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.

Two Weeks, Two Races, Two Records

jingle_bell_jog_002Only last Sunday I pulled out a new personal best during the Join The Voices 5M race in Central Park. Unfortunately, through some oddity in the New York Road Runners results database, my total time of 39:56 was recorded as an average pace of 8:00 per mile (rather than the more accurate 7:59:20). Even applying proper rounding rules, the time should have been 7:59 per mile. I have no idea why they rounded up, but that really irked me. Strange how such a simple thing could take the sheen off an otherwise excellent run. I was clearly at my peak following all that marathon training and it was showing in my training and race times. Aside from the scoring anomaly, that was a great run and with one race left on the 2012 calendar I was even more determined than ever to go out again and run a race under 8:00 per mile before the years end. Mentally and physically I was in the best condition I had ever been, and I was sure as shit not going to waste the opportunity to score a new personal best at the my favorite race on the NYRR calendar.

The Jingle Bell Jog is a pretty significant race for me, it was the first NYRR race I competed in – only one year ago. In the lead up to the race I was reflecting on how far I had come over the last twelve months. Having made a commitment to run, I can honestly say that I have achieved far more in the last year than I ever would have expected. Last year I ran the modified course in a fast time of 8:17 per mile and that was with very little training under my belt. With all my training, I knew I had a good time in me – it was just a matter how much the previous race had taken out of me and whether I could get myself in the right mental state to go out and record a new personal best.

Although the morning was cold and wet, the rain held off and I was in good form as I made my way to the park for the early morning start. After picking up my race bib and going through my pre-race stretches, I took my place in the start corral and was set to go. All around me, people were getting into the spirit – some dressed in Santa suits while one or two braved the zero temperatures to run in nothing more than shorts or a speedo.

The race started and the first half mile was relatively fast as the lead pack made it’s way east on the narrow Center Drive. We turned north and took in the only major hill approaching Grand Army Plaza. The first mile marker appeared at the top of the hill and my time was just under 8 minutes. Over the next two miles, I kept up the high pace on very familiar roads and by the third mile marker I my time was just over 23 minutes.

I started to feel the effects of the high pace on the last mile, especially around the tops of my legs. But I was determined to keep going and record a good time, so I fought the urge to slow down or walk and pushed on up the long drag towards the left run on Center Drive. As I took the bend I glanced at my watch and knew I was on course for something remarkable. The last quarter mile was uphill and probably would have hurt more if it wasn’t for the adrenaline coursing through my body. With the finish line in sight, I managed a slight kick and cross the line in a time of 31:12.

It took a minute or two to catch my breathe, grab some water and food, and make my way out of the finish area. I must have had the biggest smile on my face as I made the quick calculations and realized I had shattered my previous best for a 4M race and a per mile average. Not just shattered, but completely demolished! It was a fantastic way to finish up the race calendar for the year and the perfect gift to myself going into the holiday season.

Join the Voices 5M

join_voices_001I was really looking forward to this race. Two weeks had passed since I ran my first marathon and I was getting over the disappointment of missing my target time. I had taken it relatively easy over the intervening fortnight, clocking up just shy of 30 miles over five different runs. Just enough to keep myself in race shape but not too much to put unnecessary stress on my legs after the damage they sustained in Philadelphia. On the morning of the race I felt strong, so strong that as I was leaving I promised Jess I would do a personal best. My pre-race routine had gone well, I was dressed and ready for competition. I felt like I had a good time in me, and hoped that posting a personal best could erase the last shreds of doubt that still clung to my psyche after the marathon.

I arrived early at the start area and picked up my bib. I was in the 3000’s – and therefore starting toward the front of the field which helped me relax. After the slow start in Philly I am definitely becoming more conscious of my starting place and the early miles. Sitting towards the front alongside other reasonably fast runners, I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about blowing my target pace in the first mile.

My last 5M race was also my first one back from tendonitis of the knee, so my personal best for the distance was a modest 47:40. Setting a new personal best in this race was almost mandatory. I was targeting a 42:30 time, which works out to 8:30 per mile pace. I felt like I was in decent condition following the marathon, and the sessions since then had gone reasonably well including some high tempo runs. Anything better than that would be a massive bonus.

By the time the race started I was eager to get going. We moved off from our corral fairly slowly but quickly got going by the time we crossed the start line. The pace was high as swept around the southern end of Central Park, but nothing I couldn’t handle. In fact, even though I knew the pace was high I felt like I was coasting along. It was just a matter of checking my confidence and not burning out too early. As we passed the first mile marker I glanced at my watch and was delighted to see a time of 8:07. The second mile was up the east side drive, including Cat Hill and behind the art museum. Passing the two mile marker around 86th St, I was maintaining my fast pace. We continued up the east side to the 102nd St transverse and I hit three miles at 24:25. My early pace was starting to effect my legs though, and I could feel the workload taking it’s toll. However, I was in no mood to slow down and I pushed on – relentlessly pursuing a new(er) personal best.

At the mile three marker my mind started to calculate and I quickly realized I was on course for a 41:00 time. Considering my pre-race goal, that would very impressive and would also reflect an improved per mile pace over any of my previous races: from 8:13 down to 8:10. If you’ve run this 5 mile route around Central Park before you’ll know that the next mile or so, over the three sisters on the west side, can be the hardest of all. This is where the temptation to slow down or walk was the strongest, but again I pushed on. I was sticking with the runners around me and felt like losing contact with them would be a bitter mental blow at this late stage.

By the top of the third hill we had passed the four mile marker and my time was 32:30. Knowing the last mile was mostly downhill, I made the decision to push myself even harder and go for the 40:00 barrier. It was a stretch at that point, but I felt like I could at least make the effort. I may miss by a few seconds, but at least I had to try. And so I dug in …

Every stride became a litte bit longer. Every breathe became a little bit deeper. I started to pass other runners who had been in front of me for the last mile or two. I passed someone hold a sign that said, “put the hammer down” and so I did. In my mind, every marshall and supporter was cheering for me – I used every single clap, shout, and cheer to spur me on. I knew I was going fast, I just didn’t know if it would be enough or if I could sustain the effort.

As we turned left at the 72nd St transverse I could see the finish line and the clock above it counting down. My lungs felt like they were going to explode as the strain of the last few yards registered. But I pushed on – focused only on the clock and putting one foot in front of the other. I had nothing left to give as I crossed the line and stopped my watch. And then I looked … my watch said 39:56. It was unofficial of course, but I swear I had to look at my watch two or three times to confirm that I had indeed run 5 miles in under 40 minutes.

I took some water, a bagel and an apple from the volunteers and found a bench to sit. Only after I caught my breathe and took on some sustanence did I fully absorb my accomplishment. My time was far better than I imagined. Five miles in under 40 minutes is a major achievement and represents a pretty nifty pace of 7:59 per mile! Breaking eight minutes per mile is a major threshold for me, something I have never accomplished beyond a mile and it’s also the type of encouragement I needed to move past my marathon experience. I’m not going out competing for an Olympics place or anything, but at a minimum this tells me that all that marathon training had benefits and just cause I didn’t get to reap them in Philadelphia, doesn’t mean it was all to waste. Far from it in fact!

Central Park Conservancy Run for Central Park

cpc_001Central Park – home to thousands of runners every day and an essential park of the running culture of this city. So it stands to reason then, that each year New York Road Runners and it’s members celebrate the park and contribute to it’s maintenance by supporting a run in aid of the park’s conservancy organization. This year the four mile race was scheduled for Saturday, July 14 and encompassed a loop of the inner circuit – between 72nd street transverse and the 102nd street transverse. Without the strength sapping Harlem Hill to slow the pack down, and with some fine weather forecast for that morning, the race held the promise of some fast times for those in the right frame of mind.

I considered myself one of those people – I had been back running for about a month following my knee injury and everything was going fine. I had eased myself back my slowly increasing my weekly distances and there were no issues to report with my patella. I felt no pain or discomfort, and I was back up to my pre-injury running pace. Physically, I felt in good shape and if the weather cooperated (i.e. not too hot or humid), I thought that I might be able to take advantage of the relatively flat course to put in a good time. Maybe even a personal best!

The race started well for me. Making my way up the east side of the park, I was in a groove as we struck Cat Hill and motored up the incline with little trouble. By the first mile marker I was clocking just over an eight minute pace. The rest of the east side was familiar territory, and I used my experience on the roads to manage my output until rounding the bend at the 102nd street transverse. Crossing the two mile marker, I was still on pace for a personal best, coming in around 16:30. However, my excitement was quickly tamed as I started down the west side and the notorious three sisters hills. I must have been going too strong too soon, because half way up the second hill I felt my legs turn to solid weights and had to slow down to a walk for about 30 seconds. Similarly, cresting the third hill and the water station, I had to take a walk break because I was overheating and feeling tightness in my legs.

I kept going though, because my time was around 25 minutes and there was still the potential for a personal best. Unfortunately, my average pace had slowed too much because of that third mile, and even though I covered the last mile in just over eight minutes, the combined time as I cross the line was 33:15 – 21 seconds slower than my personal best. Slightly disappointed to have missed out by such a slim margin, I made my way to the baggage area to collect my gear and head home. As I sat on the subway going back to Brooklyn, I reflected on what might have been. Did I really need to take those two walk breaks? What would my time have been had I kept going?

Of course, I’ll never know the answers to those questions but I did come away from the experience knowing that I had come so close to a personal best on a bad day. The next time out, if it’s a good day, I have it in me to shatter my fastest time. Roll on September 15. that

Gridiron Classic

gridiron_001This morning’s Gridiron Classic took place amid perfect conditions in the park. It’s days like this that make outdoor running a treat and help me produce exceptional performances that continue to improve upon my previous best.Today’s race was scheduled to start at 9am, slightly later than typical race schedules but the opportunity to grab an extra hour in bed was very much appreciated.

Starting on the East side around 68th St., the course wound up the East side and across the 102nd St. transverse. The initial stretch took in a slight incline as the path approached the museum and then leveled off until we turned southbound on the West side. My split times were looking good through the first half of the race, hitting the first mile at 8:20 and the second mile at 16:30. I knew I had plenty in the gas tank for a short 4 mile course and was looking to produce a fast time, somewhere below 33 minutes.

Even though I have run the park on a number of occasions, for some reason the hills on the West side really took a lot out of me over the remainder of the course. I definitely clawed back some time on the downhill stretches, but with at least two long drags in the second half of the race there was very little opportunity for me to pull more time back and set a really blazing speed.

I covered the third mile in 8:15 and as I approached the finish at West 68 St., had barely enough left to cross the line in just under 33 minutes. Despite the struggles, it was still my best time and pace for a race in the few short months I have been running. That’s all I can really ask for at this point.

Jingle Bell Jog

jingle_bell_jog_001I didn’t sleep well last night, so was a little discombobulated this morning. On top of that, I forgot my undershirt (the compression type) that I have become so accustomed to wearing for runs. I was a little apprehensive given that things were definitely not starting out well, but Jess was a calming influence and throughout the morning was more supportive than I ever could have hoped for.

I arrived at the park around 8:20 AM and made my way to the start area. Things moved quickly from there, and after I dropped off my bag and spent a few minutes stretching it was time to make my way to the numbered corrals. I was sitting pretty around the front of the fourth batch of runners, and was eagerly awaiting the start. Bang on nine o’clock the horn sounded and the race began. It took about two minutes for my group to make their way to the start/finish line by which time we were already moving at a decent pace.

Earlier, Jess had dropped me off so she could park the car, and I was not expecting to see her until the finish. Imagine my surprise when, cresting the hill before the first major left turn I saw her on the left side of the road and cracked a huge smile as she snapped a shot of me. That gave me the little boost I needed, and from there I set off. The first mile was mostly downhill, and I hit the marker in just over eight minutes (my target was nine). The second mile was a little tougher, as it swung from the South Lake Drive to the East Lake Drive, and proceeded to climb the entire way. Despite the incline, I passed the second mile marker at sixteen and a half minutes, well ahead of my expectations. The third mile continued the uphill run and I had to battle the temptation to stop and walk as the incline became increasingly steep. The top of the hill couldn’t come soon enough, but as I rounded the final corner and started down the west drive the pain in my legs eased and I knew I was going to make it to the finish without stopping. I hit the third mile marker in twenty five minutes, and the five kilometer flag in twenty six minutes – a full five minutes faster than my previous five kilometer run in July. The final mile was mostly downhill, but I held a steady pace and kept a little in reserve for the final sprint. Turning off West Lake Drive, I caught sight of the finish line and put the hammer down, upping my speed to the mid-sevens and crossing the line in thirty minutes and fifty one seconds.

Considering my typical four mile time on the treadmill is thirty six minutes, and my expectations for a road race were somewhere in the thirty three to thirty five range, I could barely contain my happiness. Not only had I finished the run without stopping, but I had done it in my best time ever.