Giving Myself a Break

It can be hard to convince an athlete to take time off. If you’ve ever approached a runner during  her taper before a big race, I’d imagine you’ve learned to do so only with extreme caution. It’s not just the sudden withdrawal of endorphins, but the worry about whether her training has been good enough, whether the time off will result in loss of endurance, and a myriad of other rational and not-so-rational pre-race concerns.

But it’s not just the taper that’s hard. There’s the pull (often exacerbated by watching what others do) to treat every workout as if it’s a race, to forget the importance of the easy workout, and the rest and recovery days.

I’m as susceptible as most to this downfall, but I’ve also learned over the years that I need more recovery time than most. It took a long while, but I eventually learned to listen to my trainer (and now my coach), following their schedule for me which includes hard days, long days, fast days, slow days, recovery days, and days devoted to nothing but rest.

Sometimes embracing rest days is hard. But after a marathon, it’s easy to get caught up in the luxury of days without a training schedule and letting time and fitness get away from me. This is one big reason I can’t envision running a marathon more often than every couple of years (and that I may not run another marathon again).

Athletes also have a funny idea of what it means to be lazy. In the weeks after running Boston Marathon, I took the better part of a week off to celebrate my birthday with friends (but still fit in a slow recovery run around Central Park in NYC). When I got home I started teaching two classes in an intensive three-week summer session. I was in class for almost 6-hours a day, plus class prep, grading, and keeping up with my research and other administrative responsibilities. On top of that I got back to work with my trainer; active recovery at first, but then back to the strength-building that had been on hold for the last couple of months of marathon training. The only running I did was a couple of group runs that were sponsored by local breweries (after all, who can pass up a running event that ends with good local beer?).

I was almost-constantly exhausted, but felt like I was slacking off despite working 12+ hour days and starting back on strength training. I wondered how long it would take to get my motivation back. I have goals (getting a PR in the half-marathon is my big one at present), but didn’t have the urge to put in the work necessary to start making progress toward any of them. For me, this is the danger of a  marathon – the training takes so much out of me it sometimes takes months to get myself back in gear.

Fortunately, a couple of Sundays ago, at the end of my summer session – and after getting a much-needed long night of sleep – I woke up ready to go. It was hot, but I was anxious to get out to run. I bought a membership to my neighborhood pool and went for a swim. In the next few days I dusted off my commuter bike and started using it to run errands and to get to and from work. Yesterday, I took my road bike out for my first ride of the season (relieved I’ve not forgotten how to clip in and out of the pedals!) and got in a good run.

I leave Thursday to join friends and teammates for a Ragnar Relay in the beautiful Wasatch Back Mountains of Utah where I get to run through heat, altitude, elevation changes, and lack of sleep. I can’t wait. I have a couple of short running races planned and a late-summer triathlon. I’m still picking out a late-year half-marathon where I hope to beat my best time from two decades ago.

It feels good to be back in action.

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I run …

 

I run ...

I like random ‘holidays’ – National Coffee Day (and it’s companion National Espresso Day) is a favorite. Of course, National Talk Like a Pirate Day is always good for a few laughs (especially when I’m teaching and ask my students to talk like a pirate when asking questions in class). In college I looked forward to Ben and Jerry’s Free Cone Day with great anticipation. I still remember getting a free cone, then returning with it to the end of the line so I could wait for my next cone.

Today was National Running Day. As a runner, I love a day in which my social media is filled (even more than usual) with photos and stories that depict the many ways in which running has touched the lives of so many. I’ve also tried to embrace the badge (above) that encourages runners to express what running means to them. In past years I’ve tried filling in the blank with the reasons I run, but this year I didn’t even try. There are just too many things I could say. And since running has contributed so much to my life, I refuse to confine it to a single statement.

Instead, I thought I’d make a list of some of the many ways that I could complete this thought. In no particular order:

I run ….

  1. because I’m stronger than my doubts
  2. to quiet my mind and soul
  3. to see what I’m capable of
  4. because I was told that I could never run again, and I refuse to put stock in those who say I can’t
  5. because I love ice cream and cheese dip and wine and cocktails
  6. because I have great memories of running with my father
  7. for the endorphins
  8. because it’s introduced me to some of the best people I know
  9. when I travel to get in some extra on-foot site-seeing
  10. because destination races are a great excuse to travel
  11. because I love the gear and cute outfits
  12. because strong beats the hell out of skinny
  13. to get away from my life
  14. to embrace my life
  15. because it makes me look forward to aging into new age-groups
  16. because I can compete against others or compete against myself
  17. for the challenge
  18. for the relaxation
  19. alone so that I can enjoy time with just my thoughts and my music
  20. with friends so that we can catch up while putting in miles together
  21. with groups to enjoy companionship and make new friends
  22. when it’s hot, when it’s cold, when it’s steamy, when it’s sunny, when it’s raining.

I run.

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Goals and Accomplishments (AKA Boston Recap)

Boston Finish

Boston Finish

When you ask runners about how they did in a race, the answer often involves acronyms: whether they achieved a PR (personal record),  or in marathons a BQ (Boston qualifying time). It’s convenient to have a concrete benchmark against which to measure one’s performance, whether it’s your own standard (as in the PR) or a standard set by others for excellence (as in the BQ).

When I started training for this year’s Boston Marathon I had hopes of a PR (which would have been a time well-below my current BQ). This was a bit of lofty thinking as I’d earned my best time at the Chicago Marathon (almost 30 minutes faster than my previous PR, set 17 years earlier). Chicago is a wicked fast, flat course, and I had perfect conditions on race-day, with one of the best training cycles I’ve ever experienced.  Chicago was one of those magical days where everything comes together.

As those who’ve read my blog over the past few months know, my training from Boston was a long way from perfect. I went into race day after training through 6 months of injuries, with little hill work and 16.7 miles as my longest training run. My right shin started bothering me off-and-on in the weeks leading up to Boston, and I had no idea how it would feel on race-day. Other than a couple of pool runs I took most of the last week off, thinking rest would do me more good than any last-minute training runs would.

I let go of my goal of a PR (or even another qualifying time) a couple of months ago, but was still tossing around goals as I roamed the streets of Boston’s North End the weekend before Marathon Monday. The course was going to be a challenge, so I spent my time formulating a mental plan for the race.

There’s a downhill start, which sounds nice, but can trash your quads if you’re not careful and I was afraid the pounding would irritate my cranky shin. If I made it through the first 4-5 miles without too much pain, I thought I’d be good until the Newton Hills, which start about Mile 16. Since this is around the point where I was going to start outrunning my training, things would be getting tough no matter what. I could look at the hills as an added burden, or just attribute any fatigue I was feeling at that point to the hills, and know everyone would be feeling it too. It was only a few miles to push through, because after Heartbreak Hill at the end of Mile 21 the course starts its downhill decent into Boston. As long as I was careful at the start, I’d be set once I got to that point on the course.

Pacing was another issue. I honestly had no idea going into the race what pace I was capable of sustaining given my training. If I went out too fast I’d run out of steam; if I ran too slowly I risked tightening up, which can be even more miserable. I talked it through with my coach and we decided to start out about 9:15-9:30/mile, then play it by ear based on how I was feeling. My training wasn’t ideal, but I know I’m strong and stubborn, and with a race-day plan I was more excited than nervous. I had two goals: to finish strong and to thoroughly enjoy my (likely) once-in-a-lifetime Boston experience.

To say the weather on race-day was sub-optimal is an understatement. It was cold (low 40’s), and the rain started just as I approached the starting line. Boston is a point-to-point course and there was a headwind the entire way. Wind gusts over 20 mph started just as I hit the Newton Hills.

I was wet and cold most of the way, and I’ve never had more fun running a race in my life. The crowds came out despite the weather; they cheered, gave out orange slices, candy, water, and dry paper towels. My cheeks were tired from smiling long before my legs felt the miles. I could hear the Wellesley girls over half a mile away; they were deafening as I ran past them on my way to the half-marathon mark. One coed pointed at me, made eye contact as she shouted “I believe in YOU!” She was so fierce in her support I had to believe in myself too.

Despite the weather, crowds, and excitement I ran the race according to plan. I started a little faster than I’d planned (closer to 9 minute miles than 9:15) but settled in quickly to splits between 9:10 and 9:30; I slowed down on the hills (and had a first-ever mid-race port-o-potty stop that cost me 2+ minutes), but kept my splits between 9:30 and 10 minute miles. Past the hills, I was able to get right back to my 9:15-9:30 pace. My last 1.2 miles were below 9:00/mile and were my fastest splits of the marathon.

Final Stretch: rounding the corner onto Boylston Street

Final Stretch: rounding the corner onto Boylston Street

My coach (who ran Boston) and trainer (who was there to support and cheer me on) had been texting one another in my last miles, concerned about how I was doing in the cold. When I finished they got my first text: “That was so fun!!!!!” It wasn’t until a couple of hours later when I’d warmed up and was toasting the day with them (and a few other friends) that I realized I never hit The (infamous) Wall.

I finished with a chip-time of 4:06:13. I didn’t get a PR (or a BQ). In fact, my time was significantly slower than at Chicago marathon 18 months ago. And yet, I’m more proud of my performance at Boston than any other race I’ve completed.

The course and conditions were the hardest I’ve faced, but I was able to rely on my coach’s advice and my experience to put together and stick with a good race plan. I ran well beyond my training, finished strong and had one hell of a good time doing it. I said before I started that I can’t control the conditions, but I can control how I respond to them. Anyone can have a PR under perfect conditions. But keeping focused with a smile on my face under tough conditions is an accomplishment that I’ll have a hard time topping.

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A Small Taste of Paris

Avocado, Mushroom and Sweet Onion Salad

Avocado, Mushroom and Sweet Onion Salad

One of the things I really enjoy about my trips to Paris is the food – and when I manage to get there in the springtime I take advantage of almost every opportunity to eat the avocados that feature so prominently on the local menus. I’m used to avocados as a small part of a dish, but not the main feature (unless you count guacamole, which I consider an accompaniment).

I’ll never forget the first time I had an avocado salad at a restaurant near my office. Beautiful ripe avocados in a creamy (but still somehow light) vinaigrette. It was a bit of heaven on a plate.

Ever since I’ve played around with dressings, trying to create something that will come close to what I experienced there. Last week I put together a nice (very simple) blue-cheese vinaigrette. While it’s not quite the dressing that was used on my first avocado salad in Paris, the blue cheese added some of the creaminess I was looking for. There were also some nice sweet onions at the grocery, so I decided to add them as well as fresh mushrooms. The combination of textures (soft, ripe avocado, firm mushrooms and crisp onion slices) was terrific, and the vinaigrette pulled the flavors together really well.

Use the recipe below as a guide, but as it’s just a salad anything can be adjusted (ingredients, proportions, you name it) however you like.

Blue Cheese Vinaigrette

Combine:

  • 1/3 c. cider vinegar (preferably unfiltered)
  • 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp. dijon mustard

Gradually whisk in:

  • 2/3 c. good quality olive oil

Stir in:

  • 1/4 c. crumbled blue cheese
  • salt, pepper to taste

Avocado, Mushroom, and Sweet Onion Salad

Combine in a medium bowl:

  • 2 ripe avocados, cubed and tossed in about 1 Tbsp. of fresh lemon juice
  • 1 medium (or 1/2 large) sweet onion, sliced thin
  • 1 cup sliced crimini mushrooms

Drizzle with blue cheese vinaigrette before serving

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Deadlines

For as long as I can remember I’ve been deadline-motivated. Maybe it’s a hold-over from my college days when I worked for the student paper, covering evening City Council meetings, writing as the meeting took place and phoning in the story just before deadline. Whatever the reason, deadlines serve to focus my thinking and energy, pulling together loose threads, and allowing me to accomplish what seemed almost impossible when I had time to spare. This isn’t just true of my academic work. I find it impossible to make any serious headway in packing until hours before a flight. The list could go on and on …

There are times when this seems to carry over into my athletic endeavors. I spent several months working on swimming, but could never make it more than 25 or 50 yards before I had to stop to rest between laps. I signed up for my first triathlon, a beginner tri that started off with a 400-yard pool swim. Registering turned out to be just what I needed – within a week I was swimming 400 yards without stopping.

Most recently (as I’ve been writing about for a while) my Boston Marathon training has been going in fits and starts.  After finally recovering from one injury, my other leg started causing me trouble. Last week (just over 3 weeks before race day) I had an 18-20 mile run on my schedule. It was a run I felt I like I needed, but it wasn’t my day. I started slow, and unlike many of my other runs I didn’t manage to work through the pain. Six miles in, my pace was a full minute off my normal training pace. Even worse, my stride was off because of the pain and everything was tightening up. I tried changing my running surface from sidewalk and asphalt to the flat, soft surface of the half-mile running track at the park. Nothing I tried helped – I just kept hurting and slowing down. After 10 miles I decided that running farther wasn’t worth the risk, so I walked home to stretch, ice, and hope for the best.

Chattahoochee River View

Chattahoochee River View

Over the last week, my coach dialed back my land miles, and added some extra miles running in the pool.We saved most of my mileage for a long run on Saturday. The whole week I felt like I was reading tea leaves, looking for a sign as to how it would go. Following my coach’s advice, I checked out a new (to me) running path along the Chattahoochee River – it’s a nice, flat course on soft-surfaces along the river, with a lot of dirt trails that depart from the main path.

It was just what I needed, just in the nick of time. It was my my first really good long run in over a month. The pace felt easy, my legs were strong. I was able to push past what pain I still had enjoy a beautiful morning running along the river and on shady tree-lined paths. I’m not kidding myself that Boston will be easy – I’m going to have to work hard to push myself through the extra miles. But this weekend’s run reminded me that I’ve got what it takes to do it.

Posted in Injury, Life in General, Marathon, Running, training | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Mantras

Body Strong, Mind Stronger

Body Strong, Mind Stronger

Like many people, my first exposure to mantras was through yoga, but over the years I’ve found them useful for focusing my thoughts and reminding myself of things that are easily forgotten in moments of discomfort. They’ve been on my mind lately, and were very useful in helping me through a few tough months of training through pain. At the same time, I’ve noticed some backlash toward mantras. When I posted an instagram photo of reminders I placed on my yoga mat to stay centered during my practice and another of mantras written on my arm before a long run, someone commented that such things were ‘adolescent.’ More recently, Pat Robertson warned his followers of the dangers of mantras.  Neither strike me as reliable sources, but they did prompt me to look into how they can be useful for athletes.

It turns out there’s evidence that positive self-talk (which is often implemented by choosing one or two mantras that can be repeated to yourself) is associated with performance gains for athletes. As an example, Alex Hutchinson reported in a Sweat Science column about a study in which cyclists were given two weeks of self-talk training. When asked to cycle to exhaustion those who had received the training showed an 18% improvement in time-to-exhaustion (compared to no gain for a control group). They also reported slower increases in perceived effort. The training involved trying out and then practicing four motivational phrases during training – two used during the early parts of training and two for later in their training session.

More recently, distance runner Heidi Greenwood has written about how mantras help her in her training and racing. She emphasizes two points that are worth noting: you have to practice your mantras for them to work, and they have to be something you can believe (so she tells herself she’s fine, not that she’s awesome or that the workout is a piece of cake).

So, with less than 3 weeks to go until my first Boston Marathon, and training an ongoing, rough combination of good days and unexpected set-backs, I’m doubling-down. I’m focusing on my mental training even as I approach the physical taper to race-day.  I’m trying out some new mantras and dusting off some old ones. I still have plenty of hard runs over the next couple of weeks to see which ones speak to me, and which ones I need to leave behind when I head to the starting line.

And in the meantime, when some of my runs aren’t going according to plan, I’m Only One Run Countscontinually reminding myself of the wise words of my trainer: only one run counts. The training runs – good and bad – are great preparation. But in the end, its what I do on race day that I’ll remember.

 

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Lessons From a Tough Run

My run today kinda sucked.

It was a 4 mile recovery run, with a few strides at the end. It wasn’t a bad run, but it was harder than it should have been. I wasn’t really surprised. I’m only four days back from a trip to South Africa (and a grueling 16.5 hour non-stop flight home that left me stiff, tired, and jet-lagged). My calf was irritated from a Graston treatment yesterday. And I was barely into my run when I realized I’d forgotten to use my asthma inhaler before heading out of the house.

I’d had two good runs on Wednesday, so despite all the reasons why this run should have been hard it still felt like a set-back. I spent the first mile warming up, working out the pain in my calf, and wishing the run felt better. Even after I found my groove and my calf felt better, the run was still hard – my legs just didn’t have it today.

But somewhere in the next mile it hit me that runs like this one – the hard ones that make you dig deep – are the ones that make the difference. A marathon isn’t easy. There’s always a point where it’s tempting to back off, to let go of your goals, to give in. It’s easy enough to train your body with miles. But it’s as important (and harder) to train your mind to push through when it gets hard.

With that in mind, I spent the rest of my run working on my form, reminding myself that I’m stronger than my instinct to take the easy way out, and remembering what it’s like to run when I’m tired and it feels a little too much like a slog. It wasn’t fun, but it was better preparation for race-day than Wednesday’s easier, longer runs.

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