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.

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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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Edamame Hummus (aka rescuing an otherwise rotten afternoon)

Edamame Hummus

Some days wear me down more than others. On those days (like today) I try to find something to reenergize myself before others have to deal with me. On particularly tough days (like today), I turn to a never-fail combination: some of my favorite music cranked up high, a glass (or two) of good red wine, and dancing in my kitchen while I create something I crave.

I’ve intended to make tahini for a while (it’s so easy, and I’m not sure why I’ve not done it yet), and as long as my Vitamix was being used it only made sense to take care of some of the cleanup by mixing up a batch of hummus. (It makes so much more sense to make use of hard-to-scoop-out ingredients than to wash an extra container.)

For the tahini, I bought unhulled raw sesame seeds in bulk, toasted them in a skillet, put them in my Vitamix and blended on high until it was smooth (about 2 minutes). I scooped out most of it, then added the other ingredients. The wonderful thing about dips (as opposed to baked goods) is that you can adjust them however you like – add more of what tastes good, or what will make the texture more to your choosing.  I love tahini, so the recipe tastes more strongly of that than the edamame. Use less if you prefer. I also love the brightness of lemon juice (which I find tempers the other ingredients) – but you can use more or less as you like. Add extra oil (or water) if you want it less thick. Put in a touch of red pepper if you want to spice it up – the variations are quite literally endless.  That said, this is what I used for my hummus (it works well in a high powered blender, but a food processor would work well too):

  •  about 1/3 cup tahini (make your own and just leave some in your blender container, or use store-bought) – if you’re not sure, use less and add more to taste at the end
  • 2 cups cooked edamame (I buy frozen edamame which cooks up easily in a few minutes)
  • 2/3 c. lemon juice
  • 1/4 c. good quality olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. water
  • 1-2 cloves garlic (granulated garlic works well too)
  • t tsp. kosher or sea salt
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin

Blend until smooth, adjust to taste.

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Superstition

I try to live by this, every day.

I try to live by this, every day.

Some people consider me to be a risk-taker. My adrenaline-seeking activities through the years have included sky diving, rock climbing, and riding dirt bikes and ATV’s. I try to embrace life, in part, by confronting my fears and refusing to let them hold me back (for example, I’m afraid of heights, so it only makes sense that I’d rock climb and sky dive, right?).

An incident that has always stuck with me took place in the early 90’s in Russia. I had the opportunity to go outside on a high parapet with views of the city, but my fear of heights stopped me. I still regret missing the opportunity and determined after not to let fear stand in my way. I’m not always successful, but I do my best and have had countless unforgettable experiences as a result.

Despite this, when it comes to running I have a lot of superstitions – some may border on paranoia.  My dissertation advisor used to remind me that there’s a fine line between paranoia and good common sense.  That line is fine, indeed, and I’m not always sure which side of it I’m on.

Strength

I’ve been known to wear charms on race-day or during tough training runs; not so much for good luck, but to remind myself of what I’m made of. Sometimes it’s jewelry, sometimes it’s a mantra written on my arm; having something tangible when the run gets tough can focus me and get me through.

As I prepare for a big race things can get even more crazy … or maybe I’m just focused on being more-than-usually sensible. It can be so very hard to tell.

I’m a huge fan of kinesiology tape – I buy it in bulk rolls and tape anything that’s been troubling me before heading out for a long run, or prophylactically for trouble-spots before they start to hurt. This always seems to help, but I’m not sure how much of the improvement is real and what is just a placebo-effect. Honestly, it doesn’t matter – it helps and I’ll keep using it.

Running shoes are another issue entirely. I started running in Brooks Launch not long after they were introduced, and was devastated when they announced in 2012 that they were discontinuing the shoe. Fortunately, they listened to the outcry and re-introduced it shortly thereafter.

A sample of myy collection of Brooks Launch running shoes …

I’ve tried a couple of other shoes, but with one exception the results have been disastrous. I flirted with a more minimalist shoe and shortly thereafter tore my plantar fascia. More recently I tried another brand and strained my achilles just as my marathon training was scheduled to ramp up. I got online to order another pair of my standby Launch shoes and found them on sale – never a good sign. I looked, and sure enough they were releasing a new version – the Launch 2. I got online, chatted with a customer service agent, and got full information on the specifications. They seemed comparable, but for insurance (and assurance) I bought another pair of the original launch along with the new version. So far, they’re both doing well, though I only take out the new version on short training runs, still not fully trusting them.

My trust, it turns it out, is measured in terms of millimeters of midsole drop. Which might be paranoia. But with 50 days until my first Boston Marathon, it seems closer to good common sense.

 

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