Marathon training mode: enable

Yep, I’m still alive.

Things have been chugging along at a good clip across the board, but mostly my absence has largely been due to burnout: I’ve been taking this summer to actually recoup and recover, rather than fill up my first non-teaching semester in 3 years with more-and-different-but-really-just-status-quo stuff.

I’ve still been active running–continuing my 100+ miles/month streak that started about this time in 2018:

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Normally July is a beast month, but two weeks ago I noticed a pulling in my right knee. Since I’m really set on doing my first marathon in four years this November, and I’d had a pretty stellar June, I didn’t want to push things too hard too soon, so I took a full week off and then slowly built up again last week (without issue, thankfully!). Consequently the mileage was well under where it would have been, but I’m simply grateful for being able to keep running.

Speaking of the marathon! I’ve hired a coach–Caitlin Kowalke, who owns Fearless Feet Running. We’ve been working together since early May when we started base-building, and as of last week we are now officially in the 16-week marathon training cycle.

I can’t say enough–she’s been fantastic. She’s exactly the right combination of pushing-the-envelope with listen-to-your-body that I need. The Tuesday morning workouts have become almost infamous between The Lady and myself–“what fresh hell is on the docket for this week?”–and it always pushed me right to the edge, but always in a way that 1) I can finish, even if only barely, and 2) I learn something about myself in the process. The Lady pointed me to her late last spring, as she made a recruiting post around that time on Instagram that got circulated through the Oiselle community. I’d been pondering getting a coach (to get me under that brutal 4-hour mark on marathons) but hadn’t had any luck finding one, up until then.

Training through the summer has not been easy, either. While it’s been a far better summer than, say, 2018 (Lily) or 2016 (new record for consecutive highs over 90–somewhere in the realm of 50+ straight days), I’ve been dealing with the consequences of going 9000mph in my job for the last four years straight. Having finally received my first federal grant last December, and in my first semester (including summers) since Spring 2016 where I haven’t had a course to teach, I’ve taken this summer to try and recover a bit from some very serious burnout, starting with our anniversary trip to Ireland in mid-May.

At the same time, this summer has been the hottest we’ve had since that brutal summer in 2016 with 50+ consecutive days with highs over 90 and lows above 70. It hasn’t quite reached that level, but evidently this past July was on par with July 2016, the standing record. That, plus the two weeks of travel in May to Ireland, a week of travel in June to Tucson AZ, and a week of travel in July to Austin TX–all of which was AWESOME, by the way–has been tough to maintain a regular base-building regimen through.

But Caitlin has been patient with my schedule, encouraging in my foibles, and supportive in my successes AND everything in between. I particularly want to point out how she’s gently (but firmly) turned me away from what I perceive as failures, and encouraged me to celebrate wins, even when I felt like a workout was a total bust. This is absolutely the part I have the most trouble with, and not just in running–I forsake the broader success to instead focus exclusively on the one thing that didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. She’s been great in keeping me focused on the bigger picture, and the progress I’ve been making over the weeks and months.

It’s been working. I didn’t break any landspeed records at Peachtree this year, but I did finally break a 4-year slide of consecutively-slower races, coming in right around 51:30 and beating last year’s time by over two full minutes (and under brutal conditions, too). I even felt like I had some gas left in the tank at the end!

The workouts have been equally encouraging, even just in the past few days: Saturday was my first long run (8 miles) since I started feeling that pull in my knee, so not only was I apprehensive about how my knee would hold up, but also about how I’d handle longer distance in the heat after nearly two weeks on the bench. I finished the run but the last 3 miles was a slog (just because of the weather–my knee held up great!).

Fast-forward all of three days later to a 5.25-mile tempo run, and I did it 1) at 11am, so the sun was already beating down pretty hard, and 2) with 8:20-pace segments in it, and I felt great!

I’m excited for what the next four months will bring. This summer has felt restorative, even though I accomplished almost none of what I’d had on a “list” of things that I could potentially do. At the end of the day, you can’t put a price tag on recovering from burnout; while three months of recuperating will never fully compensate for four years of mindless and endless hard work, and while I wasn’t able to pick up any of the personal projects that have languished for years now, this summer still fulfilled its role of restoration and self-care. And I got a solid marathon base to boot 🙂


Running doesn’t happen in a vacuum

The Lady and I ran the Peachtree Road Race 10K this week, our fourth since moving to Athens 3.5 years ago (has it been that long already?). Barring some of the most condescending and unhelpful race officials I have ever encountered in my life (they’ll be hearing from me; it was an embarrassment to the sport), it was a top-notch event, as always.

It also continued a monotonic slow-down in race time year-over-year for me since we started running the race as Athens locals: in 2015 I ran it in 46:19; in 2016, 51:48; in 2017, 53:27; and finally, this year, 53:44.

That’s a bit of an oversimplification; after all, the last several blog posts here have detailed how much running has actually improved over the last year-ish. And broadly speaking, that does seem to hold true.

But the month of June was a barn-burner. The two weeks leading up to July 4 were particularly awful.

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Mileage the last two weeks of June.

As much as I like and trumpet the fact that running is a mental and physical cleanse, an opportunity to leave the real world behind for a bit and be alone with my thoughts or just the ambience of nature, I can’t make that switch flawlessly; just like I carry the benefits of running with me into my day-to-day life, the consequences of events from my day-to-day trickle into my running. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that I am a function of my entire life, not just the “good” parts I want to bring with on a run.

The Lady and I went through a hard June. We’re still feeling the effects, but we’ve reached the point where re-establishing a regular rhythm–particularly one which involves physical activity–is going to be a net benefit. But to even consider that our running could have continued unaffected during that stretch would be laughable. There was one run (I think it was that Wednesday on the above screenshot, the tiny bubble with no number on it) where I’d planned about 3-5 miles. I got up in the morning, got dressed, headed out… and quit after 1 mile.

There’s the good kind of awful, and just plain shit. This was the latter. You don’t push through that; you listen and do what you need to do, including and especially if that involves not running.

And that’s ok.

Of course, I have a lot of trouble with the “that’s ok” bit. Part of that stems from my innate perfectionism that wants to check off every goal I set: Strava wastes no time in reminding me I’m currently 20 miles behind my mileage goal for the year, which isn’t quite a full week (~28 miles/week is needed to maintain), but warrants attention paid if I want to stay on track. The other part is the fact that, for the most part, I know running is good for me, but too much of anything is a bad thing; finding that balance is tricky. At the time, I wasn’t sure I should call it quits after just 1 mile of a planned 3+; even after I started walking it in, I questioned if I should try to push through it. It’s only in retrospect (two weeks later) that I can confidently say that 1 mile was all I had to give that day, and even then I was probably drawing on the next day’s energy.

Finally, another part of me just wants to run. Rack up those miles, push the pace, snap long-standing PRs, and just fly. Because, all hemming and hawing and navel-gazing aside, I love running.

It’s that simple. But as many religions have found, it’s tough to be both of the world while also separate from it. Impossible, really; that’s why I can’t just flip the switch and drop the real world when it comes time to run.

But it is nice to occasionally remind myself why I run.

July Triumphs

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For the first time since March 2017, I broke 100 miles in a month. And by a decently-sizeable margin, too. I know it’s an arbitrary threshold, but it still feels good. Especially considering what the weather here in Athens has been most of the month of July: hot (highs in the 90s) and humid (99% humidity in the mornings). It’s been brutal, but I’ve even managed to top out at a 12-mile long run this month. The milestone is particularly satisfying, given how brutally awful this year’s Peachtree Road Race felt; at the time, it felt like an auspicious start to what historically was an awful month for weather.

Fleet Feet Athens celebrated its 4-year anniversary. Part of the celebration entailed setting goals for the next year. The last thing I want is for my 125+ mile month to skew my self-confidence, but I shot for the stars anyway: the highly-elusive sub-1:40 half, and the equally-intangible sub-4 full (fun fact: I haven’t run a full marathon since Big Sur 2015. high time I changed that!).

Until we celebrated my Dad’s birthday earlier this month, I hadn’t bowled in at least 3 years. I honestly don’t remember the last time, but I know it was before The Lady and I moved to Athens. So color me shocked when I not only broke 130 in both games, but nailed a turkey (not my first, I’m proud to say) in the 10th frame of the first game.

I have to admit: it’s been a good month! Bring on August!

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They really shouldn’t let us out in public.

Running “inside out”

First of all, if you haven’t seen Pixar’s latest film Inside Out, I highly recommend it. Bring tissues.

I’ll avoid spoiling specifics from the movie, but if your concerns extend to thematic spoilers, you may want to skip this post for now. Consider yourselves warned.

I’d already been planning a post along these lines ever since the Peachtree Road Race over July 4th weekend, but frankly that was just the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. I got an extra boost in this direction after reading Megan’s post: taking mid-year stock of one’s running goals.

Here’s the punchline: I’m not happy with where I am right now. In fact, I’m downright upset to the point of being angry.

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Peachtree mile splits.

The Peachtree started off well enough–until we hit the first uphill. Then it was like my mind + body just threw in the towel; I couldn’t recover, even once the elevation leveled off. If Peachtree was the only time this happened, I’d simply write it off as a bad day. But I feel like this has been the story of my races of late: start off at a pace that’s brisk but still [seemingly!] safely slower than PR pace, and blow up anyway halfway through. Add to that the lack of motivation I’ve been feeling lately, and you have my current state of mind.

It’s not like I’m out of shape, either. I’m certainly not in PR form right now–breaking a 42:45 10K PR is going to be a beast under the best of conditions, to say nothing of a humid and rainy race morning on a course I didn’t hardly remember–but I nonetheless didn’t expect a breakdown this bad:

Now, you might be wondering where Inside Out comes in. The Lady and I saw the movie recently, and…well, it hit a nerve. That, along with this lovely Ask Polly article posted by a separate friend of mine, triggered one or two brain cells.

One of the many things I love about running is the variety of reasons people do it. But I’d also have to argue that, to some extent, everyone who runs does so because it’s fun. It may not be one’s primary motive–mine is food, thanks–but if it’s “zero fun sir” then I find it difficult to believe any other motivation would be sufficient. And in all that fun-having, there’s zero downside, right?

Well sure, we’ll readily admit we’re crazy: we run in bad weather (Peachtree), we run super early in the mornings, we run crazy miles, etc etc. But actually admitting that a run legitimately wasn’t fun? Go ahead: say out loud that your last run wasn’t fun.

Not easy. Especially for me, a lifetime people-pleaser. When someone asks how my run went, I love to tell them how great it was and how much I love running and that I can’t wait for my next race and… you get the idea. Plus, when someone asks “oh how is X” where X is someone or something you devote a significant amount of time to, I sincerely doubt anyone wants to respond with “yeah it blows right now.”

But then I read that NY Mag article (emphasis mine):

[Y]our life sounds compromised and constrained to me. Someone told you to improve your attitude and color within the lines and you listened, and now all of the powerful emotions swirling around inside you have been stilled and muted and you can’t access them anymore.

That’s pretty much what I do: run a bad race, get upset with myself for it, but bury it deep down and “find the positives” in it whenever I have an audience.

And then I watched Inside Out, the Pixar tale of “emotions with emotions,” following the inner monologue of a young girl whose world is flipped upside down when her family moves across the country. The NY Times wrote a great article on the science behind the movie, and two main points stood out (emphasis mine):

First, emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations. But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.

Second, emotions organize — rather than disrupt — our social lives. Studies have found, for example, that emotions structure (not just color) such disparate social interactions as attachment between parents and children, sibling conflicts, flirtations between young courters and negotiations between rivals.

So to rephrase my original punchline in the context of these revelations: it’s ok to be upset, disappointed, and even angry! Furthermore, it’s ok to express that outwardly!

Running is personal. Running is emotional. Runners have a great deal of passion for what they do; running is certainly central to who I am. It’s challenging, it’s rewarding, and it’s responsible for a lot of physical, mental, and emotional growth. How on earth could one possibly convince themselves that any kind of negative emotion toward running is, in any sense, “incorrect”?

And yet, that’s precisely what I’ve done, and in so doing have directly created the lack of motivation I cited before. After all, if running is supposed to make me happy, and I can’t admit to myself that I’m having a difficult time with it right now, it would seem to follow that I’d start avoiding running, therefore avoiding disappointment.

BUT. That’s not how running works, or really anything that’s deeply meaningful. Sometimes it’s Sadness who has to save the day.

In that vein, I’m admitting to myself (and, therefore, everyone else) that I’m frustrated with my running. I feel stuck. I feel like I’m not getting any faster, and I’m tired of feeling tired all the time. I feel like every workout sucks and I just don’t have the mental toughness to push through it. I want a sub-4-hour full; I want a sub-1:40 half; I want a sub-40-minute 10K and a sub-20-minute 5K. I want to go on tempo runs and track workouts and kick their asses. Not necessarily come out feeling like I could run another 10 miles, but come out knowing I put everything I had into that workout. I miss knocking out 5×1600 with straight 6:20s; I miss crushing 9-mile tempo runs at a consistent 6:50 pace; I miss cruising at 7:45s for 12 miles and then unleashing hell at mile 13 with a 7:15 mile.

I miss all that and I want to get back there. To do that, I’m not ignoring my disappointment anymore; rather, I’m staring it down. I’m accepting that it’s part of being a passionate runner in love with the sport. Most of all, I’m allowing myself to feel the range of emotions that come with that passion, whether or not I think I’m “supposed” to feel that way.

To use the vernacular from the Ask Polly article (emphasis mine):

You have to dig. You have to get down on your hands and knees and let go of your pride and you have to dig, with every ounce of your strength. You’re young, and you haven’t done this before. Do it now! If you commit to nothing else, commit to figuring out what makes you happy, and what makes you unhappy. But to do that, you have to accept that you DO have preferences. Stop trying to be good and stop trying to have a good attitude.

And when a motherfucker comes by and tells you you’re doing it wrong, laugh out loud. No one knows better than you how to do this. Trust your instincts. You can cry and be grumpy and be angry and be happy and hate street fairs and have a great attitude and have a shitty attitude and work hard and be lazy, all at the same time. Follow your heart. Don’t give up. Laugh out loud, and get back to digging.

I don’t know when I’ll get back there. Marathon training is just around the corner, so it’s possible it’ll happen sooner rather than later. I’ve already been making strides in strength training; my bench press has risen considerably from a very difficult 1-2 reps at 185lbs to an almost-comfortable 3-4 reps at 205lbs, and my general upper body strength has been noticeably improving. I threw down a very consistent ladder workout (400/800/1200/800/400 at 5K pace [6:35] with 400 rests in between) earlier this week; it was definitely difficult but I kept my focus, even without any music. My foot/toe knuckle inflammation seems to be going steadily down; I’m conscious of it less and less and it’s not impacting my running.

Ladder workout pace (top) and cadence (bottom).
Ladder workout pace (top) and cadence (bottom).

Most importantly: I’m enjoying running more. I’m feeling fired up (and a little nervous!) for these harder workouts. I’m feeling the passion creep back in, even though I know disappointment from a crash-and-burn could still be right around the corner. But it’s that openness to all emotions, that reckless abandon–damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!–that is where my runner’s high really comes from.

That, and chewy chocolate chip cookies. Omnomnom.

Run-up (heh) to marathon training

Man, real life can be quite the time sink, #amirite?

At any rate, in the intervening weeks since my last update, I’ve since halted the run streak due to nagging pain under the knuckle of my second left toe. I’ve started seeing a PT, who looked at my gait and–I kid you not–said “I can’t let you keep testing, because otherwise you’ll break records that *I* set. Your gait is fine; take some time off and you’re good.” While I haven’t stopped running entirely, I have been doing a lot more cross-training (stationary bike, elliptical, weights, push-ups at work) and am still participating in the weekly Fleet Feet group runs, Athens Road Runner track workouts, and group long runs.

Still, it means my mileage has tanked somewhat; I barely eked out a 100-mile June (100.47, to be exact) for a 6-month total of 672.27. Very much on track to break 1000 miles again, but way short of the monstrous 1600+ I put up in 2014; I sincerely doubt I’ll be able to log 1000 miles in the next 6 months. Not without further injuring myself, at least.

So if absolute mileage isn’t my goal for 2015, what is?

How about some PRs, maybe with some cross-training thrown in? To expound a little further:

  • The Lady and I are running the Peachtree Road Race in a few days’ time, and while we managed to get ourselves seeded at the VERY FRONT of the pack–wave A–I don’t think it’ll be a PR course. Still, I’d love to get under 44 minutes.
  • We’ve also registered for two half marathons in October: the Michelob Ultra 13.1 Atlanta, and the Ath Half right here in Athens. My half PR stands at 1:41 and change, and while I couldn’t come close to that back in March at the Georgia Half, I still put up a respectable 1:45. For October, I’m just going to lay it out: I want sub-1:40.
  • I mentioned marathon training in the title of this post. In just a few weeks, The Lady and I will start training for the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon in mid-November in the foothills of the Appalachians. I’ve run three marathons with varied degrees of success–Philly was an implosion, Marine Corps was better, and Big Sur was still better even though my time was worst–and my PR remains stuck at 4:17: what I ran at Philly and beat by 8 measly seconds at Marine Corps. I want sub-4 hours.
  • I have a beastly Talus mountain bike that hasn’t seen the outside of our garage since we moved to Athens. I want to take Sybil out for a spin or several.

I’ve had some motivational issues over the last month. In fact, all things considered, my current nagging foot injury came at the best possible time: marathon training was still far enough away to provide plenty of time for a full recovery, and it gave me a good excuse to take a bit of a step back from running. I’d been enjoying it less and less; I still liked the idea of running, but whenever I actually got out there, I spent the whole run wanting to be done.

Effectively, “burned out” is the phrase I’d use to sum up how I’ve been feeling. So perhaps it’s time for a breather before training ramps up. The summer has been nice for settling into my 6-month-old new job, but with it came a brutal three-week heat wave: mid-70s and humid in the mornings, mid-to-upper 90s in the afternoons…and no rain for that entire period. Every run, especially the evening group runs, was painful and grindy. Pulling back a little has helped, but I’m still working on shifting my mentality (and getting more sleep; it’s been a very busy couple of weeks and my sleep has been iffy) from “avoid pain” to “haul ass“. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m hopeful that I’ve been taking small steps in the right direction.

Wish us luck this weekend, as we join 60,000 of our closest friends to run the world’s largest 10K!

Have a very happy and safe 4th of July!

Marine Corps Marathon!

Very exciting–The Lady and I successfully registered for the Marine Corps Marathon on October 27, 2013!

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The registration firestorm broke its own record from last year by selling out in 2 hours and 27 minutes. Which brings up a bigger issue: how to handle registration when the event is this popular and it sells out this fast. Particularly after the debacle of the Chicago Marathon, I was curious to see even before registration opened for MCM how they would handle the inevitable flurry of activity.

The verdict? Not terribly well. And I wasn’t terribly surprised, either.

Modern web servers and hardware-based load balancers have done wonders for smoothing out web traffic and distributing the load across many different systems in a way that’s manageable. However, for any of this to work, you still need to have sufficient hardware to handle all the incoming connections. For anyone who is familiar with the SimCity franchise, its latest installation suffered from a lot of the same problems when it was first launched.

Point being: for a system designed to handle a certain amount of traffic at any given time, there is practically no way to deal with a sudden surge of traffic orders of magnitude bigger at the very same minute. There just isn’t. Credit is due to for not outright crashing like it did during the Chicago registration, but other than a lucky break at 12pm sharp that allowed me to get to the main registration page, I was completely unable to finish my transaction and access any part of the registration form thereafter.

Somehow, The Lady penetrated the 500 barrier and signed me up (she was already registered through a charity), so I have her to thank for that (routing my traffic through local proxies didn’t seem to help, and I didn’t want to test the latency of more distant proxies when speed was paramount).

Simply put, this model isn’t scalable. You can’t expect to keep having these kind of flash-registration sessions where the only people who manage to get through are those who just happen to hit F5 the millisecond a thread on the server goes idle. I suppose it’s a lottery of sorts, but it arguably generates a lot more frustration and resentment than is necessary. Many popular races (the Peachtree Road Race comes to mind) have already gone to the lottery system. On one hand, it doesn’t guarantee that a registration will result in a spot at the event. But on the other hand, you’ve just as much of a chance of getting in as you would in an online registration firestorm, minus all the adrenaline and frustration of furiously refreshing the page until it loads.

Some have also suggested tiered registration, analogous to Boston’s process which stratifies the groups by their qualifying times; perhaps something similar could be done by age group. Regardless of the approach, a change is needed. The change could either be the brute force approach where purchases enough server space to rival Google (99% of which would idly sit there minus the handful of events over the course of a year when that extra hardware is needed), or the change could be the process by which people register. I certainly wouldn’t mind the former, but I recognize it’s not economically viable. So it’s up the events to implement some changes to get the latter moving sooner rather than later.

Because we sure as hell don’t look like this:

Said nobody, ever.
Said nobody, ever.