantastic. She’s exactly the right combination of pushing-the-envelope with listen-to-your-body that I need. The Tuesday morning workouts have become almost infamous between The Lady and myself–“what fresh hell is on the docket for this week?”–and it always pushed me right to the edge, but always in a way that 1) I can finish, even if only barely, and 2) I learn something about myself in the process. The Lady pointed me to her late last spring, as she made a recruiting post around that time on Instagram that got circulated through the Oiselle community. I’d been pondering getting a coach (to get me under that brutal 4-hour mark on marathons) but hadn’t had any luck finding one, up until then.
Training through the summer has not been easy, either. While it’s been a far better summer than, say, 2018 (Lily) or 2016 (new record for consecutive highs over 90–somewhere in the realm of 50+ straight days), I’ve been dealing with the consequences of going 9000mph in my job for the last four years straight. Having finally received my first federal grant last December, and in my first semester (including summers) since Spring 2016 where I haven’t had a course to teach, I’ve taken this summer to try and recover a bit from some very serious burnout, starting with our anniversary trip to Ireland in mid-May.
At the same time, this summer has been the hottest we’ve had since that brutal summer in 2016 with 50+ consecutive days with highs over 90 and lows above 70. It hasn’t quite reached that level, but evidently this past July was on par with July 2016, the standing record. That, plus the two weeks of travel in May to Ireland, a week of travel in June to Tucson AZ, and a week of travel in July to Austin TX–all of which was AWESOME, by the way–has been tough to maintain a regular base-building regimen through.
But Caitlin has been patient with my schedule, encouraging in my foibles, and supportive in my successes AND everything in between. I particularly want to point out how she’s gently (but firmly) turned me away from what I perceive as failures, and encouraged me to celebrate wins, even when I felt like a workout was a total bust. This is absolutely the part I have the most trouble with, and not just in running–I forsake the broader success to instead focus exclusively on the one thing that didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. She’s been great in keeping me focused on the bigger picture, and the progress I’ve been making over the weeks and months.
It’s been working. I didn’t break any landspeed records at Peachtree this year, but I did finally break a 4-year slide of consecutively-slower races, coming in right around 51:30 and beating last year’s time by over two full minutes (and under brutal conditions, too). I even felt like I had some gas left in the tank at the end!
The workouts have been equally encouraging, even just in the past few days: Saturday was my first long run (8 miles) since I started feeling that pull in my knee, so not only was I apprehensive about how my knee would hold up, but also about how I’d handle longer distance in the heat after nearly two weeks on the bench. I finished the run but the last 3 miles was a slog (just because of the weather–my knee held up great!).
Fast-forward all of three days later to a 5.25-mile tempo run, and I did it 1) at 11am, so the sun was already beating down pretty hard, and 2) with 8:20-pace segments in it, and I felt great!
I’m excited for what the next four months will bring. This summer has felt restorative, even though I accomplished almost none of what I’d had on a “list” of things that I could potentially do. At the end of the day, you can’t put a price tag on recovering from burnout; while three months of recuperating will never fully compensate for four years of mindless and endless hard work, and while I wasn’t able to pick up any of the personal projects that have languished for years now, this summer still fulfilled its role of restoration and self-care. And I got a solid marathon base to boot 🙂
2018, on a whole, was actually a solid running year. More solid than it’s been in… years.
1,518.92 miles. Which is strange, because Strava thinks I ran exactly 1,500. As far as I can tell, there was some bug in the database tally that mistook my first week of 2018 as some random week in December 2017. Technical wibbly-wobbly aside, the bottom line is that I had my second-best annual mileage, ever.
236,891 calories burned. How many donuts is that? Not nearly enough, I say.
248+ hours. That’s literally over 10 straight days of running/walking/hiking. Not too shabby.
10 out of 12 months with 100+ miles. That’s one better than last year, though interestingly the mileage differential from 100 those two months was almost exactly the same as the total mileage differential over last year’s *three* sub-100 months. So, though I missed fewer times this year, when I did miss, I missed by more.
Weird. But still really, really solid.
What’s especially fantastic is that, by any objective measure, I crushed two of my three goals from last year’s review post:
I’m still reeling from that half marathon. Yeah, it’s still a good four minutes off my PR, but that is literally the closest I’ve gotten since moving to Athens. I couldn’t be happier about it. I had so much fun at that race!
Other accomplishments of note in 2018:
I entered 13 races in 2018. That may not seem like an eye-catcher, but if you check out the Races page (where I keep track of all my race results), you’ll notice the number of races I participated in dropped considerably in 2016-2017 (8 in both years, compared to 14 in 2015 and 16 in 2014). It’s great to be an active racer again (especially since I’m now on the Athens Fleet Feet Racing Team!).
Ran four half-marathons, all under 1:50. I haven’t run four half marathons in one year since 2015, and haven’t delivered a sub-1:50 shutout since… ever!
Set an 8K PR of 35:53. Athens seems to like 8Ks more than Pittsburgh, so we’ve been running them more often, and I went ahead and made them an official category of PRs I’m tracking. And, well–I nailed a PR at the Give Thanks 8K on Thanksgiving morning!
Ran our first trail race ever, and then ran two more for good measure! Technically the first trail race was the 15K in March at Lake Chapman. After that, we ran the Rabun Trail half over the summer, which was brutal but so awesome. We caught the bug, and ran the Helen Holiday trail half in December. We’ll definitely be doing more trail races in the future!
Participated in the annual holiday Beer Mile again! I vastly improved my time, from last year’s 8:55 to this year’s 8:28. Like last year, however, I still came in second place, though I did demolish last year’s winner. This year’s winner was not even in the same category–he beat me by a good 20 seconds or so, and was clearlysandbagging. Dunno if I’ll ever win the event if he keeps coming back, but it was still quite a lot of fun 🙂
Lake Chapman 15K
Rabun Trail Half
Helen Holiday Half
All that makes it sound like 2018 was sunshine and rainbows. It was definitely the best year I’ve had since moving to Athens, hands down. I also–KNOCK ON WOOD–didn’t really suffer a major injury; there was a week in February I took off due to a pull in my knee, and it cleared up immediately. The writing goal–my third goal for 2018–was a fantastic anchor in my work/life balance the first half of the year.
But it kind of came crashing down over the summer. Part of it was absolutely the brutal online summer course I was teaching. Even though it was the third year in a row, it was far and away the most difficult iteration, and the one that convinced me that this wasn’t something I could keep doing.
But the other part, the part that really shook us both for months, was that we had to say goodbye to our dear 18-year old tabby, Lily.
The Lady had adopted Lily as a tiny kitten and known her all her life. I was only introduced when she was 6, but after an initial period of inspection, Lily accepted me. Even though I grew up with cats, Lily was my first cat. All of July went by in a haze, and our running fell off quite a bit.
We started going for a lot of evening walks, a habit which we still pick up here and there. Our trail running picked up a lot (as every road run just felt awful and tedious), and we met a new Athens runner, Laura, who started graduate school at UGA and was game for pretty much any run or workout we could come up with. We kept the racing schedule fun, varying the distances and locations, pushing during training when we wanted to, and pulling back when weren’t feeling it.
I visited the Oiselle shop in Seattle during a December conference 🙂
The variety has helped. It continues to help. It’s something I want to carry into 2019:
1,600 miles. This is no small feat for me: the mighty 2014 running year was just a touch over 1,600 as well. But it speaks of expectations regarding my next goal…
Return of the marathon! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is my fervent hope to participate in some kind of fall marathon! I’ve no idea which one, though I am looking at a couple of regional fulls (Richmond and Chickamauga are at the top of the list), so stay tuned! I don’t really have any goals other than to actually finish… but of course, it’d be great to finally come in under 4 hours.
Daily core/yoga. In doing some experimenting it’s become clear that daily yoga is a bit out of my reach. And core work is that frustrating thing that gets dropped at the first sign of trouble. But so far in 2019 I’ve managed to get 10-15 minutes of core work in each day (except for long runs, because oy), and 2x/week of yoga seems to be working as well.
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:
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:
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).
Note the Fleet Feet racing shirts!
Got to say hi to my niece mid-race!
Lots of great folks at the starting line.
Credit this shot to Dustin at the finish.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
Which I was. But at least I was consistent 😛
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.
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
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 😛
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.
Predictably (in hindsight at least), September was a shitshow. Work has since calmed down a little bit, but is still moving at a pretty brisk pace, so this is more of an update-for-the-sake-of-updating than an in-depth spread.
Mileage. I’ve been steadily building in the past couple months, which is good because I’m about 1.5 weeks’ worth behind on my annual goal of 1,500 miles. I’ve been steadily chipping away at that deficit (it stood at 2.5 weeks’ worth about a month ago), but averaging 31-33 miles per week for the rest of the year could still be a tall order as we head into the holidays. I’m already at 55 miles for the month of October, semi-tapering in preparation for the upcoming AthHalf event in 9 days! After that, it’s a straight shot to our third Chickamauga Battlefield event, at which both The Lady and I will be doing the half this time around.
Maybe next year we’ll both do the full?!
After that, we have a trail half marathon up in Helen, GA in mid-December, so we’ll definitely have to keep our mileage up and even start working in some trails. Given that the weather has finally
started acting more like fall (58F this morning!!), the trails should be quite a bit more pleasant as temperatures continue to fall and the mosquito populations continue to wither until winter’s onslaught.
Speaking of half-marathons…
Sub-1:45? Ish? The Eugene Half was really close to that magical number, all of about 45 seconds long. Given how awful the summer was, and the burning-the-candle-at-both-ends-ness of August and September (and let’s be honest, October too), and how tough the AthHalf course tends to be, I’m not expecting any kind of run at 1:45 in 9 days. I would, however, love to take a crack at my “event” PR of 1:48:56 from 2016 (I say “event” because the course will have changed 3 different times for the same event between 2016, 2017, and 2018). We’ll see how that goes!
That said, provided work eases up just a tad bit more after AthHalf, it’s possible that I could actually make a run at 1:45 for the Chickamauga half. I ran it in under 1:50 the first year while severely undertrained, and came in just under 1:47 last year. I think I’m in better condition this time around than I was even last year, so we’ll see!
And finally, drum-roll…
The summer was unexpectedly brutal, and since June it’s basically been a sprint with no real let-up. I managed to maintain a decently regular writing regimen through the spring and into the summer, but that basically ended in July. I’ve been more or less white-knuckling it ever since. I’m kind of amazed I’ve managed to keep within range of my 1,500 mile 2018 goal, but as stated even that will be still be tough to hit at this point.
I did spend a lovely half week in San Francisco for a conference back in late August, where I also managed to get a decent amount of running in.
But since then it’s been go-go-go.
The class I’m teaching this semester is one I taught back in Spring 2017, but due to some personal things at the time there’s a gaping hole in the curriculum right around now, so I’m spending quite a bit of time making lectures and homeworks from scratch.
Grant proposals have been unending. There was a giant one at the end of July, then another huge one at the end of September (this was one that we submitted last year and missed by inches–others have said they’ve had grants funded on worse reviews than ours). Now I’ve got one next week (Oct 16), and a final one planned for the end of November (the 27th). If literally one of these is actually funded I will be over the moon.
What’s weird about this brutal mix of teaching-and-grantwriting is that I haven’t been able to read any research papers. At the start of the year I borrowed a page from Carly’s book and started keeping a spreadsheet of the papers I’d read. Granted, I’ve skimmed over abstracts and glanced at figures, but in this spreadsheet I noted papers I’d read start-to-finish, with that intent. The last one that truly met that criteria was from mid-August.
Sleep has been… problematic. I’m hoping with this Oct 16 grant getting wrapped up, my cortisol levels will chill out a bit.
I fervently hope it won’t be another three months between blog posts. Running has been the thing that, when all else falls off due to work obligations, I let running fall away last, so I’ve still been largely pounding out the miles.
The Lady and I ran the Peachtree Road Race 10K this week, our fourth since moving to Athens 3.5 years ago (has it been that long already?). Barring some of the most condescending and unhelpful race officials I have ever encountered in my life (they’ll be hearing from me; it was an embarrassment to the sport), it was a top-notch event, as always.
It also continued a monotonic slow-down in race time year-over-year for me since we started running the race as Athens locals: in 2015 I ran it in 46:19; in 2016, 51:48; in 2017, 53:27; and finally, this year, 53:44.
That’s a bit of an oversimplification; after all, the last several blog posts here have detailed how much running has actually improved over the last year-ish. And broadly speaking, that does seem to hold true.
But the month of June was a barn-burner. The two weeks leading up to July 4 were particularly awful.
As much as I like and trumpet the fact that running is a mental and physical cleanse, an opportunity to leave the real world behind for a bit and be alone with my thoughts or just the ambience of nature, I can’t make that switch flawlessly; just like I carry the benefits of running with me into my day-to-day life, the consequences of events from my day-to-day trickle into my running. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that I am a function of my entire life, not just the “good” parts I want to bring with on a run.
The Lady and I went through a hard June. We’re still feeling the effects, but we’ve reached the point where re-establishing a regular rhythm–particularly one which involves physical activity–is going to be a net benefit. But to even consider that our running could have continued unaffected during that stretch would be laughable. There was one run (I think it was that Wednesday on the above screenshot, the tiny bubble with no number on it) where I’d planned about 3-5 miles. I got up in the morning, got dressed, headed out… and quit after 1 mile.
There’s the good kind of awful, and just plain shit. This was the latter. You don’t push through that; you listen and do what you need to do, including and especially if that involves not running.
And that’s ok.
Of course, I have a lot of trouble with the “that’s ok” bit. Part of that stems from my innate perfectionism that wants to check off every goal I set: Strava wastes no time in reminding me I’m currently 20 miles behind my mileage goal for the year, which isn’t quite a full week (~28 miles/week is needed to maintain), but warrants attention paid if I want to stay on track. The other part is the fact that, for the most part, I know running is good for me, but too much of anything is a bad thing; finding that balance is tricky. At the time, I wasn’t sure I should call it quits after just 1 mile of a planned 3+; even after I started walking it in, I questioned if I should try to push through it. It’s only in retrospect (two weeks later) that I can confidently say that 1 mile was all I had to give that day, and even then I was probably drawing on the next day’s energy.
Finally, another part of me just wants to run. Rack up those miles, push the pace, snap long-standing PRs, and just fly. Because, all hemming and hawing and navel-gazing aside, I love running.
It’s that simple. But as many religions have found, it’s tough to be both of the world while also separate from it. Impossible, really; that’s why I can’t just flip the switch and drop the real world when it comes time to run.
But it is nice to occasionally remind myself why I run.
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…
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.
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 🙂 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.
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.
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 7:04pace 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.
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.
(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.
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.
I still haven’t set a PR in one of the four major categories (5K, 10K, Half, Full) since 2014. But man, am I racking up the mileage like it’s 2014!
This past week I hit a whopping 43.78 miles, which is 6th on my all-time list. Note that the 40-mile week from January is a little further down the list… and nowhere will you find anything from 2016 or 2017.
As for me? Honestly, no idea. I haven’t gone into a half marathon with a mind to set a PR (or even feeling like there was a chance of doing so) in literally years. Now, I doubt I could expect to go into this with any realistic shot of breaking my 1:41 from 2014, but I may very well have a realistic shot of running my best half since the Georgia Publix Half the first April we were in Athens; the last few half marathons (1:48, 1:53, 1:46, 1:48) have been consistently under 1:50 (and by a decent margin) after a year of being consistently over 1:50 (by an equally decent margin).