Monday, March 21, 2011

Equal Parts Personal & Record - New Bedford Half-Marathon Race Report

Sunday, March 20, 2011 set out to be perhaps the most important training day of the year. In the overall arc of a plan which presumably has vaulted me to a new level of fitness, the well-regarded New Bedford half-Marathon was to be a critical test. In addition, of course, to finding out what my body might be able to do, it seemed equally important to test my racing "spirit", one of the key areas on which I have focused my training in recent months.

Working with my coach, we settled on a goal time of ~1:27, which would represent a new personal record (PR) of over 1:45, but with a specific strategy designed to mete out my energy/effort and pace as if this had been a full marathon. Since the Boston Marathon is THE running goal of 2011 for me, I mostly bought into coach's notions. And, as is my practice, I'll spare those who wish not to wade through the details: finish time was 1:26:18, or 6:35/mile. On the whole, I'd call this race a smashingly successful breakthrough.


Confidence comes from many sources.  In sports, the primary predictor of game (or race) performance tends to be performance in practice or training.  I have never experienced the type and quality of training I have had leading up to this race.  I've managed to hit or surpass my coach's targets in terms of volume AND paces, while staying relatively healthy in the process.  Each successive hard or long (or hard AND long) workout has been a confidence-building block.  Still, I went into this race a bit nervous, as I'd not run a decent road race (by my definition) since my half-marathon PR at Bay State in October 2009 (yes, 2009!).

All training indicators told me that a 6:3x half-marathon pace was viable, but that number seemed intimidating.  Still, as the race approached, I got it in my head that I could break 1:27, meaning that I would have to run an average pace of 6:38/mile for 13.1 miles.

Life has been a whirlwind lately, and just getting to the starting line in New Bedford took some nimble logistical navigation.  With Mrs. ESG and our oldest daughter away, I was back at the house caring for the younger two kids.  We had a great time, but I had no backup to stay with them while I spent much of the day driving and running.  A friend came through for me, though, and I left the house at 7:00 am for the 2+-hour drive.

At least three running pals would be at New Bedford, my good real-life friend Steve and two ever-closer originally virtual friends, Troy and Seth.  The day shaped up nicely in terms of temperatures, with mid-30's in the morning rising to mid-40's. The wind would prove to be a bear throughout the day, but there's nothing to do about that.

I arrived early enough to get a good parking spot, pick up my bib number and relax before meeting up with Troy and Seth.  Seth had no idea what he might run (given some inconsistent training), and I may have successfully scared him into making sure I did not pass him late.  Troy wanted to break 1:30.  Steve is in a different league, seeking to dip under 1:18.  I also bumped into a top-notch area female runner, Christin, who was sort of "coming back" from sub-par winter training.  She's always been a couple of notches above me, but unless she was completely sandbagging, the gap may have momentarily narrowed.

Troy graciously endured my pre-warmup obsessing about how to dress for the conditions.  It was already about 40 degrees at 10:00 am, but the wind was cold.  I agonized about whether to wear a headband, arm sleeves and/or gloves, and Troy initially convinced me that I needed none of those things.  I regretted the decision immediately, though, and returned to get my gloves and a long-sleeve shirt to toss at the start.  After a productive port-a-potty stop, Troy and I were jogging around easily, sort of tracing the course backwards.  I needed to make one more stop, at a KFC, to finish the job, and Troy demurred when I offered to treat him to the "10-Piece-Bucket-for-$10" special Sunday-only offer.  It was a good thing, as I had no money on me. ;-)

We finished our warm-up with a couple of surges, and blew right past 7:00 and then 6:45 pace.  It was hard to tell how that would feel as a "race pace", but I liked the fact that my body wanted to run fast.  We got our place in the corrals, I saw and fist-bumped Steve and waited for the various Miss New Bedfords to sing us some patriotic songs.


At 10:59 AM, something like a gun or horn went off, and the mass of humanity with numbers on their chests began to move.  The first two miles are pretty flat, but the wind announced itself early and often.  I kept telling myself, "6:45 per mile for 3 miles . . . be patient . . . listen to your coach".

I could not believe how many people were up ahead of and around me.  With the exception of the Chicago and Boston marathons, I'd never found myself in such a large group of runners, especially as I've gotten faster.  I let go of any notion of where I might place and just settled into the right pace.  More than once in the first couple of miles, I had to dial it back.  That was a good sign.

Mile 3 brought the first climb of the day, which actually turned out to be a three-stage climb of sorts, with recovery in between.  I stayed steady and felt good about the effort/pace correlation.

Mile 1 - 6:43
Mile 2 - 6:44
Mile 3 - 6:40

Coach had wanted me to dole additional effort incrementally after that third mile, and I agreed in principle, but thought/hoped that it would be faster than what he proposed.  The wind was a bear, but I had my sights on dropping to a 6:35 pace and holding on as long as I could.  I very much stayed in a "one-mile-at-a-time" mental mode, which worked very well.  The flat/slight downhill sort of offset the wind, which was starting to get into my head in a literal way, as it was incredibly loud.  This apparent hypersensitivity may be due to my large pinnal endowment (i.e., I gots me some big-ass ears).  Still, it seemed that the effort and fair terrain were complementing each other well, and I settled into a faster pace at a lower heart rate.  I was also mindful of what my 10K split would be (see below).

Mile 4 - 6:37
Mile 5 - 6:32
Mile 6 -6:32
10K split - ~41:07
(unofficial 10K PR)

With half the race behind me, I took stock of how I felt.  My stomach was a tad rocky, so I chose to skip the planned gel.  It seemed too risky, and I calculated that a slight fade at the end would cost less time than a bathroom break.  The challenge was to remain focused and - for me - not panic if I saw my pace slow a bit in the face of the challenging headwind.  As the miles clicked by, I started to believe that this was going to be a wonderfully memorable race day.

As we headed towards and ran by the ocean, the wind went from tough to merciless.  Lovely view; crappy running conditions.  So, I forced myself to work hard to stay under 6:40 pace, knowing I'd "banked" a few seconds during earlier miles. My average HR for miles 7-10 was a metronomic 167, which tells me that I maintained effort, while the wind and terrain determined exactly what pace that effort would yield. I was also feeling parched, again likely thanks to the wind, so I took small swigs of water during the aid stations in these miles.

Mile 7 - 6:31
Mile 8 - 6:38
Mile 9 - 6:39
Mile 10- 6:31

I'd been waiting to get past Mile 10, and hit that mark almost spot on my "best-case-scenario" goal.  I was certainly working hard, but I was not struggling or suffering unduly.  Taking inventory, I realized that my left foot had been hurting for miles, likely from a shifting orthotic insert, and my stomach had begun that uncomfortable "sloshing" feeling, though no where near as badly as at the Holiday Lake 50K++ race.  It's time to address this via electrolyte supplements.

I've long advised new runners and first-time half-marathoners to pick a goal pace for the race, run it for 10 miles and then either hang on or speed up for the final 5K.  I was prepared to take my own advice.

Bracing for the final hill, which I thought came early in Mile 12 (meaning shortly after the 11-mile marker), I was still moving well.  We seemed to get a slight respite from the wind, which was a major blessing.  The hill came much later than I thought, but I kept pushing, knowing where I was and thinking (dreaming?) that sub-1:26 was possible.  I felt my hips straining up that hill, but it was only fatigue, not pain or weakness or injury.  I saw Troy's wife Marianne and her friend, who told me I looked great.  I was passing people by what seemed like the dozen, and when I crested the long, grinding slope, I started running as hard as I could.  With less than a half-mile left, I looked at my watch and knew that 1:25:xx was gone, so I ran fast but controlled, not wanting to hurt myself and ruin an otherwise glorious running day.

I saw the clock from a distance, with 1:26 as the first three digits, heard my friend Steve call my name and pushed through to the finish. I was glad to be done, and was thrilled with my time.  My watch read one second faster than official chip time, but I'll take my 1:26:18 with joy and pride.

Mile 11 - 6:30
Mile 12 - 6:24
Mile 13 - 6:18
0.1+ - 5:24/mile pace

So, 6:35 is now my actual (not goal) half-marathon pace, but - in all candor - I think I had more to give on this day, perhaps 60-90 seconds total if the wind had been less severe and I had been a bit more aggressive.  This 2:30 PR put me 261st overall and a humbling 63rd in the 40-49 age group.  So, I had a great day by my standards, but I'm mindful of being just another schmo in terms of New England runners in my age range.

In the finishing chute, I saw Christin, who was about 20 seconds ahead of me.  I then ran into my old coach Brian, who'd run a 1:18 after an 8-mile "warmup".  Steve beat his 1:18 goal by fractions of a second.  Troy smashed 1:30 with ease.

I was happy, but cold, tired, thirsty and needing a bathroom, so I went to my car, put some clothes on and started cooling down.  Seth (who ran a blazing 1:24:xx) miraculously tracked me down, and we had a nice easy cooldown and chat.  We're both pretty fired up about Boston.  We ran along part of the last mile of the course, and he still had his bib visible, so people were cheering for him/us.  We laughed quietly and said thanks.

I left New Bedford abruptly after the cooldown run, as I had to pick up Mrs. ESG and our oldest daughter at Logan Airport.

And, for all the significance of a race performance as reflected by some numbers on a digital clock, the day was much more significant for me on the personal front, than it was on account of any "record" I might have set.

We had a nice family afternoon/evening, punctuated later by what will surely be just one in a series of very difficult conversations between Mrs. ESG and me about what the future holds for us as a couple/family.  It was thus a day of wonderful highs and some lows, but it was the type of day I won't soon forget, and which I would not trade.  It may not have been an easy day in many respects, but Sunday, March 20, 2011 was the kind of day that constitutes "living" at its best.

As always, thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron

Monday, March 7, 2011

Entering a New Phase

Yesterday, Sunday March 6, 2011 marked the end of what my coach terms "Phase I: Aerobic Support Plus Mini-Speed Cycle" in advance of this year's Boston Marathon.  That means that "Phase II: Strength and Marathon-specific Sharpening" begins today.  Of course, I'm all-but duty-bound to draw a parallel between the transition of a marathon training cycle (this seems like a particularly good time to focus on "strength") and the far less clearly delineated "phases" of my life since February 3rd.  Interestingly, ironically and/or appropriately, Day 1 of Phase II is a scheduled rest day (at least from running).  The notion of needing rest, or - in a slightly different parlance - being still, is something I have pondered incessantly in recent weeks.

Since I'm firmly ensconced in a period of self-reflection as a means towards increased self-awareness and - ultimately - self-improvement, I have tried to find a way to draw strength from something outside of myself, my human relationships, my interests, etc.  I'm not generally comfortable with the vocabulary of faith, grace, or - yes - God, but I do know that I believe in something, while simultaneously not having the slightest clue how to tap into that belief in a way that gives me comfort, clarity or calm.  I don't "get" prayer and have never really been able to still myself through meditation.  Running certainly helps, but only to a point.

So, a week ago Saturday, I was in a bookstore with the kids.  I picked a book called, "Running the Spiritual Path: A Runner's Guide to Breathing, Meditating, and Exploring the Prayerful Dimension of the Sport," by Roger Joslin.  The dedicatory quote grabbed me instantly: 

Stillness is what creates love. Movement is what creates life.
To be still and still moving—this is everything.

This quote is attributed to Do Hyun Choe, who appears to be a master of some sort of martial art called Sugi.  I could not find much more information about him.

For my part, I seem to be all about movement, both physically and mentally, while harboring a deep-seated antipathy towards stillness in most any form.  So, following Choe's missive, the conditions of my existence may be reasonably conducive to “life”, but the pervasive lack of stillness is a chronic obstacle to “love”; Thus, stillness is one of the many things upon which I'm working.  However, as with all long-terms habits, such matters are not unlearned overnight.  One idea which keeps arising is yoga, which I should work into my life schedule, but which - unlike the last time I tried it - I need to treat as meditation, not cross-training.  I'm hoping to find the right class at the right time.

Well, enough about spirituality and stillness.  Back to what I know best: movement. Here's a recap of the past two weeks of training.

February 21-27
  • Monday - 6M easy/recovery
  • Tuesday - 10+M, with 4x(800m @ 5K, 400m @ 3K & 200m @ 1M pace)
  • Wednesday - AM: 10M; PM: 5M (both easy)
  • Thursday - 8+M easy
  • Friday - 12M, w/3x3K @ "threshold" pace, plus 1K at 5K pace
  • Saturday - 8M easy
  • Sunday -10M (aborted 20-miler due to family emergency)
TOTAL = 70+ miles (10 fewer than planned - boo!)

February 28 - March 6
  • Monday - 7M easy
  • Tuesday - 11M, with 4x200m @ 1M pace, 4x800m @ 5K pace, & 3x1200m @ 10K pace
  • Wednesday - 15+M
  • Thursday - 7M easy
  • Friday - 12+M, with 10x2 mins at 10K effort
  • Saturday - 9M, with 12x200m @ 1M pace
  • Sunday - 20+M (water only)
Total  =  82 miles (that's more like it)

I have done all of the distance-based speedwork on the indoor track, and continue to be pleasantly surprised about the consistency with which I've been hitting the target paces.  I realized last night that I got to Chicago eking out 60-ish miles per week with minimal quality, whereas I just completed another 80-mile week with 3 successful quality sessions.  That's extremely encouraging.

This upcoming week presents another challenging training block, with 75 miles scheduled on six running days, and three "quality" days, which include hill repeats on Tuesday, a reprise of a killer threshold session (3x15 mins at MP, MP-10 secs and HMP) on Friday, and a 20-miler on Sunday progressing down to goal marathon pace during the last 10 miles.

One final note on the family front.  Things seem to be stabilizing for the most part, but there remain moments of tension, awkwardness and difficulty.  Overall, though, the kids are doing better, and Mrs. ESG and I are finding a way to relate cordially and cooperatively, especially as far as the kids are concerned.

Thanks for reading. - ESG/Ron