Monday, July 7, 2014

Race Report: Firecracker 5k

When I set out on my plan to get faster during the time between marathon training cycles, I didn't have a specific goal in mind, other than to change the focus of my training so I didn't get stale.  After the success in the last 5k, I sort of felt like I had already accomplished my goal.  I had logged about 6 weeks of decent training with a number of faster workouts.  Then I let things go a bit, between vacations and other stuff going on.  I still kept running mostly, but I just didn't have the urge to blast out faster workouts.  Then about 3 weeks ago, everything changed and my mind and body synched back up.  I reset, and was ready for more.  So with about 2 weeks of actual training, entered the Firecracker 5k on the 4th of July with the expectation of racing well, but still training through it, as I was not specifically training for it.  Given that the summer heat is in full force, racing well takes on a new definition.  In my eyes, racing well meant running as close to PR pace as possible if the conditions allowed.

I awoke race morning to pouring rain, which is not exactly the most favorite thing a runner wants to see.  It was in the upper 60s though, which would mean a decent temperature, so while the humidity was a bit high due to the rain (which went away about 45 minutes before the race started, it wasn't as hot as it could have been. 

I got to Reston Town Center about an hour before the race and set out for a 2.5 mi easy warm up.  People were just starting to flow in, so I just did my thing, finishing up with a few strides.  I ran into a few friends, chatted it up, and then hopped into the start area about 5 minutes before the gun was to go off.  Erin decided to join me for the 5k, so I found him and we lined up together about 8 rows back.  With 2200+ people, I knew it was a competitive field.  I also looked at the course a bit beforehand and knew it would be a bad idea to get swept out too fast during the first mile.

My race plan was pretty simple: Don't go out too fast in the first mile (rolling with more uphill), lock in goal effort in Mile 2 (rolling but mostly downhill), pick it up for Mile 3 (mostly uphill).  I knew this was the winning strategy for this course and if my fitness was there, I could run PR pace.

Before I could give myself a pep talk about how much I was about to hurt, the gun went off and we made our way onto the course!  I went out with the flow, which was a touch fast (5:30/mi), but once we hit the hill about 1/2 mi in, I slowed enough to save my legs and let my pace fall back a bit.  Once at the top of the hill, we started a nice downhill as we cruised toward Mile 1.  While I could see the marker in the distance, everyone's watch beeped a long ways before we got there, including mine with a 5:47.  When we actually crossed the marker, I was showing 6:08 on my watch, which I knew was not accurate and the marker had to be off. Nevertheless, I carried on through the downhill as we made our way up a short hill before turning right to an extended downhill for most of Mile 2.

I sort of put my legs in cruise control at this point and was running with a pack that was all staying together.  This was good as a pace setter, but I also think I let myself hold back too much.  I could have taken the downhills a bit faster, but I wanted to stay with the group, because we were about to hit a pretty windy section of the course where it would be beneficial to have a pack.  Once at the bottom of the hill, we turned right and into a pretty stiff headwind.  Though we never really got much rain from Hurricane Arthur, the whole area felt the increase in winds.  On sections of the course, there was a 15-20 mph wind, which happened to be right where we were.  I tucked in behind 4 others in front, which did a pretty good job of saving some energy.  We hit Mile 2 in 5:42, thanks in large part to the extended downhill.  Like I said, I might have been able to take an extra 5s off that split if I pushed harder, but I played it safe due to knowing the wind would be there.  My clock time at this point was 11:46, so I knew I was right on pace and the Mile 1 marker was off.  However, I could tell that I was still going to end up with a fair bit longer total distance run, given I was already about 16s off the race clock.

After hitting Mile 2, I slowly began the pick up the effort.  I told myself I had a choice - I could either be safe and hold my effort or be bold and go for it.  I already had a PR in my last 5k, so my mind started telling me that was good enough.  However, I chose to be bold and go for it, because I knew I had more in me.  The race would be over soon and I was already on PR pace.  Don't ever settle.  Go for it!

The start of the mile had a bit of a uphill grade and the pack I was with was starting to break apart.  Erin was still with me, but when I started to push, I pretty much dropped everyone I had been running with.  Shortly after, we hit a short but steep uphill curve, where I hit the gas hard and started passing more people.  Less than a quarter mile later, I made the final turn back into the town center for a long straightaway uphill to the finish.  I glanced down at my watch to see Mile 3 at 5:52 and total time was in the low 17:xx, so I hit it harder, passing more people and averaging 5:28/mi over the last bit.  I knew my final time wouldn't end with a 17:xx due to the extra distance, but I still had a PR in the bag.  Slowly, the finish line came into my closer sight and I crossed the line with a new  9s PR!

I don't look like I'm hurting as much as it felt like it did

Final Time: 18:26 (5:57/mi)
Garmin: 3.19 mi (5:47/mi)
Overall Place: 46/2138
Male Place: 41/926
Age Group: 5/122

Post Race
Shortly after crossing the finish line, Erin came through.  We chatted about the race and wanted to head out for our cool down.  But before we could even make it to the cool down, the finish line was streaming in with friends and other runners I coach.  After a few moments of chatting with people, we took off to get our cool down in.  Two miles later, we raced back over tot he finish area, because it was time for the kids race!  One of the great things =PR= does at big events is make sure to keep it family friendly.  Well there's no better way than to have a kids 100 yard fun run!  They split the kids into different age groupings, with Z being in the last group for the kids 3 and under.  It was so much fun to watch him and all the other kids get a chance to be just like mom and dad!  They even got their own bibs and medals!  Such a nice tough to an already great race.

Having had some time to reflect on the race, I'm thrilled to be able to PR a race in July.  I executed to my race plan as best I could.  While I think I could have eeked a couple more seconds out, I can't complain.  I really just need to make sure I race closer to 3.1 mi.  The best way to get free speed is to run the shortest distance on the course.  If I did that at this race, I might have been looking at something pretty close to sub18, which is right around where I feel my fitness is.

This last 5k concludes my faster training cycle and I will now be shifting more of my workouts toward the Fall racing season.  While I haven't signed up for a race yet, I know I'll be ready to race whichever one I end up running.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Get Fast Now - How to Prioritize Your Training for a Fall Marathon

Are you at the point now where your goal Spring race is behind you and you’re looking at a long distance race for the Fall?  If so, then you’re probably at the point in your training where you aren’t quite sure what to do.  Maybe your Spring race went well, or maybe you’re looking to avenge for a less than desirable race experience, but chances are you’re trying to run faster for your Fall race.  Common instinct is to prescribe yourself lots of early long runs to “establish your base” and “get used to long distances”.  I get it – you likely cramped (for whatever reason – nutritionally or muscularly) toward the end of your race and you feel that running more long runs will better prepare your body.  At first glance, that would seem to make sense.  If your body isn’t used to “going there”, then you need to practice it so you don’t experience the same issues on race day.  But the reality is that you will achieve nothing by this approach other than getting used to running long and slow and more importantly, you may risk burnout/injury by the time you actually get closer to your Fall race.  It makes no sense to pound away that long this far out from a goal race, yet this is the first approach so many people turn to.  In fact, some of the runners I’ve coached through our =PR= DistanceTraining Program come into the program expecting to run 18-20 miles at the start of the training cycle (with 16-18 weeks until their goal race), because they’ve already spent the month(s) before the program “getting ready”.  I find its best in these situations to take a step back from the day to day, week to week looking glass and look at your training from a greater holistic perspective.  This usually helps people see the light and get them moving in the right direction.  So what should you do? 

Get faster now, so you can go long (and be faster) in the Fall. 
Let’s take a look at why this approach makes more sense than just mindlessly logging long run after long run for the next 5+ months.   Ever wonder why elite marathoners don’t typically race multiple marathons throughout the year?  Well for one, they realize that optimal performance can really only be dedicated to 1 marathon per season or year.  But the other reason is because they aren’t in marathon shape year round – they’re focused on training at shorter distances to get faster.  It’s easy to understand why.  Let’s stick with elites as the example for the moment.  If you want to be an elite male marathoner, you need to be capable of running sub-2:10 (sub-2:05 for world class) these days.  Many of these same runners run 59:XX or faster for the half marathon too.  So to run a faster marathon, you have to be able to run a faster half marathon, because the faster times at those shorter distances translate into faster times when those same athletes go back to marathon training.  If you’re slower than that, no amount of training more at marathon pace is going to get you faster.  The training doesn't work like that.   

Simply put in terms regular runners can understand, if your goal marathon pace is an 8:00/mi pace, but your half marathon pace is 7:45/mi pace, the best thing you could do would be to knock that 7:45/mi half marathon pace down to 7:30 or 7:15.  Why?  Because if you can run a half marathon (just a bit slower than lactate threshold) at 7:15-7:30/mi, that 8:00/mi goal pace will equal a much lower percentage of effort to hit.  As a result, it will cost you less (in terms of the energy you’ll use) to run at that goal pace, therefore allowing you to run farther at that pace without hitting the dreaded wall.  And if you are properly trained, taking in nutrition, and executing with proper pacing, there hopefully won’t be a wall at all come race day.
Let me just interupt this message to remind you that you can't just start training at whatever pace you want.  You still have to train at your current fitness levels, no matter the distance.  So to get your half marathon times faster, you can't just train at those faster paces.  You have to train at your current fitness first.

But don’t let the example of the half marathon fool you into thinking that’s the only option.  Every distance all the way down can play a supporting role, which is why you often see many of these same elites racing shorter distances.  In some cases, it’s just a workout as part of a larger training cycle, but in others, it is because they are training to get faster at shorter distances so they can ultimately get faster at the longer stuff.

And aside from the explanation above, there are many other benefits for the everyday runner.  Here are just a few:

·         Running faster encourages better running form:  Spending more time running fast versus just slogging out the miles means you’re less likely to get overuse/repetitive stress injuries that are common with endless long runs

·         Changing the stress stimulates new progress: If your body has been training one way for a while (ie lots of long, easy, moderate runs), jumpstarting it with some faster running can recruit additional muscle fibers to support your running.  These fibers can then be trained to act like slow twitch fibers when you turn back toward the distance stuff, which will help prevent fatigue late in the race.

·         Faster running adds a strength element: While hills tend to be a natural component of most runner’s training, faster running forces your muscles to work harder in different ways, meaning you’ll get stronger.  A stronger runner is able to maintain proper running form longer, which means you’ll likely slow down less late in races.

·         Find a new definition of hurt: There is a huge difference between the type of pain experienced in long distance races versus the type of pain experienced in a 5k.  Long distance races are like someone flicking you a million times, eventually leading you to get annoyed and feel some pain.  5k pain is a lung busting, muscle burning feeling that takes some getting used to.  Teaching your mind to be able to handle a variety of pain will help you when things get tough, no matter the distance.

In summary – you can always train your body to run longer, but it is much more difficult to train it to run faster AND longer at the same time.  So the benefit of spending the time you have now to get faster, is that you don’t have to add another foreign stress to your body when it comes time to stack the miles up in preparation for your goal marathon in the Fall.  Add the fast now, so you can focus on the far (with some moderate fast) later.  So do the smart thing, and find some speed over the next month or so, get faster, and use it to prep for your goal Fall race.

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