February 14, 2014

First race of 2014: a half

It has been two years since I ran the First Half Marathon, a popular Vancouver race. In 2012, I ran 87:27, my fastest then over the 21.1K distance, and an improvement from my 89:39 in 2009 and 89:46 in 2011 on the same course. Since then, I have run three faster half marathons.

My best, 86:54, came in April 2012, followed by 87:02 in June 2012. Then injury and no training for an entire year. The first half since then, in October 2013, I ran in 87:14.

I am not sure what I will aim for this Sunday -- I am healthy and enjoying my training. My weekly volume has been low, barely half of what I was running in the lead-up to my fastest half in 2012. Partly I have been cautious as I returned to training following a 5-week recovery from the Seattle marathon 2-1/2 months ago. And partly I have been quite busy.

Most of my training so far this year has been focused on endurance, I have done very little speed.

I'd like to improve my time on the First Half course, ie better 87:27. In the 2012 edition I passed the first mile marker in 6:39, and ended up with an average pace of 6:41 mile, or 4:09 per K.

But I am also tempted to use the event as a marathon race pace run, ie 4:15 per K, or 6:52 per mile, as I just this week received confirmation of my spot in the Vancouver marathon on May 4.

I'll see how the legs and lungs feel Sunday morning and take it from there. I am definitely looking forward to the first race of 2014, especially considering that only a year ago I was not able to run at all.

December 04, 2013

Race report on the 2013 Seattle marathon

I slept like a baby the night before the Seattle Marathon in the king size bed of the newly renovated Westin's 29th floor, only occasionally waking up from what sounded like creaking of the building's structure as it swayed in the wind.

The alarm went off at 6am. Tim made me coffee, while I ate my first Powerbar reluctant to leave the cozy bed.

It was dry but the flag on one of the other tall buildings nearby could not have been more taut.

I did not feel like running 42 kilometres as fast as I could. I never feel like racing a marathon when I wake up on race morning. Yet I was also glad the waiting was about to end.

Coffee. Love coffee. 

Time for a hot shower.  I did not want to leave it.

I stepped into my race outfit, containing more pink than ever. I am not a fan of pink but the colour seems to find me as of late -- a fuchsia and orange top, with candy pink shoes. I divided four gels over the top's two back pockets, put another two gels in the hip pockets of my running shorts, and carried the remaining two gels in a zip lock bag which I would slide into one of my gloves.

My race number 551 I pinned to the front of my top.

Given the wind, I decided against a hat, neither willing to chase nor lose it. I also decided against sun glasses -- it was overcast and it might rain.

Seven am. Another Powerbar. Some water. Breakfast done. Perhaps a touch later than I would have liked.

Tim and Luka are getting ready too. We leave the room, as planned, at about 7:30am. Race start is at 8:15am.

Downstairs we slide into the stream of runners and spectators leaving the event's host hotel, joining more on the sidewalks of 5th Avenue as the half marathoners fly by us in the opposite direction.

The temperature is mild. Cold enough for winter coats on spectators but I know I will be warm in shorts and tank top after a couple of kilometres at marathon race pace.

My stomach still feels fuller than I'd like. "You'll be fine," Tim says.

It's a kilometre, perhaps a little more, to the start line. As we approach it, Tim suggests I duck into a little restaurant for a final pit stop to avoid the usual line-ups at the race's portaloos. Good idea. Having just left the hotel 10 minutes ago, I don't really need to stop but mentally it is good to go one more time -- after all, there will be no toilet breaks for the next 3-1/2 hours.

Runners are everywhere near the start line but no one has begun claiming their spot yet. I look for a place to do a warmup but only run for a few minutes, maybe three, up and down 5th Avenue. Then I decide to go the start line. Tim and Luka are there, on the other side of the fence.

I am still wearing an old fleece sweater and a throw-away T-shirt. It feels chilly -- I am in shorts -- but it is far warmer than I had feared it would be for a December marathon. Runners are being motioned to come closer to the start line but few are willing to bite. I give Tim my sweater. He wishes me well, as does Luka, and says he is going to head down along the course to catch me there.

I am calm and nervous at the same time. The lack of a warm-up bothers me but not enough to do something about it now -- I prefer to stay put with just 15 minutes to the gun.

"Hey!"   

It is Ben, a triathlon coach I met at an IMJ Coaching camp in Boulder, Colorado, 2-1/2 years ago. We have since met at a few Ironman races, most recently in Whistler in August where both he and Tim raced.

Ben is a nice and positive guy and I enjoy chatting with him as we wait for the start gun. A Seattle resident, Ben knows the course -- he has run both the half marathon and marathon here before.

"What is your goal today," he asks. I briefly explain my layoff and recent return to running, adding that my speed up to the half marathon distance seems as fast as ever, but that I feel underdone in terms of long runs as they have not exceeded 32K.

Still, my plan is to start at 3-hour pace and see how that goes.

"Great, I am with you," he says.

It feels great to have an ally. While Ben is focused on triathlon as an athlete, I know he has run a Sub-3 marathon, in Boston.

I peel off my T-shirt and throw it to the side, set my watch so all I need to press is the start button.

Ben and I keep chatting, and all of a sudden the gun goes and the crowd moves.

Here we go. I do not want to start too fast, especially not on a course that is marked in miles.

Runners steam ahead.

"We'll see those people later," Ben says beside me. I hold back and we run side by side.

There is Tim. I wave, Ben shouts, "Hey Tim!"

I feel good, comfortable, and grateful that I am on my way.

Soon a woman settles in beside Ben and I.

We hit the first mile in 6:49, spot on for a Sub-3 marathon pace, and I relax further into my rhythm. It is hard to keep yourself in check at the start of a marathon, so much energy after a taper and the buildup to the big day you have been spent months preparing for and thinking about.

There are some rolling hills in the first few kilometres as we head out of the city onto the I90 expressway. We already have a small group going, with Ben and I, the woman who joined us in the first kilometre, later joined by another, and a couple of guys.

I press the lap button at 3 miles, 20:42, and only do a quick 3 x times 7-minute miles. Under 21 minutes so that's good. In fact, it is 6:54 per mile or 4:17 per kilometre.   

My Timex watch is not as easy for taking lap splits as the Polar watch I have used in most of the marathons. I know I won't be looking to press that split button every mile. But I do for the next two, with a 6:53 and a 6:47.

"Isn't amazing how small the world can be," Ben says beside me. I agree, and smile -- it is great to still be running together. But I don't want to chat, not at this pace, and feel bad about that. I hope he understands. 

By now we are out on the I90 bridge, spanning 2 miles across Lake Washington, and it becomes clear just how windy it is. For now we have a side wind that also provides some help.

But that will change when we turn around and retrace our steps. Even in a group of about 10, the wind is so strong my legs get blown to the side, and I have to be careful not to trip over my own feet.

I apparently take another split that probably covers miles 6 and 7 in 13:10; it's too windy to do the math, I just stick with the pace. That's a good thing as I now see I took 47:32 to cover the first 7 miles, or an average of 6:47 per mile, 4:13 per kilometre.

At mile 8 we leave the bridge, turning left onto a pretty, narrow road, Lake Washington Boulevard, grateful to find shelter from the brutal wind that had been blasting us for the past two miles. Even so, our little group is about to disintegrate, slowly but surely spreading out over the next few miles.   

I have a gel. I can't remember now if that was my first -- perhaps it was here, perhaps it was a mile earlier. I do remember feeling that I needed one, and another not long after that.

I am relieved the wind is gone, at least for now, but also am shocked to see a sign marking 15K -- my gawd, not even close to halfway. Ben had mentioned that the halfway mark is at the turnaround of this out-and-back stretch, so that is what I try to focus on.

I cannot help but worry about the fatigue that already seems to envelop me at this stage. I do not think about the hills ahead. There is nothing I can do to avoid them, and I know that nine-time winner Uli Steidl (who will go on to make it 10 later today) warned that you cannot expect to run even splits on this course.

For now, I just need to stay with the pace as best I can. The other two women seem to have fallen behind but I expect them to be right behind me. On the bridge I counted only two women ahead of us.

Two guys are running strong. And they move ahead. Ben does too. At the halfway mark one of them ducks into the portaloo.

As I run across the timing area, the clock shows 89:14.

Crap. That is almost a minute faster than I passed it in Vancouver last year, 90:09, which was then the fastest I had ever run the first half of a marathon.

(Side note: Of course there was a problem with the halfway point in Vancouver -- it was adjusted to shorten the course as the race was in progress. So, either I have gotten faster after my year-long enforced break from running, or it is an indication of how much extra distance I covered in the 2012 Vancouver marathon, where I finished in 3:00:29.)

No wonder I am feeling tired -- I am on personal record pace. But today this does not excite me. I wonder if I overestimated my fitness, and how long I can sustain this pace. Breathe and relax. Breathe and relax. Do the best you can do now. And remember, a year ago, you could not even run.

I settle into the discomfort, focusing on maintaining my pace as best I can. I can see Ben ahead of me, as the other guy seems to be tiring.

A few kilometres later I catch up to him, telling him, "great job, stay strong." The words are meant as much for him as they are for myself.

My big toes are by now telling me that my decision to wear the relatively new shoes was a mistake. It is the same model, just a newer edition, of the New Balance REVlites I have been wearing for a few pair now. I had worn them for the past two weeks including for a 19K run and thought that I'd be fine in them today. A mistake but nothing I can do about it do other than ignore the pain.

Spectators line the course in various places, and cheer me on. "Go girl!" "Third woman, looking strong!" I smile, wave at their cheers, soak in the energy.

Around the halfway mark I had been able see another woman up ahead, and held her in sight for a few kilometres. I no longer see her. I can still see Ben in the distance. He looks strong.

The hills begin. And I accept that they are here. I accept that my legs feel like jello on each uphill incline, and that my pace slows markedly. As soon as earth flattens out, I speed up as best as I can and gladly accept any helping hand gravity offers me on the downhills.

"What goes up, must come down," I encourage myself.

It is not until I see the results online that I find out I hit 20 miles in 2:15:32, or an average 6:47 per mile, actually having sped up from the average 6:49 I ran over the first 13.1 miles. I did not realize I had covered the first 32K faster than in any other marathon, reaching that point more than a minute faster than in the Vancouver marathon last year.

Not that knowing it would have mattered in the outcome -- I would still have slowed down over those final 6.2 hilly miles. But I am so glad that split was recorded there because it gives me great confidence about how well I have recovered in my return to running; holding 6:47 per mile, or 4:13 per K, works out to a 2:57:52 marathon.

Now it is a matter of staying strong, and working with those hills as much as possible. Others are hurting too. Some walk, and it is not only the marathoners who began their race an hour before us.

I revel in the challenge of sticking with it, even as I slow down to an average of 8-minute miles, or 5-minute kilometres, over those final 6.2 miles. After all, I am still passing runners, while very few pass me.

With two miles to go, I allow myself to look back, once, twice, three times -- I have held third place for more than half the race and I am determined to finish with it now.

Tim and Luka wait at mile 25. I smile, wave. One more mile.

I am so grateful. Smile, pump my fist in the air as I approach the finish line in 3:05:09 -- I am BACK!

***

I ran the first half in 89:14 and the second half in 94:55 to finish in 3:05:09, my second-fastest marathon.

Female winner Sheila Croft finished in 2:58:25, hitting the halfway mark in 85:15 and running the second half in 1:33:10. Croft twice ran past her house during the race, once at the six-mile point, and later at mile 15, according to the Seattle Times.“That’s my running route,” Croft told the Seattle Times. “I knew exactly what the course was going to be like.”

Uli Steidl, who won the race for the 10th time in 2:32:24, knows this course inside and out, taking 1:15:25 for the first half and 1:16:59 for the second.

Ben finished in 3:04:26.

November 25, 2013

Time for my first post-injury marathon

In six days I will start a marathon, my first marathon in 18 months, my first marathon since an injury stopped my training for more than a year, my first marathon since I ran my fastest in 3:00:29 in May 2012. I am excited. And scared, too.

After 16 marathons, I have great respect for this distance. And a return to training after my first injury-induced layoff in 18 years of running has only served to increase that reverence.

Forty two kilometres is a long way to run and anything can happen. There are no guarantees, except that it will be both exhilarating and hard.

I last wrote on this blog some three months ago when I had just started an 18-week marathon training program I had chosen, very excited and grateful to be able to do so. By then I had been able to build up to a long run of 18K, the longest distance I had run in 15 months, which I clearly noticed mentally and physically.

It was a challenge to start an 18K session, as much as I was grateful for my renewed ability to run that far following that enforced break. A year without run training is a very long time and, as I wrote in my previous blog post, I expected to need at least a year to get back to the level of training I had been able to do consistently before my injury.

In the lead-up to my 3:00:29 marathon, I ran more than 100K a week, as many as 140K, in daily training sessions. My mid-week runs alone were 24K, with my long runs topping out at 36K.

I could not expect to do this again straightaway. I had to return to marathon training carefully—my body would need time to get used to running again. I chose a program that maxed out at a weekly volume of 88K (though, as it turned out, I never did run that). The program had five days of running per week.

In fact, I was not entirely sure whether I would be able to get ready—physically and mentally—to run a marathon before the end of 2013.

Realizing marathon starts never come with guarantees about finish time, I also did not want to start one if I did not feel 3:15 was possible—the slowest of my last 12 marathons over the past seven years. Again, possible does not mean guarantee.

On September 14, I did a 15K race in Bellingham. I was surprised to finish in 61:41, an average pace of 4:07 per kilometre and 6:37 per mile. I remember passing the 10K mark in 40.44 there, 65 seconds faster than the Squamish 10K six weeks earlier.

Increasing my running volume was great but also tough. My weekly long runs, which slowly got longer again, felt challenging mentally and I was glad they would top out at 32K, equally glad I would only have to run three of them.

In that first post-injury 32K run at the end of September, it took me half the out-and-back run to shake the mental weight of having to go that far. I did not wear a Garmin that day, but ran for 2 hours 37 minutes to cover what I believe was 32K, so an average pace of about 5 minutes per K, just under 8-minute miles. A normal average pace for most of my (long) runs.

On October 6, I ran my first half marathon post-injury, my first 21.1K in 15 months. I was not sure what to expect. I used that race to gauge my appetite for a marathon, deciding at 16K into the race that the idea of racing 42K eight weeks later was very unappealing.

I ended up crossing the line in 87:14, my third-fastest time ever and only 20 seconds slower than my best. I ran an average 4:08 per kilometre, or 6:39 per mile, compared with 4:07 per K, or 6:38 per mile, for the PB I ran in April 2012.

Triathlete Tim helped change my mind on the marathon, saying, “I would -- you have just run 87 minutes.” I locked in the Seattle Marathon on December 1.

I had eight weeks of preparation left.

That same week, on October 10 I returned to the track for the first time in 15 months, for a session of five 800s, as per my program. I ran 3:00, 2:59, 2:57, 2:57, and 2:55, and was happy with those. By comparison, in March 2012, I had run six 800s on the same track, doing 3:01, 2:56, 2:59. 2:58, 2:59, and 2:59, while in July 2011 I had done six 800s in 3:06, 3:01, 2:59, 3:01, 3:01, and (wait for it) 3:01.

On October 14, I did a 10K race around flat Stanley Park in Vancouver. Conditions were great, and I felt good, strong. I crossed the line in 39:48, but wondered if the distance was accurate as the start line had been moved. If correct, it would mark my fourth Sub-40 10K finish ever (I ran 2 in early 2009, and No. 3 in April 2012).

On October 16, I did my second 32K run, ending up with an average of 4:56 per kilometre, covering the first half in 4:58 per K and the second in 4:54. I was very happy with that.

On October 19 I flew to the Netherlands to visit my parents and grandmother for two weeks. I had not seen them for two years, and did not want my marathon training to hijack my time there.

Over those two weeks, I (happily) ran less than half of what I was supposed to run and missed two key track sessions. But there was a great surprise too. 

I had axed a plan to do a race in the Netherlands and opted for a 29K training run instead. It was an extremely blustery Sunday morning as a big storm was about to hit the Dutch coast, later causing millions of euros of damage and claiming one life.

My Garmin showed a quick running pace in the first half, as I averaged 4:25 per kilometre over the first 17.7K. Smiling, I knew it had to be the wind that gave me wings and that it would come back to slow me down on the way home, as it did.

Still, I ended up with an average pace of 4:38 per K for those 29K—a marked increase over my usual pace of about 5 minutes per K. I wondered if something was wrong with my Garmin.

On November 4, the day after I returned home. I ran 17.5K at an average 4:28 per K, according to my Garmin. Huh.   
   
Four days later, on November 8, I did another semi-long run of nearly 19K, averaging 4:34K.

On November 10, it was time for my third and final 32K training run of this marathon preparation, and was pleased with a 4:53 per K average.

On November 12, there was a track workout, with five 600s. I ran them in 2:12 to 2:15, a solid pace but nothing stellar. They were hard work.

On November 16, it was time to race, a 10K in Richmond on a cold but sunny morning, with a flat out-and-back course. I felt good and ran hard, crossing the line in 39:04. If accurate, it is my fastest 10K by 35 seconds.

Four days later I ran three 1,600s on the track. I had been dreading this session because the 600s, which I was doing at the same pace I was meant to hold for the 1,600s, had already felt hard. A 600 is only 1-1/2 laps on the track, while 1,600 takes four of them.

I did not feel like digging super-deep, just 10 days away from a marathon I am still scared of running. I took 6:17, 6:13, and 6:03. Ten days before my 3:00:29 marathon in May 2012, I did the same session in 6:03, 5:54, and 5:53, i.e. a lot faster.

So, overall I take heart from some solid race results, crossing my fingers the courses were accurate, as well as some great training runs in recent weeks where I was able to hold a faster average speed than I am used to. I have three 32K runs under my belt, and I feel good, excited and am looking forward to testing my level of fitness.

On the flipside, this is the first marathon ever for which I have not done a single three-hour training run—I used to do three to five of those before each marathon! I certainly feel underdone when it comes to long runs, as those always give me confidence. This time my longest runs were still 10K short of the distance I want to cover at a fast pace this Sunday.

Also, I missed out on some key track speed sessions, as reflected in those 1,600s I did last week. That’s OK though.

I do not know the Seattle course, other than from what I have seen on online course maps, showing that it saves the hills for the end. 

Nine-time Seattle marathon winner Uli Steidl told The Seattle Times last year that it is unrealistic to expect to keep the same pace in the final third of the course, as in the first two-thirds.  "You just have to know it's coming," Steidl said of the hilly last third. "The Galer and Madison Street [hill], people are pretty afraid of it."

I am just so grateful at having been able to prepare for another marathon again and the thought of starting one, as scary as it is, is also a dream come true. I am going to keep an open mind and, as my wise friend Dessie Suttle says, "Relax and let it happen."

***
Marathon history (excluding my first 4 marathons of 4:18 in Ottawa 1999, 4:44 in Sydney 2001, 3:24 in Gold Coast 2003 and 3:36 in Honolulu 2003):

                                                     Finish   1st half 2nd half
5. July 2006              Gold Coast    3:13:01  96:25  96:36
6. April 2007            Canberra        3:08:48  93:04  95:44
7. July 2007              Gold Coast     3:15:13  93:14 101:59
8. May 2008             Vancouver       3:12:56  93:17  99:39
9. Sept 2008              Victoria          3:07:10  93:37  93:33
10. May 2009            Vancouver      3:10:19  94:26  95:53
11. June 2009            NODM           3:10:39  92:53  97:44
12. April 2010           Rotterdam      3:11:51  96:06  95:45
13. May 2011            Vancouver      3:07:41  93:5X  93:5X
14. Sept 2011             Bellingham    3:09:40  92:02  97:38
15. October 2011       Victoria          3:06:06  91:23  95:42
16. May 2012             Vancouver     3:00:29  90:09  90:20 * PB

August 15, 2013

A return to marathon training

Last week I started a new training program -- an 18-week marathon preparation.

It feels amazing, exciting -- and natural. After all, I am a marathon runner, I train for marathons.

It has been only 10 weeks since my return to running, following a year of enforced layoff to sort out mysterious heel pain that failed to respond to various types of treatments and stumped a top sports doctor.

In those last 10 weeks I went from running two 5-minute stretches, with a 5-minute walk in between, to running 85 minutes.

I went from wondering if I would run again to, well ... running, and increasingly running freely.

It is an amazing transformation that has taken a lot of hard work at the Bikram yoga studio over the past eight months, especially in the last 3-1/2 months during which I took 80 classes. It is progress that I certainly do not take for granted, and I am carefully starting to rebuild a running base.

As mentioned in previous posts, I used Pete Pfitzinger's Return to Running program; however, earlier in the year I had done another program, which began with four stretches of only 30 seconds of running in a 20-minute power-walk (after I had worked up to an hour of pain-free power-walking following a four-month complete break from running and, prior to that, three months of short and irregular runs because of the recurring heel pain), and gradually increased to four 4-minute stretches of running with 1-minute walks between each over a period of seven weeks.

Then I had started the Return to Running program (on March 26) and followed it for 3-1/2 weeks, getting up to 3 stretches of 10 minutes of running, with 2-minute walk breaks, before finding that a single 15-minute run brought back the heel symptoms. I did not run for the next 5-1/2 weeks, while doing 32 Bikram yoga classes over 32 days.

The Return to Running program, which I started for the second time on June 4, went very well and got me to running 40-45K per week, with my longest run at the end of the 7-week schedule at 55 minutes on July 22.

Five days later I ended up doing an 85-minute run, 10-15 minutes more than I had originally intended, joining Triathlete Tim for an awesome lap of the Ironman Whistler run course; my body felt OK during, and after, that session, helped by a deep tissue massage the next day 

With that, I decided I would try the lowest-volume 18-week program from Pete Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning, which begins with a 53-kilometre week and tops out at an 88-kilometre one, reducing some of the longer runs in the first few weeks by a couple of kilometres.

I began the program after, or in a way with, the Squamish 10K on August 4 as the fist session called for a lactate threshold workout.

The Sub-3 marathon is still on my mind. Of course it it. Indeed, it was a key motivation over the past year as I did the work required to restore my body -- but I expect it will take at least a year of training before I will be back to the level, both in training and in racing, I was before my injury.

And that's OK.

With this marathon program, I am aiming at getting back into regular training first and foremost, rebuilding my endurance, and in the process slowly start regaining some of the speed I have lost. I have mapped out the schedule to target a US marathon in December but since getting to the race involves booking flights and accommodation I first want to see how some longer runs and tempo runs feel before I commit any funds.  

I am in new territory, physically and mentally, and I am monitoring my body carefully to gauge how it responds to training consistently again after such a long break.

Bikram yoga is certainly part of my new marathon training regime. I believe that my body is in better shape than ever in terms of strength and flexibility and at the same time I know -- I see it in the mirror during every practice -- that there are many more gains to be made. That's encouraging.

I firmly believe that I have come out ahead, and I am truly grateful my body protested so that it forced me to listen to it better, help it perform better. I am excited about slowly rebuilding my running fitness over the coming year, with two 18-week marathon preparations -- the next one hopefully upping the weekly volume to between 88K and 113K -- followed by a six-week recovery in between each.

By this time next year, I hope to be ready for another increase in training volume, returning me to the schedule that helped me speed up my marathon time by more than five minutes last year, the schedule that also allowed me to set my current PBs at the 10K and half marathon.

But my mind is right here, right now, loving the fact that I can go for a mid-week 75-minute run and do a 90-minute Bikram practice later in the day. I love to run -- I have always loved to run, and now I love it even more. I am so grateful that I can.