Monday, March 30, 2015

Nailing The Final Marathon Long Run

Yesterday served as a breakthrough day for me and my training for Boston - I nailed my final long run. For those who have been grinding away through winter and the extended cold into early Spring, it feels like the monotony of bundling up, mustering enough excitement to go out there in the cold and run hard for an extended period of time has dragged on.  Like any training cycle, you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel as it nears the end, but you just have to get those last few weeks of hard work done before you get there.  And while that is where you find the "sexy" workouts, they are often the most difficult both mentally and physically.

I've written before about creating the confident athlete, how these big workouts play an important role, and this workout (which I'll describe below) certainly served its purpose.  Depending on a runner's experience level, the last long run can be anywhere from the most miles you've ever run, to the duration of your goal time, to a run that simulates the marathon race.  All of these runs are something you only do once in a marathon cycle, but a runner doesn't typically do all of them.  Newer marathoners are more likely to go by time or distance, whereas more experienced runners focus on simulating the marathon race by running a significant portion of the run at marathon pace.  However, it is important that a runner progress to this point before tackling such a workout.  Consistently logging long runs throughout the training cycle is a requirement.  If incorporating lots of marathon paced miles, its best to have done other shorter long runs where you've also done marathon paced miles.  The reason is simple - you don't want this run to take so much out of you that you can't recover.  If you are prepared and you run at appropriate paces, this run will be extremely challenging, but it should not leave you on the verge of collapse or not being able to function.

At the end of the day however, the final long run cannot determine how the actual race will go, either good or bad.  It is simply another place to connect the dots toward peaking for your race.  But with that said, I had a GREAT run and certainly one that I hope correlates to an amazing race day.

Sunday morning I set out with a crew of some speedy (faster than me) runners, all of whom are training for Boston as well.  We had agreed on the basic structure of the workout, which was the 1st 10 miles out starting around 7:30/mi and running steady to around 7:00/mi, then sub 7 all the way back, with the last 5 around 6:45/mi.  The course profile was 2 miles downhill, then 8 miles out on a slight uphill grade, before turning around and doing the reverse.  This meant miles 19-20 would be all uphill pushing hard, kind of like how Boston will be.  So how did it go?

1st 10 - 7:32, 7:11, 7:28, 7:25, 7:15, 7:10, 7:09, 7:05, 7:11, 7:09 (7:15/mi avg)
Last 10 - 6:56, 6:56, 6:47, 6:57, 6:49, 6:43, 6:42, 6:38, 6:50, 6:57 (6:49/mi avg)
Final Stats: 20 miles, 7:02/mi avg

We all ran together basically until about 12 miles in and then a few people started to throw in some surges.  Being the conservative runner that I am, I just held it steady, because I wanted to save my legs for the final 2 miles uphill.  Some would surge ahead, then float back, until we got to 16 miles and I pretty much got dropped.  I was right on pace with the plan, but these people were more fit than me and pushed faster.  They never got out of my sight, but I had no desire to try and close down the gap.  Since this was a marathon simulator, I wanted to run these miles as though I still had another 6.2 to go at the end.  And while I'm thankful Boston won't have a 2 mile grinding uphill (at least the Newton hills have some breaks in between them), I came out of this workout knowing that I can grind uphill at sub 7.  It was a very solid day and without a doubt the best long run I've had.

So where does this leave me for Boston?  Well, it leaves me knowing that I can shoot for a PR.  I have the utmost respect for the course and the unique challenges it will bring, but I am hopeful that the work I've done will lead to the results I know I've worked hard for.

Do you have any favorite last long run workouts to share?  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Race Report: Marine Corps Marathon

Where does one begin when it has taken nearly 2 months to write a race report?  Well...to be honest, I've had the post written in my head since pretty much the race ended.  However, as you tell by the frequency of posts recently around here, it hasn't happened.  Until now, that is, because I need to move on from the race and nothing brings closure like getting the thoughts out of your head and onto paper  a screen.

My build up to Marine Corps started just like every other marathon: full of hope and dreams of a PR.  I mean, I was just fresh off a 5k PR and training was going great, so why wouldn't that seem natural?  Fast forward my steady training through the summer until about September, when things suddenly changed.  No, it wasn't an injury or anything running related.  After months of discussing it, we finally put an offer down on a house that was quickly accepted.  More importantly, it meant we needed to pack up our stuff ASAP, so we could prep our current house for listing.  In a matter of 4 days, we essentially moved 75% of our stuff out of the house, thoroughly cleaned, repainted, prepped, etc everything.  It was a lot of work and took even more out of my physically.  I had no time, motivation or energy to run.  From the moment I woke to the moment I went to bed (sometimes way later than I would prefer), I was doing house work.  For those that know me, if I told you I had no motivation to run, you would wonder if someone stole my body and replaced it with a zombie.  That is NOT me and never has been.  But here I was, 4-6 weeks out from my goal race and I had no motivation or energy to train.  7 days went by without a run - not by choice, but dictated by how I could spend my time.  On top of it all was the need to take care of the Z man.  One of the things you learn as a parent especially, is that you lose your ability to be selfish in times of need.  Its easy when its just the two of you to say, "I'm leaving for 3 hrs to go do my long run".  Its much harder to do that when you have more to take care of and be responsible for.  When I had free time (if any existed during this period), it was spent with my family, not out on my own running.  I still got some training in, but less so than would be considered ideal given the timing in the training cycle. We all have priorities and for the first time in a while, running wasn't one of them.

Now to be honest, I was doing plenty of cross training during this time, including tons of stairs with heavy boxes, lots of core work painting and assorted house tasks, etc.  And life was pretty much like this up until 2 days before the race, when I drew a line in the sand and said I had to rest if I wanted any chance at the marathon.  In fact, I was more sore during this time than any other time I can recall from running.  Oh and closing on the new house was the Friday before the race, so life stress was totally at an all time low (that might be a slight understatement).  So this was my long way of saying, I didn't make it to the start line knowing that I did everything I could to run to my potential.  However, it doesn't mean I wouldn't try.  You see, I was in the fortunate position of having nothing to lose.  Since I ran my BQ in March and was already accepted into Boston, I honestly had nothing to lose by just going out to PR and seeing what happened.  I had good training leading up to it and a few years of consistent uninterrupted training to base everything off of.  Why not?  So I decided to go for 3:05 as a soft goal.

Pre-Race
Race morning came like every other one, an early wake up, cramming some food in my still asleep body, and heading over to the race.  I parked in Rosslyn as I've always done when going to spectate, since I'm convinced it is no more walking than the other alternatives and you have a much easier pathway home with an easy walk to the car after you finish.  I was parked by about 6:15, ate a bit more, and then made my way toward the start with the masses in the dark.  Getting through security at Fort Myer was a breeze and I began walking toward the start line as the sun started to come up.  It was a bit warmer than forecast, even in the morning, and I knew the day might get a little toasty with the sun out, so I made sure to hydrate with some extra electrolytes in the sports drink I was sipping all morning.

About 45 minutes before the start, I went for a short jog with 2 x 1:00 pickups to race pace.  My legs felt great and I remained positive that I could still have a great day.  Either way, I'd rather run a marathon than move to a new house, so I saw the day as an opportunity to have fun, be out of the house, and see some friends.

I made my way toward to front of the start area, since Marine Corps doesn't regulate corrals, and found the 3:05 pacer so I'd know where his group was.  As the clock got closer to race start, the area filled in very quickly with what seemed like a lot of pretty fast people where I was standing.  A few moments before the gun was to go off, I overheard the pacer telling those around him that Mile 1 was going to be a mess and he'd be doing a lot of weaving, but not to worry about pace, since they'd catch up once things opened up a bit.  My approach was much in the same - I didn't want to fight the early crowds with too much weaving, so I'd run what I could and start slowly, then let the race come to me.

In my head, I had the race broken out into a number of distinct segments with individual goals to help me get through the race: Miles 1-4 (Start to Key Bridge), Miles 5-11 (Georgetown through Rock Creek Park), Miles 12-15 (Haines Point), Miles 16-20 (Along the Mall), Miles 21-22 (14th St Bridge), Miles 23-25 (Crystal City to Pentagon), Mile 26 (Rt 110 to Finish)

Miles 1-4
With the sound of the howitzer, we were off and running...except we weren't.  I think its about time "The People's Marathon" gets real about proper race seeding and either institutes a pre-race seeding system that they enforce, or require runners to qualify into some of the earlier corrals, because it is simply unacceptable to line up at the front of a marathon and walk or even run at a significantly slower pace than the rest of the field around you.  For the 1st half mile, I was boxed in, forced to weave, and running in the low to mid 8:xx range, which is not ideal when your goal pace is around 7:00/mi.  Unfortunately, this mean a lot of energy wasted with the stop and go tactics of weaving.  I ran goal pace when I had space, but more often found myself trying to avoid clipping feet with those around me running much slower.  It was frustrating, but there was nothing I could do about it, so I just patiently waited till I had openings and ran, with as little weaving as possible.  With some early downhill in the 1st mile, I still managed to come in at 7:05, but I know I wasted a whole lot of energy doing that, so it had me a bit worried.  The 3:05 pacer was long gone, having weaved his way in and out and all over the course in that 1st mile and I had no desire to do that, so I let them go.  The next 2 miles were pretty much uphill with the start of an extended downhill, so I gave myself the flexibility to slow down as needed, after the harder than planned first mile.  I saw folks flying up the hill, while I just climbed as easily as I could with as little effort as possible to make it to the top.  I made it up in 7:21, which was still faster than I had initially planned, but the legs felt good and breathing was very controlled, so I went with it.  After we crested the hill, I let my legs go and tried to keep from braking too hard on the downhills, causing more tension.  As saw a lot of my pace fall well into the 6:xx, which was expected, given the sharp downhills in this part of the course.  This is where I expected to get back onto pace from the earlier slow miles.  Mile 4 was 6:54 and I came through this segment averaging 7:07/mi, which was close to where I wanted to be by now.

Miles 5-11
As we made our way up hill to the Key Bridge and into Georgetown, I tried to get myself into a rhythm, but I simply couldn't.  My legs felt fine, breathing was still good, and I was on pace, but my thirst level was uncharacteristically high for this early in the race.  I'm not typically a thirsty person when running, so to be only 4-5 miles into the race and already looking for the next aid station was sign #1 that something was off.  Nevertheless, I cruised through the crowds in Georgetown, enjoyed the support, and made my way to Rock Creek Park, hitting Miles 5-6 in 7:09 and 7:10 respectively.

In my race prep, I saw this section of the course as the largest unknown.  I never had a chance to run it and when I always drove it, it seemed far more up hill than the race profile showed, which was more rolling, but more up on the way out and down on the way back.  I'd agree that there wasn't as much up as I initially felt and I was thankful we didn't have to do the climb up to Calvert St that they do for the RnR DC race - no thanks.  As I made my way gradually up the hill, I 1st spotted a fellow =PR= buddy who was working the aid station.  As I worked my way up the last part of the hill, I saw the 3:05 pacer coming back to the other way, probably 1:00 ahead, so not terribly far ahead and still within striking distance.  I moved up the out section a bit slower than goal, accounting for the hills in 7:17 for Miles 7 and 8, which included the start of the turnaround back.  As I made my way back downhill, I heard Jamie call me out and gave her a wave.

Passing the Kennedy Center just before Mile 10
I was enjoying heading back downhill now, as the early hills were over.  However, I still had that off feeling and it didn't seem to be going away.  By the time I hit Mile 8, I told myself to run to the halfway mark and see how everything feels before making any further decisions.  Miles 9-11, which brought the rest of the downhills and then on Rock Creek Parkway back into the crowds cruised through in 7:06, 7:01, 7:01.  For this section, I averaged 7:08/mi and was right on track.

Heading Toward Haines Point at Mile 11
Miles 12-15
As we entered Ohio Drive to start the Haines Point segment, I noticed my breathing starting to labor a bit.  While my legs were still feeling solid, the breathing concerned me.  We were now running into the full sun, with no shade to hide from it and I think my body was started to work a little harder than it should be.  I was with a small pack and was using them to shield some of the headwind coming off the Potomac, so I didn't want to fall off the group.

Small bridge crossing around Mile 12
 I stayed on and we made our way up toward my "reevaluation" spot.  I hit Miles 12 and 13 in 7:09 and 7:11 as we rounded the tip of Haines Point and crossed the 13.1 mat in 1:34:15 (7:11 avg), which was about 30s faster than I ran at Shamrock, though I remember feeling a heck of a lot better at this point during that race than I did now.  I was still on pace to PR, but far off 3:05 pace, and I knew I wasn't going to PR the way things were headed.  So I reevaluated and decided to run it in rather than race the rest.  I could tell my body wasn't going to fight at this pace for 13+ more miles and with everything else going on at home, I didn't need to end up in a medical tent.  So I kept clocking the miles while slowly easing off the gas, though I was hoping that headwind we were fighting heading out on Haines Point would be a tailwind on the way back.  Not so much - or at least I was hurting and didn't feel any benefit from it.  I knew I had more friends at Mile 15, and I didn't want to disappoint, so I at least held it together through there.  Miles 14-15 were 7:15, 7:13.  For this section, I averaged 7:12/mi, still on target for a solid day, but knowing that I was slowing.

Slowing a bit, but at least I got a good photo out of it!
Miles 16-20
If I had provide some advice to those running Marine Corps for the 1st time, it would be that this section is deceivingly hard.  I've run the Mall so many times over the years and never thought twice about the terrain, but 16 miles into a marathon, and every change seems to increase tenfold.  Heading out on Independence toward the Potomac is slightly downhill, but once you hit the turnaround, it was carnage city.
Heading out on Independence Ave and enjoying the downhill
Folks were cramping and the road slants up a bit as you near the Washington Monument.  I distinctly remember this being that point where my brain and body stopped working as one.  I had every intent on easing my running for the rest of the race toward my usual easy pace (7:45/mi), but that hill forced my brain to shutdown the rest of my body.

Who knew a small hill could cause so much pain?
 I clocked Miles 16-18 in 7:22, 7:35, 7:43 but I could start to feel my body shutting down now that my mind was clearly out of it.

Barely holding it together

Right between Miles 18 and 19 as we rounded the Capitol reflecting pool, my body showed its 1st protest in the form of a hamstring cramp.  I walked for a few short seconds before going to back to running, quickly found the next aid station and doubled up on some Gatorade to hopefully help the situation.

Running, but not for long

Unfortunately, during Miles 19-20 the cramp came back and hit me pretty good.  I happened to stop to stretch right by one of my other =PR= coaches who was standing shortly before Mile 20 and asked him for his phone to call Rebecca.  I knew she was tracking me and I didn't want her to worry, so I spoke for a bit to let her know that I was ok, but going to finish slower than planned.  In total after looking at my watch, I stopped for about 5 minutes, both to stretch and call Rebecca.  All goals were out the window anyways, so I just wanted to enjoy my time as a marathon participant.  I decided that I'd be there to support those around me and encourage everyone in the last 10k of the race.  As I headed onto the bridge, I spotted Jamie one more time.  For a second, I strongly considered coming over to chat, but remembered I was sort of in a race with a timer counting how long it will take to cross the finishline, so on I went.  Miles 19-20 were 8:07 and 12:16 (including my 4-5 min rest stop).

Miles 21-22
In not shocking news to anyone who has run the Army 10 Miler or Marine Corps, I hate the 14th St Bridge.  I really do.  There is nothing good about.  Even during the week, as it causes way too much traffic.  But for running, it harnesses the sun, is hilly, and offers no reprieve.  To make matters worse, there is no aid station from Mile 19 until you get into Crystal City at Mile 22.  Why can't they put one on that bridge?  Most races have aid stations every 1-1.5 miles that late in the race in larger marathons.  Seems odd to have 3 miles between them when most runners need the aid the most, but maybe that's just me, because all I wanted was more Gatorade, since I was forever thirsty and cramping.  Given my state this late in the race, I just kind of took my time and cheered folks on without much urgency.  If nothing else, I was getting my money's worth!  Even though I was having fun and cheering folks on, I'll also admit that the bridge took forever.  I was never so happy to see Crystal City and the next aid station in my life.  Miles 21-22 were 9:34, 9:48.

Miles 23-25
It was around this time that I started playing the mental math game and wondering if one of my running friends was near.  It was his goal to run sub-3:30, so I figured I'd spot him coming the other way on Crystal City as I made the turn back up.  I had been cheering on random strangers, but was hoping to find him, so I could help support him in his goal.  I saw the 3:25 pacer pass and then a little while longer saw the 3:35 pacer go by and still no sign.  Sadly, I continued on, hoping I had just missed him and that he was still on pace (I later found out he dropped at 15, so I'm glad I didn't stop everything to wait for him).  Meanwhile, the miles clicked along, the walking of those around me increased, and the carnage on the road was clear.  It was a warm, sunny day and taking its toll on everyone, including myself.  I was running along fine and then suddenly during Mile 25, the cramps came back, so I had to take a few more moments to stretch.  Miles 23-25 were 9:07, 8:23, 9:48.

Mile 26 - Finish
Leading up to the race, I had grand visions of using the slight downhill in the last mile to run one of my faster miles, before hitting the painfully steep last .2.  I still had plans to run that last mile, but my body had other plans.  It was done.  A long time ago.  But with all the Marines around, I ran up that darn hill through to the finish, because I had no excuse.  I was healthy.  It just wasn't my day.  So I ran - for myself, for others, for those who can't.

Nearing the finish

I crossed the finish line in 3:31, happy, proud, and appreciative of the sacrifices service men and women make to allow for us to enjoy life the way we do.

Happy to cross the finish line

I thanked each and every single person I could find.  While I didn't have the race I wanted, I made sure to show appreciation where it belongs - to those who don't complain about the mission they're assigned to.  They do what is asked of them every day.  On this day, it happened to be supporting a marathon, but on most other days, it isn't so easy.

Post-Race Thoughts
A number of friends have asked me if I know why I didn't have a great race and there is no single answer, but I've done my best to summarize it below if it wasn't clear above:

Stress is a variable that can manifest itself in many ways, most of which you may not ever know until it is too late.  With everything going on, my body may have been perfectly well suited to run a PR, but I can assure you, my stress levels were so high leading up to to the race, that I can't think of anything I could have done differently to change the outcome to a PR.  Could I started slower?  Sure, I could have run a conservative race and finished with a faster final time, but as I said from the start, I had nothing to lose, so why compromise?  Conditions on race day did not lend themselves to fast times, but I had no reason to back down.  It was sunny, 60F (warmer accounting for real feel), and windy.  While those are great conditions for watching a marathon, they are far from great for running in one.  It just wasn't my day, but I finished happy, healthy, and ready to run another day.

So that's the wrap on Marine Corps.  I apologize for the long wait, but these are the same thoughts I had in my head since the moment I crossed the finish line.  I can happily say that we have moved into our new house and are enjoying life, so there's a happy ending to the story.  Just sucks that it took this long to write down :) 

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