Monday, October 25, 2010

Buoyed by Faith

Now that my third full year as a marathon runner is coming to a close, I've realized that the time following a goal race serves not just as a time to recover from the physical tolls of training and racing, but also allows a window for reflection of a more personal and profound nature.  I have realized that in some of the deeper recesses of my consciousness, I was prepared for another running disaster - or at least major disappointment - in Chicago this year.  The race was far from a disappointment, and the take-away for me has been feeling re-energized, hopeful and motivated to keep training so that I get more out of running.  I'm sure that a major marathon breakthrough awaits me, as soon as I get past the nagging hip issues.  As I've said to a couple of running friends recently, "I just want running to love me back."  And while it's wonderful to feel that sense of  joy return to this all-too-important relationship (between running and me, that is), what I did not count on was feeling more happy and hopeful about other aspects of life, too.

While it's only been two weeks since the Chicago Marathon, 10-10-10 has taken on a transcendent significance in my life.  Since my return, I feel better about my roles as husband, father, lawyer/business owner, brother, son, friend, coach, etc.  In a word, I feel happy and more grounded.  And a huge part of that happiness is attributable to having a renewed sense of faith . . . in people, in the world, in grace and - ultimately - in myself.  And while my religious views - such as they are - continue to contain a healthy dose of humanist skepticism, I am buoyed by the knowledge that there is certainly some force greater than anything we can even begin to grasp which guides so much of the beauty, symmetry and grace which we see in the world.  I don't have a lot of answers, but I know that fact to be as true as anything else I know in this life.

Well, I wasn't necessarily expecting this entry to venture that far into that realm, so let's get to the running-related stuff, stat!

Post-Chicago recovery week #2:
  • Monday - 5.8M on trails, easy
  • Tuesday - XT: elliptical, heavy weights, core, hips and stretching
  • Wednesday - 8M, easy to moderate; played a full-field soccer scrimmage with my son's U-10 team
  • Thursday - 6M, easy to moderate in the Nike Free runs (in lieu of barefoot mileage this week)
  • Friday - XT: elliptical, plyometrics and stretching/foam rolling
  • Saturday - 6.75M, moderate, mostly trails
  • Sunday - 10M, "trial run" for the race to be staged by my running club in 2011; plan was to lock in 8:23 pace in preparation for the Manchester Marathon pacing gig on November 7th, but I strayed from that and averaged about 7:45/mile (which felt good)
Total of 36+ miles for the week, with some "quality" unintentionally thrown in on Sunday's run.  I have neglected the hip exercises a bit, but feel pretty good overall, despite my hip flexors being a tad sore late in the week (likely a result of playing soccer with the boys on Wednesday).  Still, I'm looking forward to topping 50 miles this week, then dialing it down again before Manchester.

Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Return of the Blog-monster

This will be a short post.  I am a stock-taking phase, mostly about running, but to some extent about my life, particularly about the relationships which most matter.  This blog does not venture into the deepest darkest parts of my existence (just be thankful, dear readers), but in terms of running, I've spent a lot of time comparing last year's bonanza of excellent running results to this year's clear dearth of same.  While focusing on training, racing, diet, etc., I seemed to overlook one not insignificant thing: this blog.

So, I declare (which you may take alternatively as "warn") that I will resume at least weekly posts, summarizing my training.  That very exercise helped me spot trends, process things and generally take a good look at training as a whole.  While I may have had valid reasons to get away from that practice this year, I do not believe that it has served me well.

Continue to ignore as much of my drivel as you'd like, but got lactate? will soon return to being the training log/runner's journal which I originally conceived it to be.

Thanks for reading. -ESG

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It Ain't the Heat . . . It's the Humility - Chicago 2010 Race Report

The title of this post comes from one of the true maestros of pithy, malapropistic English coinages, the one and only Yogi Berra.  It perfectly captures my experience at Chicago 10-10-10, where I might have run my best marathon to date, while nonetheless falling 19 seconds short of a new PR (personal record).

So, out the usual sense of consideration for my dear readers, I'll jump to the end first: I ran the 2010 Chicago marathon in 3:18:00, exactly 22 minutes better than my 2008 effort in similar conditions.  Now, onto the narrative portion of our episode.


As many of my running friends know, Chicago and I have a bit of a love-hate relationship.  I lost my marathoning virginity in the Windy City in 2007, when temperatures reached nearly 90 degrees and all sorts of chaos resulted, not even counting my own 4:03 marathon debut.  I returned in 2008, thinking that lightning couldn't possibly strike twice.  I was right, as temps only reached about 84 degrees, and I broke down with cramps a full 5 miles later than the year before.

In 2009, I decided that Chicago and I should take a break from each other, maybe see other people/races, and I skipped the party.  Runners were treated to perfect, traditional fall weather.  The course record fell, Boston qualifiers abounded and many a new PR was set.

The symmetry of the 10-10-10 date was difficult to ignore, as was the pull of so many virtual friends making Chicago 2010 their fall goal marathon.  I backed off my plan to pace at NYC, signed up and did what I could to get ready.  The woes of the training cycle are chronicled in prior posts, or - more accurately - in the dearth of prior posts over the past few months.

I left very early on Friday, and spent the morning with my friend Paul, his lovely wife Tiffany and their daughter Isla. See pic below.

Paul picked me up, we went for an easy 4-mile run, washed up and then went to the Expo.  We met up with other friends from the RWOL Sub-3:20 Thread, including Chris, Stevi, Nick and Walter.

The energy was good.  I've gotten kind of "expoed out" at this point in my running life, since I don't need anything and hate paying full price for whatever I do need (or want).  I saw a line forming for Dean Karnazes' signing at The North Face booth, so I high-tailed it in the other direction. I bought my kids t-shirts, sampled some drinks and energy food and got ready to go to my hotel.  Paul picked up two more friends at the expo, so I ended up riding in the hatch of Paul's SUV, where I was delivered to my hotel along with my own luggage.

I checked in and tried to get some rest in advance of a busy evening.  I met my friend Meredith at the Art Institute, before joining her for a reception for those who'd run to raise money for the American Cancer Society.  Let's just say that it was not an easy evening for her, but she is a paragon of grace in the recent wake of having lost her husband to cancer.  She is 30 years old.

Meredith joined me and my friends (and prior years' hosts) David and Louise for a delicious Chinese dinner, and it was wonderful to see them, catch up, hear inside scoop about Chicago politics from two natives and just reconnect with people I like so much.  After dinner, Meredith and I cruised around looking for dessert.  We ended up at Leonides Chocolate Cafe, ordering Belgian chocolates and gelato.  While scoping out the gelato flavors, I found a crisp $100 bill tucked into the trim of the ice cream case.  What a stroke of luck, I thought.  I looked around to see if anyone appeared to be looking for it, keeping a watch out until the place closed.  No one seemed to be searching for a lost Benjamin Franklin, so I consulted with Meredith and my own conscience, and kept it.

So, I made it back to my hotel and was ready to crawl into bed (after all, I'd gotten up at 3:45 am to get to the airport), only to toss and turn all night thanks to a noisy hotel ventilation system.  This is a major blemish on an otherwise great weekend, so I will move on here.  Suffice it to say, I'm still tired . . . and miffed.

Saturday was slated to be another busy day, with periods of mellowness scheduled into the program.  I had breakfast with Dan, his wife Stacy and Charlie, more RWOL friends.  We ate at a wonderful hip Mexican place called Xoco, where the breakfast empanadas, churros and coffee were excellent.  I then ran 3 easy miles with David (at least I could continue that routine from years past) and saw his kids before meeting Amy for lunch with the Team Reeve people.

The afternoon brought some down time in my still-noisy hotel room, before meeting my childhood friend Marc and his wife (who's my sister's cousin-in-law) Nicole for dinner.  I managed to consume half of a gloriously ginormous pasta plate at Francesca's and even drank a beer, amending my prior taper practice of going alcohol-free for my taper.  It may have helped.  With Nicole and I yawning at about 7:45, Marc deposited me back at my hotel, where I went through the joyously tedious process of laying everything out for the race.  From head to toe (plus "accessories"):
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Singlet
  • Bib
  • Shorts (went with pretty short RaceReady shorts)
  • Zensah compression sleeves
  • Wright socks
  • Mizuno Wave Ronins, with orthotics
  • Gels - Accelerade and Gu Roctane
  • Sunscreen
  • Body Glide
  • 3:10 pace tattoo (which would not stick and would have been useless anyway)
  • Sharpie, to write my name on my arm
I got breakfast organized, and finally got in bed about 10:30.  I didn't sleep well again, awaiting the 5:00 am alarm.



After my poor night's sleep, I was ready to get up and prepare for the race.  The hotel room mini-fridge froze my pre-purchased Starbucks Venti, which ended up tasting terrible after defrosting/reheating in the microwave.  I ate a plain bagel with cream cheese, a yogurt parfait with fruit and granola and a banana.  I drank lots of water and Gatorade.  I went to the bathroom. Repeatedly.

Once I was dressed, Body Glided and sufficiently fueled/hydrated, I made my way over to the start.  The masses were en route, with runners coming in all shapes and sizes.  As I headed east towards Millennium Park, the sunrise silhouetted the Art Institute.  It was a beautiful - if already overly balmy - start to the day.

I meandered through the chain-link maze and found the Bank of America Customer Upgrade Tent.  My little gold wristband allowed me access to a private area, and - most critically - open port-a-potties.  I took advantage of them, and headed over towards the seeded corral entrance at about 7:00 am.  The lines were forming, but the mass was moving steadily.  Marathon security officers did not mess around, though, refusing entry to anyone without a proper bib.

In short order, I had found the front left corner of the B Corral, and did some light stretching just outside the area where the wheelchair racers awaited their call to the start.  I got a friendly greeting from the Team Achilles lady whom I'd met at the Reeve Foundation luncheon while I kept an eye out for Amy and Matt.  I spotted Amy, and then Matt was upon us.  We were resplendent in our coordinated Endurasoak singlets.
Amy griped about her dead watch, and I asked her to write my RWOL name (ESG) on my arm.  She mocked my skinny upper arm before drawing a smiley face on my right biceps.  I'd written RON on my left arm, and the letters were plenty big, thank-you-very-much!

The national anthem played and it was just about that time, the moment where all the anticipation, nervousness, sacrifice, doubt and excitement funnel together to create the hard-to-articulate feeling that keeps so many of us coming back to the marathon again and again.  For a split second, it truly feels like anything is possible, and that greatness lies just a few not-so-short miles away.

Miles 1-5

1. 7:16
2. 7:18
3. 7:17
4. 7:08
5. 7:17

One of the truisms of running the Chicago Marathon is that the first mile is a bit of a pacing nightmare.  Those of us with an unhealthy codependent relationship with our GPS watch suffer the most, as the signal goes wacky as soon as we head into the first tunnel, and does not get much better with all the tall buildings around.  I went by feel, trying not to waste too much energy weaving around other runners.  Amy and Matt stayed close, and we hit the first mile marker while 7:15 was on my watch.  Perfect pace for a 3:10 marathon, but I was not feeling good.  I asked Amy for a swig from her water bottle, as I had that familiar adrenaline-fueled cottonmouth feeling.  That helped, and I tried to settle into the pace.

It didn't take long for me to realize that sub-7:15/mile pace was not realistic.  While the early temps were not oppressive, the humidity was another story.  I was sweating a lot, and I felt like I was working too hard too early.  Thinking about what lay ahead, I quietly let Amy and Matt go at around the 5K mark, and I dialed down the pace towards the end of the fifth mile.

I never really felt "right" or comfortable early on.  I needed to pee, and my stomach was a tad rumbly.  Fortunately, that was about to change.

Miles 6-10

6.  7:32
7.  7:14
8.  7:30
9.  7:23
10. 7:21

I wanted to stay in the 7:25/mile range, so Mile 6 was a little slow.  I was trying to stay relaxed, mind my form, shake out my arms every so often, etc.  I took my first gel (Accelerade) at around the 50-minute mark, and took 3 Endurolytes capsules at one hour in (after having taken 4 before the start) as cramp insurance.  The temperature was rising, but with the humidity falling somewhat and a fair amount of shade, it was relatively comfortable.  I was trying to soak in the atmosphere, the crowds, other runners.  Occasionally, I'd ask a fellow runner how he/she was feeling. One woman said she was hoping to break 3:20, and I gently warned her that she was out a bit fast for that.  She thanked me and dropped back some.  I ran with a nice guy from Denver named Dwayne; we were on again/off again for a good long while.

This section of the race felt "right", where it seemed like my feet, legs, hips, lungs, heart and mind were well synchronized in terms of effort and ability given the conditions.  My new goal became to break 3:15.

Miles 11-15

11. 7:24
12. 7:25
13. 7:27
HALF -  1:36:26
14.  7:29
15. 7:25

This was probably the best stretch of the race in terms of thinking about what I wanted to do, and executing it almost flawlessly.  Towards the end of Mile 11, the typical left foot pain began to bother me (it may be a neuroma).  It was a nuisance, but I trusted from prior races that it would not worsen, and reminded myself that a marathon is not exactly a comfort-seeking endeavor.  I should also mention that when things first began to go from moderately challenging to more difficult, my mind wandered to the plight of the Chilean miners who've been trapped over 2000 feet below the earth's surface for over two months.  What would they give for the opportunity to run a marathon, no matter how warm a day?, I thought.  While not a magic bullet, it helped keep me from descending into my own hole of self-pity, which - as every runner knows - can ruin a race in a flash.

I took a non-caffeinated Gu Roctane (pineapple) at around 1:30 into the race, not wanting to risk GI problems for the umpteenth time in recent races.  It went down fine.

When I saw the split for the half (1:36+), I started thinking about my goal again, and decided that a 1:40 second half (about a 3.5-minute positive split) would get me a nice new PR.  Knowing that 7:39/mile is 1:40 half-marathon pace, I strove to keep the miles at or under 7:30 for as long as I could.  The little bit of time banking was to allow for what I deemed the inevitable fade.  It almost worked.

Miles 16-20

16. 7:29
17. 7:33
18. 7:27
19. 7:32
20. 7:41

OK, the heat was on the rise, but the plan seemed to be working.  I clicked off the desired pace and - for only the second time in marathon "career" - hit the 20-mile mark feeling functional and relatively in control.  I passed the spot where I fell apart in 2007, and pondered how it feels like I'm a completely different person now.  As a runner, I suppose I am.

Still, these miles required intense focus.  I thought about how sweet a new PR would be, on the streets of my first marathon, the place which almost appears to have a personal vendetta against me as far as marathon weather is concerned.  The thoughts in my head were mostly positive, encouraging, hopeful. I took more Endurolytes and a third gel (Accelerade again).  I never broke stride, not for one instant.

Around Mile 20, a bank thermometer read 81F.  As I passed it, I literally gave it the finger.
Miles 21-Finish

21. 7:50
22. 7:45
23. 7:56
24. 8:07
25. 8:17
26. 8:10
0.2. 1:36 (<7:20 pace)

Mile 21 did not feel any different than the few miles which preceded it, but I suspect that sensing that a PR was well within reach caused me to lose concentration.  I got a few seconds back in Mile 22, but that's when the little hip niggles which I'd been ignoring started to speak up a tad more loudly.  That all-too-familiar tightness began, and I had to force myself to try to keep pace.  I was getting the better of the hip issue until late in Mile 23, when my right calf - despite all the Endurolytes and the Zensah sleeves - sounded the cramp-announcing trumpet in the form of hard, painful twinges.  I tried altering my stride.  Nope.  I tried speeding up.  Nope.  I drank more Gatorade at the aid stations. Nope.  I thought about stopping to stretch it, but decided I was not going to stop running, no matter what.

I reached the point where I had merely 5K left, and the wheels were threatening to come off.  I must declare, however, that I simply decided that that would not happen.  I pushed the pace as much as I could, knowing that I had more reserves, more energy, more fitness to give.  But try as I did, I could not get under 8:10/mile pace.  I knew that the PR would be close, and that if I could not get under 8:00 pace, I was not going to make it.

Mile 25 seemed eternal; Mile 26 only slightly less so.  The crowds were wonderful.  Some runners were walking, some staggering.  Some passed me with strong, smooth strides.

With 800 meters and one "hill" to go, I knew a new PR was gone, but a 3:17:xx would at least be a "push" for me.  I gave what I had left, and crossed the line in jeopardy of going into a full lower-body spasm.  I pressed the stop button on my watch, which read 3:18:00; my second consecutive round finishing time in Chicago (in 2008, I clocked 3:40:00).

Gatorade Recovery Drink (G3), water, banana, medal.  I asked two volunteers to loosen my laces.  I said no thanks to the space blanket, as I feared I might actually begin to roast if I put one on.  I was done.  Now, I needed to see my friends.


I bumped into some RWOL/Facebook friends in the finish area.  My friend Dan got his first BQ.  Woo-hoo!  Nick did not get his sub-3:00, but did PR.  Some guys were disappointed; others were thrilled with their unexpectedly fast times.  I was sort of numb.  No euphoria.  Not elated.  Not sad or disappointed.  With a little rehydration and honest reflection, I realized that I could not have asked for much more of myself on a tough day coming on the heels of a mediocre training cycle.

The finish line beer did not taste good to me, and I milled around looking for other friends.  I was dying to know how Meredith did, but could not find her.  I was hot, sore, tired and covered with a sheen of salt.  So I made the trek back to my hotel, which now seemed much farther away than it did just a few hours ago.

I started looking up friends' times, with a few surprises.  It was no surprise when I learned that Meredith did it: she broke 3 hours.  The most amazing part of the story, though, is that she needed to run her fastest mile in Mile 26, a blazing 6:37 to get herself a 2:59:49 finish.  She is - simply stated - an inspiring human being.

In the couple hours after the race, I was sort of cranky and physically uncomfortable.  I knew I needed to eat and drink, but didn't have much appetite.  Some salt-&-vinegar chips and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies at a sandwich chain called Potbelly's were like manna from heaven.  I started to feel better, and couldn't help but be buoyed by Meredith's beaming smile.

I tried to rest in the hotel, but ended up watching TV through Netflix on my netbook computer.  It was nice to be off my feet, at least.

For dinner, I met up with a former co-worker, Katia, who recently moved to Chicago, and we joined the RWOL 3:20 crew at Sweetwater Grill for dinner.  I put some more faces to the virtual identities, and can honestly say that I could see myself being close friends with these folks if we lived closer to one another.  We laughed a lot, ate a lot and drank a little.  I applied the $100 windfall to the bar tab, which seemed like the right thing to do, karmically speaking.

Chicago remains a bit of an untamed beast to me, but at least this time I held on for the entire ride.  And, lest I forget this not insignificant detail, the feeling that I have more better marathons in me fuels the desire to keep training and pushing.  That, and gaining some much needed perspective on what really matters in life, courtesy of Meredith.  So, at the end of the day, the Chicago 2010 Marathon Story is not about the heat, it's really about the resulting humility.

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Here We Go Again

With one week to go before I take another crack at running a decent marathon in the wonderful city of Chicago, I can take solace that I've run a lot more than I have blogged in recent months.  Truth be told, I've started and left unfinished at least three blog entries in the past month, mostly because they seemed to lack clarity, and bordered on being whiny musings about how my running life is so unfair.  Yeah, maybe I should see how much sympathy I get from some of my refugee clients, or perhaps I'll find a shoulder to cry on the next time I bump into an amputee or wheelchair athlete at a race.  Seriously, your faithful scribe might have been lacking a modicum of perspective on where running fits in, both in terms of my own life, and the world beyond me.

While my training and racing since Boston/Big Sur has been full of ups and downs, my primary complaint is that I feel like I'm on a plateau.  After all, a roller coaster is much more exciting than one of the kiddie rides that does slow elliptical loops on a flat track, right?

Since I last wrote a race report - regarding the pleasant surprise of a 19:02 5K in early August  - I've had two more race experiences.  The first was an abominable half-marathon on Labor Day weekend, where I set out to see if I could hold 6:40 pace, learned after about 4.5 miles that I could not, went into a dark mental place, and ran an embarrassing 1:34+.  The second was the always-fun Reach the Beach Relay, where I ran about 22 miles in three legs at an average pace of 7:06/mile, including 1500 feet of elevation gain.  The hips did not particularly relish the uphill segments at race pace, but it was nonetheless an unqualified success (which carried clear training benefits).  Apart from those two races, I've had good runs and bad runs, workouts I've nailed, and those on which I've bailed (I'd go on, but the temptation to channel the late Johnnie Cochran is just too great).

My coach likes to use the word "sinusoidal" to describe these ups and downs.  I had always viewed marathon training as a slow build which culminates in standing at a metaphorical cliff, looking down and then taking a few steps back for the 2-3 week taper which all distance runners seem to abhor. Since it hasn't felt that way this time around, I've turned to numbers for consolation that a new PR awaits me in Chicago.  Even including the week I took off from running after the VT-100, since July 1st I've averaged about 63 miles per week before the taper.  Since crossing the finish line in Chicago on October 12, 2008, I will have run about 4500 miles when I toe the line next week.  My "easy" run pace is faster at a lower average heart rate then it was when I qualified for Boston in May 2009.  Put simply, I'm in much better aerobic shape than I have ever been.  The great unknown is whether my hips will hold up for 26.2 miles at "marathon pace", which naturally begs the question of what that pace is (or should be).

So, unlike prior to Boston, when I held my goal close to the vest, I'll proclaim the following: I will settle into a 7:10/mile pace as soon as I can at Chicago, with the goal of breaking 3:10.  When I went through the customary process of agonizing about what the appropriate goal should be, basically torn between going for an aggressive PR or simply cautiously pacing towards a modest one, my coach helped me with the following sage advice, sent in response to my question about tempering optimism with realism when it comes to setting a goal time:
Tempering optimism is never useful while modifying expectations is sometimes necessary, so you're looking at two different beasts. The problem here isn't your fitness being an unknown quantity, at least in regard to the broad range it needs to fall in for you to run "only" 3:10. The problem is not knowing if your body is going to cooperate that day. I don't see you going there and struggling to a 3:XX finish of any sort. I see you pacing off a nice 3:08ish marathon with "minimal" true difficulty or being knocked out of the box altogether with the hip thing. There's still enough time to determine whether it's more likely than not that the hips will acquiesce and this weekend [meaning Reach the Beach] will be a real test--one that, if "passed," will tip things very heavily in favor of being able to head to Chicago with relatively few concerns.

So yes--think about the race as if you were healthy and looking to run a PR and that's it. You have no control over what the hips offer or don't on race day and it's not in your head. You don't need the usual psych pep talk to talk you out of self-doubt; you know the score and just need a favorable day. SO even if you consider yourself neurotic at baseline, this is really a separate issue.
If he'd done nothing more than offer me that missive at a critical training juncture, the money I've paid would have been well-spent.  It is thus in that spirit that I proceed to Chicago, secure that 7:10/mile (aka, a 3:08:xx marathon) is not at all unreasonable, and the hips will either allow it or not.

So, with a goal in place, I've tried not to get too obsessed with the usual race-related details: shoes, apparel, nutrition, weather, travel issues, weekend plans, etc.  I've had mixed success with that. ;-)

With 4 very busy days between now and my 6:00 am Friday flight to Chicago, I am looking forward to a highly memorable race weekend, involving time with very good friends (old and new) and a slightly-more-than-3-hour jaunt through the streets of one of the world's great cities.

Thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron