October 5, 2014
Bib Number: 6081
Overall Placement: 5007 / 8852 (57%)
Age Group Placement: 318 / 654 (49%)
Gender Placement: 1824 / 3996 (46%)
Chip time: 4:24:00
It’s freezing out. We know it is, of course, not only because we’ve been outside, but also because we’ve been checking the forecast for days, even before we left Florida. They’re forecasting for temps to be in the low to mid-thirties in the hours before the start, so we’re expecting a very chilly time in the chute. We have gone back and forth trying to decide what to wear. We know it’s a temperature at which we’d throw on capri-length running tights back home, but we also know we haven’t done any training for distance in them–in fact, it’s probably been two years since we’ve run in them at all, because our winters have been so mild of late. We don’t know how the tights will fit after one, let alone four, hours of running. Will they pinch? Drift down our waists? We’re afraid to find out they’re uncomfortable while running a race we’ve been training for for four months. And we’ve also never tried the tights on a hard effort run–we think there’s a decent chance we’ll warm up quickly since we’re both planning to run this one at a pretty hard effort. In the end, here’s what we decide: we’ll wear shorts, a heavier tank than the ones we trained in (both of which are tissue-paper thin), detached running sleeves, and another long-sleeve layer. We add high socks, a beanie, and gloves. We know it will be coldest while we wait in the chute, while the sun still hasn’t warmed up and before we start generating any body heat. But we have planned for this: each of us has sweat pants and a sweatshirt especially purchased at Goodwill for this occasion. We’ll wear them as long as possible and shuck them just before the gun. We also have big, thick garbage bags, which we’re assured will help ward off the worst of the cold. The sign available in our corral as we wait says it’s 37 degrees. Around us, other runners are similarly attired, and most of us are shivering. I am waiting for the race to start with an anxious heart. I know twenty-six miles is a long way, and I’m also afraid (though I haven’t confessed it to anyone) that my knees and my hamstrings are about to snap. I fear the course and its rolling hills, especially in the last seven miles, which are always the hardest as it is.
We hear the last strains of the national anthem just minutes before the first corral is sent out. Our corral, number 2, begins the slow shuffle toward the starting mats. We hear a few last-minute announcements and then we, too, are off. It’s freezing out.
The Early Miles
The people in Minneapolis are out in full force. From the start, I am amazed at how many people are out braving the icy weather to cheer for us as we run. I am determined not to start out too fast or worry about my pace, so I have Garmie set up to show only distance and time. From this, I figure I’m running between nine and nine-thirty miles, which I’m comfortable running, but even from these early miles I start to wonder how long I can realistically hold this pace. The course is absolutely beautiful but also strangely brutal: we are almost constantly running either uphill or downhill. I start to worry about finishing, then start to worry about worrying because I’ve never thought that way so early in a marathon. I start to seriously consider whether Twin Cities might be my first DNF.
The Middle Miles
It’s long before the halfway point (in fact we’re not even into the double digits yet) when I start thinking “I hate running.” I haven’t even slowed down yet–I come upon the four-hour pace group and run with them for some miles, but also with a pretty solid cloud of self-doubt. I can’t really feel my legs–I joke with Little G that they feel like meat coming out of the freezer–and the more I run, the more I don’t want to. I keep waiting for my outlook to brighten (maybe I just need to get into a rhythm?) but miles go by without relief. I seriously consider dropping out, and start praying fervently that I’ll see Little G so I can make plans to catch up with her at the finish. For a few miles, I’m running with the sole intention of finding her to tell her, “I quit.”
At the ten mile marker, I promise myself I’ll regroup at the half-marathon mark. Mile 13 comes and I make myself go on until 15. At 15, I make a deal with myself to go on until 17 before I make a decision. Though I’ve been climbing rolling hills since mile 4 or so, I know the worst hill is waiting for me at mile 19, but that just two miles after that, Little G’s daughter is waiting for us to take the last of our dead weight.
Garmie told me a few miles back that the battery was low, which I’m frustrated by–the battery life has gotten progressively shorter and shorter during this training cycle, but I didn’t expect it to outright quit during the race. The lack of information should fuel me to simply run by effort, but instead I’m irritated that I have no sense of pace or how I’m doing on the clock–the race provides few clocks along the course. I’m running blind and have to depend on the pacers to know how I’m doing in relationship to the clock. I make plans to leave the Garmin behind when I see Gwynne’s daughter–no sense carrying it along if it’s no longer marking my splits.
These miles are by far the hardest–not only in this race but the hardest miles I’ve ever run, period. I want desperately to quit, and moving forward takes all my effort. I am amazed at the constant presence of cheerful spectators on the course, but feel defeated and empty.
The Final Miles
The hill we were warned about at mile 19 proves every bit as daunting as promised, but I know I have seen every mile of the course from this point forward–another four slowly rising miles, then a gradual descent into the finish.
I make myself move forward, but I’m walking many of the uphill portions already. Just before the killer hill of the mile-19 marker, I stumble in front of a family with two young kids. It takes me some time to recover and shuffle on. I have a list of things I want to accomplish when I see our race support, including handing off my belt, gloves, and beanie, and warn her that I’m moving very slowly.
K’s efficiency as racing crew is unparalleled. Before I’ve even come to a complete stop she’s made sure I want the belt removed and gotten busy unhooking its buckle. I ask about Little G and she tells me that she’s just two minutes ahead (this was a slight deceit for my benefit; Little G was, in fact, about four minutes ahead of me, and her lead was growing). I forget to take off my Garmin and the beanie on my head, which I could have done without at the end, but I manage to choke down some fizzy delicious Coke that K has for us in small cups.
I want information about my pace and time, but with a dead GPS and no clocks on the course, I’m left depending on the pace team. I know the 4-hour pacer is ahead of me, and since any hope of a personal best has been left in pieces on the hills, I figure my next definition of victory will be not making this my slowest marathon; with that in mind, I am anxiously waiting for the 4:30 pacer. I realize I’ve been passed by a balloon-waving pacer while distracted by the spectators, and now I’m a little frantic. That was the 4:30 guy? Yikes, that means this is officially my worst marathon ever. I struggle to get a look at the pacer’s balloons and am instantly comforted to see that this is the 4:15 team. I am still on pace to at least do better than my 4:30 marathon debut.
Meanwhile, the crowds continue to cheer, but the hills continue as well, even past mile 23, which is where the map said the course would begin to flatten out. People on the course know I’m struggling (I’m not the only one), and they tell me, “It’s all downhill from here,” but it’s a lie. The gently rolling hills continue, killing what’s left of both my quadriceps and my psyche.
We pass the St Paul Cathedral on our left, and I know the finish is near. One of the lovely things about this course is that almost immediately after the mile-26 marker, we can see the finish–not just hear it or see it in a far-off way, but actually, physically, see it. After 26 miles of almost incessant climbing, the last quarter-mile of the course opens up on a gorgeous downhill. Passing the cathedral, we runners see the wide open road, with a line of runners streaming toward the bright red banners of the finish.
As always at the end of these long races, I feel tears pushing at the back of my eyes as I run through the finish line. I am spent.
Beaten and frustrated by my inability to go under 4:06, I will comfort myself in the next few days with the knowledge that finishing this race was not a foregone conclusion–walking off the course and settling for a DNF was very much a possibility at the halfway mark. My victory, on this day, will be in just finishing the race.
And knowing I will never line up for 26.2 again.
One week from today, Little G and I will be leaving town for our fourth running of the Gasparilla Distance Classic. We’ll arrive in Tampa Friday to walk the expo and pick up our packets, and the races are Saturday and Sunday. We’ll run the 15k and 5k Saturday, and the half marathon and 8k on Sunday.
There is no other event I’m as committed to as this one, having run it in some form since 2009. It was the site of my first 26.2 that year, and I’ve returned each year to run some form of the distance challenge. By now, Little G and I have some parts of the weekend down to a science.We know what works well, or at least what we enjoy too much to give up, and we also know what obstacles to avoid so the entire event doesn’t blow up in our face.
Last year, the weekend of this event came upon us only three weeks after racing the Tallahasee Marathon. Too stubborn and stupid to give up on the event, we ran it anyway, but we were tired and sore and didn’t enjoy it very much. We hadn’t run on back-to-back days in the three months preceding the race, so asking our bodies to run 18 miles the day after running 12 was a very tall order. The fact we had just come from marathon training was our saving grace; our minds and bodies were attuned for hard work. But it was some of the most painful, difficult running we’d ever asked our bodies to do, and our times were unspectacular.
This year, though, we have been training specifically for this event. Starting in late December, we switched to a weekly four-run schedule that allowed for back-to-back runs that have been progressively getting longer, preparing us to face the mileage of race day (12.3 miles, 18.1 miles). We went from 8 and 8 to 8 and 10, then cut back to 6 and 8. We built back up to 9 and 13 before cutting back to 8 and 5, then ran 8 and 10 before our longest run last week, a 10-miler followed by a 16-miler. Now we’re in our taper weeks, running less and sleeping more.
I’m not foolish enough to believe our race-specific workouts will make the event easy. I’ve run this enough to know that, standing on the line on Sunday, I will still think signing up for this was a very, very bad idea. Yes, I am still doing this. More than that, I am cherishing the opportunity to do it again, this wonderful, exquisite foolishness.
Four races. Thirty miles. Two days.
Let’s do it.
Classics by the Sea 2013
December 14, 2013
Bib Number: 572
Overall Placement: 79 / 332 (23.8%)
Age Group Placement: 7 / 35 (20%)
Gender Placement: 24 / 200 (12%)
Chip Time: 51:16.20
Little G and I had agreed to run this race immediately after cancelling our plans to run the 2014 Tallahassee Marathon, figuring if we weren’t going to run long we could run short and fast. Coach Will tweaked our schedule with that idea, so our speedwork and long runs were preparing us to run this as our last short-distance race of the season before turning our attention to double long runs in preparation for the race-a-palooza that is the Michelob Ultra Challenge at the Gasparilla Distance Classic.
Unfortunately, the day of the race turned out to be the hottest day of the week. (Honestly, is anyone even surprised anymore? Skip getting your copy of the farmers’ almanac next year; just get a copy of my racing schedule.) The forecast high was in the low 80s, and by the time we showed up for the race it was in the mid 70s, and, naturally, since we’d be running on the waterfront, also windy, and threatening rain. The conditions meant I had picked one of my lightest tanks, but not one that would leave me running completely see-through in case of bad weather, and that in spite of the wind I was also wearing a hat, because I have a well-documented hate for rainwater on my face when I run.
The Boss, Little G, and I pulled into the race site about an hour before gun time, and split up immediately. Little G and I headed for the bathrooms. (We lost the Boss almost immediately.) It was sprinkling when we got out, so we headed for one of the beach pavilions, from where we checked out the crowd and monitored the start of the children’s mile race before heading out for an abbreviated warm-up. The weather was tough to call; with the clouds shifting in the distance, it wasn’t easy to tell whether the storm would pass over us or not. Little G wanted to find the Boss to leave her cap, but he wasn’t easily found in the crowd. In the end, as we lined up in the chute, we were both still wearing our Nike hats.
Mile 1. The gun goes off and so do we. There’s a large group of yellow-shirted kids running the 5k, and, as usual, they’re doing the start-stop running that’s so typical of kids who run. I wonder where their coaches are, and how many times they’ve been told to run at an even pace. We go around the turn towards the waterfront road and start the slight rise that is my least favorite part of this course, and my breathing begins to rise. I tell myself it’s just the hill, making me work hard, and refuse to back down. As I run, I check my pace, noting that it’s on track with what I’d planned, and wondering if I can hold this effort in the heat. I wonder absently at what point of the course I’ll be passed by my friend Kyle from church–based on our conversations and his past training, I knew he’d probably be running at or better than my current pace. Sure enough, within a minute or two of that thought, Kyle is on my shoulder. I fist-bump him, but we don’t speak. I am proud as Kyle passes me without a word. I see him moving through the crowd smoothly in his red Brooks, and consciously refuse to chase him. I know he’s running half the distance I am, and I am determined to run this one smart. As it is, this pace feels tough, but I’m trying to do the wise thing and not judge a run by the first mile. 8:13.53.
Mile 2. I’m happy with my pace–I’d hoped to run this one at about 8:15 pace–but I’m wondering how smart it is not to adjust for heat. It’s pretty hot, about 77 degrees, and I wonder how long I’ll be able to keep this up, and whether I’ll end up walking on the back half of this course, like I did in the marathon. This is already how this race feels–like a suicidally fast pace. But I remember my decision, then: how wonderfully fierce and good it felt to run with abandon, throwing caution to the wind. I run on. And if I die, I die. I know half of the crowd will leave us at the 5k turnaround; I figure the thinning crowd will clear the field and give me more room to maneuver. Just before the turnaround, we also get water. I pour some over my head, call out some encouragement to Kyle, just a few yards in front of me, and keep moving. Having lost a few hundred runners, the wind is now flying at us, and I feel my pace slow. I groan inwardly, but keep moving, trying to keep my goal pace in sight without expending more effort than I have to. 8:21.48.
Mile 3. The wind is even worse as we move toward the 10k turnaround. The road seems neverending. I look at Garmie, thinking we must be close to the end of this straightaway, only to realize we’ve only moved one-third of a mile past the second mile marker. How is that even possible? I’m tempted to tap the screen to make sure it’s not dead but I don’t want to expend the energy. This wind is taking so much out of me . . . From behind me, I see someone moving to pass, and I move slightly to the left to make room. “You don’t have to move for me,” she says kindly. “Honestly,” I say. “If you’ll break the wind for me, you can go right ahead.” Instead, though, she moves swiftly ahead as if there is no wind at all. Though most of us in the crowd are struggling, within a few minutes she is far ahead of me. So much for drafting. A few yards in front of me, on the right side of the course, is a woman with a low French braid. I lost to her in the last few yards of the Run 4 the Pies as she outkicked me. I notice she’s running smoothly and evenly. I keep her in my sights as we approach the turn. 8:29.87.
Mile 4. As we turn, I’m trying to stay focused on not picking up the pace. It’s a long way home, and I feel pretty spent already. I’m relieved to find that, as I’d hoped, the wind does feel like it’s not pushing against us quite as much as we run northward. I’m noticing that, around me, other runners seem just as tired as I feel. No one is talking; for many of us, our form has suffered because of the wind; we’re slumping, and thirsty. Because the water stop was set up just before the turn, the volunteers only got to some of us as we made the turn–the rest of us run on in the unseasonable December heat, mocked by the vastness of the ocean. Since I didn’t get any water, I have to find a way to trick myself into feeling cooler, and promise myself I’ll take my hat off at the next mile marker. It’s a mental trick, but gives me something to look forward to. I notice I’m beginning to pass a few spent runners but figures it means nothing. We’re all exhausted, and our pace is probably trashed. Braid Girl is moving with me. 8:19.78.
Mile 5. I lose the hat and feel much lighter as I tuck it into my waistband. As I begin to pass more people, Braid Girl and I begin to run together wordlessly, pacing each other as we gradually begin to run faster. I’m partly running just to get water–I’m painfully thirsty now, and though I think I can keep running until the race’s finish, I know this one is going to hurt. As we approach the final water stop, we talk briefly to coordinate our stop, then resume running together. One of the local elites, already on his way home on his bike, cheers us on. I start focusing more on trying to move through the crowd. 8:17.
Mile 6. Now that we’re this close to the finish, I begin to turn my attention to Braid Girl as a competitor. She’s likely in my age group, after all, and I know her kick. I reason that this is a longer distance than I’ve seen her at, and the last time we raced each other, on Thanksgiving Day, conditions were vastly different, so I have no way of knowing what she’ll have in her legs on this day. I realize I can’t control her finish, only my own. I resolve to put her out of my mind and finish this race the way I always do–by reeling people in, one at a time. I start steadily pushing the pace and moving through the crowd. I am amazed at the speed in my own legs, on a day when my pace felt so frantic from mile 1. 8:05.09.
Last quarter-mile. Going down the hill toward the park, I’m trying to watch my feet but also choose my course carefully as I wind through the runners in front of me. I’ve lost track of Braid Girl, but I’m working on the assumption that she’s behind me and is coming fast. As I run into the park, a male runner in front of me says, “Oh, no, you don’t,” to which I reply, “Buddy, you’re not in my age group.” He fades. On my right, I think I hear the Boss, and Kyle and his wife Shelly, long having finished the 5k, calling my name. I finish at a sprint, and end up having to go back to claim my finisher’s medal. 1:44.60, or 6:43-ish pace.
Though the time doesn’t represent a PR, I’m satisfied with my time, mostly because of the quality of my running, and how hard I ran in spite of the brutal heat at one of my least-favorite distances in running. When all was said and done, I was the only one in our small pack that didn’t place in her age group. I was thrilled for Kyle and Shelly, who are just starting out as distance runners, but who are dogged competitors and fiercely determined. For little G and me, this race represents an end to our short-race season as we turn to preparation for the hard mileage of February’s Gasparilla Distance Classic.
2013 Run 4 the Pies
In the days before our Thanksgiving Run 4 the Pies, in which the first 900 finishers walk away with an apple pie, I had been watching the weather forecast attentively. Meteorologists predicted that in the days leading up to the race our weather would remain fairly consiststent, with highs in the upper 80s. But, the night before the race, we were expected to be hit with a sudden sharp cold front, which would make temperatures plummet into the 40s overnight. At gun time, temperatures were expected to be in the 50s.
I was excited to finally be running a race in my preferred cooler temps–I feel just about perfect running when the temperature is in the 50s–but I knew that it was far from ideal to be facing those lower temperatures for the first time on race day. Besides, with the slight wind coming at us from the north, it felt a little cooler. As I stepped out of my car on race day morning, therefore, I was interestingly dressed, wearing a skirt with high socks, a tank paired with running sleeves, a long-sleeve tech top, and a fleece over that. And I was shivering. I lost the fleece before starting a quick warm-up jog with the kids, then enjoyed watching the kids’ 100-yard dash. After the Boy’s age group–the last to run–was finished, I shucked off my pink long sleeve top, staying in my tank and running sleeves. I didn’t have a lot of time left before the race would start, but I knew I needed to find my racing pace before I got in the chute, so I went off for a quick run at race pace.
For the first time, I was happy to have lots of company at the race. Though Little G was away with family for the holiday, I had lots of my spiritual family around me–about ten of my church friends had trained for this race. Usually interested only in my own performance, on this day I was deeply invested in the running of all those who had come from so far, and invested so much, in this stretch of road. When they asked, I had told them honestly that I hoped to run the race at about eight-minute miles. That would net me a 32-minute finish, though, and I knew I wanted to come in a little under that.
We lined up as the clock edged closer to gun time, and I noticed that some of us were comfortable staying closer to the back of the pack. I started to move toward the front, and a few of our church family followed me. We stood huddled together a few rows back from the pack, shivering–we’d all shed most of our layers, knowing we’d warm up as we ran.
Mile 1. We start unceremoniously–no gun, no bullhorn. Everyone just starts moving, and we’re off. I lose sight of my church friends immediately as we work through the crowd. The first part of the course goes through the neighborhood, and as we turn I’m trying consciously watching my pace. Sub-8 pace doesn’t feel quite as easy as I had hoped it would in the cooler weather. I’m watching the people around me, trying to focus on those who are running and breathing without struggle. I find myself working up a slight incline expecting my church family to pass me at any minute. I consider my arrogance in assuming an eight-minute pace would be easy for the four-mile distance. 7:55.
Mile 2. My breathing gets easier as I settle into a rhythm. Ahead of me I spot a runner with a large turkey hat, and marvel at the ease with which he’s running about seven-minute pace. I focus on keeping an easy, steady pace, reminding myself not to pick up the pace just because this rhythm has become easy. I find people beginning to pass me, and remind myself there’s a long way to go yet. I know this course well enough to remind myself not to open up at all until I see the straightaway that leads to the second-mile marker. Once I turn onto that street, I realize I have a chance, not just to take my sleeves off (it’s getting warmer), but even, maybe, to leave them with my watching family. I begin to peel them off, which requires also taking off Garmie–a delicate operation. I’ve already lost my headband somewhere in this mile, which I didn’t bother to pick up, but if I drop my $300 GPS, I’m definitely not leaving it behind. 7:58.
Mile 3. As the mile begins I’m still dealing with a little guilt over having narrowly missed a spectator as I tossed my sleeves at the Boss. I try to put the incident out of my mind and prepare myself mentally for the single worst mile in this race, which will take us along the train tracks and abandon us runners to our own solitary company, at a place in the race when we are no good for each other, too exhausted to do much but breathe hard and run on, trying not to fall too much off pace. Though it’s not extraordinarily windy, I know if I’m going to feel the wind at all in this race, it’s going to be on this stretch, and, sure enough, as we open up onto the northbound stretch along the tracks, there it is, in my face. I look down and see my pace has slowed by about twenty seconds. I press a little and determine not to pace off those around me, who I know are also slowing down. Instead, I tell myself, I must insist on moving slowly through the crowd, remembering to save enough in the bank for that last long mile. 8:05.
Mile 4. We pass the mile marker and I tell myself I can let out a little more, but find I don’t have a lot of energy left. My finisher’s kick is all but gone. I look at Garmie, seeing my pace is 7:45 or so but feels harder, and refocus on passing people instead of the clock. I know everybody is slowing down as the effort weighs on us. I mentally berate myself for not bringing my inhaler to a cold-weather race. As I try to pick up the pace in the cold air, I hear myself begin to wheeze, and find myself unable to fully push air into my lungs. Still a half-mile from the line, I know I can’t red-line that long. I hold back, but I’m frustrated. My legs want to go, and my lungs are closed. I work around the crowd, around the last turn, and into the chute, grabbing my pie ticket as I slide under the clock. 7:21.
In the park, around the finish, I discovered that about five of our church runners earned pies, a solid result for many for whom this was a first or second race. Some are enjoying the sport and are planning to line up to run again, some even desiring to train for a longer distance. And we’re hoping many more will join us next time, either for this race next year or for another race in the near future.
As for me, though this wasn’t a personal best at this race, I managed to complete the distance at sub-8 pace, and though my asthma raised its ugly head in the cold air, I was satisfied with my time. When the Boss asked about my time as we found each other, I had to tell him honestly, “I didn’t even look at the clock as I went under it.” I know a race in which I didn’t look up at the clock is a race in which I really ran well, and am not measuring myself solely by the clock. I was happy to get to run this one again, and happier yet to get to do it surrounded with people I love.
I still remember my first race. I remember driving there, in the dark, and discovering packet
pick-up was not, in fact, where I had been told. I remember having to drive, with some other runners, to the actual race site, where I was handed a piece of paper and some safety pins, and actually having to ask someone what I was expected to do with it. I remember being very bothered by the other runners around me (it was actually an incredibly small race–under 500 runners, total). I remember starting just behind the lead pack, and having to walk before the first mile marker. I remember walking with a boy who was having a tough time. I remember hitting the turnaround before thirteen minutes were on the clock. I remember having a great time on the homeward half. And I remember how thankful I was for every single person who encouraged me along the way.
With these memories in mind, here are a few words of advice and encouragement for you, if you’re on your way to running in your first (or nearly first) race.
1. Don’t be afraid to look like a rookie. Runners love their sport, and we’re almost giddily happy when we find out someone has just discovered it. Tell someone around you this is your first time running in a race, and you’re sure to hear words of encouragement and/or advice. It’s what happened to me when I asked what to do with my bib (that’s the official name for the piece of paper with your number on it, by the way*). Ask about anything–where the water stations are, where the turnaround or portapotties are, etc.
2. Warm-ups and stretching are a very personal thing. If you’re new to running, you should minimize doing anything you haven’t done before. Just because you see someone zipping around, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea for you–it might be a terrible idea. Stretching is great for those who are used to it pre-run, but if you’re not, it could lead to injury. Do whatever you’re used to. I usually run an easy mile or two before a 5K, but if your long run is just up to 3 miles, you’re probably better off just walking to warm up a little. Talk to a runner who knows your running history to get individual advice. Don’t get swept up by the crowd.
3. Don’t be afraid to walk, and don’t consider it failure if you do. Part of your learning curve as a runner is developing a sense of pace. In your early races, you may start too fast, which will almost guarantee you’ll be too tired to keep your pace in the middle miles. That’s okay. Plenty of us have found ourselves exhausted and needing a break, so you’ll probably have company. Try to time your walk if you can–you’ll get a mental and emotional boost from being able to run the last stretch, so it’s best to walk in the middle portion and conserve your energy for the last section of the race. Besides, there’s usually spectators (maybe even family?) at the end, and their energy will give you an extra push. And let’s face it, no one wants to walk in front of the hometown crowd. To minimize your chances of having to walk, however . . .
4. Start slower than you think you should. The people at the front of the pack will be running extremely fast. These people are in it to win it. Don’t follow them! The group right behind them are those we call age-groupers: they know they can’t win this thing, but they have a decent shot at finishing very well in their age group. At least in your first few races, you should probably let them go, too. If this is your first race at a particular distance, you should be in this to finish it, period, with no time goal in mind. (Even if you’ve run the distance before in training, race day is a whole different animal.) Once you’ve finished one race at that distance and are able to predict a time for yourself, be smart: don’t take off any faster than your desired pace. If you feel good after the first half, pick it up for the second. Feel great with one-quarter of the distance to go? Let loose! It’s always best to be picking people off at the end than to be gutting out a death march as you will the finish line toward you.
5. Pay attention to the conditions and adjust accordingly. If it’s rainy, the course may be slippery and /or muddy, so you’ll have to watch your footing carefully. If it’s very hot and/or humid, make sure you are drinking more water and slow down, especially at the beginning of the race. Remember to also adjust your wardrobe. You may want to wear a hat or visor in rain so you can see clearly; sunny conditions may call for a visor (I find a hat can trap heat). In longer distances (10K and up), don’t get arrogant: drink even in cold weather.
6. I wouldn’t take any sports drink on the course unless I’d tried it in training. In a short race, you probably wouldn’t get sick until you’d finished running, but why chance it? Check what the race is serving before you start running, because once you’re out there it’s not always easy to hear volunteers clearly. For short distances, you’ll get away with just drinking water. Your best bet to make sure you get the water you’re looking for instead of spilling water (it’s harder than you think to catch a cup while you’re running) is to identify the volunteer you’re going to take a cup from and point to him or her as you approach. I know–that sounds terrible. Trust me, having volunteered before, I know: your volunteers appreciate knowing you’re coming for them. Now grab the cup, and, if you’re going to walk to drink, look behind you, and move to the side before slowing down. Don’t be in a rush to catch up to your old pack when you resume running. Just gradually return to your running pace. Taking in water is worth any lost time. Do not take in water while running unless you’ve practiced in training. It’s harder than it looks!
7. Don’t do anything new on race day. Don’t try new shoes. Don’t try new socks. Don’t wear the new tank. Don’t try the new sports drink. Don’t do the stretch that incredibly fit guy is doing. Can I say it more clearly? This is the cardinal rule. Unless you’re using the race just as a fun run, and don’t really care about your time, you may as well burn this into your brain: nothing new on race day.
I’ll have more tips for your next race, but these will get you to the start line of your first or second short race confidently. Knowing you’ve put in the training, it only remains for you to run from the gun to the tape and give it your all!
*Like so many other things in running, pinning on the bib is a matter of personal preference. Races require that you pin it on your front, for identification purposes. This helps them locate and remove bandits, that is, runners who are running on their course without paying the race’s registration fee. In larger races, it also helps on-course photographers identify you so they can later sell you your pictures for exorbitant amounts of money. I happen to sweat like a beast, and I use my shirt to mop up, so I discovered after a few years of distance running having a piece of Tyvek on my shirt isn’t particularly convenient. Since I’m often running in skirts, I simply pin the bib on my skirt now. You just have to find what works best for you. Whatever you do, fill out the information on the back, which helps emergency workers find and contact your next of kin if, God forbid, something should happen to you on the course. Just be thankful you’re not running in 2007, when you had both a bib and a horrible ankle bracelet that served as your timing device. These days, your timing chip is somewhere on your paper bib. Not only is that one less thing for you to worry about, it doesn’t have to be returned. Sometimes, technology is your friend.
Contrary to what people seem to think, I still call myself a novice runner. I’ve only been at this for six years, and I am still in the “constantly making mistakes” category. I have friends–my father is one–who have been running for decades, and know more about this sport than I ever will. I am not an authority on running. However, for some people, I am the go-to person for questions about running, or the most gung-ho proponent of the sport that they know, and therefore, the most logical person to ask their questions. I don’t mind that. I find that certain questions get asked frequently. Below, some of the answers.
What kind of shoes should I wear? This is a very individual thing, as you can imagine. If you have high arches, you’ll probably be fitted with what’s termed cushioned shoes when you go to the specialty running store–you’re going in the morning, right? RIGHT? You see, God designed our feet so that our arches take the impact from our stride. A high arch does that very well, but if yours is very high it needs extra cushioning. If yours is flat, like mine, you’ll likely be fitted for a motion-control shoe, which will do the opposite: it will support your non-existant arch to prevent your foot from rolling inward, which is what it wants to do. A flat-footed runner who is small or lightweight (or both, like me) will be fitted into a stability shoe, which will do the same thing but to a lesser degree. Have normal, well-designed arches? You lucky duck! You’ll be fitted into neutral shoes, which will simply get out of the way of your beautiful, perfect feet. You may even get away with wearing minimalist or barefoot shoes. Every manufacturer of running shoes designs shoes for every kind of arch, and every smart retailer will bring you one shoe of several brands to try on. I’m a big fan of Brooks, but I’ve also worn Nike and Mizuno. Personally, I simply cannot run in Asics, but they’re a decent shoe. My father never runs in anything but New Balance. I hear Sauconys are particularly good if you have a narrow foot, which explains why I’ve never been fitted in that brand–I have feet like a duck. (No, literally.)
What should I eat before I run? How about after? Again, this is incredibly personal, but my bet is you probably don’t need to worry about it very much unless you’re going out for over an hour. I’d be willing to bet you’re gonna be okay just heading out the door–that is, if you’re going out first thing in the morning. Going out later in the day brings on all kinds of complications–in that case, your engine’s already been running, and you may need to help it along. If so, the key is to both time it well and to feed it something that doesn’t take a lot of energy to digest. Remember, when you’re running, your body’s sending its blood to your legs, so there’s not a lot of extra blood and energy to send to your digestive system. That’s a problem if you’re asking it to digest complicated foods. I know that’s disgusting, but that’s simple anatomy. Plan ahead. Eat at least thirty minutes before you set out, and then eat something that’ll be easy on your stomach. For crying out loud stay away from the dairy. My go-to meal before long runs is peanut-butter toast. My training partner, like many runners, is a big fan of bananas. Because we generally run only in the mornings, we usually only eat before long runs of ten miles or more. It’s often far more important what you eat when you get back, especially if you did speedwork. In that case, experts say you should get some healthy protein in you pretty quick. And drink some water! If you’re a heavy sweater, it wouldn’t kill you to replace some of the minerals you’ve lost, especially in the summer. Many people use Gatorade, but I’m not a fan of its cloying taste. I’ll either drink it watered down or melt a tablet of Nuun in a glass of water for my post-run mineral replacement drink.
When should I run? For most of us, the easy answer is, run whenever you can. If your life is such that you have more than one choice, then my suggestion is that you vary your routine in order to keep your running fresh. Run on Monday mornings and Tuesday evenings, then take Wednesdays off. Run Thursday afternoons with a friend and Saturday mornings with a group, then bike on Sundays with your family. The time of day does not necessarily offer any advantage–unless you’re training for an event with a wacky schedule. If you’re training for a race at midnight, you should probably try to sneak in some midnight running.
Do you listen to music? No, not usually, though I have in the past. Little G and I are doing most of our training together now, so that’s part of it. We’re doing our speed sessions separately, but during those sessions I can’t afford the distraction of music. There have been races in the past when I’ve carried my music with me, prepared for rough patches. For this year’s Tallahassee Marathon I carefully prepared a “26.2 playlist,” carefully arranged by beats per minute. I carried it with me during the race and “plugged it in” at mile 16, though I’m not sure whether it helped or just ticked me off. In training, when I do run “plugged in,” I am far more likely to be listening to the spoken word, either a podcast or an iTunes U class. I then run with only one earbud in so I can still hear ambient sounds, and only when I’m running in daylight, mom. This is closely tied in to . . .
Do you run on the sidewalk or the road? Listen carefully–this is just me. You need to evaluate your situation and what is safest in the environs where you run. Personally, I run on the road. I am typically running at 4:30 in the morning, so few cars are out, and I’m running lit up like a Christmas tree, but yes, I run on the road. If you choose to do the same, please run facing traffic–as an older, more experienced runner once said, “it’s good to see what’s gonna hit you before it does.” If your roads are very narrow, cracked, busy, unlit, or in any other way even remotely unsafe, and sidewalks are available to you, you should use those, in which case, probably, you should run with traffic. So, why do I run on the road? Like I said, I’m typically running very early in the morning, and traffic is not an issue. I usually see, maybe, one other runner out during my entire one hour’s run, and a handful of cars. I purposely run on streets with streetlights, and wear two blinking lights. Though some seem to think that thugs or ruffians would be my biggest threat, the reality is that inattentive drivers are. Thankfully, the streets I run on are wide and have bike lanes, and by staying in them I can avoid Texting Timmy. I also avoid the cracks and giant spiders that fill our sidewalks, for which I am most grateful.
My friend/brother/neighbor/sister-in-law’s grandpa’s aunt’s cousin twice-removed said running is bad for your knees. Many people who run wear a brace on one knee (I wear kinesio tape.). Why is that? Could be that hitting the ground at 2 1/2 times your body weight for hours at a time is a terrible idea. On the other hand, I’ve also been–let’s just come out and say it–FAT, and that’s no walk in the park either. Guess what? Having high blood pressure and pre-diabetes is also bad for your health. No, running doesn’t have to be bad for your knees. It’s why I’m a huge advocate of proper shoe fitting, of cross training, of scheduled rest days, and, especially, of a slow increase in distance. I think if beginning runners do all these things well, there’s no reason for anyone to have knee pain. Would I trade my occasional knee pain for the extra weight, the high blood pressure, the higher heartrate, and the poor body image? Not on your life. The next time someone tells you running is bad for your knees, tell them it’s good for your heart, your lungs, your endurance, your self-esteem, your weight, your skin, and your patience. Which is good, because your patience is being tested. Right. Now.
How far do you run? Our training is always driven by the end goal. Our easy midweek runs are often between four and six miles; speedwork is often six to seven miles total, once all the intervals are added up. The distance of the long runs progresses, of course, as the season progresses, but, since we started working with Coach Will, it also has a speed goal, which wasn’t true when we were working on our own (and shouldn’t be a goal for beginning runners). If you really are curious, and have nothing better to do, you’re always welcome to peruse my training logs, though I’m not sure how useful it would be to you.
Because I have several friends who are just embarking on a running adventure, and they asked me to give them my best running advice, I’m putting together a list of all the things I wish someone had told me when I first started. Here is my best advice in relationship to training; I’ll write my best race-specific advice in a future post.
Take it easy. This is the single, most important piece of advice I can give new runners. Don’t be too eager to accomplish grandiose goals. You just cannot rush your transformation into a distance runner. Plan for this to take a long time. Your body has to adapt to the rigors of running, and that’s easier said than done. When you run, your body hits the ground with about 2 1/2 times your body weight. That’s a lot of impact on your joints, your knees in particular, but that’s just the joint issues. Think about the cardiovascular effort you’re making, the way your body has to adjust for your burning through more calories every week, et cetera, et cetera. Make adjustments gradually, so your body doesn’t go into shock. Perhaps more importantly, you’re more likely to stick with it if you do it this way. Your body won’t rebel against all the changes going on at once, but will slowly acclimate to the changes and make the necessary adjustments, strengthening muscles, bones, and ligaments. Your heart and lung capacity will increase. But these changes will happen slowly–let them take their time and you’ll be rewarded by a changed body and increased endurance for the sport. (When I give people this advice I am often asked how long it took me to reach certain milestones, so I’ll give them to you here. I walked for about a year before I ever took a running step. I then took about six months to transition from walking four to five miles to running that same distance before running my first 5k in December of 2007. Up to that point, I was doing beautifully. Then I lost my head. I ran a 10k two weeks later, a half marathon two months later, and my first marathon almost a year after that first half, in March of 2009. I advise against that fast progression in distance. If I had it to do over, I would have waited another six or eight months to run my first 13.1, and another full year to run 26.2. But hey, you don’t know what you don’t know.)
Get properly fitted for running shoes. And by “running shoes” I mean shoes that were designed for running. Laces do not running shoes make. Once you’ve committed to running so much as a single mile for exercise, your cute little cross-trainers will not cut it, and are likely to lead to injury. Love your body enough to go to the nearest running specialty store for a professional fitting. (Please don’t expect the big-box sporting goods store to do this for you. Their specialty is low prices, not good service.) They will ask you to run on the treadmill to observe whether you pronate when you run, and may ask you to stand on a machine designed to tell them whether your arch is flat or high, and whether it has pressure points. Then they’ll likely ask questions about your running experience and goals. They’ll bring you a few shoes to try on, and you can pick out the one that feels best. You can probably even run in it around the store or on their treadmill. Expect to pay anywhere between $100 to $140 for your first pair; consider it an investment in your heart and knees.
Take it easy, again. Most days, your run should leave you energized, not exhausted. You should run at a pace that feels comfortable, for a distance that leaves you feeling like you could go a little longer. Not able to run for any length of time yet? That’s okay–start by walking and run to the nearest light pole, then walk again. When your heartrate returns to normal, run for a stretch again. Whatever you do, don’t sprint the running portions, even though they’re short–run at a relaxed pace. Don’t worry if your pace doesn’t feel much faster than walking or it seems like your feet are barely leaving the ground. The goal is to continue to extend your time on your feet, and you’ll be shocked at how quickly your heart and legs will become accustomed to it if you are consistent. (I started walking as part of my Weight Watchers regimen in the early part of 2006, doing about three miles four times a week. In about a year I was up to walking five miles, and started running short portions. I ran my first mile in the summer of 2007, and continued increasing my running portions slowly so that by that fall, I was consistently running four or five miles every time I set out. If you’re unsure of the best way to increase your distance, look for the “couch to 5k” schedule, which will get you from doing nothing to completing a 3.1-mile race. Already completed a 5k? Look for the “one-hour runner” schedule, which will get most people to the finish line of a 10k.)
Track your runs. Believe it or not, after a while, all your miles will start melting into each other. Find a way to track how far you went on each run, which route you took, which shoes you wore, and how you felt. Write down what you ate and how you felt during and after you ran. Did you take water? What was the weather like? Though things like this seem like overkill, writing them down helps you establish patterns. Soon you’ll notice that you run better in the evenings than the mornings, so you’ll know to schedule your race for an evening 5k rather than a morning one. You’ll realize the day you felt queasy on your long run was the day you had toast without peanut butter on it, or forgot to stop for water halfway through. You’ll walk with wings on your feet the whole day when you realize your average training pace has dropped by thirty seconds in the last four months, even though you haven’t been trying to go faster. Or cut yourself a break when you realize your last few runs have been slower because the temperature has been ten degrees warmer. I use the free logs at runningahead.com, but you can use a paper log if you’re more comfortable with it–my running partner has used both a standard calendar and a running-specific log.
Talk about it. When I started running, I shared my new passion with few people. I drove myself to the start of that first race by myself, finished (having placed in my age group!), and drove myself home–alone. Aside from the fact that I’m a card-carrying introvert, I was also going through a personal transformation I wasn’t sure would stick–I was still holding on to some of my “fat clothes” in case I decided running wasn’t for me and decided to quit after a year or so and put some of the weight back on. If you decide running isn’t for you after the first couple of races, that’s okay!–but I doubt it. I find most people, once they’ve tried it, will always stick with it. Maybe they become less passionate–they decide they never want to train for another half marathon, or racing isn’t for them–but they generally remain runners. If you’re starting out, I encourage you to tell others that you’re running. Tweet about your run. Instagram your fabulous new shoes. Ask the runners you know all the random questions that you can think of. It will both motivate you and give them an outlet for all the running conversations they’re dying to have.
Try it. You know those runners you’re asking all those questions? They’ll all give you different answers. One eats before every morning run; the other sets out on an empty stomach. One drinks coffee, black; the other risks tummy issues if she so much as smells it. Running is an experiment of one. Go ahead and ask the questions. It’s vital to initiate the conversation and get the wisdom from as many runners as you possibly can. But, in the end? It doesn’t matter what works for every other runner–it only matters what works for you, and you’re only going to find that out through experimentation. So get out there and try stuff out. Go run!