Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Racing season in 800 words

I've succeeded, kind of.  It's been a season of both successes and failures in both my running and professional lives.  Then again, most of research ends up being some sort of failure leading up to a success...but I digress.  I made it to the Wineglass Marathon feeling mixed about how the race would go. I knew I had come back from my injury fairly well, but would I still be able to run a great marathon and potentially post a personal record (or maybe even a sub-2:30)?   I wasn't so sure of that.

Training up to the race went just about as well as could be expected. I ran a solid 5 by 2 mile workout eleven days out from the marathon, and I ran a decent race at the McQuaid Invitational, still likely feeling a little fatigued from the workout a few days earlier.  Going into the final week before the marathon, I still felt confident that I could do well.  Unfortunately, my body had other ideas.  I started to feel a little congested the Tuesday before the race, and Thursday, it turned into a full-blown cold.  It's rare when I get sick, and of course, it had to come during this week.  I bunkered down and did what I could to shake it: cold medicine, lots of sleep, lots of food (don't know how much this was necessary for the sickness, but for the marathon, yes).  By race morning I was feeling better but still not 100%.  The residual cold wasn't enough to back out, so I went with it.

The day was cold to start out, but of even more concern was the wind.  I hoped that it wouldn't be a large factor.  After two miles, the course turned southeast to head to Bath.  Unfortunately,  this also meant running into a headwind.  I fought for a while and felt pretty comfortable.  Bryan Morseman, the eventual winner, was about two minutes ahead through ten miles, and another runner was a few seconds behind me.  After the halfway point, which I hit around 1:14:20 (close to goal pace), the wheels came off.  I realized I was breathing harder to fight the wind and that my body just didn't want to do it anymore.  Matthew Wilber, the runner behind me, caught up and was quickly pulling away. I felt myself slowing down almost by the minute, and I thought I  hit the wall too early.  After a few miles of trying to push and hitting 20 miles around 1:56, I felt one final wave of energy and tried to push.  I ran just under 6:00 pace for the next four miles until I was truly spent.  I ran in to a 2:33:11 and a third place finish.  Given the setbacks over the summer, I did as well as I could have.  However, a part of me felt unfulfilled. 

Only halfway done at this point...ouch.

Call it stubbornness or determination, I decided to press on.  I don't like time off, and I felt like I had a lot more left in the tank, so I thought that I'd try a double race weekend... the very next weekend.  Despite initial post-marathon soreness, I was able to recover pretty quickly. I ran the Scarecrow 5K as well as the third race of the Pete Glavin XC series (a 6K).  The 5K ended up a 16:02, only 10 seconds off of my road personal record, and the XC race, despite being very fatigued, ended up a PR (seeing as though I had never run a 6K before that).

At the Finish Strong 15K the following weekend, I ran a new PR of 51:02, which gave me even more confidence in the quick recovery.  Continuing on, the next weekend was the Scare Brain Cancer Away 5K, at which I had hoped to run a sub-16 minute 5K for the season and work with George to a sub-16 as well.  Alas, conditions worked against our favor, and I ended up at 16:14 (a second faster than the previous year, and the third year in a row that I was the second place runner).  

Following those races were the final two races of the Pete Glavin XC series, an 8K and a 10K.  The 8K was a struggle; I had done some traveling that weekend and decided it would be a good idea to drive four more hours on a Sunday morning to race, not to mention that the course included stream crossings and narrow trails.  The 10K, a tough course at Mendon Ponds Park, was a bit better; I finished almost a minute faster than the previous year (when the course was covered in three inches of snow).

The second stream crossing.

Although it's been a season filled with setbacks, I've made it through.  With this being highest mileage year ever (4,100 and counting) as well as the year with the most races so far (28 and counting), it's been a good year overall.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Returning to normal

A lot has happened in both my running life and professional life since I posted the day after the Bergen 5K.  At that point, things were still pretty unclear about how my future training would play out due to the injury.  Now, however, I'm glad to say that the injury is gone, and I'm even more determined to get stronger for the upcoming fall season.

 The day of Bergen, I ran the warm-up and cool-down with the team and was only a little sore, but I did not want to race out of fear of pushing too hard and hurting myself again.  It was hard to be there and not race, but I still stand by my decision to sit out.  The next day, I decided to go for a watch-less run and see if I could go a few miles at a slow pace.  I made it five miles pain-free and went out later for another four, still pain-free (maybe not the best decision at the time, but I decided to risk it). The next day, I set a limit on myself of eight miles or until pain or soreness returned.  I made it the full eight and finished up with some time on the bike, and that day was the last day on the bike.  That week, I made it just over 90 miles, all done at an easy pace (again, the mileage was a little risky).   I didn't know how quickly I should come back, considering I've been fairly resistive to injury the last few years.  Looking back, this kind of rapid return seemed appropriate.  Although the injury sucked, it wasn't terribly severe, and whether I truly believe it or not, I was in decent shape before I got injured.  Things were looking up.

At this point, however, I still was unsure if I should continue to work towards the Wineglass Marathon or defer.  I signed up for the Oak Tree Half Marathon on August 31st (the final day to defer) as an effort assessment.  I knew that I would not be in PR shape, nor would a PR happen on that course unless a miracle happened.  If I could finish the race feeling strong, I'd keep training for the marathon.  Of course, race day came, and it was in the 70s, rainy, and humid.  Kip Tisia was running, so I knew my chances of winning would be slim.  I held on to a nice pace for the first few miles before the hills came.  I finished in second, propelled by an odd sense of déjà vu, as the guy who finished 26 seconds behind me (Chris Hine) was from the same running club as the guy who finished 25 seconds ahead of me (Adrian Macdonald) at the Gettysburg North-South Marathon.  Overall, it was a good race, aside from the mile 4 marker being in the wrong place (unless I really did run a 3:57 mile, a huge PR for me). I decided to keep training for Wineglass.

Since then, it's been another two solid weeks of training and racing.  Roadkill had a nice showing at the Ovarian Cancer 5K, where I ran 16:17 and a tempo workout with George afterwards.  Despite clear, dry weather, it was a tough workout, and I'm happy with the time considering the previous seven days were the most mileage-dense of my life (141 miles!)  The next weekend was the first race of the Pete Glavin XC series on a tough course near Syracuse.  I was coming off of another high-mileage week but still felt fairly strong.  I'm now less than three weeks from the Wineglass Marathon, and after a few more tough sharpening workouts, I'll start to back off even more and prepare for the race.  It has, by no means, been the training season that I was hoping for, but I've made the best of it.

On a completely different note, I should mention some science every once in a while, considering the name of my blog.  My first graduate school article was published a couple of weeks ago!  I've been working with a semiconductor called molybdenum disulfide (MoS2).  When thinned down to a monolayer (0.6 nanometers thick, or ~1/100000 as thick as a human hair), it displays interesting properties, such as being photoluminescent (if it's excited with light, it gives off its own light signal).  The goal of this project was the first step in building a circuit based on light.  We positioned a piece of monolayer MoS2 onto one end of a single silver nanowire (a bit thicker, about 400 nm in diameter).  When a laser was directed to the uncovered end of the wire, the energy traveled along the wire and excited the MoS2, creating a detectable photoluminescent signal (this signal is different from the laser light put in).  When the laser excited the MoS2 directly, the energy was channeled into the wire and detected at the uncovered end.  Putting everything together, we could excite the uncovered end of the wire with a laser of one wavelength, excite the MoS2 remotely, recollect some of the MoS2 signal in the wire, and detect it back at the uncovered end.  The next step is to build a detector based on the same idea: we remotely excite the MoS2 to drive an electric current!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Can't learn to stand up if I never fall down

Without sounding like too much of a downer, yesterday was a tough day for me.

It was the Bergen 5K, a race that has produced a personal record for me the two times that I've raced it.  Naturally, I expected big things this year, and training was going well until about three weeks ago.  I stretched one day, slipped into an awkward position, and felt something almost shift in my lower back, upper leg area.  Nothing felt wrong for the next few runs, until my long run two days later.  On a planned 20-22 miler, I made it about 15 miles before I felt an awful pain in the same area.  I limped the last three miles home and tried to rest the rest of the day.   The next morning, I was still in pain, so I ran a few miles and biked.  The rest of the week, I (stubbornly) tried to keep training, some biking, some running, mostly on the treadmill with a softer surface and no turns.  I still decided to race the Karknocker 5K that Friday night.

I ran the warm-up with Joe, and my gait was noticeably different.  Still, I decided to press on and ran the race.  It was like putting a V8 engine in a Chevy Lumina with a flat tire; all of the power is going to be wasted trying to overcome the imbalance, and it just doesn't work.  I finished with a 16:42.  Not awful, but far from what I expected.  However, after the race, I could barely walk.  I was officially injured.

I don't do injury well.  The last time I was seriously injured that I had to take significant time off was in 2009, and my attempts at coming back put me into a cycle of overtraining, illness, and poor race results that lasted well over a year.  Although I'm five years older and allegedly five years smarter, I can't help to wonder if I'll slip up and do the same thing again.  After the Karknocker, I took the next few of days off running and just biked, and I started running again in the middle of the following week with little pain. Alas, I may have ramped mileage back up a little too quickly, and by the following Sunday, I could barely run again without limping.  I (once again stubbornly) ran a little bit each day while biking a lot, pain-free, during the following few days.  Which led me to Thursday, two days before Bergen, and the pain was not getting any better.  I didn't run, Josh assured me the team would be fine without me, and I had the intention of running at most a tempo at Bergen.

Turns out, that didn't happen.  After a couple days of not running, I ran the warm-up with the team, felt okay but not great, and decided to not race.  With the caliber of the field at Bergen, I would be too tempted to not tempo and go hard and make my injury even worse.  It took every bit of mental willpower to prevent me from pinning on a bib and lining up for the race.  It was tough to stand near the finish line as 25 men ran sub-16 minutes in the race, with another two men and a woman right near the 16 minute mark.  That being said, I was still glad to be there to support my team. I ran the cooldown with the team and still felt okay. Although there may have been the potential that I could have been Number 26, setting my recovery back another few days or longer for that attempt would not be worth it.

Recently, Nick Symmonds and Reid Coolsaet have written about their injuries.  It isn't that I didn't know that elites get injured too, but their posts came at the right time to keep me going.  Maybe a brief "retirement" from running, although I'm far from being a professional, isn't so bad.  Even though I haven't stopped running altogether, I've been able to readjust my focus to other things in the last few weeks: reading a bit more, studying a little bit more, but also generally taking time to rest and "do nothing".  This is hard for me, as I'm a person who always tries to be busy doing something, but rest just needs to happen sometimes.  Although the body may not be ready, that gumption to run is still there.  My injury is not severe, but it still will need time to heal.  Reid's post title sums it up nicely: I'm down, but I'm not defeated.

So what's next?  The original plan was to build up and race the Wineglass Marathon...in 8 weeks from now.  The new plan is to get healthy and running normally again.  If that includes running the marathon, then that's great. I have three weeks to assess before the deferral deadline; if I don't feel capable, I'll know my Fall 2015 marathon plans. At this point, it's more sore than painful and my gait is normal again, but a doctor's visit may finally be in order if those conditions change for the worse again.  In any case, it's almost cross-country season, which makes being healthy soon more worthwhile!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

My experience in Ghana

It's been a while since I last wrote anything after I returned from Ghana; life has been busy as I've been getting back to research (somewhat successfully) and attempting to get back into shape for some key races in the late summer and fall without injuring myself or burning out (mostly successfully).  This post will have little to do with either of those things, though, as I'll try to write about my experiences in Ghana before I completely forget everything that happened.

The trip to Ghana includes a short flight to New York City, followed by an 11-hour flight across the ocean.  My previous experience with flying was next to nothing; I had my first real flight back in February, an hour flight to Washington, D.C.   I figured this flight would cause problems for me, as I have an inherent fear of sleeping in moving objects, let alone moving objects flying at 30,000 feet across a large body of water.  Bracing myself for a long night/day, I was fortunate to at least have an aisle seat so I could get up and move around every so often.  Unfortunately, I did not fill up enough water bottles before heading over, so I landed in the capital city of Accra tired, cranky, and dehydrated.  It did not help that we landed in the mid-afternoon, when temperatures were in the mid-80s and humidity was high. After we made it through the airport, we found cabs to get us to our accommodations.  Over the 10 mile (40 minutes in traffic) drive, the differences from cities that I'm used to jumped out at me.   There are not a lot of very tall buildings. Many buildings are less than two or three stories, and many homes are single-storied, packed closely together, and covering a small area.  

One of the villages.

Traffic protocol is somewhat different.  Traffic lights are somewhat rare, and drivers seem to take more risks (speeding, passing) without fear of causing a problem.  (Surprisingly, I only saw one accident during the entire trip, which made a 12 mile drive close to three hours).  Once we finished traveling for the day and had dinner, I considered doing a short run but did not out of fatigue.  So ended the run streak that began in late September.  (I did run every remaining day that I was there, but some places were better for running than others.  While in Accra, all of my miles were run on a 150-meter balcony.  In general, the persistent humidity and heat made running difficult for the most part, but I managed.)

We planned our trip to make stops in several areas around Ghana.  As for a size comparison, Ghana is roughly the area of Pennsylvania and New York combined.  Many of the distances that we traveled were not very far, but the time to travel between these places was longer than what I have been used to in the United States, as there are no highways in Ghana like the highways in America.

Rough map of our travels while in Ghana.

We also happened to travel to Ghana during the start of the rainy season.  Some days it rained a lot.

Our trip, especially the later parts, had many sudden heavy downpours.  We were lucky to be near shelter most of the time!

While in Accra, our main goals were to prepare for the solar panel workshops that we would be conducting in Kumasi and Takoradi.  At each of these workshops, we planned to teach the kids how to assemble both large solar panels that could power small appliances, such as a light bulb, and small panels that could be able to charge a cell phone.  We brought the silicon cells with us, but we had to buy the remainder of the materials, like wood, paint, and glass, in Accra.  In America, this could be as simple as going to one's favorite home improvement store, buying the materials, and calling it a day.  This was not the case in Accra.  The market is open, haggling over a price is common, and one would have to go to several places to buy everything that we would need.  Fortunately, we found some taxi drivers who knew their way around the area well, so looking for all of the supplies that we needed was not nearly as much of a struggle as it could have been.

One of the markets in Accra.  Vendors line the streets and even crowd the sidewalks. 

We took a brief trip from Accra to Akosombo, where we visited the dam of the Volta River.  This is a major source of hydroelectric power for a large part of Ghana as well as nearby Togo. 

A distant view of Lake Volta and the dam.  Lake Volta is HUGE.  It's one of the largest reservoirs in the world; look at the map above.

We next went to Kumasi to start our first workshop.  The plan was to spend four days at Kumasi Technical Institute teaching kids how to assemble solar panels, as well as teaching them some of the physics of the solar cells and the business of the solar power industry.  Then, on the fifth day, we would go to an off-grid village to install a solar panel.  Unbeknownst to us, however, was that the first planned day was African Union Day, a holiday in Ghana; this shortened our workshop by a day. Fortunately, the kids were very hard-working, and we finished all of the panels on a shortened schedule.  We went to a village that wanted a source of power for a light bulb so that travelers could see the houses on the side of the road.

Soldering some cells together.

Applying a protective layer to one of the solar panels.

Putting the panel on a roof.  I did not climb up there.
The final result.

After a brief trip to Sunyani to visit the University of Energy and Natural Resources, we made our way to Takoradi for another workshop.  Having one workshop under our belts already, this one went even more smoothly.  However, the trip to a different off-grid village was a lot more interesting.  The road to the village came to a small stream that our bus could not cross about a half of a mile from the village, which meant we had to walk, supplies and all, the rest of the way.  Then, less than a quarter of a mile from the village, a pond blocked the road.  Some waded, but I decided to take up the offer of a piggyback ride.
The bus is starting to struggle on the roads...
Time to go on foot.

The final obstacle to the village.

Another successful installation.

During our last week in Ghana, we visited Kakum National Park, where we embarked on a canopy walk. We also visited the slave castles in Elmina and Cape Coast.  These were were slaves were held until they were taken elsewhere.
An unfortunate flat tire on our way to Kakum.  We were still on one of the main roads, and fortunately, some local residents came to help us. We were good to go in no time!

One of the bridges on the canopy walk.

The slave castle in Cape Coast.  Very heartbreaking to see the cramped, hot conditions of the chambers in which people were held for months at a time.

The castle was right on the coast and had cannons (which were supposedly never used) to fight invaders.

I was not as fortunate for the return flight, as I had a window seat and did not have the luxury of moving around freely.  However, the flight seemed to go by quickly, and soon enough, I was back home.  Overall, the trip was a very rewarding experience.  I was extremely nervous to go, and I was almost tempted to miss my flight in the first place.  However, I'm glad I got on that plane and saw what life was like in a much different country from my own.

Thanks to Francis Smith for most of these pictures.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The international journey that almost wasn't

Two years ago, I applied for and received an internal university fellowship as a part of the IGERT program.  The goal of the program was to give engineering Ph.D. students experience with business and public policy and not just focus on "pure science".  One of the stipulations of the fellowship would be to travel to Ghana for a month sometime during the spring or summer of 2014 to teach.  This was a huge undertaking for me.  As of two years ago, I had never traveled by plane, never left my time zone, or never left the country (aside from a very brief trip to Canada, which I don't count since it was back before one even needed a passport to visit).  Since the trip to Ghana was so far in the future, I thought little of it.

Fast forward to September 2013, when the initial planning stages for the trip began.  Thinking ahead, I also wanted to try to do a spring marathon before I left the country. Because I thought the trip would be during August, my original plan was to run the Buffalo Marathon at the end of May to redeem myself after my first attempt there, run some races over the summer, then head to Ghana.  However, it was decided that the trip would be moved up to May and June; even with dates unspecified, this made Buffalo seem very unlikely.  I started to search for another one.  At the end of November, I talked to another runner back home, who recommended the Gettysburg Marathon to me.   I looked into it, and I decided to try it.

Throughout the next few months, I ran a lot, spent long days and nights in lab, consumed more caffeine than I would have liked, wrote a lot about the results of the long days nights in lab, submitted a paper to a journal, got rejected from that journal, submitted to another journal, finished my Master's, and continued to plan for the trip to Ghana.  Dates were finalized: we would leave for Ghana on May 15th, roughly 2.5 weeks after the Gettysburg Marathon.  It looked as though my training and the trip were all coming together, until about three weeks from when we were supposed to leave.

We received an call from the Embassy, saying that they could not process our visas!  Since that was right before race weekend, I thought little of it and ran the marathon, a new PR by almost 4.5 minutes.  I was not sure how many opportunities I would have to run in Ghana, so I decided to not take too much downtime just yet.  We tried contacting the Embassy with little luck.  After a week, a dangerous thought popped into my head: if I didn't get a visa and couldn't go to Ghana, I could still follow my original plan and run Buffalo. This seemed kind of crazy, but when crazy ideas get into my head, sometimes I decide to follow through with them.  I decided to test my recovery at the Bill Lawler 5K, six days after the marathon.  Somehow, I managed a 15:50 and decided to go ahead with a "retaper".  Another week passed, and I still didn't have a visa.  Five days before my planned flight date, I ran the CP Rochester Run for Fun 5K in 16:17.

It seemed as though running another marathon would be a legitimate possibility until two days before the flight date.  Other members of the group traveling to Ghana physically flew to Washington, D.C., explained the situation, and left with all of our visas in hand. Thus, my crazy idea came to an end.  It was kind of a downer after I had psyched myself up for it, but it was probably for the better.  Two marathons in a month?  I'm not built for that...yet.

Ghana was a very eye-opening experience, between the teaching, traveling, and running, enough for another post.  I'll close by mentioning that I decided to race the Medved 5K to Cure ALS the day after I returned from Ghana.  Between the lack of sleep, lack of real training, and jet lag, I didn't know what to expect.  Although my 16:34 wasn't amazing (15 seconds slower than last year), I'm still pleased with the result.  Roadkill as a whole had a great showing at the race too! The trip to Ghana was a huge unknown factor, as I didn't know how much I'd be able to run while there, if at all.  There is much work to be done, but I feel that I've maintained a decent amount of fitness.  Here's to getting fast this summer for Bergen!

Credit: Matt Roberts

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Gettysburg North-South Marathon

Get ready.  This might be a long one.

After a harsh training winter, it was finally time for the Gettysburg North-South Marathon on April 27.  The race was fairly small; there were 465 finishers this year.  Over a hilly course, each runner chooses a "side" to be on (North versus South).  The top male and female times for each side are added, and each member of the winning side gets a mug (spoiler alert: the North won).

I had done the best that I could with my training this winter, and I felt that this race would be my first legit shot at a sub-2:30 marathon. Fitness-wise, I felt that I was there.  However, the nature of the course would definitely present a challenge.  Here is a link to the map.   The course generally ascends early in the race, reaches its highest point soon after 7 miles, ascends once more before mile 11, then descends for the majority of the second half of the race.

I always try to have a few goals going into a big race.  My top goal for this one, if everything went perfectly, was to run under 2:30.  This would be a stretch, so my next goal was at least to PR, which meant running faster than 2:35:30.  I felt that this would definitely be doable, but in case something went horribly wrong on the course, my final goal was to be faster than 2:40.  This would at least convince me that my time under 2:40 from last year was not a fluke.

The conditions on race morning were near perfect.  At the start of the race, the sky was clear and the temperature was in the low 40s.  The only potentially unsettling aspect was the wind.  The wind wasn't strong enough to be a pain, but it was strong enough to be noticeable.  My dad came with me to the race, and he was planning on biking out to the 11th mile mark, which was also close to the 18th mile mark.  The other runners and I gathered to the starting line, and soon after 7:30 AM, we were off.

Starting off focused.  Credit: Ken Goodfellow

I knew that I had to stay in control early if I wanted to hit my goals.  Most of the uphills were in the first 11 miles of the course, and I figured that these miles would be my slowest.  There were three major climbs that I initially worried about, the first of which occurring just before the first mile marker.  I wanted to run the first mile no faster than 5:50; I made it in 5:52.  Excellent. (I don't remember all of my splits, as I had more important things on my mind, but I remember a fair number of them, give or take a second).   Soon after that, I started to pull away.  This started to worry me, as I was then through two miles in 11:22.   I made it to the first water station, gave the volunteer a Gatorade shower, decided I needed to work on my handoffs, and split through three miles around 17:20.  Confused at my pacing, I continued at the same effort, and after a couple more widely-spread splits (a low 5 and a low 6), I was through five miles in 28:45.  At this point, I was approaching the second hill on my worry list.

Soon after six miles, the lead bike backed off a little bit to chat with me.  We talked for a bit about my goals for the course, how I had to work on my aid station drinking, and how I wasn't worrying about pace until after 11 miles, but what surprised me was that I was easily talking!  This seemed to be a good sign for my effort level.  After cresting the big hill after mile 7, I split through 8 miles in 45:20.  I knew these next couple of miles would be a little quick before the final large hill during the 11th mile, and surely enough, after another brief, unforced conversation with the lead biker, I was through 10 miles in 56:30.  I still felt great up to this point, but I still had a whole lot of race left.  I made it up the final hill to the end of the 11th mile, the point where my dad saw me for the first time in the race.  I was through 11 miles in 1:02:32; I told myself before the race that I should be through 11 in no faster than 1:03.  I wondered how long this would last and kept pressing on.  

Just after 11 miles, with most of the hills behind me and still feeling strong. Credit: Ken Goodfellow
Another few miles flew by, and soon enough, I was through the half marathon in 1:14:06 (~5:39 per mile).  This was on the lower end of my goal time; I was hoping to be through the half between 1:14 and 1:16.  (On a side note, at this point, I thought about the Flower City Half Marathon, which was going on at the same time.  My two slowest half marathon times are at Flower City, and I wondered how my split would have stacked up this year.  Turns out, 1:14 would have placed 2nd.)  Along this next mile was one of the most dense spectator areas, which definitely helped to boost my confidence; aside from the pace bike, I was still alone.  Unfortunately, soon afterwards, I had a little bit of a momentum killer. Soon before the end of the 15th mile, one of the road marshals at one of the crossroads (at which I had to go straight) shouted at the pace biker "Hey, marshal!" to get his attention after we passed.  We both turned to look, and the road marshal seemed to make a movement with his flag up one of the side roads! Confused, I SLOWED briefly and yelled "Is this the turn?", to which the response was "No."  Great.  I regained momentum while the biker talked with the road marshal.  The biker quickly caught back up to me, and all was good, or so I thought.  Soon after finishing 15 miles, we turned (onto the correct road), but there was no one to direct other runners.  The biker made a phone call, and he was instructed to go back.  I finished 16 miles in 1:30:39, and now I was truly alone.

I continued to push on for the next few miles; the worst part of the course was already behind me.  There was another small spectator crowd, including my dad, during mile 18.  Over the next few miles, my pace stayed fairly steady and I felt comfortable over the downhills, but I lost track of my splits until I got to mile 21: 1:59:29 (~5:41 per mile).  I had slowed down a little bit over those last few miles.  Doing some quick on-course mental math, I realized that a sub-2:30 was still within reach, but I didn't have a whole lot of wiggle room.  (Sitting at my computer now, I can now calculate that I had to average 5:52 for the last 5.2 miles to be under 2:30.  A little more wiggle room than what my race brain was telling me but still not a lot).  Things would have to go pretty well for the rest of the race.

Things didn't go well.

Very soon after finishing 21 miles, I got a pain in my side that I thought was a cramp. Over the next half of a mile, it quickly progressed from "ouch" to "S*** this is unbearable!". Soon after, I did something I never thought I'd do: I stopped.

At this point, my inner dialogue went in all sorts of directions, from "What the f*** are you doing!?!" to "It's okay, you tried" to "Just take a break for a few seconds" to "But you're less than 5 miles from food!" (Yes, for some reason, in one of the most unsettling moments of my racing career, I was thinking about food).  I listened to the last two and started to run again after about 10 seconds.  The pain was still very present, but I could run with it.  I finished 22 miles in 2:06:32; the combination of stopping and the reduced pace when I started again cost me over a minute!  I continued to regain some momentum through the pain.  Right before the aid station before the end of the 23rd mile, I decided to look back.  I'm glad I did, but part of me wishes I hadn't.  In the distance, I saw another runner coming in hot with a biker. I figured I only had about a minute of lead at that point, if that.  I got to the aid station, threw Gatorade at my mouth for the last time, and went to work.  I pushed even more through the pain as I crossed 23 miles in 2:12:22.

Just over 2.5 miles to go and in pain. Credit: Ken Goodfellow

I saw my dad for the last time at the turn right before the end of the 24th mile.  (He later said that I still looked great and did not see the approaching runner). At this turn, I looked back and saw that I maybe had 30 seconds of lead, and I started to worry.  At this point, I also noticed that it was starting to get a little warm, but that was irrelevant.  I had to focus for the next 2.2 miles.  I continued to push and did not take any fluid at the final aid station right before the end of 25 miles, as that would likely not help and just slow me down.  I got through 25 miles and started to surge, or at least I attempted to.  Finally, after 25.5 miles, the runner caught me and soon passed me, and for the first time, I was not leading the race. I pushed to try to stay with him, but it was to no avail.  I tried several more times to surge, but the gap kept growing.  I made it through 26 miles (and I don't know why I looked at my watch) in 2:29:43, made the last turn, and watched the winner cross the finish line.  About 25 seconds later, I crossed the finish line in 2:31:08.  As it turns out, the top three runners all broke the old course record.

Finally almost finished. Credit: Gettysburg North-South Marathon

It was kind of disappointing that a cramp cost me a sub-2:30 marathon and the win, but it's all too easy to look back and be speculative about what could have happened differently.  No matter how well preparations for a marathon go, anything can happen to anyone over 26.2 miles.  Almost everything that I could control went as well as it could have gone.  My training this winter went well considering the weather, and my volume was about as high as I could go safely before risking overtraining or burnout or increasing my chances of injury greatly.  My nutrition before and during the race was excellent; I never felt like I "hit the wall" and had enough energy to keep going.  My pace early in the race may have been a little aggressive, but from an effort standpoint, I was not straining to maintain pace, at least before the pain in my side hit after 21 miles.  My time was a PR by 4 minutes and 22 seconds (about 10 seconds per mile). In all four of my marathons so far, I've run a positive split for the second half, but this positive split of just under 3 minutes (1:14:06/1:17:02) was my smallest one yet (my others were ~3.5 minutes, ~9 minutes, and ~20 minutes).  Every marathon is a learning experience, and this race is another step towards greater things to come.

So what's next?  I'll take a bit of downtime and maybe jump into a race for fun, but my first real summer fitness "assessment" will be the MEDVED 5K to Cure ALS in mid-June, and the focus will be shorter races at least until the Bergen Road Race in early August. I'm not sure what my next marathon will be, but I'm considering finding a flat, fast race this fall for (hopefully) sub-2:30 attempt #2!  We'll see. 

Special thanks to Ken Goodfellow for coming to support me and to Roadkill Racing for letting me run in an awesome singlet and for a great team.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Taper and pre-marathon thoughts

It's finally here! I'm only a few days and a couple of easy runs away from my next marathon in Gettysburg. The field is about 600 runners, so it's a little bigger than my last marathon (less than 400 total finishers). It's been a tough training winter, but I've done the best that I could.  I'm approaching the end of my taper, and this taper has been less frustrating than what I've remembered in the past.  Tapering is not an exact science, and cutting back mileage to try to strike a balance between being optimally-rested while losing the least amount of fitness is tough.   I'm a fan of the three week taper, but in the past I've mostly forgone workouts of almost any kind during the taper period, aside from one or two short marathon-paced runs.  All of that easy running let me feel rested, but towards the end of the taper, I would REALLY have to restrain my normal pace-pushing self to not crush every run.  This time, I included a few workouts and a race:

At the end of the first taper week, I ran the 10,000 meter run at the ROC City Classic as a final tune-up for the marathon.  Due to the general lack of 10Ks that I've raced since college, my PR of 33:32 was over three years old (although I did tie this during one of the Freezeroo races this year).  At the very least, I was hoping to run a new PR and break 33:00.  Talking with Dave the day before, I mentioned that if everything worked perfectly, 32:30 would be a possibility.  I initially thought of going out in 16:00-16:15 for 5K, but due to the small size of the field, this would likely mean that I would be alone in a suicide quest.  I planned to stay with the pack for 5K and go from there.  Of course, the race started and plans unraveled quickly; I hit the 5K split in 16:02 and got a little scared.  Although I slowed down a bit over the second half of the race, I still crossed the finish line in 32:28 for a huge PR.  For the end of a still fairly high-mileage week, this was a good sign.

Kicking in to a new PR.  Photo credit: Matt Roberts

The second taper week included more of a cutback in mileage, but I also wanted to included a little bit of intensity, more to increase mental confidence than increase fitness.  I included an eight-mile marathon pace(ish) run but also tried a track workout. The goal was 3 miles (17:00), 2 x mile (5:15 each), 2 miles (11:20) with rest in between.  The paces would be fast enough to be beneficial without being too taxing.  Instead, feeling good and employing my normal lack of restraint when that happens, my times ended up being 16:30, 5:07, 5:10, 10:50.  The paces didn't feel like I was pushing, and the workout was a good confidence booster, but I'll see if or how these paces (still 10 days out from the race) affect me.

I always have worried about the final week of the taper, despite all of the training being behind me.  I don't want to run too much to be tired on race day, but I also want to run enough as to not feel flat.   In the past, I've done about 30 miles in the week leading up to the marathon, which was on the low side.  I didn't cut back as much this time and threw in a small mid-week tempo to keep the legs awake.  Even with this being my fourth marathon, I'm still learning the taper.  Whether my attempt worked this time or not, I've learned for the next time. 

As the marathon approaches, I have a rough idea of what my goals could be.  At the very least, I would like to improve my PR of 2:35:31 from last year.  Anything can happen on the course, though.  I learned the hard way during my second marathon, the Buffalo Marathon in 2012, to stay calm early.  During this marathon, I thought I had a chance at sub-2:40 for the first time, perhaps even lower.  I started the race feeling confident and was through the first mile in 5:45 before I knew it.  Against my better judgement, I did not reduce my pace immediately; my first mile around 6:00 was mile 11!  After that it was a long, slow, painful 15-mile death march that caused me to be very far from my time goal.  As for my upcoming marathon, most of the uphills are in the first 11 miles.  Based on the numbers that I've found, I have the fourth best PR of the field, but that doesn't bother me.  All that matters is what happens on race day, and if I run smart, I can be competitive.  I just have to remember to relax, stay calm early, and trust in the training.