Musical Fartlek

It’s hard to convince an athlete to hold back. Suggest rest days or tapering, and you’re bound to get a cranky response. It took years of injuries to finally embrace rest as a critical part of my training. Still, it’s hard to keep from feeling guilty when I have a short or slow run (even when I’m doing exactly what my running coach has scheduled).

Over the last couple of months I’ve been adding more consistent running back into my schedule. My trainer has reminded every time we work out that there is a time and place for intensity. While I was training for the Boston marathon, I had to save most of my intensity for running. More recently we’ve turned our focus back to building up my strength, and with our strength-training sessions routinely lasting 75 minutes or more, all of my intensity has been in the gym.

My runs have been slow, and I’ve just begun to (gradually) build weekly mileage. This morning I went out for an 8-miler (my longest run since April!), adding in some hills and with no goal other than to find some street art and enjoy a small break in Atlanta’s hot weather. I was running by feel, trying to stay relaxed, not worrying at all about my pace.

I had a good playlist on my iPod, with nothing so fast as to tempt me to misbehave. But as is often the case, music influences my runs. Today I noticed how – even without a lot variation in the tempo of the music – each song was pushing me along in a different way. Some encouraged me to hold myself back settle into a relaxed pace. Other songs were more playful and reminded me to have some fun along the way.

My favorite song on this morning’s playlist (Sometime Around Midnight by The Airborne Toxic Event) starts off as a melancholy ballad, then builds in power and beautiful intensity. It came on at just the right time – that point in my run when I wanted to push myself – not exactly faster, just a little harder, paying more attention to my body and form and using my strength to power through. And then, with the next song, I was reminded to fall back into my easy pace.

Growing up I enjoyed running Fartleks (‘speed play’ in Swedish), but I’ve gotten away from them over the years. Today’s run encouraged me to put together a few new playlists that I can use to mix things up (even while being careful not too build to much too fast, and to save the real intensity for the gym), and challenge and entertain myself on some of my upcoming runs. If a Fartlek is fun, one where the pace and intervals are guided by music has to be even better.

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Being Present

I did some intervals last weekend on my run for the first time in months.  The last time I remember doing anything that remotely resembled speed work it was cold and raining. I could have used a little of that. Like a lot of days, I slept later than I should have given Atlanta’s August heat. As I moved around the house, getting out the door for my run, I was already thinking ahead to my afternoon’s activities and planning my day. Walking to the park my mind was on an argument from from the day before and some issues at work that have been taking up too much of my time and energy.

My  planned workout (200 meter intervals, with time to walk and jog in between each) shouldn’t have been much of a stretch, but about half-way through I bonked. I honestly didn’t think that was possible after running less than two miles and I tried to make sense of it. Then it hit me: I’d forgotten to eat – I’d had nothing since dinner 14 or more hours earlier. Getting ready to run (and even in the early part of my workout), my mind was a long way from the training I had scheduled for that morning.

‘Mindfulness’ has become a catch-phrase, but I’m more hippie than new-age and haven’t paid the movement more than passing attention. One of the things I enjoy most about running is that it gives me time to think, quiet time for my mind to wander, to work through whatever challenges I’m facing. That might be fine for some runs, those where the only purpose is to put in some miles without concern for how I’m running them. But on this run it became obvious how much being present – focusing on the job at hand – would benefit me.

I’ve been trying to put that into practice this week, but it’s easier said than done. My life is full of distractions, a lot (but certainly not all) of them of my own making. On today’s run I worked hard to stay centered. When my mind wandered to the run that I should have put in yesterday (but didn’t), I reminded myself that the chance was gone, there was no getting it back and no reason to dwell on it. I enjoyed some flat, shady spots on my route. When I went uphill, I did my best not to worry about the next (longer) one along the road. (I did allow myself the luxury of cursing the incline while I was pushing up it.) I focused on my form – which is in desperate need of my attention – and saw how small changes affected how I felt. My mind also wandered a lot, but I noticed it when it did. That’s progress of a sort, I suppose.

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Ready to Tri

When I see open water, I just want to get in and swim

When I see open water, I just want to get in and swim

Tomorrow I’ll be competing in my first triathlon in a year. I should be packing up my gear right now, but I’m having a hard time getting focused. It took me almost an hour to finish making my coffee this morning. There are nerves and excitement – mostly excitement.

I’ve never adequately prepared to be competitive in a triathlon (this year is no different), but I love the incentive to cross-train and to push myself to improve in something I wouldn’t have considered trying even a few years ago. When I started training for my first triathlon swimming the length of a 25-yard pool was an accomplishment. Now, I bring along my swim gear anytime I’ll be close to open water.

Tomorrow’s tri (the Acworth Women’s Sprint Tri) will be special because I’ll be sharing the experience with my friend Amanda (swimming in front of me – as usual – in the photo above) as she completes her first triathlon. I can’t say how much I’ve enjoyed sharing her progress over the past few months, and watching her embrace this challenge. We’re furiously texting back and forth today as we make last-minute preparations and plans. In a few hours we’ll be driving the course, picking up a few last-minute supplies, enjoying a carb-loaded dinner, then settling in for the night.

By this time tomorrow we’ll be celebrating her hard work and accomplishment. I can’t wait.

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Ocean Fun

Jekyll IslandFor as long as I can remember I’ve insisted I was born to live near the water. A tropical (or sub-tropical) beach would be ideal, but honestly I wouldn’t complain about a small shack on the river or a lake. As long as I could open my window, feel the fresh breeze and hear water lapping at the land I’d be content. When I have trouble sleeping, I often turn to a recording of a storm coming over a lake in the wilderness – very few things put me right to sleep, but this works more often than most things.

Despite this, I’ve never considered myself much of a swimmer, nor have I wanted to do much more on the water than paddle in a boat, or ride around while others water-ski. I spent years as a child taking swim lessons from a less-than-encouraging teacher, which is ultimately why I turned to running when I was young.

Last week at the beach I conquered a new challenge – swimming on my own in the ocean. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll get into the water and play in the waves. But I’ve never intentionally set out to swim away from the shore in the ocean, looking for water too deep to stand. I’m not completely crazy or without concern for my own safety – since I was swimming on my own in the open water I used my ‘safer swimmer’ float (a bright orange inflatable pouch that makes you visible to boats in the area and can keep you above water if you run into problems mid-swim).

The buoyancy of the salt water was phenomenal, though when I finally got to water deep enough to swim I was bounced around by waves that looked like ripples from shore, and had to keep myself calm in the face of fish leaping out of the water near my face. I reminded myself that I was in the ocean after all, and not in my neighborhood pool.

I fought some current, swallowed more than my fair-share of salt water, and had a glorious time swimming in the ocean. I realized that if I was worried about leaping fish, I’d come a long way from my fears of putting my face in the water and not seeing a clear black line on the bottom of the pool, or my fear of not making my way back to shore. I’m not an expert swimmer (and certainly not a fast or elegant swimmer), but I’ve developed confidence and have become a good swimmer – and stronger athlete – as a result. It doesn’t get much more fun than that.

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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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