Saturday, April 27, 2013

High-fivin' it in Boston!

I don't usually purchase race photos -- I have a lot of photos of me running without paying extra. But this one seemed worth the money! Thanks, Marathonfoto, for taking a good one!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Boston Marathon: Still Awesome. My Race: Not so much.

I spent last week simultaneously reeling from the impact of the horrific attack on the Boston Marathon and feeling proud and humbled by the overwhelming response to my article about it. Over 30,000 people read the post, and dozens of them contacted me personally to let me know what they thought. I haven't been sent a negative response yet (although there are a few out there -- see the comments on this post). I'm glad at least something good came out of the awfulness that scarred a beautiful day.

But as I've reconnected with my local running friends, after they heard my story of what happened to me during the bombings (answer: I finished 50 minutes before the attack; I was over a mile away when it happened and I didn't see or hear the bombs, but when I found out about the attack, like everyone else, I spent the rest of the day glued to the TV), the next thing they inevitably asked was "But how was your race?"

The first thing I told them all was: it was awesome -- the crowds lining the streets, my fellow runners, the race organization; all of it was unlike anything I had ever seen.

My performance in the race, on the other hand, ranks as one of my worst. Of the seven marathons I've raced, I've only run three slower, and they were all on substantially more difficult courses (I also ran Thunder Road slower, but that was a pacing / training run; I wasn't racing). I even did better at Rocket City on a difficult, muggy day.

Why did I do so poorly? Let's compare my last six training weeks for this marathon with my training leading up to Richmond, where I qualified for Boston:

In weeks leading up to Richmond, I ran 276 miles, compared to just 200 in the leadup to Boston. Four and six weeks out, I had high-quality long runs, and sandwiched in between them, I ran a half-marathon PR at the Bridges Half Marathon.

In the weeks prior to Boston, I didn't have a single high-quality long run. The 38.64-mile run was a pacing effort in which I averaged 15:47 per mile. That's some good time-on-feet, but not exactly a marathon-prep effort. My 18- and 15-mile long runs both involved major bonks and weren't really long enough to prepare me for a marathon.

Perhaps even more important was the lack of speed work -- just one 4X8 tempo run leading up to Boston, compared to 6 speed workouts (counting my half-marathon PR) leading up to Richmond.

There were good reasons for all of this, of course: I had a busy travel schedule and I was sick for three weeks, starting 4 weeks out. It just didn't make sense to try to run hard if it was only going to make things worse.

My friend Bryan Massingale had a similar bout with flu about 4 weeks out from his most recent marathon, and like me, he ran 20+ minutes slower than he had been hoping. I'm just not sure it's possible to recover from an illness that's more significant than a minor cold  in that amount of time, especially when the illness comes just as you should be peaking in your workout cycle.

Lesson learned: I'm going to get a flu shot this week, and another one in the fall when the new flu vaccine comes out. I paid the price for neglecting my flu shot this past year, and I don't want that to happen again.

In case you want the blow-by-blow of my race, here are my splits (remember, I didn't have a Garmin, so all I got were 5K splits from the race website):

The plan had been to run as close as possible to a 7:30 pace. I'd take it easy during the downhill first 4 miles, then pick it up as the course leveled off. As you can see, the first 5K was just about spot-on. The second 5K was too. But then after that I slowed bit by bit every 5K (the 8:21 for the half split is over just 0.7 miles including the "scream tunnel" so it should be disregarded). By 35K, just after I finished the Newton Hills, I was toast. I didn't ever stop to walk, but I shuffled in at a 10:15 pace from there on out, despite a mostly-downhill course.

Not ideal at all. 15 minutes off a re-qualifying effort, and nearly 25 minutes slower than planned. But at least I know why it happened, and I have some thoughts about how to prevent it from happening again.

For now I'm going to focus on shorter races. I'll still run some marathons for "fun," but I'll stick to challenging courses where the point is simply to finish rather than to race for a particular time. Grandfather Mountain, coming up next, is one such race. Check out the elevation profile:

Click for larger image

I can't wait!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

In praise of Boston

I wanted to tell you about my race yesterday at the Boston Marathon. That is what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell you everything about what happened to me during the race.

I wanted to tell you about leaving my Garmin in the hotel, and running the race with only a 1980s era digital wristwatch.

I wanted to tell you my splits for every mile of the race, how I started out strong, but then just gradually lost the energy to keep up the pace I had planned. I wanted to tell you all about it.

I wanted to tell you that I finished in 3:39, 17 minutes slower than my PR, and that I was disappointed with that.

But instead, I'm going to tell you about the people of Boston, and the way they come together, by the thousands, by the hundreds of thousands, for one day every year, to celebrate what we runners sometimes take for granted.

Before and after the race, I had dozens of ordinary people, not runners, stop me to tell me how proud they were of me. Not one of them asked what my finishing time was, or whether I was happy with my performance. They just wanted to share that they admired my accomplishment.

This race had thousands of volunteers. Not spectators, volunteers, who wanted nothing more than to help out and give the runners the best experience they could possibly have. There were so many volunteers that some of them almost seemed superfluous, but they didn't care. They just did what they could, with a big smile on their face. You could spot them a mile away, in their bright yellow Boston Marathon volunteer jackets.

Every place where a volunteer might be useful there was a volunteer, and then there was another volunteer behind that one just in case the first volunteer got too busy to help you.

I have been to races where there were 3-foot-tall posts in the middle of the course, with nothing to mark them or let you know that there was a potential danger ahead. At Boston, anywhere where there might be a hazard, there were three or four volunteers, telling the runners exactly what to do.

I have been to races where they ran out of water. Or where the water stops were so poorly manned, that even though there was water there, they couldn't get it to the runners fast enough, and so we had to run on without getting anything to drink.

At Boston, there were water stops every mile. Every single mile on the course, there was Gatorade, and there was water. Gatorade first, then water, and there were water stations on both sides of the road, so wherever you were running, it was easy to get what you needed. And of course, at every water station, there were dozens and dozens of people handing the water to you.

But the Boston Marathon isn't just about volunteers. It's about everybody in the city and the surrounding areas getting together to celebrate the accomplishments of gifted athletes, hard-working journeymen, and ordinary weekend warriors who might not be able to qualify for the race, but who raised thousands of dollars for charity in order to participate in a world-class event.

I was over an hour behind the leaders in the race, but on nearly every inch of the course as I ran, there were thousands of spectators lining the road, often three, four, five people deep.

I have been to races where there were spectators. Usually in little clumps, if they said anything at all when you passed by it was "good job." Maybe they gave a polite clap of the hands. At Boston, they were cheering, screaming, as if you had just scored the touchdown that won the Super Bowl. And this was an hour after the actual race winners passed by. They kept it up like that, for several hours more.

At the infamous Wellesley College "scream tunnel," I had heard that some of the girls (correction: WOMEN) held up signs offering a kiss to passing men. What a bawdy ritual, I thought, I can't believe that any of the runners would actually take them up on it.

When I got there, I saw that it wasn't just a few of the women, it was nearly every woman. They had signs like "Kiss me I'm from Colombia!" and "Kiss me if you're from the South!"

And I also saw that when the runners did kiss them, they offered up a demure cheek. It wasn't bawdy at all, it was adorable. I wanted to kiss the woman with the "Kiss me I'm a cellist!" sign, but she was a little distracted as I was passing by so I let the moment escape. I wish I hadn't.

The spectators weren't just enthusiastic, they were innovative. At many points, clumps of spectators would make up cheers on the spot for a whoever happened to be running by. If somebody from Mexico came by they would make up a song about Mexico. If somebody named Bob came by they would have a chant just for him.

Many runners put their names on their shirts, so that the spectators could call them by name as they passed. I didn't think to do this, but for several miles I was running next to a guy named Dave who had. I got to enjoy his cheers as if they were my own.

I passed a man who was running to support research for melanoma. I told him that I had survived melanoma, and showed him the scar on my arm, and thanked him for what he was doing. I was happy to receive his well wishes as I ran by.

By the time I reached the intimidating Newton Hills, I knew this was not going to be my day. But whenever a runner stopped to walk on the hills, there were hundreds of people encouraging him or her on, and usually within a few steps they would start running again. I decided there was no way I was going to stop and walk. I might run slowly, but I was going to run all the way. I was going to finish the Boston Marathon running. If these hundreds of thousands of people could show up and cheer us on for hours and hours, the least I could do was run for them.

This was not my race. It was their race, and they were sharing it with me. I was honored to be a part of it. I was tremendously impressed with the people of Boston, Hopkinton, Wellesley, Newton, Natick, Framingham.

After the race was stopped, I heard that the runners that were still on the course didn't know what to do. They weren't dressed to be standing around in cold weather, and they were exhausted. I really wasn't surprised at all when I heard to the local residents invited those runners into their homes, and allowed them to stay until buses could be sent to pick them up.

Marathon day in Boston is one of the warmest and most heartfelt holidays and events that I have ever been a part of. Someone tried to take that away from the people of Boston yesterday, but I don't think they succeeded. They only gave Boston another chance to show how generous and brave its people are. While I am horrified by the events that occurred yesterday, I'm glad to have had the chance to see so many people at their best.

Boston's people showed us their true colors yesterday. They gave the rest of us something to aspire to.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Superstitions? Only if they help!

I don't consider myself a superstitious guy but there are a couple things that always seem to work in my favor (or against me, as the case may be) come race day.

1. If my wife is there, I tend to do poorly. In 2011 during the National Half Marathon my wife showed up and I stepped in a pothole in Mile 2, falling and dislocating my shoulder. I was able to get it popped back in but had a disappointing race. Even worse, my wife and two friends were at the finish line but didn't see me as I passed by! At the Steamboat Marathon later that year, she was there again and I bonked horribly.

2. If I injure a finger before the race, I do well. There's somewhat less precedent for this; it's only happened in one race before now. At the 2010 Thunder Road Half Marathon, I sliced open my thumb cooking dinner the day before. I set a 9-minute PR in the half!

I bring this up because today, just three days before Boston, I injured not one but two fingers. The first came during my run this morning: Me, Sam, and Claire were doing an easy 4-miler, running in the street because of a very narrow sidewalk. But as a car approached in the darkness, we decided to hop back onto the sidewalk using a driveway. The morning was muggy, and my glasses had fogged up, so I missed the driveway, and tripped over the curb just before the driveway. I managed to slow my fall, but somehow I still caught the tip of my left middle finger on the pavement, drawing blood. Here's what it looked like after the run:


It's not quite as bad as it looks -- my fingernail was damaged years ago in a vegetable slicer incident, but it still smarts quite a bit.

Then later this morning as I was putting my running gear in the wash, I crushed my right pinky finger between the washer and dryer. That actually hurt more than the other finger, though there are no visible signs of injury.

Needless to say, I don't think either of these injuries will have any effect on a marathon in Boston three days from now, but if superstitions have any value, these two both fall in my favor: My wife won't be there, and I injured a digit before the race.

Otherwise, things are going well. I managed to restrain my urges and ate a respectable number of calories yesterday, so I think my race weight should be fine. This morning I threw in a marathon-pace mile (before the finger incident) and felt okay. I was a little out of breath, but we ran the mile at a 7:35 pace, and given that it included a hill bigger than Boston's infamous Heartbreak Hill, I think we actually ran it a little faster than I'd be running an equivalent section in Boston.

All that's left to do now is pack, continue to eat well and avoid caffeine, and catch tomorrow's flight to Boston!

Details of this morning's run are below.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Weighty concerns

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm currently in a caffeine fast as I prepare for Boston. I think I'm going to stick it out, but the fast has had one fairly significant effect -- it's not the withdrawal headaches, it's the eating. I started my fast on Monday (April 8), and this graph shows my calorie consumption for the past six days:

As you can see, I'm definitely eating more. When I'm not drinking coffee, I lose the appetite-suppressant benefit of the caffeine and I feel a near-constant urge to eat. Yesterday I had hoped to cut back but a spur-of-the-moment dinner date ended up moving my consumption in the opposite direction. I've gained three pounds in those three days, and each pound I gain means more weight I will have to carry in Boston. Today I think I will do better, but still, it's just one more thing to worry about pre-race.

Otherwise, things seem to be going all right. I think I'm pretty much completely over the flu; I'm not feeling congested at all, even with North Carolina seemingly in full bloom. I'm in full taper mode now, so my short daily runs seem very easy (as they should). The taper also seems to be doing its job in terms of regenerating my muscles; I've got almost no muscle soreness.

All that's left is just to stew about the race itself. Boston, unlike any other marathon I've run, has a ton of information about the race available online. There are websites that will calculate your optimum pace for every mile, taking into account each nuance of terrain -- like this one. You just type in your desired finishing time, and it breaks the race down mile by mile. Apparently if I want to finish in 3:15 I should run mile 11 in 7:31 but mile 12 in 7:16. That's a little too precise even for me. My plan is to shoot for a 7:30 pace (which would result in a 3:16 finish), but not stick to it religiously. I know about the downhill start, and the necessity of reining yourself in so as to save your quads. I know about the Newton Hills starting at Mile 16. I know there's some nice downhill relief after Heartbreak Hill at Mile 20, and I think that's about all I need to know.

This article seems to provide advice at just about the level of detail I like. It's actually a little more detail than I think I need, but not so much as to be overwhelming. Hopefully with advice like this, I'll be able to hit my goal of PRing and re-qualifying for Boston.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Boston update

It's just five days before I'll be running the Boston Marathon. So how are things going? Well, as I had mentioned, I've started a caffeine fast, and I'm now two days in. The first day was fairly tough. I was sleepy all day, and just felt a little sluggish. By the end of the day I was starting to get a headache. Fortunately I wasn't on a wine fast, so I had a couple of glasses of wine and felt much better.

I think the larger issue is that when I'm not consuming caffeine, I'm missing out on caffeine's properties as an appetite suppressant. I've gained about two pounds since the start of the fast. This isn't especially unusual for me in a taper: The reduced mileage that is necessary in the weeks before a marathon mean my body isn't burning as many calories. So even though I've been carefully following Fitzgerald's diet plan, I'm finding it difficult to resist an extra snack before dinner. My plan this afternoon if I feel a similar urge: have a small salad with oil and vinegar dressing. Just 40 or 50 calories but quite filling.

I've also been tracking the weather forecast for race day. On Sunday the (very) early forecast was looking good, a high of just 56 on race day. Today it doesn't look quite as good, with a forecast low of 38 but a high of 60 for the race. Since the race doesn't start for me until 10:20 a.m., I'll be finishing after 1:30 p.m., near the warmest part of the day. On the other hand, it looks like we just might have a tailwind: The wind will be WNW on Sunday (pretty much the perfect wind), switching to SSW on Monday, but possibly not until after the race.

The National Weather Service forecast for Boston even gives an hourly view for Race Day. Here's the relevant portion of the graph:

The red line on the top graph gives temperature, and as you can see, at 10 am, the forecast is for about 50 degrees, rising to 57 or 58 by 1:30. The second graph gives the wind forecast, and as of now, it looks to be shifting from a tailwind to a crosswind during the race -- at any rate, the winds are expected to be light, with a top speed of around  6 mph. The bottom graph shows that humidity should be low and there should be roughly 50% sky cover.

At five days out, this forecast is definitely not set in stone, but it seems to be settling in on reasonable weather. I'd love it if the temperatures stayed below 50 for the entire race, but this forecast seems workable; certainly much better than at Rocket City last year.

Now it's just a matter of holding out those last few days, not overeating, and surviving the caffeine fast. At least I really do seem to be getting over the flu, so hopefully I'll be fully healthy and ready for a great race.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

My last day of caffeine for a week!

Have you ever heard of a caffeine fast? I hadn't until I read about it in the Matt Fitzgerald book I mentioned in the last post. Fitzgerald points to a 2002 study showing that caffeine can boost performance in an endurance workout, but is more effective on non-users of caffeine than habitual caffeine users. Therefore, he surmises that to get the most out of caffeine during  a race, a habitual user should stop using caffeine for a period of time before a race.

But how long should you stop using caffeine to get the benefit? Unfortunately, according to Fitzgerald there hasn't been much research on this. He believes that a week of caffeine fasting is sufficient for moderate users of caffeine, but that two weeks might be needed for people who regularly consume several cups of coffee a day.

I switched to half-caf coffee about 15 years ago, and typically drink 2-3 cups a day, so maybe a maximum of 1.5 cups of fully-caffeinated coffee per day, plus a cup or two of black tea. I don't think that qualifies me as a heavy user, so I'm going to try fasting for a week before the Boston Marathon, which is a week from tomorrow (!).

Anecdotally, Fitzgerald says he regularly caffeine-fasts for a week before major races, then consumes about 3 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight 1 hour before the race, and he says he can tell that the caffeine is giving him a major lift.

I have never consumed caffeine before a race (other than the 20 mg or so that is in a pack of GU), so I decided to give it a try before today's workout, my last long-ish run before Boston (90 minutes at an easy pace, about 11 miles). I dragged myself out of bed an hour before the workout, and figured out that I should be taking about 250 mg of caffeine. The tablets I have are 200 mg, so I just took one of them, figuring I'd be eating several GUs during the run and those would also add to my total.

I definitely felt a lift during the run. I'd say I was downright perky, and since I've been fighting off the flu for the past couple weeks, it's been a long time since I could say that! That means all systems are go for caffeine-fasting and pre-race caffeination next week.

Speaking of Boston, it's now close enough to the race that we have some long-range weather forecasts. 8 days away, the current forecast is for a mostly cloudy day, with a high of 56 degrees and an overnight low of 41 the night before. That doesn't sound half bad, but as we learned at Rocket City, these things can change. I'm going to wait until 2 or 3 days out from the race before I'm confident in the weather forecast.

Details of today's workout are below.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Another day, another nutrition plan

Did you ever wonder what happened with my low-carb diet I was planning a month or so ago? I actually stuck with it for two weeks, but didn't really get much in the way of results. The problem was, I just wasn't getting enough energy to handle the training runs I was doing, so I couldn't train effectively. I was also constantly hungry and craving food. I did a fairly good job sticking to the low-carb portion of the diet, but I at so many nuts and other high-calorie snacks that in the end I didn't lose more than a few pounds.

So now I'm trying out another nutrition plan, this one designed specifically for marathoners and half-marathoners by nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald. It's from his book The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition: A Cutting-Edge Plan to Fuel Your Body Beyond 'the Wall'. I've been favorably impressed with Fitzgerald's other work, most notably his book "Racing Weight." In this new book he's developed a much easier-to-follow diet that he claims will help marathoners attain their ideal racing weight.

In this book, Fitzgerald divides foods into 10 groups, each ranked according to their health value for runners:

  1. Vegetables
  2. Fruits
  3. Nuts and Seeds
  4. Fish and Lean Meats
  5. Whole Grains
  6. Dairy Products
  7. Refined Grains
  8. Fatty Meats
  9. Sweets
  10. Fried Foods
There are two basic rules to the diet:
  1. Eat the recommended amount of carbs for your level of training
  2. Eat more of the "better" foods than the "worse" foods
The recommended carbs are 3-4 grams per kilogram of body weight for someone exercising 30-45 minutes a day. For every 15 minutes of additional exercise, you consume 1 more gram per kilo.

For me, at 185 pounds (83 kg), I average about 60-75 minutes of exercise per day, so that's 5-6 grams * 83 kg, or 415-498 grams of carbs per day. That's a lot of carbs! Even when I'm carbo loading, I consume about 800 grams of carbs per day, so this is nearly 60 percent of what I consume while carbo loading.

The second rule is more complicated than it sounds. You don't just eat more veggies, fruits and nuts than you do fatty meats, sweets, and fried foods. You eat more servings of each category than the next-lower category. You can skip some categories (like meat / fish if you're vegetarian, or grains if you're on the paleo diet), but for each category you eat, you have to eat more than the next category below it.

Fortunately, you don't track all this on a daily basis, you track it on a weekly basis. But it still means that you can consume very little of the items on the bottom of the scale. For every sweet you eat, you will end up having to eat 6 to 10 servings of veggies!

In order to get a lot of carbs, I'll have to eat a lot of fruit -- which means I'll have to eat even more veggies! But, given that most veggies are very low in carbs, it means I will be consuming lots of fiber, which is very filling, so I feel like this diet will probably be easier to stay on than the low-carb diet.

I've been tracking my food choices for the past couple days, and it looks to me like my problem area is going to be dairy. I like my yogurt, cheese, and sour cream, and I'm probably going to have to eliminate some of that from my diet to make the numbers add up.

Fitzgerald has some more specific advice for diet modifications during tapering and recovery, and since I'm currently tapering for Boston, I'll cover that as well -- in a separate post.

Finally, an update on yesterday's post about recovering from the flu. I'm feeling much better after two days' rest and doing easy runs this morning and yesterday morning, so hopefully I'll be fine by the time the race rolls around. I'll keep you posted!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Hoping, hoping to get better

The Boston Marathon is now less than two weeks away, and things continue to go poorly. I had a good speed workout on Thursday, sticking fairly close to my target 6:30 pace over four, 8-minute intervals. But then on Saturday I was slated to do my last long, hard run -- 17 miles, with about 10 of them at marathon pace.

On Friday I noticed that my flu seemed to be getting a little worse, perhaps because of the hard Thursday workout. I tried to get plenty of rest and fluids that night, then drove to Charlotte where I'd be running with a large group from the Charlotte Running Club, who would be previewing the Racefest half-marathon course.

It was to be my first workout with the "seven-minute milers," the fastest runners in the CRC, who for the most part are really 6-minute milers or better. Their plan was to run the course at a 7:30 pace, which happens to be my marathon pace, so I figured it would be a good time for me to get to know these guys. I arrived early and got three warm-up miles in before meeting with the group. Those miles went fine. When the group showed up -- about 30 runners -- it was clear that the lead pack would be running a bit faster than a 7:30 pace. No problem, I thought, and I slowed to join a group of 5 or so that seemed to be running closer to my pace.

After a couple miles, it became clear to me that this pace was not going to be sustainable. I held on as long as I could, then finally slowed to something closer to 7:50. I was on my own now, and stopped to consult a map on my phone for directions. Another group of runners passed me, and I cursed before I realized I could just follow them. Unfortunately, the moment we came upon an uphill, they dropped me. Fortunately, one of them gave me a paper map, so at least it would be a little easier to figure out which way to go. I took several walk breaks, stopped a couple times to look at a map, then to look at my phone when some of the ink on the map got smudged and I couldn't read the street names.

Finally another group of runners passed me -- I was pretty sure this was the final group. I tried to stay with them, but once again I was dropped as soon as we hit a hill. I had run about 14 miles at this point and was struggling to maintain even a 9-minute pace.

Had I done this long run too close to my speed workout? Or was I simply not over this flu yet? I struggled in to finish, just as the final group was heading home. I changed my shirt and drove home.

In a few hours, I had my answer -- I was indeed not over this flu; it had come back with a vengeance.

I took the next couple days off, then tried for another run this morning (Tuesday). I felt a lot better today--just an easy four-miler--so hopefully things are really starting to improve.

I don't want to completely stop working out, but I don't want to overdo it either, so for the next few days I'll be treading a thin line. Hopefully I will gradually get healthier, and I can run Boston at 100% health, if not 100% fitness. Only time will tell.

Details of Saturday's run are below.