Race Report: Spring Thaw

Once I typed the title into WordPress, I noticed the permalink had a distinctive “-2” at the end of it. Sure enough, I have an identically-titled post of the same event from last year. Feel free to read it for the background of the race.

The upshot of the race is this: it’s a 5-mile loop that can be run two (10 miles), three (15 miles), or four (20 miles) times. What’s neat is that you can literally change your mind mid-race: if you’re running the 10 but decide you’re cruising so well you want to keep going, you can! If you’re running the 20 but decide today isn’t your day, you can drop down to 15!

Spring Thaw 2012 was maybe 20 degrees. Maybe.
Spring Thaw 2012 was maybe 20 degrees. Maybe.

Historically, despite the name, this race has been absolutely frigid. Two years ago there was a ton of snow on the ground and the temperature was nowhere near melting. Last year, there wasn’t as much snow, but it was just as cold.

This year! This year was a break, and it actually deserved the words “spring” AND “thaw”! There was still a surprising amount of snow on the ground, and the wind was actually pretty brutal–20mph gusts were the norm–but the sky was crystal clear and the temperatures swung upwards of nearly 50 degrees. Contrast this with the deep freeze we’ve been under since mid-January, and you have a recipe for a lot of very excited runners.

This year: completely clear skies, temperatures well above freezing. A lot of wind, though.
This year: completely clear skies, temperatures well above freezing. A lot of wind, though.

As for the race itself, The Lady and I had some pretty lofty goals. We started our training for the Pittsburgh half not too long ago, and we’re also still keeping up with the run streak (88 days and counting!). We didn’t want to push our mileage too high this early in training, so we both opted for the 10-mile option, thereby seamlessly folding it into our training program as this week’s long run (and only the second long run of our training cycle).

We both wanted to run the 10 miles at our goal half-marathon pace. Hers is a 7:49 min/mi, putting her right around a 1:42 finishing time. Achieving this pace in March’s Just A Short Run would give her qualifying credentials to apply for a seeded position at the Pittsburgh half in May, which would be pretty freakin’ badass.

My goal half-marathon pace is a 7:38 min/mi, which is exactly 1:40. I know it’s still beyond my abilities, but I wanted to see if 10 miles (instead of 13.1) at my goal pace wasn’t insurmountable. However, I knew I needed some help. Just a couple of weeks ago, The Lady and a friend of hers ran this same track and I tagged along. I barely eked out an 8:30 pace, feeling like crap just about the whole time. I knew I was in better shape than that for this race, but knocking a full 10 minutes off was going to be challenging no matter what.

Enter Mark (who I affectionately call “cranberry dude”).

Mark is right in the middle.
Mark is right in the middle. The Lady’s (557) running buddy was 623. All are awesome folks (except for the creeper in the back).

He’s a 3-hours-and-really-no-change marathoner. He was originally on the fence about running the Spring Thaw this year (he, like myself and countless other runners, have a hard time running “easy” when there’s a clock going), but I convinced him to do it as a pacer for me. I told him my goal was a 7:30 pace for 10 miles. He agreed.

Thus set the stage for one hell of a ride.

5-mile loops through North Park.
5-mile loops through North Park.

Mark is highly active in the Pittsburgh running community, and my request for a pacer sparked a deluge of similar requests. As I lined up with him at the starting line, there was a solid handful of other folks with us as well. Amusingly, there was also an “official” 7:30 pace group, but they took off and we lost sight of them after the first mile. Fail.

The Lady was also running with a friend of hers who is similarly matched, and they were gunning for a 7:49 pace. We wished each other luck at the starting line before splitting off in our respective groups. Soon enough, we were on our way! (sans some equipment malfunction***)

The first couple of miles were spectacular. The group of us just talked, enjoyed the beautiful weather, and Mark gave me occasional pointers as we went (he used to be a running coach in his spare time; in particular, he kept reminding me to stick to the tangents of the course, as “those extra steps will come in handy later in the race.” Boy was he spot-on). Most of the “unofficial” pace group were folks training for marathons or ultras; I was the only one for whom a 7:30 half-marathon pace was a reach (one guy’s goal marathon pace was 7:30…I can only dream).

Coming into the race, I knew I could do the first 5 miles at 7:30 without a problem. It was the next 5 I was worried about. As we crossed the starting line for the second loop, I told Mark “this is where my race begins.”

Yeah, it definitely did.

Miles 6-7 felt pretty good, too. Mile 8 was where the pain really started hitting, and hard. Up until then, my breathing was extremely regular and not at all labored. Very quickly, things got hard and I was sucking wind. I knew I could finish, but the question was whether I could keep pushing at this pace. The final two miles have two hills that, in the first lap, were energizing: they’re not big enough to be really challenging, but they’re just hilly enough to be motivating. This time around, though, they were just plain taxing. The second one in particular at the end of mile 9 really knocked me back; I started falling off my pace, slipping into the low 8s.

I knew I could do this, if my brain would just shut up. Mark and some of the other guys were yelling encouragement, which given my days of football from high school, was actually helpful. Mark asked at the top of the hill if I had anything left in the tank; I shook my head no, but after rolling downhill into the final straightaway (a 0.75-mile straightaway), I suddenly felt a rush and started pushing things. I don’t know where the burst came from, but at the very least I wanted to make up the time I’d lost on the hill.

I crossed the finish line at 1:15:22, a solid 7:33 pace and 10th in my [extremely competitive] age group. Check out the video on the official results to see how much pain I was in as I crossed the finish line (apparently at a 5:55 pace!).

The face of pain (Mark is off to the left in blue, continuing on for 20 miles).
The face of pain (Mark is off to the left in blue, continuing on for 20 miles).

I hobbled off to the side, feeling like I was going to lose my breakfast. That was the hardest and longest I’d ever pushed, and I couldn’t have run another step at that pace (I was grateful indeed for sticking to the tangents of the course!). It took a few minutes before my stomach calmed down, and I could revel in my victory.

Rock-solid pacing.
Rock-solid pacing.

The Lady came cruising in at 1:18 flat, nailing her goal pace solidly on its head as well. We congratulated each other and waited for other friends of ours to finish.

Holy shit guys, we ran our goal half-marathon paces for 10 miles straight! I know I couldn’t have done it on my own, and I definitely couldn’t have held the pace for another 3.1 miles, but then again, it’s the very beginning of training; of course I shouldn’t be able to hit my goal just yet! Just a month ago I staggered through these 10 miles at an 8:30 pace; at this race, I knocked a full minute off each mile and felt about as good (maybe even a little better). Who knows what another month (or two!) will bring?

It was an all-around solid race. Great confidence boost, great effort, great people. I can’t thank Mark and his running buddies enough, and I couldn’t be more proud of The Lady for nailing her goal.

Two successful races, one very happy (and very tired) couple.
Two successful races, one very happy (and very tired) couple.

***A scaffold holding up the chutes fell at the very start and hit some runners, one of whom is a dear friend of ours. From what I hear, one runner was even carted off in an ambulance (not life-threatening, but serious enough to warrant an on-the-spot check). I’d love for Elite Runners and Walkers, an organization I’ve come to love in my 5.5 years in Pittsburgh, to reach out to these runners to see if there’s anything they need. The comment on their Facebook page was a good start; a formal post would be even better, and personal contact with the injured runners would be ideal.

Race Report: Spring Thaw

I love this race. It’s sets such an optimistic, upbeat tone given that it’s in late February in Pittsburgh. Otherwise known as the dead of winter.

ST-2012-Web

It was during this race last year that I recorded my first-ever run over 13 miles, and it was quite the record-setter: a full 20 miles. In retrospect, it was a little…stupid…of me to run a full 7 miles longer than I ever had before without first training for it. But it was an incredibly confidence-boosting experience, and ultimately I’m glad I did it.

This year, I tempered my expectations significantly by comparison. I knew the pullback from the Philadelphia Marathon had been pretty immense, and in some ways my body was still feeling it, so I signed up for the 15 again but would stick to it this time. I also made arrangements with The Lady to run the first 10 with her (she’d be done after that) at her goal half-marathon pace: somewhere in the 8:40s.

Like last year, the race was in North Park, a solid 30-minute drive north from Pittsburgh proper. Like last year, it was pretty chilly: 36 degrees, with blessedly little wind, but a chance for precipitation. We crossed our fingers the “chance” would be for naught.

Can't exactly run there, if that's what you're thinking.
Can’t exactly run there, if that’s what you’re thinking.

The race started right at 10am, and The Lady and I began our loops. I watched our pace like a hawk, and she enjoyed being able to match my pace without otherwise worrying about it. The loop around the lake in North Park is pretty much right on 5 miles, so the race operates by setting a minimum distance of 10 miles, then allowing for people to run that or the 15 or even 20, with the option to change your mind mid-stride.

We consistently hit 8:35s for the first 5 miles, with only 1 above that: 8:44. For the first loop, we kept reasonably close to the 8:30 pace group, allowing them to slowly build some distance. Oddly, we were briefly passed by the 9:00 pace group, even more oddly during mile 3. We spoke to the leader of the group, and he insisted (though he didn’t have a GPS watch) that he was running a 9min/mi pace. We looked back and saw some runners in his group give us bewildered looks, and one even whispered “yeah this is definitely faster than 9min/mi”. Eventually we passed him and their group, but it was somewhat bizarre.

The next 5 miles were even more consistent: our slowest was 8:37. Unfortunately, it was around this time that I, like in Philly, started getting the “this isn’t going well” feeling. For whatever reason, things just weren’t clicking for me. The Lady was feeling fantastic, and as soon as mile 9 finished, she took off to try and put as much wind under her feet as she could muster in the final mile. She finished in a blaze of glory.

10 miles in 86 minutes is pretty spectacular!
10 miles in 86 minutes is pretty spectacular!

I, on the other hand, just wasn’t feeling it. By mile 7 (that seems to be the magical distance), I knew the final 5 would be really hard. I considered throwing in the towel at 10, but my competitive nature wouldn’t let me finish 5 miles early. So I trudged on, crossing the same finish line The Lady had a minute ago, but in the “going on another loop” side. I bore down on the last five miles.

The elevation is enough to keep you honest, but really not bad at all.
The elevation is enough to keep you honest, but really not bad at all.

The first mile was hard, but I kept the same pace: chalk up another 8:33. But then things really started going wrong. I knew I wouldn’t finish unless I pulled back considerably. Miles 12 and 13 were right around 9:00. The last two miles were pretty painful: 9:23 and 9:48. Yikes.

But finish I did!

Evidently too tired to throw up the horns properly.
Evidently too tired to throw up the horns properly.

Here’s the full Garmin Connect data. I don’t really have an answer for why I crashed in this race: I’d gone in hoping I could turn up the speed in the last 5 miles, and instead I had to turn it down. The Lady points out that we haven’t really been maintaining our base like we did last year, and from my own perspective I know that the stress of work plus the post-Philly breakdown really took a lot out of me, more than I realized when Pittsburgh training began last month. And part of it is simply the reality of running: some will be good, some will be bad. That’s how it goes. The key is use the good ones as confidence-builders, and the bad ones as opportunities to improve.

And regardless of whether your run was quality or painful, you can always grab pancakes afterwards 🙂

When progress is slow

(don’t worry, I’ll make a race report of the Spring Thaw once Elite Runners posts the pictures from it)

It’s tough to admit, but I’m in a bit of a rut at the moment: my paces have plateaued since last year, and I haven’t been able to progress as quickly as I would like.

I didn’t start running in earnest until late 2010, when I ran my first half marathon. The rest of that year and most of the next were intermittent; I struggled with on-again, off-again shin splints from shoes that really weren’t built for me. Things started smoothing out in the fall of 2011, and between that time and the spring of 2012 I experienced incredible gains in both speed and distance: I was hammering out long runs at sub-9 paces, and crushing half-marathons at tempo pace. This rapid improvement continued through about 3/4 of our marathon training, right about until I twisted my ankle and stress levels skyrocketed due to impending research deadlines.

Since then, I’ve had trouble finding my footing again. As it were.

Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to see why I had a relatively poor marathon outing: stress, lack of sleep, a lackluster final month of training, and a precedent for breaking down the first time I run a longer distance. Most of this was completely outside my control; something runners have to be prepared for is that on each day there’s some non-zero chance of having a bad day. Usually, these bad days happen during training, and you hardly think twice about it. But by sheer probability, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a bad day at least once when you really, really don’t want to. Like your first marathon.

But I’m still struggling to find my rhythm again. Training has started for the Pittsburgh Half in May, and the second week was a bit rough. The desire to run is back with a vengeance, but my muscles still seem somewhat timid. Spring Thaw didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, and this morning’s “easy” run didn’t feel all that easy, and was in fact a bit slow for me (average pace was a few seconds over 9min/mi).

Ambivalent week 2 is ambivalent.
Ambivalent week 2 is ambivalent.

It would be unrealistic to expect near-constant gains in speed and endurance over time. I had an incredible ~1 year run where every run seemed to be faster than the previous one; almost every time I raced, I set a PR for that distance. I was steadily pushing my tempo pace into the low-7s; my speed pace was right at 6:20, and I even set one at 6 flat.

Here’s the upshot: these slowdowns not only happen, but they’re inevitable. Training goes in cycles; you’ll experience gains and then plateau while your body catches up. The key is not to become frustrated by these seeming lulls in productivity. Frustration will build on itself and create more problems. The hardest part is knowing that you’re capable of doing something by virtue of the fact that you’ve done it before, but right now it seems just beyond your reach.

Google “running slow progress” and you’ll find endless threads from people in the same situation. I’m no expert; I only started running in earnest in late 2010. But if history is any indication: be kind to yourself. Be patient; stick with the plan. If boredom is part of the problem, mix in some cross-training. This is something I haven’t been particularly good about; I miss my long 25+ mile bike rides around the city. I’ll have to bring that back now and again, along with semi-regular rowing.

I’m my own worst enemy. The worst thing that can happen is I get so frustrated with myself that I start hating running, and that would be truly regrettable. I need to take a deep breath…relax…and trust my training. Switch to cross-training on occasion. Run without music, or without a GPS watch. I’ve been going at this for longer than I ever have before; of course there are going to be bumps in the road.

I was out of the game for about 6 months in early 2011 due to shin splints. Quite literally the only difference between then and now is that I’ve built up a bunch of expectations for myself. I’m running like I now have something to lose, which always adds stress. I need to run with reckless abandon, like I have nothing to lose.

You know: run for fun 🙂

Pittsburgh Half 2013: Week 1

I’ve been thinking of starting a running blog for quite some time now, and with the advent of the latest season of half marathon training, I figured it might the perfect storm for setting up a new blogging haven. At least I can separate the drivel I write between two blogs now, right?

Something like that.

Week 1 was pretty light: 20 miles total in three runs.

I wonder how they "average" the emotes from each run into a weekly emote.
I wonder how they “average” the emotes from each run into a weekly emote.

GC told a similar story, albeit without the calorie calculation for the long run earlier today.

I should probably remove the columns having to do with biking for the duration of the training period.
I should probably remove the columns having to do with biking for the duration of the training period.

Before I get to the discrepancies between the two, I want to mention my tempo run this week, mainly because it was f*#&ing awesome. I haven’t done a proper tempo run since Nov 8 of last year, so I can’t say my expectations were particularly high. I decided I’d start with a 7:30 tempo pace to see if I could find my rhythm again after such a long hiatus.

I guess you could say I found my rhythm: I was constantly pulling myself back, evidenced by how the second half of every mile was done well above tempo pace to average out the way-too-fast first half. None was worse than the very first tempo mile, where the first 0.2 was at a 6:18 pace.

Apparently I’ve not only forgotten how to do tempo runs, but I’m not in nearly as bad of shape as I’d originally thought. Which is confidence-inspiring, to say the least.

Now: regarding today’s long run, an “easy 10”. The Lady and I were fully expecting and prepared for a cold and blustery morning. What we were not expecting:

It’s a tropical paradise.

Yeah. No.

So we swapped out our cold gear and wind jackets in favor of shorts and t-shirts and made for The Lady’s gym, where we proceeded to pound on treadmills for nearly 90 minutes. That run officially marks the longest workout I’ve ever done on a treadmill, and frankly speaking it’s a record I have no intention of ever breaking. Dreadmill running blows. Not even TV or a kickass iPod playlist can ameliorate the caustic doldrums of staring at the same effing scenery and breathing the same stationary pocket of air for a period longer than a couple of seconds. It’s mind-numbing, to put it mildly.

But we finished. We ticked off our 10-mile long run and look ahead eagerly to the [OUTDOOR] runs in our near future.

Not the least of which is an upcoming local race: the Spring Thaw!

NOOOOO! COME BACK FROSTY!

It was at this very event last year when I ran my first 20-miler (which, in retrospect, was kind of not a good decision to run 20 miles when I’d never run more than 13.1). This year I have no grandiose plans to run 20 again; I have not kept the baseline mileage needed to make a run at beating my time from last year. So instead, I’m gunning for 15 in under 2:05. I’m pacing The Lady at her half-marathon pace for the first 10 (~8:45/mile), then I’ll take off for the last 5 somewhere in the 7-7:30 range.

That’s pretty much Week 1. Only 12 more to go! 😛