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.



Big Sur, Week 6: wat is happening

Wait, we’re six weeks into this thing already? Jeez.

I’m proud to say that things have improved dramatically since early January: my IT band is most definitely on the mend, and I finally seem to be settling into the ebbs and flows of training.

Good to be back in the 20-30 miles/week range on a regular basis!

Good to be back in the 20-30 miles/week range on a regular basis!

It’s still tough going, though. Life in Athens thus far has been a whirlwind, to put it concisely. Work has been nuts, and all our available not-working time has lately been spent running errands or unpacking. And oh yeah, training for Big Sur and trying to make friends in the process.

Last week I had a bit of a meltdown as a result. Just couldn’t keep up with the pace of things; consequently, I slept in both Wednesday and Friday, breaking our usual routine of hitting the gym Monday-Thursday mornings and doing yoga Friday mornings.

And then there was Exhibit B: Thursday morning was our first track session in I-can’t-even-remember-how-long. The goal was 6x800s with 400 rests in between, with warm-up and cool-down to make the total 6 miles.

It was…very meh.

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Splits 1-4 were ok (3:15, 3:31, 3:24, 3:24). After that I was absolutely dying. It seems like I have some speed, but stamina is still severely lacking. Which, given how run down I’d felt all week, probably makes a lot of sense.

The weekend’s long run was a lot better. We were scheduled for 14 but wanted to meet up with the local running group, Athens Road Runners, for their 6-mile run at 8am. So we did what any completely sane, pulled-together runner would do: woke up at 5:30am on a Saturday morning to run 8 miles before 8am, so we could then finish up the last 6 with the group! Logical, right?

We had a blast. We had to run some of the same brutal hills twice, but we met a handful of lovely folks and chatted with them both on the run and for a solid hour afterward at the local coffee shop / bar / music venue Hendershot’s afterwards.

I’m getting there. There’s still a lot of hectic, swirling chaos: my office furniture still hasn’t arrived, there’s still more unpacking to be done at home, and work is pretty stressful. But I feel more refreshed after this past weekend than I have in awhile, and my running has been noticeably improving of late. I’ve even upped the weights on most of my lifts at Ramsey for the first time.

Here’s to continuing the difficult but worthy process of settling in!

USAF Training: Week 1

I feel somewhat like an imposter writing this up: I’m actually “only” running the half marathon come September (as I mentioned in a previous post), but I’m still training with The Lady as if I was running the full, at least until such time that my thesis obligations mandate a decrease in mileage.

But anywho. How about that first official week of training?!

Strava, for all its faults, has nice visualizations.

Strava, for all its faults, has nice visualizations.

This week featured the first 1600-repeats track workout in a very long time. I was aiming high–I really, really want a sub-20 minute 5K this year–and I didn’t miss by much. I don’t even remember when the last track session was with mile repeats, but it’s been at least a couple of months. Not a bad performance given that kind of lag in between workouts!

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1st and 2nd repeats were dead on; sub-6:30 min/mi is pretty much my goal. The 3rd set I struggle-bugged it a little, as I was really feeling like death at that point. Still, it was a solid showing and definitely a good spot for further improvement.

This week’s long run was 12 miles (yeah, the first of the training cycle!) and featured the awesome loop that goes all around the city, hugging the rivers and taking us through the likes of Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Schenley, Point State Park, and the Strip District. My first few runs along this route were…varied in quality…but in the last year this has been a mainstay that I love simply by virtue of how much of Pittsburgh I get to see. It’s beautiful.

The last 2 miles of our 12-miler were at race paces: The Lady at her goal marathon pace, and me at my goal half-marathon pace.

I should expound a bit on this point. The last two half marathons I’ve run were PRs, but I’m still gunning for that elusive sub-1:40. However, at this point, I’ve switched gears and set my sights at my all-time goal: 1:35. I’ve been hungry for this one for over two years, and have joked at times (honestly, kind of half-joked) that I would retire once I hit 1:35. Don’t ask me why it’s so important to me; once I hit it, I’ll probably just set my sights at 1:30 anyway. But there it is.

So despite not having notched 1:40 yet, I’m already setting my goal half-marathon pace at 7:15min/mi, at least for the purposes of training. I know it’s bloody fast, and I’m still entirely open to the idea that, come September, I just won’t yet be able to crank that hard for 13.1 miles. But I figure that, in the spirit of running with reckless abandon–flirting heavily with that line between having fun and pushing a little too hard–I’m going to train at 7:15, and let the chips fall where they may at Air Force.

The last 2 miles on our 12-miler were 7:26 and 7:11. Not too shabby.

I’m still treating my non-long-run, non-quality-workout days as “run whatever feels good”, i.e. not looking at my watch, specifically so my legs (and brain) can recover. I’m also prepared for the possibility that I’ll crash and burn on a few quality workouts, and maybe even during the half-marathon pace portions of our long runs. But I’ll roll with it. Part of my problem last year was perpetual mental gridlock between “I must run faster” and “I must rest.” This year, I’m returning to where I started: “Sure, why not? I’ll pull back if I need to.” It has its problems, but it’s arguably a significant step up from the former.

…and I may need to pull back, given that we’re in a 4-week build:

Long runs!

Long runs!

It was a bit of scheduling voodoo that necessitated a 4-week build cycle. I’m rather excited about it!

And next weekend, The Lady and I are running the Man Up 10K! Last 10K before I submit my application for a seeded position at the September Great Race. Given I was accepted the last two years, I’m hoping for a hat trick…and so I can start up front with The Lady, who was invited to be a seeded runner. Badass!

Oh, and: we’re both participating in the Runner’s World run streak. Today was day 15, though I came into the streak with 14 consecutive days before that, which I’ll tally up once the streak ends on the 4th of July. At which point, I’d love to snap my previous streaking record of 118.

Streaking is awesome, folks.

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 16: Runner Singularity

Supposedly, the taper is designed so that one feels like a coiled spring by the end. After weeks and weeks of building mileage and increasing the long run distance, the combination of two weeks straight of mileage pullbacks and the impending race creates a sort of running singularity: a point of infinite preparation.

And the only prescription is MORE COWBELL RUNNING A MARATHON.

Mileage has definitely fallen the last few weeks.

Mileage has definitely fallen the last few weeks.

Well, so goes the theory, anyway.

Many will remember my marathon from last year. tl;dr it didn’t go quite as well as I’d hoped. This time around, a lot of things are similar: had some training issues, worked through them, some runs were awesome, some runs were terrible, ultimately got the mileage in that I needed and didn’t do anything [too] stupid. Also had stress issues that compounded with the high mileage.

But there are a lot of things that have changed. For one, I didn’t injure myself rather seriously a month out from the race. For another, my stress issues were at the start of training, rather than the end (they’re still somewhat ongoing, but I seem to have had the upper hand for a few months now).  I also don’t feel nearly as worn down and beat up as I did at the end of the last training cycle. I’m not to the point where I feel like I’m a coiled spring–I’m definitely tired!–but I feel a little more energized and a little more excited than I did this time last year.

To put it simply, I like my chances so far.

My A-goal is still 3:45, or an 8:30 mile average. My B-goal is to finish under 4 hours. I’m almost completely sure I can hit the latter; I’m about 75% certain in the former. That number has wavered a lot the last several weeks. Two months ago I’d all but completely dropped the goal; a month ago I was almost completely sure I could do it. Like all things, I’ll need to wait and see.

The most important thing for me in this race will be my mental game. Through all my physical issues this training cycle, they’ve started with an overburdened mind, a consequence of not taking any mental breaks in work or in running, and panicking when things weren’t going 100% according to plan. NEWS FLASH: no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. I want to push myself, but I don’t want to blow up when it starts getting hard and I start berating myself for feeling worn out. The key is to challenge myself, but not to feel like I have something to prove (to myself or otherwise).

The key is to play the game like I have nothing to lose. Reckless abandon. Kind of like my latest track workout:

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This was our final track workout before MCM, and that is indeed a sub-6 minute mile, my first ever. After eluding me both last year and this spring when I’d felt I was ready, both times due to injury, I was finally healthy enough to make a “run” at a sub-6 mile. And by golly I friggin’ nailed it!

I’ve done the preparation. I’ve made significant strides in the mental game. I’ve set a 10K PR along the way. All the check marks are in right places; it’s just a matter of pulling the trigger. For 3 hours and 45 minutes, hopefully 🙂

I imagine this will be the last post before MCM; The Lady and I are ducking out of town as early as possible on Friday and staying with my friend Emmarie in DC for the weekend. I’ll definitely be live-tweeting as I run, but I’ll try to post a live tracking link at some point.

Wish us both luck!


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.
Photo Aug 17, 11 48 18

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.