Thursday, October 22, 2009

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon: Wrap-Up

I am not a particularly talented runner, and I took my very first running step in August of 2005. I'd never run more than two miles until my first 5K the following October (truly amazed that I could tack another 1.1 miles of running onto that!). But, I had the dream first of running a marathon; and then, somehow after actually running one in March 2007, of reaching the seemingly impossible goal for the ordinary runner: Run a marathon in 3:50:59 or less and meet the qualifying standard to run in the Boston Marathon.

My third marathon, I thought I had a real shot at it, Ottawa, Canada in May of 2008. Riddled with many mid-race problems, I missed it by a long shot, running a 4:04. I really wasn't sure the 3:50 was going to be doable. I tried again in Chicago, October 2008, during one of the two really hot years, holding on strong and right on target past mile 22, when the heat finally got to me and I slowed enough to miss it by three minutes and fourteen seconds. But I came away with the knowledge that this goal was possible! I would try again.

It was another full year before I ran another marathon. And there are many factors that led to my success. But I didn't want to run another race where I was targeted to slide under the wire where if something minor happened, I'd miss my shot. I wanted to have a buffer--in case anything went wrong--and if it went right, I wanted to crush it! As you know, Chicago 2009 had a very happy ending for me, running a 3:38:22, easily qualifying for Boston.

Here are some of the key pieces that led to my success.

1. An entire season devoted to the 5K. You know, it's really a different sport, racing a 5K vs. racing a marathon. We're not talking about completing the distance. I mean, train specifically for the distance and a finishing time, and racing your hardest, leveraging your competitiveness, learning to "red line." But it made me into a totally different runner. I got my "edge" this Spring, running 5K after 5K, and having Vince train me specifically for that (very hard for me) 22:00 goal. I not only achieved this goal--I gained my edge, I gained strength I didn't know I had, and I significantly lowered my lactate threshold. In other words, I learned to sustain a 7:00 pace for a long enough time, that 8:20s became easy. So easy, in fact, I claimed it was my "forever pace," and sure enough, it's what I ran in Chicago. One 8:20 after another.

2. Marathon Pace "ready." I was heavily exposed to the concept of running much harder than marathon pace when tired: through 5K training, threshold training, mile and 2-mile repeats, and some workouts that Vince gave me at the end on my long runs where I would vary between marathon pace and something faster / harder, then back again to MP without recovery. By the time I was really, really tired in the marathon (and remember, I started to hurt by halfway), I kept drawing on those earlier workouts--remembering how I really could finish them. "I know I can do this; I've run harder when really tired and kept going." There's nothing like knocking out a dozen miles, after warm-up, most at MP then throwing in some miles that were 30-40 seconds faster, then back to MP. What I experienced in those final miles in Chicago was not any harder effort than some moments in a few of those memorable workouts I'd done; just a little more painful.

3. Diet. I took my diet very seriously, following a few key rules: no junk food, no fried food, high carbs only right before and right after a run, high protein at other times, lots of fresh foods (think: shop the perimeter of the grocery store and skip the aisles) and moderate portions only. I started marathon training a bit on the heavy side for my small-boned 5'6" frame. I was somewhere around 113-114#, even up to the week of Flagstaff. But, something happened when I came back; and it really wasn't intentional. Gradually, week by week, a pound or so would come off. And by race day I was and had been 106 pounds for a bit. But, I was very strong. I never deprived my body of the foods needed to fuel and restore me. Being lighter will help your marathon time dramatically--provided you have it to lose and go about it in a healthy way.

4. No LSD. Not that kind of LSD. I mean long, slow, distance. OK, I'm going to alienate just about every training program out there, but I will tell you, I am not a proponent of LSD. If you train and run all your miles in your long runs 60-120 seconds slower than race pace, not only will you find "injuries" during the race, but you simply cannot sustain "race pace." I've seen it happen so many times. Race pace must be practiced. A lot. Even my long runs sometimes included miles BELOW race pace to teach my body to be completely comfortable to run 26.2 miles AT race pace and / or to simulate the exhaustion later in the marathon with shorter distances. I had to be able to run MP "forever," because I promise, everything after mile 21 WAS forever. It's a fine line, though. I was careful not to leave my best run in my training logs and kept my warm-ups nice and slow. I kept the adage "save it for the starting line" clearly in mind.

5. Having a coach. Ok, Vince is seriously responsible for guiding this huge transformation in me. I've been working with him and the RUN SMART Project for over two years now, and have already committed to him through Boston (unless he fires me). If you really want to leverage your best ability and increase in a healthy manner, I highly recommend having a coach, a mentor, or someone to guide you through the process. Not only did Vince push me when I needed to be pushed, but more importantly, he held me back when I wanted to be pushed harder. As a runner who experiences the wealth of newly found fitness, I would often want to "test it out." Vince somehow managed to keep me reined in. I spent the last two seasons completely healthy, and walked off of Chicago completely healthy and ready to train again.

6. Toughness. I don't really know how to describe this, but I felt it forming in me as I learned to race 5Ks. I referred to it as my "edge" earlier. There were several things I read that motivated me; helped me to understand that I can run through pain and I can keep going when I want to quit. And I don't mean keep going when it gets a little tough; I mean keep going when just about anyone else really would quit or slow down at least. But if you want to achieve your greatest; this is a quality that must be learned; embraced. I kept thinking (during the marathon) about how the runners who ran with Dean in the 50 marathons / 50 states / 50 days would "plan" to drop at the half marathon point, but none of them ever did--not one. Even when they weren't trained. The human body is capable of such a greater effort than we give it credit. You just have to learn how to dig deep and leverage it. And that's what racing is all about. Your fitness will only get you so far to your greatest achievement. It was my grit that brought me to the finish line in 3:38:22, and not 3:50:59... or slower.

I am enjoying the glow of registering and planning for Boston. What did it take? Everything I had. Make no mistake: qualifying for Boston was payment on an investment I made long ago; and continued my contributions daily over an extended period of time. I did not "get lucky." I took care to pay attention to every detail, and overlooked nothing. What I discussed above in many ways are over-simplifications, but were areas of critical importance in my success.

But I do want to stress what an "ordinary" runner I am. I have no special abilities; no previous running experience. No fitness from earlier years to regain. I was not a 6:00 miler in college. I started this with nothing. And built on it, brick after brick. And when I had set backs, I tried again and didn't quit. I hope that if any of you aspire to a goal such as qualifying for Boston that maybe my message has helped. If I can do it--surely--you can too! I promise you--it is worth it!

I have already had my first few runs back. I wish I knew all of my goals for the next year, but I haven't even nailed my pace down for Boston yet. I am thinking of a 5K PR in January, followed by a New York qualifying time for guaranteed entry at Boston (3:38:00). But, doing well in Boston brings its challenges; this is not an easy course. I have much to learn and a great deal to work on!

I thank so many of your for following me and inspiring me along the way. We all have our challenges to overcome. Most of you have touched my running career in some way. But, I promise, it is not a career that is ending. I believe I have a few years of improvement ahead of me, and plan to leverage that to the best of my ability. My real goal is to set a world record when I'm 80 :-)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

More Post Marathon Thoughts

"I am too tired, even to be happy." --Gelindo Bordin, Italy, immediately after winning the Olympic Marathon in Seoul

If you spoke to me in the 24 hours after the marathon, you might have sensed I lacked some of the joy, celebration and excitement that rightfully was mine after an extreme effort and personal victory that exceeded even my wildest dreams. I've waited years for this moment. I've trained diligently, letting season after season build on the one before. I've sacrificed much to be here, and there were no shortcuts.

But, mark that important point on "extreme effort." I left everything on the course. This marathon took more out of me than marathons past. I think I described it as, most tactfully, "I am still processing it... it hasn't sunk in yet."

"You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can't know what's coming." --Frank Shorter

Don't ever listen to me after a marathon. What comes out of my mouth about future plans is drivel and from the mind of a mad-woman who is keenly aware of the agony of what she just experienced. Do it again? Are you crazy? Never! For a bit, the fire was stoked. My hunger for my goals sated. Hanging my running shoes up seemed plausible.

"To describe the agony of a marathon to someone who's never run it is like trying to explain color to someone who was born blind." --Jerome Drayton

My desire is to recover well. But I feel the fire coming back. I am wanting to race again, to reach new heights, and already thinking about what that might be. For now, that is qualify for New York (3:38:00). To do that in Boston will require more fitness than I have now (Boston is a very challenging course that does not play well with my strengths and weaknesses).

P.S. My pictures here are just "proofs," but I am in the process of purchasing the digital images and will repost. Meanwhile, I thought I'd add a few snaps of the moment! Notice "Greenman" running with me mid-race :-)

P.P.S. I will wrap up this blog with some thoughts on how I did it--how I "qualified for Boston" because that's what this blog was all about. I'll talk about what factors I believe were key for my success. Some obvious (consistent, fairly high mileage), some not so obvious (customized training from my coach and some very specific training runs). Look for that in the next week or two!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Post Race Thoughts and Snapshots

"I was unable to walk for a whole week after that, so much did the race take out of me. But it was the most pleasant exhaustion I have ever known." --Emil Zatopek after Olympic Marathon win
My final official time was 3:38:22. Not bad, considering my self prediction going into the race was 3:44. And I was going to be happy with that.

I found two pictures already posted, thought I'd throw them out here. (I'll post more as they are available.)
Interesting photo, I had just finished fighting back the first round of tears that threatened to rend me in two, and was somewhat in shock at what had just happened. I don't actually read that on my face, I just wanted her to snap the picture and move on. I was worried if I told her no, I would fight longer to explain than I would if I just gave in.

That said, the "next" plan is formulating. You could say I have a few leads. I'm already feeling better, having peaked in soreness earlier today. I am looking forward to a few weeks of complete rest and recovery. My body, mind, and spirit need it.

2009 Chicago Marathon: Early Race Report

It is a rare thing to be so blessed that all things come together for the marathon. It is an effort not to be underestimated; and so many things can affect the outcome. Months (and quite often years) of training are at stake; and the effort cannot be repeated in short time. And for me; at last; my dream has come true. I had the race of my life; my dreams and my goals today.

At 33F I shivered terribly at the start; despite multiple layers of gloves, jackets, arm warmers and the like. I was seeded in Corral C, which was still quite large, filled with ambitious, proven marathoners who were--as I was to find out--quite aggressive about their goals. It was difficult to get near the 3:40 pace group, but I did my best and was deeply moved to hear the national anthem and hear and see the helicopters overhead waiting to kick off the monumental event. At last, the horn blast sounded and we were off. Finally, I had my chance to do something. I was tired of talking about it; I just wanted to do.

I tried to get closer to the pace group; in my mind, it was my best chance of meeting my 3:40 goal, though I needed only a 3:50 to qualify. I had put in the time and training and truly believed if everything could hold together, I could possibly pull off the 3:40 marathon. But, their little 3:40 signs were hard to follow and I was getting distracted by the sights and sounds. I then decided to make a move to put myself in the midst of the pacers. I had to fight for position and took more than a few elbows. These were not the runners of open corral. Seconds mattered and position had to be earned. Finally, I settled right where I wanted to be; but yet had to continue to defend it.

We passed mile 1 in 8:23, perfectly on time and we all cheered our pacers. But, this was to be the last good mile. Mile 2 was in 8:08 and mile three was in 8:00 flat. The problem of this group is that these are doable times in the early miles, and we all hung in there. But as we crossed the 5K mark quite a bit early, one of the pacers shouted up that they were quite a bit off pace and yanked us back. Suddenly, I found myself running 8:50 pace, and my rhythm was off. Here I was faced with the most important decision of the race, and this became the foundation of the next 23 miles and the final outcome of the race for me.

I abandoned the pace team. This was a risky move; surely the slower pace that would eventually speed back up was conservative and what I needed. And I'd recommend anyone else in the same position (even now) to stick with the pacing group. But I have a quality about my long runs and the way my legs move, and I felt that if I stuck with the group I would somehow lose that. But I also knew this move might blow me up and I ran the high risk of seeing them again after mile 20. This became a key motivator for me in the race. As I carefully watched my splits, I gradually put more and more distance between me and the pace group and was determined not to be caught by them and embarrassed at what could have been seen as a rookie move. I largely ran 8:20s from here on out. One right after another.

By 10K, I had shed all my extra layers and was feeling good. I had the strategy of grabbing fluid at all the stops; even if only for a sip; to get as much hydration and as many calories as possible. I knew also that I was against the clock of my own body. There comes a point in the latter miles where I can no longer force anything in. Better to get while the getting was good.

At the half way point, I was well over a minute ahead of schedule, and I was already beginning to feel it. Almost disappointed in myself that my hips were starting to hurt a bit and my quads were already tiring. But, my energy was spectacular, and I knew that I could suffer any pain as long as the mechanisms for running were working. I have an unusual ability to tough it out when the going gets rough.

By mile 15, my quads really began to hurt, but I also knew I was more than half way through. I'd managed three gels at this point (in spite of the fact their consistency was more of vaseline in the cold temps, ewwww), and done a great job of hydrating. The cool temperatures really helped, and I honestly believe made the effort after this point possible.

I passed mile 21 hurting quite intensely, but was close to two minutes ahead of my goal of 3:40. It was just a matter of hanging on. The strategy that had gotten me this far was to read on my pace band what my next split had to be (in elapsed time), and repeat it as a mantra in my head and keep my rhythm and stride going, never slowing. I realized that I could actually slow by two minutes per mile and still qualify for Boston, should that become necessary.

By mile 23, I was in agony, my footpod had become worthless for pacing and people around me were in terribly deteriorating states. I seriously think I passed 500 runners from mile 20 to the finish line (and actually look forward to the finish line photos, as I passed a few runners as I approached the chute with a finishing kick). This was annoying and difficult, but again, I never slowed my pace--here, or ever on the course.

With fifteen minutes to go, I began counting backwards in 30 second increments. 14:30, 14:00 and so on. I was encouraging myself that I could keep it up for that much more time. Surely during interval training I had been running harder; this was going to be over soon.

I remember distinctly the final "hill" of 24' at mile 26--don't laugh, it's quite the rise at an unfortunate spot when you are exhausted--and kept strong and on pace as I prepared for the final left hand turn. And as I turned I could see the finish line, beckoning me and it was almost over. I glanced down at my watch and it was just turning 3:37. I looked up at the finish line and tried to determine if I could make 3:38. No way. Not even with a surge. But, I gave it my all, kicked it in for the best time possible and ran through the finish line and at last punched my clock. It read 3:38:25. (For the record, I needed a 3:38 to qualify for New York, but that was not the goal today. It did cross my mind.)

My legs suddenly felt weightless. Nothing and I was floating. My chest hurt and I had a hard time breathing deeply. The walk to the end to turn back to the hotel was an eternity, and gradually, this sensation passed. Pain; exhaustion set in and my breaths became deeper. Twice I held back sobs as I was completely spent and emotionally overwhelmed. Even now, I am taking it all in. I think if I had sat down to rest, I would have found myself wracked and heaving with tears, but the drive to keep moving kept me together.

This was nearly a 16 minute PR for me. I qualified for Boston by a wide margin. And still I sit stunned, and have much to process. I have a little insomnia now, but will post more later, along with an official final time and some photos. Thanks to all who have followed me on this incredible journey, and the role that you have played in helping this happen!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Breaking In My New Garmin Forerunner 405

I finally broke down and upgraded from the Garmin Forerunner 205 to the 405 this past week. I ordered it off of eBay for a very reasonable "buy it now" price, and separately ordered a footpod accelerometer. They both arrived very quickly.

Two primary reasons prompted me to do this. 1) The outside of my wrists (base of the ulna) were so bruised and swollen on both sides from the bouncing of the 205 (my wrists are tiny and twig like), and 2) Chicago has a couple of long tunnels early on, which throws off pacing and elapsed distance for the entire race.

The footpod itself is very small, and it pops out of a plastic frame, which sits under your laces and you pop the pod into it. Certain shoes (not mine) have a compatible compartment under the sole. It was a bit of a struggle to get it clipped on with the laces per the instructions, but with a few mild curses under my breath, eventually it got snapped in.

I couldn't get it to detect the footpod right away despite walking with the footpod the entire time (you have to have it moving to send data). But, eventually, I hit "rescan," and it was detected, and from that moment on, it all went very smoothly.

The instructions were to calibrate the footpod with a certified 400m track for best results (although using GPS or a treadmill are also options). I set out to my local track, and buckled on the 405. It felt large and awkward, as if it weren't designed for a slight, female runner (Hello? What does Deena Kastor wear?). However, I still had two notches left after it was snugly latched, unlike the 205 which had room to go on the smallest notch (part of the problem). The instructions were easy enough to follow, and I set off for my first 800M (two loops) around the track. When I completed this, it said, "Calibration factor of 988." What on earth does THAT mean? I was mystified. Maybe I should be closer to 1000? There really should be more of a reference about these numbers.

I set off to do another round of calibration, but this time it was 972. Hmmm. Better do it again. On the third 800M repeat, it came out as 978. Oddly, I didn't yet feel comfortable with that number, even though I had no idea what it meant. So, I went for a fourth double loop, and this was 988 again. I left with that with some dis-ease that I wasn't completely calibrated. When asked by several, "Did you get your footpod calibrated?" I did not know how to answer. "Sort of? I'm really not sure."

So, on Sunday, I decided to strap on both watches (my 205 and my 405) to see how they matched. This, of course, is because GPS in a clear sky on my 205 is Gospel (in my head anyway). As I switched to my trail shoes and popped the footpod on, I realized there was a design problem with the footpod attachment mechanism and wearing gaiters. There wasn't anywhere to hook my gaiter. But, in all fairness to Garmin, it's probably not the primary use case to go trail running with a footpod.

After my first six miles with both watches, I had learned a couple of very critical things. First, the pacing on the 405 with the footpod was not only useless, it was harmful to me. I'd been running 8:02s after the first mile, and should have been in the 8:24 to 8:45 range. I felt fine, of course, but this wasn't supposed to be a tempo run. The pacing on the 405 was showing high 8s to high 9s (when I was clearly more in the 8:00 range). The distance elapsed on the 405 was also way off, by about 2 percent (it hadn't even gotten to 5.8 when I crossed 6.0 miles with my 205).

During my Gatorade break, I started fiddling with the manual calibration. I ended up with a final setting of 997 and was matching mile for mile on the two watches. At last, I feel totally comfortable with the elapsed time and distance calibration, but I also have learned that the pacing must be completely ignored, or I will go out too fast. Not sure why this is; but important lesson to learn now and not on race day.

I did find that the 405 was very comfortable and almost not noticeable on wrist after the run, but the 205 was still quite problematic (a fresh bruise on my right wrist). I am pleased with the way the 405 was feeling on my wrist, even though it didn't initially feel very good.

Thus, my final race plan is to wear the 405 with the footpod (already in place in my racing shoes), and to stick like velcro to the 3:40 pace team for pacing. I will try to remain glued to them until either I can no longer hang, or I am feeling exceptionally good in the last two miles, and I might creep ahead at that point. My ultimate goal is to finish in 3:40:00, but will be very happy with anything below 3:45. I need a 3:50:59 in order to qualify for Boston.