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!

9k=-1

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.

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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.

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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!

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.

Race Report: The Pittsburgh Half

Ohhhh man. This race. This race.

I have such a checkered history with the Pittsburgh half marathon. In 2011, The Lady and I registered for it as our 2nd ever half marathon, but a week out from the race, my foot / ankle started hurting for no particular reason (I was having a lot of foot issues back then) and I dropped out to be on the safe side. In 2012, I made it to the starting line healthy after setting a crazy PR the month before of 1:43, and went out the gate so fast that I crashed and burned at Birmingham and finished just over 1:50, much to my chagrin (though to be fair, it got pretty hot). In 2013, I was having an amazing training run leading up to the Pittsburgh half, until my IT band quit about two weeks out. So I sat out yet again.

Not this time, I told myself. Birmingham wasn’t going to get away from me, not this time.

Birmingham Bridge: BEATEN.

Birmingham Bridge: BEATEN.

I didn’t go into Race Day feeling overly optimistic. As I mentioned in my previous post, I couldn’t nail down my A-goal of sub-1:40 at Just A Short Run, and I was feeling quite a bit more explosive than I felt this past week. After the monster month that was April, I just wasn’t feeling quite as strong or physically fresh. I felt good, but not amazing. Still: the Burgh 10K was, in a word, incredible: the lack of intense competition made my mind settle to the point where I was having the time of my life, and it felt easy. I wanted to see if, in lieu of a PR, I could recapture that feeling of just zipping along without a care in the world.

In more practical terms, the game plan was to stick like glue to the 3:20 marathon pace group and hold on for as long as I could. The Lady and her friend Kim were also going by the same plan, so it would be a rare race where I got to run with my better half. That was also a nice motivator.

4am race morning came pretty effing early.

Motley crew.

Motley crew.

Our apartment served as a staging area for quite a running group. Liz and Carol were from Toledo, OH: the former is a talented triathlete aiming for a BQ, and the latter was running her first-ever full marathon. Danielle, one of The Lady’s regular running buddies, was also going for a BQ. The rest of us–The Lady, our former Ragnar teammate Devin, and myself–were all running the half.

In case you were wondering, I registered for this race shortly after seeing "Anchorman" for the first time.

In case you were wondering, I registered for this race shortly after seeing “Anchorman” for the first time.

We arrived downtown in plenty of time, getting to the start line by 6 when we needed to be in our corrals by 6:45. We had some time to sit around and relax (read: hit the porta-johns) before wishing each other good luck before heading to our respective starting points. The Lady, after having nailed a qualifying time at Just A Short Run, was a seeded runner, but lined up in Corral A with me (which seemed to be a combination of both seeded and Corral A runners? as in, there didn’t seem to be a difference, other than the word “SEEDED” on some folks’ bibs in the same spot where others had “CORRAL A”).

Yadda yadda thanks for coming, yadda yadda ready set go, AND WE WERE OFF.

Half-marathon route. [Mostly] unchanged from the last couple of years.

Half-marathon route. [Mostly] unchanged from the last couple of years.

The Lady, her running buddy Kim (who we’d met up with in the corral), and I stuck with the 3:20 marathon pace group. The two would split off from each other around mile 10.5, or just before Birmingham Bridge. We figured if we could hang on that long, we’d have a decent shot at 1:40 half. And if not, oh well: we’d still have one another.

The miles started ticking off. Mile 1 actually felt pretty good. Mile 2…eh. Mile 3…oh geez, this is going to end badly.

7:48, 7:42, 7:36

We were only 3 miles in and my quads felt like they were just about to burst into flames. This was bad. This was very, very bad. It was Philly all over again. I was going to crash and burn. I’d have to walk like 5 miles. I’d probably run a 3-hour half marathon. Oh God, it’s going to be even worse than 2012. This is terrible. This is awful. This is–

Then I turned on my music. This was my first song:

I’d been experimenting the past couple of weeks with holding off on my music until I’m already a few miles in. It gives my muscles a chance to warm up without the added adrenaline of my awesome running playlists. Then, when the miles are starting to drag, I can play my ace in the hole to give myself a bit of a boost.

Talk about a boost. My brain clicked off and I settled right in. My quads still felt pretty trashed–it was probably a combination of a rough taper week after the Burgh 10K, a stressful work week, and a fitful night of sleep right before the race–but a mantra bubbled up from the recesses of my brain that I kept repeating to myself, over and over:

You’re fine. It’s just in your head.

I don’t know why, but this calmed me completely. All my doubts flew away. I’d trust my training and do the best I could, regardless of the outcome.

Of course, there was still a lot of ground to cover. We were just crossing over the West End bridge (bridge #3 in 4 miles, for anyone who’s counting).

West End bridge is in the foreground. And yes, the view of the city really is as spectacular as it looks.

West End bridge is in the foreground. And yes, the view of the city really is as spectacular as it looks.

Once across the bridge, we did a brief out-and-back before starting up along Southside.

7:38, 7:44, 7:37

It was at this point that I was coming to the realization that, if I wanted to make a respectable showing, I’d need to pull up just a hair. My legs were having a hard time of things, and if nothing else, I wanted to crush the bridge that had crushed me two years ago. But in order to do that, I needed to survive through mile 10, and things were already getting a bit dicey.

So I slowly released my hold on the pace group, and also took the opportunity to meet back up with The Lady and Kim. We kept dropping in and out of each other’s immediate line of vision as the crowds ebbed and flowed, so I danced outside the pace group and took a couple looks around.

Only this time, I couldn’t spot either one of them. I took another couple looks. Still couldn’t see them.

I was a little disappointed; I’d kind of liked the idea of running this race side by side with my wife. But having no idea where she was, I opted to press on.

7:34, 7:36

For those still keeping track, it was at this point that I made the realization: even though the 3:20 pace group was continuing to fade into the distance, I was still clicking off splits that would get me in right around my goal time. So apparently my legs had been warning me that I was going too fast. I happily chewed on that thought for a few more miles.

The hills of Southside are pretty rolling: for each uphill, there was a nice downhill. We eventually reached “the flattest mile” of the course, at which point I tossed off my makeshift arm-warmers as I mentally geared up for the home stretch of the race.

My nemesis was coming soon…

7:37, 7:52

…and I was starting to feel it. The hills were getting tougher. But mentally I was happy as a clam and calm as a cucumber. I almost couldn’t believe how settled I was.

Soon enough, the crowds on either side thickened considerably, and the half/full split loomed ahead. And I knew what lay just beyond that turn.

Birmingham Bridge. We meet again.

It’s a solid third-of-a-mile long, and a constant uphill grind. But mental acumen + a two-year grudge match to settle = I got across this bridge. I never stopped running, I never broke stride (though I did keep to the tangents!). As I crested the end of the bridge, I felt…accomplished.

It was strange. I expected to be jumping for joy and exploding out of my skin, but like the rest of the race, I just felt a calm serenity. Like the bridge had actually been secretly rooting for me the whole time. Or something.

Or maybe it was that, unbeknownst to me this whole time, The Lady had been a few steps behind me–she made her appearance as we crested over the uphill, as if materializing from somewhere else entirely. COOL!

7:52

Unfortunately, as tough as Birmingham can be, it’s not even the worst part. The downhill is but a brief respite before making a pretty brutal climb to Boulevard of the Allies. The Lady and I were lockstep up this hill, silently encouraging each other to push another mile to what we knew was a net downhill for the rest of the course. This was, by far, our slowest mile of the day.

8:08

I gave The Lady a few feet of running room, as Boulevard is a separated two-lane highway, and there were still a good number of runners. Truthfully, I was also trying to catch my breath from the hill we’d just climbed.

Pretty awesome shot from the last mile!

Pretty awesome shot from the last mile!

But then a curious thing happened. As I tried to make up the distance again, The Lady started surging. I knew we still had a little more than a mile to go, so I thought she was just riding the first downhill. So I kicked up the pace again…and she kicked it up even further.

Holy crap, is she kicking it this far out?

For every bit I pushed harder, she pushed two bits harder. I kept upping the speed, and she kept widening the distance between us. Before I even realized, I was pushing a sub-7 pace…and she was still getting further ahead! I couldn’t believe it when mile 13 ticked off.

7:09

It was the fastest mile I’ve ever run in a half marathon. And yet it wasn’t good enough to even shrink the distance between us, much less catch up to her. She was flying!

I crossed the finish line, covering the final 0.1 at a 6:34 pace, finishing in 1:41:07, a new PR by 30 seconds!

Splits!

Splits.

I can’t even begin to describe the torrent of emotions from after the race. Although I do know that, for a couple minutes after, I was afraid I’d lose my breakfast.

It was a PR on a day when I felt physically subpar within the first four miles. It was my second half marathon PR in two months, after going two years without any. It was, bar none, my finest mental race to date, after over a year of extremely questionable mental performances. It was a PR on a course that had absolutely obliterated me two years ago. It was a PR on a course through a beautiful city full of wonderful people who The Lady and I will dearly miss when we move in December. It was the best race I could have possibly imagined.

Proud finishers.

Proud finishers.

Yeah, I still missed my A-goal of sub-1:40. But on this particular day, I didn’t care. I PR’d against all my initial assessments, against all my feelings at mile 4 and against all my frustrations from two years previous. I had sidelined my worst enemy–my brain–for the duration of my favorite racing distance, and had blown away all expectations as a result.

And got my ass kicked by my wife. Did I mention she was a seeded runner? Yeah, I got beat by a certified badass. It feels pretty awesome, in case you were wondering 🙂

So what’s next? At this point, not really sure. I have a thesis to finish and graduation to worry about first and foremost, and in the distant future, a 4th Air Force half marathon to run. But there’s a lot of time between then and now. For now, I’m going to savor this feeling; this massive boost in confidence is tangible, and I want to remember it for as long as I can. It makes all the difficulties of 2013 seem so distant, but at the same time, so illuminating. I know I’ll have more ups and downs as the time goes on, but I just want to remember: I can still do this. It’s all in my head, after all.

Pretty effing badass finisher's medal, if I do say so m'self.

Pretty effing badass finisher’s medal, if I do say so m’self.

Oh yeah, once we got cleaned up, we went outside our apartment to cheer on the full marathoners. Badasses, every single one. And then we had pancakes and bacon and bagels and french toast and fruit and mimosas and donut holes and YUMMMM.

Race Report: Marine Corps Marathon

Grab a chair and a glass of wine; this is probably going to take awhile. For the weekend of October 25-27, The Lady and I journeyed to Washington, D.C. to see our fall marathon training to its apex.

mcm-2012-logo

I’ll break this sucker down by day.

Friday, October 25

I had a surprise research meeting (is there any other kind) at 8:30am. The Lady picked me up directly from the meeting to start our drive down to D.C. GMaps indicated a 4-hour drive; with our D.C. hosts busy until 6:30pm, we figured leaving at 10am meant we could afford to poke around and take our sweet, sweet time driving south. We stopped for coffee at a rest stop, and hardly an hour later stopped for lunch at a Bob Evans to do some carbo-loading.

We ended up spending quite a bit more time on the road than planned, especially when we started hitting the Friday afternoon traffic around the outskirts of D.C. Consequently, we didn’t end up getting to the Expo until nearly 5:30pm, a full three hours later than planned. Oops.

Still, we were in luck: the long lines that The Lady had been tracking through the MCM app all day seemed to have vanished temporarily, or at least for the time that we were there. We walked right into the first tent to pick up our bibs, and within minutes were in line to enter the main floor of the Expo.

A Marine manned each station. They were *everywhere* for this event, which I thought was incredibly awesome.

A Marine manned each station. They were *everywhere* for this event, which I thought was incredibly awesome.

Walking from bib pickup to the main floor of the expo.

Walking from bib pickup to the main floor of the expo.

After a reasonably quick security check, we entered the main floor. Now I’ve been to a lot of race expos, and even a marathon expo before (Philly), but I can’t say I’ve ever been to one with 30,000 runners. It was a sight to behold.

According to the owner of a local Pittsburgh running shop, one regular-sized booth tucked in the middle of a row went for around $5k. Corner booths were even more expensive, and several companies rented the space of multiple booths. Just wow.

According to the owner of a local Pittsburgh running shop, one regular-sized booth tucked in the middle of a row went for around $5k. Corner booths were even more expensive, and several companies rented the space of multiple booths. Just wow.

The Lady and I bummed around for a bit, checking out the sights. Brooks was the major sponsor for the event; consequently, they had the entire rear quarter of the floor space to themselves. Despite having literally dozens of registers set up for check-out, the line for purchasing Brooks gear snaked all the way back to the entrance. A poor Brooks employee stood with a brightly-colored stick to demarcate the end of the ever-growing checkout line. While The Lady and I perused the items (Brooks has some pretty quality stuff!) we made sure not to purchase anything, as we had to depart fairly soon.

Around 6:45, we left to meet up with our hosts for the weekend: Emmarie and Chris. They very graciously allowed us to stay with them for the entire weekend. I went to high school with Emmarie, who now works for the NY Times right in D.C. (follow her on Twitter if you like!). We hit up the D.C. food scene, going to a delicious sushi restaurant for dinner and getting caught up with everyone’s lives before passing out for the night.

Nervousness hadn’t quite set in; there was still plenty going on to distract me.

Saturday, October 26

I slept pretty badly that evening. I’m still not sure why. But that certainly started making me nervous: sleep is notoriously hard to come by the night before a big race, but two subsequent nights of fitful sleep just before a big race? I tried to put the thought out of my mind.

Thankfully, with the Expo out of the way, The Lady and I were free to spend the day pretty much how ever we wanted. We went with Emmarie to a local diner to pick up some delicious fruit, beignets, and other brunch-y foodstuffs before meeting up with Emmarie’s parents.

Oh yes, they live on MY street.

Oh yes, they live on MY street.

I’ve also known Emmarie’s parents since high school, and they are incredibly warm and lovely people. They hugged and welcomed The Lady–whom they’d only met briefly once over a year ago!–and we gabbed for the hour we spent with them. Sometime in the early afternoon, we had to bail: Emmarie and Chris needed to work on their Halloween costumes for an evening party with a D.C. power couple, and The Lady and I were going for a late lunch with her fundraising group followed by a little touring around the city.

The fundraising lunch was actually quite nice. It’s always a little awkward sitting down with a group of people brought together for only a short time by one particular event, but that very event guarantees some common ground. Plus the restaurant was family-style Italian, so there was plenty of carbohydrates to go around. Everyone we met was very friendly, and we had a lovely time. After filling up on bread, pasta, and just a little bit of salmon, we said our goodbyes and started our trek through the city.

Unfortunately, GPS led us somewhat astray: instead of walking to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, it led us to his library. Completely different parts of town, also. So we opted to hit up the main landmark: the White House.

It was a gorgeous day out, and short though our walk was (didn’t want to be on our legs for too long the day before running 26.2 miles), it was nice to be outside. We took the Metro back; the recommended travel routes to and from the marathon included the Metro and surrounding bus system, so we figured it’d be best to familiarize ourselves with the system before the rush of 30K+ people hit the next day.

The evening was quiet. The Lady and I whipped up our usual pancake dinner, while Emmarie and Chris put the finishing touches on their Halloween costumes for the party (they went as Sydney Leathers and Carlos Danger, respectively). Once our hosts departed for the evening, we pretty much crashed.

Sunday, October 27

Race morning!

Amazingly, I actually slept, and pretty well. No idea how or why, but I certainly wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth (what a bizarre idiom). The Lady and I woke up right around 4:30am and quickly donned our race gear. We had to strike a happy medium, given the low-40s morning temperatures but also considering that it would warm to the mid-50s by the end of the race. Emmarie and Chris were unbelievably awesome, driving us to the Running Village where buses were waiting to take runners to the starting line right next to the Pentagon (they both had work later that day!).

On the bus ride over, we watched a video that started off with a Marine drill sergeant yelling at all of us. That got my adrenaline pumping, to be completely honest.

Soon enough, the Pentagon came into view; we walked through a security checkpoint manned by more Marines; we hit up the porta-potties; then we sat in one of the tents trying to stay warm while hatching our strategies for the race.

This is me trying to stay warm. [photo credit to The Lady]

This is me trying to stay warm. [photo credit to The Lady]

My A-goal was still 3:45; unfortunately, my quads had been feeling very run down for the last 48-72 hours for reasons that were unclear. Ultimately, I was gunning for a sub-4 marathon. I figured I’d start with the 3:45 group and hang on for 20 miles if I could, then fall back, ideally still coming in well under 4 hours. The Lady, though in my opinion much more ready for the race than I was, took a more conservative approach due to the ankle injury she sustained not two days before (incredibly, extremely unfortunate timing).

The sun started peeking over the trees, and we found our way to the starting line in time for the National Anthem.

One of several parachuters carrying the American flag, with the sunrise in the background. Beautiful.

One of several parachuters carrying the American flag, with the sunrise in the background. Beautiful.

The corrals were self-organizing, set up by expected finish time. The Lady and I situated ourselves right in between the 3:45-3:59 and 4:00-4:19 groups. We were packed in pretty tight; hearing that the race has 30k people and actually seeing it are very different things.

Right at 8am, they fired the howitzer, and the race began!

start

The Lady and I found the first part of the course confusing: the road was split as you see above. We were on the right-hand side of the image, but the pace groups were all on the other. Soon after, in fact, our route turned into an onramp while the other looped below! After a few seconds of panic that we were on the wrong course, the two met up and merged.

Still, the first five miles were very slow going. We were elbow-to-elbow for most of it. The part that annoyed me was that, despite the corrals being established explicitly by projected finish time, we still passed / almost ran into dozens of walkers who for reasons I cannot fathom lined up way in the front. It was enough of a fustercluck being squeezed together for the first few miles; having to dodge people who should have lined up much further back made tripping a very real possibility (and several did, in fact).

[Important: I have absolutely nothing against folks who want to run their own pace at marathons, whether it’s a 6-minute mile or a 12-minute mile. What I do have a problem with are 12-minute milers lining up next to 6-minute milers at packed racing events. It makes everyone involved unhappy. Just don’t do it.]

Once we crossed the bridge over the Potomac around mile 4, things started to thin out a little bit. The scenery also blossomed: it felt almost like we were running through trails. There was foliage and greenery everywhere; it was beautiful! We did an out-and-back along Potomac Parkway (the turnaround was another fustercluck; it was very narrow, and we both had to slow to a walk for several steps) and made our way to the Lincoln memorial.

Somewhere around this point, The Lady made the executive decision to stop at a line of porta-potties. She and I had both been feeling an urge since the race began, but had chalked it up to pre-race nerves. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn’t going away. I considered stopping as well, but decided to see if a few more miles wouldn’t fix it. We wished each other well and split off.

The scenery just kept getting more and more beautiful. We ran southeast into East Potomac Park, bordering the river every step of the way. At some point near mile 11, I made a similar executive decision and stepped off into some bushes. I cannot describe how much better I felt after the fact.

It was around this time that we started passing a memorial set up by a group of MCM volunteers to commemorate the Marines who had died in the line of duty. There were pictures of each, often with family or pets, with descriptions underneath. Some runners stopped off in front of one or another to pause for a few minutes before continuing. In the grand scheme of things, it made this marathon seem trivial; or, put another way: the least I could do is put my heart and soul into this race and be satisfied with the outcome, no matter what.

This was the only decent picture of us both I could find.

This was the only decent picture of us both I could find.

The halfway point came and went: 1:59:58. I’d been hammering an 8:30 min/mi pace ever since mile 5 without even realizing it. After months of ignoring my watch, it’d become ingrained in me at this point to run by feel. But with The Lady having dropped off, I was having a harder time gauging how fast I should be going. I would latch onto runners, only to pass them and latch onto another one.

As we made our turn out of the park and into the mall near mile 15, I caught a glimpse of something ahead: the 4:00 pace group! My heart leapt and I got really excited. I knew those first few miles had really pushed us pretty far back by virtue of sheer volume, so the fact that I’d caught up to the pace group was exhilarating. Furthermore, it guaranteed that I could stick by someone without glancing at my watch, without worrying if I was going too fast or too slow. There was even another SCRR shirt in the group; we chatted for a bit.

I was feeling tired, but still pretty strong. We passed right in front of the Capitol building.

Picturesque? Maybe. Goofy? You better believe it.

Picturesque? Maybe. Goofy? You better believe it.

Now, before I go any further, let’s take a quick aside to the Philly Marathon from last year. It was a bad performance for me; I’d dealt with a lot of stress in the month leading up to it, not to mention a pretty severely twisted ankle a month out that kept me off my feet for a week. This affected my running quite a bit. Couple that with an utterly sleepless night right before the race, and my performance as a function of mileage looked something like a linear function with negative slope; I felt progressively worse as the miles wore on.

Back to MCM: I felt really good, riding a solid 9:05ish pace for the first 20 miles (really, the last 15 miles were closer to 8:40, with the first 5 miles having been 9:30-9:45 due to volume). But right around mile 20, something went wrong. Having never really happened upon this before, the most likely explanation would seem to be that I ran smack into The Wall. For those familiar with the curve, it felt much more like the charge-discharge lifecycle of lithium-ion batteries; I was fine until, suddenly, I wasn’t.

Both quadriceps seized up, forcing me to walk. I had just arrived at “the bridge” (CTRL+F “beat the bridge”). I saw the 4:00 pace group move ahead…and I knew I wouldn’t be able to follow, so I focused on breathing and letting them go.

I suppose this is where all the stress-reduction techniques I’d been working on the last couple of months came into play. I’d been in this situation before: I knew I was ready, that I was physically capable of conquering the task I’d placed before myself, but that something wasn’t clicking quite right. And in some of those previous situations, I reacted by trying to reject that reality entirely (and substitute my own), which frankly almost always resulted in intense anger and frustration. [sarcasm] And we all know how much burning the candle at both ends helps! [/sarcasm]

I could have done that. I could have said: f this, I’m pushing to beyond the breaking point, because if I don’t beat my own B-goal that makes me a BAD PERSON. And when I inevitably failed to achieve that goal (negative feedback loops, etc), I would have berated myself and drowned the positives of the entire event into one simmering heap of self-loathing.

That never happened. And the decision for it not to happen was never really a struggle, either. My best guess?

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Marines were everywhere. They manned every single aid station, stood along the course with the spectators, and participated in every single aspect of the race from packet pick-up to finish line clean-up. And their enthusiasm never once wavered: they absolutely loved high-fiving runners, and were just as enthusiastic for you as they were for the runner just before.

I had 6.2 miles to go; I was far, far ahead of the sweeper buses that we had to “beat” over the bridge, so I was in absolutely no danger of not finishing, even if I walked the rest of the way (which I knew I wouldn’t). I was on the course until I finished.

Those 6.2 miles would be really hard, I knew. But damn, just look at where I was! Running a marathon with 30,000 other people, thousands more spectators–many of whom put their lives on the line as a living, by the way–and to boot, it was a gorgeous freaking day in the nation’s capitol.

You better believe I pressed on.

Of course it was bloody hard. I walked/ran those miles; sometimes I walked because one or both quad was seizing; sometimes I walked because I was out of breath; sometimes I walked because I had absolutely nothing left in the tank. But I always started running again, albeit at an 11-12 minute pace. I was determined to finish standing up in whatever the best time I could possibly finish in, even if it was 15 minutes over my previous time. There was no specific time that would make me proud; rather, that I finished standing up, knowing I couldn’t have possibly gone any faster; that’s what would make me proud.

The miles clicked by. so. slowly. I was convinced that The Lady had already passed by and I just hadn’t seen her. As mile 25 came into view, I told myself: run this last mile, the whole thing. Even if it’s slow, just run it.

There must be something about this level of pain that makes your brain forget it a few months later. I know the last 6.2 miles of the Philly Marathon hurt, but in retrospect you can, remarkably easily, convince yourself that you “still could have pushed a little faster.” No. No you couldn’t have, and no you can’t. I was doing a 9:30 mile–normally my super-easy, super-relaxed pace–and absolutely could not push any faster. My calves, my hamstrings, and my quads were all on the verge of total failure; on each step, they threatened that it could very well be the last one they cooperated on.

The turn into the finish was the hardest: the last 0.2 was straight uphill.

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But as anyone who knows me is aware, I don’t walk the hills. I summoned everything that was left and powered up the hill, past quite a few people who stopped to walk. With so many spectators and Marines surrounding us, cheering and encouraging us, my adrenaline was peaking: there was nothing left to do except power up this hill!

Sorry I'm not looking cheerier in this picture.

Sorry I’m not looking cheerier in this picture.

I finished with a time of 4:17.23, 8 seconds faster than my Philly time.

We walked for a bit, going through several passages where we picked up extra sleeves (temperature regulation), water and sports drinks (FYI, the Gatorade “recovery” stuff is actually kind of gross), food (MRE-like packages stuffed with high-protein snacks, bananas, other fruit), and what we all came for: the medals.

finish

Marines were handing them out personally. Some even saluted us after putting them around our necks. Countless other Marines lined up to shake our hands and congratulate us as we passed. It was, in a word, incredible: these people do something far more dangerous and exhausting for a living, and yet they were congratulating all of us. It was humbling.

The finish line festivities.

The finish line festivities.

I spent the next hour trying to keep my legs from locking up. I walked around quite a bit, but also sat to drink and eat. Eventually they calmed down enough that I could get from one place to another with relatively little trouble. The Lady had ended up stopping around mile 18 due to complications with her ankle injury; I and everyone else knows it was the smartest decision possible on her part–live today to run tomorrow–but if you know her in any respect, please go and wish her a speedy recovery. She was in far better shape than I to kick MCM’s ass, but DNF’ing always sucks. She arrived at the finish line sometime around 3pm, at which point we headed back to Emmarie and Chris’ place to clean up.

At almost 5pm, we hit the road for home…but not before stopping at Buffalo Wild Wings for some well-earned beer and wings!

Epilogue

I’ll admit: I wanted a better time at this race. I really thought I could snag sub-4 hours (though coming within 8 seconds of a previous marathon time is impressive on its own; try planning to exactly match any previous marathon time). There are a lot of reasons why this didn’t happen. I’m sure, given all the issues with stress I was having back in July and August in particular, those were underlying my performance to an extent. But to be perfectly blunt, I think I may have inadvertently sabotaged my own marathon performance during the track workout I mentioned in a previous post. After that workout, my quads never quite felt strong again, and they were the first muscles to give in the final 6.2 miles of the race.

But, I don’t regret it. 2013 has been a difficult running year for me; by comparison, 2012 was a year of invincibility. Everything I ran turned to PR. This year also started off strong, but began to crumble with my IT band injury just before the Pittsburgh half in May. That sidelined me for nearly a month before I finally started getting my mojo back in late June. Of course, by then it was full-speed-ahead for my thesis proposal, which was likely the trigger for the stress-related problems that plagued the first half of marathon training. 2013 has had precious few bright spots for me running-wise; I wouldn’t take back the psyche boost of running a 5:58 mile.

There have been other bright spots in 2013, including both 5K and 10K PRs. But my long-distance confidence definitely took a hit, and it’s been slow going rebuilding that. Even so, I can honestly say I’m proud of my MCM performance. While it’s true I ran it in basically the same time as Philly, that’s pretty much where their similarities end. As I mentioned before, my performance at Philly tapered off by the mile; by contrast, I was strong through 20 miles at MCM. Furthermore, I didn’t freak out when things took a bad turn. Instead, I stayed solidly in the moment, which has easily been my biggest problem throughout this training cycle. I soaked up the crowds, the signs (my favorite being “If it was supposed to be easy, it’d be called your mom”), the sights, the music, and most of all, the Marines who came out to support us. And even when I did physically implode, my confidence never wavered: I knew I’d finish eventually, but in the meantime I was going to enjoy being among my fellow runners doing what I loved.

In some sense that I can’t really explain, I wanted to stay out there as long as I possibly could. I was loving every minute, which is a very healthy shift away from the “finish as fast as possible” mantra my brain had settled into previously. Simply put, MCM was an improvement over my Philly performance in every facet except the finishing time (ok so technically an 8-second improvement there, too). I call that a resounding win in my book (especially after reading this article from Runner’s World [credit to The Lady for pointing me to it!]).

As for what’s next, I honestly don’t know. There are a couple 5K/10K races in late November / early December. I know The Lady wants a crack at another marathon when she gets healthy, so the possibility of a summer marathon isn’t out of the question. We’re already registered for the Pittsburgh half, and over New Year’s we’ll likely register for the Air Force half again. I know I’ll be focusing on my mid-range game; my half marathon PR is going to turn a full two years old come the next half, and I want to make sure I’m in a position to crush it. I’d also like to finally nail the elusive sub-20 minute 5K.

Ultimately, I want to build on my MCM performance. There are a lot of things I liked about it. Of course I’m disappointed in my time, and it’s still tough when people ask how the marathon went; saying “Great!” isn’t true, but neither is “Ugh”. The most accurate one-liner is “I didn’t get the time I wanted, but it was still an awesome race and I’m proud of my performance.”

Such is life, I suppose!

Courtesy of The Lady :)

Courtesy of The Lady 🙂

(you can read The Lady’s report here)

Race Report: Race for Gold 26.2K

Nope, that’s not a typo: this was a metric marathon, folks! Brought to you by the Potomac Highlands Distance Club.

This race had a few parts to it. As it was located in Frostburg, MD (yes, nary 10 minutes from where our 2012 Ragnar DC adventure began!) and had only race-day packet pick-up, The Lady and I opted to drive in the night before rather than wake up at 2am, drive for two hours, and only then run 16.28 miles.

Saturday

We departed around 4pm, as we were aiming to arrive in Frostburg right around dinner time. Our night-before-a-race tradition is to whip up some delicious, hearty pancakes (loaded with granola and cinnamon, and topped with more granola, cinnamon, and some greek yogurt), but rather than try to eat them in a hotel room, we sought out the local Bob Evans establishment. Along the way, we beheld some pretty ugly landscapes.

A stack of pancakes, a plate of hash browns, and some grits later, we checked into our hotel room at none other than the very same Hampton Inn where our Ragnar team stayed the night before all the shenanigans went down last year.

Imagine all the cars replaced with 12 and 15-seater vans, and that's what this place looked like 11 months ago.

Imagine all the cars replaced with 12 and 15-seater white vans. That’s what this place looked like 11 months ago.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I did not sleep well at all. I’m fairly certain I got about 3 hours’ sleep, but I know I didn’t fall asleep before 1am, and our wake-up call was at 5am. I suppose that sets the stage somewhat for what follows.

Sunday

At 5am sharp, The Lady’s alarm jolted us out of bed and into our pre-race routines. Packet pick-up commenced at 5:30, and we knew from the online information that parking was extremely limited. After all, Frostburg is a tiny city by itself, and even though this race’s total registration didn’t break triple digits (though it evidently quadrupled in size from the previous year, suggesting this event is growing very, very fast), we wanted to make sure we had a good spot.

At 6:40am, the buses arrived and drove us all to the starting line in Meyersdale, PA (not MD, sorry about that). This town was also about the size of Frostburg, and just as lovely. The race was along the Great Allegheny Passage, a rail trail spanning the two cities and beyond.

The buses dropped us off more or less just in time to walk to the starting line, form up, and hit the trail! With only ~80 people in total, there were no timing chips or mats, and the starting line itself consisted exclusively of the person standing on the trail with the foghorn yelling “READY! SET! GO!”

They warned us before the start not to run over the nice camera lady. So being the functional adult that I am, I almost ran over the nice camera lady. Sorry about that :/

They warned us before the start not to run over the nice camera lady. So being the highly functional adult that I am, I almost ran over the nice camera lady. Sorry about that :/ [PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]

The trail itself was pretty similar to the Montour Trails that The Lady and I are intimately familiar with, having done our 20-mile marathon training runs there, as well as the annual Burgh 10K. Well-maintained crushed limestone rail trails are, to put it simply, awesome.

This section of the passage was interesting. The first 7.5 miles were a gentle incline, followed by an equally gentle descent over the next 8 miles, before throwing some nasty switchbacks at us for the final mile leading up to the finish. Most of the route was well-covered under trees; we crossed a lot of bridges spanning small brooks and rivers in the first part of the race. At mile 7.5, there was one water and aid station, a good checkpoint for fueling up before beginning the descent that would eventually finish out the race.

At the start, I felt…ok. Lack of sleep made everything feel a little washed out, and I knew it would take me at least a few miles to settle in. I stuck with The Lady for the first four miles, clocking in a very nice 8:50 pace as we traded positions with a few runners, exchanged pleasantries, and generally enjoyed the gorgeous surroundings.

When mile 4 rolled around, I opted to attempt what my original plan had been: 8:30s, working my way down to 8s. The former is my Marine Corps Marathon goal pace (a 3:45 finishing time), so the latter was a nice compromise between marathon and half-marathon paces. But the way I was feeling, even 4 miles in, I knew it would be nice just to maintain 8:30s for the remainder of the race.

The aid station came and went, and the descent began. We went through a tunnel that was a full 0.5 miles long–it was actually one of the more bizarre experiences I’ve had during a race. Kind of cool, kind of…just plain weird. Thankfully, the overhead lights were functioning, else it would have been absolute pitch black.

As we exited the tunnel, another photographer greeted us, and immediately beyond was a gorgeous view of the countryside.

There was a biker on the far bench (you can just see him in the photo). As I passed by, I remarked to him: “If I wasn’t racing, I could sit here for hours.” He heartily agreed, and likely got right back to doing just that as I kept running.

At this point, I had an experience similar to the Trot for Tots 10K back in December, where I had a very sudden rush of fatigue that felt like almost like a punch to the gut. Very suddenly, my breathing became much heavier, and it took a bit of steadying to find a rhythm again. A point to the mental faculties that day, but it was becoming painfully clear that the second half of the race was going to be really tough; my body just wasn’t there.

Tough it most certainly was. The tunnel exit was around mile 10.4; I made it another 2.5 miles before arriving at the third and final tunnel of the race, and my very own pain cave. I backed off the pace a bit to around 9s, though I could also feel the muscles in my calves starting to give warning signs.

I have to point out: physically I was nearing the end of my rope, but mentally I was calm as a cordial cucumber clothed in a cummerbund. For me, that’s a big effing deal. It was only weeks prior that I’d imploded during a 12-mile run, during which I’d felt many of the same things I was feeling now, but completely lost focus and discipline. Granted, I was now 10 days out from my Ph.D. thesis proposal, arguably the single most stressful deadline in the past couple years, so I’d had some time to get my feet under me, as it were. Still, 10 days isn’t a whole lot of time to go from really-bad-12-miler to awesometacular-16.28-miler, so even in the physical sense, reaching 12 miles at an ~8:40 clip without stopping was a solid achievement for me in the last month. Reaching it without mentally breaking down was a whole ‘nother cake.

Where was I? Cake…icing…fried butter…the South…Mason-Dixon line…Great Allegheny Passage, ah yes! Mile 13.

I couldn’t quite make it without stopping. The Lady caught up to and passed me somewhere on mile 15, and I took that time to walk things out a bit (she asked if I was ok; I assured her that I was, and wished her and her running buddy Mary good luck). I was barely a mile out, so after a minute of walking, I switched to my finishing song–Imagine the Fire–made the turn onto the final stretch, and powered through the switchbacks.

Switchbacks are hard. But it was my intention to crush them, so crush them I did. I caught up to within about 40 seconds of The Lady, and as soon as she crossed the finish line, she turned around to motivate me the rest of the way to the finish.

According to my Garmin, this is the face of a 4:40 mile pace.

According to my Garmin, this is the face of a 4:40 mile pace. No joke, I was giving this thing everything I had. [PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]

I crossed the finish line, hit “stop” on my Garmin (except apparently not hard enough, since it recorded another 6 minutes of me standing around), and immediately turned around and ran it all again. LOLOLOLO except I actually sat for a few seconds to catch my breath, then walked around a bit so my muscles wouldn’t cramp. Thankfully, they never did during the race (though they felt like they were going to), and they never did after either.

My finishing time: 2:24:37 (8:53 pace).

Postmortem

I didn’t the paces I’d originally wanted (here’s the garmin data). It felt very reminiscent of the Philly Marathon, where I also felt run down from the start and struggled to find any rhythm. But as the days pass, I’m more and more pleased with my overall performance at this race. The atmosphere was unbeatable: a very small race, gorgeous trails, beautiful weather, expert organization, and incredibly friendly participants. That’s pretty much all I could ask for. I was happy to have finished given the warning signs that were showing barely a quarter of the way into the race. I was also very happy with my mental performance: I kept cool despite knowing very early on that I was fighting a losing battle. The gorgeous surroundings helped immensely to distract me, I think. The cool weather and well-covered trails were also invaluable.

The Lady kicked some serious tush, coming away with 1st in her age group! She ran an excellent race, pacing herself very well from the start. I couldn’t be more proud of her.

Our next race is the Air Force Half Marathon on September 21. Between now and then, I intend to continue getting plenty of sleep and enjoying not having a huge deadline with far-reaching implications regarding the future of my career hanging over me. It’s an opportunity to improve, just like every other run.

Great event, great folks, great food, would run again 🙂