2017 in run-morium

Is it already 2018 already? Where did the last year even go?!

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…oh.

Yeah, even aside from the obvious, 2017 was brutal on a professional level: submitted close to 20 grant proposals (one funded, still waiting to hear on a couple more, so currently floating at a 5% hit rate… lower if we go by % of requested funds), several papers (though three were just accepted to ISBI!), taught two brand-new courses in the fall and spring, and mentored ~18 students from high school up to doctoral.

And, some. freaking. how. ran my second-highest annual mileage. It felt a bit like the year that both was, and wasn’t.

Ok–let me hit you with some numbers!

  • 2017 mileage: 1,423.57 (beat both 2015 and 2016 an average of 400 miles, each; second only to the beast that was 2014’s ~1,600)
  • Calories burned: 221,906 (someone convert that to units of “donuts”, please)
  • 9 out of 12 months over 100 miles. Three months–April, May, and June–came in under 100 each by a combined total of 29.27mi.

Some other 2017 running highlights (to borrow a page from Carly’s running year-in-review):

  • Set a course PR at the Albany Half in March, coming in at 1:48:24. This beat my previous (and first) performance at that half by nearly 5 full minutes.
  • Ran November’s Chickamauga Half Marathon in 1:46:55, which was not only a course PR (by about 3 minutes), but was also my fastest half marathon time since I ran about a 1:45-flat at the Georgia Publix half in March of 2015 (aside: it’s been a long, long, looong grind back to fighting form).
  • Ran the Chagrin Falls 5K over Thanksgiving break in 22:30, which was likewise my best 5K effort since mid-2015.
  • I participated in my first-ever Beer Mile! It’s something I’ve been saying I would do  since a few months before my dissertation defense, so this has been a long time coming. I even did pretty well: 2nd overall, behind last year’s beer mile winner. My running was pretty so-so, but the actual beer-drinking part is where I pretty much wipe the floor. Yes, I do indeed have that ability to “open my throat”, so unless you can make your drink flow faster than standard Earth gravity, it’s unlikely you’d beat me in that part 😉
  • I ran over 1,400 miles! Holy $*@#!

Annnnd, in what may be the biggest news of all from 2017: my beautiful, fabulous, enormously-talented wife got me a Garmin Fenix 5 for Christmas!

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Yes, that is indeed a Super Mario watchface. Also have ones from Star Trek and Star Wars.

Because it’s a Fenix watch, I named it Phawkes.

*pause for knowing smiles*

2017 wasn’t without some down-beats:

  • April and July were just plain rough across the board. April was spent in an exhausted stupor after back-to-back funerals in a three-week span in the previous month, to the point where I had to sacrifice running just to stay afloat. July was brutal for the oppressive heat and humidity, in addition to the never-ending teaching responsibilities and the huge CAREER grant deadline in the middle of the month. Basically, two months of way, way too much going on.
  • That metatarsalgia from a few years ago? Yeah, it’s back, but in the other foot this time. As soon as I felt it, I put the custom orthotics back into my everyday shoes, and have also purchased double-wide long run Kayanos. These seem to have mitigated the worst–I’ve had one single long run in the last six months that sidelined me afterwards, unlike every long would the last time–but like last time, it’s just kinda always there. It hasn’t gotten worse since it appeared, which is also a marked improvement, but it probably won’t completely disappear for at least another few months.
  • Even though I’ve made strides getting back into fighting form–after moving to Athens, starting a new job, and battling multiple injuries–I lost patience with myself again after the Santa Stroll 8K race in the middle of December. I melted down at about the halfway point, and even though I finished with an 8K that was 6 seconds slower than my best, I still lost it when I crossed the finish line. Most of the time I can logically convince myself that I’m making good progress, that I’m getting stronger all the time, that the day is getting closer when I set a PR again, but on this particular day it broke the surface and I just lost it.

 

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Post beer-mile shenanigans.

So here we are, in 2018. Definitely looking to improve my game:

  • 1,500 miles. Should be totally doable; push those three consecutive sub-100 months up over 100 and that’s pretty much all there is to it.
  • Sub-1:45 half. I’m tentatively targeting the Eugene Half in April for this. We’ve just officially started training (The Lady is training for the full for her next BQ attempt, nat), and with the roaring Fall of 2017 at our backs I should be in pretty good shape to make a run for it in a few months.
  • Better work-life balance, primarily through regular writing practice. This is solidly in the camp of “professional resolutions,” but I think this is the one that is by far most likely to reverberate throughout all aspects of my life. I took a writing workshop in December that focused on establishing regular (i.e., daily) writing habits for early career faculty such as myself, and it’s a habit I’m trying now to develop in earnest. Already I can tell I’ve been a little more at ease and patient with myself. It’s a pretty nice feeling to be able to say, after a morning writing session, that I can check that off the rest of the day and worry about other things!

Happy 2018 miles to everyone!

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The face of single digits (aka northern Michigan on Christmas Day)!

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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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The Injuries of March

A few months ago, I finally picked up some custom orthotics for my ongoing metatarsalgia. A couple more weeks’ rest seemed to do the trick: I started running again (under Mark’s direction) and the mileage started ramping up nicely.

Too nicely, of course. My right Achilles tendon started bugging me, and from what I know of Achilles injuries, that’s not something to mess around with. I stopped by the local PT shop again, and sure enough he urged me to stop running immediately and let it cool down.

Fast forward a couple weeks, and I started running again without any pain. For awhile. Then, my left foot–the metatarsalgic foot–started hurting in the exact same spot again, in spite of my still wearing the custom orthotics. In response, my right Achilles heel has flared up. Again.

So now I’m just trying to get to the Albany starting line in one semi-functional piece. I successfully logged a 10-mile this past weekend, and while it didn’t feel great (and was pretty slow) it felt solid. At the very least, I have the physical fitness to survive the Albany half marathon.

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Slow and steady, if nothing else.

But I’m getting really, really frustrated by this. Previous injuries–even bad ones, like the infamous IT band of 2013–didn’t take any longer than a few months. This metatarsalgia started up ten months ago. The Achilles pain is newer and seems a bit more under control (eccentric calf raises seem to be doing the trick…when I remember to do them), but I cannot seem to kick the metatarsalgia. Months of PT hardly put a dent in it, and while custom orthotics (expensive ones, I might add) kept it at bay for several weeks, it seems now like the orthotics have shot their bolt.

The Lady has been kicking serious ass in her workouts–she’s chasing the Unicorn this weekend!–and I was hoping I’d be able to start building back to the point of being able to run at least a few miles here and there with her. No such luck, it would seem.

I can’t describe how insanely frustrating and rage-inducing this is becoming. I barely eked out 1000 miles last year and am on pace for a dismal 2016: barely 100 miles total over the first two months. Running has been my release, my preferred method of relaxing for the past six years, but I can’t seem to log more than a mile or two every few days, if that.

I see friends running halves and fulls, going through the training, doing the work, and notching spectacular accomplishments; The Lady’s meteoric improvements have been nothing short of astounding. But I’ve been relegated fully to the sidelines, unable to even run them into the finish lines or see them off from the starting line. I’ve skipped more Saturday morning long runs and Monday evening group runs than I care to count, and given the rigors of my professional life those are pretty much the only times I have to see and socialize with friends in a relaxed setting, to say nothing of letting much-needed endorphins saturate my tissues.

I know I’m supposed to throw out an “aw shucks, I’m keeping my chin up” line somewhere but honestly I’m just not feeling it. I’ve had enough work lately to keep me distracted for a hundred lifetimes (conferences in New York and Las Vegas in consecutive weeks; posts forthcoming), but I’m a runner, dammit. When I don’t run, I get angry. That’s just kind of how it works for me. Ellipticals and stationary bikes, while wonderful inventions whose praises I sing every single day, can never be anything more than temporary stopgap measures, not permanent training strategies.

So here I am, four days out from Albany. My left foot is niggling, my right heel is questionable, and my fitness is “merely sufficient” for the task. Not exactly the lights-out dominating aura I’d hoped to exude upon arrival, but given the circumstances I suppose just making it to the starting line is a plus.

Here’s hoping something breaks my way. In the meantime, everyone send The Lady some good vibes! She’s done the work and has endured a lot of crazy ups and downs, but she’s ready. More than ready.

Wish us both luck!

On to 2016!

So, what are your new year’s resolutions?

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I have a few, though they all ultimately converge on one single, broad resolution: get back into the thick of things.

I spent the better part of 2015 with an extremely finicky metatarsal, resulting in my lowest annual running mileage to date (since I started keeping track, at least): 1,018 miles. I’m glad I got over 1,000, but it’s quite a bit less than 2014’s monster 1600+. And that mileage came with a wedding, a thesis defense, and a cross-regional move! 2015, what’s your excuse?

…oh right. Injury. Ahem.

So like I was saying: getting back on that running train is my #1 goal. More specifically, though, there are a couple other milestones I want to hit.

  • 1500+ miles. I miss the uber mileage, I really do. Notching my first 200-mile month was awesome, to say the least. I’d like to hit that again this year if I can, but more importantly I want to get back into consistent high mileage.
  • Sub-1:40 half marathon. It’s been on my mind ever since break 1:45 back in early 2012; numerous setbacks since then have kept this goal on the back burner, but it’s simmered there. Boiled. Came close to exploding when I hit 1:41 practically on the nose in 2014. Due to injury this past year, my best half performance was a 1:49–made more impressive by the fact that all I did to train was bike obscene distances–but with Mark as my coach for the Albany half in March, I’m confident this is a very real possibility.
  • Race weight. The holiday season is great for visiting family, not so great if you’re trying to maintain a race weight. I’m not picky, but I do recognize that I can run faster when I’m not carrying extra pounds around. 210lbs is my goal; definitely achievable.
  • Bench press. An injury I haven’t discussed here: sometime in the latter part of 2015, I injured my left shoulder. Still not sure how, but suffice to say it was pretty bad: a good month of complete and total rest had to go by before I could start PT-type exercises, and only recently have I been able to really hit the strength training again. My bench press is about as low as I can ever remember–I just did 4×10 of 135lbs this very morning, which is along the lines of what I did as a freshman in high school–so I’d like to get back into fighting form there as well. I’m well on my way, but I want to get back to the 225lbs reps of a year ago.
  • Blogging! Oh man did blogging take a backseat as last fall went on. All told, I managed a paltry 31 blog posts across 3 blogs; 19 of those on this one. Over a whole year. That’s pretty sad! So I’m changing things up a bit this year: this blog will still be here, and I’ll keep using to discuss my running / athletic escapades, but I’m closing up shop at my other two blogs and consolidating them in a new github-based static blog: http://magsol.github.io/ . I’m still getting it up and running but I made great strides over the holiday break; it’s just about done. I figure between two blogs I can manage a more respectable update frequency.

And remember: don’t hate on the resolutioners in the gym. We were all there once as workout newbies. Encourage them to stick it out beyond January!

Any interesting running goals / resolutions for 2016?

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.

The marathon training cycle that wasn’t

Reports of my demise are some combination of exaggerated and premature.

But it’s been a rough go of things lately. Our November marathon is still a ways off, but my chances of participating–as in, even reaching the starting line–are looking pretty grim at this point. That nagging foot injury I mentioned in passing over the summer became a lot more than nagging. I’ve been making regular visits to the local physical therapist, and have gone so far as to order custom-built orthotics molded to my specific musculoskelature.

The punchline: I haven’t run a single mile since earlier this month, and I’m currently not planning an imminent return.

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Lots of biking! But no running since September began.

I’ve resigned myself to this fate. I fought it for a few months, attempting to keep a running base while also working on healing my foot, but it backfired. I have no realistic alternative aside from avoiding any and all activities that put strain on my foot, effectively ruling out running entirely for the foreseeable future (indeed, WebMD more or less insists on a cold-turkey approach).

Needless to say, I have a lot of mixed feelings.

  • On one hand, it really bums me out that I can’t run at all. I’m missing all the Monday evening group runs at Fleet Feet, the Saturday morning group runs with the Athens Road Runners, and all the training runs in between. I miss it. I miss zoning out over the course of a 10-20 mile run and just enjoying being alive.
  • On the other, I think I needed a break. I was getting way too deep inside my own head, too obsessed with performance metrics and improvement goals. And there’s something to be said for a full-stop, cold-turkey break from running: rather than struggling through sub-par runs–bleeding off speed, cutting mileage, and generally feeling unsatisfied with the few runs I’d go on, all the while risking additional injury–I’ve accepted my situation and am now seeking out cross-training in all its glory.

To that end, I’ve been logging monster mileage on Sybil, my trusty Talus from my summer at Google (she’s just over 4 years old now!).

All my rides!

All my rides!

I’ve been exploring the country roads outside the immediate Athens area and having a blast while at it. I’ve already seen my times improving: my 39.1-mile ride was only 2 minutes faster than my 43.5-mile ride the subsequent weekend, and both took the same route. The latter route is my longest ride to date, in which I biked all the way up to the picturesque city of Jefferson, a classic southern town that I took a few minutes to explore.

Part of my motivation has been simply to get back on the bike; I really do enjoy cycling. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t at least a small ulterior motive: while logging monster mileage is certainly a lot of fun for its own sake, as is using my newfound and growing cycling legs to explore an ever-wider radius around Athens, I want to log monster mileage on the bike as a way to minimize my loss of running fitness.

I’ll admit: in a sense, it’s freeing to just drop running entirely. That way, I’ve also dropped any expectations for performance when I inevitably get back in the game. Those first couple runs are going to suck, no two ways about it. But as a consequence of no expectations, I’ll get to see and experience the feeling of improving over each subsequent workout, observing my legs getting stronger again. I’ve already seen that in biking: in just one week, I extended the mileage of a really punishing route by 4 miles and finished in about the same time. The lower body workouts aren’t crushing me as much as they used to. I’m substantially upping the difficulty levels on the stationary bike.

The Lady and I are signed up for the Pittsburgh Great Race next weekend (yup, we’ll be visiting the ‘burgh next weekend, WOOT), and my participation will be on a game-time-decision basis. However, the weekend after is a half marathon in Atlanta, and I’m even less optimistic about my chances there. I’d probably have the fitness to finish, but it would be ugly…also, foot injury.

I suppose the long and short of this is: I miss running. I’m actually kind of glad for the break and reprieve, too. But I really miss running.

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.