Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Man Vs. Nature: Boston Marathon Edition

Since the beginning of time, man (woman too) has been trying to triumph over nature. This has been a constant theme since the cavemen. We chase tornadoes, we ride behemoth waves, we build our homes on fault lines. The list goes on. I don't think anyone is keeping score and knows who is ahead after all these years. but it's a fight that often blurs the fine line between bravery and insanity. Monday. in a small town some 26 miles from the center of Boston, Massachusetts, 25,000 brave or insane people went toe to toe with nature to partake in an event that's grueling no matter what the weather conditions.

Not that the people who organize the Boston Marathon didn't try to stop us. As race day drew closer, and the forecasted 85 plus degrees grew more imminent, the Boston Athletic Association sent emails, tweets and Facebook statuses urging people to reconsider running, warning anyone who might not have done the bulk of their training in or around a blast furnace that their involvement in the race may lead to their involvement in a funeral, or at the very least a trip to the emergency room. News reports from the Boston television stations and newspapers predicted a mass casualty scenario. These were almost identical conditions to the 2007 Chicago Marathon and in that race, people died. No one would have faulted any runner from throwing in the towel.

On the surface, I adopted a brave attitude. In one particular Facebook post, I boldly stated, "F the weather." But under that facade was fear, uncertainty and anger. I was scared of how my body would handle the extreme temperatures mostly because I had never run in heat like this for a race this long. I was angry because no matter how well my body adapted to the conditions, I was certain my goal of running 2:33-2:35 was out the window; a goal I had fixated on for months and sacrificed sleep, food and social interactions to meet. Thanks to something beyond my control, it was gone. But despite the option to defer, I planned to confront the challenge. My Urban Athletics teammates and I talked extensively before the race about how we would adjust our race plan. We talked about going slower, but in the end made the decision to stick to it and see what happens. To fight nature, man must be stubborn.

It was already 80 degrees when we got to the to the first corral in Hopkinton at 9:30am. There was still 30 minutes until the start. To put that in perspective, the 1982 Boston Marathon famously referred to as the "Duel in the Sun", a race that drained Alberto Salazar to the extent that he never fully recovered, had a high temperature of 68 and that race started at noon. As I side note, I will now refer to that race as the "Duel in the Moderately Uncomfortable, but certainly Manageable Conditions." I respectfully request they change the title of the book.

I had consumed so much water and Gatorade over the past 24 hours that my empty Gatorade bottle came in handy about five minutes before the start. I always drink a lot leading up to a marathon, but this time around, I turned down no opportunities to hydrate. I was already sweating and I hadn't run a step. Adding insult to injury, there was not a cloud in the sky and the Boston Marathon course is not exactly known for it's tree canopy.

As we made our way down the hill that marks the beginning of the world's most famous marathon, there was the natural urge to go out hard and follow the dreamers who thought that starting fast meant finishing strong. But, the three of us Urbanosos (As our coach calls us), stuck to the plan. 5:52 pace and no faster. As expected, it felt slow, but it was only the beginning and it doesn't take an extensive knowledge of distance running to know that a lot changes over 26.2 miles. We rolled through the first few miles almost effortlessly. There was little conversation aside from the occasional pace update. Unlike other marathons, I took advantage of the water stops from the start. Whereas I usually wait until mile 4, I grabbed a Gatorade and a water at mile 1. There was no reason to delay hydration on a day like this.

Around mile 8, my teammate Josh asked me how I was feeling. I told him I was still feeling good which was the truth. He told me he was as well, but would later admit that was not exactly the case. We had already opened up a small gap on our other teammate Kevin, but we were still averaging 5:52s. Three miles later, I was faced with my first major decision of the race. I started to find myself a couple of steps in front of Josh and would reign it in, to get side by side. That's when he told me to go ahead if I felt good. I thought it was too early, but he told me he was already feeling heavy legs. At this point in the race, I knew chances were I would meet the same fate, but I had not yet. Low 5:50s were still happening fairly naturally. I reluctantly moved on to face the next 15 miles alone and planned to keep pushing at goal marathon pace until the inevitable happened.

As I got to Wellesley, I could hear the screams of the hundreds of women who line the course. They are loud and everyone of them has a sign demanding they be kissed because of their heritage ("kiss me, I'm Irish", "kiss me I'm Canadian", "kiss me I'm from Idaho", etc.) The atmosphere lends itself to a surge. But, I made that mistake in 2010 and promised to not make it again. 5;55 through the Wellesley campus. I was proud of my restraint. Oh, and I didn't kiss any girls either. Not that the thought even crossed my mind. I'm a married man with a race to run! I went through the half-marathon at 1:17:25 which was right on target. I had survived half of the race without crashing, but I knew it wouldn't last and I was trying to salvage as much as I could.

Shortly after the throngs of young, intoxicated women, I saw Meagan Nedlo (who is young, but was not intoxicated). She was with some friends from the BAA exactly where she had told me she was going to be. She ran out into the street and handed me a frozen water bottle and some encouraging words at no extra charge. The frozen water was heaven-sent. I drank what I could and rubbed the rest of my face and neck. Let me take a second to talk about the spectators. They are a large part of the reason that I, and countless other runners finished and/or survived this race. I am not just talking about the spectators that I knew, but the complete and total strangers who went above and beyond to keep runners healthy and cool. In four previous marathons, I had never taken anything that didn't come from an official aid station. I always fear the jokester with a cup of vodka. But, in this marathon, I passed up no opportunities to pour a cup of water over my head or use a wet sponge to wipe my brow. People worked very hard to help us fight this fight and probably spent a lot of money too. It's an outpouring of kindness I won't soon forget and further enhances my positive views of the Boston area.

At mile 14, the thermometer on a bank said 85 degrees. That didn't take into account the heat radiating off the asphalt. I was still on pace, but starting to get hot and the yellow gatorade at the water stops was starting to get warmer. I took my second energy gel of the day, a peanut butter Gu and didn't gag on it, so I as able to take in all the nutrients it offered. The next three miles were slightly slower, but still under 6:00 pace. It wasn't until mile 18 that the train started to fall of the tracks.

The first hill in Newton was bad. The second hill was terrible. The third hill was excruciating and the fourth hill, Heartbreak Hill was an absolute nightmare. At this point in the race, the heat was starting to shut down all my systems. The collapse had happened and it had happened fast. I went from running 5:50s to 6:20s in a matter of inches. As hard as I tried, I couldn't dump enough water on my head to stay cool, and the water I was able to put in my system was luke warm at best. I didn't walk up any of the hills, but the shuffle I slowed down to couldn't have been much faster. The screams of, "come on 406" (my bib number), kept me going, but the urge to drop out was getting stronger. I started to examine my goals and bargain with myself. The reach goal of 2:33-34 had been unattainable from the start. Now, barring some miraculous rejuvenation, 2:35 was pretty much a pipe dream too. Could I still at least PR?

The last 7 miles of the race can only be described as a death march. I tried to think of a more creative term, but nothing sums it up better. I ran a 6:58 on mile 20 (the mile that includes Heartbreak Hill). It was my slowest mile of the race. My goal gradually transitioned from 2:35 to PR to 2:40 to just finishing. I was not going to drop out. I thought of all the 4am runs, the 20 miler in a snow storm, the speed workouts that ended with me so exhausted I could barely stand up. I thought of the sacrifices that not only I had made, but that my wife had made too. Besides, I had already spent $100 on the official race jacket, and everyone knows you can't wear the jacket if you don't finish the race. I'd crawl across the finish line if I had to and at this point, the possibility was not all that unlikely.

The now piping hot yellow Gatorade was starting to be a cruel joke. If I never drink yellow Gatorade again, it will be too soon. At mile 22.5, Josh's girlfriend Tanya handed me a chocolate Gu and a salt packet. I squirted the Gu into my mouth, but it had the consistency of paste and I couldn't swallow it. I tore open the salt packet and dumped it into my mouth in hopes that the sodium would give me a boost, but all it did was give me a mouth full of salt with no water stop in sight. I should have taken the Gatorade bottle from my teammate Matt. All around me, people were dropping like flies. This was the Boston Massacre. Runners at the peak of their fitness were reduced to crumbled, sweaty piles of flesh and muscle on the side of the road, their marathon dreams destroyed by a random act of Mother Nature. As bad of shape as I was in, I was fortunate to still be on my feet.

I wish I could say that somewhere in those last three miles, I got my second wind and motored to the finish line, but that didn't happen. I staggered my way over the overpass that stares at the iconic Citgo sign, ambled on to Hereford and swayed on to Boylston where the finish line appeared to be on the other side of the universe. Lauren was screaming my name and I didn't even hear it. I feel terrible about it, but at the time I felt terrible about something else and my tunnel vision only let me see the finish. I crossed the line in 2:41:12, six minutes slower than my goal. I wasn't mad. I was just relieved.

About 5 minutes later, that changed. I was mad. I was in shape to run the race of my life and the opportunity was stolen from me. 18 weeks of hard training, the hardest and most focused I have ever done, wasted. I wanted to cry. But it didn't last long. After I picked up my bag, the flood of supportive messages started coming in. An email from Paul and a text from Caitlin told me I had finished in the top 100, an accomplishment in itself. Runners around me shared war stories. All of them had missed their goals by anywhere from 6-10 minutes. The winners of the race had run 9 minutes slower than the previous year. This was not a day to brag about your time. It was a day to brag about your tenacity. My teammates missed their goals by more than they would have liked to, but they didn't drop out. My friend Allen was primed for a low 3:00 time, but ran what may be the gutsiest run I've heard yet; a race filled with vomit and urges to seek medical attention that culminated in a 5:03 finish. He's OK. We had a beer last night.

I had to laugh when the post-race survey that came from the BAA yesterday asked, "besides the heat, how would you rate your Boston Marathon race experience?" That's tantamount to saying, "besides all the commotion with the gun, Mr. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" But seriously, I wouldn't change a thing about how I went about tackling the conditions. A lot of very smart runners told me to back off and be conservative. I don't doubt that would have been the smartest, safest thing to do. But, I would have been really angry with myself if I finished that race and felt like I could have given more.

The first person I actually spoke to after the race was Lauren who was beaming with pride. She has and always will be my number one fan and 95% of the reason I am able to give running and competing the attention I give it. When I say being a supporter is as hard of a job as being a competitor, I'm not kidding. The support from her and all of my friends over the past few days has convinced me that Monday's Boston Marathon was not a missed opportunity, but a chance to seize an opportunity. The same training that got me in shape to run a 2:30 marathon, also got me in shape to fight through the hottest April day in Boston history and easily the hardest athletic endeavour I have ever completed. While scores of runners dropped out, I was able to hang on, pretty or not, to finish 95th in a race that I once dreamed of simply competing in. I didn't leave Boston with a new PR, not even close. I'm not walking as well as I used to and it might be awhile before I can run again. But, I left wearing the jacket (it cooled down). Again, I'm not sure anyone is keeping score in this battle we fight with nature, but if someone is, kindly put a point in my column.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Week Recap: 2 to go

The closer we get to race day, the less exciting these recaps will become. That's not to say that any of these weekly rundowns have been particularly thrilling. With two to go, it's all about the taper.

Monday - Off completely. I got a massage instead and it was glorious.

Tuesday - Miles: 11 Course: Central Park Lower Loop. Workout: 2x1387.5 @ VO2Max. The workout actually called for three repeats, but Jerry pulled me out after I hammered out the first two a sub 5:00 mile pace. I was pretty much on my own for this one, and feeling fairly refreshed from the day off. I could have done three, but it was probably wise to make it an abbreviated effort.

Wednesday - Miles: 10 (6:44 pace) Course: West Side Highway. I ran to Harlem and back immediately following a disastrous day at work. I probably should have eased off the gas a little bit, but I had a lot of steam to blow off.

Thursday - Miles: 11.42 (6:56 pace) Course: Central Park. I had originally scheduled an AT Tempo for today, but when I got to Urban, all I needed was one minimally persuasive word of discouragement. My legs felt terrible when the run started, but got better as Josh, Kevin and I clicked off the miles.

Friday - Miles: 10.7 Workout: 3 mile warmup, 4 miles at AT tempot, 3 mile cooldown. Course: Central Park Lower Loop. Ten days prior to the race is the last day you can expect to gain any benefit from a workout, so I wanted to capitalize. I ran 3 miles to the park then launched into a challenging, but not draining pace. The miles were 5:36, 5:35, 5:38, 5:35 and all on the lower loop of the park. I ended up being too far away from the exit of the park so the cooldown went a little long. I actually stopped and walked home to prevent running too many miles.

Saturday - Miles: 10 (7:08 pace) Course: Brooklyn Bridge Loop. This was a pure recovery run. Very leisurely pace into Brooklyn and back.

Sunday - Miles: 13.18 (6:44 pace) Course: Central Park Bridle Trail. It really was the perfect day for an Easter long run. Didn't get out the door until 8:45 because of a late night at work on Saturday. Ran solo through the park with the ipod. Legs felt very fresh. Ice bath after the run.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mastering the Taper

I think tapering is the hardest part of marathon training. Hear me out. Consider that you have to chose the length of time you taper, the number of miles you reduce your volume by and the intensity in which you do those last few workouts. Every mile and every day makes a difference. Did you make the right choices? You'll find out around mile 20 of the most important race of your season.

You could say that about all facets of your program, but the taper is the one where I find myself doing the most second-guessing. That's because unlike a week that was too hard or too easy in the middle of the program, there is little or no time to fix a mistake made in the taper portion.

As the cycle for my fifth marathon draws to a close, I am taking a new approach to the taper much like I did at the end of my fourth, third, second and first marathon cycles. This taper, which began a week ago today (so, it's a 15 day taper) calls for low volume and moderately high intensity. It takes some methods from Pete Pfitzinger, some from the Hansons and some from my past mistakes, all of course with the approval of Jerry. Prior to Boston and Richmond in 2010, I only backed off my average weekly mileage by 20% and did marathon pace runs of 10 miles nine days before the race. In Boston, I blew up in the final 10K of the race. In Richmond, despite running a 3 minute PR, I felt flat and tired from mile seven to the finish and my time was not indicative of what I was trained to run.

Pfitzinger preaches that the last day a runner can really gain fitness applicable to the marathon is 10 days before the race. He recommends a 2X2 mile workout at half-marathon to marathon pace while the Hansons call for a 5-10K effort at marginally slower than 10K race pace. I did four miles at slightly slower than half marathon pace (5:35, 5:36, 5:38, 5:35) with a very easy warm up and cool down. From here on out it is all about rest and recovery.

The most important thing about tapering is adjusting your priorities. During the entire marathon cycle, getting in the miles and the workouts trumps almost everything. But, during the taper, running falls to a distant third on the list between sleep and food (although those items were always a very close second to running). I have forced myself to sleep through runs just to get the required slumber. Monday, I skipped an easy run for a massage. Friday night, I stopped and walked home after I realized my run was getting a little longer than I intended. Last Tuesday, Jerry pulled me out of an interval workout after two of the three prescribed intervals. I felt like I had more left in the tank, but he saw another interval jeopardizing this critical rest period.

Yes, tapering is frustrating on more than one level. It's not just because it's the farthest thing possible from an exact science, but it also flies in the face of every endurance runner's instincts. You spend months pushing your body to the brink of complete breakdown and then you spend a couple of weeks preventing yourself from even coming close to finishing a run where you are wheezing with your hands on your knees. You feel lazy, you feel sluggish and worst of all, you feel just as hungry as you did when you were at the peak of the cycle.

Let me be clear about one thing. I am not saying the tapers I have done in the past were wrong. I am saying they were wrong for me. Perhaps they were only off by a day or two, or a mile or two. It was enough to prevent the perfect race. That said, the only person that can prescribe the perfect taper is the runner themselves. It is the most individualized part of your training. If you are lucky enough to find one, stick with it. Many very smart, mature and dedicated runners are still looking after five, ten, even twenty marathons. I hope this is the taper that leaves me feeling rejuvenated on race day. I'll know somewhere around Newton.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

To Boston and back

The animosity between sports teams from New York and Boston and sports fans from New York and Boston is well known and well documented. There is no love lost between the Red Sox and the Yankees, the Celtics and Knicks, the Rangers and the Bruins or any of their loyal followings. But, unlike those stick, ball and puck sports, I have always found that distance running is fraternal no matter what city the runner happens to be from.

Let me go back to the birth of this wild idea. A few weeks ago at an Urban Athletics workout, Josh, Kevin and I were warming up when one of them suggested we go run the course in Boston as our last long run of the marathon training cycle. We all agreed it was a great idea, but logistically, it could be tough. The first problem was, none of us have cars. Solution: We take the bus. The second problem was, the bus drops people off in downtown Boston. Getting 20 miles outside the city would be contingent on the commuter train schedule lining up with the bus schedule, which it did not. The third problem was, unless we planned on only bringing what we were running in, we would need a place to stash our stuff. We mulled over taking cabs or paying off a hotel bellhop to hold our bags, but the trip was looking to be more trouble than it was worth.

That all changed when I casually mentioned the undeveloped idea to Meagan. Meagan mentioned our plans to Terrence Shea, assistant coach of the Boston Athletic Assocation, and he emailed me with a detailed and meticulously-planned solution to all of our problems.

Saturday morning at 6:30, the three of us boarded the Bolt Bus outside the Tic Toc Diner on 34th Street and 8th Avenue and settled in for the ride. We arrived in a cold, rainy Boston three and a half hours later, well-rested and ready to run. Terry and Meagan met us outside the bus station and drove us all the way to Hopinkton so we could take a glance at the starting line. Then, we drove six miles of the course into Framingham where we got out, laced up our shoes and applied the necessary Body Glide before Meagan, Kevin, Josh and I started the journey to Boylston Street while Terry drove to mile 20 to park the car and start running toward us.

We started at a pedestrian pace, but that only lasted a mile. By mile two, we were clicking off 6:40s. I wanted to ease off, but for the first time in two weeks, I was feeling pretty good. Of course, this was the easy part. Miles 6 through 15 of the Boston Marathon are relatively flat, and I wondered if we would be able to maintain when we got into Newton and started climbing the hills.

We met Terry around mile 16 and the hills began. Terry, who ran 2:20 on the course last year, was a great guide, telling us the elevation of each of the four famed hills, and how many seconds per mile we should expect to lose as we tackled the most challenging part of the race. As the run got harder, our pace got quicker and we ran the hardest mile of the course, the one that includes Heartbreak Hill, in just under 6:30 pace.

Meagan and Terry split off at mile 22 to go back to the car, and the three of us out-of-towners were on our own to make it to the finish line. Maybe it the was excitement of the upcoming race, maybe it was vibe of Boston, or maybe it was just that we wanted our last long run to be over, but with each mile the pace got quicker. When we finally crossed the spot on Boylston Street where the finish line is painted (Kevin actually crossed it, Josh and I ran on the sidewalk), we were going 5:50 pace. The hard part of training for the World's Most Prestigious Marathon was over, and the countdown to race day could now begin.

After the run, we ducked into Marathon Sports where the sales associate let me call Terry from the store phone and he and Meagan came to get us. We grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby Panera then went our separate ways. The three of us searched for the Sam Adam's 26.2 Brew, but despite promises on the internet that it was on tap at several local bars, we found that not to be true. Raeanne and Katie both swung by on a moments notice to say "hello" and share a beer, and Katie was kind enough to take us to the train station. We caught the 5:30pm bus home and were back in New York by 9:45pm. All in a day's work.

I know I speak for all three of us when I say I could not be more appreciative of Terry's generosity. To roll out the red carpet and sacrifice an entire day for three runners he's never even met goes above and beyond what any of us expected. He not only made our trip worry-free and left us with an insider's look at the course, if it weren't for his help, this trip wouldn't have even been possible. Perhaps the Yankees and the Red Sox can learn something from us weekend warriors.

Week Recap: 3 to go

It is April and April is also the month during which the Boston Marathon occurs. That said, the priority list has been rearranged with sleep and rest now coming before mileage and speed. This is the point in the process where you can no longer afford to be running with a tired body and heavy legs. Last week was my last chance to push myself to the limit and I tried to make the most out of the opportunity. Unfortunately, I felt stale and uninspired until the weekend logging some forgetful miles and some less than stellar speed work. I ran every run in the evening as my body was too worn down to log 4am miles.

Runs: 7 (no doubles)

Mileage: 90.6

Workouts: 2

Long Run: 20.3 miles (Boston Marathon Course)

Hours: 10.36

Monday -- Miles: 12 (6:49 pace) Course: Central Park. Knowing that the New York metro area was under a red flag warning, I tried to limit my time along the Hudson, using the West Side Highway just to get to the park and back. But, there was no escaping the wind. Even in the park it was like running into a wall. My legs are still a little sore. I wore calf sleeves.

Tuesday -- Miles: 12.25 Course: Central Park. Workout: 5X400 All out. Despite the length of this workout, I really struggled to make something of it. I still have dead legs and that brought my already slow pace to a crawl. I fell off the back of every repeat even though I was working really hard. Intervals were 67, 67, 67, 67, 66 with a jog back to the start. I did 5 miles at just under 7:00 pace to cool down.

Wednesday -- Miles: 15 (6:57 pace) Course: West Side Highway. I met Josh about 4 miles in along the West Side Highway and we headed toward Battery Park. It's starting to sound like a broken record, but my legs are still sore and a massage is badly needed. Unfortunately, I won't have an opportunity until next week.

Thursday -- Miles: 13. Course: Central Park Great Lawn. Workout: 2 miles @ MP, 5X800 @ 2:30. The workout only called for the 800s, but I tacked on the two miles at MP solo just to get the legs moving. The challenge was keeping to marathon pace and not dipping too far below. I ran 5:38, 5:42 then shut it down and jogged back to the store. The 800s were a challenge. I don't particularly love doing repeats on the great lawn because although it is fast, it really tears up my legs. Did 2:28, 2:27, 2:26, 2:29, 2:30 with 400 jog as rest. I considered dropping out of the last one, but at the last minute, went for it anyways. It hurt. The thought of a taper felt really good when this was over.

Friday -- Miles: 7 (7:10 pace) Course: West Side Highway. I haven't felt this bad and uninspired on a run in a long time. I felt like I was carrying cinder blocks. Getting in a solid dinner tonight and hoping this is the end of the slump.

Saturday -- Miles: 20.3 (6:42 pace) Course: Boston Marathon from Framingham to Boston. Full recap here. We started at a slow 7:10 pace, and quickly dropped into the mid to high 6's. Legs finally felt GREAT and the scenery and company of Kevin, Josh, Meagan and Terry made this run fly by. By the end of the course, we were in the low 6's. Successful last long run of the training cycle.

Sunday -- Miles: 11 (6:55 pace) Course: Central Park Lower Loop. Other than a slight soreness in my left quad and the driving cold rain, this was a surprisingly good run. I waited until 5pm to step out the door to give my body as much time as possible to recover from yesterday. I am going to keep an eye on the quad and get a massage tomorrow. Time to start the taper.