Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Geeking out on mileage data

This morning I was taking a look at my total mileage for the month and noticed that Garmin Connect allows you to subtotal its reports by month or year and export the file to a spreadsheet-compatible format. A new opportunity for running geekery! So naturally I decided to look at all my running data from 2012 to the present. I even made a graph:

As you can see, the most dramatic event on the graph is my injury in February of 2015. My mileage has only recently begun to approach what I routinely ran before that date, as I finally seem to be genuinely recovering.

All my big PRs occurred as I was peaking in mileage (my marathon PR was set in 2011 and isn't on the graph). You might be tempted to conclude that that high-mileage, intense training also led to injury, but I'd say that was only the case for the second injury (the first one was just a bruise from a fall and I recovered quickly). The other things that seem to correspond to reduced running mileage are travel and triathlon training. It's hard to squeeze running in in both of those cases!

This year my plan is to steadily increase my mileage to get close to what I was doing in 2012/13, while decreasing the frequency of my most intense workouts to hopefully reduce the risk of injury. I've started to follow a training plan inspired by the book Fast After Fifty, which recommends adopting a 9-day training "week" instead of a typical 7-day week (not-so-coincidentally, I turned 50 yesterday). The big race I'm training for is the Chicago Marathon on October 8. Because my training program for Chicago uses a long training week, it will take much longer than a typical 18-week cycle. In fact, it will start on March 27, 195 days before the race, and two days after my next big race, the Wrightsville Beach Half Marathon. For Wrightsville, I don't have the time to do a full training cycle, so I will see what I can do on a reduced cycle.

If all goes well, by October I should be in good enough shape to once again qualify for the Boston Marathon, my monthly mileage will once again look like what it did in 2013 and 2014, and I might even be able to take a shot at one of those long-standing PRs.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Race Recap: Houston Half Marathon

A few weeks before the Houston Half Marathon, a friend posted a long-term weather forecast that looked dire: Temperatures in the mid-70s with near-100% humidity. This is very nearly the worst weather to race in, but my previous experiences with weather-stalking convinced me that this was WAY too early to be concerned. Sure enough, as race day approached, the forecast changed more than once. For a while it looked as if conditions would be nearly perfect, low fifties and lower humidity. Unfortunately this forecast was still too early, and by a few days before the race it was clear that temperatures would be in the high 60s with nearly 100% humidity. I've raced in these conditions before, and never with a good result.

I had chosen to race Houston partly because it's a flat and fast course (Ryan Hall set the US record here), but mostly because I wanted to meet up with online friends I had known for years. We had formed a close-knit group while losing weight on the MyFitnessPal website and now we get together in person whenever we get the chance. This group was where I got the idea for Brolympus, my running alter-ego who populates social media with terrible running advice. We have all seen so much bad decision-making, both by ourselves, and by other runners, that there is a never-ending supply of fodder for Brolympus's memes.

I arrived on Friday for Sunday's race, and shenanigans began almost from the get-go. After a beer-soaked reunion Friday night, we reconvened Saturday for a shake-out run in the form of the Brolympus 5K Marathon:

Are we having fun yet?

Conditions during the shake-out, where the weather was about what had been predicted for the marathon, actually didn't seem too bad. I got a little sweaty but felt like I might be able to go ahead and give my Plan A a shot: Run the whole race at a 7:00 pace and qualify for the New York Marathon with a 1:32.

Revelry was more restrained on Saturday night, and we all headed to bed early enough to get a reasonable amount of sleep before our 4 a.m. wake-up call for the race. I had a bagel and tried some of a friend's beet concentrate as a pre-race supplement. Then we walked to the start in the early-morning darkness:

Beautiful Houston morning...but how will the race go?

Once again, the conditions didn't seem bad. It almost felt a bit chilly, and a light breeze cooled us even more. But race-morning temperatures were in the mid 60s, the humidity was high, and neither figure was expected to decline before the 7 a.m. race start.

At the race start, our whole group got together for a photo before heading out to the race corrals. 

Air-conditioned optimism

Team Brolympus!

The "A" corral, where I'd be lining up, closes at 6:40 a.m., so it was important to get out there early. I was assured there would be porta-potties in the corrals, and this proved true. The lines weren't long either, and I had plenty of time to take care of pre-race business. All signs were pointing to a good race. I made my way to the position marked "7:00/mile" pace, along with several hundred other optimists. Here I am lined up and ready to go:

After 20 minutes or so of nervous waiting, the race got under way right on time. For the first mile I struggled to get up to race pace, my watch stubbornly indicating I was below target. Meanwhile I had to be conscious of the runners around me. Some folks clearly hadn't gotten to the position they wanted at the start, and so were zipping past as they tried to make up time. Others were moving very slowly, at what must have been an 8- or 9- minute pace. Didn't they see the signs in the corral telling them where to line up? By the end of Mile 1 my pace was 7:17, almost where I wanted it.

I tried to pick things up a bit more for Mile 2, and willed myself to a 7:05 pace. Still too slow, but every step was a struggle. The humid air seemed to close in on me, and the pack of sweaty runners around me didn't help keep things cooler. I grabbed two cups of water at the aid station, drank one and dumped the other over my head. This cooled me momentarily, but I was still feeling overheated. My A goal of 7:00 miles was beginning to seem nearly impossible.

For Mile 3 I decided to back off the pace a bit. Maybe all I needed to do was run a couple miles at a 7:20-ish pace, then pick it up again as I got used to the conditions. For a mile or so, it almost seemed like it would be possible. Mile 3: 7:22.

But by Mile 4 I knew this simply wasn't going to be my day. Every step was harder than the last, and more and more runners were passing as my pace slowed. 7:53 was all I could manage.

In Mile 5 I started doing some mental math: Only 8 miles to go! Actually 8 miles seemed like a really long distance. But maybe I could keep my pace below 8:00 for the rest of the race and salvage a shred of decency. I ran a 7:58 for this mile.

Surely Mile 6 would be where I was finally able to pick up the pace again, right? Wrong. 8:15.

But now I was through 10K! Almost halfway done. I figured out that Mile 6.55 was the actual halfway point and tried to focus on that. After the halfway point, 6-plus miles still seemed like an awful long way to run. I had one gel left, and began negotiations with myself as to when I'd get to eat it. Mile 7, 8:22.

Somehow I did managed to go slightly faster for Mile 8, 8:07. But I made up for this in mile 9 with a lethargic 8:46. Ugh.

With 4 miles to go I allowed myself to eat the my second gel. I sped up slightly to 8:27. At this point I wasn't even sure if I'd be able to manage a 1:45 half, an average of 8:00 miles for the race. But at least I was in double-digit mileage, with only 5k to go.

Mile 11 may have been the worst. My feet were aching from my lightweight racing shoes on the concrete pavement. I had no more gels, and I couldn't even run a lousy 8-minute mile. 8:39.

Finally, somewhere in Mile 12, my body seemed to spark a bit with the knowledge that there were only around 2 miles left. My pace improved to 8:17. Only 1.1 miles left!

The race clock at Mile 12 read 1:37 and change when I passed it. If I could run the last 1.1 in less than 8 minutes I might be able to finish under 1:45. How much time did I have, exactly? I tried to remember how long it had taken me to cross the start line after the gun. Was it 20 seconds? 30? I focused on my stride and picking up the pace. My watch was reading 7:20, 7:15, 7:10 pace for the current lap. If I could run under a 7-minute pace for this last 1.1 miles, I just might make it. We were now running on the same course as the marathoners, and I passed the 26 mile marker. Only 0.2 to go!

But then, somehow, the 13 mile marker didn't appear. It should only be 1/10 of a mile past the Mile 26 marker, but it was taking ages to reach it, even as my watch showed me running a 6:58 pace. At that rate, it should only take 42 seconds to get there. This was taking much longer. Finally, after an excruciating 7:57, I finished Mile 13. There was no way I was breaking 1:45 for the race.

I cruised through the finish line at about the same pace, finishing in 1:45:28. Ugh. More than 13 minutes slower than my goal.

As I wandered through the finish area I tried to figure out what had gone wrong. I really couldn't figure it out, other than my body simply not being acclimatized to the heat. The past two weeks have been cold and snowy, so I guess that's all it was. It's little consolation when you run a flat half-marathon and finish slower than you have in five years.

I still believe I have a 1:32 half in me. In the meantime, I was still able to enjoy a great weekend with some awesome friends, many of whom I met in person for the first time on this trip.

Details of my race are below.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Shalane Challenge, Day 3: The pinkest thing I have ever made

Runners have a thing about beets. Beets are supposed to improve endurance, and what runner doesn't want that? Still, I haven't really bought into the whole beet thing. First off, I don't like beets, and second, I have been at a bit of a mystery as to how to prepare them. But since this week I'm challenging myself to prepare all my meals from Olympic Marathoner Shalane Flanagan's cookbook, I figured now was a good time to give beets a try.

The thing about beets, though, is that they are really, really red. You might say they are "beet-red." Their juice gets on anything within a ten foot radius. I wanted to make Shalane's "Can't Get Beet Hummus," though, so I needed to confront my beet-phobia straight on. The recipe calls for a cooked beet.

Problem number 1: Our grocery store only sells beets in bunches. Fine. I'll cook four beets. Surely I can figure out something to do with the other three.

I decided to try trimming the roots and greens off the beets with kitchen shears to prevent getting beet juice all over my cutting board. This backfired as juice spattered all over my kitchen! I wrapped them in foil and placed them in the oven on a baking dish for an hour. Even just checking them to see if they were done led to beet "blood" all over my fingers.

Finally they were done and I chilled them overnight. But to make the recipe, I still had to peel the one beet I needed. More "bloody" fingers:


Finally I got the beets and all the other ingredients (mostly chickpeas, tahini, and lemon) into the blender. Instantly the mixture went from beige to the most intense shade of pink I have ever seen. I'm not sure I can adequately convey in words precisely how pink this concoction is. It is so pink that the Barbie aisle at Toys R Us looks muted by comparison. It's pinker than a Hawaiian sunset or a California Pride parade. It's pinker than an embarrassed piglet.

After turning a spatula and half my kitchen counter pink getting it out of the blender, I was finally able to serve it. Here's what it looks like on the plate:

Shalane says this will "impress" your dinner guests

I'm still not sure the photo quite does service to precisely how pink it is. Now all that was left was to try it:

Still pink!

Shalane claims that once you have made your own hummus, you'll never go back to store-bought. My verdict: This tastes fine, but it's definitely not better-tasting than store-bought. I've had much better, frankly. While I've enjoyed most of the things I've made from this book, this recipe is disappointing.

But perhaps this is more about the beets than the hummus (she does provide a more "standard" chipotle hummus recipe). On that count, I'm still not that impressed. I probably ate a quarter of the hummus I made, which is a lot of food, but that means I only consumed a quarter of a beet. I'm pretty sure that's not going to get me a BQ. Given that the athletes who use beet juice regularly are typically using 500 ml or so before a race, there's simply no way this much beet is going to offer much benefit at all. Not sure I'm even going to finish this hummus, and as someone who LOVES hummus, I think that's saying quite a bit.

The Shalane Challenge: Day 2

I'm challenging myself to prepare all of my meals this week using Shalane Flanagan's cookbook. I've been so busy cooking over the past two days that I've fallen a bit behind in the blogging department.

Yesterday I was busy catching up with Monday's meals, so today I'll consolidate all of Tuesday's meals into a single post.

Breakfast. I had an easy run + strength day yesterday. I'm not usually as hungry after this workout as I am after a swim (my Monday workout), so just one bowl of Shalane's Ginger-Molasses Granola (which I had prepared on Sunday) was plenty satisfying. As you might expect, the granola holds up well after two days, tasting just as good as it did on Monday.

Snacks. I had plenty of leftover Spelt Banana bread, which I kept in the fridge after making it on Monday. Monday's bread was delicious, but I was a little disappointed with it on Tuesday. Normally banana bread stays nice and moist if you keep it in the fridge, but this bread seemed quite a bit dryer. I don't know if that's due to the cold storage or just that it doesn't have a great shelf life. Today I will try letting it warm up for an hour or two before I eat it to see if that makes a difference.

I also made a snack that wasn't in the book, a staple of mine that I modified to fit Shalane's philosophy. I like to puree frozen bananas in the blender to make an "ice cream." Normally I put a little chocolate syrup on it but in the spirit of her book I put maple syrup and walnuts in the mix instead. It was delicious!

Lunch. I had another serving of the Carolina Chicken Tarragon Salad I made Monday. This held up very well! I added another diced avocado and that gave it just the level of unctuousness I felt it was missing yesterday. Normally I have a Diet Coke with lunch but I substituted some mint tea I bought in India last year, and that was great on a cold afternoon.

Dinner. Despite having plenty of leftover meatballs, I decided to make a new meal for Tuesday -- Shalane's Breakfast Meets Dinner Bowl. This is a bowl of brown rice topped with sauteed kale, black beans, and a fried egg. The book suggests adding some "Avocado Cream," a separate recipe which is basically guacamole. The recipe says you can wilt the kale in a little olive oil, but I wasn't getting the results I needed, so I added some chicken stock and was able to cook it down. I opted for canned Goya black beans (the book suggests making them from scratch), and I poached the eggs instead of frying them (the recipe calls for one per serving but I made two). I thought it tasted great but wanted a bit of an extra kick so I added some black pepper and Tabasco:


Shalane's dinners so far have been fairly carb-heavy. One serving includes a half-cup (before cooking) of brown rice. I like this and don't think it's too much food, but my wife would probably not agree; I think she'd probably take about half this much rice. Then again, she doesn't work out as much as I do, so it only makes sense for her to consume fewer calories.

I've been cutting down on my drinking this week but I did allow myself to indulge in a beer to accompany dinner. It was great too! 

I'm pretty sure I could convince my wife to try both the dinners I've prepared so far. I think she'd feel the other items were too much food for her, but I don't think she'd disagree that they taste pretty good. In terms of taste, so far everything tastes just about as good as what I'd normally eat, with a couple of exceptions mentioned above. What remains to be seen is how this diet affects my weight and fitness. We should get a better sense of that as the week progresses.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Shalane Challenge: Day 1 Dinner

I'm challenging myself to prepare all of my meals this week using Shalane Flanagan's cookbook. Last night for dinner I made her Bison Meatballs with marinara.

The recipe calls for 1 cup of minced kale, bound with the buffalo meat using an egg, almond meal, and parmesan cheese. One cup of kale, the book says, is about 4 leaves. It looked like my leaves were a bit scrawny, so I started with 6. That may have been a mistake. I ended up with a huge pile of minced kale, much bigger than a cup. But once I'd put in the work to chop up all that kale, I was damned if it wasn't going in the recipe! I mixed everything together with some spices according to the recipe, forming into 2-inch meatballs that looked quite green. But they were holding together, so I decided to press on.

Next I was supposed to brown them on all sides in about 5 minutes using a Dutch oven. I don't have a true Dutch oven but I do have a nonstick pan with tall sides and a thick bottom, so I figured that was an adequate replacement. Despite the pan being nonstick, the meatballs stuck. They were also taking much longer than 5 minutes to brown. Eventually I got them partially browned and removed them from the pot as directed.

Then I was supposed to make a marinara sauce in the same pot, sort of deglazing the stuck bits from the meatballs. I had decided that was too much work, so I used a jar of store-bought Classico sauce. Then the meatballs got put back into the pot with the sauce, to simmer for 30-40 minutes. The meatballs were not even close to being covered with sauce! Looking back at the recipe, I saw that I had about half the volume of sauce needed. I found a container of crushed tomatoes and added those in with some oregano and red pepper flakes, and now the meatballs were mostly submerged. By rotating the meatballs every 10 minutes or so I was able to get them cooked through in the sauce.

Meanwhile I prepared store-bought rigatoni to match the photo of the recipe in the book. The recipe says it makes 4 servings using 12 ounces of pasta but I decided that I'd make about 1.5 servings of this for myself, so I weighed out 5 ounces of pasta to cook. Then I plated with 3 of the 8 meatballs and some sauce. This being winter I didn't garnish with fresh basil like the book does, but I think it looks pretty good with Parmesan. It looks to me like whoever made the recipe in the photo cooked the pasta with some of the sauce before plating. I didn't do that because the directions don't say to, but in hindsight that would have tasted better!

My effort next to the food-stylist's version in the book

That said, this was a tasty and satisfying plate of meatballs. I think if I did it again I'd use 4 leaves of kale, no matter how puny they looked, and that might have helped the meatballs stick together a bit better. The recipe isn't much different from one Greta and I have made for years using spinach and turkey, but it is definitely heartier with the kale and buffalo, which I like. I think the recipe is a keeper!

The Shalane Challenge: Why am I doing this?

For the past 4 or 5 months, I've been hearing from my running buddies and online friends about this great new cookbook by Shalane Flanagan, called Run Fast. Eat Slow. Flanagan is arguably America's top female marathoner, an Olympic medalist and the top American woman (and 6th overall) in the marathon at Rio. Nutrition is a huge component of marathon fitness, so when Flanagan came out with a book on nutrition, runners paid notice. The book is still on the NY Times top ten sports/fitness books list, and not only does it seem to give solid nutritional advice, the recipes actually taste great.

I won the book at a Christmas party and was intrigued, but my wife, a non-runner, didn't seem interested in its "skinny runner girl" vibe. The book is filled with gorgeous photos of Flanagan and her equally-fit co-author, nutritionist and former UNC teammate Elyse Kopecky, so I can see how it might be a bit intimidating to a non-runner.

A typical photo from the book

But since my wife is out of town this week, it seemed like a good time to try out the recipes. What better way to do it than to go all-in and cook ALL my meals from the book for the week? Since I'm also currently tapering for the Houston Half-Marathon, watching what I eat a little more closely seems like an excellent idea.

Flanagan and Kopecky's philosophy on nutrition is to not worry so much about consuming a particular number of calories or macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs, etc) per day, but to focus on eating wholesome foods. To be honest, I'm a little skeptical of this philosophy. The only way I've ever been able to lose weight and keep it off is to concern myself a LOT with calories. But I figure I can try this out for a week and see how it works. Worst case scenario I might add a few new recipes to my wheelhouse.

The book features an elaborate chart of a week of meals, from breakfast through dessert -- a different home-made menu for each meal.

That's a lot of recipes!

The authors explain that Flanagan doesn't actually eat this richly; she tends to prepare a food (like, say, granola for breakfast) in bulk and then have it as leftovers for the next day or more, and even freeze some for future weeks or months. Makes sense. I don't think I'd be able to prepare a different from-scratch recipe for 5 meals a day either, and I'm no Olympic-class marathoner!

That said, the first day was quite a whirlwind of activity, and I haven't even written up my dinner post yet! I'll get that to a bit, but first I wanted to let you know why I'm doing this and what's in store for the rest of the week. I'll probably be posting only once or twice a day from here on out, and then at the end I'll write up a summary of my thoughts on the book and its philosophy. Hope it's useful to you!


I'll try to keep a complete list of all the posts in the series here.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Shalane Challenge, Day 1: Snacks

This week I'm trying to cook my entire diet out of Shalane Flanagan's book "Run Fast. Eat Slow." On a typical day, I have four (!) snacks. As a 190-pound runner I've found this is what I need to refuel after burning 1000+ calories in my daily fitness regimen. Shalane's guidelines call for one snack and one dessert. I'm not sure that's going to quite work for me, but I'll give it a shot.

First up was her Spelt Banana Bread. The only modification I made to her recipe was to substitute about 2/3 of a dark Toblerone bar (which has been staring at me every time I open the pantry door lately) for cut-up bits of date. Shalane is cool with dark chocolate, so I think this would be seen as a friendly amendment.

The bread was easy to make and turned out fantastic. Nice and moist, and the chocolate and walnuts were delicious. Spelt gives it a more rustic feel than normal banana bread, perhaps a bit heartier and more filling (though I had a hard time limiting myself to about 2/3 of a loaf of the 3 mini-loaves I made, so perhaps it's not really any heartier). 

Later in the day I was still pretty hungry, so I made up her Coconut-Kale Smoothie. It's made with coconut water and kale, with a bit of yogurt and almond butter and dates for sweetness. I substituted frozen bananas for the ice specified in the recipe. The recipe claims it's two servings, so I tried to cut everything in half as I made it. But I kept forgetting to do that so I ended up just making two full servings. This worked out to about a pint and a half. We'll call it "super-size." It's definitely a filling smoothie, I'll give it that. But it still feels more like drinking a salad than having a real snack. Unlike my normal snacks, this isn't something I'd really look forward to. But I have enough ingredients to make another one, so maybe I'll try again later in the week and see if I like it any better.

So far this week I've done an awful lot of cooking, and I haven't even made dinner yet! But for the rest of the week things should go a little better since I've now made all my breakfasts and lunches as well as enough banana bread for three more snacks. I think if you were going to make a lifestyle change and follow this book you could get even more efficient, making and freezing large quantities so life is easier down the road.

The Shalane Challenge: Day 1 Lunch

This week I'm trying to cook my entire diet out of Shalane Flanagan's book "Run Fast. Eat Slow." For lunch today I made Shalane's Carolina Chicken Tarragon Salad. It's pretty similar to a salad I've made for myself: Chicken, yogurt, walnuts, celery, and apple. But Shalane adds a mashed avocado for a little unctuousness and lemon for a little tartness. She also suggests using both boneless skinless breasts and thighs to add a bit of fat and flavor.

The avocados I bought yesterday weren't ripe yet so I had to go on an expedition to find a ripe one; fortunately the Harris Teeter in the next town over had a good one. Shalane's recipe calls for baking the chicken, but I've always grilled my chicken in the past so I decided to go ahead and cook it my way. She also calls for shredding the chicken but I knew my grilled chicken would be tender so I just diced it.

The verdict: Pretty good! I really like the avocado in there! This recipe is supposed to last all week, so I'll report back at the end of the week to let you know how it held up. I might consider adding another avocado to the mix once mine ripen. I also find her suggestion of Granny Smith apples a little too tart, so I would probably use my old standby, a Fuji apple next time. 

I'm not sure it's quite as filling as my usual standard for lunch, a taco salad, but I'm also quite sure it's lower-calorie, so I can probably make up for that with a snack later today. Which reminds me: It's time to start making some Spelt Banana Bread.

The "Shalane Challenge" -- Day 1 Breakfast

This week, while my wife is out of town, I decided to see if I could stick to Shalane Flanagan's diet for the whole week (well, technically just Monday through Friday morning when I head off to Houston for the Houston Half Marathon).

I got her book "Run Fast. Eat Slow." at a white elephant Christmas party and I've been wanting to try it out. If I'm going to try it, I figure I might as well go big. My wife was a little put off by all the photos of "skinny runner girls" in the book and didn't seem especially interested in trying any of the recipes, so I decided to try it while she wasn't here. You can't object if you can't see it, right?

The week started off yesterday with a trip to the grocery store to acquire the ingredients for the recipes I wanted to try out. Flanagan and co-author Elyse Kopecky like to use lots of specialty / "healthy" ingredients like spelt flour and coconut oil that we don't just happen to have lying around the house. Actually it turned out we did have some coconut oil, but no spelt flour, sunflower seeds, kale, or dried ginger (among other things!). After visiting both the local mega-mart and a specialty health store I managed to find everything I needed for six recipes except ground buffalo meat. Who knew that sunflower seeds were now a specialty item -- I can remember buying at the corner grocery story as a kid!

Since nearly everything in the book requires advance preparation, I started my Monday-Friday week on Sunday preparing a batch of Shalane's Ginger-Molasses Granola. It was pretty easy to make, basically just mixing everything up and then baking for 45 minutes. But of course, it's harder than buying a box of cereal at the store.  This morning after my swim, I served some up for breakfast. It's definitely yummy, almost as good as what I get for $3 at the local coffee shop (which is absolutely heavenly but possibly not quite as "healthy"). I always have the problem of being undeservedly hungry after a swim and today was no exception, so I ended up having a second bowl served over some yogurt (whole milk yogurt, per Shalane's directive). 

Next up will be Shalane's Carolina Tarragon Chicken Salad, which I'll make this morning to serve as my lunch for the rest of the week! I'll give a report on that once I've tried it out.