The marathon is like a metaphor

In that both words have eight letters and start with “m”.

It was fairly early in 2019 when I made the decision to run my first marathon in over four years. In receiving an award notification for the NSF CAREER in late mid-December 2018, I was now reasonably confident I would sail through my tenure approval process and be given the chance to stick around for foreseeable and moderately unforeseeable future. With the 2015 Big Sur marathon retreating further into the rearview mirror, I wanted to get back into the long distance game before I completely forgot how to fuel for anything over 13 miles.

I also, genuinely, wanted to take another crack at the distance that has vexed me all three times I’ve attempted it: a slow-burn meltdown in 2012 at Philly, a lithium-ion crash at the 2013 Marine Corps, and a head cold at the aforementioned 2015 Big Sur that yielded a brilliant 20 miles followed by a final 10K march so miserable I literally don’t remember it.

I knew, having already gone through the 2016 and 2017 stretch of learning how to run all over again, that I couldn’t do this by myself. Even with The Lady’s marathon expertise, I felt professional guidance was a necessity. The Lady put me in touch with Caitlin of Fearless Feet Running, and after we returned from Ireland back in May, we hit the ground running–literally and figuratively.

That process was anything but smooth. As much as I would flail and rage against it, life still happened.

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 12.30.05 PM
Monthly mileage totals over the training cycle.

June was brutal, but relatively successful: with the exception of a missed race (just couldn’t make Rabun happen this year), I hit the mileage goals. The quality workouts, however, were another story: I was having to cut back on difficulty on almost every one–a sprint here, a rep there. The heat and humidity were already at their worst and I just wasn’t acclimated. A lovely trip to the mountains with dear friends helped break up the cycle a bit and generally relax while still acclimating.

By comparison, July knocked me on my ass. While I did manage to finally halt my four-year slide at the Peachtree Road Race and clock a faster time than last year, it was still comfortably above 50 minutes; the halcyon days of southern summer swelter had arrived in force, and simply stepping outside required Herculean strength and resolve. I also had to deal with a small twinge in my knee that took me out of running for a week. Certainly didn’t do my ability to acclimate any favors.

In August, we started the formal 16-week marathon training program. By this time I had a “base”–that elusive concept referring to one’s baseline abilities and assumptions that we’re starting some epsilon away from scratch–and instead of maintaining weekly mileage while increasing difficulty, I could start alternating each week with increased mileage and increased workout difficulty. Of course, the start of fall classes did nothing to help the process go smoothly, and the fact that I was slated to teach the single course I was least prepared for (of the five I’ve ever taught before) ensured that this month felt completely chaotic.

…at least, until September rolled around and left no doubt that it would be perennial contender for Most F*#@ing Absurd Month. My quality workouts actually went well, but I had two spectacular blow-ups in long runs this month: one was entirely my fault (pro-tip, don’t drink margaritas the night before a long run) while the other I blame on the still-Venusian weather. Real life did a real number, too–The Lady and I traveled three of the four weekends in the month: one to West VA for a friend’s wedding (with a stop the night before at UNC Chapel Hill…not exactly “on the way”), one to Pittsburgh for my first-ever invited seminar and to visit The Lady’s brother and his family, and a third to D.C. to serve on my first-ever NSF review panel.

That last trip to D.C. was at the end of September and start of October, which was also supposed to coincide with my first 20-mile long run of the cycle, but I was so burned out at this point I ended up getting sick and not running a single mile of that 20. In the subsequent weeks of October my running improved considerably, but at this point we were solidly in Peak Month and everything was hard. The shortest long run was 18 miles, and the weekly mileage regularly topped 45. While the weather was slowly cooling off, we still had frequent mornings with temperatures over 70F and above 90% humidity. And despite out-of-town travel dropping to zero, I was now in perpetual catch-up mode at work.

Which brings us, at last, to November. The “Taper Tantrums” are in full swing: I can fall asleep anytime, anywhere; everything hurts, even parts which have no reason to hurt; short runs feel terrible, and longer runs slightly better. I feel completely tapped out at work, and when I get home it’s all I can do to keep from scarfing down literal pounds of leftover Halloween candy and avoiding egg nog like the plague, lest it turn my blood to lead and all but guarantee that my marathon will end within the first mile.

I honestly don’t know what to expect from this marathon, partly because I haven’t had a chance to discuss with Caitlin yet, but also because of the simple fact that it’s been 4.5 years since my last and life has been so life in the last six months that anything between Phawkes’ 3:20 predictions (“Phawkes” is the name of my Garmin Fēnix) and my standing 4:17 PR seems well within the realm of possible, even plausible.

FiveThirtyEight linked their marathon pace calculator from last year in time for this year’s NYC Marathon, and for giggles I punched in the information they wanted: 35 miles/week (average) training, a 1:44:52 half marathon time on a moderate course (Swamp Rabbit in Feb 2019), and a 51:29 10K on a hard course (Peachtree this past July). Here’s what they thought:

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 1.10.00 PM
Courtesy of the FiveThirtyEight marathon calculator.

Seems as reasonable as any. But enough with reasonable.

Every fall it seems like the conceptual thunderdome of “which is a better metaphor for life: football or marathons” crops up. I spent a significant portion of my formative years having the football metaphor drilled into me: the gridiron as a stand-in for all the challenges and uphill battles you’ll fight on a daily basis, with the guarantee that you’ll get knocked down repeatedly, and the mark of a successful player is the ability to get back up to [likely] get knocked down again and [maybe] make a play.

16 years later (jfc I’m old), I embrace that metaphor with considerably less enthusiasm. While I don’t think it’s outright wrong, it’s definitely misleading: there are only so many times you can get back up before trying again could, literally as well as figuratively, be dangerous to your health. To that end, I’ve increasingly found the marathon to be the superior metaphor: it’s a long grind, especially with the training, and has its share of ups and downs. Sometimes it will feel great, other times you’ll wish you’d stayed in bed. There’s no shortcut–I’ve found one can “fake” their way through a half marathon without training, but with a full it’s just impossible unless you’ve put in the time and effort. Critically, you can’t put it all on the line at the very beginning; it’s not a sprint, so you better go out hard but make sure you’ve got something left for when the going gets really hard.

Photo Nov 02, 17 21 41
Georgia Tech’s 2019 Homecoming game against Pittsburgh! We lost. Badly.

I may be training for a marathon, but I’m also actively running one. I nailed a huge PR last December and took some time to recuperate a bit. Unfortunately, this fall, I attacked the hills a bit before I was fully rested and it hurt like hell. It’ll make me stronger down the stretch, but only if I take care of myself now. But in that recover-while-training synchrony, I’ve been frustrated by what feels like simply treading water: workouts where I’ve had to cut out reps because it was just too humid out, or long runs I had to bag because I was under the weather. Meanwhile, I’ve yet to get further than a week ahead in my teaching, I’ve pushed a couple grant deadlines, and I outright canceled my appearance at a top conference in October. In isolation, these felt like misses in my training, milestones I should have been able to hit but didn’t. Was I not training hard enough? Did I need to push even more? Maybe I could make up for it by cramming in more later?

It’s crazy how often the same identical neuroses crop up in marathon training and everyday life, and are handled oppositely. I get a small tweak in my knee? Take a week off, no worries, especially since it’s early in training; Big grant deadline? Push through it, pull an all-nighter if you have to, then back to work first thing in the morning because I haven’t made the lecture slides yet. Conversely: three weeks in a row of travel, feeling sick, sure I’ll take a day off from work; three weeks in a row of travel, feeling sick, but if I skip this 20-mile run it’s the end of the f#@!ing world!

I love what I do; I also hate my job with every fiber of my being. So, too, do I love and hate running marathons. Maybe I’ll give marathons a slight edge in sum because I often run to escape work, but never the other way around. Also because I can eat a lot more donuts while running marathons than I can sitting at my desk.

This is all to say: I’ve really, really missed this grindy, miserable, wonderful event, and I’m excited and terrified to see what I can do on Saturday morning. But no matter what happens, I’ll feel better again, I’ll have fun, and I’ll have the world’s best cheering section the whole way.

Photo Nov 02, 16 43 31
The Lady sat through a one-sided (not our side) football game. That’s true love.

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.


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.

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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.


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.

How not to run a marathon

With a head cold.

Except not.
Except not.

The Lady and I ran the Big Sur International Marathon a week ago. It was beautiful, it was brutal, and to cap off the triumvirate with a non-alliterative finish, it was exhausting, and not just because we ran a marathon.

I had a sore throat in the days leading up to our departure for the west coast. It flared up a little bit the day before–nothing more than a somewhat runny nose–and I still felt good through about mile 20 on race day.

But that last 10K. And then a tattered immune system, shredded from running 26.2 miles the day before, completely giving up on life. And then spending the entire next day traveling.

Ugh. I strongly recommend against running a marathon while under the weather.

Race report to come!

Race Report: Georgia Half Marathon

The Lady and I registered for this race shortly after moving to Athens. We anticipated using the race as a check-up on our Big Sur training, and to start getting to know the South we’d just moved into a little better. The last time the two of us had raced in downtown Atlanta, it was Thanksgiving morning of 2010 and we were about to kick off this grand running adventure of ours with our first-ever half marathon.

More than anything, we were excited for a quiet evening to ourselves in a lovely hotel. It had (and continues to) been a rough couple of months of training. We’d both experienced extremely bipolar weeks of training, where one workout would feel fantastic and the subsequent workout would be a miserable crash-and-burn. I was just hoping to get sub-1:55; even sub-2, to my battered running psyche, seemed challenging.

Needless to say, while we were definitely excited for the race, neither of us had the sunniest of dispositions going in.

Saturday, March 21

First things first–we had to make the roughly 90-minute drive from our abode in Athens to the downtown Atlanta area.

[ASIDE: When folks ask “How’s Atlanta treating you?”, while I know what they mean it’s still an irksome question, given the cities’ geographic and cultural distances. It’s akin to how folks used to ask “How is Philadelphia treating you?” when we lived in Pittsburgh. Yes, we were asked that question many times.]

We arrived in the early afternoon and checked into our hotel room immediately. It’d been a busy week, and we just wanted a few minutes of quiet before strolling out for the Expo (which was all of two blocks away; score!).

Our hotel room's balcony overlooked Olympic Centennial Park, and the start/finish lines. This came in handy later!
Our hotel room’s balcony overlooked Olympic Centennial Park, and the start/finish lines. This came in handy later!

The Expo itself was fairly uneventful, and even kind of disappointing relative to other expos we’ve attended. The Air Force and Marine Corps expos, for instance, seemed to have a lot more booths for other races as well as general apparel shops. Not that this expo felt sparse, but at the same time there just wasn’t much that piqued my interest. So after picking up our bibs, swag bags, and looking around for a bit, we headed back the way we came.

Photo Mar 21, 15 37 08

After a quick conversation with the Brooks rep outside, we settled on Waffle House for our midday pre-race snack; it was too early for dinner but we were already starving. It was actually fantastic–the staff were incredibly cordial and friendly, and the place was already swarming with other runners. We took it easy on the processed sugar and stuck with plain waffles, and spent the next hour chatting with a lively Manhattan-ite runner-turned-corporate who was organizing some of the post-race goodies. After a lovely conversation and walk through the park on our way back to the hotel, we stopped in at the hotel’s own restaurant, which was running dinner specials specifically for the runners: lots of pasta! After a brief wait, we were seated and enjoyed a delicious pre-race dinner.

We felt pretty good; surprisingly, not too jittery. Probably because we’d set expectations so low leading up to the race. I kid you not, we spent the remainder of the evening working on wedding thank-you notes (because we are woefully behind; we celebrated our 1-year wedding anniversary last week…). It took a little while to fall asleep–not used to sleeping with downtown noises outside anymore!–but I felt calm and good and sleep came reasonably soon.

Sunday, March 22

Daylight Savings had literally just hit exactly two weeks previous, so it was dark when we woke up at 5am (which was a lot later than we usually wake up for races; booking a hotel 10 feet from the starting line FTW!). We took our time getting dressed and eating our pre-race breakfasts, and making sure all our gear was charged, packed, and ready.

One small wrinkle: it was raining.

You better believe I busted out the GT banner!
You better believe I busted out the GT banner!

It wasn’t raining hard, nor was it terribly cold out; the closest I can describe it would be a “steady drizzle” with zero wind and temperatures in the low-50s. Standing in the rain was a bit on the chilly side, but not painfully so; at the same time, since our hotel was literally at the starting line, we could camp out in the dry parking deck all of 20 feet away until the last possible moment.

The Lady and I decided we’d run the race together, barring anyone spectacularly imploding or fantastically sprinting. We told ourselves we wouldn’t have a time goal, that we’d “go by effort” and “have fun.”

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what those mean in the context of “currently standing at the starting line of a race,” but that was our plan. I was still thinking 1:55 would be nice. I was also thinking how all the other runners in Corral A (oh yes, we were right at the front) were probably going to pass me up in the first few minutes.

Here’s where I have to give major, major props to this race and its organizers: every single aspect of this race was flawlessly planned and executed. The corrals were clearly marked, volunteers were omnipresent and helpful, and they weren’t kidding when they advertised a 7am start time:

Dead. On.
Dead. On.

Thus, in pitch darkness and steady rainfall, the race began!

I wish I could say that I settled right into a rhythm and rode that to the finish. The truth is a lot messier. My brain would not shut up. I felt pretty awful at the start and it didn’t much improve for awhile. I couldn’t stop mentally taking my temperature: My legs are on fire, am I going to implode? I’m breathing every other step instead of every three steps, am I going to implode? I just got passed, does that mean I’m about to implode?

I was helpless before the onslaught. I haven’t been doing nearly enough yoga, which has really helped me in the past get my internal monologue under control. I was out of shape, at least mentally, and I’d had enough bad workouts this training cycle to generate just enough doubt that I couldn’t simply dismiss the thoughts as fatalistic nonsense.

Georgia Half Marathon course. A nice tour of the downtown area.
Georgia Half Marathon course. A nice tour of the downtown area.

So I tried to make peace with it. Acknowledge the thinking, let it do its thing, and try to enjoy my surroundings.

7:47, 7:51, 8:05

The Lady and I were cruising along at a decent clip. It was a touch too fast for my liking, but I more or less said “the hell with it” and put keeping up with her as my primary goal. I felt blah, but not in a rapidly-falling-apart way, more of a “yeah this hurts but I’ve been here plenty of times before, I know I can keep going” way. Hard to explain.

It didn’t help that the first few miles were pretty effing hilly. But soon enough we entered the Little Five Points residential area, which featured at least a bit more rolling landscape. It was at this point that started feeling noticeably better, noticeably calmer.

It was pitch black until about 8am.
It was pitch black until about 8am.

8:13, 7:56, 8:04, 8:13

The Little Five area was even more beautiful than I remembered. Maybe it was the overcast morning coinciding with the now-damp surroundings, though I also noticed several parts of the trail that I knew from memory used to be slums had now been (or were literally in mid-process of) being gentrified. It all looked amazing! I couldn’t believe how much of it had been built up in the better part of the last decade. I had fun trying to identify which parts were familiar, and which were completely new to me.

7:56, 7:41

Around mile 10, we arrived at the part of the race I was most excited about: we were running through the main artery of the Georgia Tech campus! Right as we approached the 5th St Bridge, this song from Big Hero 6 came onto my playlist; I almost sprinted through I was so pumped up.

Unfortunately, the lovely rolling hills of Little Five had come to an end, as our arrival at Georgia Tech also heralded the return of downtown Atlanta and its gnarly hills.

8:09, 8:00, 8:07

Mile 12 was truly the first time the whole race I’d felt in pain. While on one hand it was a pleasant surprise I’d lasted for so long, on the other this last mile was really going to be rough. The Lady started pulling away, and while I tried to keep up I nonetheless loosened my grip somewhat.

We turned a corner, and overhead I could see the Omni Hotel sign. Almost there!


I don’t know if it was because I suddenly saw how close I was going to be to 1:45 (I’d been consciously ignoring my watch the entire race, focusing almost exclusively on just sticking with The Lady), or because I really wanted to catch up to The Lady, but I threw everything I had left into that final 0.1, averaging a 6:30 pace and finishing the last couple hundredths of a mile at a 5:10 pace.

The face(s) of pain.
The face(s) of pain.

I didn’t quite beat 1:45, but I did get 1:45:08, which was easily 5-10 minutes faster than I’d been hoping for all week. It was good enough for 61st in my age group (83rd percentile, w00t), 349th of 2,587 men (87th percentile, w00t!), and 459th overall (92nd percentile, WOOOOT!).


The finish line was all of 20 feet from the starting line, so we pretty much rolled ourselves back up to our hotel room to get cleaned up. Though we did take advantage of the balcony to watch the finish line for a bit and cheer on the other half marathon finishers, as well as the full marathon finishers who had just started to appear:

Photo Mar 22, 09 24 43

Check-out wasn’t until noon, so we had plenty of time to relax, recoup, and enjoy the feeling of having performed way better than we’d expected (The Lady stayed one step ahead–she finished 2 seconds before I did!).

While I hurt pretty much the entire race, it was manageable. It was one of the most evenly-paced races I’ve ever run. The majority of my half marathons, even my current PR, show an unmistakable slowdown around mile 11 before the final push kicks in during mile 12. There was no such yo-yo-ing here; any fluctuations in pace were largely a result of terrain.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 1.51.35 PM

The mental self-talk is still a problem, one I haven’t yet found an answer for. This spring has been such a bear getting settled in our new environment, that while I have no doubt marathon training has been a net positive, it’s been difficult to keep the motivation and the positive attitude when all I want to do is sleep. It was a big relief to throw down a very, very solid performance in the midst of mediocre-at-best performances. A 1:45 may be 4 minutes off from my PR, but it’s nearly 8 minutes faster than the last half marathon I ran back in October 2014, and on a much tougher course.

Sub-1:40 remains elusive, but if nothing else this shows I still have some fight left in me. I’ll get it eventually 🙂

Big Sur, Week 12: The Double Cutback

To play off one of my all-time favorite cartoons, training has been…interesting. The Lady and I raced our hearts out at the Georgia Half Marathon this past weekend, and while I will say that we seriously kicked ass, I’m going to hold off for a bit on a race report (basically until I have more time to do it justice; this will just be a quick training update).

The past few weeks of training haven’t made a whole lot of sense from a bird’s eye view:

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 3.23.03 PM

Reasonable questions to ask after looking this over include

  • Why does the mileage drop for two consecutive weeks?
  • Where’s the long run for the week of Mar 9-15?
  • What’s with all the runs of 2.9, 5.9, and 9.9 miles?

The answer to the third question is short and sweet: “because Strava is a unfathomably frustrating when it comes to manually specifying treadmill workouts.” The first two questions require a little more prior knowledge.

Simply put, The Lady and I were hitting walls, with the end result being that we both felt completely strung out. That 3.2-miler (+XT) at the end of the Mar 9-15 week was supposed to be 10-12 miles; we knew very early on it just wasn’t going to happen. Even though we’d logged an absolutely kick-ass 10M ladder workout only two days before, our hearts, bodies, and souls just weren’t into more mileage. Furthermore, with the following week already scheduled to be a cutback week, we had to further silence our inner critics that demanded we push the mileage we were skipping into the next week.

In retrospect, while the physical ramifications are still somewhat up in the air, at least from mental and emotional perspectives we absolutely needed the mileage drawbacks: skipping 75% of the scheduled long run and sticking to the original cutback week plan were essential. For the first time in awhile, this last week of training didn’t feel terrible. There were numerous runs which, at their end, I actually felt good, a far cry from the feeling of “thank God I got through yet another workout.”

I’m certainly not going to say we’re settled in. There’s still lots to do, personally and professionally, and I’m having a hard time figuring out which direction is up (see my research blog for some perspective into the professional side of things). And then there’s April, which features 1) our (The Lady and I) first wedding anniversary, 2) Easter, 3) Ragnar, and 4) Big Sur. It’ll be a whirlwind month, notwithstanding anything that has to do with settling into our day-to-day lives.

tl;dr Things have been mixed lately, but at the moment I’m cautiously optimistic; there’s been a definite upswing of late, and I’m hopeful it will continue.

I’m hoping to post the Georgia Half race report sometime in the next week or so. Stay tuned!

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–

The Great Wall of Sushi.