Sunday, January 30, 2011

What a week, what a year!

Normally I do my long runs on Sundays, but this week was a little different, with the Idiot run yesterday. So when I met up with Chad, Chris, and Todd this morning, I was planning on just an easy 6.3 mile loop.

Today also happens to be my 44th birthday.

A year ago today, I weighed about 30 pounds more than I do now, and the farthest I'd ever run was 6 miles less than what I ran yesterday. A year ago today, 6.3 miles was a tough run for me. A year ago today, I would have struggled to run 6.3 miles at an 8:36 pace. Today that counts as an "easy" run for me—and it's exactly what I did this morning.

Last night I went out for a birthday dinner with my wife, and found out that I have no dress slacks that fit me -- they're all about 3 inches too big around the waist. That tells you something about how often I get dressed up, but also something about what I've been doing for the last year, and especially the last 6 months.

It's been quite a year. Who knows what the next year will bring? When I started training to run a marathon, I figured I'd probably run just one. My running companions tell me that once I catch the bug, I won't stop. We'll see—I'll get back you in a year.

Week in review:

6 runs
56.1 miles
2991 feet elevation gain
499 feet average elevation gain

That's slightly fewer miles, but much more elevation gain than last week. Next week I'm going to take it a little easier, with just about 45 miles, including only a 15-mile long run. Then things get even more intense.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

I am an Idiot

It felt very strange last night going to bed at 9:00—so strange that I don't actually remember falling asleep, only waking up from a dream that I missed my 3:55 a.m. ride to the Fellowship of the Idiots run in Albemarle, North Carolina. What started as an informal training run as area runners prepared for the two big marathons in the region (Charlotte and Myrtle Beach) has grown to a substantial event, with 70 or 80 runners showing up for the 5:30 a.m. run.

The event is non-competitive, and even with such a large group, everyone seemed to enjoy the spirit of the event as a fun training run. As it turned out, I didn't miss my ride, and joined Chad, Todd, Jeremy, Terry, Matt, and Tim in a caravan to Albemarle, about 60 miles away. The run itself is fairly intense, billed as a 19.7-mile round trip from downtown Albemarle to the top of nearby Morrow Mountain. But I had convinced myself that it wasn't that hilly; I was going into the event thinking it would be about 16 flat miles, with a big hill in the middle, roughly a 300-vertical foot climb. As it turned out, my Garmin recorded a cumulative elevation gain of 1,210 feet—more than Big Sur—and the climb up Morrow was more like 500 vertical feet, placing it in the same league as the notorious Hurricane Point climb at Big Sur. Here's the profile of the entire run:

We arrived in Albemarle early enough to drive up to the gate at Morrow Mountain State Park, about mile 8 on the plot above, so we didn't get to see the really big hill. I was surprised to see the rolling hills throughout; there really were hardly any flat sections. When we arrived back at the start, we quickly signed in, posed for a picture, and then took off, accompanied by a police escort.

I was running with Todd and Jeremy, who I knew would be faster than me, but I wanted to see if I could convince them to start off slowly. My plan was to run roughly 9-minute miles until I reached the top of the mountain, then 8-minute miles on the return trip. That was before I realized just how hilly this run was. After an 8:36 Mile 1 and 8:20 Mile 2, I realized I'd need to slow down, so I let them go. Miles 3-6 were uneventful: 8:42, 8:37, 8:49, 8:43. Still a little faster than planned. At mile 6, there was a water stop. I asked if there would be water at the top of the mountain, and got "there will be water at various points along the route." I had about 8 ounces in my water belt, but decided it would be a good idea to stop and drink a cup, just in case.

Then I started charging uphill. There was a woman in front of me who seemed to be keeping a decent pace, so I tried to stay with her. Mile 7, with 128 vertical feet, was 8:48. Mile 8, with 75 vertical feet, was also 8:48. Now I could start seeing the first hints of sunrise on the horizon. There was a beautiful crescent moon, and Venus was also visible nearby. An absolutely stunning morning. On Mile 9, with 160 vertical feet, I passed the woman and put in an 8:40. Mile 10 got even steeper: 211 vertical feet to the top, about 9.6 miles. On the ascent I passed one guy and pulled even with another. As it turned out, there was a water station, and I drank half a bottle and used the rest to refill my water belt. Then I made a visit to one of the tiniest bathroom stalls I've ever encountered, and headed back down the hill.

Then I ran into Chad, who took my picture:

On the way back down, I passed Matt and Tim headed up the hill. They're much faster than me so they must have been taking it easy on this run. I also saw Terry on his way up. I was trying to pick up the pace on the downhill section but only passed two or three runners. Despite the very large field of runners, there was a lot of separation, and I was running by myself most of the time. Mile 10, half uphill and half downhill, was 9:08. Downhill miles 11 and 12 were 8:02 and 8:04. Mile 13, still mostly downhill, was 8:13.

It was becoming clear to me that once the downhill sections ended, there was no way I was going to be able to maintain an 8-minute pace. Sure enough, Mile 14, with a 133-foot vertical gain, was 8:40. Mile 15, 90 vertical feet, was 8:49. Now I was really starting to feel the pain in my legs, which were also extremely tight. Mile 16 was relatively flat, but I still only managed an 8:56. I took a rest at a water stop, drinking the water from my belt because I knew I could make it to the finish without additional water (I had been eating gels every 4 miles throughout the run). Miles 17–19 were not quite as hilly as the preceding miles, but I was spent, and my times got progressively worse: 9:30, 9:59, 10:05. I ran the final .26 miles at a 10:30 pace.

Overall, it was an 8:48 pace—not even as good as my somewhat disappointing 18-miler last week. But this course was much hillier than I expected. I actually went farther without fading than I did last week, and I was trying to be much more aggressive once I hit the big hills. I'll need to improve as I do more long runs, but it's still good to get these miles under my belt. This was the farthest I've ever run; it may have been unreasonable to think I could do half of this run at my planned marathon pace three months from now.

At the end of the race, I and the many other first-timers were awarded Fellowship of the Idiots T-shirts and certificates commemorating our accomplishment. One nice thing about this run is that the Y gives all the participants access to their showers, so I could get cleaned up and changed before we drove home. It turned out, this meant I missed the big group photo, but I got Nora to take my photo with the new shirt when I got home:

And here's the very serious certificate:

It reads:

Fellowship of the Idiots. This certifies that Dave Munger is a member in good standing and is granted all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. From the "Y" to the top of Morrow Mountain and BACK!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Music and running

I mostly try to avoid running with music. I always seem to want to match the tempo of the song, which isn't necessarily the rate I should be running at a given moment. The exception is when I do speed work, when I find the music gives me the boost I need to get through tough intervals.

But today, for a 5.5 mile recovery run, I decided to go ahead and listen to a song I've been enjoying a lot lately, Girl Talk's All Day (fun music—more of an 80's/90's pop/hip-hop mix tape than a true song). It's 71 minutes long; I had started it at the end of yesterday's hill workout, and I wanted to finish it. The goal was to run 10-minute miles, something I always find a little difficult; it's quite slow for me, but that's the point of a recovery run. For the first 4 miles, listening to music, I didn't quite make it -- I averaged about 9:30 per mile, even on the uphill segments. Then, when All Day ended, about halfway through Mile 5, I switched to a podcast. Instantly my pace slowed, and my pace for the last two legs was 9:56 and 10:03, just where I wanted to be.

I don't wear an iPod when I race for similar reasons: I find the music distracts me from running the pace I want to. Podcasts distract me too, in a different way: they might actually slow me down a bit, which is probably good for anything other than tempo runs and speed work. My tempo runs are generally done in a group, so I'm not listening to the iPod then either. But I know many people really struggle to run without music. Marc Hirschfield, in his entertaining summary of the Disney Marathon, talks about his iPod breaking down as nearly as big a tragedy as a knee injury.

Tomorrow I'm getting up at 3:30 to run the Fellowship of the Idiots. I'll be leaving my iPod at home.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Hills of Big Sur, revisited

Earlier today I was looking at the map of the Fellowship of the Idiot run I'll be doing on Saturday, and it got me thinking a bit more about the hills I'll be facing at Big Sur. The course information provided on the site doesn't include cumulative elevation gains, just this map:

A few weeks back I wrote about how difficult the Big Sur course was, with its 1,660-foot vertical gain. Pretty intimidating! I think I got the idea that the run has a cumulative elevation gain of 1,660 feet from this site. But why should I trust that site? A number of runners have charted the course on Map My Run and they all come up with a lower figure -- about 1,050 feet. Ultrarunner Jean Pommier ran the course with his Garmin 205 a couple years ago and came up with a 1,082-foot vertical gain. That's not an easy course, but it's a far cry from 1,660. Here's what his elevation profile looks like:

Today I ran my hill course, 9.58 miles and 672 vertical feet. At that rate, I could match Big Sur's vertical gain in just 16 miles! Maybe I can do this thing after all.

I had done two tempo runs in the two previous days (although yesterday's run wasn't really at tempo pace), and today I was planning another tough workout. How did I get in this predicament? Originally, today's run was planned for Friday, but when I signed up for Fellowship of the Idiot, I moved it back a day. So how did I do on the hills on the third tough workout in a row? Not quite as well as three weeks ago, when I did nearly the same route in an 8:24 pace. But I did it in a similar pace to last week, when I was better rested but was more concerned about my knee.

For some reason I always start off slowly on this run, then gradually pick up the pace. I won't take you through each mile, but I was doing 8:15-ish on the downhill legs, and 8:45-ish on the uphill legs. I did throw in a 7:45 near the end on a mostly downhill leg, but then slowed for the uphill finish. Overall, an 8:36 pace. I'll take it, given the fact that I've been running hard the past couple days. Tomorrow, I do an easy 5-miler, then get ready for Saturday's Idiot run.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What rain does to your brain

Today on the schedule was another DART run -- a 1.3 mile run into town, 6.3 mile run, and 1.3 miles back home for a total of 9. But at 5:45 when I walked out the door it was absolutely pouring. I decided to drive into town.

I got there to find Chad sitting in his car, hoping no one would show up to meet him. Fortunately at this point the rain had slowed to a light mist. We headed out into the darkness, our headlamps illuminating the misty raindrops as they alighted on our faces. I was worn out after the fast pace I had run yesterday, and Chad was still on the slow road to recovery from a stress fracture, so we went a little slower today.

As I ran, tiny droplets of water began to accumulate on my glasses. It became progressively more difficult to see. Chad was wearing contacts and was having a much easier time of it, so I basically tried to stay next to him and hope he didn't lead me into a ditch. I sloshed through a lot of puddles, but managed to avoid a major fall. The first two miles were about the same as yesterday: 7:50, 7:56. But mile 3, which I had cranked out in 7:14 yesterday, was just a 7:50. Then we started to slow down: 8:07 on mile 4, 8:29 on mile 5. We were now running along Concord Road, where a steady stream of car traffic was headed out of town, the glare from their headlights penetrating our eyes. My glasses were now solidly covered with water droplets, and every time a car passed, the droplets glowed so brightly they nearly blinded me. I was completely soaked, so I had nothing to dry off the glasses with. Finally I just decided to take them off. Amazingly, I could see much better (my vision is horrifically bad)! Although everything was a bit blurry, at least I could see things like the curb, potholes, and trash cans in the sidewalk (today was trash pickup day). Still, mile 6 was 8:45. We were pooped, and soaked.

I was so distracted by the rain that I forgot to turn off my GPS trainer at the end of the run. Chad and I had a cup of coffee at Summit, then I drove home -- while my Garmin recorded it. It makes for a very odd pace chart:

I can't decide whether to keep this record of my silly error, or delete it since it doesn't accurately reflect my workout. In fact it only adds 1.3 miles that I didn't really run.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Keeping up the tempo

I'm starting to get into to the grind of training. Today on the schedule was a 6-mile tempo run. I ran into town for a warm-up, then met Chad and Chris G. for the run. Since Chad was still recovering from a stress fracture, I wasn't sure how things would go. We started off at a slow-ish pace for this distance, 7:49 and 7:51. But I felt good and Chad and Chris didn't seem to want to go any faster, so I took off during mile 3 and reeled off a 7:14 on a downhill leg. Mile 4 was half down and half uphill, 7:34. Mile 5 was a tough slog, always the mile where I really know how I'm going to be doing, 7:45. Mile 6 starts out uphill. I was starting to tire, but it was downhill after the halfway point so I gritted it out in 7:38. Then the last .26 miles were done at a 7 minute pace. Overall, a 7:37 pace. Not bad, given my slow start!

Afterwards I had coffee with Chad and Chris and we talked about the possibility of doing the entire DART tempo run at a 7-minute pace. Chad thinks it's doable by June. I think it's doable if I stay injury-free. My knee seems to be getting better but now I've got some soreness in my calf, which didn't feel great as I jogged the 1.3 miles back home after coffee.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

15 good, 3 not so good

Today the plan was to run a nice, steady 18 miles -- the longest I've ever run in a single workout. As usual on Sundays, the DART group met downtown for a long run, but I figured that no one would be planning on running that far, so I brought my iPod just in case.

Chad, who's still recovering from a stress fracture in his ankle, was planning a slow pace — roughly 9-minute miles. Also joining us were Jeremy, Chris, Terry, Tim, and Jackie. Most people were interested in about 10 miles, so I figured I'd run with them, come back to the car and restock, then finish on my own. 9-minute miles sounded fine to me, so I planned on sticking with Chad as much as possible. Unfortunately, the best of plans don't always work out so well in reality, and we ended up running quite a bit faster: Miles 1-5 went 8:35, 8:47, 8:32, 8:29, 8:33. Then for the next 6 we picked up the pace even more: 8:33, 8:05, 8:13, 8:08, 8:20, 8:15. Finally as we were heading back into town, I realized I should let Chris and Tim pull ahead on their own, and Jackie and I hung back a ways, for an 8:49 uphill mile before we got back to the cars. 11.75 miles done; I needed 6.25 more.

I ate the last of my GU chomps, finished off my water and drank several gulps of the water I had in a jug in the car. Chris said he was interested in 6 more, so we took off on the regular DART loop, 6.3 more miles. I left my water belt and iPod in the car. Chris and I took off at a relatively fast pace: 8:14, 8:09, 8:22. 15 miles done, 3 to go, but my legs were starting to rebel. I told Chris to go ahead while I slowed down and just tried to finish things up. My sore right knee had been feeling good all morning, but now I was starting to feel strain in my right calf and glute. And both of my feet were starting to wear down as well. Each footstep felt like I was running on gravel. Mile 16: 9:06. I felt almost as if I was just shuffling along, but I was determined not to stop or walk. Mile 17: 9:57. I tried to pick up the pace for the final mile, but my legs wouldn't let me. Mile 18: 10:24.

Overall I had done pretty well, averaging an 8:39 pace, but the last three miles were done at almost a 10-minute pace. Without those final miles, it would have been more like an 8:28 average. But a marathon is 26 miles. I need to build up miles, to train my body to withstand the pounding for another 8 miles, and at a faster pace. That's why training takes so long. I've had people tell me I could run a marathon tomorrow. After today, I'm not so sure. But not long ago, I would have been feeling like this at the end of a 10-mile run, so I'm definitely making progress.


Week in review:

6 runs
57.5 miles
2669 feet elevation gain
445 feet average elevation gain

I'm back on track after a light week last week. This is the farthest I've ever run in a week, and nearly as far as I'll ever run during the leadup to Big Sur. Next week is another big week, culminating in the 19.7-mile Fellowship of the Idiot run on Saturday.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

On hills and joints

Yesterday I did a 9-mile hill workout. I was a bit concerned about it because my knee was bothering me and I hadn't yet received the knee brace I ordered. For the first mile or two it was definitely not feeling great. There wasn't a lot of pain but I could just tell that something wasn't right. But after I warmed up, the knee started feeling better, just in time for the hills. Miles 1 and 2 were mostly downhill, 9:27 and 8:58. Mile 3 had the first big hill, 150 vertical feet, and I did it in 8:48. Coming back down, I sped up just a bit more. I was worried about hurting the knee, so I still tried to rein it in: 8:36. Mile 5 was back up basically the same hill, 8:48.

Then by Mile 6 I was really starting to feel good (and it was downhill), 8:00. 7 was another big uphill, 8:27. Mile 8 was very hilly, 7:57. By Mile 9, slightly less hilly, I was beginning to wear out a bit, 8:07. If you account for the hills, I was pretty much doing negative splits for the whole workout, speeding up as I went along, which is always a good thing; it shows I'm able to control my pacing. My knee actually felt a little better after yesterday's workout than it has in a while.


Then yesterday afternoon my knee brace arrived. This morning, a 5-mile recovery run, would be my first chance to use it. It felt a little strange when I first put it on, and I was worried that it might slide down my leg as I ran. It has a little spring to it, and it almost flings your leg forward as you straighten it. But after running about a half mile, I got used to it. I was definitely feeling less pain as I ran, and my knee just felt more solid.

However, the brace does chafe my skin a bit, especially at the edges. I'm wondering if I should wear it for my planned 18-mile run tomorrow. I think I will, but I will probably use a little Body Glide to try to prevent it from chafing through the skin. I'm really hoping that running with the brace for a while will be all I need to get the knee back in shape.


Thursday, January 20, 2011


I've mentioned a couple times that my knee is bothering me. Generally hasn't hurt on runs, but it definitely doesn't feel normal.

Yesterday I tried to track down what it might be and came upon two possible culprits: IT Band or Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome. I don't really have perfect symptoms for either but the second one seems more likely. I decided to buy a knee brace. Otherwise the solutions are basically taking it easy and stretching, taking Advil, and icing.

Today on my run (an easy 5-mile recovery run, with no knee brace yet) I did start to feel a bit of pain, but it's still quite mild. I definitely never felt like I should stop. Tomorrow the brace will arrive, but not before a planned 9 miles. I will probably play things by ear as I run, and if things start getting worse, I'll just stop and head home.

Basically the plan is to take it easy and wear the brace for a while, but if things don't improve, I may need to visit a sports medicine doctor. I'd hate to have this thing devolve into something worse just as my training regimen starts to intensify.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Finally, a (relatively) warm day! The ice is all melted, and the thermometer read 43 degrees when I woke up at 5:35 today. I decided to forgo the long-sleeve jacket and gloves, running just in tights, a long-sleeved shirt and t-shirt. It had rained last night, so the streets were wet, but there weren't too many puddles.

The plan was to run into town, meet up with the DART group for a fast 6.3 miles, then have coffee with Chad and jog home, a total of 9 miles.

Rodney was the only one joining me for the DART run, and we started out quickly: 7:42, 7:45, 7:39. Then we hit the first major hill and slowed to 7:57. Mile 5 was even hillier and yesterday's medium-length run was beginning to catch up with me, 8:12. Then Rodney split off and I made a real effort to keep the pace up: 8:03 for mile 6. Overall, about a 7:50 pace, which is okay, but I would like to have kept up the earlier pace to the end. Then I met up with Chad, who is recovering from a stress fracture and didn't want to run with the group. After coffee, he joined me for a slow run to my house, then he completed the loop on his own. So I did a total of 9 miles, 2.7 at an easy pace, and 6.3 all-out. A good workout, made especially nice because I didn't have to bundle up.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

We'll have none of that!

Today's schedule called for a 9 mile run with 10 * 100 meter strides at the end. But at some point last week, I tweaked my right knee a bit. It never hurts when I'm running, but it always feels a little unstable when I'm done, and sometimes it hurts if I twist it the wrong way. I decided running at top speed wasn't a great idea, so instead I agreed to meet Gabrielle for an "easy" 8-miler.

I was meeting her 1.3 miles away at the usual group get-together stop, and I figured I might as well jog in, giving myself an extra 2.6. I was running a little late, so I ended up doing 8:30 miles on my way into town. Then as Gabrielle and I started, we got into a conversation and didn't notice how fast we were going: 8:37, 8:00, 7:59, 8:07. So much for an "easy" run. It wasn't super fast, but it was faster than both of us were planning. At the end of last week I'd been running much slower, so it felt good to finally be cruising at a nice pace: 8:13, 8:19. As we headed back into town, I decided to pick up the pace a bit more, just to get a little speed work in. I told Gabrielle I'd see her back at the meeting spot and I reeled off a 7:30 split, and then a 7:00 pace for the final .38 miles into town. Then Gabrielle caught up with me and we finished the run with some legitimately slow 8:48 and 9:13 splits. A nice workout.

My knee still feels a little sore, but hopefully if I don't work it too hard this week I'll be back on track for next week.


As promised, here's a summary of last week's workouts:

6 runs
43.01 miles
1021 feet elevation gain
204 feet average elevation gain

That's considerably lower than my goal of 52 miles, primarily due to the ice / travel. Elevation gain was also quite low; running with others who didn't want challenging runs contributed to that, as did the dreaded treadmill day. But I've already gotten a good start on this week, running a bit farther than the scheduled distance. Hopefully that will carry through the entire week.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Getting *really* busy

Over the past three days I've launched a new website, given a presentation at a meeting of science communicators, nearly lost my voice, written one and a half columns, and run 21 miles. Other than the fact that I was supposed to write two columns and run 29 miles, that's not too bad.

I suppose the true test of a training regimen is whether you can keep it up when life intrudes. This weekend was the big conference of the year in my field, Science Online, and I was launching a new website, ScienceSeeker, at the conference. There was plenty of shmoozing and lots of events that were genuinely interesting to me, in addition to my own duties. I arrived at the conference on Thursday afternoon and almost immediately was at the hotel bar consuming drinks with people I only see once a year. Then it was off to the keynote address, more drinking, and more friends. Somehow I neglected to eat anything other than a few crackers. By the time I was back at the hotel, the bar was packed, and there was no way to get food. I guess I'd be surviving on beer. Fortunately, the hotel bar closed at midnight, so I managed to get about 7 hours of sleep before meeting up with several conferees for a 9-mile run.

As it turned out, I was the only one going that far. Everyone else was stopping after 5 miles at a 9-minute pace. So I decided to try to pick up the pace for the last few miles. I did all right on mile 6, running it in 8:13, but then my lack of food caught up with me, and I limped home at 8:57, 8:47, and 9:05.

The next day was scheduled as a recovery run, so I just did an easy 5 miles. I was a bit worried because that morning at 9 a.m. I was scheduled to deliver my presentation and launch the new website. Fortunately everything went off without a hitch, but as the rest of the day progressed, I gradually began to lose my voice. An evening of too much drinking followed by a morning of loud talking were probably to blame. At about 10 p.m. I had a nightcap at the bar and headed up to my room instead of joining the conferees for another night of revelry.

The next morning I felt much better, but I didn't want to burn myself out because I still had to attend nearly a full day of conferencing, then finish writing a column for 3QuarksDaily. So instead of the planned 15-mile run I did 7.5 at an easy 9:42 pace with another conferee. As the link attests, I did manage to finish the column.

I didn't do so well with the column that was due today. Even though I have a running rest day, the column is still not finished. I'm planning on completing it tomorrow morning before I do a 9-miler followed by 10 * 100 meter strides. That's what happens when you get really busy.

Fortunately, the work schedule for the rest of the week should be easier; that's good, because my running schedule just gets more intense: I'm planning 54 miles worth of runs, including my longest-ever workout, an 18-miler on Sunday.

I can't give you a summary of last week's workouts today because the Garmin website is down; hopefully it will be back up tomorrow.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Getting busy

One of the things I wanted to do with this blog is write a post after every run, no matter how short. But sometimes life intrudes. I've been extremely busy the past couple of weeks, and it's been all I can do to get the runs in. After the snowstorm and ice storm, the runs have been treacherous, so it's not like there hasn't been stuff to write about.

But the most important thing is to keep running, and I've done that. I did 8.2 miles yesterday, when the roads were so bad that even people walking their dogs were surprised to see a runner out there. I'd still say it was much better than running on a treadmill! Even though I only managed 9-minute miles, it was great to be back outside

Today I only needed to do a 5-mile recovery run. I did 4.8.

For the next three days, I'm to be out of town at a research conference. I need to run 29 miles over those days. Here's hoping I can manage it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

That Which Shall Not Be Named

Yesterday was an absolutely beautiful, stunning day. Six inches of snow coated the ground, with not even a breath of wind to disturb it. But yesterday was my rest day, the day I write my weekly column, and the day after a very tough 16-mile run. I've run in the snow before, and it's actually kind of fun, especially when you add in the dramatic scenery.

But today was different. The temperature warmed up just enough overnight to allow for a half-inch of freezing rain. Then everything froze again by morning. I optimistically put on my running gear and went outside. Where the snow had been packed down, it was solid ice. Where it had been untouched, there was a thick icy crust that had about a 50 percent chance of breaking with each step. Nowhere was traction sure. Here's what the street in front of my house looked like:

But perhaps the main road around the corner had been plowed or salted. I walked over to that street and saw that it was no better—there were only miles of ice and frozen snow in either direction. Grudgingly I had to admit that it was not a good idea to run outside.

Instead, I would have to face That Which Shall Not Be Named. Some people derogatorily call it the "dreadmill," but I'd have to say that doesn't do it justice. My wife uses ours for 30 minutes each morning, walking and watching the news. I could probably manage that, but I was planning to run 11 miles today, which would take a minimum of an hour and a half.

I queued up an episode of The Daily Show and three Colbert Reports on the DVR. I decided I'd run until I finished them, allowing myself to fast-forward through the commercials. The power of political satire would help me defeat That Which Shall Not Be Named. I started at a 10-minute pace, figuring I'd speed up once I got used to the device. After a mile, I bumped it to a 9-minute pace, still slow for me. After 30 minutes, I still wasn't used to it. Either Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert were off their game, or even their comedic talents were no match for That Which Shall Not Be Named.

Gritting my teeth, I increased the pace to 7 miles per hour, 8:34 miles. At the end of two episodes, roughly 42 minutes after commercials had been filtered out, I had run 4.6 miles. An average 9:07 pace. Sopping with sweat, I took a hydration break. I got back on the machine, keeping the pace at 7 mph (don't these things understand that runners track their time by minutes per mile, not miles per hour? Or perhaps that's part of their nefarious plot). I made it through another episode and a half before I had to reduce the speed, first to a 9:00 pace, and finally to a 10:00 pace as I finished my final episode of Colbert Report.

Overall, I ran 9.4 miles in 84 minutes, for an abysmal 8:55 pace, on perfectly flat terrain. I don't know what it is about That Which Shall Not Be Named, but it just seems harder than running outside, even with the hills, wind, and weather. Perhaps its the fact that you can't make momentary adjustments to your pace. Or maybe it's just boredom. It's actually got me thinking about buying some of these. Knowing what I do now, I'd definitely pay $45 to avoid another encounter with That Which Shall Not Be Named.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Race pace

Most of my training runs are not actually at the pace I'm planning on running in the marathon. Sometimes I do speed work, which is faster, and sometimes I'm doing long runs just to log miles, much slower than my planned pace.

But another key to putting up a specific pace in a marathon is getting a sense of what it's like to run the pace you're planning on running in the race itself, when you're already tired. So today the plan was to run 16 miles, and run the first 8 miles slower than race pace. Then for the final 8 miles, I'd run at race pace: 8-minute miles. Todd and Chris were running with me again, and thought that sounded like a good plan.

What's more, since Big Sur is a hilly race, we decided to finish our run on the hilliest segment, instead of starting with the hills like we usually do.

It was a frigid morning. My thermometer registered 17 degrees, and Todd's was at 13. I put on an extra layer and wore a ski cap instead of my thin running hat. At least it wasn't windy, and the sun came up after about 20 minutes. The most difficult part of the first portion of the run was restraining ourselves. 9-minute miles seem very slow for a group that's used to running at an 8-minute clip. In fact, for the first 8 miles, we ended up averaging about 8:40 per mile. After a break to fuel up, we took off up the first big hill: 129 vertical feet, and we did it at an 8:17 pace, a little slow. The next mile was almost as hilly, and we broke 8 minutes: 7:56. Then, over rolling hills, 7:39, 7:49, 7:50. The big hills were last. Mile 14 featured 126 feet of climbing and 103 descending, 8:13. Then on Mile 15, Todd and Chris started to pull away. Still, on this mostly-downhill section, I clocked 7:42. Mile 16 was a long hill back into town, and I was finally starting to tire. While Todd and Chris picked up the pace, I struggled a bit, finishing in 8:32. But still, I averaged below an 8-minute pace for those last 8 miles, so I achieved my goal for this workout.

Overall average pace: 8:20. Not bad! In fact it was almost the identical pace as last week's 15-miler, even though we had deliberately held back for the first 8 miles—and today's run added an extra 160 feet of climbing.

Here's a summary of the week's runs:

6 runs
53.58 miles (my longest week ever)
2,876 feet elevation gain
476 feet average elevation gain

On each my three hard runs, I met my goals: my fastest time ever on the DART 6.3 mile loop; a solid hill workout, and a tough long run with 8 miles at marathon pace. If I can keep this up for another 16 weeks, I just might run that 3:30 I'm hoping for at the Big Sur Marathon.


Saturday, January 8, 2011


When you're running 50 miles a week, preparing for a 26.2 mile run, "restraint" may not be the first word that comes to mind. But it really is a key to doing well at the marathon distance.

Even in a half marathon, it's tempting to start out at a relatively fast pace. I'm so amped up at the beginning of a race, I could lay out four or five 7-minute miles that seem "easy," but for me that would be a big mistake; I'd by struggling by mile 10.

Similarly, when training, there are some days that call for restraint. Last night Todd posted on Facebook that he wanted to do a tempo run today -- six miles at a relatively fast pace. But Friday I had already done a tough hill workout, and I was planning an even tougher 16-mile run for Sunday. I told Todd I'd run his warmup mile with him, then let him take off while I finished an easy six-mile recovery run. Then I'd see him at the coffee shop. That's exactly what we did. I did 6.3 miles at a 9:35 pace, and Todd did the fast part of his run at a 7:20 pace. Both of us had good company while we sipped our coffee after our workout.


Friday, January 7, 2011

The hills of Big Sur

When I signed up for the Big Sur Marathon I knew it was going to be a challenging race. But I took a look at the elevation profile of the course on their website and decided it was something I could probably handle:

Sure, there's the one big hill in the middle, but the rest of the course is basically downhill, right? Miles 1-10 look to be all downhill, and there are, what, three little bumps after Hurricane Point?

Then I started looking at some of the other reports of the race, with more detailed elevation profiles. Here's the profile from Marathon Guide:

Now it's looking like miles 4-9 are uphill, and there are lots more bumps along the way. That hill around mile 22 doesn't look great either. Then I started to look around more and found more and more intimidating versions. Here's one from a Nashville runner's group:

I'm pretty sure this is a raw download from a GPS, which tend to have artifacts and "phantom hills," but still, it seems far from tame. Most race reports confirm that the second half of the course is very hilly. The last hill in mile 25 seems to freak a lot of people out, despite the fact that it's only about 100 vertical feet. That said, 100 vertical feet is pretty close to the maximum vertical gain I can get in a single climb in this area. There are plenty of hills, but nothing comparable to the 2-mile, 550-vertical-foot monster in the middle of the Big Sur Marathon.

So today I decided to run the hilliest route I know of in this area. I even repeated the hilliest part twice. Here's the profile of today's run:

There are two 150-foot climbs, and depending on how you count, two solid 100-footers, and two smaller hills. The total vertical gain for the run is 660 feet, in 9 miles. Three of these runs, 27 miles, would be just longer than a marathon and add up to 1980 vertical feet. Since Big Sur is 1660 vertical feet, the route I ran today is definitely hillier!

The goal for Big Sur is to run 8-minute miles. So how did I do today? My first two miles were basically a warm-up, 9:15 and 8:35. Mile 3 included the first big hill, so I tried to run it as fast as I could without killing myself: 8:23. Mile 4 was all downhill; I want to be able to make up time on downhill sections, so I pushed the pace here: 7:51. Mile 5 was the second big hill; again I was aggressive and took it at 8:18. Mile 6, downhill again, 7:46. The last three miles were up and down, 8:30, 8:31, 8:22. I definitely slowed down as the run wore on, and I was quite winded at the end. My average pace was 8:24, including the warm-up miles. If you discount those two miles, it was basically 8:15. Could I keep that up for a whole marathon? Probably not—but I'm not running this race tomorrow. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011


For about eight years before I started training for the marathon, I played an aggressive two-hour game of soccer every Sunday morning with a group of Davidson faculty and their friends. When I first started playing with them, I would be so beat up Monday mornings that I could barely walk. It was usually Wednesday or Thursday before I felt reasonably close to normal. Eventually I figured out that if I went for a run on Monday morning, no matter how painful it was, then my recovery would proceed much faster. I'd be feeling better even by Monday afternoon.

It turns out, I may have been on to something. Many runners talk about "recovery" runs as a way to hasten recovery from a difficult run the day before. That's what was on the schedule for me today after yesterday's hard tempo run. After averaging 7:34 a mile yesterday, today I ran 5.66 miles at barely faster than a 10-minute pace. Based on how I felt this morning, it doesn't even seem possible that I could have been running so much faster just a day before. But if the recovery does its job, I should be ready for a moderate-paced 9-mile run tomorrow.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

GPS hell

I know that I could run without my Garmin, I just know I wouldn't be able to obsess over every detail of each run — and what would be the fun in that?

Today I was scheduled to run in to town and do the Wednesday DART run, 6.3 miles. Since that 6.3 mile loop would be a tempo run — a fast-paced run designed to improve speed and stamina, I wanted to record it separately on my GPS trainer, so that I could track those miles separately from my warm-up and cool-down miles.

For some reason, when I arrived at the meeting point after a 1.3 mile warm-up, I forgot to stop my timer. Then when me, Mark, and Rodney started on our run, I tried and failed to reset it because it was still running. That means my GPS lumped the warmup together with the tempo run. No big deal, I thought, I run this route all the time.

But the three of us started off at an unusually fast pace. For reasons noted above, I don't have a split for the first mile, but mile 2 (really mile .7 to mile 1.7) was a brisk 7:36, despite the fact that it included a good-sized hill. Mile 3 was even faster, at 7:23. Mile 4 was 7:30. Mile 5, again due to the fact that I didn't reset my timer, was a solid uphill stretch, a 115-foot climb. If we could keep this time under 8 minutes, we'd really have something going. We did it in 7:50. Mile 6, with another good-sized hill, was 7:45. I don't have a split for the rest of the run, but Mark told me he did it in 6:40. I think he just meant that final .3 miles, when we were making a mad dash for the finish.

According to Mark's Garmin, he finished in 47:48 over 6.3 miles. I was about 2 seconds behind him. Mark's average pace for the run was 7:34. That's definitely the best I've ever done on this route, and I don't have a good recording of it. Alas! But here you can see the plot I did manage to record, with my slow 3-minute break at the meeting point. After the run, we joined Chad for coffee. Chad's still recovering from a stress fracture, and was heading out for a 4 mile walk. I walked about a half-mile with him and then ran the rest of the way home, completing my Garmin nightmare by adding that last .8 miles onto the end of the already-mangled recording.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


I've been following a modified version of the training schedules in Pete Pfitzinger's book "Advanced Marathoning." It's an 18-week program that's supposed to get you in top form for a race at the end. I'm currently in week 2.

The program isn't much different from what I remember doing in cross-country and track workouts in high school and college, except (thankfully) there's much less emphasis on speed workouts. Today was my first speed workout, and it's something I've never done before, which Pfitzinger calls "100-meter strides." The idea is to go to a track and gradually increase your speed over 70 meters, when you're running full speed. Then you "float" for 30 meters. Then you walk 100 meters, and do it again, repeating 10 times. You're supposed to focus on relaxing your upper body and keeping proper form while you run. In this way, you learn to keep good form as you pick up the pace in a race.

I've done lots of intervals, where you do repeated runs at a fast pace for a specified distance, like 200 or 400 meters, but I've never done something where you gradually increase the pace. Also, the book calls for you to do the strides at the end of a medium-length run, in this case 8 miles. I decided to shoot for 8 total miles, with the strides about a mile from the end. This way I didn't have to drive anywhere.

When I was planning this training I thought I'd be doing the strides at the Davidson College track, but the college decided to rip up its track over the winter, so instead I did them at the local middle school. Here's an image from the Garmin record of the workout:

There are a couple interesting details here. First, I stayed in lane 2 for the entire workout, but as you can see, the Garmin makes it look I was running around like a drunken sailor. That gives you a good sense of how (not) accurate the Garmin really is. Second, you can see each stride quite well on the pace graph—10 even peaks. Even though I slowed to a walk between each stride, my overall pace didn't change much for the miles (5 and 6) that included the strides: 10:06 and 9:59, compared to 9:30-ish for the rest of the run.

Overall I found the workout pretty easy, which is what it is supposed to be. Tomorrow I have a tempo run, which is where I should really expend some energy.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Yesterday I ran farther in a day than I've ever gone — 16.3 miles.

I was utterly spent at the end of the run. Of course, this is still 10 miles short of my ultimate goal, so it has me a bit worried. I should be confident in my training plan, which calls for me to gradually increase my mileage over a period of weeks. Big Sur, after all, is still 17 weeks away.

The run started out fine, at a brisk 8-minute pace with Todd and Chris. I kept it up through mile 12, with no mile slower than 8:13. Miles 13, 14, and 15, however, were another matter. I had run out of water, and so we changed the route a bit to run by a park which had bathrooms. The end of mile 13 was a long uphill stretch. Pace for that mile: 8:49. Mile 14, even after a rest at the water stop, was 8:39. I gritted it out on mile 15 for an 8:33 pace. Todd and Chris were well ahead of me at this point; I told them not to wait up for me.

Since my plan was just to run 15 miles, I stopped and walked for about 200 yards. Then I finished with a slow jog: 9:40 and 10:16 for the last 1.3 miles. Normally we have coffee after the run, but the coffee shop was packed and we were soaked with a mixture of sweat and the light rain that had been falling all morning, so we just headed home.

Overall for the 15 miles before I stopped the timer, my pace was 8:19—not horrible. My plan actually suggests a pace closer to 8:50. But still, it's disappointing to fade so much at the end.

Next week, I'll have a stiffer challenge for my long run. I'm running 16 miles, with the last 8 at marathon pace: 8-minute miles. The first 8 can be done much slower; the idea is simply to see if you can maintain a marathon pace after you've already been running a long ways. So I'll probably go out at a 9-minute pace, then pick it up at the halfway mark. I'm not sure I'm going to find any takers to run along with me at that pace. I may be doing this one alone.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

A running blog

In May of 2011, I'm planning on running my first-ever marathon, the Big Sur International Marathon.

It's a bit of an obsession with me, but I realize that not all of my Twitter followers and Facebook friends share the obsession. So, I've decided to start yet another blog, focused just on running.

If you want to read the posts, be my guest. If not, they're easy to ignore.

If you want to see my other work, check out my personal blog, or my column on Seed Magazine. I also write a monthly column on 3quarksdaily. And if you can't get enough of my writing about running, check out the Davidson Area Running Team Blog.

I've been a runner since my sophomore year in high school, when I was on the cross country team at Garfield in Seattle. That was over 25 years ago. I was on my college track team, at the University of Chicago, for one year. In both cases, I was one of the worst runners on the team. But I didn't start out the worst -- I was simply the guy who didn't drop out.

After college, I kept running through grad school. When I moved to North Carolina, I kept running, about 3 or 4 miles a day.

Then, in 2006, I decided to try a half-marathon, my longest-ever race. I finished, but I ran a bit slower than I was hoping. My time was 1:51:59, or roughly 8:30 miles. I ran another half in 2007, even slower.

If I was ever going to run a marathon, I wanted to really run it, and to me, somehow, you're not running unless you run 8-minute miles. Last month, after a hard-training fall, I ran Charlotte's Thunder Road Half Marathon once again, beating my 2006 time by more than 9 minutes (here's my recap), and running well under 8-minute miles.

For Big Sur, I'm planning on ramping up my training even more. It's one thing to run 8-minute miles for a half-marathon; it's another thing to continue running that pace for another 13.1 miles. I'll have more on my training in future posts. So long for now...