Sunday, April 30, 2017

Highlander Half Marathon Plan B - facing the facts

Plan B for the Highlander Half Marathon was me facing the facts, as Trevor recently discussed in his blog post after his Boston Marathon for which he adjusted his training. To me part of his point was that sometimes inspiration can only take you so far, and there comes a time to face the facts. For me it was an epiphany I had during a mid-week commute run on the way to work. This was my last day of running before the Highlander Half and it was a partial race simulation to see how a 7 min. mile felt. After a couple of warm up miles I hit about 7:15 and that was about all I could muster. My body (and quieted ego) were speaking to me: "Time for Plan B."

Plan A was to run the race in under 1 hr, 30 mins. It was definitely "aiming big" as Trevor calls it. But again those pesky facts! I was not ready to push myself to that degree and stick to Plan A, and my legs and cooperative ego were telling me so.

Back side of mile-splits
wrist band I wore
The entire idea of a plan at all (with a mile-split band) was something I had stumbled upon, so having 2 plans was also novel. It had to be a challenge but I wanted to be smart about developing my new plan. After several fiddling sessions I came up with Plan B. Plan A was still there: I literally made a 2-sided wrist band with mile splits for both Plan A and Plan B on opposing sides.

That mid-week run guided me, and I was listening. I felt I was at 94% or so in terms of recovery from pacing Blue Ridge. But 94% is not where you need to be to achieve a big goal, no matter what the stage-coach driver in your head is telling you. Have the dream but hold it for another day. It was not until sometime Friday morning that I decided to accept my Plan B strategy and I tried on my band, B-side-up. I had reviewed my own running data from similar races; I studied the elevation and course map, and I even invested time going over the route virtually using Google Earth. Plan B was becoming solid. And Plan B was still a stretch.

Scouting out the race route,
Wildwood Park on Friday
And Plan B was still just a theoretical waiting to be implemented. Having a plan may be smart but carries no guarantees. My wife and I actually were able to scout out part of the route prior to packet pick-up, so that helped solidify my decision. And I spoke both A and B aloud. Perhaps that is when I confirmed that my mid-week epiphany was on the right track. Plan A was unrealistic. Even at 100%, successfully implementing Plan A would have probably taken more months and definitely more pain, as we are talking a full 5+ minutes faster over 13.1 miles. That may not sound like much but that works out to about 30 secs faster per mile on an unknown, inaugural course.

Race day on Saturday was excellent with over 250 runners, fine weather, and lots of enthusiastic volunteers. After a teaser false race-start, we were off. Along with several potentially faster, adrenaline-inspired 8k racers, I held on to that holdin-on feeling, eased back the throttle just a bit, and followed my wrist mile-splits. Mile 1 and 4 were purposely slower to account for the half-mile uphill sections. As I had prepared my Plans I had also become familiar with the route - a very wise strategy in this case, as the leaders made a couple of wrong turns, and others missed turns along the way.

Trail at about mile 6.5
Wildwood Park, Radford, VA
As we split from the 8-kers, we approached the river and were welcomed by cool breezes: right on track, cruising along the water. Through the tunnel and then into Wildwood Park, a section we had scouted out the day before. Running through neighborhoods, we were greeted by volunteers and police officers who instilled confidence at the intersections, and by supportive locals cheering for us. Mile 8 is where it started to hurt a bit so I glanced again at my watch and wrist band and dug in for each split.

Mile 10 was a peak. That was the last aid station and I even gulped a shot of Powerade, grabbed 2 small cups of gummy bears and a handful of some sort of jelly candies ... sugar = good! Muscles responding as I locked in to the runner ahead - dreams of catching him - Aim Big, why not? Right on track. I didn't know what place I was in - I just knew I had to keep digging in to stay on track. I kept him in sight, slowly decreasing the distance between us. Then at about 12.5 the guy took a wrong turn ... I kept going as we tried to discuss it between gasps to keep us on track.

Plan B executed for a 3rd
Place, 4 seconds faster
than my goal
I passed him. The race marshals dwindled at the end with very few race markers present ... which made it that much more challenging.  Focus. Run the splits. Follow the Plan. Hit the final turn around cone and dig in.

As I peaked the final ascent and saw the clock reading 1:34 something or other, I thought, "Could I make it?" Sprinting, pushing, hurting, cross the final mat and hit my Garmin-watch stop button. Plan B had my splits so I would finish in 1:35:25. My time was 1:35:20.7. Nailed it again!

Plan A is still waiting. I have lots of time to evaluate it. But it was Plan B that got me there - and with surprising results.  I was not thinking of places, or medals, or anything but B. Got it done by 4 seconds ... very happy with that, and I felt great. Plan A would have me running along, ignoring the facts. On race day Plan B was mine. Plan B was what I created as a result of creating Plan A, and as a result of listening to my inner voice, accepting that gut feeling, and adjusting accordingly.

Hanging out with other runners,
savoring our accomplishment together
Why run? Because we can. Chose to move your body, and do so in a way that inspires and invigorates. Share your experiences and tell others about it to pass on that inspiration and to inform your friends and family of some of your inner thoughts.

Why write about my accomplishments in a small, local running race? The answer may be the same as that for the question, "Why run?" To me, this write up affirms the importance and value of introspection and of listening to that "inner voice" and heeding the resulting decision one makes after listening.

Why listen? Because we can. Because we *still* can learn. And I am still learning as I chose to listen to those fleeting thoughts and subtle feelings (and insightful friends) to help guide me along the way. Whether it be creating a race plan, actually running the race, or accomplishing other life goals, the plan for a Plan B will ever be in my arsenal.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Hybrid commuting

Park the car then ride the bike or
ride the bike then drive the car. 
Since May is both National Bike Month and the Ride Smart Challenge I want to share my hybrid commuting examples. I am lucky. Most days I have the luxury of commuting to work by bicycle. I live just the other side of a 1-mile downhill, so after a short assent, I get to zoom downhill to speeds that would make my grandma cringe. On some days, whether it be the weather, the fact that I will likely be purchasing several 40-pound bags of cat litter after work, or to rest my legs for an upcoming race, I do what I call a hybrid commute. This is creative solution I recommend for both exercise reasons, and to help maintain a degree of sanity prior to and after an otherwise insane work day. I estimate that I have commuted over 25,000 miles by bicycle 3-4 miles per trip since moving to Blacksburg last century.

My commute is a bit over 4 miles each way to work (and I commute to some meetings throughout the week as well). I could walk to work in about an hour and a half or go by bus with a transfer involving two buses in about 41 minutes, or in about 43 minutes on one route including some walking; I have run it in 42:49 and can make it by bicycle in as quickly as 15:48. Or I can (yawn . . .) drive it in 12 minutes.

Bicycling to school is fun
Or I can create any multitude of “hybrid” commute combinations to get a little physical exercise and to exercise my logistical & planning skills. Running to work (or to school or to complete errands) is fairly straightforward, and was inspired by my running buddy Rick who ran to work for years. I even have running friends who "carpool" home together on occasion. You simply leave clothes and shoes at work. If needed, I run with a pack to carry phone, keys, a strategically packed lunch (or make plans to go out or order out), plan enough time to get to work and catch a shower (again I am lucky: we have shower facilities), or just make due. On the return, I run home again or I have a few bus options including taking the BT Commuter route from work to a stop on S. Main Street, and then either walk home, or catch the Harding bus to a nearby stop.

Another popular hybrid commute involves driving part way and parking. After I park, I open the trunk and slide out my bicycle. I attach my pannier bag and away I go. The back of the Kroger lot is a popular location for me to leave my car, especially when I know I am likely to go grocery shopping after work, and for those days when I am likely to load up on bulky or particularly heavy items that are more conducive to loading into the car.

Or I can bike or walk or run part way, and then catch the bus. Or take the bus part way, and walk or bike or run the rest of the way. Or plant a bike somewhere the night before and walk or run or take the bus to where I left the bike and bike in. I have walked to work once when the snow was particularly bad. Urban snow hike! In fact during graduate school I rode to school everyday no matter the weather (think ski-outfit: goggles, snow boots, snow pants, snowboard gloves, parka). Soon we will have a regional bikeshare (e.g., membership-based, short-term bike rental by the minute) as an option, so that will open up some more hybrid commuting combinations too.

Most transit vehicles
have bike racks
When I fly for business or to visit family in California, I usually hybrid commute too. I recently did a bike-bus-train-bike from home to Washington, D.C. and I often book my airline flights around the Smart Way Commuter bus schedule so I can leave the car at home. Even if I have to take a taxi or Uber from the airport (if my flight arrives after the last bus) that is money well spent. I have parked the car and ridden Megabus too, and then rode Capital Bike Share to my hotel. 

Try a hybrid commute and challenge yourself to ride smart, even if you just start out by parking further from the front door at work so you get in some extra steps for the day. Each day move your car to make the walk a bit longer, one car stall at a time. Try parking and walking from a nearby business. Take inspiration from professor Geoffrey "I walk everywhere" Vining who walks 3 miles to work - about an hour in each direction - every day! You too may find some new ways to get some exercise for both your body and your brain.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Pacing Blue Ridge Marathon

1993 S.F. Marathon, my 1st
It was only 5 days after my inquiry April 2 about serving as "pacer" for the Blue Ridge Marathon that I received my confirmation for the April 22 race. I was to join a team of runners with Beast Pacing and pace the 4:15 pace. That is, I would run with a small wooden stick and "4:15" on the end of it so that other runners could follow me and finish the marathon in 4 hours and 15 minutes. Truth be told, I was not 100% sure I could do it - I had only run the 10K there and had not done a marathon for a long time. What was haunting me mostly, besides the 3 large, looming ascents up to Roanoke Mountain, Mill Mountain, & Peakwood Dr to Stone Mountain, was the fact that I had "hit the wall" hard during my previous 3 marathons. My first was a full-on, I-now-cannot-run, tears-down-the-face, crying break down where I hobbled from about mile 24 to 26 with what felt like a sprint at the end at about a 12-minute per mile pace during the 1993 San Francisco marathon. I again hit the wall again in 1994 during the Inaugural Walt Disney Marathon in Orlando - and once again ten years ago during Marine Corps in Washington, D.C.

Eastern Divide Ultra 50K, 6/18/16
Then there was the Eastern Divide Ultra (EDU) 50K last year. Not only did I hit several walls, but I literally stopped running at least 7 times. Let me spell that out: Of my almost 5 hours and 50 minutes of running/hiking, I was not moving - usually just frozen in the middle of the trail moaning in agony - for over 34 minutes while I waited for my legs to start operating semi-normally. My Strava data track had my slowest mile at 14:50 but looking more closely revealed 10 times where my pace was below 25 minutes per mile.

Jump forward to the night before this year's Blue Ridge Marathon. As a pacer I had done some homework. I knew my average had to be 9:44 per mile for the whole sha-bang. Not possible to maintain that up some of those mountains. I found a neat little doo-dad online ( which allows you to create a wearable band with mile splits based on a goal, AND it provides splits customized for the course based on elevation. Golden! I was getting there with my race band showing splits ranging from 8:20 to 13:28. So the night before, seeking further inspiration, I had been following Trevor's impressive April 17, 2017 Boston Marathon run and read his insightful post-racereport. He passed on a nugget.

I had heard, but my ego had ignored, Trevor's thinking-aloud comment made back in June 2016 as I passed him going up-hill during the EDU 50K at about mile 3: "Go right ahead ... " before the very first aid station. STRIKE 1.

I heard him again at about mile 8 as a group of us were flying downhill at a 6:20 pace when he announced, "The Blacksburg blow-up is about to begin ..." Ignorance is bliss, or so my ego tried to convince me. STRIKE 2. Ah the Oracle called Trevor.

This time, somehow, I listened more carefully. He passed on a nugget from Jordan in this little quote in his post about running Boston: 
"At mile 17, I started feeling low on energy, so I double fisted a couple of gels Jordan Chang style to ensure I wouldn’t bonk." 
Now Trevor says the "wall" is "socially constructed...(and I) just don't believe it exists" he posted.  Ok I got it: a strategy for mile 17 to give my body what it needs to run continuously.

I won't bore you with trying to reconstruct the race mile by mile. Let's just say I learned a few things over this last year, and from reading that post the night before Blue Ridge. Besides the (now) obvious plan of laying out your race clothes (and dry after-race clothes in a bag) and food ahead of time, I now have the ritual of making my (1/2-sized) breakfast and coffee the night before to save time and reduce the need for early morning-thinking. Gas up the car the day before too. And go pick up your packet ahead of time and scout out a good parking spot the day before. Take care of all the details, because something unexpected will always come up and it is nice to have more capacity to take care of those.

5:00 am race-day. I am up and getting ready: 1/2 breakfast and coffee: CHECK. Planned pit stop at the Ironto Rest Area. CHECK.  First unexpected hiccup.  "Traffic delay: left lane closed ahead at Mile Marker 122" read the sign. I text the pacer organizer to let her know of a possible delay. CHECK. I still arrive a few minutes before instructions, with time to meet the other Beast Pacers for the marathon and half-marathon, and to pose for a few group photos. 39 minutes to race start.

I drop off my drop-bag at the truck, and then realize I left some of my food in my car. Oh well - make due. Caffeinated shot blocks (my coffee substitute) in hand for breakfast #2 and a spare caffeinated gel in my pocket for later. Twenty-one water/aid stations await. GU energy Gels at mile 7, 16.8, & 22.8, supposedly. Ok, ready.

Running a 4:15 marathon for some is a stretch. For others not so much. For me it was sort of an unknown. Are you sure you wouldn't rather do the 4:15? I have that open as well."  I wrote back, "Yea either 4:15 or 4:30. Whichever you need - just not 3:15." Ok 4:15 it is.

My 3:21 ten years ago on a flatter course at Marine Corps (for which I had even hired a coach and 6 months of marathon-specific training), plus ten more years of life put me in a reasonable range for pacing at 4:30 I thought, so I asked for that slot. "

My "long-runs" had not been all that long as of late. 17 miles on Dec 31. 23 miles on Jan 15. Hmm doubt was creeping in. But I had gotten in some slow Saturday 14 milers and ramped up to 65 miles 2 weeks out, leading to my taper week of under 20 miles with 2 easy, cross-training workouts early in the week. Thursday and Friday were just short walks. I even drove to work instead of bicycling to rest up. By Saturday morning my legs felt good. Even my ego was behaving.

Leading up to the race, I had also talked to a few running friends. One experienced runner, Quinn Thomas suggested I "dial in" what a 9:44 pace feels like.  On most of my runs, I ran slow and got that down pretty well. As I got closer I shared my plans more openly with a few others. 4:15 became more comfortable - more do-able in my mind. That's over half the battle I think - believing fully you can do it. But I still had "the wall" lurking - and the fear of disappointing others who might be following my little orange "4:15" sign on a stick if I fell back and did not hit my goal.

STRIKE 3 would have been not listening to Trevor again. I didn't.

I finished my caffeinated Cliff shot blocks before mile 2. I drank a few ounces at pretty much every one of the aid stations; I took a calculated gamble, and after a little skepticism of trying the course drink ("Scratch"), I continued to go for it at each station with no stomach issues. I took my emergency stash-gel somewhere around mile 11. I even gulped down a mimosa at mile 13. I was moving along, mile-by-mile, just following my GPS and my mile-split band.

At one point I passed another runner stopped on the side in agony, trying to coax his calf into submission - cramping, no doubt. I could do nothing to help except to comment, "Just stay with it; It'll pass." Kinda lame. As I continued, I was thinking about the gels ahead, as advertised on the website. The next station had none. I grabbed a big handful of gummy bears since a volunteer looked at me blankly when I repeatedly asked for a gel; I snarfed up an orange slice. A bit later a bonus station had some chocolate candy something or other. I devoured a mini Snickers at some point. 

But Trevor's (Jordan's) "double gel at mile 17" advice still awaited heeding. I resisted but secretly I had decided miles before I was going do it. But at mile 16.8 where a tableful of gels awaited,  I grabbed not 2 but 3 gels, secretly rebelling again their sage advice.

Ok, Ok, 2 gels it is.

I finished them in about 45 seconds and held onto the gel #3. I was getting tired, but feeling pretty good. My ego was not enraged. A full 2 minutes later I fully rebelled against the advice of my mentors:  I took in the 3rd gel while waiting for the cramps to start.

They didn't. Some soreness, yes, but my pacing strategy had thus far worked and I only had a few sub-9 minute miles on my legs, so I was doing pretty well. At the last food aid station at 22.8 I grabbed more gummy bears (what are the white ones?) and yet another gel. Fuel.

From gel to gel, mile by mile, I following my plan. Pacing a race is usually something you hear about for part of the race, such as in the middle or at the last part of a race to "bring em home."  I had paced Pawel  Nazarewicz for 13 miles of his 80-miler at CrookedRoad in November 2016, but until a few weeks ago when I learned about Beast Pacing, I didn't know there were pacers that ran entire races for others to follow.

Beast Pacing, Blue Ridge Marathon, April 22, 2017, Roanoke, VA

I'll do it again.

I'll pace with Beast Pacing again. I'll listen again to my running friends, and consider their advice again. There are always people around that have good advice. I'm learning to hear such advice, consider it, and make it my own so it works for me. In this case, that 3rd gel at mile 17 was my version of the Trevor/Jordan advice, and it worked. My goal for my finish was 4:14:52. With Beast Pacing instructions that "acceptable pacing is coming within 1 minute of yo
ur assigned time," I nailed it. My actual chip time was exactly that: 4:14:52 with clock time of 4:15:23.

2 (or 3) gels at mile 17. YES. Golden. Thanks to everyone for their ideas, input, encouragement, and yes, advice.