Race Report: Holy crap, where did that come from?!

To those of you who stop running because it became tiresome and grindy: I absolutely get it.

The last year of running has been the most unproductive and least enjoyable that I’ve ever had. It’s come from a really bad combination of 1) stressful job that hasn’t let up in this time frame, and 2) bad, lingering injuries that have been extremely slow to heal. I’ve had to mentally put myself in the position of essentially starting from scratch, albeit with the knowledge of having once run 5×1600 with 6:20 splits and a half marathon PR of 1:41.

“Frustrating” is putting it kindly. So when someone expresses their own frustration with running, or dreads going out for a run, or drops it entirely for these reasons, I totally get it.

But if you manage to catch a glimpse of light at the other end, a whiff of progress out of the seemingly-endless grind, it is beautiful.

With very few exceptions, my running the last several months has been consistent down to the week: mid-20s’ worth of mileage.

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It’s just that so little of it was actually fun. That the majority was during the absolutely horrific summer we suffered through this year probably didn’t help much, but an enjoyable run in this stretch was the exception, not the rule.

Sheer determination to hit 20+ miles each week, seeing how many weeks in a row I could do it, and stubborn refusal to give up on it were just about the only reasons I kept going out every day. That, and trying to keep my endorphin levels as high as possible with the stress of work. If I wasn’t running, I wasn’t working out, period. And I needed to work out.

So I kept running. But it wasn’t confidence-inspiring; if anything, it did the opposite. When almost every run hurt, my already-dim view of my own abilities only drooped further. It probably doesn’t come as much surprise, then, that when Ath Half rolled around, I was just hoping not to thoroughly embarrass myself.

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You can argue that one’s finishing time ultimately doesn’t matter. And you’d be 100% correct! The problem is, once you actually hit the road, that just doesn’t matter anymore. The fact that I haven’t run a half marathon in over 2 hours since 2010 weighed heavily on me as I considered possibly exceeding 2 hours in this race, given how miserable my runs had been.

I was telling everyone ahead of Ath Half that I just wanted to come in under 2 hours.

</Aside>

Truthfully–as runners do–I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to come in under 1:55, since my 2015 Ath Half time was somewhere around low-1:54. C’mon, I thought: at least make a run at last year’s time, right?

But I had absolutely no gauge for what I could do. The last half marathon I’d run in recent memory was the brutal downhill Scream Half, where I posted a respectable 1:53, but the insane elevation change obviated any possibility of comparison. Plus, that was all the way back in June. I had no barometer against which to infer my limits.

And, because the aforementioned summer sucked so freaking much, I wasn’t putting much stock in my abilities. Hence, sub-2 sounded like a treat to me.

Enter race day.

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Up and at ’em, rise and shine!

One of our running buddies, Jonathan, was the 1:40 pacer. A bunch of ladies on the Fleet Feet running team were going to hang with him. Going in, I figured I’d stick with the group for the first mile for the lulz, then just coast the rest of the way to the finish. An eclectic plan for sure; it also betrayed just how not-seriously I was taking this race.

(and belied how much I was dreading it)

Still, the weather was quite a bit nicer from Ath Half 2015. That year, it was muggy as hell, and I suffered quite a bit as a result. But while the more pleasant weather was certainly welcome, it did nothing to assuage the dark recesses of my mind worrying about the hills on the back half of the course. They’d be there no matter how nice the weather was.

Thus began the race.

It was clear within the first couple of blocks that I wasn’t going to stick with the 1:40 group; I let them go pretty quickly after the start. Still, I knew I was being pulled along at a decent clip by all the folks around me, so I focused on slowing down.

8:06

Cool! But too fast, let’s try to draw it back a little.

8:01

Wow, that’s neat. But still too fast. Pull back on the throttle.

8:02

Hmm. Is the throttle busted?

7:58, 8:02

Yeah: first 5 miles of the race in 40 minutes flat. I was not expecting that. But at the same time, I knew it was the flattest 5 miles I’d get, so I really, really needed to slow down, no seriously guys, for real, time to slow down.

Somewhere around this time, I caught up to The Lady, who’d fallen off the 1:40 group. I walked alongside her for a bit, checking in and making sure she was ok. I was also confident at this point that I no longer had to worry about living through my WORST NIGHTMARE of coming in over 2 hours (by my math, would’ve had to run 10-minute miles for the remaining distance for this to be a problem).

Turns out, we weren’t far from the next water stop, at which point The Lady stopped there for a bit to collect herself, and I started back up running again. I could feel that my legs were definitely getting heavy, and we’d only just started with the hills. Welp, I figured, I wasn’t going to set any landspeed records anyway. Let’s just see what happens.

I was mentally kicking myself at every mile, as I kept watch-hawking. I couldn’t seem to help myself; I was going by feel, but at the same time felt an overwhelming need to check the distance, check my splits, blah blah blah. I knew it was mental, that my mind wasn’t the honed, sharpened, hardened diamond it had once been, and as a result I was doing things and engaging in habits that were counter-productive in a race environment. But the discipline just wasn’t there. I tried to shake it off and just keep on going.

9:24

Yep, definitely slowing down (though I did walk this mile…).

7:54

Huh, apparently not.

8:23

This is where it started getting hard: the hills kept coming and my mental game wasn’t improving. Turning down some extremely rolling terrain, I tried to focus entirely on the relief I still felt that it was nigh-impossible at this point to finish in over 2 hours.

Still, that damn hill coming out of River Rd is effing brutal. I used the water stop there as an excuse to stop and re-tie my right shoe, which had become loose enough that it was becoming a distraction. I recalled at the starting line it had crossed my mind to double-knot my shoes, then something shiny must’ve come along. Go me.

8:54, 8:47

At this point I was coming into the home stretch where we loop around the stadium a few times. It’s both electrifying (lots of cheering sections) and deflating (so close to the finish for so long). I was still allowing myself to slow considerably on uphills; I’d like to say it was because I was refusing to walk at any point, but really it was because I was just mentally lazy and knew that I’d come in under 2 hours, so who cares about shaving off a few seconds on this hill.

Then I finally did the math–wait, I’m less than a mile out and barely into the 1:40s? I CAN BREAK 1:50?!

!!!

8:30

I tried to kick, I honestly did. My legs were burning pretty good at this point, and my chest felt like it was being compressed by an anvil, but for once in the entire race I managed to push my mental laziness aside and give it everything I had left–an average 6:43 pace.

1:48:52

I couldn’t believe it.

I just finished Ath Half–ATH HALF–not only faster than last year, but under 1:49!

For comparison, here’s the mile-by-mile breakdowns of Ath Half 2016 versus last year:

One hell of an improvement!

This is not to say I’M BACK B#^*%ES. I still have a ton of work to do. My cadence fell off considerably, especially in the last few miles. Given my foot issues from the last year, cadence is the one thing that I absolutely cannot slack on; it needs to stay above 160, preferably around 170.

Speaking of slacking, my mental game is a joke. I had absolutely zero capacity to settle in, let the world around me disappear, and just let go and go. I kept glancing at my watch at least a couple of times each mile, I kept oscillating between worry about the next hill and worry about embarrassing myself. And I had no ability to push myself in the last few miles, instead getting lazy and just slowing down, even though I clearly still had gas left in the tank. Speedwork and tempo runs will help with this, though.

And hills–in a not-so-distant previous life, a source of strength and motivation–have become borderline intimidating. That’s a little worrisome; downhills have always been hard for me, but it’s helped that I always got a boost out of uphills, even if it was only psychological.

But! Yes, there is, in fact, a “but.”

There’s a core here worth building on. Something has clearly been clicking for the past several months, to the point where I could run a sub-1:50 under less-than-ideal conditions; my previous sub-1:50 performance was at last year’s Chickamauga Battlefield half marathon. Absolutely perfect conditions–extremely gentle hills, near-freezing temperatures, and perfectly sunny–and it was still a squeaker: I came in somewhere around 1:49:57, and only after redlining the last two miles to do it.

I had time to spare this year, on a much harder course. Time that, of all things, I spent being mentally lazy on the final climbs. Had I really pushed myself that last 5K, who knows how much room under 1:50 I would’ve had.

I’ve been telling people how this past year has basically felt like starting over from zero, except with all the knowledge and experience of “I used to be able to do this…”, which has made it so easy to be so hard on myself. It’s been true in a big sense: I’ve had to accept limitations I haven’t experienced since I started running, and at that time I was blissfully unaware of said limitations.

That’s made it hard. Really hard. Which is why I understand if you’ve been in this position and have chosen to walk away and try something else. And who knows: maybe this race was an anomaly and running will go right back to sucking in the near future.

All I know is something clicked at Ath Half, and for something to click in a half marathon, something has to be clicking for weeks before that. Plus, I told The Lady years ago that I would retire when I broke a 1:35 half marathon; can’t stop now that I’m making headway toward that goal again!

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The summer doldrums aren’t all they’re cracked up to be

In this case, though: in spite of the brutal heat and humidity that’s been the near-constant in Athens since June, I’ve managed to maintain a decent level of consistency in my running.

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Took a 1-week break after the Scream half marathon in early July, but otherwise have been dead-on consistent in my weekly mileage for months now. Foot’s been cooperating, and evidently stress levels have been manageable: my blood pressure at today’s physical (first one in two years) was a positively delightful 118/77. I don’t recall it being under 130/90 since sometime in college!

Although my heart rate was 58. In grad school it got as low as 42. Oh well; we’ll get back there, as evidenced by my consistency of late.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been sucky runs; there have been a lot of sucky runs. The heat has been absolutely stifling–with few enough exceptions to count on just one or two hands, it’s been highs in the mid-90s, lows in the low-70s every single day since June began. Oh, and humidity approaching 100% with 70+ degree dew points.

Basically, a sauna for three months straight. Going outside has been awful.

But just in the past few weeks–and it took me a few weeks to even notice–I was more consistently ending runs feeling strong than I was feeling beat up and run down. Again, still plenty of runs where I wanted to die (just this past Saturday, for instance), but they’re beginning to become the exception, instead of the rule.

This is all to say that, following the entire second half of 2015 that was so inconsistent due to ongoing metatarsalgia, and the beginning of 2016 that was so stressful, all signs would currently seem to indicate that I’m actually finding a groove for the first time in a year.

I just hope I haven’t scared it away with this post.

I don’t have any races coming up, or even any planned races in the moderate future. It’s something of an odd situation; usually I’ve got at least one race per month, but this year I think I’ve run barely 5 races total, and one of them was a team relay. On the one hand, I miss racing, but on the other it’s been nice to just focus on the fundamentals of “me + road” and getting back in the swing of things.

Who knows, maybe the switch will suddenly flip when (if?) the temps start falling, and I’ll go right back to cranking out 20-minute 5ks!…yeah, probably not. But as long as I’m logging mileage, it’s a good thing.

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.

Greetings from Athens, GA

Ok! So it’s been a couple months since my last update…whoops.

We've been a little busy.

Unpacking sucks.

In that time, we 1) left our long-time home in Pittsburgh in mid-December for the tropical paradise of Athens, GA, 2) eventually received all our belongings and started the arduous process of unpacking everything (tl;dr the moving truck, already estimated to appear at the tail end of the arrival timeline, was delayed nearly a full additional week), and 3) tried to find time to actually start making our new lives here.

That latter part, on top of everything else, has been particularly tricky. I started my new job on Jan 2; The Lady had been working her old job remotely since a week before that. Throw in the holidays and you have a recipe for a daily schedule completely devoid of anything resembling a routine.

BUT, we’ve done our best regardless. That includes running the New Year’s At Noon 5K, an event we ran back in 2012. The Lady and I didn’t expect to do particularly well; we were both out of shape from all the moving, and had just spectacularly gorged ourselves at the previous evening’s shindig. Furthermore, I was nursing a painful re-emergence of the Great IT Band Apocalypse from summer 2013, except on the other knee. I’m grateful for the knowledge of working out those injuries, but they’re still annoying: not really much else to do but sit out from running. Still, my IT band felt good enough to run this 5K.

Not my best performance by a long shot, but also way better than I expected given the circumstances.

Not my best performance by a long shot, but also way better than I expected given the circumstances.

The Lady and I, while not in any position to chase after our respective PRs, still performed much better than either of us expected. I didn’t think I could clock a sub-23 5K, and yet I missed breaking 22 minutes by a measly 6 seconds. My pacing was good, my form was good; the only thing missing was a healthy IT band, which I could feel slowly tightening as the race went on.

22:06, while smashing my own expectations, wasn’t enough for an AG award this year (deep field!). The Lady, however, swept the field to claim 1st in her AG!

Pretty sweet medals this year!

Pretty sweet medals this year!

Given the sensitive state of my IT band after the race, I officially took the entire following week off from running. I hated that I had to, knowing I’d finally break my streak of 100+ mile months dating back to the latter part of 2013. But armed with the knowledge of my prior IT band breakdown, I knew cold turkey was the only viable path forward.

12 straight months of 100+ miles each. It was tough to choose to let that one go.

12 straight months of 100+ miles each. It was tough to choose to let that one go.

Which then begets my latest two weeks of running: not particularly impressive, but I’m hopeful at this point that it’s the beginning of something new. My IT band is feeling stronger every day, and the latest group run yesterday evening at Fleet Feet was 98% pain-free; no tightening at all, and only one twinge at the bottom of a pretty steep hill.

*tumbleweed*

*tumbleweed*

We’re already in Week 2 of Big Sur training (!!!), and we just registered for the Georgia Half Marathon to use as a tune-up. Even though I’ve missed out on some mileage, I’m still hitting the elliptical and stationary bike hard (these show up on DailyMile) to keep my cardio going in the meantime. But I’m also hopeful that I won’t miss much more. The latter weeks in December featured multiple IT band twinges each day; now, it’s 1 every couple days and waning quickly.

The miracle of squats and hip exercises, people. Seriously.

I’m not sure yet if January will feature a return to 100+ miles, but I’m taking that one step (heh) at a time. Being healthy is more important than racking up mileage. Especially considering I shattered every single mileage record I ever set last year, so it might be healthier physically and mentally if I go ahead and let that one go from the onset 🙂

I will say this: I am loving the running folks here in Athens. It’s been difficult these last few weeks balancing unpacking, work, and getting the know the city we’ll be in for the better part of a decade, but the Monday night Fleet Feet runs are just what the doctor ordered.

Aside from squats, of course.