8.02.2014

Eugene MAraTHon Race Recap

More so than any other race, the marathon is about math: using a regression model to predict performance and set race pace, determining what percentage to reduce your weekly mileage to maximize the taper effect, making mid-race calculations to determine how much you can slow down and still meet your goal, etc. Here is my Eugene Marathon experience by numbers:



10- Number of hours of sleep I got in the two nights before the race- combined.
9- Number of Clif Shot Blocks I took during the race.
8- Number of marathons I've started.
7- Number of months since I started training with RunCoach.
6- Number of years since I finished my last marathon.
5- Number of marathons I've finished, including Eugene.
4- Number of minutes I finished behind my PR.
3- Number of minutes I finished ahead of my first- and slowest- marathon.
2- Number representing my second fastest marathon time.
1- Number representing my first successful "away" marathon.


Left to Right: 2006 Frederick Marathon-2:58:14; Not pictured 2007 NCR Trail Marathon- 2:57:57; 2008 Frederick Marathon: 2:56:14; 2008 Marine Corps Marathon- 2:51:14; 2014 Eugene Marathon- 2:55:20.

While these numbers are factually accurate they don't tell the full story because at the heart of a marathon is not math but passion and courage. In some ways the narrative for my race is probably more authentic, though I recognize that it is less reliable. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus made a career out of demonstrating the inaccuracy of episodic memory. According to Loftus, after information is processed, encoded, and retrieved, comes a fourth stage in the memory process- reconsolidation. During this stage, new and inaccurate information is unintentionally incorporated into a memory. Each time a story or event is recalled, new information may be added, making a more colorful but less factual story. Without this process to alter the memory of a marathon people might not run a second one, but with each reconsolidation the memories of the pain are watered down and the glory is magnified.

The memories of the euphoria and self-actualization I experienced after my first four marathons are what drove me to revisit the distance after several heartbreaking failures and assaults to my self-confidence. It's hard to convey to non-runners the depth of the experience of loss involved in training for a marathon and being unable to finish. Stepping off the course and allowing the energy and focus poured into months of training go down the drain calls the entire process into question. How could the ends possibly justify means this devastating? The marathon is undoubtedly a cruel, draconian beast; he is arbitrary and severe in his punishments. Minor issues that might go unnoticed in a 5k, even those that are outside of your control, are magnified exponentially, often leading to disaster: It's 10 degrees warmer than the average temperature for race day? No PR for you! You ran 15 seconds faster than goal pace in the first half? Off with your head! Adding insult to injury, unlike a 5k, your next chance for redemption won't be for months, after you've recovered and repeated the process of base-building, speed-work, and tapering. That is, if you can summon the courage to repeat the process, knowing that the payoff is never guaranteed.

With my most recent experience behind me I can say this with certainty: the ends do justify the means. Each failed attempt has added to my appreciation and respect for the distance, making it all the more sweet to finally conquer it. Perhaps this is an effect of memory reconsolidation,but it seems that my first four marathons came fairly easily, each one faster than the last. It came as a shock when things stopped coming easily, and I began to stop trusting that they ever would again. Even heading into the final weeks before Eugene, I began to experience doubts about my ability to finish, let alone run fast. Having an established program like RunCoach, as well as guidance from Tanner Whisperer Coach Tom McGlynn and my personal marathon guru Heather Tanner, was critical to overcoming these doubts. Knowing their confidence in me made it relatively easy to let go and trust my fitness, though I did experience moments of panic in the final few days. Probably the scariest moment came on Friday night, two days before the race. Our connecting flight into Phoenix was rerouted due to a dust storm, meaning that we wouldn't make it to Oregon until Saturday-- if at all. While sitting on the grounded plane in Las Vegas, I talked myself out of various cognitive distortions and turned on the guided mindfulness meditation app on my phone. Gradually the fear melted away.

Aside from this issue, the final week heading into the race went well. Cutting back my mileage had the desired effect of making my legs ache to run. With Tom's help, I devised the following race plan: start with a deliberately slow 7 min mile, drop to 6:40 for the first half, reassess at mile 14 and again at mile 18, dropping to 6:20 if I felt comfortable enough. My goal was, first and foremost, to have a positive experience. Having only started training semi-seriously in January, I hadn't had a long enough build-up to reach the kind of mileage that would allow me to PR (2:51), but I felt certain that I could run faster than my first marathon (2:58). This left me with a goal in the 2:53-2:57 range.

On the starting line I knew it would be pretty difficult to run a 7 min first mile. I was in the elite corral, and most of the other women were aiming for the Olympic Trials Qualifying standard (2:43), which translates to a 6:13 average. Still, I did my best to hold back, letting them gap me in the first 200 m. Even running what I felt was a jog I hit the mile mark at 6:35. I pulled back the reins, settling into 6:40s. In spite of the fact that I wasn't able to fully open my stride due to the restraint I was exercising, this pace felt fairly comfortable. I enjoyed the sights of the Eugene neighborhoods, quirky houses set against a backdrop of green mountains. I was passed by many men in these first few miles, but I would eventually catch most, if not all, of them. The difficult part of running an evenly paced marathon is that you will be running alone; in the first half you will be passed by droves, and in the second half you will pass them back, making them feel like they're standing still as you blow by. I know this because this is what one man told me as I ran past him at mile 24. Running alone was fine with me; I was prepared for it, having done all but one long run by myself.

I came through the half in 1:27:24, right on schedule. Around mile 14, I felt a sharp wave of nausea. It was the first and last time I would experience doubt about my ability to finish. Instead of allowing myself to wallow in discouragement, I was able to draw upon past marathon experiences to remind myself that these feelings of nausea and fatigue would come and go. I remembered having second, third, fourth, and even fifth winds in previous marathons and rode out the wave. Still, I decided not to drop the pace, knowing there was still much race to run. I held steady through 20. The back half of the race is run on a scenic but windy bike path, snaking along a river. The sharp turns make it somewhat difficult to maintain rhythm. I also noticed that I must not have been doing a good job with the tangents because my GPS watch was no longer in synch with the miler markers. I was feeling fatigued but evaded hitting "The Wall" by slowing down ever so slightly to ride out waves of fatigue. Even still, my slowest mile was only a 6:47, 6 seconds off my average. At mile 25 I finally allowed myself to unleash, something I'd been waiting to do for 2 hours and 45 minutes. In doing so I passed 2 women, likely fallen soldiers from the march to the OTQ. As we approached the famed Hayward field I felt a burst of energy. Drawing from the spirit of the crowd, I began to kick, covering the last half mile, the last 200 m of which are on the track, at 6:08 pace. It was a glorious feeling, well worth the 6 year wait. I crossed the line and immediately saw Dustin, who had finished in a PR of 2:30. We hugged and relished in the shared accomplishment, an especially rare gift from the fickle marathon beast.

Looking back, I see that I ran a conservative race, leaving some room for improvement. However, I believe that I ran as well as I could within the constraints of my goals. After so many failures it was critical for me to finish this race and to have a positive experience. Next time I'll be able to take more risks... maybe I'll start to pick up the pace at mile 20 instead of mile 25. But for now I want to celebrate this experience without looking too far ahead.


In the immortal words of Puff Daddy, "Yo, the sun don't shine forever. But as long as it's here then we might as well shine together."


7.13.2014

Racing is the fun part



Moving unearths mementos from the past and with them the bittersweet combination of dust and nostalgia. Among outdated textbooks, pictures of college parties that were spared Facebook infamy, and a 2 lb GPS watch, I found this 2008 article from the D.C. Examiner, which profiles my preparation for the Marine Corps Marathon. Six years have passed since the article was published. I'm finished with graduate school and living in a different city. I'm still training for marathons and have similar goals, but my approach towards meeting these goals is slightly different.  In preparation for the 2008 Marine Corps Marathon I ran multiple 100 mile weeks and averaged 70 per week on the year. However, a great portion of those runs, maybe 30%, was at shuffle-jog pace. I was interested in the cardiovascular benefits of "time on your feet" rather than building speed and running economy. This plan worked out remarkably well for me. I finished in 2:51:14 and captured 3rd place.

In spite of this success, evolving circumstances have called for an adaptation to my training program. This time around, under the advisement of Coach Tom McGlynn and the RunCoach program, I've focused on quality over quantity. I've maxed out at 70 mpw, but each and every run has served a purpose. I've done higher quality long runs than ever before and consistently worked out twice a week. In addition to a different training philosophy, my mileage has been lower because I've had to gradually dig myself out of a hole left by untreated anemia and four years away from the road racing circuit. The plan is to continue increasing my mileage in the next cycle, though the emphasis will remain on quality over quantity.

My mindset is also somewhat different heading into this race. Like my self-expectations for Marine Corps, I have high hopes for myself going into the Eugene Marathon. Where I differ is that I no longer consider finishing a victory. I know that I can go out and finish a marathon tomorrow. This is not why I race. I  have tiered goals. In other words, "I would be over the moon if I ran X time," "I would be happy if I ran Y time," and "I would be satisfied if I ran Z time." Anything outside of those times would be a disservice to my long-term goals. Finishing a marathon when you feel sub-par, for whatever reason, is a mental victory. But it's a trophy I've already earned. My sights are set on new challenges and new accomplishments.

I feel as physically and mentally prepared as I could be with two weeks to go. As Kara Goucher said, "Racing is the fun part; it's the reward for all the hard work." I can't wait to let loose and have a blast in Eugene!

6.23.2014

Moving versus motion

Last week was the first hiccup in this training cycle. The last 6.5 years of my life have been pretty transient. I transitioned from being a graduate student to a pre-doctoral intern to a full-time professional, moving 6 times and living in 3 different states in the process. After going through so many moves, I've pared down rather than accumulated things. It was for this reason that I so grossly underestimated how difficult my most recent move would be. Almost every waking hour of this past weekend was spent doing some sort of manual labor. On top of that, or perhaps because of it, I became physically ill, taking a break from lugging boxes to vomit. Training suffered, too. I had to take my first unplanned day off and only managed 6 miles on the day I was supposed to do my long run. I squeaked out 45 miles for the week, when I was supposed to do 60. Life happens. I felt better on Sunday night, so hopefully I can resume normal training this week. And return to my usual policy of using my arms as little as possible. Change is good and I'm happy with my new place, but next time I'm hiring movers.
The new 'hood.

6.18.2014

The Art of Making a Marathon Playlist


Creating a good playlist is a lot like running a marathon; it's hard work, and whether or not you succeed depends on tempo and pacing. Putting a Norah Jones lullaby between 2Pac and DMX makes as much sense as dropping a 5:30 mile when you're cruising at 6:20s. I submit for your review my pump-up playlist for the Eugene marathon. Naturally it includes 26 songs, one for each mile of the race. I took into account tempo, variety of musical genres, song order, and lyrical message, striving to come up with the perfect musical  representation of the race I intend to run.

I start with Bleachers' peppy but controlled anthem "I Wanna Get Better." In a marathon you want to start out conservatively, so this earnest, humble message of self-improvement is preferable to adrenaline-pumping, ego-stroking self-congratulation, which will come later. I continue on the modesty train with the Candlebox ballad "Far Behind." It's a slow-paced reminder not to get too excited; there is still a lot of work to do, and the finish line is far, far away. The Mowgli's "San Francisco" says "Hey, you came all the way out to the west coast to run this race. Let's have some fun!" The next seven songs take me through mile 10, rounding out the beginning portion of the race with peppy but controlled beats and inspirational messages about perseverance. 
Song #11 is "Started From the Bottom" by Drake. It is at this point in the race that I'll begin to shift my efforts from holding back to holding steady. The shift will be difficult. I'll need a musical reward in the form of Drake's relatively mild, self-congratulatory smugness. Normally country music, with its self-pitying laments and languid pace, would be reserved for the beginning portion of a marathon. "Fastest Girl in Town" is not your everyday country song. It has a rather aggressive tempo and a heavy-handed message, making it more appropriate for mile 12. I'll be maintaining a hard effort in the race, but I'll still have to conserve some energy for the final few miles. Through song 20, the tempo of the playlist stays pretty high, but messages of omnipotence are titrated with messages of modest perseverance. My favorite of these songs is #15, "Handlebars." It talks about the relationship between power and control and is a good metaphor for a marathon. The narrator gradually assumes more and more power, until he spirals out of control, as one would if he got greedy and tried to maintain an overly ambitious pace in a marathon. The line "I can make anybody go to prison just because I don't like him" resonates. Every good racer is at least a little bit sadistic, deriving pleasure from making competitors hurt. On a different note, I also really like "Kick, Push." The song is about a skateboarder but could easily be applied to a marathoner. "So let's kick... and push... and coast..."
And finally we get to the final 10k, where the race begins. If the first portion is about holding back, and the second portion is about holding steady, the final portion is about holding on for dear life. This kind of anguish requires the most aggressive beats and self-indulgent lyrics to sustain momentum. "Remember The Name" starts things off right. The lyrics use some fuzzy math (10% luck + 20% skill + 15% concentrated power of will + 5% pleasure + 50% pain + 100% reason to remember the name = 200%), but at the 20 mile mark of a marathon nobody's doing any math. "F.U.T.W.," in my opinion, is the best and most underrated track from Jay Z's Magna Carta album. "Don't be good my nigga, be great..." Word. "Pour Some Sugar on me," my longtime personal pump-up anthem, is perfect for the final two miles of the race when I'll be fantasizing about being doused with a cooler of Gatorade. Coming through the final mile, making my way into the famed Hayward Field, I'll be channeling Steve Prefontaine. And DJ Khaled's "All I do is win."

I'll be listening to this as I try visualize the race. I figure I should be doing some mental preparation to complement all of the physical training.

F.U.T.W.


6.07.2014

Long runs have more to love

I live for long runs. No other way I'd want to spend a weekend morning:-)

6.06.2014

Urban Fairy Tale: The Pimp's New Clothes!


Once upon a time there was a pimp with a big mouth and an eye for flashy fashion. His name was Bull E. Biggs, not that you would have heard of him. His pimping resume was pretty flimsy, but his smack talk was aggressive enough to command submission, if not respect. His rise to pimpdom was as unorthodox as his style. Rather than honorably working his way up the pimping ranks, he seized control of the most lucrative city blocks with his loud mouth and louder fashion sense.

Though he was loud and prolific with his speech (see www.pimpmypants.blogspot.com), he wasn’t particularly creative or clever. His jokes were more mean than funny. For instance, he frequently told “your momma” jokes but neglected to include a punchline: Your momma is so stupid, Your momma is so fat, Your momma is so ugly, and so on. People did laugh at his “jokes,” but this was mostly because they were afraid that they’d become the next target if they didn’t.

Bull was equally insulting to the eyes as he was on the ears. His wardrobe included hypercolor t-shirts, jorts, knee-high argyle socks, feather headdresses, trucker hats with gas station logos, shredded tank tops, pastel skinny jeans, knee high boots with wedge heels, bejeweled eye patches, and so on. His bold choices elicited many looks and comments, always complimentary, even if the openmouthed stares belied feelings of revulsion. Still, the combination of flashy clothes and bombastic personality lulled people into acquiescence and helped him maintain control over his territory.

Bull’s call girls were the most frequent targets of his so-called humor, and their choice of clothing was the bull’s eye, so to speak. He loved to belittle them for wearing little shorts, seeming to forget that those shorts earned him the most cash—and that his own fashion choices often left less to the imagination. One of his call girls, Selma Body, was particularly bothered by Bull’s affronts. She recognized that laughing at his "jokes" only reinforced them but, like the others, was lulled into submission by his vitriolic threats.

Like any connoisseur of style, Bull often took time out of his busy schedule of brokering sex acts to attend showcases of emerging fashion designers. He was so taken with the designs of a man named Sartorius Twist that he commissioned him to design a coat. Sartorius was quickly becoming famous for designing clothes that defiantly pushed the boundaries of pure exhibitionism. The coat Bull had in mind was to exhibit as much of his body as possible; it was to be an outer layer to showcase the inner Bull. Sartorius was the perfect man to create it.

Sartorius insisted on observing the Bull in his habitat to get a sense of his personality. He followed Bull on his daily rounds; He watched him intimidate fellow pimps, ingratiate himself to johns, strong-arm call girls, and count his money. Then he returned to his studio, where he sealed the doors and windows, and got to work.

The next morning he emerged, carrying a giant box with a red ribbon and a small note attached. He presented the box to Bull and promptly departed, having collected his payment in the initial meeting, as cunning contractors are wont to do. The note read: "This coat has magical powers and can only be seen by those who are wise, fit, and attractive."

Bull stared at the open box for several minutes, scratching his head. Then he stripped down and covered his naked body with his precious new coat. It was summer after all; he figured that it would be too hot for more than one layer. Bull proudly strutted over to his territory, puffing out his chest at the sight of each wide-eyed stare. When he noticed that he was drawing a crowd he stopped to address his followers.

Like a movie star on a red carpet he announced the name of the coat’s designer and read the note aloud: “This coat has magical powers and can only be seen by those who are wise, fit, and attractive.” The crowd, which had been emitting raucous laughter and chatter, fell silent. Expressions ranged from confusion to horror. After a few moments, the buzz returned. Onlookers wiped away their smirks and began uttering phrases like “bold, clean lines” and “inventive fabric choice." Bull beamed with a smug sense of self-satisfaction...

... until the buzz was pierced with a pointed cry.

“Don’t you see? He’s naked! The trick got tricked!” The crowd parted to reveal Selma Body and fell silent once again. This time the silence was punctuated with laughter rather than faux-insight. The man who spent his days ridiculing others—in some cases about their choice of clothes—had become the target of ridicule. People pointed at him and guffawed, making disparaging remarks about his physical appearance and intellect. Bull had become the bull’s eye.

The story doesn’t end there. Bull decided to re-evaluate his life as a result of the humiliation. He realized that he was making fun of others because he was unhappy with himself. He was threatened by the things that others’ had, things that he coveted, so he ridiculed them. He was particularly jealous of the clothes that the prostitutes got to wear, which is why he teased them so relentlessly. It was through this epiphany that Bull realized his true calling: he was born to be a drag queen. Thus, Bella Biggs was born.

One day, while sashaying down the street, Bella crossed paths with a familiar face. “Selma Body!” she exclaimed, genuinely happy to the woman who changed her for the better. “It’s just Selma,” Selma corrected, “I don’t do that anymore.” The two exchanged brief pleasantries and continued on their ways, headed in separate but healthier directions.

And they lived happily ever after!

 ****************************************************************************

What does this have to do with running? Admittedly little. But bullying and mob mentality can impact any group. Sports teams are not immune. I came up with the idea for this story while running through “The Block” in Baltimore. Any similarity to actual pimps and prostitutes is coincidental. Similarity to people I know is unavoidable.

6.01.2014

Running Riddle

You need both of these things to be successful, but they aren't always compatible. You have to put intense amounts of effort into both, but the more effort you put into one, the less you get out of the other. Striking a balance between them is the key to unlocking a PR.

What are they? Training and Racing.

I'm still trying to figure out the balance. On the training-racing continuum I fall more towards the training side. I tend to focus so much on training that I don't let myself race. I never want to back off of workouts to taper for a race because there's always another race further down the line in need of base-building. Toeing the line when I'm not rested isn't a desirable option either. I don't want to race unless I know I can do my best. So I end up waiting. Then something happens- injury, illness, etc. I'm not able to do the race "further down the line," and I have months of solid training with nothing to show for it. Falling more towards the racing side of the continuum can have its pitfalls as well. Tapering and racing too much can stand in the way of building the strength that comes from longer workouts and higher mileage. The trick is finding the middle ground on the continuum.

This week I tried to push myself toward the middle and be more of a racer. My goal race is the Eugene Marathon, 8 weeks from today, so I'm right in the thick of marathon training. Normally I would have done a 20 miler this morning, but I wanted to do the Bel Air Town Run 5k. Dusty was doing it, so I was going to go anyway. I figured I might as well race. But the trainer in me was stubbornly holding onto my long run. When would I do it if not Sunday morning? I didn't want to do it the day before the race, so Saturday wasn't an option... These are the times when I'm most grateful for RunCoach telling me what to do. I backed off the intensity of my workouts on Monday and Thursday, maintained the mileage, and did an 18 miler on Friday night. I was okay with this compromise but felt a little nervous going into the race. I'm used to feeling fresh as a daisy when I toe the line. Having no expectations should be a relief, but for me it was nerve-wracking. I really had no idea what to expect, and the idea of running too far off my recent times was scary.

I ended up running 17:37. It was relatively slower than my most recent race (Pike's Peek 10k- 35:56), but not by too much. All in all, I'm very glad I raced. Without my usual taper it took a little longer than usual to warm up and get into race-mode, but after mile #1 I was in a groove. I didn't have to sacrifice too much training, and it was a confidence booster. I may have to race a little more often. But only if I can figure out a way to squeeze in my long run!