Wednesday, April 28, 2010

To train or not to train

"You're running on guts. On fumes. Your muscles twitch. You throw up. You're delirious. But you keep running because there's no way out of this hell you're in, because there's no way you're not crossing the finish line. It's a misery that non-runners don't understand."-Martine Costello

I struggled today with a personal conundrum over balancing the search for sustained happiness in a crazy world that doesn't always see eye-to-eye with me and the confluence of my personal goals with the (sometimes wildly different) expectations of others.

One of the things that coaches and experienced athletes warn you about undertaking a serious athletic endeavor, whether it is a marathon or full distance triathlon or otherwise, is the impact that it is going to have on your life. To succeed, it is somewhat imperative to fully commit yourself to your goal – live it, breathe it and love it. If you can do that, stay sane and keep healthy then half the battle is won. Perseverance and commitment are not enough though – the support of those around you is absolutely critical. So when the people around you don’t understand why you are doing it, it makes things a little challenging.

I know that doing Ironman Canada will be one of the most excruciatingly difficult things I have ever done, and with four months of training left am not even that confident that I will be able to finish. Yet, I plug away one day at a time, fighting hard to balance work, training and life….and trying to stay happy doing it. Every week is a careful balancing act between the demands of work, training and those around me and admittedly, you start to become a little obsessive and weird. You start doing things you never thought you would do.

I am not a morning person, yet have started getting up at 4:45 am a few days a week just so I can fit in my workouts, time with my dog and still get to work on time. On rainy cold winter evenings, I still lace up and run even though I would prefer to stay inside. I have learned how to swim despite mostly hating every second of it. And the list goes on and on…..

So why do I do it?

Here is the answer only an endurance athlete will understand: it is difficult to train, but it is even more difficult to not be able to train.

I can’t sing worth a damn, I am not a literary or scientific genius and I am not going to win any races, yet I can run and bike and feel great joy from it. I recognize the limitations of my skills and will always be a recreational athlete, yet I am driven by the yearning to feel the wind at my back and experience those fabulous days when you feel like you could go on forever.

You do, however, learn to take the good with the bad. Your body doesn’t always want to cooperate – you get tired, you feel pain and sometimes it takes a whole lot of mental will to keep going. I realize this is not everyone’s cup of tea and that the prevailing view is probably that leisure time should be always fun and never painful. I could spend my Saturday mornings sleeping in or at the spa, Friday evenings out at a club or shopping. These are great activities, probably relaxing, and definitely not painful….yet in my mind not particularly rewarding in the long run. Doesn’t the bet on the table ultimately define the wealth of the victory?

Endurance racing is all about what you have in you. It’s about going until you see what you really have in your core, digging deep and pulling something more out when you begin to think there is just nothing left. It is horribly painful at times and any marathon runner will tell you that it never really gets easier (if it is getting easy then you are not working hard enough!). You never finish a race without experiencing a multitude of highs and lows or without struggling a bit and, for me, without at least once or twice thinking about quitting. But you don’t quit. You never quit.

There is a certain sense of accomplishment, and maybe even a little euphoria, that comes from the discipline, hard work and focus of training. I understand why it is not for everyone, and yet, I hope that this explains a little why it is for me.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

114th Boston marathon: race report

On Monday, April 19 I ran the 114th Boston marathon. It was my 14th marathon and 4th Boston marathon (having run in 2006, 2008 and 2009).

Compared to other years, I was pretty "serious" during the days before the race. No excessive time on my feet, eating clean, lots of sleep. I had planned to spend a week in Boston so there would be plenty of time for enjoyment after the race. As it turned out weather-wise, it was not difficult to spend Saturday and Sunday was rainy, windy, cold and pretty much downright miserable outside most of the weekend. I fretted that I had brought the wrong race kit and kept a close eye on the weather forecast fearing that I would be forced to go out to buy some cold weather racing gear!

Monday morning turned out to be quite glorious, however. Clear, sunny and not too cold - it was arguably the warmest two hours I have spent in the athlete's village in Hopkinton. We caught the bus just after 6am to try to beat the crowds a bit, and sure enough, after boarding the bus could see the line-ups snaking back into the Boston Common. We arrived in the athletes village in good time to secure a nice sunny spot under the tent, grab a coffee, eat a bagel with PB and banana and relax a bit. It was really quite pleasant.

Just after 9am, the loudspeakers beckoned us to pack up, gear up and make our way towards the starting corrals. It was much busier and crowded than I remember in prior years, but was able to get to the starting area in enough time to get into the corrals by 9:45....15 minutes before gun time. This year I was in corral #10 - although it was predominately male runners, I found a few female runners roughly my age to chat to. It was nice to make small talk and take the edge off the tense minutes before the start gun.

My start time offset was about 8 minutes and it felt like an eternity to reach the start line. After an initial screaming halt, the crowd of runners around me went off with saddles blazing. The pace off the line was very, very fast. First km beeped - 4:16. Yikes. I plugged into my iPod and found a techno song with 94rpm pacing and focused on only two things....not getting smashed by the crowd and keeping my cadence high. Although the pace was hard, I knew that I had to keep my cadence high in order to save my quads down the opening descent.

The first 10k of the Boston marathon course is predominately downhill and it is quite a scene. A mass of runners reaches out in front of you as far as the eye can organic mess of pounding, sweat and dri-fit. The screaming crowds are frenetic and trap you from both sides into the horde of runners. Particularly on the steeper downhill sections, it is quite amazing to be in the midst of this mass of humanity. There is nowhere to move, and if you can find a gap to run in you seize it. Speeding up does nothing. There are 10,000 runners in front of you. Slowing down means a rush of runners past you. It's like driving on a freeway at rush hour - you kind of find the pace that your section of traffic is moving and shuffle along with it.

In the windier sections, the crowds were particularly useful - I would just duck in behind a group to block the wind and coast behind. The bigger problem, however, was the beating sun - the weatherman that had predicted clouds was way off. Worse, I had trusted the forecast and foregone my cap in favor of sunglasses, so had nothing on my head to shield the heat.

Attached to my wrist was an elevation-adjusted pace band for a 3:20 finish...this would be my guide for the next 42km. The planned first half was 1:38, with a back half of 1:42. I knew from past experience that the first 10k of the race was fast and tried to keep it reigned in....but it didn't work. First 5k passed - 21:50. Yikes. 10k - 44:20. More yikes. Yet my legs were happily on their way and not really listening.

I was really waiting for the ball to drop around 15k as it had in prior years, yet surprisingly felt great. 9 miles passed effortlessly, then 10. I watched my heart rate carefully and made sure I held back on the uphill sections. The few times I saw a creep above 180bpm, I dropped back until I settled at 176-178bpm. Through Wellesley (20k) into the scream tunnel, I started to feel a bit uncomfortable from the noise and heat and yet decided it was in my best interest not to take off my arm warmers...the back half of the course is notoriously windy and cold. At each water station, I took two small sips of gatorade and a sip of water, and around 18k or so started dumping the remaining water over my head.

At 23k I decided I should probably take a pit stop. This would be my undoing. The section of potties that I chose were full (argh!) and the runners occupying them were the slowest porta pottie users ever. Frustrated, I knew I was better off just to wait than to restart and stop again...about two minutes passed before I was done and on my way. What I did not realize at the time was that I had forgot to turn the auto-pause off on my Garmin and my time had lapsed during this 120 second pottie stop. I was only checking time on 5k intervals so didn't realize my watch had stopped. At 25k I checked down and was about a minute faster than my 25k split on the pace band so happily went on my way (not realizing of course that I was one minute slow because of my mistake).

I won't lie. 25k through 30k was tough work. The course drops fairly sharply around 16 miles and while you would think that the downhill would be a happy thing, my quads were just not interested in coming out to play anymore. I was sore. I knew this was trouble....there were 10 miles left with the Newton hills looming between me and the finish. I backed off. Luckily, my pace band had planned for this drop off in pace so through 30k I was bang on...or so I thought.

The hilly section, consisting of 4 sections of up and down, stretches from 17 through 21 miles. The last hill in the series is "Heartbreak"....mostly because it is a sneaky little bugger of a hill that hits you in the back of the knees when you aren't looking and breaks your heart. Although there are some nice stretches of recovery between the inclines, there is just something about this particular section of hills - whether it be their placement on the course or my physical condition after 33k- that makes them just a total b*tch. All things considered, I was really pleased with my performance through the Newton hills - kept my pace, kept my cadence and didn't walk any of the hills. There were many, many runners walking the sections of hills.

At the top of Heartbreak, at Boston College, I rewarded myself with a few walking steps at the water station to down some Gatorade and dumped more water on my head. Bad idea. Downhill or not, my legs were just not interested in moving any further. 34k. I rationalized to myself that there were only 8k to go and I could do this. It was only 8k!

Time check at 35k - 2:44 on my watch. Happy times. A 35k PB. I could do this.

Somewhere around 37k the cramps started. My left side seized. Right quad was like a rock.

Just one more step. Then another. I counted steps. Sang along to my iPod. Did anything I could to take my mind off the pain. Self-doubt flowed freely. I hated running. I hated the heat. I hated the screaming crowds. I hated Gatorade. I hated the music on my iPod.

Rational voice appeared again fleetingly. You are 38k into a PB. There are no PBs at 38k. Only 42.2. You have worked so hard to get here, don't give it up with 4k left! Get your a** moving, Richele, and suck it up!

When the Citgo sign appeared beside me announcing 1 mile to go, I could not imagine running another step. It was the worst, most painful marathon finish ever. Plodding right on Hereford. Uphill. Left on Boylston. The oh-so-famous finish line in sight....please oh please legs just get me to the finish. I listened to the crowd and tried to revel in it, but I was just done.

A medical emergency about 100ft from the finish line forced all the finishers onto the left side of the line, and honestly, just barely had the energy to get around the medics. That poor sod, passed out 100ft from the finish. I don't really remember crossing the line and definitely did not smile for the cameras, yet was inwardly happy when I looked down and saw 3:22 on my Garmin. (Of course, the porta-potty stop-pause time had actually added 2 minutes to my time so I would find out later that my finish time was actually 3:24:17, which I was pretty disappointed with.)

Would I have pushed harder had I known I was four minutes off pace? I don't know. I'm not sure I could have.

The 30 minutes after finishing were oh so painful, perhaps even moreso than the last 30 minutes of the race. I experienced severe ab and leg cramps and very narrowly managed to escape being sent to the medical tent. I sat in the women's change tent completely defeated - my abs were so cramped I couldn't bend over to untie my shoes, my legs would not allow me to stand. It was awful. I have no idea how long it took me to change. Looking back on it now it was probably quite comical to watch me sit and try to get dressed with the dexterity of a two-year old. :)

Reflecting on my race and my three previous Boston marathons, I am left perplexed and in awe of those who have conquered this hallowed course. She demands respect. As a runner, I am much stronger than my previous three outings and yet there is so much room for improvement. I still make (sometimes silly) mistakes. Old problems disappear and are replaced by new ones. I guess that's why running is a life-long sport. We might "win" with a PB...whether it be by seconds or minutes....yet there is always a margin of improvement.

Net time 3:24:17 (2009 - 3:29:59)
Overall 5523/22540 (2009 - 7288/22843)
Female 770/9468 (2009 - 1203/9298)
Open F 18-39 602/4651 (2009 - 966/5021)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Beantown in 10 days!

Spring has sprung....the days are getting longer, the daffodils are bursting out of the soil and glorious cherry blossoms are starting to fall like confetti on the sidewalks. Oh, and onto my formerly clean car :)

Another sure sign of spring is the Boston marathon, now less than two weeks away. The taper is truly here, along with the aches and creaks and little bits of nagging training guilt that come along with it. Did I work hard enough? Maybe I should have strength trained. Done more tempo runs? More speed work? Surely that last long run could have been longer. And I could have eaten better....and on and on....

Doesn't matter. Not much can be done now except rest and recover for race day.

The 114th running of the Boston Marathon on April 19th, 2010 will be my fourth 26.2 mile journey from Hopkinton to Boston. I'd like to believe that I am a bit wiser to the hallowed race course, with its crowded start, sharp opening descent, sneaky hills and vivacious spectators. In 2006, my goal was just to enjoy the experience, relish it, and not expect too much. In 2008, I fought stomach problems from 10k onwards and just hung in to finish at first BQ at Boston but all in all, not a great marathon for me. And in 2009, I attempted to use what I had learned in my previous two outings to benefit me, ended up running a solid race against a headwind and finished in the slimmest of margins under 3:30....3:29:59. Can't forget that time!

The thing about being an admitted type-A marathon runner, however, is that we are never just happy with a good performance. Seriously. What other kind of person would just keep coming back for more? My mental notes on what I could have done better are extensive and with any luck, one or two of those mental notes will help me this year. I have a race plan (and Plan B too), and yet so much is dependent on the next 10 days, with every day closer to the race being more crucial than the day before.

At the same time, all seriousness aside, I am totally looking forward to a week in Boston! It is such a great city to visit, and we are lucky enough to have a little pied a terre booked in Beacon Hill to live like local the accent. I can't wait to putter down Charles Street, savor wonderful pre-race Italian fare in the North End and relax on a park bench in the Boston Common. Spring is here!