Sunday, March 30, 2008

Undeniable progress

Denial. It conjures up so many references in so many contexts, most often regarding a failing to accept a certain -- usually unpleasant -- reality. However, denial can also be the result of refusing to acknowledge something good about oneself, perhaps because of not feeling worthy of success.

I mention this today because I have been engaged in a constant internal struggle since I crossed the imaginary line which marked my conversion from fitness jogger to "runner" sometime in the late summer/early fall of 2006. That struggle has involved a conflict between the feeling that I could set and meet ambitious running goals (and do so in a pretty short time) versus a deep-seated feeling that I am destined to fall short of those running goals for lack of ability, talent, durability, time, focus, etc. Since my last race was a disappointment (see race report), I have not raced again. The "official" reason is that the mostly 5K offerings in my area simply don't fit in with my training schedule. That is absolutely true, but it is not -- as they say in my profession -- "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth". The complete, unvarnished truth is that I am also a bit afraid of racing, as I fear a continued plateau, or even a performance dip, which -- despite knowing full well that my ever-increasing training volume is almost solely responsible for any disappointing races run on tired legs. -- gives the doubting side of the internal conflict more grist for the mill.

But, with the relative success of my first marathon pace run last Sunday, and this morning's easy 14-miler (love the cutback week!), I'm starting to feel that it's all coming together. Having crossed the training program's midway point, I am paying closer attention to the important "details" of plan. For instance, having settled on a goal time of under 3:30 (an 8:00/mile pace) for my next marathon, I should be running the first half of the long runs at a 9:36/mile pace (20% slower), and the second half at about 8:48 (10%). Today I focused on my pace throughout, and stepped it up after 7 miles. The run was nearly "textbook", and it still felt pretty easy (especially compared to last weekend's MP run). Doing such a run exactly according the recommended paces would come out to a 9:12 average pace. Today, my average pace was almost exactly 9:00/mile, with a strong finish (despite some soreness in my calves, knees and the omni-present hip flexor), running the last half-mile at under a 7:00 pace. I am training myself to finish every run strong and fast, so that on race day I can actually kick it hard with a half-mile or less to go.

Whereas my prior training plan involved me approaching the training goals like a game of horseshoes (where "close" is often good enough), I'm now running with more intention, focus and -- perhaps most importantly -- control. I'm not sure whether I'll be signing up for any pre-marathon 5K's (the plan does call for 3 Saturday races of anywhere from 8-15K), but I might drop a race in somewhere along the line just to see what happens. It's sort of a no-lose situation, because I can explain away any slow times (too many miles; no taper; etc.), while I know I'll get a mega-boost from a new PR at any distance at this point. I'll keep you posted.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Out like a lamb . . . yeah right!

Dateline: March 28, 2008 -Yesterday, I ran outside in shorts for the first time in months. Today, we may get 8 inches of snow, a major setback in light of the encouraging snow melt over the past couple of weeks. Despite our technical entry into Spring a week ago, this winter -- beastly, aggressive, relentless and uncaring -- is not going away quietly. So, we'll shovel . . . again. Brush our cars off . . . again. Get the kids' winter gear out of the closet . . . again. We know it has to end sometime, but at this rate it feels like we'll have some snow on the ground until June.

The good news for me is that today is a non-running day, and the weather (if not the roads) should be good for this weekend's two runs (8 with strides tomorrow and 14 easy on Sunday). So, after some push-ups, core exercises and stretching, I'm not stressing about either running in the slop or on the treadmill. We count our blessings where we find them.

Also, though I know (and actually kind of like) that nearly no one reads this blog, for anyone who wandered across it by accident and has read this far, please click here to learn about an incredible young woman, whom I've "met" through the Runner's World discussion forums. She set a goal to run 200 miles in a week. Check our her narrative to see why it was an especially remarkable accomplishment.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

We Be Jammin'

Today marked the first VO2 Max workout of this training cycle, and it went just fine. The only downside is that I didn't think the track would be clear of snow & ice, so I did the run on the treadmill (or, the "insteadmill", as I've been calling it lately). Considering the unprecedented mileage I've been logging, I'm very pleased to have gotten through an 8-mile run with 5 x 600 intervals at 5K pace, after an 8-mile general aerobic run yesterday early morning. Since I haven't run a 5K race since last August (shocking!), I presumptuously used my pace from then, hitting the intervals at about a 6:22/mile pace. It was definitely hard, but I had no doubts that I'd manage to hit the intervals as planned. The cool-down portion seemed to last an eternity, since slowing down by 2 minutes per mile feels like crawling (though I was thankful when the last interval was done).

Injury recap:
  • pretty sore hip (not affecting actual runs under 14 or so miles)
  • soreness in outside of left calf, but also not a problem during runs
  • some foot pain, I'm guessing from the training volume (shoes are still pretty new)

Tomorrow (Thursday) calls for a 5-mile recovery run, which I plan to do with my injured colleague who ran the Philadelphia Marathon in 2:55 this year (talk about a crawl; I can only imagine how slow it'll feel to him to run 8:30 pace). Friday will be cross-training and core work. Saturday calls for 8 miles with 8x100 strides, and Sunday a nice 14-miles at the slower "long run" pace than last weekends MP effort.

After this cutback week, I have to "crest" the training program, with a 55-mile week on tap. More on that later, but what will follow is 3 50-ish mile weeks, then the taper, then the actual RACE. Hard to believe it's that close, but far enough away to allow for more fitness gains, and - more importantly - hopefully more objective indicators of those fitness gains.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Is it coming together?

Yesterday was my first scheduled marathon pace (MP) training run. The training plan called for a 15-mile run, with 12 miles at marathon pace (which, for now, is 8:00/mile, +/- a few seconds). We were away for Easter, so I had mapped out the run from my brother-in-law's place in Maine on I plotted a 15.1-mile loop, and the elevation profile did not look too bad, with two hilly sections in the middle. I should know by now that such profiles can be deceiving.

I was coming off my highest 7-day mileage total ever, having surpassed 50 miles for the first time (total was 52+ from March 16-22, with a grand 8-day total of 68 miles). I'll admit to being a little intimidated about heading out to run 12 MP miles on such tired legs. The plan was to run a slow mile, settle into MP, then bang out the 12 miles, leaving a 2-mile cool-down. As with so much in running (and life), I had to adjust the plan.

Interestingly, my body was more than ready to run "fast", having logged lots of sllllllloooooooooow miles recently (long slow distance = LSD). While those slow miles do have an undisputed training benefit, they can also make one wonder about having the ability to go any faster. No sooner was I out the door, though, than I started "cheating up" from slow warm-up to MP. So much for the warm-up mile, which - despite efforts to reign myself in - I ran in around 8:30.

Because I was in an unfamiliar setting (at least in terms of running in that area), I had written the directions (turn-by-turn with distance notes) on a card, which I put in a zip-loc baggie along with some paper towel (runners understand why) and $10. I put the baggie in the front pocket of my running pants, and at about the 1.5-mile mark, I reached for the card to see where I'd be turning. Yes, you guessed it, the card had fallen out, so I backtracked and found it, covering a total of about an extra 0.75 mile, but losing my rhythm in terms of getting into the MP groove.

With directions firmly in hand, I forged ahead at goal MP, fighting some tough winds and realizing that the uphills were more significant than I had expected. I tried to relax about it, and sought to run on MP "effort" if not actual pace. My running software told me later that the temp was around 29, with average winds over 17 mph and maximum winds of over 20 mph. Ironically, I somehow ran a loop where it seemed that the wind was in my face for 80% of it. How can that be exactly? I know the running gods have a perverse sense of humor, but I figured that I had to catch a break with the wind sometime before my last couple of miles.

All told, my MP splits were slower than I had hoped, but not abysmal. Although during the run I considered myself to have run only 11 MP miles, looking back at the splits, it was more like 13+, given that I went out fast and finished fast. The average of the 13 "full" MP miles was exactly 8:20, a tad disappointing, but given the wind and elevation issues, along with having just done my highest mileage week, I'm optimistic about meeting my sub-3:30 marathon goal in May. The other encouraging part is that after cresting the final long hill (a 300-foot elevation gain over about 2 miles). I managed to string together three miles at or below goal MP: 8:04, 8:03, 7:48.

So, perhaps things are coming together as they should. This week is a relatively easy one, though Wednesday calls for some speed work (8M with 5x600 at 5K race pace), which will be the first time I've run at that pace this year. So, despite the chronically sore hip (and a strange calf issue that arose Saturday morning, after we'd had a Mojito party on Friday where I uncharacteristically had more than one drink, leaving myself dehydrated), I'm feeling pretty good about where my training is at the moment. Now, if we can get some real spring weather to arrive (and stay), I'll be one happy runner.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Fatigue & Me

My "good friend" Pete Pfitzinger had me run 20 miles on Sunday, cross-train Monday (bless him), 6 miles on Tuesday and 14 miles on Wednesday. That's 40 miles in 4 days, a huge personal max for me. Factor in that I'll run two more 6-milers (today and Saturday), and a 15-miler (with 12 at marathon pace) on Sunday, and I will have run close to 70 miles in 8 days, something that was incomprehensible to me not only a year-and-a-half ago when I got serious about running, but even a few months ago, when stringing together consecutive 40+-mile weeks seemed like an accomplishment.

Truth be told, I am T-I-R-E-D, which I suppose is as it should be. I've had trouble getting up for my pre-dawn runs, squeezing runs it at lunchtime, and then making up the work time later in the evening. Cumulative fatigue is a key part of the training process, and it will be interesting to see how the 12 miles at MP go on Sunday. Speaking of which, I am 95% decided that I will not be pushing for my Boston Qualifying (BQ) time of sub-3:20 in Burlington in May. It just feels like a lot of pressure, and would require that everything come together perfectly. Since this will be a "second first marathon" for me, it seems foolish and a bit arrogant to set such a lofty goal, when I have yet to run the entire marathon distance. Instead, I'd be happy with anything under 3:35, and would be very happy with any time under 3:30. If my overall pace is 7:xx per mile, I'll be thrilled. Barring injury, another unseasonal heat wave, or some other unforeseen complication (anything from stomach problems to stupidly going out too fast), those goals should be within reach. I'll have logged so many more miles than I did last year, and I feel so much better overall (hip is a nag, but only a minor one), that I am confident about posting a respectable time. Then I can set my sights on getting the BQ in Chicago, after what I hope will be a much more manageable (just in terms of weather & daylight) summer/fall training program.

Sunday's MP run will tell me a lot about how training is going, but I'm telling myself not get too down if it feels really hard or if I simply don't make it through all 12 miles at a 7:55/mile pace. I understand the point of hitting the target pace on fatigued legs, but I think that's the very reason that anything less than a "perfect" training run is not cause to abandon all hopes of running sub-3:30. As all runners know, there's a difference between "training through" and running on rested legs.

A final "confession": in the back of my mind resides a notion ("hope" is probably the right word) that I will experience a sudden "breakthrough" of significant proportions somewhere along the line. Problem is, I don't know that I'm giving myself much chance to discern that breakthrough well ahead of the marathon, so that I can adjust my race planning accordingly.

Cheers, ESG

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Whole Lot Going On


Most of us toil daily in order to exert some semblance of control over our own little corner of the world. Our lives can get so busy, so full of tasks, obligations and concerns, that it becomes difficult to follow what's going on in the world, much less think -- or, alas do something -- about it. That's just an observation, not a call to action or the beginning a diatribe about civic inaction and apathy. I'm as guilty of such culpable disengagement as anyone, and more so than many.

However, I have been observing the burgeoning financial crisis and the "market's" reaction to this ever-spiraling situation with great concern. Not because I have a whole lot of money invested (I don't), but because I just don't understand how so many ostensibly smart people can be blinded by greed. Why does the current state of financial affairs in this country come as a surprise to anyone? At every level, from micro- to macro-economic, we have been sold a bill of goods about the lifestyle we can afford. All the while, the rise of corporate profits comes on the backs of the workers who continuously are called upon to do more for less. The cost of EVERYTHING (gas, food, medical insurance/care, heating oil, housing, higher education, cars, etc.) continues to rise exponentially compared to wages. Yes, a select few do very, very well, but they're not the ones who drive our economy. They're the ones who continue to shoulder a disproportionately low tax burden, as the gap between the rich and the poor widens, and America's middle class shrinks. They're the ones who benefit from policy after government policy (or from no policies at all in some cases) which serve to cement the status quo and chip away at the "American Dream".

Despite being a professional who does "okay", my business suffers when the economy suffers, because many current and prospective clients simply cannot afford my services. My wife's non-profit work won't get any easier, either, though hers is an exceptional situation, involving many who are essentially impervious to the vicissitudes of financial markets. I worry about my kids and how long it will take to work through the problems engendered by years of poor U.S. public policy, a misguided war and a seemingly eternal game of financial smoke and mirrors which is now leading to the front door of a major economic catastrophe, with the real crisis staved off temporarily by government intervention on behalf of the most diehard proponents of a free market economy. As many have already pointed out, how can it be that our government decides to help bail out an investment bank while sitting idly by as thousands (soon likely to be millions) of Americans lose their homes thanks to deceptive and predatory mortgage lending practices, practices which have contributed significantly to the problems the government is trying to control (since "solving" them is beyond the pale). As if we needed any further evidence of our government's true priorities.

Going back to the beginning of this post, I sincerely believe that we exist in a collectively weakened state - fueled by financial insecurity and a heightened sense that we are in constant danger of outside attack, and are thus so focused on "getting by" that we cannot muster the personal, political and moral will to speak out and declare - in a loud, unified voice - that the status quo is unacceptable. Granted, a lack of courageous political leaders is part of the problem, but a great society cannot allow its fate to rest in the hands of a few elected officials. People make leaders act; rarely is it the other way around.

Okay, so maybe I lied, and this is one tiny, hollow-voiced call to action, or at least to think for a minute about the big picture and what we Average Joes & Janes might do about it.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Into the Wild

Last weekend, I saw Sean Penn's visually stunning and philosophically challenging movie, Into the Wild. Based on Jon Krakauer's 1996 book, the movie chronicles the last two years in the life of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a.k.a., Alexander Supertramp. Chris' story holds special sway for me, not because many of the themes hit a personal nerve (though they do), but because he and I went to college together, and I knew him briefly during our freshman year when we both worked on the school newspaper. I won't claim that we were friends, and will admit that I'd have likely completely forgotten him had his story not come to national prominence. That said, to have known someone who was destined to live a short but memorable life makes one feel like a part of the story.

The movie was very well done: well-acted; gorgeously filmed; full of thought-provoking questions about materialism, the essence of human existence & relationships, the definition of truth, morality, happiness, love, loss, etc. But there was something askew, and I only found myself figuring it out after feeling a pang of regret for not having been more like Chris, not having developed a rock-solid moral code and renounced a life of comfort and security in order to live obsessively true to that code. That was the problem, in a nutshell: Penn idealized Chris' life, and - to some extent- his death, to the point of making a spiritual vision quest-turned-death-march into a romantic pursuit of "truth". While Chris' parents were portrayed in unequivocally unflattering terms, Emile Hirsch's Chris has a messiah-like quality, inspiring intense affection and even love in virtually every person he met along the way during his two-year odyssey. He becomes a screen onto which folks project their emotional needs: he's recruited as a surrogate son, grandson, employee, lover, etc.

I would like to re-read the book, but the one thing I didn't like about it the first time around was that Krakauer inserted himself too much into Chris' life, essentially engaging in some armchair psychologizing in order to figure out what made Chris tick. While that may be the biographer's prerogative, it felt too much like Krakauer used Chris' story to work out some of his own issues. Against the backdrop of a best-selling book, that seemed exploitative to me. On the other hand, maybe Penn didn't do enough of that, instead deferring to Chris' character (played with charisma, charm and Hollywood good looks which I don't remember in the real Chris) to the point of borderline hagiography.

Despite what may sound like my overly harsh criticism, the book and movie both tell a very engaging story which raises many issues about the choices we make in a modern society. While the world gets ever more interconnected, it is still possible to get lost. If we are willing to live with the consequences of our choices, it is possible to eschew the demands of a world which exalts achievement, consumption and acquisition above most everything else. And, even for one who was thought himself intellectually and physically prepared for the daunting challenge of surviving for months in the Alaskan wild, the power of the natural world to overcome an ever-worse-equipped-survivalist human specimen remains something to behold and respect.

In an ultimate irony, Chris McCandless' sense of the world came from books, reading greats such as Tolstoy, London, Thoreau, et al. To think - as Krakauer & Penn posit - that Chris starved to death because he misread a book on edible Alaskan flora serves as a powerful metaphor for questioning the validity of a foundation predicated upon the abstract. Chris might have thought that from the right books, he could learn everything he needed to know to make his way in the world. In terms of relationships, happiness, truth and sustenance, he proved himself wrong.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Back on the Horse

To 20, or not to 20 . . . that was the question. After easing back into the plan with reduced mileage, I mused over whether to pick it back up 100% for this weekend's long run, the first 20-miler of the cycle. I decided to go for it, and am very glad that I did.

We had more snow on Saturday, 3-4 inches on top of the near-record snowfall for 2007-2008. It gave a pristine veneer to all the dirty plow piles along the road's shoulder, and made the woods and fields look clean and pure. I noticed more birds and lots of flowing streams and creeks. The temperature was in the high 30's, so snow melt streamed down the grades of many of the roads I was on. It's interesting to use the streams to help you know if you're on an up- or downslope, when sometimes the naked eye simply can't discern the grade. Then, of course, there are times when the grade would be apparent to the blind. The loop I mapped out for today had three killer sections. Here's the elevation profile, courtesy of

The third one was the real killer, since it was extremely steep, up a dirt road that had not been plowed, which meant a mix of slush, ice, dirt and tire ruts. That was a painfully slow stretch, but the goal was to keep moving forward without losing my footing. An 11+-minute per mile pace was the ugly result.

Towards the end of the longest distance I've run since the Chicago Marathon last October (and, given the heat and cramps then, I didn't actually run the entire course), "things" started to hurt. My hip and IT band bugged me a bit, and my knees were sore for the last few miles. My chiropractor says that's the result of tight hamstrings, and I'll confess to not stretching very much before long runs, figuring I'll warm up and stretch out in the first few miles. I did manage to make the last mile the fastest of the day, a small psychological boost in an otherwise mediocre effort.

When I got home (more than 10 minutes later than I'd hoped), I was treated to the company of some good friends and unexpected cookout, so I skipped the ice bath. Though I was sweaty, tired and sore, I was very pleased to have gotten 20 miles under my belt, and look forward to the next two 20-milers without the dread, doubt and uncertainty I experienced the first time around during last summer and fall's training.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Down, but not out

One of the mixed blessings of being a committed distance runner (hold the puns, please) is the sense of invincibility that comes from consistently pushing oneself into new realms of accomplishment. Each time you move the line on what was a previous limitation, you feel a sense of accomplishment and possibility. That's got to be the main reason that the sport is so addictive: the faster and longer you run, the faster and longer you want to run.

Well, I took that sense of invincibility with me into Week #7 of my training plan, scheduled to be my first-ever 50+-mile week. As I jumped on the treadmill at lunchtime on Tuesday, March 4th to do a 10-miler with 5 at lactate threshold (LT) pace, something felt not quite right. Three bathroom breaks later, I cut the run to an 8-miler, with 4 at LT, while strategizing about how to make up the 2 miles I'd cut. By Tuesday night, I had joined my two youngest children with a 103+-degree fever, chills, aches, cough, etc., the full-fledged panoply of influenza symptoms which has consumed our community like wildfire.

As much restraint as it required, I said I would not run again until I was fever-free for at least 24 hours. That led me to pick the schedule back up on Tuesday, March 11th, missing 4 total running days, including Sunday's scheduled 18-miler. I decided to ease back into it, though, at about 2/3 of the prescribed mileage, and less intensity. The week has thus looked like this:

  • Tuesday - 4 easy miles (6 scheduled, with 6x100 strides)
  • Wednesday - 8 miles (12 scheduled)
  • Thursday - rest (as scheduled, but wanted to XT & lift; ran out of time thanks to work)
  • Friday - 9 miles, with 5 at LT (11, with 6 LT scheduled)
  • Saturday - 5+ easy recovery miles (as scheduled)

Tomorrow calls for the program's first 20-miler, but we're supposed to get more rain & snow (got about 4 inches of snow this morning, which is nice for a recovery run, but not so nice for long runs), so I may run for time - say, 2:30 - instead of distance. I'll have to see.

I have noticed since the flu that my heart rate is higher at a slower pace, so I can only conclude that I did lose some fitness as a result of being sick. Even so, I am glad to have had this happen with plenty of time left before my marathon and am pleased that I was smart enough not to come back too soon or too hard, which would have set me back even longer. Patience is not an easy virtue to master.


Sunday, March 2, 2008

Less is More

I had very much been looking forward to the "cutback" week in Pfitzinger's training program, and it was a refreshing break to run only a single double-digit distance all week (today's 12-miler). Overall, I'm feeling pretty good, handling the workload about as well as could be expected during a harsh New England winter and with seems to be a permanent hip issue. We are within about a foot of the all-time snowfall record for this area, and we still have 6 or so "snowable" weeks left. Assuming I stay with this sport, I'll look back on this winter as one of those that provided nearly daily tests of commitment, discipline and willingness to sacrifice for a "greater" (subjectively defined, of course) goal.

Four out of last week's five runs were outdoors, with the exception of a 5-mile recovery run on Wednesday, when the weather was iffy and the hassle of gearing up for a short outdoor run at lunchtime wasn't worth it. 40-ish minutes on the treadmill isn't too bad.

All of the week's runs went pretty much according to plan, except for Saturday's 5-miler, which I ran with a friend who was visiting from South America, through a pretty heavy snow. The nice thing is that the wind was minimal, but it was very slow going (close to 10-minute pace, which was normal for him), including powering through thigh-high snow in an unplowed stretch with a little over a mile left.

The flip side of Saturday's too-slow run involves a couple of more positive training segments, including about 2.5 near-MP miles on Thursday's 8-miler, done to one of the Podrunner mixes. Podrunner is a podcast which produces a weekly, hour-long dance mix at certain BPM (beats per minute). I ran 4 miles out, then switched from Phedippidations to Podrunner, and just let the music carry me along as I started back for home. It was great, especially since I enjoyed something new, as "club/dance" music is not my usual favorite. Mindful that this was an easy week, I made myself reign it in and take the last mile-and-a-half easy.

Today's run, done with a few of my running club mates, was also a pleasant surprise. The route brought us to the finish a bit shy of my 12-mile goal, but between the hilly course, snowy/slippery road (requiring a lot more effort) and wind (my logging software said the average wind speed was 16+ mph, with max winds approaching 25 mph), the 11.5 was plenty. The nice part was that despite the adverse conditions, I ran faster than I've been running the long Sunday runs on my own. Even though the club's faster member's smoked me, I felt strong at the end. My often-struggling & skeptical brain is starting to comprehend that the training is paying off.

The week of March 3rd is slated to be my first 50-mile week ever. On Monday I'll do elliptical and weights, plus some core exercises; Tuesday calls for 10 miles, with 5 at lactate threshold pace; Wednesday, an easy 4-5 miles; Thursday, 11 miles; Friday, rest or XT; Saturday, 7 miles, with 8 x 100 strides; Sunday, 18 miles. The added challenge is that I'll be a single dad from early Tuesday morning through late Friday night, with my wife traveling for business (again). It means rearranging my schedule, with early morning work-from-home sessions, and runs done either at lunch or just after dropping the kids at school. Each day will also likely require a couple of evening hours of work. In contrast, if my wife was home, I could do at least one or two of the mid-week runs in the very early morning, then have a regular, uninterrupted work day.

Well, I'm one-third of the way through this marathon buildup, and I think that the next six weeks will be very challenging, the peak of the bell curve, followed by six weeks where the light (first of the taper, then of the marathon itself) starts to become visible at the end of the tunnel. Lest I become a broken record (a very outdated expression, I know), I cannot wait until the snow melts and Spring finally arrives. The idea of throwing on shorts and a t-shirt to hit the roads (and then the trails, when the mud subsides) is extremely appealing.

Happy running, blogging and racing.

Cheers, ESG