Friday, March 30, 2012

Attacking 1:40

Back in the day I used to pin all my hopes and dreams and goals for the year on one or two races. It would be, say, March, and I would say, "I am going to run x race in October. My goal is ____. Between now and then I am going to work my ass off and when that day comes, I will KILL IT."

Here's the problem with that, at least for me. If that day came (which, remember, I've been working towards & fixating on for 6-8 months) and I didn't meet my goal, I left incredibly disappointed. Not that I couldn't find anything redeeming about the experience, but ultimately the bottom line felt like 'You gunned for x, and you didn't do it.' 6-8 months of training, and I hadn't done it. Not that it felt like a total waste; just a disappointment. There was a 'win' column and a 'lose' column and that was about it.

2011 was really the first year I stopped doing that. Not intentionally, mind you. At Kaiser in 2/10, I'd vaguely wondered if I could break 1:40 & ran a 1:46. As soon as registration opened I signed up for RNR San Jose in 10/10, certain that eight months was plenty of time to knock off six minutes, and we all know how THAT went down. (what's that? you haven't committed to memory the outcome of every race I've ever blogged about, you say? phhhbbbbttt.) I began 2011 still fixated on 1:39:xx and with the advice that, if I wanted to improve my half marathon, I needed to work on my 10K.

Willing to do pretty much whatever it took, I dutifully mapped out five 10Ks between April & September, reasoning that by the fall I'd have nailed the 10K & would be ready to smash 1:40 at Clarksburg in November.

And over the course of that summer, a funny thing happened.

It occurred to me, for the first time ever, that there was something to be gained from a race other than meeting a singular big goal. Initially, I was running these 10Ks because I felt like I was supposed to, because it was part of the plan, not because I had any particular goals for them. Which freed me from the whole win-or-lose mentality I'd been stuck in earlier. After running my last 10K of the year in August (and winning my age group), it dawned on me how much I'd grown as a 10K runner since April. How much more experienced and skilled I felt at it. This idea had never crossed my mind back in April.

My times had improved dramatically, which at the time I chocked up to the fact that I'd finally gotten my hip taken care of & was able to run consistent, if not particularly high, mileage again. I'm sure that had something to do with it, but in retrospect, I just don't think you go from a 7:24 pace to a 7:12 pace in four months on 20-30 miles a week alone. The more I thought about it, the more I became sure that part of my improvement at that distance had to do with skill -- with learning what it feels like to run a 10K, with practicing it over and over until my body and subconscious mind knew exactly what to expect and how to execute as efficiently as possible.

I'm even more convinced of this after running the Bay Breeze 10K in February (essentially the exact same race as Summer Breeze 10K I'd won & PR'd at in August). In August I was in great shape and ran a 44:42; in February, in okay but considerably less good shape, I ran a 44:49 on the same course in basically the same conditions. While there's no substitute for fitness and solid training, what this showed me was that experience and skill at a certain distance probably has a bigger effect than I'd ever considered it could.

This revelation has played a huge role in how I'm approaching my sub-1:40 goal this time around. Yes, training is absolutely critical. To give myself the best chance, I've got to be more consistent about sticking to the plan and getting the miles in. But I don't think that alone is enough. Much like I taught my mind and body to consistently run solid 10Ks last year by racing them regularly, I think I have a lot to gain in the half by taking the same approach. Rather than targeting one specific 'goal race' and approaching it with the attitude of "This is it!! This is the one where I will finally do it & all my hard work will pay off!!", I need to just run halfs, maybe once every couple of months or so, with the main goal being to practice, both physically & mentally, the skill of racing a solid 13.1.

NAMEThe next half I've got on the schedule is Windsor Green Half Marathon in Windsor, CA. It should be a pretty flat course (the worst 'hill' looks like about .75 miles of a 2% grade), the timing is good, and a few other folks I know are already running it. Now that the Oakland cycle has gotten me back into some semblance of half marathon shape, my plan is to use the same program again (perfect, because it's a seven week plan). Who knows, I may actually be fit enough now to do the half marathon pace runs the way they're written (ie, 6 miles at planned half marathon pace vs 3 x 2 miles at planned half marathon pace, with 4-5 minute rest breaks)! Two weeks before race day, the plan calls for a 5K race or time trial, so I'm hoping to also run a local 5K on 5/6, assuming it doesn't conflict with anything.

NAMEI'd sort of assumed I would run Summer Breeze again because I like the event, but if I want to do a half around that time, I'm not sure it's the best choice because of the gravel (the 10K & 5K barely have to deal with any, but I know there's a bunch on the longer course). On the other hand, Windsor Green has a sister race on August 12 -- Water to Wine Half Marathon in Healdsburg. Yes, it would be more expensive ($65 before 5/1), but it does look like a nice course, and the timing is right.

I'm not calling any specific one of these races sub-1:40 attempts -- all I want to do is become more and more skilled at racing this distance, and as long as I continue to steadily improve, I have faith that the time will eventually happen.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Week in Review: Mar. 19 - 25

Running ShoesThis is my weekly training journal. Including it in the blog gives me a little extra accountability in the mileage department & helps me stick to my schedule. :)

Oakland Half Marathon Race Week!!

Grand Total: ~28

* 13 easy
* 1.5 speed
* 13.34 race

Tuesday: 2 wu + 6 x 400m @ 5K pace + 2 easy = 5.5. These 400s were more drills than a real workout; I mainly just focused on form & turnover. A nice, easy track work out to gradually help me transition back into my training schedule.

Thursday: 8.5 easy. I skipped my scheduled 4 easy miles on Wednesday because my Achilles/calves were sore (not injury-pain like before; just soreness from the fast 400s) & I didn't want to chance anything. Really, Thursday was supposed to be 2 wu + 3 @ HM pace, but there was a plan to meet for some easy miles at the Ferry Building, so I ditched my schedule. This was the farthest I've run since the horrible aborted long run weekend before last and I felt great. So you know. Progress. :)

(Photo credit: Courtney Pancakes)

Friday: I'd originally planned to do a couple of easy miles & a couple of HM pace 400 pickups, but I woke up Friday morning with tweaky hip flexors, did a little risk analysis & decided resting up was a smarter plan.

Sunday: Oakland, baby! .5 wu + 13.34(ish) race = 13.84. I hadn't decided just exactly how all-out I wanted to try to run this what with the recent aches & pains, rumored long course, & rain in the forecast, but I figured I had a good chance at a PR if I felt even remotely good. You can read all about it here, if you haven't already. :)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Race Report: Oakland Running Festival (Half Marathon)

Oakland Half MarathonPR, BITCHEZ.

Now that that's out of the way...

Location: Oakland, CA

Date: End of March (March 25, 2012 this year)

Price: There are several different events:

* Marathon - $90.00 before 11/1, $100.00 before 1/1, $110 before 3/15, $130.00 at expo

* Marathon Relay - $200.00 before 11/1, $225.00 before 1/1, $250 before 3/15, $270.00 at expo

* Half Marathon - $70.00 before 11/1, $80.00 before 1/1, $90 before 3/15, $110.00 at expo

* 5K - $35.00 before 1/1, $40 before 3/15, $50.00 at expo

* Kids' Fun Run - $15

Deadlines: This year, you could sign up for all distances at the expo the day before, but not the morning of.

Sellout Factor: Given that the Oakland Running Festival is pretty new (this is only the 3rd year), there was still space in all the events on the day of the expo. I think the 5K ended up selling out there, but it didn't sound like any of the other events hit their limits.

Field Size: I don't know what the caps were, but the results page lists the following numbers of finishers:

  • Marathon - 926
  • Marathon Relay - 193 teams
  • Half Marathon - 3452
  • 5K - 1113

So on the smallish size for a "big" race.

Expo: There was one. It was smallish but well-organized & easy to navigate.

The Course:

I think I heard that the courses had changed a little over the three years of the festival so they may still be in the process of perfecting them. This year's marathon course had one big hill (~475 ft upwards from miles 6-9 & back down from about 11-15) & was basically flat the rest of the way. The half marathon course was reasonably flat, with just a few short rolling hills in places (and let me just warn you that one of them is the last .1 miles or so to the finish line. That kind of sucked). Both courses wind through all different parts of Oakland, and since I don't spend a lot of time there, it was neat to get to see more of it (though I have to be honest that I wasn't paying a ton of attention to the scenery). The half has kind of a lot of turns, which I was a little worried about (lots of turns = harder to run tangents unless you memorize the course), but it turned out that most of them were visible a good ways ahead, so it wasn't too hard to make sure you were heading towards the right side of the street. Also, it was awesome to see all the locals out cheering.

Logistics:

  • To get your race bib & shirt, you must print out your e-registration card from the link ORF sent you, then bring it to the expo the day before (or show it to them on your smart phone). This was not difficult, but I found it a little bizarre & slightly annoying because it was just one more thing to remember & deal with on race weekend. I have never in my life been to a race where you had to do anything but tell a volunteer your name to get your stuff. My objections to having to come to the expo the day before to get my stuff are well-documented elsewhere so I will not repeat them here.
  • You must bring your own bag to the bag check, which, although this is the first I've seen of it, I can totally get behind. Anything to save a billion plastic bags. The tables were right by the start, and reasonably efficient & well-organized. (Having lots of different types of bags probably makes it slightly harder, but I have enough enviro-guilt that I'm willing to make the trade.)
  • The Snow Park staging area is super-convenient to the 19th Street BART (although marathoners should note that trains aren't running early enough on Sunday to get you to the race by the 7:30 start). Parking also wasn't too bad -- those of us running the half at 9:15 went to see our marathoner friends off & at 7:00 am were able to park probably half a mile from the start no problem.
  • Port-a-potties were plentiful, right by the start, & with short or no lines (though I did hear that some of the relay exchange stations were woefully under-served).
  • Aid stations were also plentiful (maybe every mile and a half-ish? I think I heard there were eight for the half), easy to get to, & offered both water & Gatorade. Initially I'd planned on carrying a small throwaway bottle of 50/50 Gatorade & water so I wouldn't have to deal with aid stations, but ultimately I procrastinated & flaked on this. Because of the cool weather, I figured the aid stations would be enough (which they were).

Weather wise, we had a 40-60% chance of rain depending on your source. It poured all Saturday evening & all night, but stopped before we left in the morning. Although it was overcast, the rain never came, and we had perfect race weather -- calm, brisk, & with a nice amount of cloud cover. The sun even came out later that afternoon for our post-race brunch! My streak of not getting rained on in a race continues unabated.

Swag: A nice long-sleeved tech shirt, hefty medal, and a neat little neon-green reusable drawstring bag. Continuing with the eco-friendly theme, instead of a giant bag full of samples & coupons you won't use and fliers for races you won't run, you can log into your "e-goody bag" online & see if there are any fliers or coupons you're interested in. I haven't done this yet, but I'm kind of curious to see what there is.

The Race

Alyssa & I carpooled from SF & hit the expo around 3:30 to pick up our stuff, then headed over to Hotel Jana, where Sesa, Karin, & we were sleeping over. (THANKS, JANA!!!) We went out for a delicious pasta dinner, watched a little "Must Love Cats," laid out all our gear, & hit the sack.

In the morning, we saw Jana & Dennis off in the full marathon, then went in search of coffee, which was only to be had from a food cart near the start. Although it wasn't raining, it was still reasonably chilly & slightly breezy if you weren't moving, so afterward we went back to sit in the cars with the heaters on, eat some breakfast, finish getting ready, etc. At this point Alyssa & I agreed that we were not feeling particularly race-y this morning, particularly since neither of us had slept well, & kind of just wanted the damn thing over with.

I posted about my goals for this race last week:

  • Non-negotiable: Negative splits.
  • "C" Goal: PR by pace (sub-8:06/mile) if not by time (sub-1:46:10)
  • "B" Goal: Average a sub-8:00 pace, if not a sub-1:45 time
  • "A" Goal: Run every mile sub-8:00.
  • "A+" Goal: Average a sub-7:38 pace (sub-1:40 for 13.1). I didn't figure I'd attempt this today unless there was some serious race day magic happening in the first few miles.

Beth caught us as we passed by the Lululemon cheering station
Alyssa & I figured we'd probably finish around the same time, give or take, but hadn't specifically planned on running together. At the gun, I kept telling myself 7:50-59 only--no faster. I knew I wanted to run mostly by feel, but in the first mile or two this can be tricky -- sometimes I'll think, "Oh, this feels pretty easy & about right," & look down at my watch & realize I'm running 7:20s. Sure enough, I saw my pace drop into the 7:30 range several times in those first two miles, & every time I would take a deep breath & tell myself to relax & settle. At that point 7:50 felt soooo slooooow and I had to keep reminding myself that the easier 7:50 felt now, the easier it would be to meet my goal of negative splits. Around mile 2 Alyssa popped up behind me, which was a pleasant surprise. We were both happy at our current pace, so we stuck together and ended up running together for almost the rest of the race.

Mile 1 - 7:54
Mile 2 - 7:54
Mile 3 - 7:57

Winning.

From then on the name of the game was stay in the groove, be cool, & trust that I could maintain this pace for a long time. Sure enough, I was soon past the oh-but-this-feels-so-slow-&-easy phase and settling into the not-terribly-comfortable-but-manageable phase, which was where I wanted to stay. Just keep up with Alyssa, I kept telling myself. (Funnily, she was apparently telling herself, Just keep up with Angela...) Much like at CIM, I tried not to focus on how many miles were left & instead just keep up the pace.

Mile 4 - 7:33 (I think this split was a little off. We went under a tunnel during this mile & the Garmins lost satellite reception, so I'm not entirely sure it was accurate.)
Mile 5 - 7:58
Mile 6 - 7:54

My plan had always been to speed up just a touch after the halfway point, but once we got there I found I was just too scared to pick it up much. I was afraid that, although I was doing fine now, I might speed up by 5 seconds or so per mile and then crash at mile 12. On the other hand, I really wanted that negative split.

Mile 7 - 7:54
Mile 8 - 7:49
Mile 9 - 7:48

(I think it was somewhere in there that we saw the pirates, which you should totally check out here.)

At mile 10 we could hear the finish, though we still had to make a three-mile loop around Lake Merritt. I held on, wanting to try to speed up a little, but afraid I'd pay for it later, and I wanted that negative split so. freaking. bad.

Mile 10 - 7:42
Mile 11 - 8:01
(I'm calling this Garmin error since Alyssa & I were literally running together stride-for-stride and her mile 11 was 7:56)

At mile 12 I felt like we were close enough that I could safely hit the gas a little, but when I tried I found that, frankly, there was precious little to be had. Part-way through this mile was when Alyssa surged ahead and I just did not have it in me right then to follow. When I hit mile 13, though, I found the accelerator, and started counting down backward from 400 (which, by the way, is a really good way to get through a hard mile). I'd planned on hitting the 'lap' button at my Garmin at 13.1 just to see what that number was in case the course ended up being significantly long, but accidentally hit the 'stop' button instead. So this is what my splits were for that distance:

Mile 12 - 7:51
Mile 13 - 7:38
Mile .1 - 0:42

I didn't have total time up on my Garmin, but I knew the splits had been solid, so I wasn't surprised to see 1:43-something on the clock as I crossed the mat.

Some more numbers, if you are interested:

Official: 1:43:15, 13.1 miles, ~7:53 pace
(Extrapolated) Garmin, full race: 1:43:15, 13.3 miles, ~7:45 pace
Garmin, 13.1 only: 1:42:36, 13.1 miles, ~7:50 pace

Overall: 321/3452
Women: 66/2077
Age/Gender: 19/442

Make of that what you will. As for the goals I set...

  • Non-negotiable: Negative splits -> DONE, BITCHES. I did some reasonable-sounding math & figured that I ran the first half in 52:26 & the second half in 50:49.
  • "C" Goal: PR by pace (sub-8:06/mile) if not by time (sub-1:46:10) -> DONE, by pace AND time.
  • "B" Goal: Average a sub-8:00 pace, if not a sub-1:45 time -> DONE and DONE
  • "A" Goal: Run every mile sub-8:00. -> Because Alyssa clocked 7:56 on the same mile & two seconds is well within Garmin error-range, I'm calling this done as well & you can judge me if you want.

Can we also just talk for a minute about how this is the farthest I've run so far in 2012? I've rescheduled a 14 miler like 3 times during this training cycle & never got farther than 12 for various reasons, so I am super pumped that I was able to go this far with almost no body issues to speak of. Just a little pain in the ball of my left foot during the race (annoying but completely manageable) and a sore left heel after (though that almost never goes away so I can't really blame it on the race).

This was such a good run, and it was so perfect to run with Alyssa. I totally see us busting through 1:40 sometime this year.

After, there was much cheering for friends as they finished, celebrating of PRs (many), and taking of silly sock pictures.

Several of us headed down the road to Lake Chalet for brunch; then it was time to come back to SF & get in some quality couch time.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Oakland Plan...

Oakland Running FestivalMy ultimate half marathon goal for this year (and last year, and the year before that) is 1:39:xx. Up until I hurt my calf/Achilles two weeks ago, things were going fairly well, but even before I got hurt I wasn't feeling like I was in "peak" half marathon shape. I felt like a sub-1:40 was an outside possibility, but not terribly likely. On the other hand, I am frankly sick to death of my now-ancient PR, and shooting for that instead seemed like a reasonable goal.

For a week or so after I hurt my leg things were looking a bit dicey; last week I was just hoping I'd be healthy enough to run 13 miles in a row at all. But I took a bunch of rest days and the leg gremlins seem to have mostly worked thsemselves out, so I'm 99% sure I'll be ready to run & finish strong on Sunday. I'm back to following my program now (albeit on yellow alert), and it turns out that easy, low-volume race week workouts are good ones for transitioning back in.

Given that I've had some injury stuff and that the course may run long, I'm thinking of Oakland mainly as a dress rehearsal for other half marathons later in the year when I'll be healthier, better trained, and have more confidence in the length of the course. (There are rumors that it may go as long as 13.4.) Mostly I want to practice running negative splits and convincing my brain that yes, I actually can run sub-8:00 miles reasonably comfortably for a while.

So, for the record, here are my goals for Sunday:

  • Non-negotiable: Negative splits. It just has to happen. I've been doing it reliably in 10Ks, but I have yet to run an actual half-marathon RACE with negative splits. This is a big part of why I want to err on the conservative side for this one rather than going balls to the wall.
  • "C" Goal: Beat my (severely outdated) PR pace of 8:06/mile (I'm using pace instead of time because of the uncertain distance.) I recently did a nine mile training run at a 7:56 pace in the middle of a fairly high mileage week without working too terribly hard, so unless something goes really wrong, I should be able to PR (pace-wise) no problem. (Right? Someone tell me this is a reasonable expectation.)
  • "B" Goal: Average a sub-8:00 pace (sub-1:45 for 13.1). I think this is also pretty reasonable.
  • "A" Goal: Run every mile sub-8:00. If I have a particularly good day, I think this could happen. (I'll know within the first few miles, I think.)
  • "A+" Goal: Average a sub-7:38 pace (sub-1:40 for 13.1). Not impossible, but pretty unlikely, mainly because in order to even have a chance I'd have to run 7:40 miles right out of the gate. I really don't want to go for it, realize after six miles I wasn't ready, & crash & burn, so unless there is some kind of INSANE race day magic going on Sunday, I'll likely hold off on this for now.

My plan is to keep the pace brisk but pretty comfortable for the first six miles or so, which should take care of the negative splits. Based on my runs lately, I think this should mean somewhere in the 7:50s, but if things are hurting or I'm just having a bad day for some reason, I'll slow it down to low eights in the early miles in order to get my negative splits. If the 7:50s feel really good for the first few miles, I'll try speeding up a little, but no matter how good I feel I absolutely do not want to dip below 7:40 in the first half of the race. At that point, I should have a good sense of what I have left. If I'm still feeling strong, I'll try speeding up maybe 5-10 seconds per mile for miles 7-10, and the last 5K will be what it will be.

So. That is my plan.

Time / pace / etc. aside, this race should be a good time no matter what since a bunch of blogger types are meeting up at the expo & having a sleepover in Oakland Saturday night. Also, we will be wearing these:

Actually, I don't know how many of us will actually be *running* in them, but we'll definitely be putting them on for silly pictures at some point.

Yay bloggers. And silly socks. :)

What I'm Drinking This Week:

You know how some people like to come home from work & relax with a beer? For me it's often a glass of white.

Once upon a time we used to visit a winery in Paso Robles called Wild Horse (you can probably find a few of their larger-production wines in your local wine store), which made fantastic pinot as well as lots of other rare & fun varietals at reasonable prices. But then they started raising the prices, & as good as a lot of the wine was, it got harder & harder to justify buying.

The last time we there in 2009, however, they had a big 50% sale on certain bottles. It was on that trip that I picked up some of their amazing '08 Grenache Blanc. I never would have paid the $30 they were asking, but for $15, it was a great deal! Earlier this week I opened the last bottle -- crisp & dry, but full of flavor. This is a nice wine I'll really miss. Perhaps another visit to Wild Horse is in order...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Week in Review: Mar. 12 - 18

Running ShoesThis is my weekly training journal. Including it in the blog gives me a little extra accountability in the mileage department & helps me stick to my schedule. :)

1 Week to Oakland Half Marathon!!

Grand Total: 12.6 miles (all easy)

Not much more to say about this week that hasn't already been covered here and here. As hard as it is to play it safe when things are off, I'm really glad in retrospect that I took the rest days that I did and that everything seems to be on the up-and-up now.

Wednesday: 6.3 easy + karate + strength work work.

Sunday: 6.3 easy. I'd decided that if I woke up pain-free on Sunday morning I would take another easy test run just to see how things were feeling and how they held up under a few easy miles. I set out completely prepared to turn around after a mile if I felt anything beyond the slightest discomfort. After two miles everything still felt a-okay, so I decided to go all the way out to the turn-around for my usual six-mile out-and-back loop. And woo-hoo!! I got all the way back home with nothing beyond a little twinge in my left ankle.

I'm still planning to play it safe at Oakland and just try to have a solid race rather than going balls-out, but I am SOOOO relieved to have had a good, solid run with a week still left to go before the race. I will probably also still try to take it easier this week than the schedule originally called for, with mostly easy miles and maybe just a few pickups here & there. All I really care about is having a good, solid race and finishing healthy. :)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Update: Great Mysteries of the Universe Edition

The universe is a vast and mysterious place.

Since the dawn of time, man has asked questions, and sought to understand these great mysteries. Questions like, "Why do two socks go into the laundry, and only one comes out?" and "If 7-eleven is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, why are there locks on the doors?" and "If it was only a three hour tour, why did Gilligan & the gang have all that stuff?" And, most recently, "Why, when I stop running for a few days to let an injury heal, do I wind up with even more injuries?"

Questions, my friends.

Originally, the problem was in my right calf, going down a little into my right Achilles tendon & heel, with a little twinge in my hamstring. When I went for a short run on Wednesday, there was new pain in my right quad & worse pain in the hamstring. While walking to work on Friday, I was struck by a searing, cramping pain in my right hip flexor area, and since Saturday morning I have had an aching, throbbing pain right smack-dab in the middle of my right Achilles tendon area that doesn't ever go away, even when I'm just sitting around (though walking makes it much worse).

I swear I have done nothing--not a damn thing--to bring these tribulations upon myself. Since Wednesday, the most active thing I've done is some gentle stretching and some ab work. I don't even trust my muscles to handle my usual strength exercises without something else imploding.

So, given that it's Saturday, my total mileage for the week so far stands at a whopping six miles, and I can't even sit on the couch without something hurting, it looks like Oakland may be more about having a good time and getting in a long(ish) run than attempting anything like a PR. At this point I'm just hoping I'll feel good enough to run the whole thing.

Add to the great mysteries of the universe, "Why can't I ever sign up for a half marathon without having a mini-disaster at the last minute?" I haven't had a solid 13.1 attempt since my current PR race in February of 2010. And I wasn't even training then.

Things to ponder.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

So...It Has Come To This.

So It Has Come To ThisAnd by "this," I mean the lengths to which I am willing to go to avoid losing great swaths of skin when I run.













Last year I wrote a post about how I pretty much have chronic marathon tattoo and how it gets worse when I forget to BodyGlide the front-and-center chest area where the band of my sports bra sits.

You'd think that this is a problem that could be solved with the right sports bra, but after twenty years of wearing sports bras, I have yet to find one that's completely chafe-free. Some are definitely better than others, though, and my current choices (MovingComfort Alexis and Nike ProCombat) are the best I've found so far which is why I continue to wear them.

But still, getting into the shower becomes DEEPLY unpleasant with an open wound or two, even when it's comparatively less-open than it has been in the past.

So. It has come to this.

'Nuff said.

Yesterday was my first easy "test-run" after cutting Saturday's long run short due to some not insignificant Achilles/calf pain (and a few other minor things). I took Sunday and Monday completely off, and when my leg still felt a little off just walking around on Tuesday, I decided to play it safe & take one more complete rest day.

On Wednesday, I decided to try an easy out-and-back six to see how it felt, with mixed results. For the first mile and a half it felt okay & the pain was just a little twinge; then at about two miles the twinge got worse, with most of the pain occurring at toe-off, and I started to get a little nervous. Suddenly my Achilles/calf area--on both legs, mind you--felt hard as rocks. At three miles, it was at its worst, the kind of for-serious pain that, had this been a race, probably would've caused me to drop out. That was my turnaround, so I did a little walking and stretching and hoped that would help it relax and loosen up. (This was one of those moments where I actually miss having access to a treadmill -- I totally would've stopped right then if I hadn't been three miles from home. :P )

Heading back, the Achilles/calf pain subsided a little bit (but was still very much present), but I wonder if the pain there was causing me to adjust my stride in some subtle way, because by mile 3.5 suddenly my entire right leg started to hurt from the hip down. Seriously--this was quad pain like I have only had at mile 23 of a marathon. And I haven't done anything to my quad. The hamstring was bugging me as well, but I really can't imagine that it hasn't fully healed from the strength testing Friday and I haven't done anything else to it. So doing weird things to my stride to compensate for the calf pain is the only thing I can think of.

By maybe 5 miles, some of this started to subside a little. The leg was far from pain-free, but it wasn't at quit-the-race levels anymore. I had kind of a bad feeling at that point that even six easy miles was going to end up having been too much and that even after three days of rest, I'd managed to make things worse with this run.

So we'll see what happens. It's always amazing to me how quickly you can go from feeling ready and excited for a race to debating whether you're healthy enough to run it; if Oakland were this Sunday, for example, I'd probably bow out. On the other hand, it's equally fascinating how quickly the body can heal at times, and a lot can happen in a week and a half. In the mean time, I've completely thrown out my training plan. For the next few days, at least, when & how much I run will have to be dictated by how my leg feels. I won't be surprised at all if I end up doing nothing but easy miles this week, and I'm definitely not setting a mileage goal. The only goal right now is to be healthy enough to run on the 25th, and if that means resting every single day between now & then & losing a bit of fitness, then that what it means. Better a not-great time than a DNF (or DNS).

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rest Days Call For Baking

For some reason, when I take extra rest days due to some niggling little pain or other, I feel compelled to bake.

It's not that I'm a fabulous baker or anything. I think there's just something about following a very structured, step-by-step process in order to make something that's soothing to the part of my brain that gets antsy when I'd rather be running. I may never be Julia Childs, but damned if I can't follow a list of instuctions.

On Sunday evening, I suddenly had a hankering for something that combined bourbon & brown sugar. I wanted something simple that I wouldn't have to worry too much about screwing up, and also something we already had all the ingredients for. After a little Googling, I settled on these:

Which are browned butter & bourbon chocolate chip cookies. Except without the chocolate chips. (I know, crazy. But I've never been the world's biggest chocolate fan in general, and I've had precious few chocolate chip cookies that I felt would not be improved by removing the chips.)

It was really the browned butter that sold me. Browning butter is a fancy-to-me baking skill that I have only recently mastered, and I imagined that bourbon & browned butter would probably play very, very well together.

I was not disappointed. And unless you dislike browned butter, brown sugar, or bourbon, I can't imagine you would be, either.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup (1 stick) of salted butter
  • 4 tablespoon bourbon (The original recipe called for only 1 tablespoon but I have philosophical objections to using 1 tablespoon of bourbon in anything. Also in my experience people seem to be very, very conservative with booze in recipes, which usually results in not being able to taste it at all. Quadrupling, as a general rule of thumb, seems to mostly take care of this. This is also probably as good a place as any to mention that you should never cook with something you wouldn't drink on its own, ie, you probably want to avoid the Johnny Red. And if you do drink Johnny Red, you should probably just stop and never tell me about it. I used Bulleit because we buy the damn stuff in bulk.)
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 ½ teaspoon pure vanilla
  • 1 ¼ cup all purpose flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda

Directions

Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat. Once it is completely melted, add the bourbon. (The original warns that if you add the bourbon before the butter is completely melted, you could start a fire.) Then brown the bourbon/butter mixture. (I added 2 T bourbon to the butter for browning & 2 more after mixing the butter, sugar, & eggs in order to retain more of the "raw" bourbon character, but it's up to you.) Let the browned butter/bourbon mixture cool in a dish for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine flour, salt, & baking soda.

When bourbon/butter is cool, beat on low for 1-2 minutes, then cream together with sugars, egg, & vanilla. Slowly mix in dry ingredients & beat on low. (I guess you could add in chocolate chips or nuts or whatever at this point if you wanted.) Let dough chill for 20-30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. When chilled, roll dough into balls, spread on a baking sheet, & bake for 10-12 minutes. (The original instructions say 7-8, but mine were still decidedly gooey at that point. I took them out after 11 minutes & they cooled to a perfectly soft, chewy consistency. If you like them solidly done, I'd go a few extra minutes.)

(BTW, I only got 12 medium-sized cookies out of this recipe, so if you want more, scale appropriately.)

Reviews & Testimonials:

"Those cookies are like fucking crack." -Don

I was pretty stoked with how they came out. The brown butter really came through, & the bourbon flavor was perfect. In my opinion, 4 tablespoons seemed to be just about right.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Week In Review: Mar. 5 - 11

Running ShoesThis is my weekly training journal. Including it in the blog gives me a little extra accountability in the mileage department & helps me stick to my schedule. :)

2 Weeks to Oakland Half Marathon

Grand Total: 40.71 miles

* 27.31 easy
* 9 moderate
* 4.4 speed work

Not a perfect week & not without its share of setbacks, but if I'm objective about it, it's hard to argue that it hasn't been at least reasonably solid.

Monday: Karate + strength work

Tuesday: 8 easy. A chilly, windy evening in SF! I did not feel optimistic about this run starting out, but as I warmed up I felt better & finished reasonably strong.

Wednesday: 2 wu + 12 x hill repeats + 2.2 easy = 5.6. I finally sucked it up & tried the hill repeats workout from the half marathon schedule I'm following. I was not a fan. You can read more about why here.

Thursday: 2 wu + 5 3 x 1600m + 3 easy = 8. On my schedule, this was 3-4 x 10:00 @ 10K pace, but given the heat & the fact that I'd just done a (sort of) not-easy workout the day before, I decided to change it to 5 x 1600m. My first three repeats were hard, but I was keeping up a reasonable 10K pace. My right Achilles had been bugging me since Tuesday & I'd been stretching it between repeats. Then about 100 yards into the 4th, a slicing/searing pain came out of nowhere & went shooting down through it and into my heel. Clearly no more repeats were happening. After a little rest & stretching, I got a few more easy miles on, but even those were ASS hard and the Achilles / right heel was unhappy the whole time.

Friday: 9 easy moderate. I just wanted these miles done, so I decided to push the pace a little. Essentially, I was shooting for fast, but reasonably comfortable (I didn't want to trash my legs for my weekend runs). I had my Garmin set to where only distance was showing, so I was a little surprised to see that my first mile auto lap was 8:04. (Normally if I'm running at an easy, casual pace, that first lap getting out of the neighborhood is in the 9:15-9:30 range). I tried to just stick with fast-but-comfortable and really couldn't believe that every mile split was coming up faster than the last, even though I didn't feel like I was working all that hard (plus hills, wind, pedestrians, etc). When I hit 7:42 for mile 5, I actively backed off -- that's basically HM pace, and again with the not trashing my legs. Still, all my remaining miles were sub-8:00, none of them felt particularly hard, and I finished feeling like I could've gone plenty further at the same pace. Super encouraging vis-à-vis Oakland in 2.5 weeks. :)

Saturday: 14 easy 10.11 easy. The weather was nice in the morning so I decided to switch my long run & HM pace miles & do the long run Saturday. Alas, a bunch of leg/foot pain (including the weird Achilles pain) caused me to stop at ten. I could have done more, but worried I might do more damage than good. (Even putting weight on my right leg afterwards was uncomfortable.)

Sunday: Rest. I knew I'd just have to wait & see Sunday how my Achilles, et al. were feeling. As of that morning my right leg was still pretty sore. Not so sore that I couldn't have conceivably done a few easy miles on it, but I decided to bite the bullet & take two days of rest now & hope it's feeling better later in the week rather than push it any further for the sake of padding this week's miles.

So yes, some disappointing moments, but still my 2nd highest mileage week so far this year, and the fast, easy Friday run was encouraging. Trying to focus on the positives (and there really are plenty) rather than getting bogged down in those very few things that haven't been ideal. Things I'm trying to keep in mind for next week (and further)...

  • Get a track/"hard" session done on Tuesday -- it makes it easier to space the others more evenly through the rest of the week.
  • If I do end up needing to do two "hard" sessions back-to-back, be careful about which ones they are -- hill sprints & mile repeats @ 10K pace back-to-back probably played into the Achilles trouble. (But something like hill repeats & HM intervals back-to-back would probably be okay.)
  • The hamstring trouble was most likely from the Friday strength testing, which was a one-time thing. Having it on the same side as the Achilles pain was probably just bad luck.

Next week will be a good one. Two more weeks to Oakland!!! :D

Sunday, March 11, 2012

First, Do No Harm

Can I tell you how much I hate falling short?

My running week started out okay, but this weekend has been a little bit of a disaster. Saturday I had 14 miles on my schedule (long for me these days), the same 14 miler I've tried & failed to get in for three weeks running. But this time I had plenty of time and the weather was nice, so I'd been cautiously optimistic that the third time would be a charm.

No such luck. Long story short, every physical ailment I've been dealing with for the last few weeks (none of which are that major) decided to rear its ugly head within just a few miles. The left forefoot & right heel pain that's been there for months, the weird Achilles thing that started Tuesday, the left ankle I rolled twice earlier in the week, the right hamstring sore from strength testing at SF State the day before--they were all there. The emotional part of me wanted to "power through" and "be hardcore" and "git 'er done," and very probably could have, but the rational part knew that the smart thing to do was to cut the run short as quickly as possible and not risk making anything worse. So I ended up with ten miles for the day.

On Sunday I had eight miles planned -- 2 wu + 3 x 2 at HM pace. I went to bed Saturday night still not able to put my full weight on my right leg thanks to the Achilles issue. Sunday morning it felt better, but then a few experimental strides down the hallway brought the pain back immediately. I'd feared I wouldn't be up to HM pace but hoped I might at least get a few more easy miles in; clearly neither of these things were happening. (Which is to say, I could have made it happen, and in the process made everything worse.)

I'm a firm believer in setting high expectations for yourself. And as a recovering Type A over-achiever, I know a thing or two about high expectations. In particular, I learned the hard way that there are ways of defining success that will guarantee you always fail. (This may or may not have something to do with why I am no longer in my previous job.)

I've felt this way quite a bit about running lately. I believe that I'm capable of a lot more than I've thus far accomplished, and that one of the things I need to do to get there is run solid mileage consistently. This has been at the front of my mind as I'm planning mileage for each week. My goals aren't unreasonable by any stretch, but they are subject to "life" -- sudden changes in plans, bad luck, injury, illness, etc. I don't think I've had a single week thus far where I've been able to run all the mileage I had planned, and not for lack of trying. (At least not 95% of the time.)

Watching those numbers fall short week after week after week, no matter how much effort I put in, can really take its toll on how I feel about myself as a runner. Two miles short here due to getting home late. Four short there due to to a last-minute social engagement. A day lost because I can't put weight on my right foot. It adds up. In two days I'd gone from on track to break 50 miles for the first time this year to leaving it at 41 and resigning myself to at least two days of complete rest. I know I should be glad that I still got in a reasonably solid week, that nothing major is wrong, and that it's basically time to taper for Oakland anyway, but there is something about not meeting my weekly mileage goal--yet again--that still stings.

And that's when I start to have thoughts like these:

What's the matter with you? Other people get their mileage in--more, even!--what's your problem?

If it was really that important to you, you'd find a way to fit it all in. Don't you ever get tired of explaining why you didn't do/finish a run?

Well, at least when you tank at x race, you'll know why.

I know they're destructive and inaccurate and I should just banish them, get over it, and move on. And usually I'm pretty good at that. These recent weeks are really testing me, though.

Well. That's surely enough wretched self-pity for one day.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

An Awkward First Date...

"Hey, girl. The name's Repeats. Hill Repeats."
So there's this workout I've been toying with seeing. (A mutual friend has been trying to set us up.) To be honest, he's not really my "type," and I've been making a lot of excuses to get out of meeting up with him. But my friend keeps pressuring me.

"Come on, just give him a shot," she keeps saying. "Just one date. If you're still not into him, no biggie. But a lot of people think he's really great."

And she's right. I know he's a big name in certain circles, but having grown up in north Texas and gone to college in northern Ohio, he didn't really come up much among me & my Great Plains running buddies. (Seriously. The first time I visited Seattle, I was like OMG WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS WRINKLY-ASS CITY??!?!)

Now, don't get me wrong -- it's not that I'm any stranger to running hills. In fact, around here you kind of have to go out of your way NOT to run at least some reasonably significant rollers. But short, hard repeats are not something I've done much of. (Or like any, ever.)

So I've been Google-stalking him to get a better idea of what he's got to offer, and here's a little of what I've found:

Sigh. Fair enough.

So tonight I got all decked out in my fanciest tights & a lovely green long sleeves (even wore a new pair of fancy shoes) and headed out to meet him.

You know how sometimes you don't want to try something, and people keep being all, "Come ON, just TRY it, you'll LIKE it!"? And reluctantly you do, and you're like, "Hey, maybe this is alright after all!" and you're really proud of yourself for trying something new?

This was not one of those times.

Maybe my expectations were not well-formed.

Maybe my kerfuffle-y day had already gotten the better of me.

Maybe I just really, really like mac & cheese & pizza & he's a little too much on the duck-cassoulet-with-brussels-sprouts side of things.

Either way, I'm not sure we'll be seeing each other again any time soon.

//End metaphor//

Looking back, I think the reason I was a bit hesitant to do this workout & kept putting it off is because I don't really know how to do it. All the plan really says is to do 8-10 repeats on a tough, steep hill -- no guidance whatsoever about distance, pace, or intensity.

There is a nice uphill stretch that I run on from time to time that's three blocks, about a quarter mile long, & climbs about 200 feet (For you locals, I mean Fell & Laguna up to Fell & Fillmore), which works out to about a 15% grade. Basically I ended up not-quite-sprinting up each block, pausing for 30 seconds to a minute in between, then walking or jogging back down at the end of each set of three.

Now, I don't mind the hill repeats themselves. Yes, once you're on to the second set of six, they do start to get very tough to finish without slowing down, but I seemed to recover from each one pretty quickly and they never really felt all that daunting. It's the going back downhill after. Who needs that? I don't, because a) it's a 15% downward grade, which is never comfortable, even just walking, b) when it's 45° F, a quarter mile walk / easy jog is MORE than enough time for a sweaty person to start shivering, and c) it's time I didn't need to recover and could've spent running, which made the whole process seem completely inefficient.

Also, Google-stalking non-withstanding, I'm not convinced they actually do all that much. The plan said 8-10, which felt really not all that taxing, so I ended up doing 12, and though I could've done more, at that point I was really just done with the entire process. When I finish a round of my beloved 5:00 @ 5K pace or 400m sprints, I can feel it. I know I have worked really, really hard. I can almost feel my red blood cells multiplying. These just left me feeling unsatisfied & annoyed. (Also, with sore lower shins / ankles. Going uphill fast seems to put a lot of pressure on that area.)

So I don't know that I'm sold on hill repeats, at least the way that I'd have to do them. I could see maybe doing them on a treadmill where you can control grade & pace more precisely & don't have to deal with going back downhill, but as that's not likely to become a possibility any time soon, I may just stick to the track and limit my hill workouts to negotiating the inevitable SF rollers on easy & long runs.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How To Run A Great Half-Marathon

Just kidding. I doubt I know any more about running a great half marathon than you do.

Which is kind of cool because it means I don't put a ton of pressure on myself about it. I think there are people out there who are fast enough & fit enough that it's really, really important for them to find just the right training program, do just the right speed workouts, tempo runs at just the right pace, etc. etc., or they won't improve.

I am (obviously) not one of those people. (I can tell because there is no one paying for my running shoes who is not related to me.) Where I'm at, I figure that if I'm a) running consistent mileage, b) doing some kind of speed work, c) doing some kind of tempo work, d) running at least 12+ miles a few times a month, I am all good, and the bulk of my progress is going to come from increasing mileage & pace when I can. (Oh and also not taking giant chunks of time off due to bad injuries or feeling smug about marathon cycles).

The COOL part of that is that I don't actually believe that what specific training plan I use (or, let's face it, fabricate whole cloth) actually makes a difference as long as all the elements mentioned above are involved. I have no training plan loyalty. In fact, I actually really enjoy hunting down different ones & trying them out just to see how they work out for me, and several times that's how I've discovered new workouts that I've come to love.

For each distance I've raced, I have a folder of bookmarked web pages. Some indeterminate amount of time ago, I found and bookmarked this one on half marathon training, which I found really interesting & informative. (It's particularly relevant, given all the recent lab testing.) I'd never actually tried following the program it outlines, but I stumbled onto it again back in January when I was trying to make decisions about how to prepare for Oakland, and figured why the hell not.

So here's the plan. Note that it only includes the "quality" workouts -- these guys figure you know to intersperse them with easy runs that put your mileage where you want it.

(PHMP = planned half marathon pace & LTRV = lactate threshold running velocity, btw)

WEEK 1

  • Toughie No. 1: Three 10-minute intervals at 10-K pace, with 5- minute recoveries
  • Toughie No. 2: Three miles at PHMP
  • Toughie No. 3: A 5-K race or time trial

WEEK 2

  • Toughie No. 1: Four 6-minute intervals at 10-K pace, with 1- to 2-minute recoveries
  • Toughie No. 2: Four miles at PHMP

WEEK 3

  • Toughie No. 1: 3.5 continuous miles at LTRV (10 to 12 seconds per mile slower than your current 10-K PB)
  • Toughie No. 2: Repeat 800s at a pace which is 6 seconds per 800 faster than current 5-K pace
  • Toughie No. 3: Six miles at PHMP

WEEK 4

  • Toughie No. 1: 10-K fartlek session (alternate 2- to 3-minute bursts at 10-K speed with one minute or so of easy jogging over a 10-K distance)
  • Toughie No. 2: Seven miles at PHMP

WEEK 5

  • Toughie No. 1: Moderate hill session (on a tough, steep hill, do six or more repeats, but not enough repetitions to induce soreness)
  • Toughie No. 2: Three 10-minute intervals at 10-K pace, with 5-minute recoveries
  • Toughie No. 3: 5-K race or time trial

WEEK 6

  • Toughie No. 1: Nine miles at PHMP (early in the week)
  • Toughie No. 2: 5-minute intervals at 5-K pace, with 3- to 5-minute recoveries. Leave the workout feeling fresh and charged-up, not mentally and physically drained.

WEEK 7

  • Taper properly during the seventh week by trimming mileage by 65 to 70 per cent. Focus on short, fast, but non-soreness-inducing sessions (repeat 400s at 10-K pace). To run a great half-marathon on Sunday at the end of this taper week, complete six 10-K paced 400s on Monday, do a three-mile PHMP effort on Wednesday, and run three 400s on Friday.

I haven't followed it to the letter, but I've been trying to more or less hit the high points as much as I can. (The main difficulty for me is that I am still not *really* back in HM shape, so running for 6-7 miles at that pace isn't really happening yet. I'm more doing interval HM pace runs like 3 x 2 miles or whatever.)

So here's the thing about using a new training program you're not used to -- There are all these WEIRD ASS workouts you're not used to! Like 10K fartlek bursts. Who does that??? (I mean, other than Beth, *obvs*.)

(But seriously. It took me like 3 days to work up the guts to try the fartlek session. I was. Not. Into it.)

I'm an adventurous eater, but I think that when it comes to running I have to admit that I'm the equivalent of that one guy you know who's past 30 and still only wants to eat pizza and mac & cheese for dinner every freaking night. I want to do what is familiar and comforting. I understand 5 minute repeats at 5K pace. They get me.

This week, the new & frightening thing on the schedule has been this "moderate hill session" from week 5. I mean, it's not like it's logistically hard. I live at the bottom of like 5 "tough, steep" hills. Even going uphill, 8-10 repeats can only take so long. So why do I feel like hill repeats is some awkward, unattractive dude that keeps asking me out, and I keep being like, "Ummmm, I'd LOOOOOOVE to, but I'm SUUUUUPER busy washing my CDs & rewinding my cats"?

As we say in karate, I must study this deeply.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Week In Review: Feb. 27 - Mar. 4

Running ShoesThis is my weekly training journal. Including it in the blog gives me a little extra accountability in the mileage department & helps me stick to my schedule. :)

3 Weeks to Oakland Half Marathon

Grand Total: 42.11 miles

* 33 easy
* 9.11 speed work / fartlek

While I didn't get in every single mile I had planned, this was still a better week than I've had in a while. It's only the second week I've managed to top 40 miles in 2012, so you know. Progress.

Monday: Skiing / driving home; no running.

Tuesday: 8.5 easy. Ever have one of those runs where you swear the entire route was uphill & into the wind? This was harder than the 7 hilly miles in Tahoe! Wanted to get 10 but my sore foot said no way. Ah well.

Wednesday: ~3 (ish?) at SF State exercise physio lab (am) & 3.5 easy (pm) + karate & strength work. (You can read more about the metabolic testing at SF State here.) The easy 3.5 in the afternoon was all I had time for before karate -- just an attempt to get in some more miles -- which was just as well because I was WORN OUT.

Thursday: Rest day; switched with Friday.

Friday: 2 wu + 6.11 fartlek (3 minutes @ 10K pace + 1 minute easy, repeat 12 times) = 8.11. I really, REALLY would've preferred to have done this one on the track, but I didn't have my car or the time to jog there & back, so out into the 'hood it was. Pedestrians / lights / hills / wind / etc. meant it turned out to be more like 10K effort than really pace, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. Had to stop twice to deal with the ongoing foot pain. If this keeps up, I see myself back in the podiatrist's office.

Saturday: 2 wu + 3 x 2 @ HM pace 7 easy. Again, wanted to get this done at the track, but we were in Paso Robles all day & got back to SF too late for that to really be feasible. So off I went into the neighborhood for some dark, easy miles. At least the foot pain left me alone!

Never hurts to spend a day / weekend here. :)

Sunday: 12 easy. Actually 14 on the schedule, but this was all the time I had (Sensing a theme this week, anyone?) once we got back from this weekend's wine tasting #2. (BTW, if you want to do some quality wine tasting without driving to Napa or Sonoma, hit up Ridge and/or Cooper-Garrod down in the Sunnyvale hills. CG does some REALLY nice wines in the $25-35 range, & if you're at Ridge, don't miss the Monte Bello blends.)

I ran down to Kezar Stadium & just ran as many laps around the track as I could until I was down to the amount of time I knew I'd need to run home. I chose the track instead of going through the park partly because the surface of the track is MUCH easier on my sore feet & joints, and partly because it's definitely where I run the most efficiently (flat, predictable, no pedestrians / lights / traffic / etc.) Amazingly, this run felt better and easier than anything else I've run this week, and remarkably not like a long run at all! I started off running low nines, gradually sped up around the track, & still felt good when I left, so ran low eights all the way home. :)

All in all, I'd say March is off to a reasonably good start. Hoping for mid-40s next week.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Does It Get Much Run-nerdier Than This?

Warning- Longish, rather technical / number-intensive post ahead. If you are a total data whore and/or find exercise physiology utterly fascinating (like yours truly), then read on! If not, just don't say I didn't warn you.

Recently Audrey passed along some information about a kinesiology study at SF State ("Relationship between functional hamstring and quadriceps ratios and running economy in females") looking for test subjects. The study uses two groups of female runners -- a recreational group (ie, people like me) and a highly trained group (eg, high-end collegiate runners training 90-100 miles a week). The requirements for the recreational group were 1) having run a minimum of 2 times per week for the last 3 years, 2) being able to jog 7.5 miles per hour (8:00/mile) for 6 minutes on a treadmill, 3) jogging a minimum of 5 miles per week, and 4) between 18-45 years of age.

The study requires two lab visits. I had my first visit last Wednesday, which involved a body composition analysis & several metabolic / fitness measures including resting metabolic rate, VO2 max, running economy, ventilatory threshold, & max heart rate. (Pretty awesome, since that kind of testing normally runs $150+.)

When I was in college, I participated in a similar kind of study and it was a really interesting & informative experience. I'm also a total body science / data geek & think all of this kind of stuff is endlessly fascinating, so I was excited to get the chance to participate. Plus, I'm a firm believed that data-driven decisions are almost always the best ones, and the more information you have about what's actually going on in your body when you run, the more you can make informed choices about your training. (Should I do more speed work? More tempo runs? More miles? Is my long run pace too fast / slow? etc. etc.) Science FTW.

Just a couple of disclaimers first off -

  • None of these pictures are mine (except the ones of the printouts). I did bring my camera in case there was something interesting to memorialize, but since it was just me and the researcher getting pictures of the action wasn't really possible. Also it seemed kind of rude to just start snapping pics of the equipment while he was trying to get set up, calibrate things, record data, etc. On the other hand, the pics that I found online are a pretty faithful representation of what it was like, so trust me, you're not missing out on much.
  • I'm far from an expert on this stuff, and although the researcher was more than happy to explain the science of everything, I wasn't taking notes or anything so I'm mostly going off what I remember him saying or knew already or have been able to look up, but don't hold me to every tiny detail (and as always, do let me know if you ARE an expert at this stuff and anything sounds wrong).

Cool? Cool.

When I arrived, the researcher had me complete a questionnaire about my general health, running experience & habits, PRs, etc, which took about 10 minutes. Next I stripped down to my booty shorts & sports bra (my instructions were to wear as little & tight-fitting clothing as possible) so he could take some body measurements (height, leg lengths, hips, waist, thigh/calf/ankle circumference, etc.).

Step 2 was the "BodPod," which is apparently the gold standard for analyzing body composition (fat vs. lean tissue) in terms of accuracy, speed, & safety. You may have heard of the "dunk test" method of measuring body fat, where a person is weighed on land and under water and body fat is calculated according to how much water is displaced. The BodPod is similar but relies on air displacement rather than water. This is why you have to wear tight / minimal clothing -- I even had to wear a swim cap (alas, I broke the first one with my mighty locks) because loose hair apparently throws off the air displacement. Socks are also a problem. While the dunk test is extremely accurate, it's also fairly involved & time consuming, whereas the BodPod only takes a few minutes. Also you get to stay dry the whole time which is a plus.

bod pod chart

After getting weighed on dry land, you sit inside the electro-magnetically sealed BodPod, which uses very small volume changes & measurements of the resulting pressure inside the chamber to determine the volume of the person inside. Then it divides mass by volume to get the person's density, which can then be used to determine the percentage of lean tissue vs. fat. (You can read more about the technical details of how this works here.)

Source

To get an even more accurate measurement (which he did with me), the researcher can have the person in the pod breathe into a tube in order to measure the person's average thoracic gas volume, or basically how much air is hanging out in your lungs. This gives a better measurement because it's further accounting for "volume" (the space in your lungs) that isn't actually body tissue.

Source

Once the machine knows your mass and body composition, it can calculate your Resting Metabolic Rate, which is the minimum number of calories your body needs per day simply to stay alive and functioning if you were to, say, spend the entire day laying in bed not moving.

For me, an interesting theme throughout this entire process was actual measured results vs. the approximations you can get for the same things via internet calculators. This was actually one of the main reasons I was interested in participating in this study. I've had really vague ideas about what my lean body mass, resting metabolic rate, VO2 max, etc. based on stuff I've read, but I've been curious for a long time to know just how accurate those poor man's approximations are.

The ones for body composition seem to be reasonably accurate. From this online calculator:

And from the BodPod:

(The BodPod itself has a margin of error of around 2% -- because of this, they usually measure 2-3 times and take the average.)

Online Resting Metabolic Rate calculators seem to be less accurate:

I tried a few different online RMR calculators & all of them returned numbers around 1380-90ish.

Once the BodPod measurements were done, it was time to start the metabolic testing, which looked at VO2, ventilatory threshold, & running economy.

(OK -- Here's where it gets a bit technical. The results of the testing are pretty meaningless unless you know a bit about what those things are, how they're measured, & why runners should care about them, so in the next few paragraphs I tried to give some background. If you're already up to speed, you can probably skip this part.)

There are lots of models out there for predicting the performance of endurance athletes, but one of the most popular & reliable uses three numbers: VO2 max, lactate threshold, and running economy.

"VO2" refers to the volume of oxygen that a person is consuming per minute at a given time & is measured in milliliters per kg of body mass per minute (ml/kg/min). When we're not working that hard, our VO2 is pretty low (for example, sitting in a chair not moving, my VO2 was in the 4-6 ml/kg/min range). As you start to work harder, your VO2 will increase because your body needs to use more oxygen. At a certain point, though, your body will hit a ceiling where, even if you continue working harder, it isn't capable of burning oxygen any faster. That number is your VO2 max -- the maximum rate that your body is capable of consuming oxygen. Obviously having a high "ceiling" in terms of how quickly your cells can burn oxygen gives an endurance athlete an advantage.

Lactate is a by-product of burning fat & carbs for energy that has to be cleared out of the blood stream by the liver. Whenever possible, our bodies prefer to burn fat because a) we have a ton of it available, b) it doesn't take much oxygen to burn fat, and c) burning fat creates relatively small amounts of lactate that our liver can pretty easily keep up with. The downside of burning fat is that it is a SLOOOOW process. Fat is perfect for fueling low-intensity activities (walking & even easy jogging), but as you start to work harder and your body needs more energy more quickly, it switches to burning a mix of fat and carbs.

Burning carbs releases energy much faster than burning fat, but it requires more oxygen and produces more lactate. As you work harder and harder and start burning a higher and higher percentage of carbs, your liver has to clear out the lactate faster and faster. At a certain point, an equilibrium is reached where your body is generating lactate at exactly the same rate as the liver can clear it out. This is your lactate threshold (usually given as a percentage of VO2 max).

If you continue to work even harder, there will be more lactate than the liver can clear out, causing a build up, which eventually results in unpleasant sensations like burning muscles, gasping for breath, etc. (When you run a 5K or 10K, for example, you're running above your lactate threshold, which is why you can only keep up that pace for a limited amount of time. Half marathon pace often keeps you right around LT pace, and marathon pace is generally below it.) The higher your lactate threshold, the harder you can run for a sustained amount of time. For average, non-trained people, LT usually falls between 40-60% of VO2 max, & highly trained endurance athletes usually fall in the 75-85% range.

Running economy is the measure of how efficiently someone can translate oxygen into forward motion. Running economy is calculated by dividing the total amount of oxygen consumed per kg of body weight and dividing it by the distance run in kilometers. If two people consume the same amount of oxygen during a period of time but one person runs farther, then that person has better running economy. (You can see how this would translate into a better performance in an endurance event.)

The SF State researcher tracked VO2 and running economy. Tracking lactate levels requires taking blood samples every minute or two during the treadmill test, which this study didn't do, but he did track something called ventilatory threshold, which is apparently a pretty good proxy for LT. (VT is essentially the point where rate of respiration sharply increases due to reaching LT -- you know you've reached it because it suddenly becomes extremely difficult to talk.) For the metabolic testing, the researcher had me wear a mask with a mouth tube while I ran on a treadmill, which collected all of the air I exhaled. (I had to wear a nose clip so that I could only breathe in and out through my mouth.) The machine could then compare the amount of oxygen in the air around us (he measured it before we started) to the amount in the air I exhaled to find out how much I'd used.

It was pretty much like this. (source)

Basically, the idea is to make the person work harder and harder (faster treadmill speed, more incline) and use measurements from the exhaled air together with what you already know about the person's mass and RMR to track VO2, respiration rate, and running economy. VO2 max will be the highest rate of oxygen consumption s/he reaches before falling off the treadmill (or, more preferably, communicating to the researcher via pre-arranged signals when s/he is too exhausted to continue).

Got all that?

(End technical-ness, mostly)

Wearing the mask is a little annoying because it forces your mouth into kind of a weird position. It's also sort of gross because you can't really swallow, and once you get a few minutes in it's just kind of spit everywhere. (Indeed, the mask has its own little 'spit collector,' but not everything makes it in there.) In between the early stages, the researcher would give me a towel and I would do the best I could to keep from dripping all over myself & the treadmill, but if you ever do this kind of testing you should just be prepared to be sort of spitty & slimey after a while.

First, I just sat in a chair & breathed into the mask so he could get a baseline VO2. (The machine would take a reading about every 30 seconds or so.) Next I had 10 minutes of really easy jogging as a warm up, and then the test began. I can't remember now what all the stages were -- I think I first jogged at 6 mph for six minutes, then 7.5 mph for five minutes, then got a five or six minute break. Every few minutes, he would hold up the Borg scale (left) & I would have to point to how I felt. I don't remember how many more stages I got through, but each one had a set amount of time you had to get through before the next stage began (eg, you had to last five minutes at 8.5 mph before going to 9.5, you had to last three minutes at 9.5 before he increased the incline to 3%, you had to get through two minutes of that before he'd make it 5%, etc. etc.).

At first, this was pretty easy. I had a heart rate monitor on with the display in front of me, so I had a sense of how hard my body was working & how much farther it had to go. I'm not used to running on a treadmill (I kept trying to go faster than the belt & running into the front of it) so that kind of messed with my perceived effort at first, so I was really glad to have something objective to rely on. Once I got passed the longer, slower stages, things got very hard very fast.

When I got to maybe the 5th stage or so, the researcher had left the computer & instead parked himself right by the treadmill & became my cheerleader, yelling things like, "Come on, you can do it! Keep it up! Keep pushing! I know you can finish this one! Two minutes left! 100 seconds! 90 seconds! 80 seconds! Less than a 200! Can you do more? 10 seconds more? 7% incline, you can do it!" This was actually pretty entertaining, or it would've been had I not been gasping for breath & slobbering everywhere while I tried desperately to stay on the treadmill.

At some point he stopped telling me the mph but in that final stage I was running really, really hard (maybe in the 6:00/mile range? I don't really know) with like a 7% incline & gasping for breath. It was definitely that last-10%-of-a-race kind of feeling when you're going SWEETBABYJESUSJUSTLETITEND!!! He did warn me ahead of time that no matter how far I got and how hard I pushed myself, as soon as I stopped I would feel like I could've gone longer & stopped too soon, but I must say, I feel pretty darn honest about how long I was able to hold on. I was drenched in sweat, gasping for air, & literally holding onto the treadmill for support for a good minute or two afterward.

Back to that whole thing about using calculators & formulas to approximate things that are hard to measure --

When I didn't know much about heart rate training (not that I know a ton now; just more than I used to), I remember using the old "mhr = 220 - age" formula, which, for me now, would predict a MHR of ~189. Imagine my surprise when I got my first monitor & started seeing numbers above that pretty regularly. There are tons of different equations out there for approximating MHR that take different variables into account (just google "calculate max heart rate"), but none of them have ever come anywhere close to predicting mine accurately. The highest number I have ever seen on my monitor is 223, but these days I routinely get up to 212-215 toward the end of races and that's about it. During this test, I got up to 211, which would indicate I was pretty close to all-out effort.

As for VO2 max, that's a little tricky even to roughly approximate, but the last time I tried I used the Cooper Test, which basically says, "Run as far as you possibly can in 12 minutes (in meters), subtract 505, then divide by 45," which gave me something like 53 ml/kg/min. This seemed rather on the high side, but during the treadmill test I apparently got up to 55.2 ml/kg/min, which is high enough for a recreational runner than he was a bit skeptical and re-checked all the equipment to make sure it was calibrated right. (The prediction based on all the other info he had about me & my running habits was somewhere in the 42-43 range.) Apparently average is mid-30s, most recreational runners top out in the low-to-mid-40s, and most of the highly trained collegiate women he tests get to 60-65ish.

He asked me again about how much I was running now & I told him that lately I'd been averaging between 30 & 40 miles a week. He seemed very surprised by this & said that it's extremely unusual for a 30-something female to have a VO2 max that high on that little mileage, meaning there is likely a strong genetic component at work. (Thanks mom & dad!) I guess everyone has their natural talents & apparently one of mine is ridiculous oxygen uptake.

As with most of my other unique skills and abilities, I am still working on how to monetize this.

My ventilatory threshold occurred when my VO2 was 39.7 ml/kg/min, or about 72% of my max, which as I understand it is pretty good as well (though much more in line with expectations than the 55.2 VO2 max). We didn't specifically talk about my running economy at the time, and it didn't occur to me to ask (I was a little bit brain-dead after the test), so I'm hoping he can tell me when I go back for the second visit.

There wasn't a ton of time once the testing was done, but mostly what I gathered from him is that the mileage I'm running right now probably isn't letting me come anywhere near taking advantage of the VO2 max I have, and that just plain getting more miles in (or even doing some other kind of cardio cross training) is probably my best bet in terms of becoming a better runner. (Higher mileage = better performance? I'm sure you're shocked.)

I'm going back next Friday to do the flexibility & quad / hamstring strength tests -- more to come then. :)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Hardcore February

OpHardcoreFitTo be honest, I don't feel like February has been all that hardcore. Although I met some of my goals for February, a few others have gotten away from me, and those are the ones that are making me feel not so great right now.

The Good:

  • I beat my January mileage, which was an explicitly stated goal. Just barely (133.2 miles vs 131.5), but I did it, and I don't think I would have if I hadn't explicitly written last month that it was a goal.
  • I ran a strong 10K on 2/18 -- the first time I've raced since CIM & my first 10K since last August, for only 7 seconds off my PR & 3rd AG / 4th overall.
  • I (mostly) kept my strength training up.

The Less-Than-Good:

  • I had one ugly week where I knew I would be working all weekend & could not motivate myself to get more running done during the week in anticipation of that.
  • Some foot/knee pain that has caused me to miss/shorten a few runs. (It's been causing karate problems as well.) This was also exacerbated in the last few days by ski boots.
  • An embarrassing dearth of long runs. Part of the problem with this is that I usually plan them on Sundays & this has been a bad month for that. I know I can always plan ahead & do them earlier in the week; I've just been bad about planning ahead. So no long run on the 12th (working all weekend), the 19th (post-race day), or the 26th (in Tahoe, though I actually did attempt this one -- it was the foot pain that brought me up short at 7 miles instead of 13). Actually, I feel less bad about this one because I DID attempt to do my 13 miler the Friday before we left for Tahoe, but that was the day I felt just physically terrible and knew after 4 miles that it was NOT going to happen.

Yes, the foot pain is out of my control for the most part, but losing mileage due to something I CAN'T control kind of makes me feel worse about the days when I just failed to plan ahead / not be a lazy sloth. I know, inevitably, that my mileage for a given month will always be lower than what I've planned for some reason or another. It doesn't need any help from me not giving my best effort.

One of my big goals for 2012 was to run 2000 miles, which means averaging ~38 miles per week or ~167 per month. Of course I knew I wasn't going to start off the year hitting those numbers right away, but I'd sort of hoped that by mid-February I'd be back to a consistent 40 / week. No such luck. And 133.2 is a solid week's worth of mileage away from 167. That means that from now on, if I'm going to get to 2000, my monthly average needs to be ~174ish.

(If it sounds like I love numbers and concrete plans, it is because I surely do. Mathematician, you know.)

Speaking of numbers and such, I'm loving RunningAhead for tracking miles online, for a whole host of reasons.

A summary graph thingy color-coded by type of run:

(Again -- note the humiliating lack of tall blue bars.)

An easy-to-read summary calendar thing that makes it easy to view or edit any workout in one click:

Additional data fields for each run that I can use if I want to, but that aren't required for every entry:

Fields for entering intervals (even multiple types of intervals for the same workout), and options to auto-sum & average according to distance, time, pace etc.

The ability to create custom workout types (specifically karate & strength training) & edit the data entry fields however I want:

(Also the obligatory blog widget over there on the sidebar somewhere.)

In addition to all that, it's free, super easy to set up & use, has an intuitive user interface, & I have yet to have a single issue with any part of it. L-O-V-E. If it hasn't been as hardcore a month as I would've liked mileage-wise, at least I can have pretty color-coded graphs & data fields to look at, and that is something.

Goals for March:

  • 174 miles (!)
  • Three runs of 12+ miles
  • PR at Oakland Half Marathon (Yes, 1:39:xx is my ultimate HM goal for the year, but if I'm really honest with myself I don't think I'm going to be ready this month. But 1:44:xx seems doable.)
  • ~3 strength sessions per week

Seems manageable right? ;)

Hope you had a fantastic February, and here's to a marvelous March! :D