Monday, January 30, 2012


Today I turn 45 years old. As runners like to note, this is a big one: I'm now in a new age group for most races. Instead of the 40-44 age group, I'm in the 45-49 group. In theory, that should make it easier for me to get age group awards at races. But I've found that advancing to a new age group doesn't necessarily help. Let's take a look at my last few races to see what a different age grouping would have done for me.

Mississippi Blues: I finished first in the 40-44 group; my time was good for second in 45-49
Elf Run: First in 40-44, 5th in 45-49
Mount Pisgah Frozen Trail Run: Third in 40-44, second in 45-49
Richmond Marathon: 44th in 40-44, 22nd in 45-49
Mooresville Pumpkin Run: 3rd overall -- out of age groups
Bridges Half Marathon: First in 40-44, First in 45-49
Run For Green Half Marathon: First in 40-44, First in 45-49

So, in two of the seven races, I would have improved my standing, and in two I would have fared worse. In three I would have stayed the same -- overall it looks like there's not much benefit.

But where you can really see the difference is in the result at Richmond. Richmond had by far the largest field of any race I ran last year, and jumping up to the 45-49 group would have improved my ranking from 44th to 22nd.

You might think that was only due to the fact that fields tend to be smaller in the older age groups, but actually there wasn't much difference. There were 328 finishers in the male 40-44 group, and that number only decreased to 305 in the 45-49 group.

In smaller races there have been as few as 6 or 7 people in my age group, so genuine age group differences can be difficult to suss out; it's really more of a question of who happened to show up that day. But when you have a large field of runners to compare, it's clear that there is a real drop in the level of competition at the 45-49 age grouping. That means that if I am able to maintain my current level of fitness, I should do better relative to my age group.

Of course, maintaining fitness gets harder as one gets older -- which is why we have age groupings in the first place.

Details of yesterday's run are below.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Life since Mississippi

It's been nearly three weeks since my half-marathon in Mississippi. You may be wondering what's happened over that timespan, given the fact that I haven't made a post.

In a word, things haven't been going great. Almost as soon as the race was over I could feel my right IT band seize up.

The IT band is a muscle that extends from the hip to below the knee on the outside of the leg, and it's notorious for acting up in runners. I've had IT issues before, but never this bad. Most runners seem to notice pain in their knees, but for me in the past it's been primarily in the hips. This time, it was the knee for me as well. I generally have more IT pain after runs than during runs, and this was no exception. Many runners feel significant IT pain during runs, and at least I wasn't getting that.

That said, it was quite painful for me to just walk around, and for the first time ever, I was feeling a little pain during runs as well. Chad suggested I try an IT band strap, and actually gave me one to try. This helped with the pain during runs but afterwards I really wasn't feeling much better.

Then, last week, I caught my first cold in over a year. This actually sidelined me from running for four days -- the longest layoff I've had in over a year with the exception of a ski vacation I took last winter.

During my illness, I took some time to reflect and decided I needed to get serious about fixing the IT band problem, so I went back to a regimen I had outlined last year. I'm doing two different exercises every day, along with stretching a couple times a day. I'm back running this week, and so far, things are feeling quite a bit better. My knee still cracks and pops when I walk around, but there is no pain except for a few twinges during runs.

So what's next? I had considered trying another half-marathon this month, to try to squeak in under the deadline to qualify for this year's New York Marathon, but given the IT issues, that's definitely out.

I have only been doing easy recovery runs this month, with significantly-reduced mileage. I think I need to set my sights on a new challenge, and I'm a bit torn. I could sign up for a signature event like the Cooper River Bridge Run, but that seems like a bit of a mob scene ... unless you're in the sub-40-minute 10K group. That would necessitate me actually running a sub-40-minute 10K, which is probably at the borderline of my abilities. A challenge!

A completely different challenge would be the Blue Ridge Marathon: One of the hilliest road marathons on the planet. Obviously you're not going to PR on a course like that, but still, it would be an exciting challenge.

Decisions, decisions....

For what it's worth, today's workout is below.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Race Recap: The Mississippi Blues Half Marathon

I went to Mississippi with a lofty goal: Finish the Mississippi Blues Half Marathon in less than 1:30 and qualify for guaranteed entry to New York.

I wasn't sure I was quite up to the challenge; I've only had a month to ramp up training after recovering from the Richmond Marathon, and I haven't quite been meeting my speed goals during training. That said, my training runs have been faster than what I was doing prior to Richmond, so maybe I'd be able to pull something out. I flew down to Jackson, Mississippi the day before the race with Todd Hartung and Bobby Aswell, who were registered for the full marathon.

I've been following a three-stage taper for this race, and the day before race day, to my mind, is the riskiest bit: A bump-up in distance at race pace. I decided to do three miles, while Todd and Bobby did an easy two mile jog. The first thing I noticed about my final training run is that the roads in Jackson are in terrible shape. The sidewalks are in even worse shape, with huge chunks of missing pavement, six-inch cracks, broken glass, and myriad other hazards. The second thing I noticed was that the hills seemed a little bigger than what I had planned for. The next thing I noticed was that keeping up a 6:52 pace was hard, even for just three miles. Was it wise to do a hard, three mile run the day before the half? Only time would tell. Oh well, the registration fee has been paid, so there was nothing left to do but run the race.

With Todd and Bobby at the packet pick-up
We awoke at 5 for our 7 a.m. start and I had a couple of Clif Bars and drank about a half-liter of water as we all nervously prepared our gear. At 6:30 we headed out the door for the half-mile walk to the starting line. At 52 degrees, the temperature felt comfortable, but we knew it was going to warm up over the course of the race. There was also the possibility of rain. I knew I needed to get near the front of the pack of racers for the start; based on last years results there would probably only be 50 marathoners and half-marathoners running a faster pace than me. After a blues guitarist played a very cool version of the national anthem, we were off!

About a half-mile in, I passed Bobby (a very unusual sensation for me) and knew I wouldn't see him or Todd again for three hours. I passed the first mile marker and hit my "lap" button to record the distance (I don't use auto-lap on races because I want to measure my time for the official race distance, and the Garmin is always a little bit off). 6:50 for the mile, which is right on target. To run a 1:30 half, I would need to average 6:52 per mile.

As I continued to run, I noticed my pace was holding remarkably steady at 6:50 per mile. I started down a short hill and picked up the pace, and the Garmin's pace indicator didn't budge. Finally I realized that I hadn't pressed "lap," I had pressed "stop" at Mile 1. I restarted the timer, but I had no idea how much time I had lost, or how far I had gone. Finally I passed the Mile 2 marker. I carefully pressed "lap" and recorded a 10:50, 1.6-mile lap, at an average pace of 6:47. So I was missing about 0.4 miles, but I had no idea what pace I was running at that time. I decided to assume I had averaged 6:47 for the whole first two miles—what else could I do?

I passed the Mile 3 marker at a 6:40 pace, then the half-marathoners split off from the marathoners. A woman smiled and told me I was in 20th place. I wasn't especially interested in my overall position, but it was neat to see that someone cared this much! All the volunteers at the race were fantastic, extra cheerful, and many of them thanked me for coming. None of this, however, was making the Mile 4 marker arrive any sooner. It was a gray, cloudy, day, and the mist seemed to be descending closer and closer to ground level. We were running along the freeway, then passed under it and back up a ramp along the other side. Definitely not one of the scenic high points of Jackson, Mississippi. And where was that mile marker? Finally it arrived, and I pressed my lap button to reveal a 7:20 split for the mile. What? I had been running a 6:46 pace the whole time, but it didn't matter--what mattered was the actual split for the mile. My watch also said I had run 3.7 miles, so a quick calculation accounting for my earlier error revealed that Mile 4 was probably a tenth or so long.

There was nothing I could do about it, but in the meantime I had lost 30 seconds. Since I hadn't given myself any leeway at all, I would need to make it up over the rest of the race. I decided to try to run 6:45 splits instead of 6:52 splits. For the next mile I ran a 6:41 pace, but Garmin measured the distance at 1.02 miles, so my split turned out to be 6:48.

I ran mile 6, with its 66 feet of climbing, at a 6:46 pace, but Garmin measured it at 1.01, so my split was 6:50. And now I was really starting to labor, barely halfway through the race.

The mist was getting thicker now -- so thick that it condensed on my glasses. It was becoming more and more difficult to see, and finally I had to just remove the glasses. In the best of circumstances, without my glasses I can see about three or four feet in front of me, but despite my impairment I could definitely see better without them. I could see the worst potholes on the road, so I wasn't in danger of tripping, but I couldn't see far enough ahead to know what type of terrain was coming up: Downhill, uphill, or flat, it just wasn't possible to tell. After a while this takes a bit of a psychological toll. If you know the hill you're on ends in a half a block, it's easier to motivate yourself to push to the top. Running blind, I simply had to try to stay as close to a 6:45 pace as I could. Mile 7 was even hillier than Mile 6, but thankfully it had some downhill stretches, and finally a Garmin error fell in my favor. My watch measured the mile at 0.96, and I completed it in 6:37 despite my 6:55 pace.

But with each passing mile, it became more difficult to keep up the pace. My feet felt every bump in the road, and the strain reverberated up my legs. At one point I had to ask a volunteer which direction the route went, despite the fact that it was clearly marked with cones; I just couldn't see them through the fog. The route went straight ahead. Splits for Miles 8, 9, and 10: 7:06, 7:00, and 7:22.

The low point of the race was probably Mile 11. I realized I almost certainly wasn't going to make my 1:30 New York Qualifying time. I decided to take a break and just run at a 7:30 pace. A runner passed me, smiled, and said "that was the last big hill!"

That inspired me and I decided to try to keep up with him for a while. It didn't last long, and soon a pack of 7 or 8 runners passed me. My split for Mile 11 ended up at 7:20.

Finally at Mile 12 I seemed to get an extra bit of wind. I picked up the pace again, and was able to bring it down to 6:55. Maybe this race wouldn't be a complete disaster. Just over a mile to go.

In the final mile I started to pick up more steam. I wasn't running at 5K pace or anything, but I felt good enough to get back into the 6:40s. I passed our hotel, about .6 from the finish, and the whole staff was outside cheering me on. Oh, maybe they were cheering for those other 2,000 runners, too, but it felt like they were cheering just for me. I told them to warm up the shower for me.

The final stretch, brutally, was yet another hill climb, but I managed to keep up the pace, striding across the finish line as the official clock read 1:31:07. Surely that meant my chip time was under 1:31, right? Not quite -- officially I finished in 1:31 flat, still a PR, but not quite what I was hoping for. My average pace: 6:57, 5 seconds slower than what I needed. My pace for the last 1.1 miles: 6:44.

I really had given it all I could. I don't think there's any way I could have gone faster on that day. I don't think the bump-up day affected me much, but I don't think it gave me an extra boost. Maybe I would have felt better on race day if I had just taken it easy the day before, but I don't think I could have run a 1:30 on that course in those conditions. Maybe on a cooler, overcast day with a smoother surface to run on I might have done it, but not there and then. Garmin recorded a cumulative 426 feet of climbing. That's not an especially hilly half marathon, but it's far from flat. Maybe some time later this season I'll try another half-marathon on a flatter, smoother course and see if I can break 1:30.

In the meantime I headed back to the hotel for a shower. When I entered the lobby I got a rousing ovation from the desk staff. I think I may have been the first racer to return to the hotel! I went up to the room and got my camera for the obligatory post-race self-portrait:

Yes, I realize I don't look great. But at least I'm done!
I showered and walked back to the finish to watch Bobby and Todd cross the line. Here's Bobby approaching the finish:

And here's Todd:

Both Bobby and Todd agreed that this race was tougher than it had looked on paper. But we all tottered back to the start line for a group photo:

The woman who took this picture even let me wear her medal since I'd left mine in the room
We even got to take a picture holding the awesome giant-guitar race logos:

I'm not really leasing out my bald spot!

If you zoom in on this picture you can get a sense of how rough the pavement was on pretty much the entire course:

It was like someone had taken rough gravel and just epoxied it together, then added lots of potholes for good measure. After 13.1 miles, you really start to feel it in your legs. I can only imagine how the marathoners felt!

So given the difficulties, I'm pleased with the result. I may not have gotten a guaranteed entry to New York, but I PRd on a tough course, and saved myself hundreds of dollars in airfare, hotel, and race fees in New York. Not a bad deal, all in all.

If you're interested, my [partial] Garmin plot of the race is below.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Race Strategy: Mississippi Blues Half Marathon

On Saturday I'll be heading to Jackson, Mississippi, for my first (and probably my last) attempt to qualify for guaranteed entry into the New York Marathon. After January 31, the qualifying time for my age group decreases from 1:30 for a half-marathon (or 3:10 for a full) to 1:25 and 2:58 -- in other words, not bloody likely.

Even to get a 1:30 I'm going to need to run a nearly perfect race. To hit that time I'll need to average 6:52 per mile; the best I've done yet was at the Bridges Half Marathon in October, when I averaged a 7:00 pace, for a 1:31:37

Tiny details can make the difference when you're scrambling for seconds. For example, during that race my Garmin actually showed me running a 6:52 pace for the entire race. Unfortunately it also measured the course as 13.34 miles instead of 13.1. So I'll be employing the method I used at Richmond to adjust my Garmin to match the actual mileposts in the race. I sum up that method here -- basically I'll be using manual lap times instead of the Garmin's auto-lap feature.

Another key to the race is the way I'm handling the taper for this event. Following Fellrnr Jonathan Savage's model, I'm doing a three-stage taper for the race, though I'm modifying the plan a bit from what Fellrnr suggests, partly because he is usually training for ultrarunning events, while this is a half-marathon. Fellrnr's golden rule of tapering is to never run at less than race-pace during the taper. While I agree that long, slow runs won't help during a taper, running at a 6:52 pace takes a lot out of me, even for just a few miles. So I've done a couple race-pace runs, and interspersed some race-pace miles into easier runs, but I've also run a couple of easy recovery days, just to stay loose.

What I ended up doing was a 70-mile "overload" week last week, including a couple of very intense 15+ mile workouts. Then I quickly tapered by reducing distance and trying to keep some of the runs at race pace. Next up is my "rebound" day, a relatively hard race-pace run the day before the race. Savage did a 5-mile race-pace run before the Thunder Road marathon. I think I'll just do three, which is three more hard miles than I've ever done the day before a race!

During the race itself, there's not much more to do than try to keep a consistent pace. The course itself is relatively flat -- flatter even than the flattest runs I ever do in Davidson during training. Here's the elevation profile:

I basically count two or three "major" climbs of around 50 vertical feet during the entire race, with a couple other small bumps. Even the Bridges Half Marathon had more hills than that. MapMyRun's elevation charts often seem to me to understate the true nature of the course, but even if it has double the climbing compared to what we see here, that's still a lot flatter than what I run on every day. I don't think there's much point of trying to slow down on these hills -- It's better to just try to maintain a consistent pace for the whole race.

The other variable is the weather, which looks okay but not perfect. The temperature at race time is now slated to be in the mid-50s, with a 50 percent chance of rain. I'd prefer around 40 degrees and overcast, but as long as it's not too windy and I'm not running in a downpour, I think I'll be fine.

Nothing left to do but just run the race. Wish me luck!