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The One Where I Change My Mind–Then Change It Again

November 14, 2013

2013 Fort Lauderdale 13.1

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November 10, 2013
Bib Number: 1453
Overall Placement: 459 / 2087 (22%)
Age Group Placement: 43 / 238 (18.1%)
Gender Placement: 142 / 1151 (12.3%)
Chip Time: 2:00:04

Little G and I had been training for this race for months. Last year, when we first started working with Coach You Can and You Will (I’ll just call her Coach Will from now on), she erased our racing calendar for the entire 2012 fall season. She wanted us to do well at the marathon, she said, and that meant running–and especially racing–a whole lot less. Though Little G and I love to race, we agreed that we could give Coach Will’s one honest year of testing. We resigned all our racing for that year and turned our attention to the marathon.

However, after our success at the Tallahassee Marathon, both we and Coach Will felt we could endure the training for both a half marathon in the fall and a marathon in the spring. We were warned that the training would be more intense, both because we’d be racing twice and because the half marathon logically would require much more intense speedwork to prepare us for the rigors of running thirteen miles at nearly eight-minute pace. Though appropriately sobered by the amount of work that would be required of us over the coming months, both Little G and I were prepared to put in the training. We circled the 2013 Fort Lauderdale 13.1 and the 2014 Tallahassee Marathon as our goal races for this season.

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the note from the Boss I found on my bib on race morning

I mention all that to point out that my goal, ever since we started training in the late summer, was to run a seriously fast half. Though my stated goal was to simply score a new personal best by going sub-1:48, Coach Will thought I had the potential to run 1:45, and all her workouts have been geared to preparing my legs to run the pace necessary to accomplish that. It’s been a long, hard-hitting four months. Though I was never super-confident in my ability to run the requisite 8:01 pace to get that 1:45, I sure didn’t want to miss it because I hadn’t done the work, so I stuck to Coach Will’s schedule and put in her grueling speed sessions, knowing they would be the key to my race-day speed. I was nervous because we didn’t do as much distance work as Little G and I are used to doing when we train for half marathons on our own. In the past, she and I have run at least two eighteen-milers in preparation for a half marathon, but Coach W asked us to do just one sixteen-miler, and I missed that one due to overseas travel. In the end, I had just one fourteen-miler under my belt by the time I stepped up to the line, but I reminded myself that in training for the marathon, I’d also missed a long run (the last of three scheduled 20-milers), and I’d still managed to run faster than my goal.

But as the days got closer to the race, I knew it wasn’t undertraining in speed or distance that would do me in, but heat and humidity. Fall just wasn’t going to make it to South Florida in time. Each time I’ve scored a PR at the half (1:50, then 1:49, then 1:48), it’s been while racing in the 50s under clear skies. I was not going to get that this year–not by a long shot.

And so I made a decision, in the days before the race, not to race this one very hard. I just didn’t want to leave my heart on the course just to watch the clock come in at 1:54 or so. It wasn’t worth it to me. Maybe that makes me a little less of a runner, but I’m okay with that. If I’d been gunning for a place in my age group, I might have fought harder, knowing every other woman aged 35 to 39 was fighting the wind and heat too, but I knew, even under the best conditions, I didn’t have any chance of cracking the top ten in that group. My only opponent was the clock, and the clock isn’t slowed by heat or wind–just me.

Things began to go south almost from the time we arrived at the race site. I’d been sipping coffee from the time Little G picked me up at 4am, and my only thought as we parked was FIND. A. BATHROOM. It was about an hour till gun time, so I didn’t have to wait for one of the many port-a-potties. Feeling much relieved (ha ha), Little G and I then dropped off our gear bags, walked around a bit, and about thirty minutes later I had to go again. The lines for the bank of port-a-potties were now infernal. I knew if we tried them we’d be doing one of those run-from-the-potty-straight-through-the-start things, and I didn’t want to do that. Besides, did I mention? I had already decided I wasn’t going to race this one. I told Little G I’d hit the first bank of potties on the course. So what if it cost me thirty seconds? Time, shtime. We walked around a bit, got in the chute, and got ready.

Miles 1-3: I lose Little G right away with my typical jackrabbit start. Thankfully, this part of the course is a little loopy, for which I am thankful: the turns force me to pay attention and, maybe, slow down. In spite of my decision not to race, I note my pace is faster than I’d planned in my head, but I’m determined to run relaxed. I stay with the crowd, enjoying the sound of their footfalls and the many musical acts along this part of the course. We hit my favorite part of this race, the tunnel, and I soar on the downhill with every runner’s step echoing on the tiles around me. Little G is just off my shoulder as we work around the other runners, and I’m halfway up the back side of the tunnel before I even realize I’m running uphill. Having finished the hard work of the hill, Little G and I start chatting times and mileage, and resolve to run this one in three parts: the city miles, the first section northward, and the last push for home. We feel re-energized by this new resolve and by spotting the port-o-lets, and we stop. I’m in there for what seems like forever, and when I get out, she’s long gone. 8:48, 8:41, 10:09 (I told you I had to go!).

Miles 4-6: I’m running with an entirely new pack of runners, but I tell myself not to sprint to catch my old pack or my training partner. Around me is a woman who is already moaning with every stride, and I use her pain as motivation. We are only in mile 4; it’s way too early for a hard push. Better to keep the pace just under nine-minute miles to find my old pack, then settle into 9 or 9:10 pace. I am reminding myself we’re still in the city; when we hit the waterfront, I’ll have to rethink my pace as I lose the wind protection of the buildings around me. It’ll be a new race, then. I see the two-hour pace group ahead of me, like a giant amoeba. Because two hours is a bit of a holy grail for many half marathon runners, it is a BIG group. I tell myself to catch up to them slowly, then run their pace for as long as possible–after all, they must be running about 9 or 9:10. Besides, I can see the Las Olas bridge up ahead, and can feel the wind picking up. Having run up plenty of windy bridges in my lifetime, I know I’ll do better if I stay tucked into the group for the uphill portion. I can’t see Little G, so she’s somewhere ahead of the group. I resolve to drift  slowly toward the group and run with them. Instead, I find that the closer I get to them, the faster my pace gets; I muse to myself that they’re like a giant black hole, sucking me in. Sure enough, as soon as I get into the group, I can’t wait to get out. There’s elbows and feet everywhere, and I can’t find a comfortable place to run. I immediately abandon my earlier decision, and pick up my pace to move through the group as quickly as possible, now realizing I’d rather face the windy bridge than a multi-legged, elbows-akimbo amoeba running up the hill. I succeed in leaving the group behind and am thankful, since I’m still picking up people who are struggling up the incline of the bridge. I inwardly thank Coach Will for countless bridge reps, but resolve not to mention it, lest she make me do more of them next training season. As we leave the bridge we come to my favorite part of this course: we’re shot off the bridge toward waterfront Atlantic Boulevard. There’s a ton of people on the road here, cheering us on with signs, cowbells, and happy (if sleepy) smiles. But after a couple blocks we turn onto Atlantic and I feel it–that wind. It’s like a giant hand pushing against my chest. I look down at Garmie and my pace has dropped by about thirty seconds, just like that. (I’d find out later winds were gusting out of the ENE at 25mph as we were running.) But at least running on the straightaway means I can see Little G again. I make a conscious decision to back off my effort because of the wind. I know the pace showing up on Garmie’s screen is never going to match my effort level in this gale, and I don’t see any reason to get overexhausted, so I relax. Immediately I feel better; my effort and pace seem to be more in line. The two hour pace group comes up from behind me, much smaller now, but still long-legged and with elbows flailing. I see Little G ahead of them, and wonder if she’ll run with the group. But, to my surprise, at the next aid station, the group runs on without a pause, and Little G and I both stop for water. Leaving that aid station, we’re happy to be together again, and able to chat. We know we’re going to be turning back into the city again soon, and hoping to get some shelter from the wind. 8:52, 9:08, 9:16.

Miles 7-9: So much for shelter from the wind . . . as we turn west into the city, we find that the buildings are creating a wind tunnel instead. We’re thankful for the cloud cover, because on top of the wind, we also know it’s brutally, miserably hot, and humid. We’re pouring as much of the water over our heads as we’re taking into our bodies, and though we’re not taking as much sodium replacement as we would be on a sunny day, we’re watching ourselves. I took my first gel at mile 6. I’m not tired yet, but I’m also very consciously not making a move yet, either. It feels like there’s a long way to go in this one, and in the back of my mind, I know I still have to go back to Atlantic and that wind. Before I commit to any kind of closing speed, I want to see how bad that wind is on the homeward miles. It’s also beginning to dawn on me that I could go again. This is unusual for me in a half marathon, and I’m glad I’m not racing. On a hot day, having the urge to go can make you forego hydration and put you at risk. I resolve to drink every time Little G does, and make another stop if I have to. I’d prefer to finish a little slower but IV-free, thank you very much. 9:16, 9:13, 9:13.

Miles 10-12: We’ve made the turn around and are seeing the rest of the pack now. I see the second bank of porta-potties after the tenth mile marker and tell Little G I’m ducking in. To my surprise, not only does she stop too, she actually waits for me. As we start running again, we share a gel–the second for each of us–and turn our minds to the challenge of finishing this out. We’re running better than we thought. In spite of our return to the waterfront, the wind doesn’t feel nearly as brutal now, maybe because the wind is bearing from the north and we’re now headed south–and probably also because our legs know we’re on the way home. We pass the mile-11 marker and its clock. Little G says to me, “You can still get in under two hours. Go.” It doesn’t take much for my closer’s legs to take over, and I don’t stop to do the math. I tell Little G I’ll see her at the finish–yes, the same woman who just faithfully waited for me outside a stinky portolet–and take off. My legs instantly find a sub-9 pace of their own accord, and I do all the smart-racing things I haven’t been doing this entire race. I know it’s the end of the race, so I make a concerted effort to move through the field rather than staying with anyone. I’m pushing, but I know two miles at the end of a half are still a long way to go. And I know the end of this course like the back of my hand, and that last mile feels leagues long. 10:16, 9:07, 8:43.

Mile 13-finish. Sure enough, this last mile is a killer. Around me, people are slowing down and walking, and I commiserate, remembering how I looked and sounded at the end of Tally. But I don’t speak to them, refusing to expend the energy. (Does that make me a horrible person?) I concentrate on moving forward. My shoulders hurt; I remember, finally, stupidly, that I had the same problem during the Gasparilla Marathon in ’09, which I also ran in a gale; running against wind, even when you don’t think about it, makes you use your arms more and uses astoundingly more upper-body muscles. I shake my arms out as I run and try to focus on my form. “Head, heart, lungs,” I tell myself. According to the last two mile markers I am painfully close to the two-hour mark. I will either just make it, or just miss it. I enter the s-curve where this race sets up the finish, and I can see the clock. It is ticking up, painfully, rolling over two hours as I enter the park. I break into a dead sprint, and I know what other runners and spectators are thinking, because I’ve thought it before. “Honey, if you have a 7:15 push at the end of 13 miles, there’s no way you ran this hard enough.” Hey, they’re right. I just changed my mind at the last minute and decided to race the last two miles. What can I say? 8:24, 1:27-ish for the last .2.

I was right, after all–I just missed it. Checking the results later, we’d find out that I officially finished four seconds over two hours. It’s time on the bridge going around people, time in the bathroom, half a second too slow in half the miles in the race. It’s okay. I said I wasn’t going to race this one, and I didn’t–much.

Having finished the race, Little G and I stopped for breakfast at Panera, shopped a little at Ikea, and came home, a little heart- and quad-sore, but knowing the day just hadn’t gone our way. There’ll be other races, other days to prove our speed and mettle, days when everything lines up and we can let our legs go. For this race, this was enough, and my heart is happy.

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A Few Public Service Announcements

November 11, 2013

Because of a souring weather forecast, I made a decision well before the start of the Fort Lauderdale 13.1 that I would not be racing–therefore, my pace was fairly relaxed from the early miles of the race, and my mind, which would have been engaged in strategy and pacing if I’d been racing, instead was free to wander, sightsee, and meander. All of which it did, for at least the first nine miles. The result? A long list of pet peeves, free running advice, and interesting insights, all of which I will now share with you, free of cost. I know. Life is good.

1. Line up in the chute based on how you expect to run, or, in fancy terms, “self-seed.” In biggish races, organizers will often have flags or signs with expected finishing times, making your job easy. In races without these, watch the other runners: if people around you are wearing shorty-shorts (“bun-huggers”) and have sub-5% body fat, it’s a pretty good bet they’re going to be taking this seriously. Listen to their chatter: runners in the chute tend to talk times. Or come right out and ask. Trust me: nothing will throw your race off more than starting too fast. When in doubt, line up further back than you think, especially in longer races. You’ll always feel better being the passer than the passee.

2. About the running bottoms that look like underwear with the words “eyes on the prize” written prominently across YOUR bottom, I have only one word: NO.

3. On-course music is fun, but it can throw off your pace. Don’t let the high school brass band push you to your mile-10 pace in mile 3. Stay on target. Their job is to energize the crowd. Your job is to run your race.

4. If you’re struggling and audibly moaning with every stride one-third of the distance in (that’s mile 1 in a 5k, mile 2 in a 10k, mile 4 in a half, or mile 9 in a marathon), it’s time to regroup. Walk. Get your breathing and pace back under control. To stubbornly hold to the same murderous pace, with so much of the race ahead of you, puts you in the crosshairs of disaster. The race is long, and the smart ones run to finish.

5. A word about passing. It’s an unavoidable part of racing, as it’s an unavoidable part of highway driving. Give other runners the courtesy of not stepping into their lane. If you’re coming up on someone in front of you, a simple “on your left,” is always kind. Unless you’re coming up on their right side.

6. And about water stops. If a runner misses the volunteer she was hoping to get water from, she will be eternally grateful if you grab a cup you didn’t need (since you’re running with a hydration pack, you animal, you!) and hand it to her.

7. To couples that run together: good on you! The matching his-and-her shirts? Adorable! Having said that, please remember that you’re like a semi on the highway: if you’re going to pass, you have to remember that you’re twice as wide as a regular runner. THERE ARE TWO OF YOU.

8. Also, if you’re going to run with your partner, either your romantic partner or your training partner, have a conversation well before the race about how you’re going to run. Are you going to stay together? What if one of you is having the day of his life? What if the other of you has to stop for the bathroom every other mile (hey, it happens)? Talk about this honestly in the days leading up to the race, and then don’t hold grudges on race day. Storming off at the post-race party because she finished two minutes ahead of you is petty, and it makes you look small.

9. Most runners think the race shirt should be earned before it’s worn. Put it in your gear bag and check it with race organizers. You shouldn’t be running the race in anything you haven’t thoroughly tested anyway. Race in a shirt you’ve trained in, then retrieve your bag from gear check and, having conquered the distance, wear your race shirt proudly. You’ve earned it!

10. Post-race, you may wear your medal all day. Just try not to hit anyone with it, unless it’s your training partner, who finished two minutes ahead of you and is gloating insufferably about it. In that case, I didn’t see anything.

Summer Racing

July 22, 2013

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Dreher Park Dash 5k Day

July 20, 2013
Bib Number: 244
Overall Placement: 78 / 254 (30.7%)
Age Group Placement: 1 / 16 (6.3%)
Gender Placement: 19 / 133 (14.3%)
Chip Time: 25:47.56

This was a new race on the calendar. Though the Dreher Park Dash is run each year, it is typically an evening race. This year, organizers chose to run the race twice, once during the daytime, in July, and once in August, as is typical, in the evening. If a runner completes both events, the times will be combined as a 10k race.

Little G and I signed up for the dual event, though she despises 5ks, and summer races, in particular, of course, are difficult to run fast. This course is not well set up for a personal best. It is run in the park, and as such, has lots of curves. For most of the course, especially the second mile, it’s run on a fairly narrow dirt path, and as such, lends itself mostly to single-file running. During the years I’ve run it, unless I’m feeling particularly well-honed in speed, I’ve learned to use that second mile to settle into a steady pace, hopefully behind someone who is running consistently and well, and then wait until after the second aid station, when the course stretches out a little, to push the pace and pass. I found myself thinking this year, at about 1.8 miles, “in running, as in life, you’d better feel really confident before you make a pass.”

was not feeling particularly well trained as we arrived at the race this year. On the contrary, I’d cut my long run short the week before because of some calf tightness, and though I’d been stretching the calf all week, clouds of doubt swirled in my mind. Having lost one training season to shinsplints, few things terrify me more. On top of that, rain had washed away my training week, and I arrived on race day with no more than three easy miles of running on the week.

Having said that, I was thankful, as I stood on the line, to be on rested legs. It was hot and humid, and I wasn’t sure what I had in me for the day. I knew I probably going to run sub-25–the Boss’s challenge to me before I left the house–but I also knew I was too stubborn to jog the race. When the gun went off, I did my best to rein in my typical jackrabbit start, letting myself get sifted out and refusing to look at my Garmin, choosing instead to run by feel. As we passed the mile 1 marker, I finally looked at my watch. It read 8:12, and I told myself that was a perfectly acceptable split for a first mile in July with zero speed training.

As we reached the middle, curvy mile, I told myself to hold my pace and stay behind Little G. I knew if I tried to pass I would spend myself too early, and I didn’t want to expend my energy yet. I tucked in behind her and coasted at an 8:15 pace for some time. Finally, as we approached the second mile marker, I made the pass. “You’re doing great, K,” she remarked. I thanked her, saying, “the third mile will tell,” and went on.

We entered the third mile and I picked off as many runners as I could. As always in this race, the finish seemed to push away from me down the dusty trail, but finally, I approached it, shaking my head slightly upon seeing my time, so far from my best. I grabbed some water, high-fived Little G as she finished less than a minute behind me, and caught my breath.

I was shocked to find out my time was good enough for first in my age group, and top 20 among female runners. Where are all the women? Did they all go north to run?

Age group prizes consisted of small bottles of locally produced honey. How fabulous is that? Instead of some keepsake we’ll never use, both Little G and I got something useful and delicious. We are hopeful that the rain will give us a few days of clear weather before the night race so the trail won’t be a mess for the August race, but we’re looking forward to the challenge either way. Two first-place age-group finishes in a row . . . what a treat!

Week One: Sore

June 8, 2013

It’s back to training for Little G and I, and the official verdict is that we’ve gotten very far out of racing shape in the twelve weeks since we ran Gasparilla. We dove right into the new schedule created for us by our coach, and found ourselves hurting and doubting our ability to keep up from the very first workout. 

Part of the pressure is borne by the training program itself. After our success at the Tallahassee Marathon, where we succeeded in meeting our own expectations after following our coach’s training plan for the first time, all three of us know more confidently now that we can follow what she asks us to do–in fact, that we can often do more than what she asks, and usually do. In addition, last year we were training for a marathon, which required us to prepare to run at a pace of between 9 and 9:30 miles for the 26.2-mile distance. We will eventually be training for a marathon again, but the first part of this year’s program is preparing us to run a personal best at the half marathon. For both Little G and I, that means running the 13.1-mile distance in better than 1:49 or so, or better than 8:20 pace. Therefore, the first part of the training plan must concentrate on speed; the workouts are much more rigorous, from square one.

Again, our schedule calls for only four workouts per week–one day of cross-training, one day of speed sharpening, one easy run, and one long run. 

I decided to walk for my cross training on Monday, doing a little over two miles in just under thirty minutes on Monday. I figured it would be a light workout for someone whose usual easy day is six miles at 9:35 pace or so. Well, walking evidently uses different muscles than running, because my quads and glutes were sore all the rest of the day and into Tuesday, when we faced down our first speed-strengthening run: six repetitions on the bridge. Running up that bridge six times was a challenging proposition, and I was glad that Little G and I were able to do it together to keep each other encouraged–it’s likely we’ll be on our own for our speedwork for the remainder of the schedule.

After the grueling work of Monday and Tuesday I took Wednesday off, and was therefore due for an easy five on Thursday, just as Tropical Storm Andrea was moving into our area. Though we were under a tornado warning, rain was still light as I got dressed for my run, so I laced up and set out, staying fairly close to the house as I ran and running a little faster than I would have under drier conditions.

Today’s “long run” instructions were to run six miles at 8:45 pace, and as we warmed up, both Little G and I thought that seemed a pretty tall order. We agreed to run hard and be satisfied with whatever pace we landed on. In the end, we averaged an 8:33 pace, even with a slow first mile, and are tired, sore, and surprised at ourselves.

When we met with Coach “You Can and You Will” to report on the first week’s progress, we complained about the sheer volume of work–it felt like we increased the workload very quickly. She smiled sweetly and pointed out that our legs are responding–that, in fact, we are able to run faster than she asked. But she also reminded us to take it easy on the bridge–that the goal is good form and strong legs, not speed, and that we have until November to train. We talked again about the importance of rest days, of which we have many, and why we the schedule is structured the way it is. 

Hill Month continues with more bridge repetitions next week, and the “long” runs again will alternate between single-digit faster runs and double-digit, steady-pace efforts. With the half marathon on the horizon the pace is faster this time around, but I’m aware that the 8:15 pace or better pace I’m dreaming of at the half won’t come without a lot of hard work–few things that are worthwhile do.

Dreaming Big

March 2, 2013
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Most people post their end-of-year posts at the end of the calendar year, but that doesn’t work for me. Most of the time, my training period wraps around the end of the year, with goal races in the early months of the year. In the last few years, my training season really has finished after the 30 hard miles at Gasparilla. The end of that event marks the completion of all my goal races for the season, the start of my off-season rest period, and the realigning of some goals based on my race performance across the fall and winter.

How did training go this season?

Most years, I have a few goals. I generally aim to set a PR at each distance, and set specific weekly, monthly, and yearly mileage goals. This year, I threw all that out the window. I wanted to stay healthy,and though when the year started I dreamed of running a fast half marathon, I willingly sacrificed that goal when offered the chance to race a fast marathon.

So, in the end, that was my distilled goal for this training season: to lower my marathon PR. Specifically, my goal was to come in under 4:15. My dream, stretch goal was 4:10. That meant a 20-minute improvement from my first attempt at the distance, so I thought it was an ambitious push.

As it turns out, I came in four minutes under my “ambitious” goal, exhausted but feeling like if I’d paced myself better, had more mental toughness, and been more experienced at racing 26.2, I could have come close to breaking four hours. In other words, I not only crushed my very focused goal of improving at the marathon, but came away with new goals.

Above getting to rewrite my new personal best at 26.2, though, I think this season taught me to refocus. I may never again focus on mileage as a goal, at least not in this phase of my life. Right now, my goals are all about speed and enjoyment, and focusing on high mileage gets in the way of that.

What are the goals for the next 12 months?

This question gets tricky because 12 months is a long time, but it would be untrue to say that I haven’t started to plan, along with Fern, some races and goal times, even into the fall and winter.

Little G and I met with Fern earlier today, to thank her again for her constant help, her effective coaching, and her good-humored pushing. While at Gasparilla, we bought her a headband with the phrase “You Can, and You Will,” which so well expresses the way she coaches us. She believed in my 4:06 well before I did, and the times she’s throwing out at me in every other distance seem far fetched, but I’m willing to do the work to see results.

With that in mind, we’re all in agreement that a decent break is in order, and are not planning to run for at least another week. Fern is encouraging us to bike or spin, do some yoga or Pilates, or anything else that keeps us active but off our legs, which have been taxed enough in the last month. Starting in mid-March, we’ll return to training. We’ve already circled a few races on the calendar, and we’re being more ambitious this year: we’re hoping to race a 5k in the summer, a half in the fall, and a marathon in the winter.

Fern also took stock of our on-course race photos from both Tallahassee and Gasparilla to analyze our form, especially the ways it deteriorates as we get tired. This was especially obvious at Gasparilla, where our pictures at the 8k, the last race of the weekend, after 25 hard miles, show us running dead tired. As always, the first thing I noticed about my stride is my horrific heel-strike, but Fern is far more concerned about our upper body carriage and making sure we have no hip rotation, even in the last miles. With that in mind, she is starting us out on a simple strengthening program to work our trapezius, our glutes, our hip flexors, and our ankles. The exercises won’t take long, but they’ll ensure we keep it together during the last miles of a tough race.

As we begin training again, with new goals before us, it’s exciting to begin to think of what might be possible. I’m ready to dream again, and to dream big.

Michelob Ultra Challenge, Year Three

February 27, 2013

Gasp13 medals2013 Michelob Ultra Challenge

February 23 & 24, 2013
Bib Number: 969
Overall Placement: 142 / 397 (35.8%)
Age Group Placement: 9 / 37 (24.3%)
Gender Placement: 47 / 166 (28.3%)
Chip Time: 4:42:37

This is my third year running all four races in Tampa’s Gasparilla Distance Classic. The Michelob Ultra Challenge involves running the 15k and 5k on Saturday, then returning Sunday to run the half marathon and 8k. I get a little better each year at managing the event, which is so different from just running one race as hard as you can. Running this many races in a short span of time requires a careful management of speed at each race, but also nutrition, sleep, hydration, and activity during down time between races.

Little G and I knew this year would present a unique challenge because we’ve only had three weeks of recovery since running the Tallahassee Marathon. She and I both felt like we really needed the recovery time following that race; we ran those 26 miles so hard, pushing our bodies to their absolute limit, that in the days that followed we found it very difficult to run at all. We knew, therefore, that asking our bodies to race thirty miles in two days, just twenty-one days post-marathon, was a lot. We agreed to run every race kind of easy, and that our goal was simply not to log a DNF. But we each knew we weren’t going to beat our times from last year, especially as it became obvious that the weather was not going to be cool, as it was in Tally, but hot and humid instead.

Arrival and Check-in

We arrived in Tampa on Friday, having driven across the state in a leisurely way. We checked into our hotel and headed to the expo, where we completed packet pick up and checked out all the vendors’ stands. Though for most races Little G makes us ziti so we don’t have to worry about dinner, we had already decided to settle for the hotel’s pasta buffet for this year, and we’re glad we did. The buffet was well-stocked with both pasta and protein sources, and since we weren’t worried about running fast, we didn’t have to be as cautious about our diets. I still stayed away from eating too many veggies, and made sure to eat a healthy serving of pasta. Mostly, we drank generous servings of water. An unidentified class of rodent had chewed through a wire at Tampa’s water processing station earlier in the day, so the entire city was under a boil-water order. The hotel had bottled water everywhere, for which we were more than thankful. Upon returning to our room we laid out our gear, watched a little TV via Netflix, and turned in for the night.

Saturday, 6:45am: the 15k

We only had a two-block walk to gear check and then another two-block walk to the race start, so we didn’t get up super early. (It’s amazing how much less stress you feel when you know you’re not racing for time!) We shared a cup of coffee in the hotel, then walked over to check our bags while we nursed some water. It was warm enough, even before 6, that we didn’t need any throw-away long sleeves, and we were already walking in our tanks and shorts. Checking our gear and getting settled into the chute was easy; this race is always well-organized, though it is getting larger each year. As we stood in the chute, taking a pre-race gel, we discussed race strategy. I dreamed of running nine-minute miles across the weekend; Little G just wanted to finish, though she knew she wasn’t going to be setting any records. We also briefly discussed our nutrition/hydration plan. I vividly remembered Tally, where I had finished dehydrated and in pain, and with that in mind I was planning to take more sodium-replacement Endurolytes than I had during the marathon. I was also conscious that if I took too much water, I’d just be flushing all the minerals out, so though it was a warm day, I was already planning to take water only at every other water station.

We started the 15k together, but got separated quickly. Little G’s strategy for making it through the many miles of the weekend was to listen to her music; I had brought my ipod with me, but I found myself distracted by the many other runners on the course, and I always wanted to leave the option of putting in my music for the next mile, when I was sure I would feel worse. I ran past two women who were running the challenge together, and heard the more experienced runner telling the other, “This is the only one we push on. All the others we take really easy,” and thought, “Honey, if you push too hard on this one, you won’t have any easy for the next three.” But I kept my mouth shut. Each year, I find I don’t know what’s waiting for me as I line up for that last race.

Nine miles felt like a long way to go, and I worried about the half marathon on Sunday. But, I reminded myself, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, and the only way to run thirty miles is to run the mile you’re in. I never did catch Little G–in fact, I didn’t see her again until the finish–but I somehow found the energy to hold my nine-minute miles for this race. When we finished we had a little less than an hour to get back in the chute.

My results at the 15k: 1:23:53, or 8:59 pace. Slowest mile was in the dead middle, of course, a 9:22 mile six, but I finished with an 8:33 push. 1291 of 4919 finishers, and top 20% in my age group.

Saturday, 9am: the 5k

It was a huge relief to know, as I returned to the corral, that I only had a little over three miles to run. As Little G said, we never get up for less than four! We both said we were going to run this one incredibly easy–maybe ten-minute miles. We were drenched, not just with sweat but from pouring water over our heads to keep ourselves cool. We’d both stuck with our hydration strategy and were already planning not to take any water on the 5k course–after all, it takes the body more than twenty minutes to absorb any water–but were pushing fluids as we waited for the gun.

Ten-minute miles were not happening, it turns out, as the race got underway; I was running sub-9 as soon as we left the chute, and Little G was on my heels. The knowledge that I only had to go three miles fueled me, and I grabbed water at the aid station to throw over myself. It was incredibly warm and humid. The race has a large field (in fact, some people were still finishing the 15k as we departed), and we were all struggling in the heat of the day. It was so good to finish and know I was done for the day.

I was happy to finish in 27:31, or 8:48 pace, with splits of 8:54, 8:42, and 8:42. My speed was good enough, in the large field, for a top 12% overall and a top 5% finish in both my gender and age group.

Saturday, post-race

Both Little G and I felt a little cranky and headachy as we finished the 5k. We got our bags from gear check and felt better as soon as we got out of our wet shirts and stinky running shoes, exchanging them for dry shirts and flip flops. We made up our protein drinks, then settled in for the post-race massages we’d signed up for before heading up to the hotel for showers. Post-showers, it was time to head to Ybor via the trolley, to get the best Cuban food available from Columbia Restaurant. We decided to bring it back to the hotel, so we got to eat it in our yoga pants and scuzzy t-shirts, and are glad we did. We took it easy the rest of the day, going down for gelatto later in the afternoon and settling into bed again around 9pm.

Sunday, 6am: half marathon

The idea of running a half marathon sounded incredibly intimidating. My legs weren’t sore, exactly, but I knew I’d put twelve fast-ish miles on them the day before, and I also knew that, since starting marathon training under Fern’s tutelage, I hadn’t run on back-to-back days since September. Asking my body to run eighteen miles was going to be a tall order, indeed.

Adding to the challenge, it was very hot again, and felt even more humid. Storms were forecast, and dark clouds were gathering. We thought we were sure to get wet at some point during the 13.1 miles. From the start, my goal was to keep my pace consistent at 9-minute miles. To do that, I knew I had to be happy with getting passed at the start, since some of the pace teams had started behind me and were obviously making up ground, running at a much faster pace. I kept glancing at my Garmin, checking my pace, and telling myself to be content being sifted, as long as my pace was my own. I really didn’t want anyone else setting my pace–not even the 9-minute pacer.

It was brutally hot, though, and I knew I had to swallow some mineral-replacement tablets at least every other mile if I was going to be standing at the end of the race. By mile 7, I had a bigger problem–my quads were on fire. I couldn’t afford paralyzing cramps; I still had this race to finish and a five-miler that didn’t start until 9. I started walking through every aid station. At some, I would take in water and swallow Endurolytes; at others, I would throw the water over my quads, trying to soothe them into functioning. While running, my pace stayed fairly consistent at about 9-minute miles, but it suffered overall. All the same, the lead I had gained on Little G during our early five-mile jaunt onto Davis Island grew; I saw her at the turnaround, but she never caught me, and I would finish the race about three minutes ahead of her.

When all the numbers were in, my chip showed I ran the half in 2:01:20, or a 9:15 overall pace. It’s still good enough for top third overall, top 20% among women and in my age group.

Sunday, 9am: the 8k

Little G and I both finished the half in sad shape. We were toasted in every sense: my quads were sore and tired, and though I hadn’t felt them cramp yet, I had that sense of misfiring in them that I knew precedes the cramping. We were, of course, soaked through like rats, and though we’d taken a gel to keep our energy up during the half, and knew we could probably do with more calories for this last race, neither of us could stomach the idea of eating. But we also had things to celebrate: we were both still sweating profusely, so we knew we were not yet dehydrated. We were also still thinking clearly enough to plan our hydration to every other aid station, so fuzzy-headed thinking, another symptom of bonking, was also not with us yet. We had each seen athletes fall victim to the heat on the course, so we knew we were blessed to still be standing. We considered the possibility of a DNF, but decided we’d rather walk the 8k if we had to than not finish. We changed our shirts and got back in the chute.

We were not the only challengers who were in pain, and we knew we had likely done ourselves in by signing up for the challenge so soon after racing a marathon. But we were determined to finish this last race, even if we didn’t do so particularly well. I reminded Little G that I had been the one in paralyzing pain two years ago, and told her that in my experience, our legs would actually feel better once we started moving. She seemed unconvinced.

The gun went off, and so did we. Right away, my goal became to run the distance. But I knew it was going to be a tough challenge. I was very tired, and my left shin was now joining my quads in calling for a cease-fire. I tried to quiet them by throwing water on them at the aid stations, but I was determined to keep moving. As I walked through one aid station, Little G caught up with me, and said, “I’m right behind you. Keep moving.” We went through the turnaround and I couldn’t believe how long the road ahead seemed; the humidity was so intense it felt like we were running in a sauna. Then, at about mile three, the sun came out, and the temperature rose instantly. I pulled on my shades and kept moving.

I was tempted to walk. I had nothing to prove. Two miles from the finish, I’d still get my medal, even if it took me thirty minutes to finish those last two miles. But, here’s the thing: one of the things I learned in Tally is that I need to develop more mental toughness before I can defeat the 26.2 beast. When exhaustion and dehydration and sheer mental deadness take over, it takes a mind of steel to keep running when you’d rather quit. You see, nothing keeps you from walking–it’s a perfectly acceptable option. Reasonable, even. At Tally, in the last five miles, running often brought me to tears with cramps. But that was not true at Gasparilla. I was tired and hurting and I wanted to quit. But I wasn’t hurt. So I made myself keep running. I told myself that, until my next 26.2, this was the best marathon training I was going to get–the mental training of not quitting under the incredible duress of the sun bearing down on me, the 28 miles I had already run, the agonizing deadness of my legs, and the overwhelming desire to walk.

Make no mistake: I didn’t run fast. But I ran every mile of that 8k. I finished it with a chip time of 49:52, or an average pace of 9:59. Not surprisingly, it was my least competitive finish, and I didn’t crack the top third of the field, though I did make it into the top third in both my gender and age group.

When I was finished, I was again almost helpless with exhaustion, as after the marathon, and so drained that I was immediately close to tears. I was thankful, again, to have shared this with Little G, and to have conquered the distance in spite of all the challenges we’d faced.  And thankful, so thankful, to be done.

My training log says I’ve run 70.7 miles this month, and a full 56.7 of those have been racing miles. I unpacked my running shoes on Sunday and have not seen them yet; my running clothes remain folded. There will be no more miles added this month. It has been a good season, and now it’s time for rest.

Race Autopsy, Part 2: Execution

February 12, 2013

During our months of training, I drove Little G and Fern, our trainer, crazy with my fears and doubts about the 26.2 distance. I had two previous attempts at the marathon under my belt. In March 2009, I had trained alone, and arrived at the starting line feeling very tired and spent. I was determined to run a conservative race, and though I knew I couldn’t predict how I would do at my first marathon, I really hoped to finish in 4:30 or under. I accomplished my goal by the smallest of margins, getting a 4:30:04 chip time, but it was a miserable experience, as I ran the race in a complete downpour and finished demoralized, wet, and shivering. And yes, there was plenty of walking in those last five miles. Then, in November 2010, I trained with Little G for the Space Coast Marathon, and though I felt stronger and faster than ever, I got injured before I ever made it to the race. I ran the companion half marathon instead, in tears and pain. Since then, I had been too scared of the volume of training required by the marathon, of my own propensity for injury, and of the distance itself, to want to sign up for another attempt.

I know who I am as a runner. I love to run, but when I enter a race, I have no desire to watch scenery, take great pictures, or enjoy conversation with the other athletes–at least not on the race course. When I step up to the line, my competitive juices come out, and I run to race. So running another marathon easy was out of the question. I had an easy marathon under my belt. When I signed up for another, I wanted to race it. Finding Fern and her training methods was perfect, because she honed my speed, which I wanted so badly, and mitigated my risk of injury, which I feared.

I wanted to try the distance again, and we thought Tallahassee was a great place to do it. The course is fast and straight, and Little G and I don’t mind small races with little crowd support. A Florida race meant low travel costs, and we lowered those even further by staying with her mother for race weekend. Better yet, we knew a nearby race would mean having someone available to act as our support crew along the course.

But I also knew, as I signed up for the race, that racing the marathon meant this one would be like my first one, all over again. I knew that I had no experience at the kind of mental toughness and physical pain I’d have to endure. And this time, I wanted to go into it with my eyes wide open. I didn’t want to start the race at an easy pace–I had done that, and learned that, no matter how smart you start, running, after the 20-mile mark, is always an exhausting, terrifying proposition. If I was going to be rendered mindless with exhaustion and pain at 20 miles anyway, at least I wanted to get there as fast as possible.

Throughout training, and even in the days before the race, the fear of the distance threatened to paralyze me. I stood at the start line, shivering, in a small cluster of people, thinking, “What am I doing?” But when we started running all that went out of my head. I knew only running, and running fast. My heart and lungs didn’t struggle with the pace, nor did my legs, though fear swirled about my head as I considered whether I could hold that pace for 26 miles. Still, I ran on, ignoring the first bouts of cramping pain, and was feeling well enough to lead Little G for much of miles 14 through 20. At the 20-mile mark I turned to her and said, “It’s a 10k from here,” and though we were both tired and hurting, we were still moving, as a team.

I was right, in some ways, to fear the distance. Racing the 26.2 was more difficult, more exhausting, more painful than I had imagined, and it started to hurt much earlier than I had expected. It’s why I said with such conviction, to anyone within earshot those first few post-marathon days, “I will never run another.”

But I have learned this: I finished the race. Somehow, my legs, my heart, and my lungs got themselves wrapped around the ridiculous feat of running 26.2 miles, and in spite of every obstacle, I finished well. Though my legs were hard to move for the next three days, and though our first run back six days later was still humbling (our quads, it turns out, are not fully healed), I didn’t die, I met my goals, and I am thankful for the experience–yes, for every mile I spent on that tree-lined, lonely trail.

After a slow and painful run Saturday, Little G and I met Fern again, for our final postrace debriefing. She was smiling ear-to-ear, and a little smug. Yes, we are dreaming together of next season. Little G’s time qualifies her for Boston, and I’m bothered enough by my six minutes over four hours to be dreaming of another attempt at breaking the four-hour barrier. Fern thinks I can do it, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but, in a year, I might be able to face the agony again. We’re talking about changes we’ll make to our fueling, hydration, and nutrition, looking forward to tweaking our marathon experience a little at a time.

And our dreams are growing . . . We each have a half marathon best time just under 1:50, and we are realizing we’ve never raced a half as hard as we raced this marathon. What could we be capable of at 13.1 miles, with Fern’s race-specific speed intervals and the resolution to be willing to hurt, even from the first mile? As we look toward the fall, we are hoping to race a half marathon on the way to a spring 26.2. Notice we’re spreading our races out: Little G hopes to run Boston in April, and I’m likely to return to Tally. Frank Shorter said, “You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.” We’re doing our best to follow his advice.

All my running life, I’ve run carefully in the first miles of a race, being cautious not to start too fast. One of many lessons learned from this race is that I have been selling myself short. I am faster than I have dared myself believe, and I can hold on to my speed miles after it has begun to hurt. I am excited about putting this knowledge to use on the race course, at every distance.