Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 2014 Running Year in Review

My running year starts and ends with this: I didn't get to see my Dad this year. I didn't see my 14-year-old nephew Benjamin either. Didn't get to see them, won't ever see them again. But I know Dad would have loved to read about my year. His friends all told me that at his funeral: How much he used to talk about me and my running; that I had qualified for Boston; that I was going to run up Pikes Peak; that I had run a sub-18-minute 5k. So I'm writing this for my Dad.

The Bar-S-Stampede. 1987, I think. How about those cotton shirts?

Every time I run, especially if I'm running in a wild or remote place, I think about Dad. I'm not going to mention him again in this review, but it's not because I'm not thinking about him. I'm always thinking about him, most of all when I'm thinking about running.

My plan for the start of the year was to run my first ultramarathon, and I didn't want to run some wimpy 50k. I signed up for the Leatherwood 50-miler in March. Then I'd follow that up with the Pikes Peak Marathon in August. After that, I was either going to continue running ultras, or pick some new goal, depending on how much I liked (or didn't like) running ultras. I felt like I had thoroughly prepared myself for Leatherwood, running in all sorts of conditions: Snow, ice, slush, mud, you name it. What I hadn't prepared for was rain for 12 hours, deep mud on the uphills and the downhills, mud that forced me to slow to a tentative walk even on the descents. I dropped after 50k, which meant I DNFed. That was one tough race!

For Pikes Peak, even though it's technically not an ultramarathon, I continued training as if I was running an ultra. That's because the best-case scenario finish at Pikes would be barely under 6 hours. I ran hills, bleachers, and more hills. Then I ran the race, and I did actually finish it -- in 6:21. I had done great on the ascent, matching my most optimistic projections, but struggled on the technical downhill. Still, I had run a freaking marathon up a freaking 14,000-foot mountain. That was pretty incredible.

My experiences at Pikes Peak and (mostly) at Leatherwood had convinced me that I'm not really an ultrarunner. I decided to spend the next year working on speed in shorter races. I had gained about 10 pounds in ultra training, and started to work shedding those pounds. I wanted to run some of the bigger road races in the country in 2015: The Ukrops Monument Avenue 10k in Richmond in March, and the Bloomsday 12k in Spokane in May. To get a good seeding at Bloomsday, I needed to run a sub-18:40 5k, and I didn't have a time that fast this year. Since my PR is 17:49, I didn't think an 18:40 would be too hard, but as it turned out, it took me four tries to get it, including missing by just two seconds at the USA Masters 5k! Finally I got an 18:19 at the Balloonfest 5k, so I'm all set for a good Bloomsday race next year. I topped things off with PRs at the 8k and 10k splits of the 12k .US National Championship road race, where I ran side-by-side with Joan Benoit Samuelson for a half-mile near the finish before she dusted me with her 57-year-old Olympic-sized kick.

I haven't quite lost all the weight I want to; I'm down about 5 pounds and I think losing even another 10 pounds would directly translate to more speed. I've also had a nagging hamstring injury that's probably related to my four 5ks in a row trying to hit that qualifying time for Bloomsday. Still, I think my final running stats for the year are pretty impressive:

Total miles run: 2,713 (PR)
Total elevation gain: 167,000 feet
Total hours run: 399 (PR)
Average pace: 8:15/mile
PRs: 8k (30:54), 10k (38:49)

From a running perspective, not a bad year! Here's a little slideshow I made with photos from most of the events described above. Hope you enjoy it!

Dave's Running in 2014 from Dave Munger on Vimeo.

For next year I don't have a cumulative mileage goal because I'm going to be spending the last four months of the year in India and I'm not sure I'll always be able to run. But I do want to run a marathon in India; I'm going to make that happen. I'd also like to break my 10k PR at Ukrops. My stretch goal there would be to go sub-37:00. To make that happen I will need to spend January making sure my hamstring injury gets healed.

I guess that's about it for 2014. See you on the other side!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Never say never: My second beer mile

At the start of this year, on my 47th birthday, I ran my first-ever beer mile. I ran it in 9:54, and my conclusion was that "if there's room for improvement, it's in the beer-drinking portion of the event. I'm not currently planning on doing another beer mile, but if I did, I'd definitely need to work on my beer-chugging skills."

Less than a week ago, I got an email from some friends who were planning another one. I guess I forgot how hard that first one was, because before I knew it I had committed to the race, which happened last night on the same course as the first one.

Soon I was Googling "best beer for beer mile" and "beer mile strategy," and found this article by the former record-holder with some good tips. The main one was to pick a beer that I liked. After ruling out a couple favorites that were below the requisite 5% alcohol content, I settled on New Belgium's Fat Tire Amber Ale:

Boston Marathon Bottle Opener sold separately!

The bottle opener would prove to be a big key to my race! I also let the beer warm to about 55 degrees before running the race, again on Josh Harris's advice.

After a 2-mile warm-up, about 8 of us got our beer and walked in the darkness to the starting line on a greenway near town. My plan this time was to run a bit slower than last time, so I wouldn't be absolutely gasping for breath as I tried to chug my beers.

With little ceremony, the race started and I chugged beer #1, remembering to hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle and trying to let the beer just slide down my throat. While I hadn't actually practiced beer-chugging, I did read some online advice suggesting this was the optimal angle. I don't think I got it perfect (actually, I know I didn't because I didn't approach the sub-10-second chugs of the record-breakers), but I definitely did much better than last time: 19 seconds for my first beer versus 29 last year.

I was third out of the gate and stayed in third as I tried to moderate my pace. I completed the first lap (really just an out-and-back) in 1:41. Garmin consistently measured my laps as 0.27 miles (despite using the same Garmin to chart the course at exactly 0.25 miles earlier that day), so my pace was either 6:19 or 6:44 depending on which Garmin measurement you believe. Either way, it was a little slower than planned, but I hoped to make up for it by drinking my beers faster. I wasn't breathing especially hard, and managed to get Beer 2 down in just two gulps. Beer Split 2 was 33 seconds (compared to 54 seconds last year). I was definitely making up some serious time!

Each subsequent lap went about the same, with the beers getting progressively tougher to swallow. I moved from third to second place, but couldn't catch the lead runner, a young guy I had never met, with a deadly-fast chug and some excellent speed as well. He finished first in 8:03, while I crossed the line in 8:41, a massive PR by a minute and 14 seconds! The chart below compares my two beer-mile efforts:

As you can see, even though I ran 28 seconds faster in January, I drank each beer an average of 27 seconds faster this time around; that's why I was able to set a 1:14 PR this time around! By slowing down on the runs just a bit, I made a massive improvement on my overall time. The only time I went all-out was on the final lap. I think the reason my final quarter-mile was slower this year is that I hadn't had as long of a break between Run 3 and 4 as last year. Also, last year, I was close to another runner and so had the opportunity to pass him in the final lap. This time I was running alone and didn't have as much incentive to go fast.

I'm not sure there's as much room for improvement in the future without a lot of time spent chugging beers in practice. I'm not opposed to drinking, but I prefer to sip my beverages, so there may not be another Beer Mile PR in my future. On the other hand, I've learned never to say "never" when it comes to running, so who knows?

The Garmin plot of yesterday's beer mile is below:

Monday, December 8, 2014

"You had a bad day" -- My recap of the ACC Fan 5k

I used to watch American Idol every week (don't judge!), and whenever a contestant was eliminated during one memorable season, they had to watch a montage of their best moments on the show, played to the tune of Bad Day by Daniel Powter.

I had been steadily improving my race times this season, but finally, I had a Bad Day. It came at the ACC Fan 5k on Saturday. I had been hoping for a season's best time, something better than the 18:19 I ran at Balloonfest just over a month ago. That's a 5:53 pace, so a pretty tough time to beat. I planned to start out at a 5:45 pace, then slow to a 5:50 on hilly Mile 2, then try to maintain that pace for the flat finish.

One tricky section of a race for me has always been the start. I tend to jump out too fast at the beginning and pay for it at the finish. So, as in several other races, I lined up in the second row and tried to stay conservative and not look at my watch. Unfortunately, when I finally did look at my watch I saw that I was going too fast: A minute into the race, my pace was 5:20 per mile, 25 seconds faster than I wanted to be. I tried to ease back, but not too quickly -- I didn't want to find myself running a 6:00 pace either. By the end of the mile (by my watch) I had managed to get my pace down to 5:45, but I didn't pass the actual mile marker until 5:51. Now I needed to speed up.

Fortunately the first part of Mile 2 was downhill and I was able to get my pace down to about 5:40. In the back of my mind, however, I began to think this wasn't going to be fast enough. If each mile is 6 seconds longer than my Garmin reading, I should be banking more time than this. I should probably be hitting a 5:35 pace by my watch. But I could also tell that wasn't going to be sustainable, even on a downhill; I wasn't feeling strong enough to run any faster. What I didn't know is that this downhill wasn't going to last as long as I thought it would, because the elevation profile on the course website didn't quite match up to the real race:

Recorded (green) versus published (blue)

When I passed Mile Marker 1 I had already run about halfway down the hill. Then I was faced with a relatively steep 50-foot climb up to Mile Marker 2. About 10 seconds before I arrived there, my watch beeped with a 6:05 pace for the mile. I finally passed the marker as the timer showed 12:00, for an actual pace of 6:00 for the first two miles. I was 25 seconds slower than what I had been hoping for at this point. Worse, there was still a fair bit of climbing to do. While the elevation profile I'd seen showed the climb ending right at the mile marker, in fact there was at least another 30 feet of climbing left.

This defeated me, and I watched my pace decline to 6:50 for the mile. Really? 6:50? I was running this pace at the end of an 11-miler last weekend.  Somehow I willed myself to pick up the pace just a bit, in the name of respectability. In the end I salvaged a 6:21 for Mile 3 and limped across the finish line as the clock ticked 19:07. I walked to my car to change, then posted this race photo to Facebook:

Caption: "Dave is unhappy. Bad race today, 19:08"

Now, a 19:08 (or 19:07 officially) is a great time for a lot of people, but it's my slowest this season, and my slowest since the Bare Bones 5k in May of 2013, on a warm day when I still hadn't fully recovered from running the Boston Marathon. It's almost a minute slower than my best this season, only 6 weeks ago. So what went wrong?

I think the main thing that went wrong is that I forgot what it takes to run a really fast 5k. You have to be on the brink of exhaustion, the whole race long. I also think I probably need to do a little more work at a pace faster than race pace -- basically just throw some 200s and 400s into workouts here and there, to remind myself that I can run much faster than 5:45, so that 5:45 doesn't seem like a stretch. Finally I probably needed to do a little more research on the course if I really wanted to run it fast. I usually like to run the whole course before a race, but I got a bit of a late start and didn't have time to do that. Fortunately my next race will be on a very familiar home course: The Tightwad 5k, a free race put on by my running group on New Year's Day. Assuming I'm not out partying the night before (I'm not planning on it), I should be able to do considerably better there than I did this past weekend. I don't like having bad days, so I'm going to do everything I can to avoid another one.

Details of Saturday's race are below:

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Race Strategy: The ACC Fan 5k

On Saturday I'm taking on another 5k, this one a fairly big local race, the ACC Fan 5k, part of the festivities for the ACC Championship football game in Charlotte (the race used to be called the Championship Chase). My goal is to beat my season's best time of 18:19, set just over a month ago at the Balloonfest 5k. That would require a pace of better than 5:53, so the plan is to set myself up to run a 5:45 pace if I'm feeling good, or maybe a 5:50 if things aren't going quite so well.

The race doesn't set up quite ideally for me, but it's not too bad either. Here's the course map and elevation profile:

Ignore the little dips near the start and finish of the race; they are artifacts of the overpass where Tryon crosses the freeway (this is because the map measures the ground elevation, not the elevation of the bridge). The actual course proceeds smoothly over those dips. This means the first mile is flat, Mile 2 has a long downhill and a short 70-foot climb, and the finish is flat.

I'd prefer to have that climb before the downhill, but I have to run the race I'm given, so here's the strategy. I'll start out at a 5:45 pace for Mile 1, then try to ride the downhill and pick up the pace just a touch, maybe to 5:40. Then I'll give some of that time back on the climb; how much will depend on how I'm feeling. If I'm crushing it, my average pace for the mile will be right at 5:45. If not, hopefully I won't slow below 5:50. Then I'll try to hold whatever pace I had for Mile 2 all the way to the end. If I slow to 5:55, I'll still have a season's best, but if I keep it at 5:45 the whole way, I just might break 18:00. My 17:49 PR is probably not in play for this race; that would require a pace of 5:43, which I doubt I can hit right now.

This morning I tried to do about 1.4 miles of my run at 5k pace and didn't quite make it: I was closer to a 6:10 pace. But yesterday I ran a fairly hard 10-miler, and my route today was hillier than the race route, so I think with a couple days of easy running, I will have a better shot at that 5:45-5:50 pace. Wish me luck! The details on today's workout are below.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Race Recap: The .US National 12k

I had been worrying about whether to wear gloves.

I decided not to, and felt fairly confident that was the right decision. It was about 39 degrees, and I'd just finished my strides and was lining up about 8 rows back at the start of the .US National 12k. The crowd helped keep me warm as I waited for the starting gun.

It's always neat to run in high-profile races like this one. I knew Molly Huddle was already out on the course, and just ahead of me were some male elites I'd read about in Runner's World: Aaron Braun, Trevor Dunbar. Then over the loudspeaker I heard "Please welcome Olympic Gold Medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson to the start!"

Joan Benoit Samuelson, I thought. The Joan Benoit Samuelson, who I watched win the gold medal by a mile in 1984? And there she was, lined up about two rows ahead of me. I later learned she was 57 years old, but she hardly looked different from the TV image that's still engraved in my brain, 30 years after I saw her win. There she was, in person, wearing a bright yellow cap. Maybe I'd see her during the race!

Before I had time to process that thought any further, we were off. My plan was to line up far enough back to avoid starting too fast, and I could soon tell that a fast start was not going to be a problem. The start line was fairly narrow, and I actually had to walk for a few seconds before finally hitting my stride as I crossed the line and started my watch. The plan was simple: Start at a 6:10 pace, and see how long I could keep it up. If I managed that all the way to the finish, I'd finish in 46:00, and I should get a 10k PR along the way. No matter what, I was guaranteed a 12k PR: I'd never raced this distance!

I knew the race was essentially flat, but I had spotted a small hill during warm-ups, just under a mile from the start. Soon we had turned the corner and started up the hill. At the top, I checked my watch: 6:11, right on target. I crossed the timing pad at Mile 1 as my watch read 6:11 and the official clock ticked 6:20; it had taken me 9 seconds to cross the start line.

About a mile and a quarter in I saw Joan Benoit Samuelson's bright yellow hat ahead of me. In a moment, I was past her, but I could see that she was still a strong runner, wearing an F55 bib on her back to indicate she was in the 55-59 age group. I doubted there was any woman in her age group ahead of her.

Now the runners were beginning to stretch out. There was still a group around me, a few guys and one woman in the 40-45 age group. I was keeping a solid 6:07-6:08 on my Garmin. I figured I should hit the Mile 2 marker any moment. Then I noticed that I was already 7 minutes in to the "mile." Had I missed the marker? There was no way to know until we reached Mile 3.

Before we got there, we saw the elite women headed home. It was an out-and-back course, 7.46 miles total, so about 3.72 to the turnaround. One woman was well ahead of the pack -- was that Molly Huddle? No time to know for sure. Finally I reached the 3-mile marker, and with relief hit "lap" on my watch. A 6:10 pace for Miles 2 and 3. Right on target!

The turnaround was tight -- no room to maneuver at all, just a cone to run around. I tried to accelerate quickly out of the turn and not lose too much speed. Mile 4 was over before I knew it, another 6:11. A moment later I checked my watch and saw that I was running a 5:37 pace. Too fast! I slowed down a bit, but tried not to slow down too quickly. The group of men I was with began to pull away. I let my pace decline to 6:00, figuring I might as well cash in on a quick mile. But then when I arrived at Mile Marker 5, I saw that it was all an illusion. I had run the mile in 6:10, the same as the others; it was just the Garmin itself that was wrong (as they often are on 180-degree turns).

I was deflated. I had been hoping to pick up the pace, and now I had nearly two and a half long, lonely miles ahead. Suddenly what had seemed easy was beginning to feel laborious. I finished Mile 6 in 6:26. Ugh.

But now there was less than a mile and a half left. Surely I could pick things up a bit for the last little bit. Slowly, slowly, I edged my GPS pace back to 6:10 per mile. I made it over the little hill and knew I had less than a mile left. I was on the final straightaway, and I could see the finish line! I could see the tiny, infinitesimal finish line, interminably far away. How could I ever hope to keep this pace up?

I felt someone pass me on the right. She was by me in a flash. It was...Joan Samuelson! Holy crap, Joan Samuelson just passed me! Maybe I could stay with her. Maybe I could cross the finish line with Joan Samuelson! How cool would that be? I picked up the pace, and soon I was running side by side with Joan Samuelson. Would it be rude to tell her she was one of my running heroes? Would it be possible? I was gasping for each breath; I'm not sure I could have said a word.

For half a mile, I ran side by side with Joan Samuelson, who got stronger with every step, as I got weaker. People cheered her on as we ran by, "Go Joan! Go Joanie!" Finally, right around the 7-mile marker, I had to let her go. She pulled away smoothly, easily, as the growing crowd urged her forward. I saw my wife Greta and our friend Pat cheering me on. I was thinking "Did you see Joan Benoit Samuelson?"

Greta actually got a photo of me and Samuelson:

Yep, that's me, trying not to look too bad as Samuelson crushes me!
And she got another one of me on my own:

Not too shabby...
Here's an official shot of me crossing the finish line:

You can see Samuelson, in her yellow cap, at left. At least try to look tired, Joan!
My official time was 46:32, for an average pace of 6:15 per mile. By my watch, I had 46:26, or a 6:14 pace, but apparently the timing system missed my start, so I was awarded a gun time only, no chip time. Either way, it was a PR. Along the way, I also PRed in the 10k (38:49) and 8k (30:54). Not bad for a day's work!

I was a little disappointed that I couldn't stay with Samuelson all the way to the end, and that I hadn't quite held my 6:10 pace. But I'm glad that I managed to pick things up after my disappointment at Mile 5. I'm really glad I got to race with a living legend, even though she beat me in the end, at ten years older than me! She was the third-place Master's runner, and the first female finisher over age 43. Oh yeah, she has definitely still got it!

I shook Samuelson's hand and congratulated her on her race, and then she was whisked away to be interviewed over the PA system, while I wandered around looking for Gatorade, and my friends.

"Did you see Joan Samuelson?" I asked them, excitedly.

"Was she the winner?" Greta asked.

Oh, she was. She most definitely was. And I was honored to be running, ever so briefly, alongside.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Some thoughts about the .US National 12k

On Sunday I will be running my first-ever 12k. Guaranteed PR!

It's the .US National 12k, the final race in USATF's USARC pro series. It is going to have some serious star-power, including last year's winners, Aaron Braun and Molly Huddle. I, naturally, will be far behind these elite athletes, and based on last years results would be extremely lucky to break into the top five in my age group.

The course looks to be a little different from last year's inaugural event; it's an out-and-back along the first half of the course. I like out-and-back courses, so that's good. It should also be a very flat race, so that's good as well.

So how fast should I run it? Well, if you take my current season's best 5k, 18:19, and plug it into the McMillan Running Calculator, you get a projected time of 46:15 and a pace of 6:12. That's not a very round number, though. How about a 6:10 pace for 46:00? Is that doable? It'd be a stretch. Last Sunday I did an 8-mile tempo run, albeit on a hilly course, and a 7:00 pace felt pretty tough. 12k is 7.46 miles, so not much shorter.

But I'd like to at least start out at that 6:10 pace and see how long I can hang on. If I'm feeling good at the halfway point I can pick it up a bit for a negative split, or I might end up slowing down a tad but hopefully finishing in a respectable 46:30 or so. If I could do that, then I should also have a 10k PR -- assuming the timing is the same as last year, this race will give the runners splits at 1 mile, 5k, and 10k. A 46:30 is a 6:14 pace, which works out to a 38:45 PR in the 10k.

Tomorrow I'm going to be doing a little track work, so I'll try to hit race pace for that and I should have a better idea how it feels on level ground.

The weather on race day is currently forecast to be around 35 degrees at start time, which might seem a little cold but that's actually warmer than the temp where I got my 5k PR, so that should be just fine. But of course it's still a bit far from the race date to accurately predict the weather.

Overall I'm feeling pretty good, my hamstring which had been bothering me is settling down, and everything points to a good race. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Reverse-engineering Strava's Grade-Adjusted Pace

Love it or hate it, Strava has some pretty cool features. The basic premise of the site is that it allows you to compare your performance on a particular running (or cycling) route or section of a route. Does your running group do the same loop every day? You can set up a leaderboard for that loop (it's called a "Segment" on Strava), and compare your performance on any given day with your best ever — and the best by any other Strava user. You don't even have to start or stop your timer at the start of the segment; just load your entire GPS record onto the Strava website and it will find any segments you crossed during your run.

Some people don't like Strava because it tends to foster competitiveness instead of just inspiring people to go out and have fun. But even if you opt out of Strava's competitive features (which is simple to do by making your profile private), it has some other nifty features that I find very useful. One of them is the Grade-Adjusted Pace (GAP).

The basic idea is simple: It doesn't take as much effort run an 8:00 mile on a flat road as it takes to run that same 8:00 mile going uphill. Similarly, an 8:00 mile is easier to run on a downhill slope (assuming the slope isn't too steep or technical).

Take today, for instance. I was doing a 2-mile tempo run as a part of a longer workout. Here's an elevation profile of the run:

I've color-coded the relevant sections

The two-mile tempo is around the 4-mile mark (in green and blue). I ran the first (green) mile in 6:04 and the second (blue) mile in 6:26, but the blue mile seemed WAY harder to me. Of course this was because the green mile was mostly downhill and the blue mile was mostly uphill. But I slowed down on the uphill — did the uphill seem harder just because I was tired from the first mile, or was I honestly working harder for that mile, despite the fact that I was going slower?

Strava has an answer for me: In that first (green) mile, I descended 112 feet. Of course that felt easier! How much easier? Strava's GAP for the mile was 6:27 — slower than my actual pace in the blue mile. In the blue mile, I climbed 85 feet, for a GAP of 5:56 a mile. So even though I ran slower in the blue mile, it actually felt like I was running faster!

But during the same workout I ran two other miles at tempo pace (in gray and red on the profile). The final (red) mile felt even harder to me than the blue mile. What does Strava say about that? Strava disagrees. My actual pace for the mile was 6:20, but my GAP was only 6:03 — slower than my GAP for the blue mile.

Looking at the elevation numbers from my workout, you can make a case that red mile was tougher: There was a total of 115 feet of climbing, versus just 85 feet in blue mile. Given that my actual pace was faster in that mile, why was my GAP slower?

In red mile, there were also some significant descents: 92 feet in all. Blue mile had 7 feet of descent. So on the net, blue mile climbed 78 feet versus just 23 feet in red mile.

But surely it's harder to run a mile with 100 feet of climbing and 100 feet of descending than a flat mile, isn't it? So similarly, wouldn't it be harder to run a mile with 115 feet of climbing and 92 feet of descending than a mile with a steady 23-foot climb?

Strava has actually made an effort to account for this problem, studying relevant research and posting some information on their engineering blog:
Our original GAP implementation was inspired by the research of C.T.M. Davies [1, 2] studying environmental effects on running. Our approach used a scaling factor that adjusted pace as a function of grade, with the adjustment getting larger with increasing steepness for both uphill and downhill terrain.
 That makes sense, but what they don't tell us is whether the factor is the same for uphill and downhill. It seems to me that the factor should be less for the downhill cycle. But there is a further problem, which Strava's engineers have also noted:
Additionally, GAP is only an estimate of the energy cost of running. It does not account for terrain surface or the technical skill involved in downhill running. It is extremely difficult to make aerobic fitness the limiting factor when running downhill, particularly on trail at steeper grades. Technical skill and motor control are almost always the limiting factor. For a constant-effort run on hilly trail, we generally see downhill GAP trending to the slow side due to these factors.
I've experienced the problem of "making aerobic fitness the limiting factor" firsthand at the Pikes Peak Marathon. There is simply no way I could have run the downhill portion of race at a the maximum pace I was capable of aerobically. The 15 percent downhill would have necessitated a pace in the 6-minute range, at which speed I would have tripped on the rocky terrain a hundred times a mile. I would have been reduced to a quivering mass of gristle in half a click!

Even on my run this morning, with a much more manageable 7- to 10-percent grade on paved roads, I had to consciously slow down in the darkness as my pace approached 5:30 per mile! At that grade, Strava was calculating my GAP at 7:19 per mile, so in order to put out a 6:00 effort, I would have had to run nearly a 4-minute pace. There's not much chance of me doing that safely on a dark night running with a dim headlamp.

On the uphill sections, by contrast, I was running about a 6:40 pace and putting out a sub-5:30 effort. No wonder it felt so hard! In the end, on a course with significant downhills, it's always going to be a technical problem putting out an equal aerobic effort there compared to the uphills. So while technically it might be true that I put out less total effort in the red mile, during the uphills, I really was putting out more effort than at any other point in the run, and there's no way I could have run the downhills fast enough to equal that effort.

Here's the link to my Strava record of the run.

Here's the Garmin record (which gives numbers for both the ascents and descents)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Laurel Valley to Bad Creek in pictures

This past weekend I went for a backpacking trip with three friends on the Foothills Trail in North / South Carolina. Here's the story, in pictures:

Our Route. The plan was to hike 27 miles. We'll see how close we get to that

Sam, Chris, Tristan, and me at the start, full of gusto and excited for a nice, relaxing hike

First day of hiking over, easy-peasy 8 miles. Relaxing at the campsite. Just 19 to go!

Morning of Day 2; our campsite was at the top of a big waterfall!

And here we are at the viewpoint -- our first actual vista of the falls we slept above

Day two's trail was not quite as mellow as Day 1.

Chris and I take a brief break at one of the hike's many bridges.

I'm glad we didn't have to climb this staircase!

Doing our best Abercrombie modeling poses on the bridge at the bottom of the stairs

The view here was spectacular!

No campsites on the river, so Sam pumps water at Mile 13. The plan: Hike a mile to the next campsite and have a short Monday.

Chris enjoys the cool river water and looks forward to a very short hike to the campsite.

The campsite must be right at the top of that hill! These 10 liters of water Sam pumped are starting to feel heavy!

I'm sure it's at the top of this staircase that heads under this boulder!

Four miles later, we finally arrive at the campsite -- a total of 17 miles hiked on Day 2. We are absolutely exhausted! Also, there is a creek 30 feet away so we didn't need to haul all that water.

After dinner, we noticed these two slugs getting funky!

Morning of Day 3, just 3 miles to go!

Here's the last decent picture we got, at another nice waterfall. Somehow we ended up hiking 7 miles on the last day, for a total of 32 miles hiked -- not 27 -- and about 6,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. The hamburgers we had in Asheville that night were some of the best we've ever tasted. Or maybe that was just the 32 miles talking.....

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Four 5ks, four results

I've run a 5k race each of the past four weeks. Each week, I've had the same goal: Break 18:40. Each week the strategy was slightly tweaked, but the basic plan was pretty much the same -- run a slight positive split and give myself enough cushion to beat the time goal even if something went wrong. But I was only able to do it on the final race. Lets take a detailed look at the numbers and see if we can uncover any patterns.

Here's the basic data for the four races (in the order I ran them):

GAP = Grade-Adjusted Pace
As you can see, my pace improved for each race except the 5Kahne, which was the hilliest race and run on a warm day.

The dramatic difference in time for Balloonfest is primarily due to the fact that my Garmin distance matched the course distance almost exactly, where it was between .04 and .07 of a mile off for the other three races. That may not seem like much, but at a 5:54 pace, .04 miles takes 14 seconds to run!

That said, even if Balloonfest had come out to 3.17 miles, equal to the longest run of the group, I still would very likely have broken 18:40, assuming I could have maintained the 5:54 pace for the entire distances.

So did my overall fitness improve over those four weeks, or did I just have a better strategy? Let's take a look at my splits for each of the races:

Garmin splits for each race
I had the planned positive mile splits for the first three races, but at Balloonfest I negative split. I started Balloonfest slower than any of the races and finished faster. My Mile 2 split was nearly identical for each race, but Mile 3 was much faster at Balloonfest. But a slower start isn't necessarily best -- My second slowest start was at the 5Kahne, which was my third best race.

Grade-adjusted splits might be a better way to view this data. Strava gives a grade-adjusted pace for each mile, and we can graph those as well.

Strava's grade-adjusted splits for each race
Now the races are starting to look more similar. When adjusted for grade, I actually positive-split the first three miles of each race, then picked it up at the end of all except Balloonfest. Once again Mile 2 was similar for each race, but I started USA Masters quite a bit slower. Interestingly, my Mile 3 was fastest at Balloonfest, even adjusting for the fact that it was mostly downhill.

The reason Balloonfest has an off-the-chart-slow final 0.1 mile is because it was a fairly steep downhill, but the slope was rough, so I did not want to risk going all out. Even so, on an absolute scale, it was the fastest finish of any of the races. 

All this suggests to me that my fitness actually improved over the course of the races. My worst grade-adjusted Mile 3 was in the first race. Yes, I was slower in Mile 3 in week 3 than week 2, but that's probably due more to the relatively warm, humid weather that day and a conscious (if misguided) decision to slow down than a decline in fitness. The combination of an overly-ambitious start at Lungstrong and my poorest fitness of the bunch led to my poor showing there.

Here's hoping I will improve even more over the coming weeks. I won't be racing as much, but when I do, I'll be looking to build on the gains of the past month.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Race Recap: Balloonfest 5k

"You're a runner, Dave. You should come to Spokane and run in the Bloomsday Race," My mother-in-law said, innocently enough. "You know, it's one of the biggest races in the world! And you can stay with us for free."

So I checked out the race web site. Yep, it's a big deal -- 50,000 runners converge on Spokane, Washington in early May to run a quirky, hilly 12k race. The only bigger race in the US is the Atlanta Peachtree 10k. Okay, I gotta do this thing.

Then I looked a little closer. Racers line up in the following order: Seeded (elite), Second Seeding, Corporate, and THEN all the other runners. So basically if you don't qualify for Second Seeding or better, you're behind thousands of corporate entries. In other words, if they're not seeded or on a corporate team, faster runners will be doing a lot of bobbing and weaving and not so much race-pace running. To get a Second Seeding, you need to run a 5K in 18:40, or a 10K in 39:00, sometime in the year before the race. That didn't seem too tough to me -- after all, my 5K PR is nearly a minute faster than the qualifying time.

I picked a race that I thought I could run that fast and ran it. 18:59. I ran another one. 18:42. Maybe this wasn't going to be so easy. I ran another race. 18:48. This was getting ridiculous.

I told myself it was early in my training cycle (this is true, it was), that I just needed some time to build up my endurance. On the other hand, I wasn't getting any younger. Maybe that 17:49 would be the fastest I'd ever run. Maybe after four straight years of improving every year, this was the start of an inevitable decline. But then my friend Bobby Aswell mentioned that he had an extra entry for the Balloonfest 5k. "It's a fun, flat race," he said. "You run under all these hot air balloons!" He assured me that I could easily break 18:40 at this race. Okay, I signed up.

We arrived at the race to a county-fair atmosphere. There were funnel cakes, fried brownies, fried pickles, you name it. And lots of balloons!

Not your typical 5K!
The balloons were launching right behind the finish area, and other balloons were drifting in from some other location. Then the race announcer nonchalantly mentioned that the race start time was going to be moved up from 8:30 to 8:15.

"Did you hear that?" I asked Bobby.

"Yeah, I've never heard of such a thing!"

"Well, we better start our warm-up!" 

It was about 7:40, and I like to be at the starting area 15 minutes before the start so I can change into my racing flats, use the bathroom, and take care of any other last-minute issues. That meant that we wouldn't have time to run the whole course for a warm-up, because I certainly wasn't going to run it in 20 minutes. We settled for about a mile out-and-back, which gave me a decent lay of the land: A gradual uphill start, a medium-sized descent and climb around a half mile in, a flat second mile, and a downhill finish.

The reason for the early start was to maximize the number of balloons in the air during the run. The balloons had a competition of their own, dropping weights at a target in the "festival" area near the finish line of the race, and apparently balloon competitions always have flexible start times because of the weather.

So we all traipsed up to the starting line 15 minutes early, and I got in a few strides before settling in at the starting line. Just like last week, Fam was there with his Reckless Running crew, so I knew I'd be racing for a time and maybe an age group award, not for a top-3 finish. The starting gun sounded, and we were off.

This week, I didn't want to leave anything to chance. The last three courses had been long on my Garmin, so I wanted plenty of margin for error. An 18:40 can be had with 6-minute miles, assuming your watch and the course match up perfectly. In practice, they rarely do. So I decided to shoot for 5:50 miles for the first two miles, then allow myself to slow to 5:55 for Mile 3. That would give me a 25-second cushion, much more than I had given myself in the previous three races.

A half-mile in, I was right on pace. There were about 7 runners ahead of me, and Bobby had already settled in behind me. He had run a hard race the day before, so today's race was a bit of a struggle for him. I coasted down the small hill, and hit the climb fairly hard. I was a little behind now, maybe running a 5:53, but that wasn't bad considering the terrain. I kept it up all the way to the Mile 1 marker, where for once my watch was actually perfectly in sync with the course. My split for the mile was 5:57. So much for giving myself a cushion.

The course seemed to flatten out for Mile 2, and I just focused on a steady, solid stride. I passed another couple of runners and felt like I was doing well. Yes, breathing was a bit of a struggle, but nothing unexpected for this point in the race. Then I looked at my watch. My pace was 6:17. I wasn't even halfway through Mile 2 and I was running a 6:17. I couldn't believe it. If I can only run a 6:17 on flat terrain, how could I possibly run the rest of the race at a sub-6-minute pace? I was ready to give up.

Fortunately, at almost that exact moment, the course headed downhill toward the turnaround. I cruised down the hill, cheered Fam on as he strode confidently up the hill, then tried to maintain momentum on the 180-degree turnaround. Halfway up the hill, I looked at my watch again. Somehow, amazingly, my pace for Mile 2 was back around 6 flat. Maybe I could do this. I crested the hill and headed down. Yes, downhill. The reason I had been struggling so much at the start of Mile 2 is that I was actually climbing! Now I could cruise to the end of the mile on a gradual downslope. Once again, I reached the mile marker just as my Garmin beeped. My split for Mile 2 was 5:58.

1.1 miles left, mostly downhill. Maybe I could do this after all. I allowed myself to look at my watch at around 2.3 miles: 5:51 pace. Maybe I could actually negative-split this race! I headed through a parking lot, then briefly onto a taxiway before heading onto the long, final straightway, a wide taxiway between several large hangars. This was a nice, gradual downhill, all the way past the starting line, where we would then turn on to a steep grass slope and the finish line.

I just tried to let the hill help me along as I cruised forward. I was steady at 5:51 every time I looked at my watch. I was turning onto the grass and I couldn't look at my watch any more. Someone was telling the runners to "be careful." It was a fairly steep, bumpy downhill slope to the finish. I couldn't see the finish line clock until I was nearly there, and then it read....18:17, 18:18, 18:19, and I was finished!

Finally! I had done it, after four weeks of coming oh-so-close. I looked down at my Garmin, which I had somehow managed to stop as I crossed the line. It had measured the course at 3.11 miles, a nearly perfect 5k, or just a touch longer. This was a legitimate 18:19. I had done it. It wasn't a PR, or even very close to my PR, but I had finally hit the goal I had been striving for for weeks. Bloomsday, here I come!

Bobby crossed the line about 40 seconds later:
Looking good!

We cooled down with the Reckless Running crew, chatting about race strategy and how cool it was to run with all these balloons. As we arrived back at the finish area, a couple more balloons were taking off, so Bobby and I took the opportunity to get a photo:

Great setting for a race!
Bobby and I each won our age groups and got nifty balloon Christmas ornaments as prizes:

Not bad!
I managed to stay away from the deep-fried brownies, but did buy myself a couple chocolate-chip cookies to celebrate finally reaching my goal. No, it wasn't a PR or a win, but it was almost as satisfying to hit a goal I'd been trying to reach for several weeks. Hopefully as the season progresses, I'll be able to whittle some more time off my 5K, or even PR, but for now, I'm going to celebrate this little accomplishment. Mmmm, chocolate!

Details of my race are below:

Monday, October 13, 2014

Race recap: The 5Kahne

Yesterday I ran my third race in as many weeks. That's two to three more races than I run in a typical 3-week stretch! But since NASCAR Driver Kasey Kahne was racing in a car on Saturday, his "5Kahne" running race was another chance for me to run on a Sunday. Since I'm usually timing races on Saturdays, I figure I should take advantage of every opportunity to race on Sundays.

My primary goal for the race was to beat NASCAR Driver Jimmie Johnson, who has a 19:20ish PR and seems to be getting faster every year. That hope was dashed as I lined up at the start and I found out Johnson wasn't running this year. I guess he just couldn't take the pressure of racing against Munger!

I also knew Olympian Anthony "Fam" Famiglietti would be racing and bringing some of his super-fast Reckless Running buddies, so a top-3 finish also wasn't in the cards. So I decided on the same goal I've had for the previous two races: 18:30, to give myself enough cushion to potentially beat my 18:40 qualifying time for the Bloomsday Run in Spokane next May. At the registration table I ran into Fam's wife Karen, who was first female at this race last year. She gave me some tips about the course. Fast first mile, hilly Mile 2, downhill Mile 3, and uphill finish.

Fellow DARTer Bobby Aswell had warmed up with me, running the entire course. Foolishly, I hadn't started my Garmin right at the start line, so I didn't get an exact Garmin measurement of the course length. But I figured I had started it about a quarter-mile early, so when Bobby and I ran through the finish line at 3.41 miles, I decided the Garmin was measuring it a little bit short. Excellent! That means I'd have a bit of a cushion when checking my splits during the race. [In hindsight, my math skills were a little lacking that morning: If the course had measured exactly 3.1 miles, then adding a quarter-mile would only be 3.35 miles, not the 3.41 I had recorded. The course was not short!]

All I needed was to average a 6:00 on my Garmin, I figured, and I should be well under the 18:40 qualifying time, and probably under 16:30 as well. So why not shoot for 5:55, 6:00, and 6:05 as my mile splits? Made sense to me.

After Kahne gave a short speech, he lined up in the third row of runners (wearing a cotton sweatshirt!), and we were off. I didn't want to start off too quickly, so I let about 20 runners pull out in front of me. It was downhill right out of the gate, and downhill for nearly the first 3/4 of a mile. I could see Fam zipping ahead, right behind the lead car, with a group of three or four runners about 100 yards back. When the uphill started, I began to pass runners. I picked off about 10 before we reached Mile 1, halfway up the biggest single climb in the race. Bobby was still ahead of me, and surprisingly, a very small-looking boy with half of his hair dyed blue was just ahead of Bobby.

Soon I passed Bobby and Half-Blue Boy, with perhaps 10 runners ahead of me. As expected, I passed the Mile 1 marker before my watch beeped 5:50 for the mile. I'd banked at least 5 seconds. The road kept rising and I passed two more guys before starting a nice long downhill stretch. I still couldn't seem to match my Mile 1 pace, though. My pace was around 6:05, so I tried to pick it up. Now it looked like the only runners ahead of me were from the Reckless Running gang. Could I catch one of them, too? They rounded a corner at the bottom of the hill, and I followed, about 100 yards behind. But when I turned the corner, they were nowhere to be seen. Either they had hit the gas after the corner or I had misjudged how far ahead they were. Now the course flattened out, and it was definitely a struggle. Then we turned another corner and hit a short climb.

My GPS record shows the hill as just 20 feet of climbing, but it sure seemed higher than that. My watch beeped 2 miles, but Mile Marker 2 was nowhere to be seen. Finally I passed the marker. My Garmin had recorded 6:00 for the mile, but I didn't catch the time when I passed the marker. I convinced myself that the marker was in the wrong place, and the course was short. That would mean all I needed to do on Mile 3 was a 6:10 pace, and I'd still be under 18:40. I eased off a bit. [In hindsight, this was another mistake. I had some gas in the tank and I should have used it.]

I could hear footsteps behind me -- was it Bobby? No, it was another kid, blonde with a blue singlet, and soon he was passing me. No problem, I figured, there was no way he was in my age group, and I was comfortably under my 6:10 pace.

It was raining a light mist, and somewhere around here I removed my glasses, which had gotten so wet they were no help at all. I finished Mile 3 in 6:05, but I never saw the mile marker (undoubtedly because of my glasses). But as the mile clicked, the finish looked far away. Certainly farther than a tenth of a mile. Could the course actually be long on my Garmin? It could, and it was. I labored for every step, and finally crossed the line as my watch clicked 18:48, 3.14 miles on my Garmin. Argh!

I think if I hadn't assumed the course was short, I probably could have picked things up in Mile 3 and maybe still finished under 18:40. Bobby -- and Blue-Hair Boy (who turned out to be 13-year-old Riley Rittroff) -- finished shortly after I did, and Bobby and I did a few cooldown miles. We arrived back at the finish area just in time for the awards. I was 7th overall, and first in my age group (with Fam naturally winning the race). I got my award from Kasey Kahne, a famous race car driver (maybe I should actually watch him race some time!). Here's a photo Bobby snapped of me on the podium:

I think the announcer likes my socks!
I did manage to beat Kahne, who ran a 22:15 in a cotton sweatshirt.

I'm still pretty confident that a sub-18:40 is in the cards for me sometime this fall. I've only been really doing a 5K training routine for a few weeks. I've planned the training schedule so that I peak in November / December, so I don't expect to be at my best for another month or so at least.

That said, there's another Sunday race next week...can you guess what my goal will be?

Details of yesterday's race are below. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Race Recap: The USA Masters 5K

The USA Masters 5K is a race I have been targeting for some time. I've been doing well in local races but I wanted to test myself in a race with a national field. For master's runners, the fields don't get any more talented than this. This year, ten men finished with age grades above 90 percent: That means they finished within 10 percent of the world record for their age. The women were even more impressive, with three women getting age grades above 100 percent, meaning they broke world records for their age. Libby James, age 78, ran a staggering 24:00 5k for an age grade of 106.76!

The weather was almost perfect this morning as we lined up for the race: 45 degrees and sunny. The only possible negative was a wind of about 8 miles per hour -- enough to notice but probably not something that would slow us down by much. My goal for the race was 18:30, which should handily qualify me for a second seeding at the Bloomsday run next year; an 18:40 is the qualification standard. 

An 18:30 would require a 5:57 pace per mile. Since I generally expect to slow by a few seconds for each mile, my plan was to start at a 5:52 pace, then run 5:57 for Mile 2 and the final 1.1 miles in a 6:02 pace. This also gave me a decent margin for error: Even if my Garmin's measurement was a little off, as long as the course came out to 3.13 or less on the Garmin I'd still finish under the required 18:40 time.

USA Masters 5k
It's the start! (Actually the start of the women's race, but you get the idea...)
I wanted to avoid starting too fast, so I lined up about four rows back from the start line. I told myself not to look at my watch for the first quarter of a mile, and just keep pace with the runners around me. The race started right on time, and I stuck to the plan. I stayed with the runners around me, just passing a few folks who had obviously started too fast. A quarter-mile in I was just a touch over my planned pace, around a 5:45. Now everyone was settling in, and I tried to relax and ease my pace back just enough to hit the 5:52 target.

The course had been set up nearly perfectly, with signs at every kilometer mark and markers every mile. An orange dashed line indicated the perfect tangent path along the course, and all the roads were completely closed to traffic.

I passed the Mile 1 marker at 5:53, almost exactly on pace. I felt strong, so I decided to try to keep up this pace for Mile 2, just to bank a little time. I was starting to pass some runners who had overestimated their ability to maintain this pace. Near the halfway point, we did a sharp u-turn and headed back towards the start line. I passed the halfway clock at 9:09, well under the pace I would need to finish in 18:30.

At Mile 2, my Garmin showed me running a 5:55 pace, right where I wanted to be. But now we were heading into the wind, and there was a large gap between me and the next runner ahead of me. It was also a slight uphill at this point. I needed to hang on to for a 6:02 pace, but my watch showed me going closer to 6:08. I knew that once we rounded the final corner we'd have about 400 meters of downhill to the finish, so I just tried to focus on hanging on. I was gasping for breath, nearly grunting each time I exhaled. 

The runners ahead of me seemed impossibly far away. It was a painful struggle to stay on target. The slowest pace I noticed on my watch was a 6:09, but this was an average for the mile. Looking back at the Garmin record, it appears I slowed to around a 6:30 at a couple points. I tried to focus on the corner ahead, which I knew was just over a quarter-mile from the finish; it was all downhill from there. It seemed to take an eternity to get there. Finally I did round the corner. It wasn't quite downhill yet -- there was a level stretch that was probably only 100 meters long, but it seemed like a mile.

After what seemed like an eternity, I passed the "400 meters to go" sign. I knew this was where I was supposed to start my kick, but I just couldn't accelerate like I wanted to. Slowly, slowly I increased my pace. I passed the "200 meters to go" sign. There was supposed to be a 3-mile marker somewhere around here, but I didn't see it. Now the finish line, and the finish clock, were coming into view. Did it say 18:17? No, it was 18:27. I was probably 100 meters from the finish. No way I could go 100 meters in 13 seconds; hopefully I was actually closer than that. Finally I was delivering that kick, and the clock ticked forward: 18:30, 31, 32. Now I was in an all-out sprint. 18:39, 40, 41... I crossed the line and stopped my watch.

It said 18:41. Later I'd find my official time was 18:42. Two seconds too slow.

USA Masters 5k
Me after the race. A little disappointed but glad to have run it

My plan had been to run splits of 5:52, 5:57, and 6:02. In fact on my Garmin I had run paces of 5:50, 5:55, and 6:03. I had executed the plan nearly perfectly, despite my struggles in Mile 3. The only error I made was assuming the course would come out to 3.13 miles on my Garmin. In the end, the Garmin measured it as 3.15 miles. 0.02 miles doesn't seem like much, but at 6 minutes per mile, it takes 7.2 seconds to run 0.02 miles. Garmin splits aren't real splits -- the only splits that count are when you pass the actual mile markers.

So what were my real splits? I hit the "lap" button on my watch at the Mile 1 and 2 markers -- I never saw Mile 3. Mile 1 came at 1.01 on the Garmin, and I was there in 5:53. Mile 2 was at 1.02 miles on the Garmin, and my time was 6:02. From there to the finish measured 1.12 on Garmin, and I ran it in 6:45, so my pace for the final 1.1 miles was actually 6:05. Overall my average pace was 6:02 (or 6:01.14 without rounding). What I needed was a 6:00 (or more precisely, 6:00.49). It was that close!

I'm quite sure I can hit that 18:40 mark this season with a little more training. I'd like to be in good enough shape that I can run it with a much larger margin for error, so I don't have to worry about tenths of a second. I'd like to beat it by 20, 30 seconds. Then instead of hitting a qualifying time I can start thinking about another tough time to beat -- my PR of 17:49!

My Garmin record of the race is below.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Race Preview: USA Masters 5K Championships

One of my goals for the 2014/15 racing season was to run in shorter races with much higher-quality fields than can be usually found locally. Last week's 5k win was great, but no one in my race (including me) broke 18:50, let alone my 17:49 PR.

So this year I decided to enter the USA Masters 5k Championships at the Festival of Races in Syracuse, NY. Last year the winner ran a 15:21, and the top Master was just behind him at 15:25. The top master in my age group blazed in at 15:29, an amazing 4:59 pace at 47 years old! There were 8 finishers within plus or minus 3 seconds of my PR. By contrast, at the Runway 5k where I PRed, only one runner -- Joe Rao, who was pacing me -- was within 10 seconds on either side of me. 10 seconds is an eternity in a 5k -- and Runway is one of the more competitive races in the Charlotte area!

I'm not in shape to PR just yet. I weigh about 6 pounds more than I did during last year's PR, and I can tell from my recent speed work (and last week's race) that I'm not as strong as I was last year. Last week my goal was to break 18:40 and qualify for Second Seeding at the Bloomsday run next May. Since I didn't make it last week, I need to make that my primary goal again this week.

Because of the field and the course, I should have a much better shot this week. There will be plenty of other runners at my pace, and the course is flat and fast, unlike LungStrong's rolling hills.

One of the commenters on my blog at MyFitnessPal, litsy3, an exceptional woman runner with PRs that beat mine at every distance except 5k, felt that my error at LungStrong wasn't merely running faster than my planned pace a couple of times during the race, but planning to start as fast as I did at all. She may have a point -- my planned 5:45 start was just 5 seconds per mile slower than my PR, set on a flatter course. On the other hand, that course started with a 47-foot climb that I ran at a solid 5:40 pace, so my effort there was probably closer to 5:30, whereas on the downhill, a 5:45 is more like a 6:15 effort.

So how do I break 18:40, which requires a 6:00 pace assuming the course matches my Garmin? I looked up a couple of Garmin plots of the course from last year, and it looks like everyone is getting in the 3.13 to 3.14 range for the course length. That means the pace I see on my watch should be something like 5:57.

I still believe that I do best when I positive-split a race on a flat course: My last mile should be slightly slower than my first mile. For my PR, my splits were 5:40, 5:41, 5:44, and that was with a downhill finish. On a flat course, I think I should be planning to slow by around 5 seconds per mile. That would suggest starting at 5:52, then 5:57, and finally 6:02. If I've got something left for that last mile, I can gas it and maybe take 10 or 15 seconds off my time.

But how do I control my speed during that first mile and avoid hitting a 5:20 pace for the first quarter-mile, like I did last week? I've seen a couple of tips for avoiding fast starts, but one that intrigues me comes from this article:
A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to breathe out of your nose for the first half mile -- if you have to breathe through your mouth, you've started too fast for your fitness level. You should be able to talk when running at the start of your race, but it shouldn't be comfortable -- if you feel capable of rattling off several sentences, you might want to increase your pace.
I'm not sure I want to try that in a race, though. What if my nose is a little stuffed up that morning? I think a better strategy may be to cue off the other runners in the race. Based on last year's results, I can expect that about 80 runners will be going faster than my target pace. So I should make sure to line up at least that far back from the start -- if not a bit farther, since there will inevitably be some folks who go out too hard. For the first quarter-mile, I won't look at my watch, but just look to keep pace with the folks right around me. Then I can readjust. I expect that my pace will be much closer to my target than it was last week.

I'm also going to assume this course is well-marked and turn off the auto-lap function on my watch (I can verify this when I do my warm-up on race day). I will manually press the lap button at each mile marker, which will give me my actual race time for the mile. If I'm hitting 6-minute miles, I'm on target to hit my goal pace.

Whether or not I match my target, it will be exciting to be a part of such a talented field of masters runners. I'm looking forward to seeing how I compare!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Race Recap: The LungStrong 5k

I thought I was entering the LungStrong 5k with a modest goal: Finish the race in 18:40 or less, 51 seconds slower than my PR. That would qualify me for the Second Seeding at the Bloomsday run next May. But circumstances never seem to work out quite the way we think they will, and today was no exception.

My plan was to start off the race at roughly a 5:45 per mile pace. That would allow me to slow down to 6:00 on the mostly-uphill second half and still come in at a 5:52 pace for the whole thing, which should mean hitting my target time even if the course was a touch long (as it is reputed to be).

At 7 am, a big group of DARTers joined me for the warm-up, running the entire 5k course at a nice, easy pace. This turned out to be a lot of fun as I tried to take a group selfie while on the run:

Running-group-selfies in low light are more difficult than you might think!
Soon we were back at the starting area and I laced up my racing flats and ran a few strides before the starting gun. For this race I decided to try taking two caffeine tablets 45 minutes before the race, plus eating a GU 15 minutes before the start (a total of 450 mg of caffeine) -- this is the dose recommended by at least one study, about 6 mg per kilo of body weight. I've never taken that much caffeine before a race, so I was curious if it would help.

I'd find out soon enough. LungStrong is a combined 15k and 5k, and both races start at the same time. I knew the 15k would probably have the strongest runners, and a pack of about 10 of us were near the front within about 100 meters of the start. At a quarter mile, the two races split apart, running for the next half-mile on opposite sides of the street. There was just one runner ahead of me on the 5k, Mike Beigay, who I knew from the Charlotte Running Club. Looking down at my watch, I could see I was running about a 5:20 pace, and Mike, 20 meters ahead, must have been doing 5:15 or better. I reminded myself that my strategy was to run 5:45 for the first half of the race unless it was feeling really easy. This wasn't feeling easy. We hadn't actually hit the first downhill yet and I was laboring for breath. I slowed down a bit and let Mike pull away. Across the street, the top 15kers were also pulling away. Fine, that was the plan.

About a half mile in, we finally started to hit the downhill, and I tried to relax and let the hill do most of the work. This worked okay, and my watch beeped 5:44 at the end of the first mile. Slight problem: We hadn't actually reached the mile marker; my actual time for Mile 1 was more like 5:52. 

As we turned off the main drag and into a neighborhood, I found myself gaining on Mike. Looking down, I saw that my pace was still about 5:45, just fine. Then the cyclist turned around and said "Clockwise this year." He must have been referring to the little lollipop that the course followed as it turned around:

The course starts at the green dot and ends at the checkered dot
But he was headed down Meta Road, just below where the lollipop actually starts. "TURN RIGHT" I said. I had just run the course as a warm-up and I knew that was the correct route. The biker yelled back "Clockwise!"

"No, that's later," I shouted. "I just ran it this morning!" I was now even with Mike and told him "I don't care where the bike goes, I'm turning right. We both made the turn, and in a minute the bike caught up with us at the point where the real lollipop started. "Oh, you were right," he said as he passed. "Sorry."

I didn't realize it at the time, but this incident must have given me a jolt of adrenaline. Looking at my GPS record, my pace picked up to 5:15 a mile. I think I slowed down again before I looked at my watch, because I just remember going slower on Mile 2 than Mile 1. In fact, I did slow considerably as I headed back towards the finish, and for Mile 2 my average pace was 6:00. As before, my GPS beeped well before I reached the second mile marker, and I probably actually reached that marker in about 6:10. As we turned back on to Jetton Road, there were still runners and walkers four-abreast in the lane coned off for the race, so the lead bike rode onto the sidewalk. Unfortunately, that made it impossible to follow any tangents on the course, and the sidewalk also wove back and forth. I don't think it cost me a lot of time, but any little thing like this can be very frustrating, especially when you're heading uphill and struggling to maintain pace.

My pace was getting slower and slower, 6:05, 6:10, 6:15. Much slower than the 5:52 I was looking for. I knew there would be one last downhill after I made the sharp left turn off of Jetton Road, so I tried to push myself to maintain the pace by reminding myself that I would be able to recover there, but it was no use. I just kept getting slower.

Finally I reached the turn and took the opportunity to glance back and see where Mike was. Obviously he had slowed as well, because he was now about 50 meters behind me. With less than a half mile left, I knew he had no chance of catching me, so I just cruised down the hill and tried to rest up a bit for the final sprint to the finish. Garmin beeped 6:18 for Mile 3, and I was still short of the real mile marker. I picked up the pace as much as I could for the final tenth of a mile, and tried to remember to raise my arms in victory as I crossed the line.

I had won, but I was 19 seconds short of my goal: My chip time was 18:59, officially a 6:07 per mile pace. The Garmin said I had averaged 6:01, which, if the GPS had actually matched the course distance, would have just been good enough to reach that 18:40 goal. But GPS records don't qualify you for the Bloomsday run, so I would have to be happy with the overall win. I think this course really is a bit long, but not outrageously so. I had it at 3.17 miles, or .07 over the official distance. I'd much rather run a course that is a little long and know my time is legitimate, than run a "PR" on a course that is actually too short. 

Here's the photo Chas caught of me receiving my race award:

That's Mike to my right, and the third-place finisher whose name I didn't catch
I knew I had made a couple of mental errors in this race. The first was going out too fast. I should not have been lured to a too-quick pace by Mike and the faster 15kers. When the bike took a wrong turn, I should have kept my eye on my pace and held steady instead of picking it up. I think these variations in pace, even though they were perhaps only a quarter-mile each, took a disproportionate amount of energy, which I desperately needed on the finishing uphills. It's possible that the extra caffeine might have contributed to my bad pacing, but I think I should be able to handle the caffeine as long as I can focus and run a smart race. Hopefully I'll be able to use that knowledge next week as I head to Syracuse for the Festival of Races and the US Masters 5K Championship.

That said, a win is a win; it's exciting to place first in a race with hundreds of participants, so I'm glad to have gotten it. It's a great start to the fall racing season, with hopefully even better results to come!

My Garmin record of the race is below.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

14 of the best things about running 10,000 miles

Over the past four years, my life has been transformed in many, many ways, for many reasons, but most of them can be traced back to the fact that I have become passionate about running. One device that I [almost] never run without is my trusty Garmin GPS. I took my first one, a Forerunner 305, for its first run on September 4, 2010. According to Garmin, that run didn't end until 25 hours later! (This was actually the result of my not understanding that you need to reset the thing after each run, so two days' run became one epic 12-miler).

As of today, since that first run, I've logged over 10,000 miles. Here's the Garmin report to prove it:

Technically this proves nothing, but take my word for it, I really ran that far!

So what can happen to a person over 10,000 miles? Let me count the ways.

1. You'll make some of the best friends you'll ever know, and get to know them better than you ever imagined. You can talk about a lot during a 20-mile training run — or a 6-hour drive to a race.

2. You can learn to enjoy running in the rain. I've run through more torrential downpours than I can count, and each one of them was a special moment. Sometimes, running through puddles while the rain drips down your face, you'll find that you actually run faster, with less effort than when it's dry and comfortable. Sometimes, however, you don't.

3. You can run your first 16-miler, your first 18-miler, your first 19.3-miler. Each one of this seems harder than the last one, but then, suddenly, they don't seem so bad any more, and you run farther, harder than you ever imagined possible.

4. You can run your first Marathon, a beautiful, fantastic, beast of a race, in one of the most spectacular places on earth. For Big Sur, my dad and stepmom flew down from Oregon to watch me finish, giving me one of the best memories of him before he died.

5. You can run while you are on vacation, past volcanoes and endangered species. You can find the steepest road you've ever seen and try to run up it. Then you can actually succeed at running up it.

Wow, that's some hill!

6. You can qualify for the Boston Marathon, and run the Boston Marathon, and be energized and amazed at the city of Boston and its running community, even in the midst of tragedy. 

7. You can pace runners as they complete 100-mile ultramarathons. It's amazing to see what people who are stubborn, determined, and disciplined can do. I simply cannot imagine running that far but I have immense respect for the people who do.

8. You can train through snow, slush, muck, rain, and just about any other weather condition you can imagine. And it still won't prepare you for this.

9. You can run faster than you ever imagined possible.

11. You can continue to seek out even more-epic adventures.

Pikes Peak
That's quite a mountain!
12. You can race through the middle of the night in a van with 6 other people just as crazy as you.

13. You can drink coffee after nearly every run. There is nothing more satisfying than sipping a perfect cup of coffee at 6:30 a.m. after a great run with great friends. You can get so accustomed to coffee that you stifle the urge to complain bitterly every time a race doesn't offer coffee at the finish line (Beer? Is that all you got?).

14. When you finish running 10,000 miles, you get to start on the next 10,000, which you just know will be even better!