Moving back to the starting line

I’m currently sitting in the enormous Oregon Conference Center in Portland, OR for the weeklong PyCon 2016 (where I’ll be speaking later this afternoon, w00t!). However, I wanted to take the brief reprieve–there’s a career fair going on in the main exhibit hall right now, which I arguably don’t need to worry about for at least the next 6 years–to discuss something completely unrelated to Python or science in general (ok, maybe it’s grounded entirely in science, just not in the sort of research I do).

The thought that’s been slowly crystallizing in my mind for the past several months (yes, months) is this idea of “starting over” with running. It’s a tough idea to fully wrap one’s mind around; we certainly remember when we first started running, and we often look fondly at what we once thought of as “long” runs or “fast” runs compared to what we do now. But it never occurs to us–at least, it never occurred to me–that at some point before realities of aging set in, we may essentially have to start from scratch.

Start over. As in, among other things:

  • 3-mile easy-pace runs aren’t hard, but they’re not easy either.
  • Tempo pace feels hard after the first mile.
  • Hitting double-digit mileage in one run is really long.
  • Every single run feels at least a little bit grind-y.
  • (corollary to the previous point:) I have no idea what this “runner’s high” thing is you keep mentioning.

There are plenty of other little points, and I’m sure everyone could name a few from their own experiences (e.g. coming back from an injury), but the real kicker I want to emphasize in all this: these are things new runners don’t think about. They don’t have the experience or the context to remember previous easy runs that were truly easy, or tempo runs that got hard once you were a few miles into the tempo pace, or that it was the 20-milers that were lengthy (10 miles was a cutback run).

Maybe it’s just me and my superhumanly-overactive frontal cortex that runs every little thought into the ground before beating it ad nauseum, but it’s tough to shake the feeling of “this is where I should be in my running” when I don’t perform to my internal expectations.

It was about this time a year ago when I first started seeing a physical therapist in Athens about my nagging metatarsalgia in my left foot. The problem never really improved until months later when I invested in some custom orthotics. Even now, though, it can still be problematic depending on how tired I am and, ultimately, how hard my foot slams into the ground while I’m running.

This injury has resulted not only in a slew of secondary injuries from “compensating” while running (Achilles’ tendonitis, IT band warnings, foot pain)–DON’T DO IT, KIDS; DON’T ALTER YOUR RUNNING FORM–but it’s necessitated a huge pullback in the total mileage I’ve logged. I barely crossed 1000 miles last year after logging nearly 1600 the previous year, and right now I’m on track to do about the same as last year. Only in the last several weeks have I managed a sustained training regimen in the 20+ weekly mileage range.

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Finally putting in some consistent mileage again.

The thought bouncing around my head for months but which I’ve only just started fully elucidating is this: I’m essentially starting over.

My paces and average mileage hearken back to an era nearly half a decade ago, when I was just getting into running and had no frame of reference for any of these concepts. In some sense, particularly given the context of this post so far, that certainly made the process easier: nothing against which to compare myself. Just pure reckless abandon.

But as The Lady has pointed out numerous times, it doesn’t necessarily have to function as a weight, a reminder of what you once were, and how far you’ve fallen. Instead, it can serve as foundational experience, a guide for how to do things the right way. How many times have we said that if we could do it all again, we’d do it differently?

Of course, this comes with the caveat that we first have to accept that we’re starting from scratch. That’s the part that’s been months in the making for me. All this time, I’ve been implicitly assuming it would take only a short time (weeks? days? who knows) to work out the kinks and get back into fighting form.

If only any part of life were that simple!

No, this is a much more sustained effort; I took months off from running. Yes, I increased my cross-training, throwing down hours upon miles upon hours upon miles on the stationary bike and, weather permitting, my beastly Raleigh Talus, Sybil. But you can’t leave something for months at a time and just jump back in without skipping a beat.

So here I am. I’m not fully healed yet–metatarsalgia requires constant vigilance, and I have to keep up with my PT exercises to hold tendonitis at bay–but the last several weeks have demonstrated more promise than the months before that. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that those same past several weeks have overlapped with the time where the idea that I really was starting over began to consciously take hold.

Hi. I’m Shannon, and I’m a newbie runner looking to build my mileage and crush my PRs.

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Week 9: Still re-training myself

As we near the halfway point in our Big Sur marathon training cycle, it’s worth stopping to take a look at how things are going and make an honest assessment.

Honestly? Hard not to be disappointed. It doesn’t feel like there’s been a whole lot to be proud of.

Of course that’s objectively false. I logged my first 100+ mile month since November (127.35 miles, to be exact). While my IT band still stiffens up at times, it seems more than capable now of carrying the marathon training load as long as I’m diligent in rolling it out on a regular basis. My quality workouts (track work, tempo runs) have been solid; not outstanding, but steady. Weightlifting has been going well. Our latest long run–16 miles–while a strangely disjoint route due to a strange afternoon running schedule, clocked in at an 8:47 min/mi average.

Overall, not too shabby. But it’s nonetheless difficult to shake off an overall feeling of disappointment. The Lady and I have discussed this, and while we’re both certainly having a tough time settling into our new lives here in Athens, there has been an unexpected (though perhaps it should have been anticipated) side effect: I’ve forgotten how to suffer.

Somewhere along the line, my training switched from trying to push my limits and make myself better and stronger to simply trying not to crash and burn. Trying not to suffer. Making the goal of my workouts that of avoiding pain.

It clicked earlier this week with something I’d said to The Lady several weeks ago: that I felt like I was holding back. I’m tired seemingly all the time (work stress, unpacking, a general feeling of floating in limbo), consequently I’m not pushing myself as hard as I should be in a bid to “go easy on myself.” It wasn’t a conscious decision, but the result of a constant grind wearing down my psyche. I told one of the Fleet Feet folks here that I felt as though I was having to re-train myself how to run “from scratch,” as though I was starting over at 0. One could argue for the truth of that, honestly. But it’s not the full story.

I’ve written here before about how I need to run as though I have nothing to lose, to leave it all out on the course, to run with reckless abandon. It’s a good thing to remind oneself of from time to time. Forgive my cringe-worthy triteness, but my high school football coaches were right: when you hold back in an attempt to protect yourself, you actually make yourself more injury-prone.

Plus, making your goal “to avoid pain” is boring. What can possibly be accomplished without pain?

It’s something I objectively know, but which has nonetheless crept into my habits when I wasn’t paying attention; believe me, there have been plenty of distractions of late. To some extent, I do indeed have to re-train myself. In particular, I need to learn how to embrace the inevitable pain, rather than try to avoid it.

I made some strides this week. Our Thursday tempo run went decently well; the last mile was a struggle for me, as the pain really started caving in and I couldn’t manage it. This Saturday’s long run went better; it was the first time in quite awhile I posted 16 miles. I felt like crap the whole time, but I actually managed it. I sucked it up and kept putting one foot in front of the other. It felt awful but it proved [to me] I can re-train myself how to do this.

8-mile tempo. Managed to stay fairly consistent in the middle tempo miles.

8-mile tempo. Managed to stay fairly consistent in the middle tempo miles.

Long run, and at a surprisingly brisk pace.

Long run, and at a surprisingly brisk pace.

So here it is: I’m disappointed an 8-mile tempo run at 7:30-7:40 feels so difficult, when I used to pound out sub-7 minute tempo runs at the same distance. I’m disappointed I let the pain get to me so easily. I’m disappointed that I can’t seem to let go and just enjoy the run. I’m disappointed all of this feels so bloody hard all the time.

Most of all, I miss our friends in Pittsburgh. I like Athens and its folks, but moving really sucks. It’ll take some more time, I know. I guess I’m just impatient. 🙂

At the very least, I can say we haven’t been skimping on our carbo-loading–

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The Great Wall of Sushi.

Run Streaking and Readjusting

To continue the 2014 march of unparalleled mileage, I hit yet another milestone a few days ago: I broke my previous run streak record of 118 days, and as of yesterday have reached 123 consecutive days of 1+ miles.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 9.11.22 AMI’ve hit all the major milestones I wanted to hit this year–shattered my all-time annual mileage in a mere 7 months, broke my previous run streak record, and set a new monthly mileage record in excess of 200 miles–and I’m incredibly proud of that.

That being said…

I’m going to be aggressively tapering for the next several days leading up to the Air Force Marathon, and beyond that as well. I had a bit of a wake-up call yesterday when I attempted one final quality workout to tune up the fast-twitch muscles with my ultimate AF goal in mind of a sub-1:40 half marathon…and it almost blew up in my face.

My original intent for this run was to do a 1-mile warm-up, followed by 4 miles at HM goal pace (7:15-7:30), followed by 1-2 miles at tempo pace (6:50-7:00). It didn’t exactly go that way:

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The first three quality miles were actually pretty good, but the whole time I felt really weak. And not just physically; I could tell my brain wasn’t settling in. I had no mental toughness, so as soon as the pain started hitting after mile 4, I had no capacity to push past it.

My mind and body are sending me a very concrete signal: you’re pushing too hard. Not just with training, but with my Ph.D. defense in just over two months from now, I’m flirting dangerously with burning the candle at both ends. Running should be my primary stress relief, not yet another energy sink.

It’s too early to say what kind of shape I’ll be in for the Air Force half marathon. I’d love to say that I know I’ll PR, but I’m not sure on that front yet. It really depends on how aggressively I can rest myself, both physically and mentally.

All good things…

As of this morning’s tempo run, I’m officially halting my run streak. The tally stands at 118 consecutive days.

November 28, 2013 through March 25, 2014.

November 28, 2013 through March 25, 2014.

Why, you may ask? After a kickass 7-mile tempo this morning, I noticed my left IT band. It didn’t hurt, didn’t even feel uncomfortable, but the point is I noticed it. I could feel something on the side of my knee, the same spot as my previous IT band injury that sidelined me for the 2013 Pittsburgh half. As much as I would love to continue run streaking–in all honesty I probably could as long as I was viciously foam rolling–I’m on such a hot streak at the moment that I’d much rather be safe than sorry.

March always seems to be my month for blasting out the gates, and this particular rendition is no exception. I’ve already logged 134.47 miles, behind only October 2012 (136.84) and October 2013 (142.84), both of which were months of marathon training. I’ve made enormous speed gains almost overnight as well, with my “easy” runs coming in with average paces south of 8:30 for 8 and 13 miles, respectively (the latter was a 1:51 half-marathon!). Just this morning I posted my fastest 7-mile tempo run to date at 51:45, cruising at a 6:44 pace for 5 miles and beating my previous 7-mile record by over a minute. And last week, while traveling for an interview and getting next to no sleep as a result, I still managed a respectable 3×1600 track workout:

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On top of all these speed gains, I’ve been adhering to MyFitnessPal to try and knock off a few pounds (also in the interest of helping my speed). I came out of the holiday season around 230 pounds, and as of today I am down to 210, which I haven’t weighed since high school. That was my goal; any less than 210, particularly at this level of training, would be detrimental (or so I feel).

With all this momentum and good March vibes, it’s definitely a tough decision to end the streak. But it’s also eerily similar to my situation last year: I had an explosive March (after a particularly lethargic February) and set a bunch of personal speed records, only to try to naively push through an injury as I was peaking. I’m not going to make the same mistake this time around.

The Lady is also wisely backing off the streak for similar reasons. She’s the biggest reason I was able to stick with the streak for as long as I did–we excel at keeping each other honest. Now we’ll be partners in foam rolling 🙂 One benefit of ending the streak: it implicitly sets a goal for the next one!

We’ll both be running the Just A Short Run half marathon this coming Saturday (assuming everything goes well with our respective nagging injuries, of course). My A-goal is a 7:30 pace, bringing me in somewhere in the 1:38-1:39 range. As of this race, I’ll be aiming to break a PR that has stood for two years, so I’m pretty pumped. The Lady has her own A-goal, which I’ll let her post about if she wants. Let’s just say she could potentially net a pretty sweet starting spot at the Pittsburgh half in May, so wish us both luck this weekend!

MCM Week 7: Where am I?

Two pretty hard weeks have followed the Run for Gold, and we’re only in the middle of the second one.

In particular, I met up with my parents in Illinois to visit some extended family this past weekend. The trip coincided with a 17-mile long run. Fortunately, I have a few runner friends in the Chicago area who hooked me up with some sweet suggestions.

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I brought my phone along, just in case.

My Dad was kind enough to drive me out to the park, since the trails themselves were more than sufficient to fulfill my 17 miles. There were a few downsides:

  • I’d estimate about 10 of the 17 miles were completely unshaded,
  • Excepting the 9-mile loop on the right, the rest of the trails were fairly technical,
  • I started at 8am.

However, there were also a few upsides:

  • Unlike the previous weekend’s long run, I’d had a full night’s rest,
  • Temperatures were still quite nice,
  • Nature is always a plus.
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One of the few shaded portions.

Ultimately, this run felt a lot better than the Run for Gold (which is too bad, since it was an awesome race). But it wasn’t without its pain. I had to take things a little easy, considering the cloudless morning and the lack of shade. I felt good, but proceeded with caution nonetheless. I really lucked out with the big loop having two separate water spigots available at some picnic areas, which I made good use of in refilling my handheld. Without them, I would have had a very rough time of things.

It was another learning experience. I go back and forth as to whether or not running blindly on wholly unknown trails is a boon: sometimes I have some really good days, other times it psyches me out. This time around, it was more the beating sun that did me in than any new surroundings (fortunately / amazingly I didn’t get any sunburn). As good as I felt, the single biggest thing I could have done here was to start at least an hour earlier. But hey, I was on vacation with my family!

The haze was actually just the airplane window. Ok, possibly also actual haze.

The haze was actually just the airplane window. Ok, possibly also actual haze.

In addition to this long run, I’ve done both an 8-mile track workout and an 8-mile tempo run. The outcomes, like the 17-miler, were very encouraging, and point towards a continuing physical and mental resurgence from the depths of thesis proposing.

The Lady and I both had a pretty solid showing at the track:

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I still want to get my 1-mile splits down to about 6:15-6:20. But this was still an improvement; while I’d hit 6:30 a few weeks ago at the last track session, I wasn’t able to maintain it for all 3×1600 splits, must less the 4 that we did at this session.

I juggled this week’s schedule around a bit, doing my tempo run this morning instead of Thursday to make room for Elite Runners’ Hump Day Run on Wednesday evening, part of their Summer Outdoor Series. It was my best tempo run to date (though still not quite as fast as my current 10K PR, but I suppose without the adrenaline of an actual race environment, one can only expect so much):

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My tempo paces have been settling into 7s the last couple of weeks, and this was the first time I consistently broke that threshold. Most notably, this was the first run in quite some time that I experienced the sought-after runner’s high: during tempo mile 5 (split 6 above), things suddenly switched on, and even though I was cruising at a 6:55 pace, I felt as though I was coasting. I was even catching my breath. It’s been so long since that’s happened, it took me by surprise. A very nice surprise!

Of course, the middle 0.5 of the last tempo mile was a constant uphill, so that high very quickly vanished. But it was nice while it lasted.

The Lady and I still have an 18-miler scheduled for Sunday, and then we settle into another [welcome] cutback week. Physically I’m still feeling pretty strong: a few nagging points of pain here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. I’m still foam-rolling like a madman at least once per day, if not twice per day. I do need to up my cross-training regimen, particularly as the mileage starts spiking, but for now I seem to be in a good position.

On to the rest of week 7!

 

 

MCM Weeks 1-5: Whirlwind

H’ok, so: now that thesis proposing is over and done with, regular updating can now resume!

Or so the theory goes, anyway. But first: a quick and boring summary of how my training has gone so far. Or, in other words, the breakdown of the first 5 weeks of training.

Workouts: 19
Average pace: 8:50
Total miles: 120.88
Elevation gain: 5,020 feet
Calories: 20,951

Normally I try to avoid these sorts of summaries, but since over a month of training has gone by with nary a peep on my part, I figured it’d be a good place to start.

The overall numbers have been pretty good. For the month of July I more or less stuck things in neutral while I weathered the beast that was my thesis proposal. Now that it’s over and done with, and now that I’ve pretty much had a full 10 days completely off from anything remotely work-related, I was hoping that I’m immediately pick up where I left off and resume becoming absurdly speedy absurdly quickly.

Especially after writing that out just now, it’s pretty clear how naive that line of thinking was.

I’m certainly not doing badly; particularly given my struggles with IT band problems earlier this year, I’m eternally grateful that I’m still healthy and kicking. Further, while I’ve been missing my upper-end paces on tempo and track workouts, I haven’t been missing by much. To wit, the last tempo run (just last Thursday, the 8th)

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and the last track workout (quite awhile ago, on July 18)

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My current goal tempo pace is flat 7:00/mile, and my goal speed pace is 6:20/mile. Stress levels have a huge impact on athletic performance, so given that my last track workout was barely 12 days out from my thesis proposal, and the last tempo workout was barely a week after it, I can’t really look at these paces and say I was doing a terrible job. Of course, we’re always our own worst judges: if anyone else was in my exact  position and explained it to me, I would unequivocally praise their ability to juggle an incredibly stressful occupational deadline with such strenuous workouts in a way that seemed to be working.

That being said, I did have one ugly implosion: this 12-mile long run from July 20. In order of mildly annoying to rage-inducing, these are the running miscues that set me off:

  1. Feeling run down
  2. Missing my goal paces
  3. Stopping

The rationality of each of these aside, stopping for any length of time–either for a breather or to walk–is the single biggest way for me to become angry with myself. This particular long run featured plenty of all three: I felt run down starting from about mile 4, I wasn’t able to churn out half-marathon goal pace (7:15) for the last two miles, and the “Time” is about 18 minutes shorter than the “Elapsed Time”, indicating the extent of the stops I made. Though I have to correct my description text: this felt quite a bit worse than Philly.

The point here, though, isn’t that I had a bad run; that’s bound to happen, something I understand both as a student of the sciences (hello, statistics!) and as a human being. The point here is that I let it get to me. I was angry as I finished this run, angry for each of the three reasons listed above. Which, of course, accomplishes nothing except to sap more of what precious little energy one has left during a bad run and make it feel even worse.

It’s a lesson I’ll probably have to re-teach myself many times over the coming years. Life happens, and it’s going to impact the quality of my runs. They can’t all be 16 miles at an 8:30 pace while feeling like a million bucks the whole time (as we’ll see in my next post: a race report on the Run for Gold 26.2K!). Part of embracing running is accepting that it’s going to follow the same cyclical pattern of life: namely, that there will be both good days and bad ones, and in general, those bad days don’t really care if you’re planning to have a good day.

All things considered, I can’t really be anything but pleased with my performances over the month of July, given what else was going on.

 

 

Offseason Antics

Ahh, the Offseason: that glorious time of unstructured workouts, pressure-free races, and flirting dangerously with the line between pushing your limits and being just plain stupid.

A few years back, after The Lady and I ran our first Air Force half marathon in September 2011, I took a few months off (glorious offseason!) before doing something I hadn’t really done before: experimenting. I hit the track and the streets in the early months of 2012 with singular, sometimes borderline ridiculous, goals in mind. The first few attempts were often colossal failures: I’d burn out really, really fast. A track workout in mid-November 2011 saw my first-ever sub-6:30 mile…followed by a 7:15 mile, followed by throwing in the towel. I wasn’t there yet.

Same with tempo runs: I was pushing below 7:30s, but couldn’t hold it for very long before burning out. And on several occasions, I’d hit the track and do a tempo run in the same week. Yeah, a little borderline, I will readily admit: rest is a very, very good thing.

But here’s my point: provided you’re smart about it, the offseason can be an incredible opportunity to explore your own limits. Come January and February of 2012, I was pushing consistent 6:50s on the track, and 7:30s on longer tempo runs. The first half of 2012 saw what has been my longest period of steady, uninterrupted improvement.

I was off to a somewhat late start this offseason, given my IT band injury. But it’s been cooperating lately (KNOCK ON WOOD), so I’ve seen fit to push things a little: two weeks of both a track workout and a tempo run.

Farragut High School football stadium. Hello, gorgeous.

The local Fleet Feet has started its summer speed sessions, and while I’m departing Knoxville this weekend, I wanted to participate in the two sessions I could attend (pro-rated, of course!). The first was a time trial–and a very wet one at that–which we built upon this past Tuesday morning with a ladder workout: 10-minute warm-up, followed by 400 / 800 / 1200 / 1200 / 800 / 400 / 200, with (# of 400s) minutes rest in between each set. The goal was to match my time trial pace, or a 6:40 min/mile (1:40 for 400, 3:20 for 800, and 5:00 for 1200).

Don't pay attention to the average pace, not sure why it's so bunk.

Don’t pay attention to the average pace, not sure why it’s so bunk.

This was, of course, hardly 24 hours after I’d returned from a weekend in Las Vegas, visiting my godson and nephew. While the visit was spectacular, the time change wasn’t nearly as awesome. I did well enough at the track, but I decided to really push my luck and go for the gusto: a tempo run two days after the speed session.

Put simply: it was brutal. I’d gone to Mellow Mushroom trivia the night before, and while I was really good and didn’t touch any pizza (I know, I’m still in shock), I did get to bed a little later than would be ideal. Even less rest for tired muscles. And I opted for a 6-mile run, the longest since April 25, with 4 miles at tempo, the longest tempo run since April 11.

Flirting with stupidity? You’d better believe it. To quote a line from the great Dr. Rodney McKay: “Mentally unstable like a fox!”

My legs wanted to quit after mile 2.

My legs wanted to quit after mile 2.

About a quarter of the way through mile 5, I walked. I was in complete anaerobic mode, and my quads felt like they were eating themselves. The humidity didn’t help, either. But just like last week, and in the same spot I might add, I saw my buddy Bob.

Greetings, Shannon. I am the Heron. You have many questions, and while the process has altered your physiology, you remain irrevocably human, ergo you are going to feel tired after TWO QUALITY WORKOUTS IN A SLEEP-DEPRIVED WEEK.

I took his presence as a sign: finish this last 0.75. So I did, hence why my mile 5 time is a little slow compared to the middle two.

It was hard. Really, really hard. A mental battle as much as a physical one, and for just about the entire run. This is a rather extreme example, and I’m not planning any more quality workouts until MCM training starts.

BUT. It was awesome. I love this sort of limit-pushing and flirtation with disaster. I love it. Nothing outright stupid, but just stupid enough to be interesting and perhaps reveal something about one’s character as a runner. The key to all this, of course, is that it’s done during the offseason. That way, if you fall a little too much on the side of stupid, you have some time to recover from it. Once MCM training starts, then it’s time to stick to the schedule. Sure, there’s flexibility for races and schedule hiccups, but pure experimentation time is over until the race is done.

Oh, and one little awesome tidbit: as I was walking after my cool-down, I noticed Bob flying by…with a friend! It was the first time I’d seen two herons in one place all summer, and it was beautiful to watch them gliding so gracefully in unison. It’s like they were making sure I finished my run. Rotten shame I didn’t have my camera on me, because it was an incredible sight.