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)