Fast doesn’t mean fast

Although I’ve been running for a little over 2 years now, I still consider myself a bit of a newbie when it comes to running.  Through some consistent running over a decent amount of time, I’ve gotten better at it, but I know I’m still only beginning to see what I can really do.  I didn’t grow up running on a cross country team in high school or college, so I have never learned the “why” I should train certain ways, and the more I learn about the rationale behind certain workouts, the better and faster I’ll get.  Ask me to teach a baseball catcher how to block pitches and I can give you 8 or 10 drills to do that, the techniques to practice while doing them, and what each drill reinforces.  Not so with running.  I’m trying to pick up the “why” as I go along.

And like many runners new to this game, I find myself falling into the trap of thinking faster is always better.  And it’s not.  In fact it can be counter productive.  When discussing my current training with my coach, he reminded me to make sure to try to hit the specific tempo pace I had been given.  When I’d report a particular tempo effort, I’d say, “The plan was for 2 miles warmup then 6 miles at 8:10 and my actuals were 8:07, 8:01, 8:09, 8:00, 8:00, 7:56,” and then I’d wait for a pat on the back and a “Good job!”  But the reality was that by going faster than the prescribed pace, I’m not getting the benefit that particular run was meant to give me.  Here’s a small excerpt of our discussion:

With a marathon tempo, you are really hovering along that point where the body is probably using a little more carbs than fat. This is good, because it puts the body into just enough stress that it will adapt very well. When you cheat it down (i.e. go too fast), the body is stressed beyond the point where any real adaptation will occur.

The whole point of dragging my butt out of bed and cranking out these workouts is to adapt.  To get stronger and faster.  And by going too fast, I blew it.  OK, there still is some benefit when you compare it to sitting on the couch, but I’m not getting the very benefit I am trying for: to get faster.

During MCM this past October, I had a couple miles in the middle and then a couple at 15 and 16 that were a full 10-15 seconds faster than they should have been.  And I know I paid that toll in the last couple of miles of the race: my pace fell by more than a full minute in 24 and 25 and while I knew it would dip, that’s pretty drastic.  I may have been able to hit a 3:35:00 had I paid better attention and paced myself more consistently.

If I’m going to have a legitimate shot at reaching my goals for this year, I’m going to have to do a much better job of being consistent and smart about my workouts.

Active Release: 1, My Hip: 0

At about mile 25 in the Marine Corps Marathon this past October, my right hip began to hurt pretty badly, but I absolutely expected to be hurting in some way by then, so I didn’t think anything of it. Once the race was over and I was walking, I had no pain at all. I waited a few days after the marathon before even attempting a run, and even then, it was barely a jog, but still, my hip began to hurt again. I had a sports massage scheduled for Thursday of that week, so I thought maybe that would do the trick, but it didn’t. The next couple of runs followed the same pattern: fine until about mile three, then my hip would start and the pain would travel down to my knee if I kept going.

Finally, I decided to go to Andy Shetterly at Peak Performance Sports Therapy based on a recommendation from the great people at Bob Roncker’s Running Spot. The first thing Andy did was watch me run a bit. His first comment: “A little tight, I see. Let’s see how flexible you are.” So I did a few exercises and he declared me to be the most inflexible person he’d seen in a while. A dubious distinction, at best.

As I told him about the hip pain I was having he started asking a ton a questions. “Where, exactly does it start? Point to it. OK, then where does it go? Shooting pain, or dull? Does it stop when you stop running?” And plenty more. He also had me move my leg into a few different positions to see if any caused pain. After thoroughly talking through everything, he said, “I’m going to have you feeling better in just two sessions.” Then he explained what Active Release Techniques (ART) are, what it would do for me, and how it will help. The next thirty or so minutes was spent finding and releasing all of the trigger points in my hip and IT band.

So that I’d get this right, I asked Andy to describe why this works. He’s the only therapist in the Cincinnati area (and one of just a few nationally) who combines Active Release Techniques (ART), NeuroMuscular Trigger Point Therapy and Active Isolated Stretching. Here’s his response.

“Adhesions and internal scar tissue restricts normal muscle movement and cause pain. This internal scar tissue leads to fascial micro trauma, increased inflammation, which results in additional scar tissue and eventually, pain. It’s a never ending cycle, that is effectively treated by breaking up that unhealthy, restricted scar tissue. Once that occurs, normal range of motion can return, helping to break the cycle of pain and re-injury.”

Andy also recommended that I increase my flexibility, using active isolated stretching (a 2 second hold), to ensure that I would reduce the chance for re -injury and also to increase my performance level, as well. This kind of stretching is different than those I learned on the gym floor before high school baseball practice. I’m already seeing an increase in my flexibility and range of motion. The day I first went to Andy, he had me try to touch the floor while standing, straight-kneed, and I could only make it to my shins. Now I can easily touch the floor and am working on getting even better.

The point is this: Andy helped me get back to training quickly and effectively. I’m now in the first third of a spring marathon training plan, and I’ve had no issues with pain at all. What more could I ask for? And because he taught me the techniques he uses, I can continue to work on any trigger points I do find at home. But if I need some specific, extremely therapeutic work, I am calling Andy.

If you live in the Cincinnati area and have been suffering through pain while running, do yourself a favor and give Andy Shetterly a call.  In fact, even if you live elsewhere, I’m sure he can help you find someone to help.

2012 Goals

In my 2011 year-end recap, I said I’d be writing up some specifics about my plans for this year, so it’s about time I got to it.  In a nutshell, I’m going to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

I remember when I first started running back in the fall of 2009 that running even 5 miles in a row seemed completely unattainable.  But, I kept at it, slowly and steadily, and managed to get to a place where I could do it.  So I’d add a bit to my next milestone, then go after that a little bit at a time.  When I toed the line to run my first 10K (which is 6.2 miles), I had never run 6 miles in a row before, and I wasn’t even certain that I’d finish, but I went ahead anyway.  After reaching that, I began to add a little bit more here and there.  I distinctly remember trying to run 10 miles.  It took me four attempts before I actually made it.

So now I’m at the place where I have a few marathons under my belt; some went well, some … not-so-much.  In the midst of training for my first (in Chicago 2010), a friend asked if I was going to qualify for Boston, and I remember thinking he might as well be asking if I plan to go to the moon.  A complete and utter impossibility.

In my most recent race, the 2011 Marine Corps Marathon, I proved to myself that I could, in fact, improve my running beyond what I thought was possible.  And it’s from that perspective that I’ve decided to dedicate this year to shaving an additional 27 minutes from my marathon P.R. to get down to 3:15:00, or the Boston Marathon qualification time for a man of my advancing age.  It definitely feels like a stretch goal, but I now know what hard work and dedication can lead to, and I feel like I’m ready to take those next steps.  The coaching I’ve been getting from Luke Humphrey has been an incredible boost for me, too, and so I believe I’m going after this goal in a measured, smart way.  So the plan looks like this:

I’m sure I’ll have other races along the way to see how my fitness is progressing, but those are the major ones.  So there it is in black and white:  I’d like to qualify for Boston.  And 2012 is the year I start to do that.

Prolific, and not in a good way

When I got done with an exhausting Ragnar Relay ultra race last weekend, my brain was just as frazzled as my legs. Which meant I forgot. Again.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a real problem. I kill iPod Shuffles at a rate even the most prolific serial killers couldn’t match. Victim number six was the light blue Shuffle I been using since July when the last victim was found lifeless at the bottom of our washing machine.

The light blue one had been special. It got me through the tough, hot, humid training runs during the summer and then led me to a 20 minute PR at the Marine Corps Marathon in October. Indeed it helped me survive 32 miles in less than 24 hours just this past weekend in Florida.

…and then I killed it. Once again, I forget to unclip it from my running shorts, then sent it spiraling to its own drowning death with Tide Mountain Fresh (with Downy) as its only companion.

Ragnar Florida Keys recap

This past weekend, I once again participated in a Ragnar Relay, this time from Miami to Key West, Florida.  These relays are 200 mile races with the miles being divided up among a running team of either 6 or 12 runners.  When I ran in the Del Sol, AZ relay in February, I was on a 12-runner team, but this year a subset of us decided to run the Key West race as an Ultra team, meaning only 6 of would share the workload.  Team “Where’s the Damn Van?!” was back!

Where's the Damn Van
Team Where's the Damn Van?!

My team consisted of four runners from last year’s team and one new runner:  Joe Marruchella leading us off, Steve Speirs ran second, Thomas Neuberger was third, Jenny Jowdy was fourth, Ally Speirs ran fifth (our “new” teammate), and I ran last.  John Thorne, my brother-in-law, somehow agreed to be our van driver during all of this craziness.  The way Ragnar races work for an ultra team is pretty simple:  rather than running one leg at a time, you run two consecutive legs.  So Joe ran legs 1 & 2, 13 & 14, and 25 & 26.  Steve ran legs 3 & 4, 15 & 16 and 27 & 28.  And so on.   No matter what, there are a total of about 200 miles to run, and no matter what, each runner takes three legs of the race, it’s just that as an ultra team each leg is really a combined, consecutive two leg assignment.  So if you’re a standard (12-runner) team, each runner will end up running a total of 16 or 17 miles, but if you’re an ultra team, each runner handles about 33.  The legs themselves vary in length a bit, so it’s never a truly even split.  In fact, for this race, one of our runners (Steve)  did about 42 total miles.  I did about 32.

Our start time was 1:00 PM Friday afternoon.  We truly had a gorgeous couple of days for running.  Saturday was a bit hot (mid-80s), but when I left Ohio, it was 30 degrees and cloudy, so I’m not going to complain!   The first part of the race had us running through a bunch of streets in Miami, which proved to be pretty challenging on a number of fronts.  Dodging pedestrians on sidewalks can be tough, and needing to stop at traffic lights can be mentally unnerving.  Unlike marathons where the streets are shut down to pedestrians and traffic, relay races occur on “live” roads.  Thomas had multiple cycles of passing slower runners only to have them catch back up when he had to stop and wait for lights and traffic.  The other difficulty of running the city streets is that the signage Ragnar uses to direct runners where to turn can get lost in all of the mental juggling of lights, traffic and pedestrians.  All of my teammates ran strong first legs covering about 47 miles before me, which meant I was handed the slap bracelet at about 7:20 PM for my first run.

Start off leg one
I've just started leg one in the dark

My first assignment was a combined 12.5 miles and it ended up being a transition point between the more city-like running of the first section to a mostly dirt road, trail-like middle section.  After leaving the park where Ally handed off to me, the first 10½ miles of my leg was quite literally in the middle of nowhere.  To the left was a canal, to the right were mangrove and woods, and the road was a trail with odd bits of gravel and dirt.  It was pitch black, and for whatever reason, I only ever saw one other runner during this leg, so I was completely alone.  Picture a horror movie where they purposefully send a character into an place where the audience just knows something is going to happen, but they don’t know what.  I kept shining my headlamp into the canal looking for alligators and then into the woods for critters big and small.  While I really never felt scared, I did have an uneasy feeling for quite a while.  After an hour and half of that, I was excited to make the turn that sent me down a road headed toward Homestead Speedway and civilization.  The last part of my leg was running one lap on the speedway itself.  Pretty cool. Leg one stats:  12.5 miles, 1:27:51 for an average pace of 8:19.

Homestead Speedway finish
Finishing leg one with a lap in Homestead Speedway

The next set of legs marked the transition from the middle trail-running section to US Highway 1 – The Overseas Highway and over into the Florida Keys.  Joe and Steve truly got the worst of it during this section as their 4 combined legs to start this cycle (a total of  33.5 miles) was through the canals and had the worst of the road conditions.  Steve had a particularly hard section as his combined run was 20 miles with the first 8+ running the hardest of the trails.  To make just a bit tougher, these legs were “No Van Support” which meant we couldn’t stop and hand him water or assistance.  The second half of his run took us from mainland Florida over to Key Largo to begin the Keys section of the race, which would have teams running the bridges going from one Key to the next over the final 110 or so miles.

There was a a lot of beauty and tranquility running bridges over the ocean all through the night, but it also presented its own set of difficulties.  Most of the bridge running left the runners on their own for hydration and nutrition since there just isn’t enough room to allow vans to pull over and help on a two lane highway with guardrails.  It also meant that exchange points could get pretty congested with vans trying to get in and out to exchange runners.  This would end up becoming a bigger problem later in the day, but we could see it starting to happen in the wee hours of the morning.  Jenny had to run the second longest combined leg during the middle of the night:  nearly 17 miles.  Ally got to watch the sun rise during her 12+ mile second run and then she handed it back off to me for the final portion of the second cycle of team running.  One real positive part of the night running was getting to use the Trailblazer Headlamps that L.L. Bean provided for us.  These headlamps do a great job of lighting up the road in front of you (43 lumens!) all while staying in place on your head.  They also proved to be useful inside the van where we needed to look up exchange points on maps without disturbing any runners trying to catch 40 winks.

My second run was a combined 9.8 miles and had some bridge running as well as some trail-like running on Marathon Key.  Nothing too difficult here with the exception of the heat.  Since my first leg was pretty arduous because of the length and the uneven ground, I decided to put on my Zensah calf sleeves to help perk up my tired legs.  They really helped a lot.  Once the sun came up, it started to get warm pretty quickly.  I made the mistake of not bringing any nutrition with me, so the team grabbed some energy gels and gave them to me along the way.  I was very thankful that this wasn’t a “No Van Support” leg as I was starting to get that hollow feeling that precedes dizziness.  After popping an energy block I felt much, much better and finished my second run feeling good at Marathon City Hall.  Leg stats:  9.8 miles, 1:21:22 for an average pace of 8:18.  The team was also excited here because it meant the kickoff of the final cycle of running for all of us.  We had covered about 145 miles so far.  Two legs down, one to go!

The end of leg #2

… And I managed to step on Joe’s shoe during the handoff.  Whoops.  As I got back to the van to grab some water, another ultra team of Dailymile friends pulled in right next us.  Team “There’s the Damn Van” was filled with very strong runners, so we figured we’d see them at some point along the course even though they started 2 hours after we did back on Friday.  After having each already run somewhere near a marathon distance, any little bit of motivation helps, so knowing they were lurking gave everyone a boost.  Our team pretty well knew we wouldn’t beat them outright (based on total time), so making sure we at least crossed the finish line without being caught got the competitive juices going a bit.

This final set of legs really pushed our endurance.  The heat was really beginning to build, and by now, we were all pretty tired.  No sleep, no good food and twenty-some miles on our legs will do that to you, so getting through this last set was a real test.  But one by one we cranked out that last run.  We helped one another by handing out ice cold water to pour over our heads in the midst of the heat and just kept pushing.   We managed to avoid missing any exchange points due to the bad traffic along the route, but in a few cases it was pretty close.  Before her final leg, Ally, who is a surgical nurse, helped revive an exhuasted runner at an exchange.  When I got the bracelet for the final run of the race, I was ready to be done, and so was the rest of the team.  My final 9+ miler took us across the bridge onto Key West, along the south side of the island, then to the finish line.  I started out that last leg running pretty strong, at about an 8:20 pace and feeling pretty good.  I held that pace for about the first 5 miles, then just ran out of steam.  I remember at about mile 8 trying to push to speed up but my legs just wouldn’t answer the call.  So I kept going slow and steady and made the final turn toward the finish line and that’s when I heard the crowd noise growing and music playing.  Soon enough, the rest of the team joined me to run the final meters as a team and crossed the finish line together.  My final leg stats:  9.3 miles, 1:21:20 for an average pace of 8:48.

Final results for Where’s the Damn Van:  27:01:50.  We placed 8th among men’s ultra teams, and 31st overall (out of about 500 teams).

I had a great time running this race with friends.  Doing it as an ultra team certainly made it more of a physical challenge, but I think the tougher part may have been the mental side.  When you run a race like this as a 12-person team, you have periods of a few hours where your set of runners have no responsibility, so you can head to a major exchange, sleep a bit, eat a decent meal or just relax.  As an ultra team, you’re constantly on the move to the next exchange and have no real breaks.  You may be able to steal a minute or two of sleep or wolf down yet another peanut butter bagel, but nothing of any real substance, and that really starts to add up.  When you couple that with running 32-ish miles in less than 24 hours, it’s a tough go.  But a fun one for sure.  Thanks again to our sponsors: Zensah Compression and L.L. Bean.  Mission Athletecare also helped keep the gorgeous yet brutal sun from sending me home looking like a lobster.

A special commendation needs to be given to John Thorne, our van driver.  He had to stay awake the whole night just as we did, but he also had to be awake enough to get us safely from place to place.  But where he really shined was helping keep everything light.  30 hours cooped up in a van of sweaty, smelly runners is no picnic, but he managed to keep everyone smiling as he did it.  A complete class act.

John Thorne
John Thorne, van driver extraordinaire
Steve Speirs
Steve Speirs
Ally Speirs
Ally Speirs
Jenny Jowdy
Jenny Jowdy
Thomas Neuberger
Thomas Neuberger
Joe Marruchella
Joe Marruchella