Monthly Archives: September 2010

Ready or not…

Less than 2 weeks away from Chicago. That’s it, just 2 weeks. The countdown on the Chicago site says 12 days and change to be exact, but who’s counting? (I am!) For those that know about my training and racing, the questions have started to come in.

“Are you excited?”

“Are you nervous?”

“Are you ready?”

Truthfully, I’m all those and then some. I’m a cornucopia of emotions that battle each other for center stage continuously. Is this what menopause might feel like? For those that ask me any questions about how I’m feeling regarding the race, depending on what minute of what hour it is, they’ll probably get any of a 100 different responses.

Part of the reason for this is that we’ve just entered the tapering phase of training. Where for the past 4 – 5 months I’ve been consistently running anywhere between 80 – 100 miles a week, most often in the 90’s, this week we take a drop and max out at 70 miles, then next week drop even further in preparation for Sunday the 10th. For some, they can handle the scaling back, the feelings of rejuvenation and boosted energy, but for others, the taper is excruciating as they become engulfed with a sense of power and strength that has sat somewhere deep within them for the past 5 months, crushed beneath the weight of so many miles and effort. They have so much strength, but must make a concerted and focus effort not to use it, but to let it slowly rise up and peak on the long-awaited race day.

Me? I’m cool with it. I remember what these two weeks felt like last year as suddenly I had so much energy that I could bounce around my work all day without thinking twice about it. I did have to remind myself to calm down every once in awhile, but I never let myself get out of control. I just enjoyed the feeling. And that’s what I plan on doing this year too….just taking it easy at every chance I can get, letting my body heal the little aches and pains that have developed over the past couple of months and get mentally ready for the race…..trying to keep my ever-shifting emotions at a nuetral level.

I’m not all cool and calm, of course. As a matter of fact, I’m often in complete freak out mode. “Nervous” doesn’t explain it…”deathly afraid” comes a little closer. That’s usually my response if someone asks how I’m feeling. I think I’m justified in this feeling. It’s not just the beast that 26.2 miles is, the undeniable toll it takes on the body, the increasingly difficult effort it takes to get to the finish, the so many miles of unknowns that lay ahead….it’s also the goal. If I was coming to Chicago with no expectations except to run a solid marathon, I’d be nothing but excited. I’d be ecstatic to get out there and push, knowing that when things get hard, I’m still in contention to run a solid time….but that’s not my goal. My goal is not just a race against my own comfort levels, but a race against a very definitive and definable opponent…the clock. I need to go sub 2:19. And that scares the shit out of me.

It scares me because for me to run 2:19 right now, I feel like I need to run outside of myself. I need to find some way to overcome my own fitness, my own fatigue, my own training. I’m just not yet convinced that I’m ready to run sub 2:19, fortunately, I’m also aware that when it comes to the marathon not many people are ever convinced they are ready to run their stated goal times. That’s just part of the game. I wasn’t ready to run 2:25 last year, but I did it. And I don’t feel like I’m ready to run 2:19 this year….but I’m sure going to try. And that scares me.

That scares me because I know what happens when you try to run outside of yourself and fail….you explode. You don’t just tire. You don’t just call off the attack and revert back to a pace you can handle. No, when you run so hard that your efforts require deep reserves of strength, when you must scrape the bottom of your fitness well, if you then fail to sustain those efforts at such a high capacity, you can then only hope to drag yourself to the finish remaining upright, the pendulum of time swingingly drasticallly in the opposite direction.

These are the two most likely scenarios for my attept to qualify for the US Olympic Trials next Sunday. I have an awesome day, run my ass off and either qualify for the trials or at least come real close….or I cross the threshold of sustainability and come crawling into the finish somewhere back in the upper 2:20’s or 2:30’s. I would prefer the former, but often it’s either 2:19 or 2:29….maybe even 2:39. So I feel justified in my fear, my concern that for the past year, my efforts will fall short of my goals. Will it be a waste? Of course not, but it sure will be a massive disappointment.

Or maybe all this fear is just part of my preparation, to make sure I’m doing every little thing right leading up to the 10th. For some days I have no doubts in the world. Some days I KNOW I’m going to run 2:19. Some days I just FEEL it. There isn’t a second for concern and I get so excited thinking about it that I feel like I’ve already run the race. But, of course, I haven’t.

The final question then remains…”Are you ready?”

Well…I have no choice. I have to be. I’ve put in all the work I ever could. The months of training are over. I’ve got 2 weeks ahead of me consisting of smaller mileage and less intense workouts. Now it’s just down to the details. Heck, I even have my soundtrack already completed (post to come soon). Now it’s just making sure I don’t roll my ankle on anymore wayward walnuts that are starting to spot my training paths. It’s the little things like that I have to deal with now. The hay is in the barn as they say. Deathly afraid or overly optimistic…..ready or not……

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Shoreline Classic 15k – Race Report

After waiting in the hotel lobby most of the morning, the call quickly spread throughout the elite runners milling about, digesting breakfast, watching the red and green blob on the radar screen. It was time to caravan to the start line. We quickly grabbed our bags, walked out the sliding front doors and stepped into the dark, morning air….and a downpour. We all jogged quickly, but cautiously, towards our cars, filed out in one long line and made our way through downtown Decatur to the park where the race would take place. Like dominoes in a row we pulled into our parking spaces one after the other, but instead of getting out and starting pre-race rituals, we sat sullenly, avoiding the rain. I flipped through my cd’s trying to find some inspiration in my selections and instinctually grabbed a fitting title, “Unearth – The coming storm.” The music filled the car and I psyched myself up to run in the less than ideal conditions.

The race was the Shoreline Classic 15k, a complete loop course that rung a massive lake and rose and fell continuously, rarely ever laying down level stretches of road, but never making us suffer for too long. I had run this course last year and tried to remember the more difficult portions so as to be prepared for the challenge. Putting up significant prize money, the field for this race is always deep and impressively fast, which always lends to having other runners to go with and so I hoped would aid me in a decent PR for the distance, despite the course’s difficulty.

Surprisingly, about 15 minutes before the start, the rain gave up its fight and transitioned to a mere spitting, only keeping the roads damp and not restricting our race in any way. After going through our repetitive warmups and run outs 2 rows of lanky legged runners of all descents, latino, african, american filed behind the start line and waited for our release from the announcer. Just then a wiley-haired man steps up to me and says, “Hey. You kick their asses!” I smiled, no recollection of this spectator, and assured him I would do my best.

I stood poised on the line and when the airhorn sounded I shot off down the road as the group of about 8 or 9 elites ran out even faster. Knowing they were going to be running through in sub 5:00 miles I remained calm and let them move ahead, finding my place within a second pack of runners a short distance back, my breathing labored with the strong effort, but not feeling over-stressed. We settled into a rhythm in the first mile and anxiously waited to hit our first split, the definitive gauge if the day was going to go smoothly or as a struggle. Running with Poray we covered the first couple course undulations with ease and went through the mile…5:08. I was surprised at the pace considering we had to take some hills in the process and I still didn’t feel that taxed.

Soon after passing the first mile our group broke and where I thought we might have some company our competition trailed back never to be seen again. It was just me and Poray moving quickly towards mile two, continuing to climb the quick bursts of hills that would fall just as quickly back down. Feeling relatively confident in my pace I found myself moving slightly ahead of Poray and without making a concerted move was then moving further and further out ahead. Unsure whether he was having a bad day or I was having a good day, I decided to keep going with my effort and looked ahead to see Jesse running alongside one of the handful of Kenyan runners who came for the prize money. I went through mile 2 at 5:12 and hit one of the longer stretches of flat road that crossed the lake on a 2 lane bridge. My legs were strong and I was able to put down a deliberate effort to pick up pace, trying to stay ahead of the speed sapping hills that would come later on.

The road started to rise into mile 3 and just then I noticed Jesse had dropped the Kenyan, but I wasn’t sure if I was in the position to move up on him or if he would continue to run away from me. Regardless, running alone, I decided my best option was to keep an eye on him and make a move to catch up every chance I got, using him as a pace incentive instead of getting sucked into the comfort of no man’s land. Just then the course hills began to rise and fall over and over, making continuous pacing more and more difficult. I ran through mile 4 and 5 with varied splits of 5:21 and 5:14, unmistakably showing the rise and fall of the route.

Keeping an eye on the Kenyan in front of me I noticed a pattern in our pacing. He suffered on the uphills, of which I enjoy, so I would begin to close the gap between us, but on the downhills he would move out a touch further. We played this back and forth game through mile 6 as I decided to push on the downhills in hopes of gaining, but fortunately mile 7 rose at length and I was able to pull him towards me significantly. Mile 7 was a steep, speed sapping incline and I was frustrated to go through at 5:30 pace, but relieved to recovery quickly once we leveled out.  The kenyan was now very close and on the next decline I pushed hard to come right up behind him before the road started to turn upward. As I expected, he slowed and I moved up along side and then in front of him, but as I also expected, he hung on and used me as a pacer. Fair enough, as he unwittingly did the same for me for the past 5 miles.

I held to my hopes that I would be able to move away as the race came to a close, but just around 7 1/2 I heard more footsteps behind me and as I figured might happen, Poray had found his stride again and caught back up. He first passed the Kenyan and then passed me at the beginning of a downhill, during which the Kenyan decided to use Poray as his pacer and latched onto his trail. I suddenly found myself being left behind for the last mile.

All 3 of us approached the final bridge that would put us one mile and change out and I tried to keep those two in touch in case I got a final wind in my lungs or lengthy sprint in my legs. I was excited to find that I could push hard and keep them from running away as they lay only 5 seconds ahead. We rolled through mile 8 and I made another surge to catch up, cutting the distance to just a few seconds.

The course took one last turn onto a footpath that would snake its way to the finish and I began pushing harder and harder, trying to mimic my efforts at the end of our mile repeat workouts. I noticed Poray was getting dropped by the Kenyan by a stride or so and I was tempted to yell out “Kick now Poray!” as the finish line lay deceptively out of sight on the last turn. By the time most runners realize how close the finish is, they’ve missed the opportunity to lay into it. Making this same mistake last year I started my final push farther out, hoping to close the gap between Poray and the Kenyan even more.

When I was sure I was safe to lay into it, I put in my final effort, maxing out my lungs and sending my heart rate into erratic territory. I made the final turns to find the Kenyan moving out quicker and quicker, but Poray easing up towards the line. I pushed off the ground with everything I could and suddenly found myself right at Poray’s back, but just as we came into the line, him just one second ahead of me. I hit the final timing mat and felt the relief of my halted effort come flooding into my legs and lungs.

I checked my watch….49:00 flat. 5:16 / mile average. 12th place overall.

Where we go from here

I can’t say I’m disappointed in this race, I mean, I ran a P.R., but when I step back and look at the big picture I still have cause for concern. This was it. This was the last race before Chicago, so if I am to derive any indication of my fitness and where I stand at reaching my marathon goal time, this is the closest I’m going to get. With that in mind, I can’t be too happy about this race. Again, I did run a PR, but only by 12 seconds and my previous PR was set on this course one year ago, also as the final race before Chicago. I don’t know how to properly perceive the performance in this light. I ran well and I felt strong throughout the race, but last year’s time translated into a 2:25:55 marathon performance just a few weeks later, so by that measure, I seriously doubt 12 seconds will translate into a 2:18:59 effort. Then again, the marathon is a whole different beast and it’s probably not best to gauge fitness based on individual races. I’m still holding on to a fellow runner’s words that when he qualified for the Trials he had run a couple of his worst races, even dropping out of one, just before Chicago. So there is still hope….if I must convince myself.

I also wonder if my less than hoped for race performances are not necessarily an indication of my current fitness, but rather an indication of the amount of work I’ve been putting in these past handful of months. Maybe all those miles at a significantly faster pace, all that quality speed work and those 100+ mile weeks have simply left me temporarily flat. Maybe the fact that I can train like I have been and still come close to last years race times means I’m working harder and my body is just waiting to respond during the two taper weeks and on race day when it truly counts. I know how helpful it is for me to take a day or two off before a race and I have yet to do so, to let my body recover for any of the races during this training period. So maybe, just maybe, my body is tired. Maybe it’s just waiting for a grace period to store up and then cash in all that work I’ve put it through. I don’t know…then again, maybe I’m just not responding well this time around.

One thing is certain, we’ll find out in less than 3 weeks. I promise you this though, I’m not stepping to the line in Chicago doubting my abilities, holding reservations about my last few races or considering backing off. Oh hell no. I’m going there looking to run no slower than 2:18:59 and I’m going to make an attempt at it for as long as my body and then mind will let me. And THAT’S where we’re going from here.

Promises, Promises

In our preferred environment, pine stands

No sooner had we said our collective “We do”‘s, pressed lips and took our bows, were we then struggling with our artistically formal clothing, attempting to strip down to something dangerously related to our birthday suits. It wasn’t our birthday though, it was our wedding, so we stopped short of illegality. Michelle ran up the steep, grassy hill to have her dress maker help her undo the corset and have a friend wheel her mountain bike and corresponding shorts over to her. I was at the grassy altar, struggling with the top button on my finely pressed, collared shirt, a struggle I was losing as I can’t remember a time I ever utilized that button. But with the only tie I now officially own, the button became a necessity. There I stood, looking rather ridiculous in my bright red running shoes, short running shorts that barely stuck out from beneath my white button down dress shirt and me with a goofy grin on my face as I finally worked the button free. My son, August, stood watching in amusement, confused as to why his papa would go through all the trouble to put on dress up clothes and then take them right back off, in public no less.

To answer that question…we had a reception to get to.

Michelle and I had, at first jokingly, discussed running and riding on the trail that began at our wedding ceremony and snaked through the best woods in all of Indiana, ending at our reception shelter, but very quickly we fell back on our “Wait…why not?” attitude and made the decision final. We asked a handful of more athletic and adventuresome friends to come along with us, but in the end only Michelle had company with two other mountain bikers. My coach had planned on it, but forgot his shoes at home.

The wedding party piled into their cars and took the short 2 1/2 mile drive to the shelter while the 4 of us entered the woods single file, giving one last wave before taking off on the 7 mile trip to our waiting party. Despite the difficult 22 miles the day before and the 10 that morning, my legs felt great and my spirits even greater. I had, after all, just gotten married to the most wonderful woman I thought didn’t exist. I hung off the back of the bikes, periodically making ground on the hills and falling off on the descents, but soon there was enough uphill that I couldn’t take it any longer and blasted out ahead, running way way WAY too fast for both a recovery run and extra mileage. But I couldn’t help it, I had just gotten married.

A healthy relationship is an active relationship

We all twisted through the woods before popping out at Hoosier’s Nest, an outhouse sized cabin, before deciding to enter back onto the trails and rolling our way to the end and out onto the road that double backed towards our shelter. Our guests were waiting, but we were having too much fun on our mini-honeymoon. This portion of the trails were roller-coaster fast and so the bikes had quickly gotten away from me as my legs began to pound the trail harder and harder, weakening with the effort.

A couple miles later the singletrack finally flattened out and I was able to reconvene with my waiting bride and friends, taking a short breather before heading down the road that double-backed the trail and led us to a series of wet, paved descents steep enough to warrant caution signs for cars. I cautioned Michelle to hold back, knowing her aggressive riding tendencies and the wet turning asphalt as a poor match. I didn’t realize, however, how dangerous it might be for me as well, as the road began to drop and my weakened legs struggled to hold myself upright with each successive pounding. Michelle laughed at my comical braking gait and as ridiculous as my form felt, I would have laughed too if I wasn’t so worried about losing footing, gaining a severe concussion and missing my entire reception party. Talk about a wedding disaster.

Ultimately, we made it to the reception, 40 minutes later, soaked in sweat and 90% naked. The guests applauded, but I sensed a slowed, muted clapping, unaware of their instinctual repulsion at our sweat and appearance. We made a quick bow and curtsy before heading back to the car to clean up and change. Michelle already had a beer in hand before we made it to the hatchback.

Future distance runners?

The next day, after a morning spent with the boys at the water park while Michelle headed back out onto the trails with a couple guests, we drove home to unload our wedding supplies and just enjoy each other’s company for the first time that weekend. I couldn’t miss my run though, so we both went out for another 10, myself running and her riding yet again. We received congratulations from some of our athletic friends also out on the trail that day, the most encouraging by recently engaged couple on road bikes who came up behind us.

“Now there’s a healthy looking couple.”

We are immune to the weight newlyweds gain as they get lazy in their routines, finding comfort in each other’s sloth and gluttony. We, instead, challenge each other and enjoy the active interests that brought us together in the first place. We continue on with our joys, refusing to succumb to the lure of prime time television sitcoms, the comfortable and socially acceptable barrier between activity and communication. We are the anti-couple.

Post-ceremony entrance. That's sweat not shower hair.

Plus, Chicago is less than a month away. Our wedding was the 11th and with all the last minute preparations and celebrations, I completely overlooked that relatively inconsequential, but still quite harrowing mile marker. One month to go. I’ve got 2 more weeks of high mileage work to do and then 2 more of taper before the big showdown. No rest for the weary….or married. Michelle comes along for the ride, because she enjoys watching my dedication and enthusiasm, but this time because of a more personal incentive.

The Chicago Marathon is offering monetary time bonuses. $1000 if you break 2:21. $2500 if you break 2:19. If you’ve followed along at all, you know I’m going for sub 2:19 and a US Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, money bonus or not. It’s been my goal all along and this is just icing on the wedding cake. Heck, it’s not even the icing I care to eat, because for me this isn’t and never has been about the money. This has always been, first and foremost, about a personal accomplishment, about stepping past what I thought were my previous limitations and performing “one perfect act”, hitting an achievement I had never even considered it was so far out there, so seemingly out of my league. This is about adding one more deep, deep notch into the bedpost of life accomplishments. One more story to replay in the final moments of my life.

So the money is nothing to me, which is why I promised it to Michelle. Heck, she deserves it. She puts up with not having me around at least 40 hours a week while I’m at work and then puts up with me not being around another 14 – 20 hours a week when I’m out on the roads training. She puts up with my injury whining, my fluxuating moods related to my runs, my sometimes complete exhaustion and my sometimes over-exuberance. She puts up with a lot. So I promised her the money…with a couple stipulations.

My owner. 😉

I told her IF, and that’s a big if, I win any portion of that money, whether it be $1000 or $2500, she can have it, but she can only spend it on one of two things.

1. A new computer for our photography business, or
2. A new mountain bike

Now, we already got a new computer for the business so the mountain bike is all we have left. A $1000 won’t get her very far for a bike, but the $2500 will make her the envy of the trails that’s for sure….and it will make her ride extreeemely enjoyable. I want that for her. Hell, as much as she supports my running, it sure would be nice if my running could in turn support her mountain biking. That’s peanut butter and jelly right there. Natural peanut butter and sugar-free jelly, of course.

I promised her that money and I promised her a committed relationship for the rest of our lives, till one of us buries the other or we “follow you into the dark”. I intend to make good on both of those promises.

Just pre-married

Running Scared

When I stepped to the line at Chicago last year I was scared. I was scared of so many unknowns that I wasn’t even sure what I was scared of. Then there were those things that left my legs shaking with tremors as the clock ticked down. I was scared someone was going to grab me and pull me from the line, grab me by the shoulders and scoldingly yell into my face, “What do you think you are doing here?! Get to the back of the pack where you belong!” I was scared of the more legitimate things as well. I was scared how my body was going to handle a second half/marathon of racing, a distance I had yet to surpass at speed. I was scared that I was going to hit “the wall” and either walk to the finish or drop out completely. I was scared I might push past my limits and injure myself for an indefinite amount of time. I was scared of so much…and this was great.

That fear drove me. That fear created a vessel of seriousness that took nothing on that course for granted and compelled me to run with an intent and drive like I never had before. That fear pushed out all arrogant pipe dreams and left me with a humble shell of a runner that could do nothing more than put my head down and run to the finish. It was that fear that made the race. And when it was all over, it was almost like I had nothing to be scared of in the first place. But I know this isn’t true. I had right to be scared, I just used that fear to push me beyond any obstacles, mental and physical, that were tossed into my trajectory. I used it, but didn’t succumb to it.

And here we are, almost exactly a month out from the second attempt to conquer the Chicago course, even faster than the first and the fear begins to build again. Now, about a month or so ago, I began to worry that I WASN’T WORRIED. I began to worry that the success I had at my first attempt had softened my resolve, had lulled me into a false comfort, had turned my confidence into arrogance and I worried I was going to crash and burn if I didn’t turn this attitude around. Of course, after a handful of bad training runs in even worse weather, that all started to change. Not only was I missing the marks I needed to hit in my progression up to the race, but with the race date nearing, I wasn’t sure I was every going to get where I needed to be. The concern turned to worry, the worry to fear. The fear to motivation.

It wasn’t just the speed sapping bad weather though, it was also the realization of the risk of what I’m trying to attempt. Last year I had no definitive goal except a broad window of time, a stab in the dark of inexperience, a risk with little consequence. Last year I wanted to run around 2:30, a goal time that fluxuated with my varied training runs, but ultimately left me with a loophole out of disappointment. After all, this was my first marathon, you couldn’t blame me for having a less than stellar time. The risk, if I should have broke down early in the race, was of little consequence. Just a few excuses and a humbling, “Oh well, that was a pretty good time for a learning experience,” response.

This year though, such is not the case. This year I’m scared of many of the same things as last year, aside from being yanked from the start line of course, but I’m mostly scared of the risk I’m about to take. That risk being running 5:18 minute miles for 26.2 miles. Last year I ran an average of 5:34 miles, which although decently fast, was obviously within my abilities. This year, I’ve really been working at getting to 5:18’s, but right now I’m still not convinced I’ve brought that into my window of ability, even with a few on point workouts these past weeks. The greater difference between running 5:34’s and 5:18’s is that risk, the consequence of making the attempt and failing. Sure, running 5:34’s was an awesome feat for my first attempt, but even with falling off, I didn’t have much to fall into. I would have just slowed up and still cruised in around 2:30 or 2:40 at worst. And on the flipside, being able to successfully come through the line without a complete breakdown didn’t afford me much reward aside from an immense amount of self-satisfaction and the drive to go forward. The risk simply wasn’t that great either way.

This time around though, the risk is much greater. Without a doubt, I could run 5:30’s again this year, but I would have the same reward as last year, however, if I run 5:18’s I’m looking at essentially two outcomes. The first involves the upside of the risk and it is this side of the coin that has driven me so strongly for the past year. That is the ultimate goal of running sub 2:19 and qualifying for the US Olympic Marathon Trials. A goal that wasn’t even on my radar a year ago…to say the least. That is the upside of the risk. It’s the downside that scares me. It’s the downside that fills me with fear. Again, if I ran 5:30’s and broke down, I’d just trot my weakened butt to the finish line in a less than stellar run. To run 5:18’s and break down is something entirely different. Running at that speed involves a great amount of strength and endurance, which both take a powerful toll on the body in the effort. The ability to sustain that pace involves great concentration and a meticulous refueling of the body’s stores of carbohydrates. It leaves such a minimal margin of error throughout the race, where everything needs to go just as planned so the only thing you can concentrate on is sustaining pace. Something as trivial as a shoe coming untied could ruin the entire effort. It is the toll on the body though that brings the most fear. If for some reason I’m running 5:18’s and everything starts to break down, my legs get heavy, my heart rate can’t keep up and spins wildly out of control, my body temperature rises, and so on…it becomes like a snowball tumbling down a hill, picking up more snow as it goes, getting bigger and bigger and more and more dangerous. The whole system gets taxed worse and worse and the whole machine starts to break down irrepairably. It just gets ugly, real quick. And that’s scary.

What happens if the breaking point of my efforts is before the finish line? Well, for one, I’ll tell you there is no coming back. There is no rest, recovery and resurgence. There is just breakdown and weeks of recovery. That is the marathon. What scares me is that the breakdown becomes so severe, so quickly, that I can’t even drag my ass to the finish line and I’m left stepping off the course figuring out how to meet up with my friends and family.

This is the risk of speed, running on an ever-weakening tightrope of success and disaster, trying to make it to the other end of the platform before you lose your balance and fall to the ground beyond the safety net. I feel my fear is legitimate.

But here’s the thing. I’m not scared stiff. Yeah, I’m concerned, scared even, but the measure of an individual is not that they experience fear, but how they move to overcome it. With this awareness of risk, what I can have and what I might be forced into, I’m driven again, further away from arrogance and into the depths of hard work and and a mentality steeled by the seriousness of this effort.

This year, when I step to the line at Chicago, I’ll be scared, no doubt, but I’ll also have a greater drive than I’ve ever had in a race and a reward waiting at the finish line that will be worth every step of the risk. When that gun goes off on October 10th, the fear will be left at the start and I’ll have 26.2 miles of excitingly beautiful risk to push me on. All that is left is the reward at the finish. See you there.