Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Some thoughts about running in Spain

After a week and a half in Spain, including seven running days, I have a couple of thoughts. First of all, it's a beautiful country, and it's been fantastic to have the opportunity to visit and enjoy the sights in a place that is completely new and different to me.

That said, the Spanish attitude to running -- at least from what I've seen, in the places I've been -- is distinctly different from the US. In the big cities (Barcelona, Madrid), people don't seem to expect to see runners on the regular streets and sidewalks. In fact, they don't seem to expect it in the smaller cities, either (Córdoba, Granada). If you're going to run, you're expected to use "official" parks and greenways to do it.

When you do run, even in those places, typically you are expected to be well equipped, which in Spain means matching running gear. While in the US it's almost considered effete to be running in matching jacket, leggings, and shoes, in Spain it's the height of fashion. I definitely got some confused stares from Spanish runners as I trotted by in my yellow DART shirt with red calf sleeves and an orange hat.

Spain definitely has more cyclists than the US. I'd say the ratio of cyclists to runners (and here I'm talking about fitness cyclists, not commuters) is pretty close to 1:1, where in the US it is perhaps more like 1:3. Most of the cyclists seem to use mountain bikes (at least in the cities where I've been running), which makes a lot of sense given their options of riding on cobblestone streets or unpaved paths in parks.

Runners do seem to acknowledge each other, much as they do in the US, with a "Hola," often muttered under the breath. I'd say the greetings are typically a bit more enthusiastic in the US, but that might just be because on my usual running routes I see the same people almost every day.

Cars, on the other hand, seem to be more respectful of runners (and all pedestrians). They stop for you when you are at a crosswalk, and they seem to spot you more readily.

That's good, because for the most part I'd say the sidewalks in Spain aren't nearly as good as those in the US. This is probably mostly because the streets are so narrow -- which leaves less room for everyone. Fortunately, everyone is aware of the narrow streets and so they all seem to get along okay. In Spain they don't seem to have any problem with planting a tree pretty much in the middle of the sidewalk. Pedestrians and runners are just expected to get out of the way. That might be a good priority, especially during the hot summer months, but it can be a little jarring for a foreign runner accustomed to consistent sidewalks.

Also, the sidewalks are typically constructed of slick pavers, which can be difficult to deal with, especially in wet weather. Fortunately I haven't had too much of that, but this morning's run was rather a bit of a challenge.

I think if I lived in Spain permanently I could get along quite well as a runner. There seem to be plenty of places to run, and there are even running groups that would probably be fun to join. That said, it will be a relief when I get back to the US in two days and don't have to worry about navigating unfamiliar territory. Particularly in Madrid, where the streets don't follow a consistent grid-like pattern, just figuring out where to go without getting lost can take a lot of effort!

In Granada, Spain, running through an olive grove

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Rainy run on the plain in Spain

I'm traveling in Spain for a week and a half and I'm determined not to let myself get out of shape during this trip. So, I've been heading out for runs every chance I get. Today was Christmas, and since most museums and other tourist attractions are closed, I figured it would be a good day to get in a relatively long run.

I started down the streets in Cordoba, where orange trees line the road. It made me wonder if it's okay to pick and eat them!

Note the foreboding clouds above

But quickly I reached the edge of this city of 325,000, and soon found myself running on a rough gravel road.

Notice the ruts in the road

The road is hiller than it looks in this photo -- I'm about to head up a doozy:

I can do this!
After I crested that hill, the wind and rain really started to pick up. I'd estimate I had a 20 to 30-mile tailwind, which gave me quite a boost as the road flattened out:

Now things are starting to look bleak!

But when I turned around, after 6.25 miles, things really started to get tough. I was now running in to that 20-30 mph wind. One thing I try to tell myself when I'm running in the wind is that I'm not running "against" the wind, I'm running "through" it. It does seem to give you a bit of a psychological advantage. Otherwise, the wind can be damned depressing. I really felt like this attitude helped me think about the wind going around me, rather than pushing against me. Still, the wind created a fearful roar, and raindrops slammed into my face. I wasn't exactly cold, but it certainly wasn't comfortable. The road was just uneven enough to require a bit of concentration to avoid a fall.

Hard to believe I'm within a mile of a mid-sized city

Finally, the city came back into view and the rain tapered off. The sky was really quite dramatic!

Crossing the Roman bridge, headed towards the Grand Mosque
Cordoba is most famous for its superbly well-preserved mosque, which I could see from the outside today, but I won't see the inside of it till tomorrow. I'm glad I got this run in today, a total of 12.5 miles at an average pace of 8:03 (with over 1,000 feet of climbing). I think we'll be so busy visiting the amazing sites in this 2,000-year-old city that I won't get a chance to run tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Race Strategy: The Kiawah Island Half Marathon

32 days ago I was in the best shape of my life. I weighed 179 pounds and had just won my first 5K ever, in PR fashion. Then I fell during my cool-down run, and the resulting injury took me off my feet for nearly two weeks. I wasn't able to run hard for another week after that.

Today I weigh 185, and while I'm still in excellent shape, I'm definitely not as fast as I was then. My goal for the fall racing season was to run a fast half-marathon -- fast enough to qualify for guaranteed entry to the New York Marathon -- at the Kiawah Island Half Marathon, which I'll be running in three days. To qualify, I need to run the half in an hour and 25 minutes. 32 days ago that seemed eminently doable; I was even thinking I might be able to qualify at the local Thunder Road half marathon, on a very hilly course. The injury forced me to drop out of Thunder Road, and now, I'm not so sure I can do it on the flat Kiawah course.

If you plug my 5K PR into the McMillan Running Calculator, it predicts I should be able to do a half marathon in 1:22:29. But that assumes I'm equally fit and have properly trained for a half. Instead, I missed a critical three weeks of training. In three weeks when I should have been running 56, 63, and 56 miles, I actually ran 0.5, 6.2, and 46 miles. Last week, when I was finally close to full strength, I needed to start tapering, and so only ran 41 miles.

To give you a sense of where my fitness level is now, 6 weeks ago I ran 6 * 1,000 meters at about a 5:30 per mile pace, and felt good doing it. Yesterday I ran 4 * 1,200 meters at a 6:30 pace, and struggled. The earlier workout was on the track, but that alone doesn't explain the drastic difference between the two paces.

So how am I planning on attacking the Kiawah Half? To run a 1:25 half requires a 6:29 per mile pace. When I was in better shape, the plan was going to be to start at a 6:20 pace, banking time in case some incident during the race slowed me down -- a bathroom break, whatever.

Now there is really no margin for error. Starting out too fast would definitely be a mistake, so I plan to start at a 6:30 pace -- actually a little slow -- and then reassess how I'm doing once I hit the halfway mark. Maybe the adrenaline of race day will kick in and help me finish strong, and I'll just squeak in under the 1:25 goal.

I realize this doesn't sound very confident, but at this point I feel like it's the only realistic plan. I do have some advantages: I've run this race before -- years ago, when a sub-7-minute pace for any distance was inconceivable. I know that the course is pancake-flat and mostly sheltered from coastal winds, so if there's anywhere I could do it, it'd be at Kiawah.

I know from recent halfs that I won't need a lot of fuel during the race. I'll carry a small bottle of water and a gel to eat at the start line, then discard them. I'll have a couple of gels that I may or may not eat on the course; otherwise, I'll rely on water stops.

Currently the weather forecast is a little up in the air. Weather.com gives an overnight low on Friday of 46 degrees, which would be ideal. The National Weather Service already has an hourly forecast for Saturday, and puts the starting temperature at 54 degrees, rising to 58 by my projected finish time. That's not so ideal. There's also rain in the forecast -- about a 70 percent chance, starting right about when the race starts. Also not ideal. But in three days, a lot can change. If we get 46 degrees, with no wind and not much rain, that works in my favor. 54 and rain will probably slow me down somewhat.

Either way, it's certainly not horrible conditions -- nothing like Rocket City last year, for example. Maybe yesterday's bad workout was just that -- a bad day -- and I'll be ready to crush it on Saturday. It's certainly possible; I've had the sniffles for the past several days, and they seem better today.

No matter what, I'm going to give this race everything I've got. We'll just have to wait til Saturday to find out if it's enough.