The Philly Half Family Affair

philly2013_001Sometime last year my older sister got the running bug. She started out like most of us do, running for fitness and eventually graduated to the competitive scene by taking part in a couple of local 5K races. Earlier this year she stepped it up again, and took part in the Broad Street Run, a very popular 10 mile race that goes through the heart of Philadelphia. Despite some nerves, she did really well – finishing in a time of 1:28:45. After the race, I somehow convinced her to sign up for the Philadelphia Half Marathon. She in turn talked her husband and neighbor into running too.

I have to admit, it was nice to be able to talk running with her. She had the same enthusiasm and was going through the same race-associated emotions that I had gone through the previous year. It brought back some good memories of the first few races I took part in and how excited I would get about a good performance. Since this year has been something of a bust for me, to a certain extent I guess I was living vicariously through Carla and her achievements.

If you’ve been reading my last few updates you will know that my own preparations for the race were pretty disastrous. Most people taper before a big race, but in my case I went off a precipice and shut everything down. Injury and illness conspired to force me into three weeks of idleness in the lead up to the half. My last run had been the marathon kickoff in Central Park in late October – a decent run capping off a few weeks of successful training. Since then though, my training diary was completely empty – a wasteland of blank space that embarrassed me on a daily basis.

Jess and I travelled down to Philly on the Friday night, taking advantage of the opportunity to spend a little extra time with Carla, her husband and their two kids. We played with the kids on Saturday morning and then all headed into the city to pick up our numbers. A brief stop at a really nice pizza restaurant helped with our carbo-loading and we were back home by 4pm, ready to relax for the evening. We had a 4AM wake-up planned, so it was an early night all around.

The next morning (or middle of the night in reality) we woke up and went through our individual preparations. By 4:30AM we were on the road and on our way to the start area in downtown Philadelphia. On the way we managed to run over a skunk, so any lingering sleepiness was soon dispelled when the smell hit in full force shortly thereafter. Even though it was cold outside, I think we were all happy to leave the confines of the car and get a bit of fresh air when we parked an hour later.

We were in the third corral, so didn’t have to wait around too long after the first batch of runners set off. Just in front of us was the Clif Bar pace runner with the 1:50 target time. For some reason, despite my complete lack of training, I felt I could keep with the pace. I managed to stay with the group for the first three or four miles, but the fast speed and lack of training eventually caught up to me and I had to drop off. Carla and Lars had also dropped off and were a little further back. I kept going over the next two miles with the aid of a couple of walk breaks, and by mile six had settled into a comfortable nine minutes mile pace. Around the half way point and just prior to the start of the challenging hill section, I slowed for a walk break. Carla and Lars caught up to me shortly after, but stopped themselves for a walk break as I started up again. We had completed the first 10K in 54 minutes. They were deep in discussionphilly2013_002s about tactics and trying to manage their pace, having gone off a little faster than planned and were concerned about lasting the distance.

Meanwhile, Jess and my niece had gotten up early and set themselves up near the Please Touch museum in Fairmount Park. Unfortunately, I missed them as I ran past but they saw me (apparently I was totally in the zone) and Carla & Lars a minute or two later. Seeing her daughter definitely helped my sister and gave her that little extra bit of motivation she needed to push on to the finish. For Jess and my niece, it was good bonding time and a nice way to spend a few hours together. After standing out in the cold cheering on the athletes for an hour, they headed off to the warmth of the car and the inviting smells of a local diner for some delicious breakfast before returning home to greet their weary runners.

For us, still out on the course, we were entering the final miles. In my case, the miles and lack of training was taking a real toll and the walk breaks became more frequent. Over the last 10K I slowed considerably, and cross the line with a time of 2:00:04. Two minutes behind me, Carla and Lars crossed the line hand-in-hand, with a time of 2:02:35. We had missed our two hour target but were happy to have finished with such a respectable time. The recovery started immediately, with water and pretzels handed out by volunteers at the finish. The ride home was relatively quiet, each of us replaying the race in our heads.

For me, finishing the race was an achievement in itself. This was the third half-marathon I had finished this year, each one on the back of interrupted training and challenging physical conditions. For my sister it was the culmination of months of training and a goal realized. Sure, the time was just outside the target, but that shouldn’t distract from the achievement. She set out to run a half-marathon and that’s exactly what she did. I felt proud of her for sticking it out and resisting the strong urge to quit at various points. Coming through a test like that builds character and makes a person stronger. For Carla and Lars, the strength and support he provided throughout the run is a testament to the strength of their relationship and the love and respect they have for each other. I’m proud of all of us for what we’ve done!

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.

My First Did-Not-Finish

“Shame, boatloads of shame,
Day after day, more of the same.”
– The Avett Brothers

manhattanhalf_001In the year or more that I’ve been running competitively I’ve had some interesting race day experiences. The vast majority of them have been positive, one of the reasons I have stuck with it so long and had so much success losing weight and getting into shape. However, it was somewhat inevitable that I would eventually have a dodgy on the course and my luck eventually ran out last Sunday at the Manhattan Half-Marathon. For the first time ever, I failed to complete the full race distance.

This was the first race of the five borough series, a set of races that takes place in each of the cities boroughs and provides automatic entry to the following years NYC Half-Marathon. I planned to run the race with Zhenya, my occasional training partner. In the days leading up to the race, the forecast promised an cold but dry morning and sure enough the wind that morning was bone chilling. I layered up with my favorite tights and under armor shirts, and then stacked on tech shirts, hats and gloves to give extra protection against the elements. It wasn’t enough!

After stripping off the outer layers and checking our bags, we made our way to the start corrals. For the next fifteen minutes we stood around in freezing temperatures (the board at the bottom of the park said it was 20F) and tried desperately to stave off the chills.

Once we started, I hoped that the run would bring my body temperature back up and keep the cold out, but as I completed the first loop of the park I couldn’t shake the cold from inside of me. Coming around the southern end of the park and up the east side, I passed the seven mile marker in a time of 57:30. My time was pretty reasonable, but my mind just couldn’t fathom keeping going for another 45-50 minutes. And that’s when I stopped.

Almost immediately I regretted the decision. I sat on the guard rail and debated started up again, but as each minute passed by the thought of spending another minute in these freezing temperatures became less and less attractive. I decided I had had enough, and walked back toward the finish line to pick up my bag and get put back on my sweats. On the way there one of the course marshals asked me if I was ok or needed medical attention. I responded automatically and as I heard myself say the words, “I’m fine … I just don’t want to do this anymore,” I felt that growing sense of shame inside of me. For the next few days I tried not to think about what happened, and as time passed and I spoke to more and more people, I began to realize that I was being a bit too hard on myself. These things happen – I’m going to have some bad days from time to time. The key things is to learn from the experiences, see what works for me and where the issues are and manage my race schedule going forward.

I’ve stopped beating myself up over my first DNF. It probably won’t be my last.

Yonkers Half Marathon

yonkers_001Sunday marked the half-way point of my marathon training and the Yonkers Half Marathon. When coming up with the marathon training plan, I had specifically chosen this race as a way to gauge progress and an opportunity to run with both distance and speed taking equal priority. Over the past couple of weeks, I had completed long runs of 14 and 16 miles, and felt really good on both occasions. I was excited for the half marathon, it was only my third time racing over the distance and I felt confident that I could run close to or better than my previous personal best. In the week leading up to the race I curtailed my activities, as a way of conserving energy and because my new schedule was forcing me to make some compromises in relation to my training.

The forecast for Sunday was clear skies and warm temperatures, ranging between 65 and 70 degrees for the duration of the race. I was up at 5AM to start my pre-race routine; oatmeal to line my stomach and coffee to provide the early morning jolt. Because of the early hour, the drive from Brooklyn took about 40 minutes and we arrived at the starting area in good time.

I wasn’t familiar with the course at all. I had mapped it on RunKeeper, so I knew there was a tricky hill around the 5/6 mile point. Otherwise my web-based GPS reconnaissance didn’t show a lot of significant hills along the route, so I was feeling good as the horn sounded to start us off. Once we got going, the road travelled north along the Hudson river and true to form, the early portion was relatively flat with some undulations as we wound our way toward Hastings-on-the-Hudson. I had started toward the back of the field, but was moving my way through the back over the first mile. At the marker I checked my time, to find that I had been cruising at a comfortable 9 minute mile pace. Over the next 3-4 miles I purposely upped the pace, with the intent of providing myself a buffer for the hills to come and the latter stages when fatigue would set in.

By the second mile marker I had increased to an 8 minute mile pace, and from that point on I was ticking the miles off at a relatively consistent 8:15-8:20 pace. This gave me a lot of confidence, as I was aiming for a time of under one hour and fifty minutes and that pace meant that I was on course. I would have settled for anything under 1:54 (my previous best) but I kept telling myself not to ease off if I was going to realize my target.

At about the 8/9 mile point I started to feel the pace affect my legs, specifically around the IT band area. On the positive side, my knee, which I was still concerned about post-injury, was holding up fine to the rigors of the course. Right around the same time, I passed Jess, who had travelled up with me that morning to cheer me on and provide support. The mental boost from seeing her was enormous as I cruised past the 10 mile marker in a time of 1:22. It was at this point, with a little over three miles to go that I knew my target was a distinct possibility. The final couple of miles involved some long drags, but I battled the mental fatigue and upped the pace again – determined to cross the line in under 1:50.

As I hit the start finish area, I glanced at my watch and knew I had it in the bag but I never let up. Taking the final bends at full speed and employing my new home straight kick, I was going all out as I cross the finish line in front of Jess and the rest of crowd. I knew I had gone fast – faster than I had hoped and faster than even my most optimistic of targets. My watch provided me an unofficial time of 1:48:33, but an hour or so later the race website displayed the news I had been waiting for – an official finish time of 1:48:30.

I had absolutely shattered my personal best by almost 6 minutes. I had also run thirteen miles at the a pace that previously I had only produced on a much shorter course. It seems to me that my training plan, combining long runs with speed work, is making a difference. I’m half way to the marathon and if I can replicate or get close to this kind of performance in Philadelphia then I will be the happiest debutant marathoner of all time.

The Brooklyn Half

05192012 Brooklyn Half 003With all the knee problems I had been having in advance of this race, I had not set myself a target time. Instead, I preferred to focus on getting to the finish in one piece. Surprisingly, I completed the half-marathon in a time of 1:56:26, just over two minutes slower than my first half-marathon in March. What was remarkable about this particular effort was that I stopped at almost every water station to hydrate (it was wickedly hot) and walked for 30-60 seconds to take some pressure off my knee. I’m not saying I could have gone faster without the walking, merely speculating that at full health I might have a sub 1:50 half-marathon in my old legs.

The day started early, with a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of coffee in an attempt to start my internal system and get the all important bathroom visit in ahead of the long run. Shortly thereafter Jess dropped off Sarah (a good friend of hers) and I close to the start. Sarah is a much better runner than I and is also part of Team in Training, a great organization who work to support fellow runners while raising money for good causes all year round. Anyway, we made our way to the museum and then went our separate ways as we began our pre-race warm ups. I inhaled a banana and hydrated with some free bottles of water than were being handed out behind the museum. From there I headed over to the corrals and started stretching out my legs. So far, my knee was holding up just fine.

I bumped into a colleague and runner, and we chatted for a while which helped to take my mind off how to manage my knee over the next couple of hours. As the start time quickly approach, we turned our attention to the PA system and began to get psyched up for what promised to be a fast course.

The roads were well marshaled and even though there was a big crowd (15,000+) there were minimal delays in getting the runners going and very few bumps through the opening miles or two. We wound our way down and around the east side of Prospect Park, entering after 3 miles at Park Circle. I felt good at that point. I was holding a nine minute mile pace and my knee was giving off no signs that it wouldn’t hold up. Jess came out to cheer and I caught sight of her on the park’s West Drive. Many people have said it, but it’s so true – seeing a friendly face and getting a shout out provides a great boost to a runner.

We exited at Park Circle and proceeded onto Ocean Parkway, heading over the big ramp and down onto the flat, straight expanse of concrete. With the sun shining, there was little or no shade to provide relief. Prior to the race, I thought this would be a quick section, but the straight roads and hard concrete reminded me so much of the West Side Highway section of the NYC half. Both were long and difficult, more so for the mind than the body. However, it was around mile eight that my knee started to hurt. Just a little at first but enough to set off alarm bells in my head. Wanting to avoid a major injury, I began to take walk breaks to give the knee a break. At each water station I slowed down and re-hydrated while ambulating along for thirty seconds to a minute. After the quick respite, it was back up to jogging speed until the next station.

By this time I was still pulling a relatively fast pace. As we turned right off Ocean Parkway onto Surf Avenue, the crowds got larger and louder. I checked my time and I was headed for something under two hours! Immediately I got a lift and pushed on, passing Jess (who had a big smile and kiss for me) as I hit the boardwalk and upped my speed through the last quarter mile. As I crossed the finish line I couldn’t help but smile; I had done it and in a decent time too. The next 24/48 hours were going to be telling though – just how would my knee feel tomorrow morning and had I pushed myself too far? Only time will tell.

NYC Half-Marathon

2012_nyc_half_001And so the day finally arrived. It started as a personal challenge to myself, and began in early January with some research and a commitment to see it through to the end. Over the following months I logged many training sessions and hundreds of miles in an effort to complete my first serious distance race and it was all over in less than two hours. The physical preparation I put in payed off in spades as I managed to meet and exceed my best expectations. What I was not ready for was the emotion that would overpower me as I took that last corner onto Water St. and caught sight of the finish line for the first time.

Step back a couple of hours to earlier that morning, and all my preparations were complete. I woke early, went through my race day routine, and left my house on time. Standing in the corral for almost an hour, I managed to keep my anxiety and excitement in check. The race began on time, but it took almost 30 minutes for me to reach the actual start line. It was a strange feeling to be approaching the start at the same time that the race leaders were completing their lap of the park.

The first mile or so was a little slower than I expected, having to navigate crowded roads and a slow moving field. I think I passed the mile marker in something like 9:30 – almost half a minute outside my normal training time and almost a minute outside my target that day. However, from that point I started to move a bit faster and notched the next few miles in under nine minutes each. I completed my first 5K split in 27:12 – remarkably, four and a half minutes faster than my very first race in July, 2011. I put my recovery from the slow start down to two factors; my familiarity with the course based on all my training runs, and seeing Jess cheer me on between mile two and mile three.

The next segment of the race went quite well, as I passed the 10K split at 54:32. I was happy to see that I was keeping a consistent pace (27:20 for 5K) and I was making good progress through the field having started so far back. Physically I felt fine, my knees were holding up to the challenge thanks to all the rest over the previous week. Mentally, I was encouraged by passing so many people (almost a 6:1 ratio) and seeing Jess again along the 7th Ave stretch.

The real challenge came in the third segment, as the course turned from a nice downhill stretch along 42nd St to the south side of the West Side Highway. This was a completely new route for me, and I could feel my legs running slightly heavier on the concrete road in comparison to the blacktop in the park. Despite the struggles, I managed to maintain my pace and passed the 15K split at 1:21:05 (26:33 for 5K). Although I had harbored dreams of finishing in under two hours throughout my training, it was really only this point that those dreams began to seem like a reality. My pace was good, and I was taking short walking breaks of 30 seconds or so at every other water station. To keep my mind busy, I kept recalculating my finish time as I checked off each mile marker. Each time I recalculated the time, I got an extra shot of motivation to keep going.

The last segment was especially hard as I began to feel the full effects of my endeavor, but I kept going – taking strength from the thought of crossing the line and the joy of my fellow runners as they whooped and raised hell in the tunnel under Battery Park. I passed the 20K marker at 1:48:17 (27:12 for 5K), the same split as my first 5K. In my mind I knew I had trained well and was in good physically shape to complete the distance in my target time. As we exited the tunnel and took the service road under the FDR and onto Old Slip, I began to feel overwhelmed by the noise from the crowd. Turning the last corner onto Water St., the sights and sounds really sank in and I felt my lower lip tremble and my eyes start to water. The crowd was relentless in their cheering, fully understanding the sacrifices they made to get to that point. Jess was there too – supporting me throughout my efforts. Crossing the line with very little left in the tank, I stopped my watch at 1:54:07 – almost a full minute inside my target time.

I was emotionally and physically drained as I embraced Jess. I had set myself a goal of completing a half-marathon, and I had met that challenge head on and done better than I could have hoped for. Every training session, every mile, and all those sacrifices melted away as the time and effort I invested paled in comparison to what I had just achieved. My finishers medal is proudly displayed at home, and serves as a constant reminder to me of what I can do when I set my mind to it.

My Number’s Up

On the off-chance that I would actually make it, and seeing as how I tend to do better when I have an actual goal, I applied for the New York City Half-Marathon. I was not entirely sure that I would get into the race, given my newbie status and the fact that I had to rely on the luck of the draw rather than qualifying through time or any of the other means that the Roadrunners provide.

Imagine my surprise then, when I checked my email the other day and saw a note confirming my entry number. The distance is somewhat daunting when I consider that the longest I have ever run is five miles. But, I have done some research and devised an appropriate training plan that should provide the right level of conditioning to help me meet my goal of completing the run in less than two hours.

First things first though … I have a 10K race to run this weekend!

Half-Marathon Training

half_training_001This is my training plan for the NYC Half-Marathon on March 18. I put this together after researching a number of different sources and approaches, primarily based on Hal Higdon’s half-marathon program for intermediate runners. Unlike the original version, I have allocated time for stretching every day and set specific cross training targets on Mondays and Thursdays. Typically, those cross training sessions involve cycling and swimming respectively. I believe that this plan will give me the gradual improvement in strength, stamina, and distance to allow me to comfortably complete the half-marathon in a good target time. As of right now, I am looking at a two hour target but may revise that down over time – depending on how I progress.

As the half-marathon takes place on a Sunday, all my long runs are scheduled for Sunday mornings. I believe consistency is key in preparation, and helps reduce the risk of injury. However, I deviate from that model in weeks two and six because I am taking part in organized races.

Entries highlighted in red are organized races – more information for those can be found on the race information page.