Monday, April 27, 2009

I Could Run for Miles & Miles & . . . .

With apologies to The Who, I take this opportunity to boast about getting through my highest mileage week ever. From Monday, April 20th through Sunday April 26th, I ran 72 miles. Looking back 10 days from Sunday the 26th, I ran 106 miles. The best news is that I am surprisingly functional. Tired and a tad sore, but essentially uninjured and in better position to make a full frontal attack on 26.2-mile course than I have ever been. I'm nervously excited about running the Sugarloaf Marathon in 20 days (gulp!).

The mileage PR was only one of two personal bests which I set last week. On Friday evening, I ran a local 5K, hoping for a sub-19:00 finish. I did not get it, but the details appear below.

Here's the breakdown of last week:
  • M - 3.5M @ recovery pace on the TM
  • Tu - 12M, w/7M on an indoor track (including 4x400m at about 6:05/mile pace); last 5 on the treadmill, progressing down to goal marathon pace (GMP)
  • W - AM: 8+M easy; PM: 4M easy
  • Th - 6+M easy, plus a couple of 100m strides
  • F - AM: 4M "shake-out run; PM: 1.25M warm-up, 3.1M race, 2M cool-down
  • Sa - 7.5M easy on the trails
  • Su - 20M, with miles 15-18.5 (total of 4.5) at GMP

With the slight overages on a couple of those runs, the total came to 72 miles, which is at 10% more than I've ever run in a week before.

Now the question is whether to do a 3-week taper (which would start now) or a 2-week taper. Having had poor results from 3-week tapers before, I will strive to run 60 or so miles this week, then do a 2-week taper. While it may just be a matter of hair-splitting, I'm not calling this week a taper week since I've only run a few 60+-mile weeks in my life, though this one will be the 5th one out of the past 6 weeks.


I had skipped the annual Friday evening race the past couple of years because of scheduling and training considerations. I wanted to get at least one 5K in during this training cycle, if for no other reason than to find out how far I've come since last year. In early April 2008, I ran 19:49 on cool day on a flat course during my first-ever 60-mile week. By the following weekend, I was hurt, and never quite recovered in time for my spring marathon.

This year, on the heels of a fast 3-miler in early March, I wanted to crack the 19:00-minute 5K barrier. I knew full well that the deck was stacked against me given my recent mileage, but I figured, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I still need to adjust to my new "fast" pace, which is difficult when my training is focused on the marathon. It's worth mentioning that Friday was to that point our hottest day of the year, and start-time temps were around 80, a bit of a shock to the system of a guy who'd run in layers just earlier that morning (low-40's). So, here's the tale of the race from Friday:

  • Mile 1 - As in March, I started at a suicidally fast pace, trying to settle into a rhythm; I had wanted to go out at around 6-6:05/mile pace, and then see if I could hold that for another mile and then push the pace for final 1.1; since I was running about a 5:20 pace at the half-mile mark, I reigned myself in; despite having hydrated well (or so I thought), I had a terrible case of cottonmouth during the first mile; the course took us (as a result of a last-minute change) onto a mile+ of trails; first mile split: 5:53
  • Mile 2 - This mile contained a good stretch on the trail and the course's two main hills, sandwiched around 4 tight turns; I took a sip of water at about the 1.5-mile mark, which helped me a bit; I was hurting and could tell that I didn't have much "pop" in my legs and felt my pace drop off; two-mile mark in 12:20 (6:27 mile)
  • Mile 3-3.1 - During the first mile, one guy passed me after we all settled into our "natural" paces; I kept him in my sights, and tried not to let him increase his lead on me; for most of the last 2 miles, he was the only person close to me, but another guy came back to us in the last half-mile or so; I tried to increase my effort, and ended up passing them both with less than a quarter-mile to go (more a function of their fade than my acceleration); last 1.1 miles in 7:01 (I messed up pressing the lap button here; overall recorded distance was 3.18)

Net time on my watch: 19:19; official time (which was reported differently several times, as a result of a technical problem along the way) = 19:26. I finished 12th overall (out of 320) and got 3rd in my age group. I was pretty satisfied, but really wanted to break 19:00. Of course, if it'd been cooler, or the course had stayed confirmed to the road or I'd run fewer miles in the preceding week, it might have been different. I guess the bright side is that I still have some 5K glory to look forward to this year: first the sub-19:00, then 18:35, or sub-6:00 pace. Baby steps.

Besides, I'd trade a 16:00 5K for a sub-3:20 marathon and a ticket to Boston 2010.

Sunday's long run was harder than I wanted it be, due in equal parts to fatigue and the sudden heat wave which hit us like a ton of bricks. I did 20 miles, with 14 pretty easy (a little under 9:00 pace) and 4.5 at marathon pace (or close). I was going to do 5 miles at GMP, but my feet hurt (a new source of concern about my race shoes and new orthotics) and I figured I should shut it down and run it in easy. Yes, I'm trying to be a little smarter this time than I was in prior training cycles.


This week may end up looking like this:

  • M - usual XT routine
  • Tu - 10M total, with 2x15 minutes at HM pace (around 7:00); it may be in the 90's, so that workout might be scaled back a bit
  • W - 10M (with maybe 6x10 second hill sprints)
  • Th - 6M easy
  • F- 10M total, with 6 at GMP (7:30/mile)
  • Sa - 6M easy
  • Su - 18M at about 8:00 pace (GMP +30 seconds)

Total of 60 for the week, then tapering officially begins.

Hope your training and racing is going well, or that you're dedicating yourself to a new goal somewhere down the road. Thanks for reading. -ESG

Monday, April 20, 2009

On Boston


Monday marked the 113th running of the Boston Marathon, 26.2 historic miles from Hopkinton, Massachusetts to the self-proclaimed hub of the universe. Laypeople may call it "the Boston Marathon"; to passionate distance runners around the world, it's simply "Boston". I had hoped to be there myself (enough people asked me about in the past month, for crying out loud!), but my faithful reader knows my tale of woe. Three marathons; three disappointments (and only one was a legitimate BQ attempt).

The Boston Marathon is the distance runner's Holy Grail. With its demanding but attainable qualifying standards, it creates an "elite" event for the recreational runner. It's like being able to enter the Masters despite being a 10-handicap golfer. Sure, the pros would tee off first, but you'd get your turn, and - if it all came together for you - you might just shoot the round of your life.

After holding a qualifying-exempt invitational entry form a couple of months ago (courtesy of a well-connected colleague), I decided I would continue to work towards qualifying. I'd like to claim to be a principled purist, refusing to compromise my ideals just to get to "the show" sooner rather than later. In reality, though, I decided that the experience of qualifying, of seeing the clock display less than 3:20:59 when I finish a marathon, may actually end up trumping Boston itself. I just didn't want to deprive myself of the experience. So, I participated in this year's marathon by volunteering at the pre-race Expo.

The Expo was a joyous occasion. Other than missing an exit and dealing with Boston crowds, parking and closed streets, it was nothing but a feel-good atmosphere, basking in the collective positive energy of a healthy, eager crowd of people who enjoy doing what I most enjoy doing. my job was simple: let people try on sample shirts so that they would choose the right size. I worked in the men's large/extra large section, and was surprised to see that Boston-qualified runners come in all shapes and sizes. Many a guy just stripped off his shirt, tried on the race shirt and chose his size. The women were - sadly - more discrete.

I met many of my virtual running friends, from all over the country. It was great to put faces to names. Karma abounded as I checked in with the volunteer coordinator, only to find "A muse" trying to find me. He looked just like his online photos, and I like to think that my lending him some arm warmers helped him reach his goal of 2:46 (a shockingly fast time; lucky the arm warmers did not disintegrate at that speed).

My fellow t-shirt sizer was a nice woman who admitted to running Boston as a Bandit (i.e., an unregistered runner), part of a dated tradition. She even planned to have her daughter pace her for the last 5 miles. Serious marathoners would generally find that behavior uncouth, but she was nice and plans to try to qualify for Boston for real. I made a couple of gently judgmental comments, but mostly let it slide. And, although I've been tempted, I haven't actually slept in my sharply awesome bright yellow Boston 2009 volunteer's jacket.

Race day proved to be exciting beyond belief, despite watching events unfold in a 4 square-inch screen via Universal Sports' online feed. Both the men's and women's elite races were exciting, with Americans Kara Goucher and Ryan Hall in contention the entire way (both finished 3rd). Yet, the real excitement for me came from tracking my many running friends. All told, I had about 25 or so people on whom I checked throughout the race. As with all running-related tales, their stories spanned the gamut from great personal triumph to abject suffering. One friend nearly ended up in the hospital after posting a PW (personal worst) time, which would - ironically - still qualify me to run Boston. Others had incredible PRs, as they etched their names into the historic register of our sport. Still others fell short of their time goals, but managed to get outside of themselves and enjoy the spectacle into which they'd earned their way. As one Boston Globe blogger wrote, "Think of Boston not as your final exam, but as your graduation ceremony". They runners had done all the hard work, and they were merely taking a 26.2-mile victory lap from Hopkinton to Boston, on the world's oldest continuously run marathon course.


Needless, to say, Boston fever has not hurt an aspiring qualifier's training motivation. I ran a little under 64 miles last week, thus averaging over 60 for the past 4 weeks. Sunday's long run was 20.2 miles, with 4 sets of MP, as follows:
  • 2M = 7:41/7:42 (long, slight uphill miles)
  • 2.5M = 8:33 (monster Sugarloaf replicator hill)/7:22/7:29 (pace for 0.5)
  • 2.5M = 7:31/7:32/7:30 (0.5)
  • 2M = 7:31/7:32

Average pace was 8:15/mile; average HR was 149. Had some weirds pains that came and went, including what may be my feet adjusting to new orthotics (an acute pain under my left arch made me think that the run was over after 5 miles).

Here's how this week is looking:

  • M - 3.5M easy on TM; circuit/core/stretch
  • Tu - 12M (with 4x400 @ 5K pace
  • W - 12M, with 8 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon/evening
  • Th - 6M easy (maybe with 4x100 strides)
  • Fr - AM: 4M shake-out run; PM: 5K race (6+M total)
  • Sa - 8M easy (trails)
  • Sun - 20-22 (mostly easy, but maybe last 5 or so at MP) - that would be my 3rd consecutive week with a 20+-miler and 4th of the cycle

Total will be 70+ miles for the first time ever. If I feel great, then I'll do 60+-miles next week and then do a 2-week taper before Sugarloaf. If I'm feeling too tired, I'll back down and have a 3-week taper. This training cycle has been all about pushing hard while remaining flexible. So far, it's working out well, but I hope to know for sure in a little over three weeks.

Thanks for reading. -ESG

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Ups & Downs of Marathon Training

Coming off of last week's half-marathon, I've been thinking about ups & downs, at first in terms of hills, but in a more symbolic context, as well. I live in a hilly area, and my next marathon is at a ski resort, for crying out loud. Of course, as every dedicated runner realizes sooner or later, running can become a multi-faceted metaphor for life.

For a variety of reasons, I tend to shy away from getting into the details of my non-running personal life on here (yes, I do have one), so suffice it say that last weekend sucked. Like virtually everybody, I have a few especially stressful things going on in my life right now, including an ailing father who's in the hospital for the third time this year. Two of my three kids had a bout of stomach flu last week. On Saturday morning, my wife and I made an ER visit with one of the kids (everything's okay now, but we'll need some future help).

I had planned to run 5 recovery miles on the trails on Saturday, which I did when we got back from the hospital. It was cold and raw, and as much as it was great to be back in the woods, my heart wasn't in it.

Easter Sunday started inauspiciously, with my two youngest kids acting like spoiled, insufferable brats, demanding candy, wanting to skip church (which means a lot to my Christian wife) and otherwise being disagreeable about everything from eating breakfast to getting dressed. Yes, this is likely the result of some parenting deficiencies, but that realization did make managing the morning any easier. I offered to stay home with them so my wife and oldest daughter could go to church in peace, but my wife said she would deal with the little ones, that she would not miss church on Easter and that she didn't want me missing the whole second half of the day to do a 3-hour run. So, I tried to get into the the right frame of mind for my scheduled 22-miler, of which I was planning to do the final 5 miles at goal marathon pace (GMP). It turned out to be one of the worst training runs ever.

Now, I hate making excuses, but part of the process of improving as a runner is to identify and attempt to correct the things that compromise optimal performance. Ideally, one does that during training so as to get it "right" on race day. Here's the short list of what I believe conspired against me, roughly in order of importance:

  • Stress
  • Sustained winds of 25+ mph
  • Passover curbing my carb intake; under-fueling in general
  • Under-hydrating
  • Insufficient sleep, even by my usual "6-hours-is-plenty" standard
  • Not fully recovered from/still adapting to recent training stressors (specifically back-to-back 60+-mile weeks ending with a tough half-marathon PR race)

Also, trying to approximate what I'll face at Sugarloaf, here's the elevation profile of the course I plotted for myself:

It was 36 degrees when I went out at around 9:00 a.m., and I took it easy. The wind was tough, but not debilitating, for the first 4-5 miles. Then it smacked me in the face like a brick wall, and I was being blown on and off the shoulder and sidewalks regularly. I stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom, take a gel and fill my water bottles, bracing myself for the climb from miles 7-10, which I purposely plotted since that's where the big climb is on the Sugarloaf course. The highlight of the run was that I took those miles smoothly, averaging around 9:30/mile, or about a minute slower than I should take miles 8-10 on race day. I got to the top and went down the other side, a steep descent into the wind, followed by a killer 3-mile climb straight into the worst winds of the day. Miles 12-15 gain about 400 feet, and with the wind in my face, I was physically spent and mentally out of it. I lost my focus, and I spent the next hour ambling towards home, just wishing it was over. My hips felt tight, so I stopped to stretch (more than once). I was dehydrated, rationing my remaining 4 ounces of Gatorade Endurance and 4 ounces of water, until I came to a little private school on a country road where I filled up on their outdoor faucet. Slightly reinvigorated and no longer freaking out about running out of fluids, I was able to get myself down to around 8:30 per mile, but it was still a slog. Overall pace was about 9:00 for the run. Nothing about that was "easy". Total mileage for the week (a cutback week) was a little over 55.

Some 3 hours-plus after setting out, I was back home, trying to stretch out the doubts which had managed to creep into my psyche as the result of one poor training run. While successful marathon training has a lot to do with physical and mental toughness, my psyche - at least as far as the full marathon distance is concerned - remains rather fragile. Three disappointing performances, coming off of months of hard work and personal sacrifice, have a tendency to do that.

One reason I've delayed in completing this post is because this week's training schedule has been a work in progress. At this point, it looks like this:

  • M - XT as usual; a little extra core work
  • Tu - 11M total, with some drills and 10x200m hill repeats at 5K pace/effort, done with the running club; slowest repeat was at 6:24 pace; fastest at 5:39 pace; first one was 6:18; final one was 5:42
  • W - 8 miles easy, perhaps with a "moderate" finish
  • Th - 10 miles easy
  • F - 8 mile progression run, starting with 2 miles at 9:00/mile, dropping 30 seconds per mile every 2 mile, until last 2 miles are at goal marathon pace
  • Sa - 6 miles very easy, probably in the woods
  • Su - 20 miles, with 5 miles easy, 4x2 miles at goal marathon pace (4-5 minutes easy in between sets) and 5 miles easy

That would come out to about 63 miles, and hopefully serve a couple of purposes. One is to start "dialing in" my goal race pace of 7:30/mile. Another is to work hard without overtaxing myself, so that I may do my first-ever 70-mile week next week. I've decided that the way I feel at the end of the 70-mile week will determine whether I do a 2-week taper (as planned this time) or a 3-week taper (as I have done before).

In addition to the need to peak at the right time, I need to stay healthy and have confidence that my goal is attainable. Of course, good weather would be a bonus. I'd love to start a marathon worried about being cold, perhaps even having a layer which I could shed after a couple of miles. Two of my last 3 half-marathons have started with temps in the high-20's/low 30's, and those runs have gone very well for me. If the temps in Maine on May 17th start out in the 40's, I'll be very happy and confident about experiencing a marathon where it all finally comes together for me. In a little over 4 weeks, I'll know.


Monday, April 6, 2009

Gorgeous Misery: A Race Report

Thanks to an odd discrepancy between my watch and the official race time, the jury is still out on whether I got a new half-marathon PR yesterday, but - truth be told - that's really besides the point.

It's hard to decide whether to list the excuses first, last or to skip them entirely. Last week's focus was to "front load" the week's mileage in order not to be completely fatigued by Sunday, where I'd be running my final tune-up distance race, 6 short (yet long) weeks before this season's goal race (and next BQ attempt), the Sugarloaf Marathon. Still, I was in the midst of my second consecutive 60+-mile week, something I've never before done in training.

The race is run along a beautiful course, but as every experienced runner knows, "Scenic" is little more than a marketing code word for "tough" when it comes to describing a race course. And while the race had no single spirit-breaking climb, the relentlessness of the course topography - coupled with sustained 20-30 mile-per-hour winds, made finding a rhythm impossible. Here is an elevation map from the course:

As a result of the conditions, I found that there were four different running "zones", resulting in four very different effort levels: uphill/headwind, uphill/no wind, downhill/headwind, downhill/no wind. From my perspective, not one of those zones lasted longer than just a few minutes (except extended headwinds, of course), such that my pace, effort and heart rate seemed to jump all over the place. At points, I was running over 8:00 pace and under 6:00 pace, and not necessarily only where the hills might have dictated such variation.


The race was the first in our running club's 2009 Gran Prix series. I've skipped most of those races over the past couple of years because they don't usually fit my family and/or training schedule, but this one worked out perfectly, and I planned for it well in advance. I had run an unexpected HM PR in February, and know that I'm in better shape now than I was then. Thinking rather shallowly, I decided that the "A" goal for yesterday would be to dial in a sub-7:00/mile pace and try to run 1:31:30; The fallback goal was to run sub-1:33:00. Neither was to be, as my official time was 1:34:10, while my watch had me at 1:34:02. I'll call it a new PR ('cause that's how I roll), but by the thinnest of margins.

I had elevation-paced splits, but never once looked at my pacing chart, since the math for 7:00 pace is easy enough. I ran a 2 -mile warm-up, with 2 fast strides, then ran another 0.4 miles to the start. Pre-race bathroom use and nutrition seemed to work out just fine.
  • Miles 1-3 (6:51/6:48/7:06): I happened to see the 7:00 pacer when we lined up, and chatted briefly with him. I decided to hang near him to see how things felt. I probably took the first two miles too fast (6:51 and 6:48, especially since the second mile was a net uphill), and noticed my HR climb higher than I would have wanted it; still, I mostly felt fine and just sort of rolled with it, with Mile 3 (uphill) in 7:06; I was on pace for a strong PR and feeling hopeful
  • Miles 4-5 (7:11/7:11): Having all but memorized the course description, I did not expect these two miles to be as tough as they turned out be; there was a very long climb up a nicely-graded unpaved road, and I saw one of my colleagues cheering; it's always encouraging to hear one's name during a race; the wind was also beginning to grind me down, yet - amazingly - I ran each mile in 7:11; at this point I also noticed that the Garmin was reading long, and wished that I had set it so that I would have had to hit the lap splits manually, since the watch had me ahead of the mile markers, though the gap would wax and wane throughout (anywhere from 0.05 to almost 0.2 mile off for the total distance); I took a small amount of water and battled through some minor GI discomfort at this point; I also regretted running in the NB 903's, which feel great until they break down, and stepping on rocks along the dirt road created a hot spot on the ball of my left foot which lasted for the rest of the race
  • Miles 6-8 (7:05/6:56/7:27): I collected myself mentally and just focused on running in the moment, focusing on each climb and not thinking about how long I had left to go; Mile 6 was 7:05; Mile 7, 6:56; ironically, according to the pacing chart, I was running the uphill miles faster than the downhill miles; I'll assume the way the wind blew had a lot to do with that, but it might have cost me; while it seemed like I was back in the game at this point, I could feel my hips strain to carry me up each hill; I started to look forward to each hill, though, telling myself that it meant a downhill stretch was soon to follow; this part of the course was also the most beautiful, with panoramic views of a stunning estuary (see photo below); some time around Mile 7, I saw what I thought was a water stop; I gulped my Gu Roctane down, only to realize that the volunteers were handing out gels themselves, and that the water was another half-mile down the road; I feared a major stomach backlash, but it turned out okay and I sucked down two cups of water as quickly as I could at the aid station; Mile 8 cost me some precious time, as I covered it in 7:27 (despite it being a downhill mile); the wind and the water stop may have accounted for some of the time loss, but I think I briefly lost my focus at this point

  • Miles 9-11 (7:04/7:11/7:10): At this point, I knew that the "A" goal was out of reach (and the "B" goal almost surely also out the window), since, despite the fact that worst hills were now past, the course and the conditions were not conducive to making up time; I just wanted to hold on and PR, preferably going sub-1:34:00; we went into a neighborhood, which turned out to be an out and back stretch via a large cul-de-sac; I saw the leader cruising along as he came out of the neighborhood, with no one near him; I saw a couple of my running club teammates in the top 10-12 runners, and yelled what passed for a cheer; I was passed by a red-haired guy wearing only a Speedo and an iPod; the neighborhood set up a belly dancing station, a welcome injection of levity for me; I jokingly ran side-step for a few seconds in order to take an extra leering glance, though I'll freely admit that I was more interested in the Accelerade offered about 200 yards past the dancers; coming around the cul-de-sac, I started to see "the masses" (I was in the first 100 of about 1300 finishers), and saw many people I knew; it was great to have the slower runners cheer me on as I had done moments earlier to the faster runners ahead of me; once I saw the 11-mile marker, I knew that sub-1:34:00 was going to be very close, subject to whether the course and conditions would let me find another gear in order to kick it in
  • Miles 12-13.1 [7:06/7:09 + 6:36 pace for last 0.1+ per Garmin]: I consciously increased my effort level, but I could not negotiate the final hills and wind to get under 7:00 pace; I tried to key off the runners near me, in particular a couple of guys who looked smooth and strong (I passed one but couldn't stay with the other), and one woman whose headphones were blasting some hard rock which I could hear, if not identify; what seemed like the steepest hill of the race hit at around Mile 12.5, which I essentially power-walked, noticing that I did not lose any ground to the guy in front of me who appeared to be running; I crested the hill and tried to kick it in for the final 0.3 or so miles, only to be running straight into as fierce a wind as I'd felt all day; I managed to pass maybe 6 people in the final quarter-mile, and I looked at my watch thinking that 1:33:xx was in reach; it wasn't, and I finished feeling pretty numb, no bliss but no real sadness

So, I will take solace in the fact that I ran essentially the identical time as I did in February on a much tougher course, in much tougher conditions, with much higher mileage leading up to the race. As so often happens in this sport, there's no way to predict or control the weather, and most goals are merely arbitrary projections based on feelings and speculation of what might happen. Yes, there is some science based on assessing training and race paces, but I truly believe that if I ran at yesterday's effort on a flatter course on a calmer day, sub-7:00 pace would have been almost certain. However, what might have been does not get us where we want to be, so I must now focus on smart training, finding the balance between pushing myself hard while avoiding the breaking point.

Interestingly, I was pretty sore yesterday (race-day), especially my calves, but feel better today. I'm going to take it relatively easy this week, running a total of 50-55 miles, taking the next few days as they come, but hopefully running one tempo-style workout on Thursday and perhaps a 20+-miler on Sunday.

With 6 weeks to go, things may go kind of like this:

  • This week - 50-55 miles, 20+-miler
  • 5 weeks to go -65 miles
  • 4 weeks - 65-70 miles (if my body feels up to it), 22+-miler
  • 3 weeks -60-65 miles
  • 2 weeks - Taper Week #1, 45+/- miles
  • 1 week - Taper Week #2, 20 or so miles, plus race