Fifth Avenue Mile

5thavemile001In the two years or so I’ve been running, I’ve always looked at myself as more of a stamina runner. Most of my races have been slow and steady, churning out the miles at an even pace somewhere between 8:30 and 9:00. I don’t really have a great burst of speed in me – being six foot tall and two hundred pounds will have that kind of effect on a person. But this year, as I look to complete my qualifying events for next years marathon, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the Fifth Ave Mile. Sure, part of the attraction was because I need the race credit but I was also attracted to the race because it was something new. It’s the only race of it’s kind on the NYRR calendar – a straight sprint down Central Park East, 5280 feet from 80th St to 60th St.

I had done some good times for Yasso 800’s and a couple of spins around the Red Hook track, but never ran an official mile race. Despite that, I didn’t do any specific training for this event, other than a few speed sessions on the treadmill at my local gym.

The morning of the race I got off the subway at 63rd and Lex and walked the course from the finish all the way back to the start. Knowing the course, where the inclines and declines were would help me pace myself during the crucial first half. After studying the course, I dropped of my gear bag and warmed up with a solid 3M around the Central Park. I made my way back to the start area and watched the beginning of the previous heat. The start was a bit crowded and there definitely looked to be a lot of jockeying for position over the first couple of hundred yards. As the announcers called us forward to take our places in the starting corral, I hung towards the back. I figured it best to let the pack go and leave a bit of daylight between myself and the pack, so I didn’t have to deal with the typical crowd issues.

A few minutes later the horn sounded and we were off. The first quarter mile was slightly downhill, but with the second quarter promising a slight incline, I paced myself to a solid 1:50 start. Around this time I also started to pass some of the slower members of the bunch which provided some additional motivation. The second quarter was not as bad as expected, perhaps because I had controlled my opening 400m. I crested the hill at the half way point in a time of 3:35. At this point I was looking good for close to 7 minutes, which I have to admit, I would have been delighted with.

The second half of the race consisted of a downhill quarter and a relatively flat final quarter. From somewhere deep inside, I found an extra kick on the downhill stretch and passed a bunch of runners who were motoring along at a decent clip. Over the third quarter I gain time and going into the last 400m the clock read 5:05. It was at this point that I started to feel the strain, but the pull of the finish line and the noise from the crowd pushed me along even as my legs and lungs started to fade. I crossed the finish line in a time of 6:47 – well below my original target of seven minutes.

The whole thing was over so fast, but I walked away from the run extremely happy. I felt I had given a good account of myself and could be proud of my first official mile personal record.

 

Learning to Run Faster

treadmill002Depending on who you talk to, the consensus in relation to treadmill running is that it’s not quite the same as running outdoors. To a certain extent, I’ll buy that position. On a nice day, I prefer to put my sneakers on and go for a run on one of the routes I’ve mapped out around my neighborhood. That said, the treadmill has quite a few benefits that are too often overlooked by those that turn their nose up at a good treadmill session. They’re safe, especially in high-traffic urban areas; they act as a perfect pacer for high-intensity interval training; and they fill in more than adequately when the weather just won’t cooperate.

I have used the treadmill for all of these reasons. But I also use them for a couple of other reasons. Namely, to work on my speed and my form.

A couple of caveats – I don’t use the treadmill for long runs and I usually vary the speed even for short efforts.

Again, I’ve read differing opinions on the value of treadmills from a form management perspective. I suspect that in the majority of cases, any change in form is down to pure luck rather than an specific intent. For me though, it’s a conscious effort. The gym I visit has the treadmills located on the second floor, in front of a row of windows overlooking the street below. While this provides the obvious distraction while churning endlessly, I have taken to studying my form through the reflection in the window. I regularly observe arm position and movement, kick height, foot rotation, strike position, and a few other general factors during speed intervals and recovery stints. During every run my body is sending messages, telling me how it’s doing and providing early warning signs for problems. I find it very useful to have a visual companion to these messages, another frame of reference to help isolate and change potential problem areas early.

The other case for using a treadmill has become far more relevant over the last year or so. I’ve read a lot about muscle memory across a number of contexts, and really wondered how this phenomenon could be applied to running. I had reached a performance plateau where I wasn’t getting any benefit from outdoor runs in terms of an increase in average speed. Each run would be the same as the last, with only slight variations in the average and total time for the route. I thought about muscle memory and decided to spend a couple of weeks running on the treadmill at a pace 15-20 seconds per mile faster than my current average pace. Following the half dozen or so sessions, I ran the outdoor route again. And this time there was a noticeable difference in average pace and total time. I’ve run the same route a couple of times since then and have managed to maintain my new average pace. I realize this is not exactly a scientific experiment, but it certainly opened my eyes to another use for treadmills.

Over the next couple of weeks I plan to alternate indoor treadmill sessions with my outdoor route to see if the advances I have made hold. In a month or so, if everything is still good, I will try to up my pace again and see how it goes.

Teaching the Body and the Mind

thinker001From the very first time I stepped up on a treadmill and sweated out my first half mile of uninterrupted but extremely labored jogging, I have known the physical benefits of regular exercise. After only six months of gym work I had already dropped 10lbs and was able to run more than a mile without a break. Within a year I was operating at a moderately healthy weight and able to run a 5K in a nine minute mile pace. Physically, I was reaping the kind of benefits I had only dreamed of a couple of years previously. In my late thirties, with the middle aged spread starting to set in, I was at a critical point in my life and regular exercise was keeping me on the fit and healthy path that so many others my age had veered off and would never see again.

What I never reckoned on was the mental benefits of exercise and running.

The first thing I noticed was an improvement in my confidence. The motivation for working out was because I felt myself slipping down that middle aged slope, and at the time I wasn’t feel good about myself. I would look in the mirror and, seeing my lumpy reflection, wonder where it all went wrong. This had a profound effect on my confidence and would often result in my avoiding specific social situations. Running changed all that. Within a few months of starting, the weight was coming off and I was feeling a whole lot better about myself. From there it just snowballed. Every time the scale dropped another notch my confidence level would go up. I began to get my mojo back, to enjoy life a little more and venture out into the world more often. I chalk up my decision to stop seeking out mutually destructive relationships and look for something a little more meaningful to my improved self-image. It’s apparent to me at least that, without the change in self-perception, I never would have met my wife and would have missed out on the best thing to ever happen to me.

The other area where running has had a profound impact on my life is in helping to condition my mind by introducing the same principals as meditation. For most of my adult life I frowned upon the notion of meditation – scorning it as an activity for the hippy tree-hugger types. I just couldn’t take the time out of my (supposedly) busy day to sit quietly, reflect, focus on breathing, and purge my mind of the detritus of the day. In hindsight, it’s an activity I wish I had taken up a lot sooner.

When I’m out running of cycling, the one thing I focus on more than anything else is my breathing. Maintaining a natural rhythm to my breathing helps to keep the air moving and muscles supplied with oxygen rich blood. It also helps me clear my mind of everything else to the point that I enter this state of being where it’s just me, the road, and the air around me in perfect harmony.

How does this help me outside of running? Having never meditated before, I had no idea that I could even clear my mind of all the stuff flying around in there. Now that I know I can, I use running as a means of practicing the art of mind cleaning and then apply those techniques to times away from running when there’s so much going on that it’s hard to focus on a specific task. That becomes a very useful skill in times of crisis or when faced with important deadlines.

In the past I have remarked about the need for an on/off switch on my brain, so that every now and again I can enjoy some downtime. I firmly believe that meditation through running or another form of physical activity is the on/off switch I’ve been looking for!

A New Approach to Training

workout002I’ve spent a lot of time running over the last two years and I have covered more miles than I care to even think about. I consider myself somewhat lucky to have found and successfully adopted running at a time when I really needed something to help turn my life around. I have achieved most of the goals I initially set out for myself, had many good days along the way, and enjoyed most of the experiences. I am, to say the least, very fortunate for all that running has given back to me in return for the hours and miles I invested.

In retrospect, I think I did a fairly decent job of incorporating running into my life at the beginning and created a good balance between weight loss and building my strength and stamina up. During my first half marathon training program I mixed both strength building and running activities to a reasonable degree of success. I guess I was a bit over confident at that point, and figured if I could do a 4M race then I could probably run a half or full marathon. Although not far from the truth, how soon I should target to do so was probably an error in judgement. It seems as though my over-training for three half marathons and the full distance last year is the root cause of all my knee issues. I simply put too much stress and strain on my knee too quickly by spending 90% of my time running and only 10% on other activities.

And so, as appealing as retreating into a sedentary life of lounging around in decadent debauchery sounds, I have decided to re-work my entire non-race fitness program to create a better balance of activities and provide certain key areas of the body with sufficient time to recover following intense work outs. I started out makeover by listing out some fun activities that I wanted to include:

  • stretching
  • biking
  • swimming
  • strength
  • running
  • interval training
  • core
  • yoga

Any new training program would have to include each of these activities in some form, with no one activity taking up more than 40% of my time. Training for specific races or competition would require a more concentrated effort in one area, but for non-race training and general fitness maintenance, a good balance is more important for my ongoing health and ability to participate.

Knowing that this kind of dramatic change would be a challenge to implement on my own, I decided to get some help! Jess had worked out with a trainer prior to the wedding and was impressed by his approach. Post-wedding we’re still going to see him, and he keeps us honest in quite a few of the areas I mentioned. The outdoor workouts along the water are especially intense, combining core and interval training with some basic stretching and yoga.

It’s only been a few weeks, but I am starting to notice a difference in both how I look and how I feel. I am getting more definition in certain areas like my shoulders and abs, and my knee is hurting a lot less. To be fair, the running has really dropped off over the last couple of months in favor of time on the bike but it responds well to the interval sessions, so I’ll take that as a positive.

Look out for a few of my new workout sessions on the conditioning section of the site and some revised race training plans as I start to register and plan for them.

Where It All Started

smallwood2013Two years ago I ran a neighborhood 5K with no training or real race preparation. I had just started running for health reasons and wanted to test my abilities in a relatively low pressure situation. The race bug bite me that day, I haven’t looked back since. However, that remained the only 5K I ever ran and my time has stood (as a rather poor) personal record. That is until the other day.

Jess and I were spending a few days with her family at their summer retreat in the Hudson Valley area and as is tradition, we gathered up a group to run the local fire company fundraiser 5k. Two years ago the conditions were not favorable, with rain showers throughout the run and a lot of standing water on the ground. This year we had the opposite, the sun was beating down by the time the race started at 9:30AM, melting everyone and everything around it. Combined with the high humidity and absence of any noticable breeze, everyone was suffering.

The course itself is pretty challenging, with a few short sharp hills mixed in with some lakeside flat sections. The last mile or so is mostly downhill, making for a quick finish to the race. The pack was small, so I started out near the front and set a solid pace up the first hill. By the time I reached the summit at the one mile mark in eight and a half minutes, my knee was already hurting and my legs felt like they were on fire. I guess six weeks away really set me back in terms of my levels of strength and stamina.

Admittedly, I had to stop and walk for 30 seconds to catch my breathe and give my legs a break. Following that brief respite I kicked off again and covered the next mile in a little under nine minutes. I took another walking break along the way, again to cool down and catch my breathe because of the heat. As I passed the two mile marker, I committed to finishing the race with no more breaks and ran through some labored breathing and heavy legs to finish in just under 27 minutes. For a first run in six weeks, an 8:40 per mile pace was not too bad. In fact, it was good enough for fifth place in my age group.

I definitely experienced some conflicting emotions during and after the run. At times I regretted my decision to participate, longing instead for my warm comfy bed or the pedal power of my bicycle while jogging up the sharp hills around the lake. At other times it felt good to be back running again after a month and a half. I guess what this run taught me is that I need to work on the mental side a little more, in addition to building strength in my leg and stretching more. I need to arm myself with some tools to fight the twin desires to walk or quit whenever they rear their ugly heads.

By the way, I have to give an honorable mention to Jess who also ran the race and finished third in her age group. Way to go Jess!

 

In The Saddle Again

bike_001It’s not a widely known fact about me, but back when I was in my early teens I used to compete in bike races. And not just neighborhood races … I actually held a competitive racing license and would race against other young lads in my age group all over the country. Truth be told, I wasn’t very good – I spent the majority of my time at the back of the peleton. But I was eager and enjoyed the competition, not to mention the feeling of freedom that you get when you’re cruising down a long stretch of flat road. Unfortunately, something happened in my late teens and I lost interest in cycling for a long time.

Over the last few years I started to feel the pull of cycling again. I watched the Tour every year and occasionally longed for the experience of riding down the open road under my own steam. Late last year I took the plunge and bought myself a nice bike. Unfortunately, marathon training and dodgy weather combined to limit my opportunities, so it spent a lot of time over the fall and winter covered up. Following my recent struggles with knee pain, I decided to take a complete break from running. However, I didn’t want to become idle and so started to take the bike out on a regular basis.

Having the park so close was definitely a big help, as it provides a relatively safe environment for a spin and there’s a couple of hills that give the legs a good workout. It wasn’t long before the same old feelings came flooding back and since then I’ve been riding the bike four or five times a week. I clock up a good 60-80 miles over the course of those rides, and even bring the bike to the lake house now. Getting out for a couple of hours in the Appalachian Mountains is a totally different experience to Brooklyn.

I still love the bike, and who knows … maybe this renaissance will eventually  inspire me to sign up for my first triathlon.

The Brooklyn Half

bkln_half_002The Brooklyn Half is one of my favorite races, not least because it takes place in my back yard. The start area is less than half an hour from my apartment and the finish is close to the F subway, which makes getting home pretty easy. In terms of course layout, the first half takes place in and around Prospect Park, where I run and bike on a daily basis. I know the roads, know my optimal pace, and can read my bodies reaction to the roads. About half way through, the course exits the park and runs along Ocean Parkway all the way Coney Island. Ocean Parkway is a pretty straight run, making it a bit of a toil. After about four miles of straight, flat concrete the course turns onto Surf Avenue and then the boardwalk in Coney Island. The last corner, going from Surf Ave to the boardwalk is a but tricky in a crowd of people because the runners have to take the ramp, there’s only enough room for two people to run side by side, so make sure to get ahead of the group before the last bend.

Unfortunately for me, both times I have attempted this race I have been recovering from or dealing with knee pain. It seems like I just can’t catch a break at this time of year! A couple of months of relative inactivity following the NYC Half meant that my knee was not giving me as much grief as it had earlier in the year. That’s not to say I had recovered, I just wasn’t pushing myself that hard and putting as much strain on it.

My preparations went as smoothly as can be expected. In the lead up to the race I only had a couple of short training runs to keep my legs ticking over. The night before I got to bed early and the morning of I ate a bowl of oatmeal. On the walk up to the start I took onboard plenty of fluids. After dropping off my bag I got in a good stretch and mentally prepared for the next two hours.

Starting in the first wave, I took off at a moderate nine minute mile pace. Almost immediately, my knee started to ache. I couldn’t believe it! Perhaps, stupidly but certainly stubbornly, I was determined to push through. I had already dropped out of one half-marathon this year and had no intention of putting up another DNF. My original plan had been to aim for a negative split by starting slowly and picking up speed later in the race. With my knee acting up, that plan went out the window. I resigned myself to maintaining a consistent pace and trying to come in under two hours.

Each mile was as painful as the previous one, and on a couple of occasions I came close to stopping. The first time was pretty early on as we wound our way through Prospect Park. I struggled up the hill and at the top, the point on the course closest to my apartment, I seriously considered stopping. I didn’t, mainly thanks to Jess who had come out to cheer me on. She ran next to me for a couple of hundred yards and that definitely helped to lift my spirits. For the rest of the race I alternated between jogging at my default pace and taking walk breaks fill up on fluids and rest my aching joint.

As we closed in one the finish, I was running on adrenaline more than anything else. I knew I had a good shot at breaking two hours, so I kept pushing myself and even skipped the last walk break. Once on the boardwalk, the finish line acted like a magnet, drawing me in with the promise of rest and relaxation. I crossed the line in a time of 1:58, over twelve minutes slower than my personal best but still respectable. Just like the previous year, my thoughts turned to “what if,” what if I could run this race without any pain or knee issues. I felt sure that, were I in decent physical shape and injury free, I could probably turn in a pretty fast time. The course is ideal for it, it’s just a case of getting myself in the right condition. Maybe next year …

NYC Half-Marathon & Almost Quitting

nychalf_002Race day arrived and although it was a bit cold, the weather decided to cooperate for the many thousands of runners. I woke up around 5AM and went through my usual morning routine. Cold oatmeal, coffee, stretch, bathroom, and dress – I have it down by now and it varies so infrequently that I’ve noticed I need less and less time with each race.

The hardest part of the morning was traveling to the start, which meant catching a subway around 5:30AM. Surprisingly, there were quite a few people on the train at that time of the morning. Half the car was people heading off to work for the morning, looking on in bemusement at the other half – a bunch of jaded runners, mentally preparing for the morning ahead. I got chatting to a few people for whom it was their first time and shared my experiences of the run from last year. From my perspective, the hardest part of large races such as this is the lengthy wait to get going once the leaders set off. Last year I was back in the 19K range and the leaders actually lapped me before my group got to the start line.

This year I was placed much higher in the start corrals, so crossed the start line a mere 15 minutes after the leaders. Bearing in mind that I hadn’t trained or even run in about three weeks, I was not expecting a stellar performance of any kind. A true enough, the first couple of miles were quite tough on the legs. Without the preparation, my muscles were screaming for oxygen from an early point. Cat Hill, Harlem Hill and the three peaks down the west side all took their toll, but I was moving along at a modest 9:00 per mile. The next stage of the run gave me and I suspect all the other runners a boost, as we exited the park and cruised down 6th Ave to Times Square. It’s one of the biggest thrills of the NYRR racing calendar, as runners own the busiest street in the city for a few hours and crowds come out to cheer on the runners.

And that’s where the fun ended for me. By then I had a nice big blister going on the instep of my right foot. Unfortunately, the pain was so much that I was unconsciously over-correcting and ran the entire second half of the race favoring the outside of my right foot. The lack of preparation was really starting to show at this point, as all the way down the west side highway, the long stretches of concrete took their toll on my already tired muscles. I stopped to walk on a couple of occasions and at one point, when I stopped to say hi to Jess and plant a big kiss on her lips, I momentarily debated stopping. But given my recent failure at the Manhattan Half and the terrible feelings of shame I had afterward, I decided to suck it up and finish the last two miles.

There was a definite sense of relief crossing the finish line, pretty much the same feeling I had when I ran the Philadelphia Marathon. I completed the run in 2:01:06, just outside my two hour target time, which I think added to my disappointment. For a couple of days after I would ask myself why I kept doing this to myself without ever coming up with an answer. I had enjoyed running for so long, only now to be dealing with feelings of shame, doubt, and disappointment on a regular basis. I’m not sure if I was looking for excuses not to run anymore or if I was just processing what happened, but eventually I realized that I was looking at it all wrong. I had been through three bad race experiences in the space of four months, but the reality was that I set myself up for those bad experiences through poor preparation and failure to follow my race plans. Those are not excuses to not run … they’re lessons to learn for the future. It’s not like all of a sudden I didn’t enjoy running. I was still waking up at 5AM to run and still running through pain to finish races. I was just tired of bad experiences – I want to get back to enjoying my running.

Countdown to the NYC Half

nychalf_2013Only a few days to go to the 2013 NYC Half-Marathon. I’m pretty excited about this race. Last year’s version was my first ever half-marathon and I managed to finish it well within my two hour target time. I would like to achieve a personal best this time around too, but am hesitant to set such a target for myself while nursing an injury. I’m afraid that if I go out too hard I’ll do serious damage to my knee and possibly fail to complete the course. It goes without saying, but I would rather finish in a slower than expected time and get the race credit, than not finish at all.

Since my last race, the Al Gordon Classic in Prospect Park, I have done almost no training. I intended to continue with the bike and weights routine I had gotten into, but my knee was acting up in the days following the race and I chose to rest rather than run. It’s a strange position to be in – having not trained for a 13 mile race, and yet still feeling relatively confident that I can turn in a decent time. I really enjoy the half-marathon distance, it’s a god test of mental strength and physical stamina without the monotony of a full marathon. I’ve run three half’s up to know and have had one DNF due to freezing weather. Here’s hoping that this is my fourth success, with or without a personal best time.

Al Gordon Classic

algordon_001I wasn’t living in Brooklyn last year and missed this early season race. Now that I’ve switched boroughs, I want to take full advantage or races in my backyard. As one of only three NYRR races in Brooklyn, I was looking forward to putting myself to the test in a race scenario on a course that I train on regularly.

For a couple of weeks prior to the race I had been operating on a modified training program that involved stationary bike and weight training. Essentially, staying off my knee in order to help it recover from the latest bout of tendinitis  This was the first of the two races I would undertake on this new program and I was curious to see how it affected my performance.

The morning was crisp and a bit damp, but thankfully nowhere near as cold as the last race. Zhenya and I lined up at the start, relatively close to the front of the field. He was just out for a light run, with his mind on the Manhattan Marathon the next day. I was out to test my knee and try to set a fast time in a race situation, with the NYC Half looming a few weeks in the future. Today’s performance would be a good guide to how well I might fare at the longer distance.

As expected, the race started out fast. The narrow center almost demands as much, as any kind of lollygagging will result in the runner getting caught in a deep pack of runners. The first mile includes the hill to Grand Army Plaza, and I felt good as I powered up the incline. Interestingly, my knee was feeling fine and standing up well to the additional pressure of the hills. Passing the first mile marker at the crest of the hill, I was motoring along at a little over an eight minute mile pace. The next two miles were tailor made for a fast time, and true to form I clocked them at 7:35 and 7:07 respectively. The final mile is the real test, as the course swings around to the slight uphill drag on the west side of the park and then left onto center drive with the uphill finish. The early pace was starting to tell on my legs and lungs. Although I slowed somewhat, I still ran an 8:30 last mile for a 30:56 finish time – yet another personal best over the distance.

As with the Kleinerman 10K, there was an element of guilt after the race. Again, I felt like I had not entirely earned such a fast time but that feeling didn’t last as I basked in the glory of a stellar performance and a new fastest pace of 7:44 on my NYRR record. With three weeks to go between this race and the NYC Half, my performance gave me enough confidence to continue with the stationary bike regime and preserve the condition of my knee as much as possible.