July 01, 2014

The 100 push-ups training program

Luka was just a pup in 2009
Five years ago I first came across the hundred push-ups training program. I decided to start it; my initial test of eight push-ups put me in column two. After writing one blogpost about it, I did not pursue the challenge -- I cannot remember if I even finished the first week.

But I thought of it again last month as I worked on a piece of my writing that will be published in an anthology later this year. In this piece I am citing Nicholas Thompson, who wrote in The New Yorker, “For someone who doesn’t run, the difference between a 4-hour marathon and a 2:50-something may seem inconsequential, and easy to confuse. But for someone who does run seriously, it’s immense. To make an analogy ..., it’s like the difference between doing 25 push-ups (not bad!) and 100 (holy smokes!).”

I couldn't help but think that doing 100 push-ups sounded a lot easier than running a 2:50-something marathon. Regardless, I wanted to work on improving my strength, and decided to make this push-up challenge part of it.

This time an initial test was not needed: I knew from recent efforts that I could barely make it to five push-ups. So I started in the first column of the six-week program.

Day 1 had five sets of push-ups, doing 2, 3, 2, 2, and then at least 3 (I managed 4). It was challenging but I did it.

Each week has three days of training, with a day of rest in between. The third, and final, day of the first week felt so hard that I doubted I would be able to move on to the second week: I did 4, 5, 4, 4, and the minimum of 5 for the final set and was absolutely spent.

But I managed Day 1 of the second week, and the next, all the way until today -- Day 2 of the fourth week of this program. To my surprise, I managed a total of 72 push-ups over five sets: 14, 16, 12, 12, and 18. Amazing. It was not easy but I did them (I had Tim check my form). You do not always understand what your body is capable of, and how quickly it can progress.

Clearly, this training program works. Check it out here. Whether I will be able to crank out 100 push-ups after finishing the sixth week is almost irrelevant to me because the improvements I have made so far are already completely worth it. 

June 06, 2014

Motivation from a disaster marathon

When on December 1, 2012, I picked up my California International Marathon race package in Sacramento, I was not sure why I bothered. By then I had been injured, unable to run for five months, and counting. It would take another seven months before I could resume running again.

But I had paid for CIM, and we had driven 1,500K as Tim was racing, so I picked up my race package that contained an Irish green race shirt. It was a nice dry-fit long-sleeve shirt but I was sure I'd never wear it; after all, I could not do the race so why would I wear a shirt that suggested I had?

That CIM shirt remained in my closet, unworn, ... until December 2, 2013, when I did my final training run before the Seattle marathon, my first marathon since that injury, my first marathon in 18 months.

Looking for a shirt to wear, I was instantly drawn to that brand-new CIM shirt: it reminded me of how far I had come since being a reluctant spectator at CIM a year earlier. That shirt represented the long road I had travelled from the time a top sports doctor had suggested I might never run again to that day, finalizing my race strategy.

Today, five days after I ran my worst marathon in 15 marathons over 11 years, I don't yet understand  the meaning of my Windermere Marathon. While I certainly earned that finisher's shirt, a nice dry-fit one in bright cheerful red, I want to hide it because right now it represents a stunning misjudgement of my body's recovery from the Vancouver marathon I ran four weeks prior.

The Windermere Marathon ended my streak of 14 consecutive marathons in 3:15, or faster, and that pisses me off. I went to Spokane with the plan to run 2:59. While I realized that might not happen, I certainly did not expect to go slower than 3:15. And why would I?

I had not needed more than 3:15 for the last 14 marathons, two of which were "revenge" marathons too, only two and five weeks after another. Those revenge marathons I had run in (a then-PB of) 3:06 and 3:10 respectively.

I don't understand why my body was so off last Sunday that I could not even maintain the pace I have been able in my long training runs. Sure, it was an off day. Shit happens. But shit like this has not happened to me since I decided to focus on running in June 2005.

My marathons arranged by finish time:
16.     May 2012           Vancouver    3:00:29
17.     December 2013    Seattle        3:05:09   
15.     October 2011       Victoria       3:06:06 (revenge: 2 weeks)
18.     May 2014            Vancouver    3:06:43
9.       Sept 2008             Victoria       3:07:10
13.     May 2011            Vancouver    3:07:41
6.      April 2007            Canberra      3:08:48
14.    Sept 2011              Bellingham  3:09:40
10.    May 2009             Vancouver     3:10:19   
11.    June 2009             NODM          3:10:39 (revenge: 5 weeks)  
12.    April 2010            Rotterdam     3:11:51
8.      May 2008             Vancouver     3:12:56
5.      July 2006              Gold Coast    3:13:01     
7.      July 2007              Gold Coast    3:15:13
3.      July 2003              Gold Coast    3:24
19.    June 2014            Spokane       3:28:56   
4.     December 2003     Hawaii          3:36
1.     May 1999              Ottawa          4:18
2.    September 2001     Sydney          4:44

Perhaps I needed a marathon to piss me off. If that's the case, I certainly succeeded. Sub-3 marathon: you're going down!

May 29, 2014

Revenge marathons: risk vs reward

 "All it takes is all you've got," read a sign at about 39k into the Vancouver marathon. It made me smile as I struggled past it.

The mental and physical effort required to run a marathon -- 42.195 kilometres or 26 miles 385 yards -- is substantial. 

"Racing hurts, in ways both obvious and subtle," writes Joe Henderson in Marathon Training: the Proven 100-Day Program for Success.

Both your body and mind need time to recover from that effort. A general rule of thumb is that it takes at least a month to recover from a marathon, though it depends on a runner's preparation and experience as a marathoner.

Or, as Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter famously said, “You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can't know what's coming.” 

Perhaps that was the reason I had trouble writing about my Vancouver race; I was already trying to forget to make space for the idea of running the next.  

I always use one key tool to help me decide about a new running goal: does the prospect excite me? If I don't feel a few butterflies in my stomach thinking about a race, a goal, I don't bother. What's the point?

The verb excite is defined as 1. to stir to activity. 2. to call forth (a reaction or emotion, for example); elicit: 3. to arouse strong feeling in. Immediately after the Vancouver marathon, the idea of running another soon stirred me to activity: checking my schedule and race calendars.

It wasn't long before I found a marathon I liked, and one that fit in terms of timing, schedule and logistics. Now it was time for another key consideration: was it a good idea to do another marathon so soon?

I knew the general answer was: no. Definitely not if you are trying to race a marathon, attempt to run a personal best. I only needed to open some of my books on running.

"If you actually race your marathons (rather than simply trying to finish), it's not a good idea to do more than about two per year," writes Alberto Salazar in Alberto Salazar's Guide to Road Racing.

Tim Noakes, author of the 930-page Lore of Running, agrees.

"I suggest you race an absolute maximum of two marathons per year, or one marathon and one ultramarathon," writes Noakes. "But it is better to race only one marathon or ultramarathon each year if you wish to be running competitively in 20 to 30 years. Ideally, there should be at least four, but preferably six, months between these races."

Bob Glover and Shelly-lynn Florence Glover also offer a clear warning in The Competitive Runner's Handbook: the Bestselling Guide to Running 5Ks through Marathons when it comes to revenge marathons.

"What's the best way to improve your marathon performance? Don't do what many runners attempt -- jump into the next marathon they can find to try to lower their time," the Glovers write. "Most marathoners shouldn' t race any distance for at least four weeks. Ideally another marathon shouldn't be considered for at least six months, preferably a year for first-timers. Some experienced marathoners may be able to run another marathon in three or four months."

"If you marathon too often and too close together, you increase risk of injury and decrease the changes for a good performance," write the Glovers.

Nearly all runners, including myself, have found out the hard way that your body will signal clearly when you push it too far: it breaks down and forces you to rest.

"If we don't take enough recovery time voluntarily, the body will find its own way to get all it needs," writes Henderson in Marathon Training.

To be sure, not everyone agrees on the marathon rules.

"Well, no such 'rule' [of running only one marathon a year] exists. And if one did exist, some running rules are meant to be broken -- as long as you are well-trained and know what you're doing," according to Hal Higdon, who has contributed to Runner's World for longer than any other writer.

"On several other occasions, I have run multiple marathons. I ran six marathons in six weeks to celebrate my 60th birthday and ran seven marathons in seven months to celebrate my 7[0th] birthday. In between, I ran ten during the space of one year so I could run my 100th marathon at the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996," writes Higdon, a 2:21:55 marathoner, in Marathon Training Guide - Multiple Marathons.

Dean Karnazes, serial marathoner and ultrarunner, writes, "Having once run 50 marathons, in 50 states, in 50 consecutive days, I’ve learned a few things about recovery. Chiefly, I think it’s overrated."

These were all the things that went through my mind in the last few weeks. The cautionary advice exists for good reason, and I needed to do some careful thinking about the risks and rewards of a revenge marathon.

I have done them before, the first time in 2007, when I ran the Gold Coast marathon three months after the Canberra marathon. Those were not super-close but closer than all the advice highlighted above: in Canberra I had run a big PB of 3:08 (improving my previous best of 3:13) and I went a lot slower at the Gold Coast in 3:15, which also marks my slowest marathon of the 14 I have run in the past eight years.

In 2009, however, I ran the North Olympic Discovery marathon five weeks after the Vancouver marathon, finishing in 3:10:39 and 3:10:19 respectively. And in 2011, I ran the Victoria marathon in a then-personal best time of 3:06:06 only two weeks after finishing the Bellingham Bay marathon in 3:09:40. (I ran a 50-mile ultra four weeks after Victoria but that had nothing to do with "revenge").

So I have some experience with revenge marathons. They have been good experiences, and each time I made sure to listen to my body, and -- most importantly -- stayed healthy. While they brought good results (and awards), they never brought me quite the time I had hoped to run.

This time around, one key consideration was that I had slowed down markedly in the second half of the Vancouver marathon: I had reached 24K in 1:43:01, a pace of 4:17 per kilometre, or 6:54 per mile. The remaining 18.95K I covered in 1:23:45, a pace of 4:36 per kilometre, or 7:24 per mile.

While this was not a voluntary easing of the pace and felt as hard as I could run then, I did not cover the second half at the top speed I had planned and have shown to be capable of. A slower overall pace relative to capability should, or could, theoretically mean a shorter recovery.

I also took another good look at my training diary: In the 17 weeks leading up to Vancouver (excluding the final pre-race taper week) I ran an average 61K per week. I had looked at that number and felt that, if anything, I was undertrained, rather than overtrained.

But my long runs had been long, with three 35Ks and one 39K. And some were close to each other, including one after a hard race effort. The weekend after the April Fool's half marathon I had run 18K on Saturday, followed by 35K on Sunday at an average of 5:02 per K, my slowest long run, about which I wrote in my training diary, "hard, hard work."

Was it possible that, despite my low weekly milage, I was a touch overtrained, too tired, because of my long runs? I will never know for sure but this possibility informed my running schedule since the Vancouver marathon, with the prospect to run another four weeks later -- less (running) was more.

Daily walks and two yoga sessions a week (for a total of six post marathon), with a couple of great deep tissue massages, have formed the cornerstone of my recovery. So far, (as of Thursday morning), I have done only four runs, the longest about 13K. And I feel good about that. I'll do at least one short training run before Sunday, possibly two.

Last night I finally felt confident enough to commit and registered for the Windermere marathon, held this Sunday. Triathlete Tim will be racing too, in the half marathon, which starts at the halfway point of the marathon. On paper the course looks great, though it is clearly not downhill all the way.  
It sounds beautiful too. "The first 7.2 miles of the marathon runs through Liberty Lake’s upscale neighborhoods, pass Pavillion Park and well-groomed golf courses before connecting to the Centennial Trail at the Harvard Road Trailhead.  The Centennial Trail follows the contours of the winding Spokane River and the views along the race route are a big part of the attraction of this race," according to the race website.

"The visible and audible Spokane River is usually flowing with white waters, thanks to the melting snows running off the nearby mountains. The exciting downhill Finish is in Downtown Spokane’s Howard Street Bridge in Riverfront Park."

Last but not least the race director, Elaine Koga-Kennelly, was not only encouraging, but also inspirational. "She has finished 101 marathons across the U.S.A. including Boston and Internationally (London, Paris, Great Wall of China, Victoria, BC) and also five Ultra-Marathons," I read in an article profiling her on the Spokane Metro Woman Blog. She now races in the 70-74 age group and I cannot wait to meet her.

As for my goal, I will begin at 6:51-per-mile pace, in other words aim for a 2:59 finish. The only way to find out if I can is to try. I am excited that I get to race another marathon, on a new course!

May 26, 2014

Some post-Vancouver marathon analysis

Three weeks have passed since I ran the 2014 Vancouver marathon; I have had time to reflect and analyze my race. As usual, this event was superbly organized and I recommend it, especially on the new (since 2012) course, which is more scenic and offers a flat final 10K (except for a minor incline in the final 500m to the finish).

Most notably, I loved the cheering volunteers that lined Stanley Park this year.

I was grateful to be able to start, grateful to feel confident enough to aim at improving my personal best of 3:00:29, which I ran on the same course in 2012. My body has bounced back from a one-year layoff with injury starting in June 2012 better than I'd expected. Not being able to run for such a long time has renewed my love for running and my appreciation for the ability to train and race again.

Even so, the Vancouver marathon did not go as I had planned, hoped. It is hard to pinpoint a reason but I have a few theories. The analysis is done to help me learn from this marathon, my 18th, and improve in the next. It also helped me decide to race another, if all goes well, as early as June 1.

A few things stood out for me in my Vancouver marathon experience:

1. It was a wet day.
2. About 4K into the race, I was stopped to allow traffic to cross the course. I stopped my watch almost immediately and did not time my stop because it would ruin my ability to track my race time.
3. About 13K into the race, I felt I was running below goal pace and picked it up.
4. I passed halfway at 90:02 on my watch.
5. About 25K into the race, I felt flat, lacking energy, and it became a matter of slowing down as little as possible.
6. I made sure to celebrate my finish, regardless of my time. 

Re 1 the weather: since the conditions on race day are beyond a runner's control, I was determined to embrace whatever weather we were given. Perhaps that led me to ignore them completely, instead of adjusting my goals. Then again, the rain was not torrential (not that I can recall anyway) and the temperature was OK. I do not think the weather influenced my race much.

Re 2 While I had read about the possibility of being stopped for traffic, I had not expected this to happen to the runners on 3-hour pace. By 4K I had just found my rhythm, and was stunned when I, and other runners near me, had to stop. I tried to stay calm, but I might have spent a little more energy than was wise when we got running again. Did I go too fast here?

Re 3 After about 13K there was a short out-and-back section, and a timing mat. I remember thinking here that I was probably taking it too easy if I wanted to stick with my 2:59 goal, and that I needed to decide to commit to my goal now if I wanted to have a chance at achieving it. I might have sped up too much here.

Re 4 When I was stopped just after 4K, I also stopped my watch. There were timing mats to adjust our race time. So I did not take a split of our wait time, as I wanted to keep track of my race time overall. The official results show that I crossed the halfway point at 90:22, and they tracked my time at the 4K stop at 13 seconds, which would put me at halfway at 90:09. My own watch showed me passing halfway at 90:02--I remember thinking at this stage, great, I am on track for 2:59. 

Re 5 But after about 25K my energy levels just sank. My body also felt stiff, particularly on the right side. Was it just a dip? Would I feel better in a few kilometres? Had I run too fast? Was I having an off-day? I focused on running as well as I felt I could, trying to slow down as little as possible. But I knew I was slowing. And could feel my Sub-3 goal slipping away.

Re 6 As I ran to the finish line, I felt a surge of happiness. The clock ahead read 3:06-something. More than six minutes slower than two years ago. Seven minutes slower than my goal. But I was here finishing a marathon, when a year earlier I had still been unable to run, without any sign that I might return to training at all. So I celebrated. A 3:06 marathon is nothing to be disappointed about as an amateur runner. Heck, finishing a marathon at all is worth some fist-pumping.

As it turned out, photographer Pat Cheung captured that moment:

Each marathon finish is worth celebrating 

April 28, 2014

Taking stock before Vancouver marathon

Six days to go until the BMO Vancouver Marathon. A year ago I could not race, I could not even run. So I am extra grateful to be on the start line in 2014 as one of the elite runners again.  

It will be my fifth start at this event, which has brought me both my slowest and my fastest times for the 10 marathons I have run since moving (back) to Canada 6-1/2 years ago: 3:12:56 in 2008 and 3:00:29 in 2012. The latter was a breakthrough marathon, a personal best by 5:37. 

Like in 2012, I plan to start at 4:15/km pace, and aim to finish in 2:59. I am confident but also well aware that there are no guarantees in the marathon: this will be my 18th after all. While it may seem that I have been at this Sub-3 marathon thing for a while, this is only my third marathon that I am actually starting at Sub-3 pace.

Last December I began the Seattle marathon at Sub-3 pace too. Things were a little different. After a one-year enforced layoff from running starting in July 2012 because of injury, I had to build up my training again; I could not simply begin where I had left off. In the 17 weeks leading up to the 2012 Vancouver marathon, I had run 1,914 kilometres, an average of 112K a week.

In the 15 weeks leading up to the Seattle marathon in December 2013, I ran 915K, an average of 61K per week. Yet I had a fantastic race in Seattle, hitting  halfway in 89:14, or 55 seconds faster than ever, and passed 20 miles (32K) in 2:15:32, an average of 4:13 per K or 6:47 per mile. At the 2012 Vancouver marathon, I timed myself at 30K in 2:08:08. At Seattle's pace as timed by the 32K mark, I would have hit 30K in 2:06:30.

While this is a moot point in terms of finish time--Seattle offers a hilly final 10K and I finished in 3:05 there, I was encouraged to see that a year-long break from run training had not affected my speed as much as I had feared. In fact, that's an understatement; I was elated to see how quick I had come back to a similar level.

For the 2014 Vancouver marathon, I had planned to up my weekly mileage again. But I got accepted into a one-year creative writing program, landed a big book project, and also was still trying to keep up with my Czech language studies. Something had to give and it was the amount of run training I did in preparation for this marathon, though I made sure not to compromise on quality.

As it turns out, I have run 1,037K, an average of 61K per week, over the past 17 weeks, the same weekly volume I did for Seattle. This number, however, does not reflect the fact that I did longer long runs.

Before Seattle, my longest runs were three 32Ks; this time I did three 35Ks and one 39K. I managed to do them at a decent average pace too, with the first 35K at 4:57 per K, the second at 4:42, then I ran 39K at 4:45, and the final 35K at 5:02 (I was tired for that final 35K, a week following a 87:04 in the April Fool's half marathon, and after running 18K the previous day.) 

Before Vancouver 2012, my longest runs had been 32K in 5:09 per K, 35K at 5:00, 39K at 5:02, 35K at 5:03. Of course then I ran double the weekly volume from what I have been doing for this marathon, so naturally I was more fatigued for my long runs too.

In the lead-up to Seattle 2013 I ran my 32Ks at 4:51 per K, 4:56, and 4:53 respectively. (I had a few superb medium long runs including a 29K at 4:38 per K, a 17.5K at 4:28, and a 19K at 4:34.)

Last Wednesday, I did my final track workout: three 1-mile repeats. Before Vancouver 2012, I did those in 6:03, 5:54 and 5:53, hands down my fastest until then. Before Seattle 2013, I ran 6:15, 6:13 and 6:03. Last week, I ran 6:01, 6:01, and 6:04.

Photo Greg Herringer
In terms of racing, I ran the First Half in February in 88:40 (compared with 87:27 in 2012) and the April Fool's in 87:04 (compared with 86:54 in 2012). Though in April Fool's 2014, I hit 10K in 40:26 (41:00 in 2012) and 16K in 65:54 (66:32 in 2012).

I also did a couple of 10Ks, the first in fresh snow for a time of 41:52 and one race my Garmin measured at 9.5K in 39:16, or 4:09 per K -- a second slower per kilometre than I ran for more than twice the distance the following week in the half marathon. Go figure! Those 10Ks were helpful in terms of lifting my effort beyond what I would be able to achieve on my own in training.

Photo Rick Horne
In the last month, since the April Fool's half marathon, I have been quite tired, partly from running and partly from work and studies, and that has been reflected in the pace of my recent runs. It's also normal overall fatigue towards the end of marathon preparations, so I am not too worried about that.

Last week I already felt much better than the week before that, so the taper should have worked its magic by the end of this week, perfectly in time for race day on May 4.

I am grateful and excited to race! (And, yes, a little scared too but that's a good thing.)

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.