Thursday, December 30, 2010

I blog to save lives!

No, this is not one of those things where for every person who visits my blog, 50 cents will be donated to cancer research in Zimbabwe (in which case I would raise an astounding $2). My friends, I blog to save the lives of FASTies. You see, Coach Brad has revealed to me on more than one occasion that he tries to come up with crazy workouts just so I'll blog about them. If I don't blog frequently enough about the craziness of FAST, apparently he takes that as his cue to come up with increasingly insane workouts. Last night he tried to kill us all, and this simply must stop!

So what was last night's epic workout that had so many of us gasping for air and begging for mercy, you ask? Allow me to show you. Keep in mind that 1 mile is 7.5 laps-ish (give or take a little bit depending on which lane you run in):

Black Group Workout
8 lap warm-up
1 lap hard, 1 lap easy
2 laps hard, 2 laps easy
3 laps hard, 3 laps easy,
4 laps hard
*3-minute core work routine
4 laps easy
3 laps hard, 3 laps easy
2 laps hard, 2 laps easy
1 lap hard, 1 lap easy
*Special surprise for Black and Red groups
4 lap cooldown

This adds up to a about 5.87 miles, not including the "special surprise". The items I have starred are what made this workout a real doozy. Going straight from running a hard 1/2 mile to lying on the floor doing bicycle crunches was... nauseating, to say the least. I really wanted to walk around for a few minutes to catch my breath, but Evil Coach Maggie would have none of it. I was so fatigued from the intense running that I couldn't even hold a plank for a full minute. Since you all know that I am the Plankmaster, I think this is pretty good evidence that it's freakin' hard to drop and do core work in the middle of an interval run. And then we had to get right back up and start running again!

As I ran my intervals, Coach Brad kept yelling at me to catch up with Kristi and Danielle who were a quarter lap ahead of me and steadily increasing that gap. It seemed Brad had completely lost his mind by that point and had turned into a sort of mad scientist, complete with deranged cackling. "PUSH IT!" he yelled. "I AM! But I can't catch up to them!" I yelled back. "I don't care! BWAHAHAHA!" he yelled back. Oh yeah, he had definitely lost it.

I never did catch Kristi and Danielle - they are just too speedy for me. But I tried to keep them in sight, which did give me a little extra push (or pull). Before I knew it, I was coming up to my last hard interval - just one hard lap. I gave it everything I had and managed a 6:52 pace for that one lap. Not too shabby. Below you can see my awesome Excel graph of the workout, complete with labeled intervals. *cough cough* geek! *cough*

(Click to see it bigger.)

After that tough workout, I was pretty fried and pretty much ready to cool down, stretch, and go home. But no. Evil Coach Brad had a little surprise tucked up his sleeve for us. He wouldn't tell us in advance what exactly it was, but I smelled a maintenance mile. When I asked him outright "Are we doing a maintenance mile?" he just shrugged and walked away. Silence speaks a thousand words. Or in this case, it speaks two words: maintenance mile.

I was askeered! I had never done a maintenance mile before. It is a special form of torture that, until yesterday, was reserved for only the very fastest of the FASTies. I have watched several of my fellow FASTies do it and seen the pained looks on their faces as they nearly collapse from fatigue at the end of it. I wasn't sure if I was ready for such an arduous task.

So what exactly is a maintenance mile, you ask?

It is an all-out, balls-to-the-wall, run-til-you-collapse (or puke) one-mile run. What makes it so scary is that it comes after a tough workout, and you are never warned about it in advance. You don't know it's coming until it's time to do it. What is the advantage of the surprise? Well, for one thing, it prevents the you from running a little easier in the workout in order to save up energy for the mile. The idea of the maintenance mile is to gauge your fitness in a pre-fatigued state. It also builds confidence because as it turns out, most people can do this exercise a lot faster than they think they can. All of the FASTies who did the maintenance mile last night ran faster than they predicted.

Coach Brad asked me for a prediction. How fast did I think I could gut out a full-steam mile in my current state of exhaustion? I hemmed and hawed. I didn't want to sell myself short, but I also didn't want to predict something way too fast. I finally settled on 8:30. I was pretty sure I could run 8:30. It would be tough, but it was just one mile, right?

And so I ran as fast I thought I could sustain for 7.5 laps. After a couple of laps it got really hard really fast. I didn't look at my Garmin except to keep track of my lap count - I rarely check my pace while I'm running workouts with FAST as I prefer to run by feel and then analyze the data later on. So I really didn't know how fast I was going, but I knew that I really couldn't go any faster. I was vaguely aware of some of my fellow FASTies along the side of the track cheering for me, but I did not have any spare energy to acknowledge them. I would like to acknowledge them now, though, because they really did help me push - thanks guys!

Finally, I was starting my 7th lap. Just 1/2 lap to go! I wanted to kick, but I was already at maximum capacity, so I just worked to hold my pace. When I hit the Stop button on my Garmin and looked at my time, I was astonished: 7:37.

And then I died. (But I got better!) I walked the remaining half-lap back to the start and Coach Brad asked for my time. When I told him my time, he nearly fell over. "Was that a PR for you???" he asked. Well, no. Technically, my one-mile PR is from the downhill Main Street Mile back in June (7:10). And my next best mile was the first mile of the Lincoln-Douglas 3 Mile race, which I ran in 7:31. But, as Brad pointed out, for both of those miles I was fresh. Yesterday's mile came after a grueling nearly-6-mile workout and was not downhill. So while not technically a PR, it was still an impressive effort given the circumstances.

Upon analyzing my lap splits, I was rather impressed with myself for maintaining a rather consistent pace throughout the mile. Each lap was not more than 2 seconds off 1:00. I died off a bit in the last lap and a half, but even that "death" was not a huge decrease in pace. I never fell below a 7:45 pace.

It's all well and good to look at this run data and feel proud of what I accomplished in my nearly 7-miles of running last night. But I don't want the coaches to go and get the false impression that we FASTies like to do these sorts of workouts or that we enjoy maintenance miles. Because then they'll start making up crazier and crazier workouts just to keep us "entertained", and frankly, I don't think I can handle anymore "entertainment".

I would like a nice boring workout please! How about an Easy 4 followed by an Easier 2? Or better yet, since I know the coaches love to have us do repeats, how about 4 x 800m at warm-up pace, with 2 minutes of cookie-munching recovery in between? For the core work, Coach Maggie could toss Skittles (or M&M's or *insert candy of choice*) into our mouths every time we come up for a crunch. Really, I don't know why the coaches don't seek out my ideas more often, since clearly I am chock-full of them.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go run some easy repeats with peanut butter cup recoveries....

Peace. Love. Train.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Thoughts on being "advanced", and a new method for torture

Wednesday night FAST began as any other FAST workout. We did our ridiculous-looking dynamic warm-up exercises (I wonder what the regular gym members must think when they see this huge group of people heel-walking through the lobby area). Then the coaches informed us that we would be divided up into three different groups for our workout - this was new. The groups would be White, Red and Black (FAST colors, in case anyone's wondering). As we ascended the stairs to the track area, Coach Brad assigned us to our respective groups. "Red, red, white, black, black, red, white..." When I reached the top of the stairs he looked at me and said "Black".

Well, there ya go. Black must be the slow group.

Oh sure, they would try to make us all feel equal by not putting speed/ability labels on the groups. After all, it wouldn't be very motivating to have the groups called Slow, Medium and Fast. Or Sloth, Tortoise and Hare. But let's face it, any group that I'm in can't be very high-performing.

But a strange thing happened as we all started gathering in our assigned groups. I looked around at my fellow Black group teammates and noticed they were all the fastest runners. These were the people who train at a pace at which I cannot even hope to race. Something wasn't right here. Coach Brad told us that the workout would be partner mile repeats. For this workout, pairs of runners take turns running overlapping mile repeats. Partners run together for half of each repeat, so ideally, each pair of runners would be well-matched in terms of pace. I looked around at the Black group members and found that nobody was well-matched to my pace (that is to say, slow).

Surely the coaches made a mistake.

I alerted Coach Brad to his error.

"Um, I think you put me in the wrong group... *gesturing to all the really fast runners around me* There's nobody here I could partner with."

"No, I want you in the advanced group. Trust me."

Well, first of all, never trust anyone who says "Trust me." And second of all, that still didn't help with the partner situation.

Then Jim, a very nice man who is new to FAST, offered to pair up with me. I told him to please not worry about staying with me - I didn't mind if he ran ahead during the segments we would be running "together". He said he had a foot injury and might have to slow down a bit anyway. We were to do 4 overlapping mile repeats. Jim started first, and I waited for him to get halfway through his mile and then I jumped in to join him. It was pretty apparent from the get-go that even with an injured foot, Jim was still a much faster runner than me.

After a couple of repeats, I questioned Brad's logic again. I did not feel like I belonged in this group. I lamented over the fact that I would probably be the last person to finish. He assured me that even though I may not be the fastest person in the Black group, that he really did think it was where I should be. He said that if he had put me in another group, I wouldn't be sufficiently challenged.


Well, when he put it that way it made a lot more sense. I wasn't in the advanced group because I was fast (because I'm clearly not). I was in the advanced group so I could become faster!

I ran my mile repeats consistently, and I felt great. Jim ended up pulling a hamstring after his second repeat and was forced to end his workout early. I was left to finish my workout alone... until I realized I could keep up with Kristi and her teenage daughter, Danielle, who were also in the Black group. So I ran my last repeat with them and finished my workout strong.

I am still not entirely sure I am Black Group material... but maybe if I run with them long enough, I will become Black Group material. Maybe...

Overall, it was a great week of running and I was looking forward to getting my Sunday 20-miler out of the way. I really, really, really wanted to be able to run it outside because I am getting so sick of doing long runs indoors... but alas, it was not meant to be.

There are plenty of brave souls who would run on snow and ice. I am not one of them. The roads in my area were still a right mess. The road shoulders were buried in snow, the sidewalks were spotty at best and there were patches of ice everywhere. In short, there was simply nowhere to run but the middle of the road. Given the number of drivers who have tried to personally run me off the side of the road on days when the roads were clear, I thought that this was probably not a safe option. And so I resigned myself to another indoor long run. *sigh*

The good news was that I didn't have to run it alone. Kristi wanted to get 15 miles in, and she said she would start at about 8am. I decided to start my run early (at about 7:15), so that I wouldn't be alone for the final miles, when the run would be the most difficult.

I decided to break up my run into 4-mile chunks. Four miles on the track, 4 on the treadmill, 4 on the track, and so on and so forth. My first 4 miles on the track passed quickly and easily. The track was nice and and cool and the big windows provided ample scenery to keep my mind occupied. At one point I looked out the window and saw a huge bald eagle sitting in a tree outside. I stopped to take a picture of its majestic beauty.

Crappy iPhone picture of bald eagle. It's that blob at the top of the tree. Trust me.

I was reminded of how lucky I am to live in a country where I can run. I felt patriotic and proud.

Then I got on the treadmill and my patriotism and pride went out the window as I experienced the most mind-numbingly-boring, never-ending, hot-and-sweaty, why-am-I-doing-this-to-myself torture I had ever experienced. And it was only 4 miles! Why did it feel so insanely difficult? I have run 4 miles on the treadmill many times. I have run more than 4 miles and it has been fine. But for some reason, the treadmill was not my friend that day. I felt like I was being tortured for information. And by the third mile, I wanted to confess something... ANYTHING... just so I could get off the damn treadmill. (Anyone who is in the professional torturing business should take note of this.)

After I finally got off the treadmill, I quickly reevaluated my plan. There was no way I was going to make it through another 4-mile chunk on the treadmill. Kristi had arrived by that point and mentioned she was going to run in 2-mile chunks. Oh - that's a good idea! I think I can do that! I think I can survive the treadmill in 2-mile chunks!

Turned out it was a pretty close thing. I finished another 4 miles on the refreshingly cool track with no trouble (2 of those miles with Kristi), then headed back to the treadmill for 2 miles. I chose a different machine - one that had a big fan pointed right at it. I needed some airflow. There were two televisions within viewing range so I thought I would just listen to my music while watching whatever was on the tv's. Well, one tv was tuned to the Country Music Network, and the other tv was tuned to Fox News. Are you freaking kidding me??? The torture factor increased tenfold (take note again, professional torturers!). So I spent my two miles reading a poster on the wall about heart rate training. But hey, at least I had airflow!

Then it was another 2 miles on the track, then back to the treadmill for my final treadmill chunk. I almost didn't make it. The first treadmill I got on wasn't right. It was weirdly bouncy and I could swear it was tilted. I felt like I was running on a banked road. I made it through 0.4 miles and then I hopped on the next treadmill over. It was much better in terms of bounce and tilt, but there was no fan, and thus, no airflow. I NEED AIRFLOW, PEOPLE! I started sweating like... well.. like a pig. After a mile on that machine, with sweat pouring down my face and into my eyes, I called it quits on that machine. But I still needed to do another 0.6 miles on the treadmill.

You may be wondering why I didn't just go back to the track. Well, all that track running was starting to bother my hips. I could feel my right hip tightening up with every turn (that was the hip pointing toward the outside of the track). I didn't want to do more than 12 miles total on the track just to avoid having too many uneven stresses on my body. So I had to find another treadmill, STAT.

Kristi had mentioned that some of the treadmills had built-in fans. I needed one of those. I prowled around the cardio equipment, looking for the sacred treadmill-with-built-in-fan. Finally... eureka! I hopped on, turned the fan to High (which really wasn't that blowy, but hey, it was better than nothing), and finished the remaining 0.6 miles of treadmill time in relative comfort.

Then it was just 2 more miles on the track and I was done! Thankfully, mercifully, happily, wonderfully DONE!

It was the longest 20 miles I have ever run. It took me 3:46, which wasn't my slowest 20-miler by far, but it wasn't my fastest either. Frankly, I'm amazed I was able to keep my pace consistent through the whole thing. In fact, I even managed to run negative splits. I suspect it was because I was starving and really wanted to have lunch. I'll always run faster for food.

After some much-needed stretching, Kristi and I did go get some food. One World Cafe makes the best French toast in the whole world. That's not an exaggeration. It is the best. And after 20 miles of running around in circles and/or running on a glorified hamster wheel, it is a well-deserved treat. And also, it is necessary for replenishing carbohydrate stores. True story.

Bread and syrup - excellent sources of post-run carbs

I poured the syrup all over my french toast and dug in. Then I realized Kristi was ever-so-daintily dipping her french toast chunks into the syrup. I almost felt guilty about pouring the syrup on, but then I remembered I ran 5 more miles than she did, so I earned the extra syrup. As far as I'm concerned, running 20+ miles earns you an Eat Whatever You Want For The Rest Of The Day ticket. Heck, I think running 15 miles can earn you that ticket too. So go ahead Kristi, pour that syrup on next time! You've earned it!

Peace. Love. Train.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Most Wonderful Time of the Year MY FOOT!

Winter has arrived in Central Illinois. Not in the astronomical sense, of course (because it's not technically winter until December 21), but definitely in the meteorological sense. As I type this, there is a blizzard outside. I'm not even exaggerating. We are under an actual Blizzard Warning. It is so windy that the blowing snow is creating white-out conditions, and it is bitterly cold (current wind chill 4º). Doesn't that sound awesome?

The current view from my back porch. There are houses back there, I swear.

So... who wants to go out for a run?


*crickets chirping*

Nobody? Well thank goodness, because I don't want to go out there either. I HATE the cold, and I HATE winter. December has been brutal already... I don't even want to think about how awful January is going to be. And have I mentioned that I HATE winter?

At least there is one good thing about winter: Winter FAST. Without it, I would be lost. Sadly, Winter FAST only meets once a week. But the winter running season is typically more about base-building and working on strength, form, and endurance. So having just one tough group workout per week is okay.

Our first group run was this past Wednesday, and it was great to see all of the veteran FASTies as well as the many new faces. It looks like we're going to have a really big group this winter - probably well over 30 people!

Winter FAST meets at the Riverplex, a local health club that has a large indoor track. This allows us to do speedwork and time trials and the like. There's also plenty of room for Coach Maggie to inflict her unique forms of torture on us. She calls it the "dynamic warm-up", which makes it sound all scientific (e.g, "9 out of 10 exercise physiologists recommend a dynamic warm-up"). But us veteran FASTies know the truth. She just wants us to look ridiculous in public. Take, for example, the "Crocodile Walk". It involves getting into a low lunge position and then swinging the back leg forward while staying in the low lunge position so that you end up lunging on the other leg, repeated several times. While the lunge itself isn't hard to do, it is quite difficult to walk in a low lunge position. Coach Maggie says this move is designed to warm up and stretch the hips. I think it's designed to make people point and laugh at us. I mean, just look at us:

This picture would be 10 times more effective if it were a video.

Have you ever seen a crocodile walk like that? Me either. So don't ask me why this move is called the Crocodile Walk. Maybe it makes you easier prey for crocodiles, because let's face it, if you're doing this, you can't run away very well. In which case, I'm glad there aren't any crocodiles at the Riverplex.

After our "dynamic warm-up", we headed up to the track where the coaches told us we would be doing a time trial for our first workout of the season. We were given the option of doing either a 1, 2 or 3-mile time trial, depending on current level of running fitness. The coaches wanted to get a gauge of our current ability. Of course I went with the 3 mile option. After a 1 mile warm-up, I took off for my 3 miles. It was tough, no doubt about it. Time trials are always difficult. But I ran negative splits and managed to avoid hurling, so I consider it a success.

My time was 25:37, which is certainly not a personal record, but I was still proud of it. Why? Because I knew it was an improvement over the last 3-mile time trial I did, which was way back in January (also at Winter FAST). After I got home, I looked up my results from that old time trial so I could compare, and indeed, I ran the 3 miles almost 2 minutes faster this time. In January, I ran it in 27:26, a 9:21 pace. This time, I ran it at an 8:44 pace. That is a marked improvement. Yay me!

And yay FAST! I would not have seen that improvement without the help of FAST. I am very fortunate to have such enthusiastic, knowledgeable and fun coaches. Without them (and without my fellow FASTies) I would almost certainly not push myself as hard.

Of course, without them, I would also not look like a fool doing "crocodile walks" all around the gym. But perhaps becoming a better runner is worth a little embarrassment. And maybe my hips do feel a little looser...

Peace. Love. Train.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cold weather running is FUN!

At least, that's what I keep trying to tell myself as I push through the teeth-chattering miles of the winter months. I'm not sure if I believe it yet, though. These last few weeks, I've been doing a lot of indoor running for various reasons (such as safety, health, and general wussiness). Well, running indoors has spoiled me. This weekend, I took my running outside for a change, and, well, it hurt.

I started the weekend off with a race. How bad could it be?, I asked myself. It's just 4 miles. I'll be done before I even notice that it's cold! I carried these reassuring thoughts with me to the starting line. But as I stepped off the toasty shuttle bus and felt the bitter arctic blast on my face, those thoughts disappeared.

It was about 25º at the start of the FOLEPI River Trail Classic, with a wind chill of about 21º. This is pretty much my lower temperature limit for running outdoors. Any colder than this and I wimp out and take my run inside. I had on two layers of pants and two layers of tops, plus gloves and a hat. You would think this would be plenty. You would think wrong.

The course for this race is more-or-less straight-line point-to-point route along the East Peoria bike trail (which is fully paved). The race begins with a short section heading east before making a hairpin turn onto the bike path to head west for the rest of the race. As we rounded the hairpin turn, I could tell we were in for a real treat because the wind was coming out of the west... which meant the wind would be in our faces for the entire race. *begin sarcasm* Oh yay! *end sarcasm*

And so I ran as best I could with numb feet, foggy glasses and tears streaming down my face from the bitterly cold wind. I felt like I was running with concrete blocks attached to my legs; that's how numb my feet were. I wished I had electric socks. Well, actually, I wished I was at home snuggled under six blankets with a space heater aimed at myself. But since I knew I couldn't get home to my blankets and space heater if I didn't get to the damn finish line, I knew I would just have to suck it up.

I was told this was a downhill race, and that it was good for setting a PR because of the elevation drop. I was also warned that the downhill doesn't start until about a mile into the race. So my strategy was to run the first mile at a conservative pace (sort of a warm-up, really), then turn on all the engines when I hit the downhill. My previous best for a 4 mile race was 35:15, an 8:48 pace. I figured I should be able to run an 8:30 pace given the cooler conditions and downhill course.

As I passed the first mile marker and looked down at my Garmin, I saw that I had run my first mile in 8:30. Oops. So much for being conservative in the first mile. The course started to visibly drop at about Mile 1.5 and I felt like I was flying. Yes, my eyes were frozen open (better than frozen shut, I guess), my feet were still numb, and I had icicles hanging from my nose (aka, snotcicles), but I was flying.

The downhill section appeared to level off around Mile 3, but it was still a gentle decline. Which meant that I was still flying. But in order to fly at the same pace, I had to work a little harder. As I passed the Mile 3 marker, the discomfort of running fast has firmly set in and the race turned into a mental battle between the desire to back off to ease the discomfort, and the desire to keep pushing for a strong finish. Just one more mile to go. At the rate I was going, that was only 8 more minutes. Surely I could hold onto my pace for 8 more minutes.

In my final push, I cursed the three hills that were so close to the finish. They were small in actuality, but they felt like mountains to my fatigued legs. I rounded the final corner and I could actually see the finish line up ahead. I wiped the snotcicles from my nose, gathered every last bit of energy I could muster, and made a mad dash for the finish. I was vaguely aware of my in-laws standing on the sideline taking pictures but I did not have any extra energy to smile or wave or look remotely alive. I saw my husband at the finish line cheering me on. And in 32:34, I crossed the finish: a new PR, by over 2:30.

Incidentally, my husband also ran a PR, and finished about 50 seconds ahead of me. And our friend Niki also ran a PR. Coincidence? I think not....

As it turns out, there is a net elevation drop of over 250 feet. Check out the Garmin data, particularly the green elevation graph. Downhill, baby!

The post-race festivities were great and, thankfully, indoors. They were serving up yogurt, fruit, popcorn and pizza. All in all, a very nice race: well-organized, fast, and with nice amenities. Yes, it was freakin' cold. But I did eventually regain feeling in my feet, and my eyeballs did thaw out. So maybe this cold-weather running stuff wasn't so bad after all.

Feeling empowered by my success at the FOLEPI run on Saturday, I decided to take my Sunday long run outdoors as well. The Stashies were meeting in the usual place to run a 10 mile route, and that's exactly how far I was planning to run - perfect! The weather website told me it would be a bit warmer on Sunday morning than it was on Saturday, so I was thinking it would be a piece of cake.

Ha. Hahahaha.

As I started running down University Ave, I quickly realized it would not be a piece of cake. No, despite the fact that it was technically warmer than Saturday morning, it was a whole lot windier and consequently, felt a whole lot colder. My cheeks burned and my eyes watered and I was highly tempted to turn around, get into my car, and drive to the gym since nobody in their right mind would be running in this weather. And yet there I was, along with several Stashies, running against the icy wind. Clearly, none of us were in our right mind. It's the only explanation.

I did not dress warmly enough for this run. I didn't feel adequately warmed up until about Mile 6. And I think that even then, I only felt warmer because I was running with the wind finally. The snotcicle situation was far more dire than it was on Saturday. I lamented the fact that I had not brought any tissues along. I stopped at a Starbucks along the way for a potty break and learned that when you're wearing seven layers of clothes, going to the bathroom is a workout unto itself. The whole run, I felt slow, sluggish and tired. I had just raced the day before, so maybe I was still recovering from that.

I kept chugging along and before I knew it, I was high-fiving my fellow Stashies on a job well-done. I wasn't thrilled about the run, but hey, at least it was done. I rewarded myself with a peppermint mocha from Starbucks and headed home.

Upon reviewing my Garmin data, I noticed something interesting. I was not nearly as slow and sluggish as I thought I was. In fact, I ran at a faster pace than I would normally run my long runs. So my long run actually went a lot better than I thought it did.

It doesn't look like the weather will be warming up much for the foreseeable future. This means that I better get used to running in the cold, whether I like it or not. And I will also have to accept that these snotcicles are here to stay. I'll just think of them as a hot new running accessory.

Peace. Love. Train.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Marathon Training Strategery and a Huge Milestone!

Experts in the field of running (runologists?) often advise athletes to simulate anticipated race day conditions in their training in order to be better prepared for their target race. I have implemented this concept time and time again: For the Flying Pig Marathon, I trained on hilly terrain. For the Chicago Marathon, I trained in the blistering heat of summer, and incorporated a lot of goal-pace miles. Did it help? You bet it did. I managed to PR in both marathons.

The experts call this Specificity of Training. Since I am hardly an expert, I call it Marathon Training Strategery.

So why wouldn't I implement this tactic for my next marathon?

The conditions of my next marathon are very easy to predict, which makes Marathon Training Strategery incredibly easy to accomplish. There will be no hills, no wind, and it will be exactly 55°F. It sounds like the perfect marathon, doesn't it? Oh, yeah, and it consists of over 95 laps around an indoor track at an ice arena.

Wait. What?

That's right! Fellow FASTie / Stashie, Kristi, and I are officially registered for the Icebreaker Indoor Marathon. This unique event is held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the middle of January. It's a beautiful time of year in Milwaukee.


Sorry, I just couldn't keep a straight face for that one.

For those of you not well-acquainted with the upper midwest, let me assure you that mid-January is not generally a good time of year to run outdoors for any length of time, and it's definitely not a good time of year to run a marathon. But that doesn't mean that people in this area don't want to run marathons. We just have to be creative. So if we can't run a marathon outside, we must do the the next best thing and run it inside. There are basically two options for runners forced indoors - treadmills and indoor tracks.

Now personally, I would rather have my arms chewed off by hyenas than run more than about 8 miles on a treadmill. There's just nothing worse than running and running and running and going absolutely nowhere. I'm pretty sure a treadmill marathon could be used as a form of torture to get confessions out of people. ("Tell me where you hid the body or I'm gonna set the incline to 10%!") Also, the logistics of holding a treadmill marathon could be rather tricky. You'd need a lot of electrical power, a lot of precision-calibrated treadmills, and some sort of backup in case any treadmills break down. Add to that the extra safety concerns of treadmill running and the ease of cheating (just put your feet on the side rails to take a break!) and the disadvantages of a treadmill marathon become too great to overcome.

This leaves us with the indoor track. The indoor track is marginally more enjoyable than the treadmill. There is the obvious advantage of actually making forward progress. However no matter how you dice it, you're still just running around in circles. So why would anyone want to run a marathon on an indoor track? Because it's different. Because it's flat and temperature-controlled. Because it's like a 5-hour-long party with 120 of your closest friends but instead of dancing, everyone is running. Because it's fun!

Before you start questioning my sanity on that last point, I urge you to skim through some of the reviews and reports of people who have run this marathon in previous years. A race doesn't earn countless 5-star ratings by being boring or poorly-organized. This has Kristi and me very excited about all the fun we're going to have running around in circles.

Now, getting back to my Marathon Training Strategery...

When my training schedule called for a 14 miler this past weekend, and the weather was just way too cold and windy for my still-recovering-from-a-cold lungs, I decided to take my run to the track. I figured it would be boring because, well, 14 miles is 168 laps at my gym, and if that isn't boring, I don't know what is.

But it turned out Kristi wasn't a fan of the predicted cold and wind either, and she decided to join me on the track for 14 miles of strategery. We agreed to meet at the gym right when it opened at 7am Sunday morning. We were either really dedicated or really crazy. Maybe a little of both.

When I arrived at the gym, there were exactly 3 other cars in the parking lot. The locker room was silent except for the whirring of a tabletop fan. Most of the lights were turned off in the big gym / track. It was like some kind of fitness ghost town.

Kristi and I started our run in the "wrong" direction. That is, we ran clockwise even though everyone is supposed to go counterclockwise on Sundays. We were breaking the law. Thwarting authority. Living on the edge. Oh yeah. Our plan was to run the "wrong" way whenever there was nobody else on the track, so that we wouldn't get any muscle imbalances or unusual stresses from always running in the same direction. (Yes, this is a valid concern for indoor track running and a real cause of injuries!)

I kept track of our laps. At first, this was discouraging. After 12 laps, we had covered one measly mile. Which meant we still had 13 miles to go. But as we got further into our run, the large numbers kept us motivated.

"84 laps! We're halfway!"

"100 laps - woo hoo!"

"120 laps - that's 10 miles!"

Sometimes we chatted about this and that, and sometimes we were content with our own thoughts. Our pace stayed consistent and comfortable throughout the run, averaging 55-56 seconds per lap. We stopped every 4-5 miles to have a drink and get some fuel (and I would have a brief coughing fit). Before we knew it, we had only two miles to go. And then one. And then two laps to go. And then one. And then we were done.

If we can survive 168 laps on a dark and uninteresting track, then surely we can survive a mere 95 laps on around an interesting ice rink with lots of other people and cheering fans. Yes, Marathon Training Strategery has given us confidence.

Will we be doing all of our long runs on the indoor track? Not if we can help it! But at least we now know we can do it (without dying of boredom) if we need to. Now, I would love to show you my Garmin data from this run, but it's... well... boring. It's just a long list of laps and lap times. But I have taken the liberty of creating a lovely Excel chart for you so that you don't have to look at a long list of laps. Because I'm just nice like that.

Look how we finished strong! That's also part of Marathon Training Strategery!

Now it's time for a change of subject. My loyal readers, it is time for a celebration!

*throws confetti in a festive manner*

Why, you ask? Because I realized (a little too late) that my last blog post was my 100th! Hard to believe I've been rambling on for over 100 posts now. Even harder to believe that people keep reading them! To celebrate this momentous occasion, I have baked a cake to share with all of you, my awesome readers.

I bet you didn't know I had such mad cake-decorating skillz. Or that I apparently really like birds. And pointy rosebud things. And that I know Japanese (it roughly translates to "Long live the blog of awesomeness!" True story.). Believe me, it all came as a shock to me too!

So everyone gather round and I'll slice you off a hunk of bird or rosebud. Thank you all for reading. Without you, I would be basically talking to myself. I'm a marathoner - I don't need any more evidence in support of my insanity. So, again, thank you.

*throws more confetti in a festive manner*

Peace. Love. Train.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Madness of a different kind

No, I'm not talking about taper madness.

I'm talking about the madness that comes from really, really, REALLY wanting to run, but being unable to due to Mr. Rhinovirus and his cohorts in crime.

'Tis the season for colds and flus and all manner of icky illnesses, and I thought I was going to make it through unscathed. I was doing all the usual precautionary things - eating lots of fruits and veggies, washing my hands obsessively, opening doors with a paper towel, avoiding sick people, or spraying them with Lysol if I was forced to be near them, ingesting overdose quantities of Vitamin C. You know, all the normal germ-prevention stuff.

(For the record, I don't really spray people with Lysol, although I have been tempted to... )

But alas, there is something nasty afoot in the Greater Peoria Area. It has no mercy. It has taken down people who claim to never get sick. Like my optometrist, who had to cancel my yearly eye exam due to being sick for the first time like 40 years. Like my massage therapist, who had to cancel several days worth of appointments, which I know is not something she takes lightly. There is nowhere to go for eye exams or massages in this town! If this isn't a state of emergency, I don't know what is.

And like me. I never get sick. The last time I was sick... well, I don't even remember it, that's how long ago it was. I had some sniffly head thing when I was training for the Flying Pig, but I'd hardly call it "sick". I managed to run 16 miles in the middle of it, so I definitely wasn't sick. But this thing that's going around right now... it made me SICK. Lying-on-the-sofa-trying-to-moan-but-can't-because-I'm-too-busy-blowing-my-nose-all-the-live-long-day-and-that's-all-I-have-the-energy-to-do sick. I felt like I had been hit by the proverbial bus.

The worst part of it was I just couldn't run. I barely had the energy to walk down the hall to fetch a new box of tissues. I certainly wasn't going to be running the 10k race I was hoping to run on Saturday, or the 14 mile long run I had planned on Sunday.

So I did the next best thing.

I watched other people run from the comfort of my couch. Yes, I sat (and sometimes lay) on my couch and watched the Florida Ironman competition (when I would've been running the 10k race), and the New York City Marathon (when I would've been running 14 miles).

It was good, in that I think I got my heart rate up a little bit cheering for various athletes. ("YAY SHALANE!!! *cough cough hack*") But it was bad in that it just made me want to run even more. I would be lying if I said I wasn't tempted to just try to run. Just to see how it would go. I thought to myself, Maybe I'll miraculously feel better! Maybe I'll discover a previously unknown talent for running while completely unable to breathe!

Yeah, right. *snort*

Maybe I'll end up in the fetal position on the ground by the side of the road, hoping for some kind stranger to help me figure out how to get home. Knowing my luck, I would instead end up with a dog using me as a fire hydrant.

And so I was forced to rest my weary germ-infested body for a full six days before I attempted to run again.

When I finally did go out for that first glorious run, it went something like this:

start run * cough* run run *cough cough* run run run run run run *cough* run run run run run run run run run run run run run run run run run run run run run run run run finish *cough cough cough cough cough cough cough*

If anyone saw or heard me, they were probably a bit alarmed by all the coughing. But it wasn't a bad thing - the run just loosened up my phlegm and I needed to hork it up. Oh I assure you, that's every bit as attractive as it sounds. Later that evening, I felt much less congested. And thus the healing power of running is proven once again. Every day I run some more, and every day I feel a little better.

My first run after six days of madness. I'm sure I set some sort of land-speed record for running while coughing.

And so my madness comes to an end, hopefully for a very long time. Well, at least until my regularly-scheduled taper madness begins again. That'll be in January, in case you're wondering. Consider yourself warned.

Peace. Love. Train.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Move over Hill of Death... there's a new kid in town!

It's been weeks since I've written about a training run. Since Summer/Fall FAST has come to an end, there haven't been any crazy, tough or puke-inducing workouts to speak of. I have spent the last 6 weeks either tapering for or recovering from the Chicago marathon. But now, it's time to step it up again. And what better way to step it up than to run up a crazy-ass hill?

Crazier than the Hill of Death?

Oh yes. The Hill of Death is but a wee little knob compared to this new beast.

Some of my fellow FASTies/Stashies and I decided to meet for an after-work run yesterday. As we were contemplating what sort of run to do, Claire mentioned that she knew of a good hill in the High Point subdivision.

Thanks a lot, Claire.

The four of us (plus Claire's dog) did an easy warm-up run through High Point and then we got to the top of the purported "good hill". In order to run up the hill, we would first have to run down it. No problem - it would be a sort of extended warm-up. We couldn't see all the way down it, as it was a winding road, but how bad could it be?

Famous last words.

As we kept running down and down and down and DOWN, my concern grew. Would we ever reach the bottom of this valley? And how would we ever get back up? Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we reached the bottom. It was a beautiful curvy road with fall trees and big houses - a very scenic place to run. But as I looked up the hillside we had just run down and realized that I couldn't see the top of the hill, I got a little worried.

Slowly, we began our ascent. At first it wasn't too bad. That was mostly because I was running at a snail's pace. But as I climbed and climbed, it got harder and harder. I led the pack and I could hear Louisa behind me yelling "Are we there yet? Is this the top???" My initial thought was that Louisa should probably be running harder if she was able to yell like that. I certainly couldn't yell. But then I realized that I, too, wanted to know the answer to her questions. Where was the top??? Why weren't we there yet???

After huffing and puffing and running up this hill for approximately 1.6 million years, we finally crested it.

And then we all died.

But we got better!

I was itching to get home and check out the Garmin data. How high was that hill? As it turned out, it was almost 250 vertical feet of climb over 0.55 miles. In comparison, the Hill of Death has "only" 110 vertical feet of climb over 0.25 miles. A hill that's more than twice as big (in both height and length) as the Hill of Death? Oh, a hill like this needs a very special name.

I'd like to introduce the Mountain of Mayhem. *insert scary horror movie music*

Here is the Mountain of Mayhem in all it's steep and winding road glory. Look at the green graph. That big V-shape is where we ran to the bottom of the hill and then back up. The red graph shows how my heart rate skyrocketed while climbing said hill. And then it dropped off because I died. But as you can see, I got better.

So there you have it, folks. The mean older brother of the Hill of Death has made his debut. And I'm sure we haven't seen the last of the Mountain of Mayhem. I know Louisa wants to go back. I think she's crazy, but then, aren't we all a little crazy?

Oh, and don't tell my coaches about this new hill, okay? We don't need to go giving them any ideas for some new "Extreme Hill Repeats On Crack" workout or anything like that. Believe me, FAST workouts are extreme enough already!

So shhhhhhhh! This Mountain of Mayhem will just be our little secret. What the coaches don't know can't hurt them. But if the coaches do know, it will only hurt us, the innocent FASTies. And you don't want that now, do you? Of course not!

*looks shifty* So, mum's the word. *sneaks quietly out of blog entry*

Peace. Love. Train.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Screaming Pumpkin - a marathon ANYONE can win!

Not that I won it. But last year, at the inaugural running of this unique race, my super-awesome relay team (Team Scream) did win! This year... not so much with the winning. But it didn't really matter because this race is all about having fun.

The Screaming Pumpkin is a predication marathon (and marathon relay). Runners (and relay teams) must gauge how long it will take them to run the 26.2 miles and then select an appropriate starting time that will allow them to finish as close to midnight as possible without going over. Whoever does this wins the race. The catch is that runners are not allowed to wear a watch, Garmin, or any other timing device while they run. They must run "blind". Add to that a very hilly and difficult course through a cemetery in the dark of night, and you can see how challenging this becomes. It's not about being fast. It's about knowing how to pace yourself.

Our 4-person relay team was comprised of me, my husband Matt, and fellow FASTies Niki and Julie. The marathon course consists of 4 identical loops through Springdale Cemetery. Yep, this is the same cemetery in which FAST often trains. Hill of Destruction, Hill of Devastation, etc... they're all in the cemetery (the Hill of Death is not, but it's close to the cemetery). So that should give you a little taste of what the course is like. That is to say, it tastes like pain. Unless, of course, you run it slowly, which is exactly what my team opted to do.

The Screaming Pumpkin is not just a race, though. It's also a Halloween party. Runners come decked out in costumes (and there's a costume contest), there's a live band (O-Face!), and lots of tasty homemade food and hot chocolate.

Costumes that must speak for themselves because there just aren't any words to describe them...

I didn't wear a costume in the traditional sense, but I donned my Flying Pig tutu and a pair of wings.. so I was a fairy? Sure!

Julie was to run the first leg, followed by me, Matt and finally Niki. Julie took off at about 6:30pm, giving our team 5.5 hours to finish. Pleeeeenty of time, right? The rest of us stood around and chatted it up, enjoying the live entertainment.

Julie gets ready to start the first leg while Niki and Matt look on

We planned on Julie taking about 1:25 to run her leg. But she surprised us all when she finished her loop about 20 minutes faster than expected! I was glad I had just taken a port-a-potty break a few minutes earlier. I took off for my leg of the race and knowing that we were ahead of schedule, I ran my loop as slow as I could manage. I trotted along at a leisurely pace, I walked up the steep hills, I stopped at the water stop and chatted with the volunteers - anything to slow myself down. I even stopped to pet a cat at one point (a very friendly little fellow who, since he was mostly black, made the experience that much more Halloweeny).

As I was winding through the very dark cemetery, I noticed that I never felt scared or spooked. I was alone for a lot of the run, occasionally being passed by other faster runners, but it was never an uncomfortable solitude. If anything, it was rather peaceful. The wind would rustle the trees, and I would hear owls hooting, or small animals scurrying away in the leaves. I even saw an owl at one point, with big glowing eyes staring at me from a tall tree. I looked for ghosts, but disappointingly, I didn't see any. I paid my respects to the many dead who reside in Springdale, thanking them for being so welcoming to all the runners who tread these paths. And before I knew it, I was making my way out of the cemetery onto the well-lit path back to the start/finish area. Matt took off for the third leg of the run.

Since I was done running, I could finally enjoy the free food and drinks. At last year's Screaming Pumpkin, the free food was decidedly non-vegetarian-friendly. I believe I ended up having a bag of potato chips and a cup of hot chocolate. I had mentioned it to the nice women who were serving the food and they said they would try to have more veggie-friendly food the next year. And boy did they ever!!! This time they had veggie chili, and homemade mac-n-cheese in addition to everything else. It was outstanding. Thank you, Screaming Pumpkin coordinators for listening and responding to runners' requests - it's very much appreciated!

Local band, O-Face, plays 80's and 90's rock hits for the runners

It was starting to get pretty chilly as I was standing around after running (temperatures were in the mid-40's at the start and were falling into the upper 30's by midnight), so I decided to go out to my car and get my warm sweats to put on. As I was walking back from my car, imagine my surprise when I saw this parked near the race start area:

Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener...

That's right folks, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile! I have no idea why it decided to show up at the Screaming Pumpkin, but there it was in all its wiener-y glory. The nice man who drives this vehicular work of art was telling us that there are only 6 of these in existence, and they are on the road 365 days a year. He gave us all very special glow-in-the-dark wiener whistles, which naturally became the foundation for a bunch of jokes about blowing on wieners. *snicker snicker*

Matt returned from his leg of the run and then it was Niki's turn to go. The person Niki was supposed to run with wasn't ready to go, so Matt offered to run with her instead. So off they went for the final leg of the run. Matt hadn't planned on running a half-marathon that night, but that was exactly what he was going to do. Overachiever!

I stayed in the food tent, enjoying the toasty warmth of the standing heaters, chatting with fellow FASTies and Stashies. Before we knew it, midnight was drawing near. I wandered out of the tent to watch for incoming runners. 11:54pm... a few runners start to come in. 11:56...a handful more runners... 11:57... a huge onslaught of runners... 11:59... a couple more, but where are Matt and Niki? 12:00... drat, we missed the midnight cutoff. 12:02... I start to get worried. Matt and Niki are two of the most injury-prone people I know - I was imagining them both lying on the ground in the cemetery, clutching their knees in pain. 12:04... there they are! They cross the finish at 12:05 and our team is awarded with the post-midnight consolation prize of pumpkins. Well, I guess you can't win them all!

Now, usually I finish up a race report with a nice graph and map from my Garmin, but I can't do that for this race and believe me, it's killing me. I HATE not having data from a run. All I know about this run is that it was 6.55 miles and it took me 1:25 (I told you I was trying to go slow!). Uh, so, here's a graph. And a map. The accuracy of either cannot be guaranteed.

Man, I am GOOD at keeping an even pace!

A highlighter and some hand-drawn arrows - the next best thing to GPS mapping

I'm not entirely sure that the map is correct, since I was running in the dark and really not completely aware of where exactly I was going, but I think it's at least close to the actual route. So how did I know where to go? Well, thankfully, they had the path lined with glow sticks. All one had to do was follow the glow sticks to one's right. That sure beat trying to read that map with a headlamp in the dark and having to ask ghosts for directions.

So will we be back next year to reclaim our title? It's quite likely. This is definitely an event to return to as it seems to get better every year. Maybe next year I'll finally see some ghosts! *cue spooky music*

Peace. Love. Train.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sweat Like A Pig goes international: The Niagara Falls Marathon

This past Sunday I ran my first race in a foreign country: the Niagara Falls International Marathon. Now, many of you may not think of Canada as a particularly exotic foreign country. Indeed, many think of Canada simply as America's hat - a stylish accessory for the US of A. But I'm here to tell you that it's totally different. For one thing, they use the metric system. So when they say "It's going to be 17° today!", you do not need to get out your puffy down coat. Also, they have a strong accent that can be difficult to understand at times. When they say "oot", they mean "out". And when they say "hoose", they mean "house". And when they say "eh", nobody is really sure what they mean. It's like a whole other language, really. So, as you can see, Canada is very exotic and therefore, a potentially exciting place to run a race.

My best friend, Shelley (who happens to be Canadian, and does say “oot” and “hoose” in that cute Canadian way), and I were planning to run the 2-person marathon relay together, with me running the first 13.1 miles, and she running the last 13.1 miles. Since this was a team effort, the race report would simply not be complete without her input. So I’d like to introduce the first ever Sweat Like A Pig guest blogger - Shelley The Running Canadian! She will be writing in purple

Well, I AM very exotic and foreign, but I do NOT say “oot” and “hoose”. You’re the one with the funny accent!

If you say so, eh. I just know I've been "oot" to your "hoose".

So, getting back to the race... This marathon claims to be the only marathon that starts in one country (the US) and ends in another (Canada). This unique feature presents a logistical challenge to the race coordinators in that they have to arrange for all the runners to clear customs prior to race day. This allows the runners to run across the border without having to stop and present their passports to a border patrol officer. Let's face it, it would be pretty hard to get a PR if you had to stop for 5 minutes and explain that you were not bringing any liquor, tobacco or gifts into Canada.

This race is in its 36th year, so the race organizers have a pretty good handle on the customs arrangements by now.... BUT, this year was the first year they offered the 1812 Peace and Friendship 2-person marathon relay. This threw a big, huge, case-hardened wrench into their well-oiled machine. Allow me to paint you a picture:

Race expo, Skylon Tower, Saturday afternoon (10/23)

Shelley and I entered the expo and sought the direction of a helpful (?) volunteer.

"We're doing the marathon relay," I told the volunteer. "I'm running the first leg, and she is running the second leg."

"Oh, uhhh, okay," said the volunteer, looking obviously confused. "Uhhh... you (pointing at me) need to go over there to check in with customs. And you (pointing at Shelley) need to go over there because you don't need to check in with customs."

"Okay, thanks!" That seemed easy enough. Ha. Ha ha ha...

I wandered over to the customs table with passport in hand. I told them my name. They flipped through their list of names, looking stern and official. I was not on their pre-approved list. I told them that it may be under Shelley's name since we were a relay team. They flipped through their list again, looking even more stern. Yes, her name was on the list. But mine was not. They argued that I could not run the first leg of the race (which runs across the Canadian border) because my name was not on their list. They said Shelley should be the one to run the first leg. I argued that Shelley is certainly not running the first leg because it involves running across a very large bridge, and she doesn't "do" bridges. They laughed sternly at that. Customs officers have a strange sense of humor. Or humour, rather, since they're Canadian and they spell things funny. I began to panic. I knew Shelley didn't bring her passport because she didn't think she would need it. I pleaded with the customs officers. I don't know why her name was on the list and not mine. Nobody from the race organization ever asked us who was running which leg - why would they assume? Finally, they agreed to write my name in their official list and let me through. They gave me a smiley hand stamp of approval. I found this ironic since the customs officers are anything but smiley.

I proceeded to bib number pickup. The nice lady at the relay table asked for my name. I told her it's probably under Shelley's name, since everything else seems to be under Shelley's name. She asked "Well, where's your friend? She needs to check in with customs too!" I ran frantically around the check-in area looking for Shelley. I finally saw her back at the customs table, arguing with the stern and official customs officers. I began to panic again. Why would she need to check in with customs? She wasn't going anywhere near a border for her leg of the run!

I think I was actually beyond panicked at this point and was just about to descend into a full-blown anxiety attack. I think the nice lady at the relay table could probably sense that and didn’t want it happening on her shift.

It's true. Shelley was starting to hyperventilate. After much haggling and panicking and arguing and begging, we finally got things sorted out with customs and they gave her a smiley hand stamp of approval. We were finally able to get our race numbers and shoe chip. The nice lady at the relay number pickup table took down notes of all the issues with customs so that they could work on those issues for next year - such as making sure that both relay runners get onto the customs list. I appreciated that they were obviously intent on improving the process.

We proceeded to get our official hooded jackets and goodie bags. They did not disappoint:


This is almost everything that was in the goodie bag. Some things are missing because I ate them (hey, I was hungry!). But look closely, folks - that's an entire box of pasta, and an entire bottle of vitamins, not to mention an assortment of granola bars, cereals, a rain poncho and such. The jacket is actually pretty nice - it's a lightweight windbreaker, perfect for those breezy, cool fall days. I was curious if it was also waterproof, so I ran the sleeve under a streaming faucet for about 20 seconds and only a little bit of moisture got through. So I think it would keep a person pretty dry in a light rain shower. Not too shabby for a $96 CAD entry fee (which is like, what, $20 USD? Kidding! I'm kidding!!!).

The actual race expo was bigger than I expected as well. This is not a large marathon. There were about 1000 full marathoners, 30 marathon relay teams, 2400 half-marathoners, 450 10k-ers, and 400 5k-ers. This event is just a little larger than the Steamboat Classic in Peoria. So I expected the expo to have a someone handing out protein bar samples, maybe a chiropractor doing "free spinal analyses", a few local races handing out brochures, and a Spibelt booth. There was actually quite a bit more. Brooks, a major sponsor of the race, had a large selection of official race-logo'd apparel as well as other Brooks gear. There were several other running apparel shops set up, not to mention many other booths for races, gear, nutrition, and more. It was certainly nowhere near the size of the Chicago Marathon or Flying Pig expos, but it was decent.

Fast forward to race morning. I had set my alarm for 6:00am. This was entirely too early for anyone to get up for a race that started at 10:00am, but the buses to the starting line in Buffalo, NY were to depart between 7:00 and 7:45am. Now, I can see you doing the mental calculation... trust me, none of it makes any sense. First of all, a marathon that doesn't start until 10:00 am? Seriously? And second of all, buses that leave 3 full hours before race start??? It's only a 45 minute drive (including time spent going through US customs) to the race start. I'm sure there is some logistical reason why the race starts so late and the buses leave so early, but I'm not privy to that information, so all I can say is... Seriously???

I got up, had some coffee and a banana and got all my race gear on. I had to bring my passport with me, since we would be going through US customs. I didn't have any pockets large enough to hold a passport, so after a bit of experimenting, I figured out that I could stash it comfortably in my sports bra. It's nice having multipurpose cleavage!

Practicing my passport-in-the-bra trick

The bus stop was just outside of the hotel we were staying at (Sheraton on the Falls), so shortly after 7:00, Shelley, who was still in her PJ's (Hey, I put sweats on!), walked me down to the bus stop. She had packed me a "lunch" - a bagel with peanut butter (it's the mom in me), so I got in line clutching my lunch in both hands and feeling like a nervous kid on the first day of school. There were several buses already filling up with people, and it wasn't long before I was boarding a bus and waving goodbye to Shelley.

Getting on the bus with my "lunch"

The bus ride was relatively uneventful. I sat next to a nice Canadian woman who was getting ready to run her first full marathon. We chatted about the addiction of running, and told stories of how we got hooked. The drive seemed to go on for quite a while, and it really made me stop and think about how far 26 miles really is. It seems much longer on a point-to-point course than on a closed loop course. We drove over the Peace Bridge, the bridge I would soon be running back over, and stopped for a few minutes while US Customs checked everyone's passports. Soon enough, we had arrived at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, which was the start of the race. It was a beautiful area, and the weather could not have been more perfect. It was about 55° with a mix of sun and clouds and a light breeze.

Runners warming up near the art gallery

There were still two hours until the race start, and the museum had kindly opened its doors for the marathoners so we could enjoy the artwork, relax, use the indoor plumbing, and stay warm up until race time. They even had a live band playing mellow world beat type music. It was an interesting departure from the typical amped-up-driving-beat-get-fired-up type of music that is typically played before a big race. I liked it. It made me kind of feel like napping, but I liked it. It went well with the art gallery.

Live entertainment in the gallery

As race time grew nearer, I decided to make one last visit to a real restroom. But it turned out that everyone else had gotten the same idea, so there was a rather long line outside the ladies' room. So I did what anyone who had just downed 20 oz of water and had 15 minutes until race start would do... I used the men's room. The guy using the urinal seemed amused. Hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go!

I made my way to the starting line and seeded myself behind the 4:30 marathon pace group. I wanted to run about 2:20 - not a super-hard all-out race effort, but not an easy walk in the park either. The start of the race was signaled by the blast of a canon (War of 1812 style!) and off we went.

Gettin' the party started!

Miles 0-4.5 - Buffalo, NY

One word can describe this part of the course: Spectacular. I never imagined I would see so much beauty in Buffalo of all places, but the neighborhoods we ran through were incredible. Gorgeous old homes with huge fiery and golden trees - it looked like a scene from a movie. (But did you see any buffalo? Well, um... no. I didn't run near the Buffalo Zoo though.) But we digress... This section of the course was a gentle net uphill, but in these early miles, it felt very easy. There was a spattering of spectators - mostly people who lived along the route who had come outside to cheer us on. Most of these people had brought their young children out to cheer too, and it was very cute. I high-fived several little kids. There was only one aid station that I can recall in these miles. The website says there were stations at Miles 2 and 4. I only remember there being one at Mile 3-ish. The next water stop I remember wasn't until after the bridge, at Mile 6.

Miles 4.5 - 5.5 - The Peace Bridge

The bridge that links Buffalo, NY to Fort Erie, Canada is actually about 3/4 mile long, but the ramp going up to it and the off-ramp on the other side make it about a mile altogether. Buffalo is at a higher elevation than Fort Erie, so there's a just little bit of a climb up to the top of the bridge, followed by a nice long downhill into Canada. Running over the bridge was really cool. There were customs officers pointing the way for us. I felt so privileged to be able to cross the border without stopping and showing a passport. I blew a mental raspberry at all the poor motorists who were stuck in line waiting to get through.

The Peace Bridge, seen from Old Fort Erie, Canada

Miles 5.5 - 13.1 - Fort Erie and Niagara Parkway

After exiting the bridge, the course ran through some back roads of Old Fort Erie for a mile or so before making its way to Niagara Parkway, where the remainder of the marathon ran. There were some nice people standing out on the sidewalks cheering us on, and a local fire department had gotten out their big fire truck for the occasion. The fire fighters were cheering us on in uniform. As the spectators became sparser, the aid stations became louder. One aid station featured goth-looking people dressed for Halloween. Another aid station featured very loud yelling boy scouts (or whatever the Canadian equivalent is). Since the aid stations were every mile from Mile 6 onward, that meant there were frequent "entertainment breaks". As I approached Mile 10, I felt a little fatigued, but my breathing was still under control, so I held pace. There were no clocks at the mile markers, but I estimated from my Garmin that I was roughly on track for a 2:20 half.

As I rounded a bend at about Mile 12, I could actually see the relay point in the distance. Knowing that it was so close, I picked up the pace because I knew Shelley was waiting anxiously for me. As my finish line came into focus, I could see and hear Shelley and her cheering squad. I crossed the timing mat and the clock read 2:18:16. They didn't provide a chip time for the individual legs of the race, but I believe mine was 2:16:39 (since it took me 1:37 to cross the start).

Running into the relay point

My Garmin data - nice negative splits

A race volunteer quickly pulled me to the side and started untying my shoe. We had to get the timing chip off of my shoe and onto Shelley's shoe as quickly as possible, because the clock was already running on her leg of the race. While the volunteer worked on the chip, I reset my Garmin and handed it over to Shelley so she could try it out. In a flash, she was off.

Miles 13.1-26.2

Waiting, waiting, waiting…. Emily had left at 7:30 to board the party bus to the start of the marathon. I went back up to our hotel room and so began the endless waiting. She wasn’t due to start running until 10, which meant that I wouldn’t be running until sometime after noon. That’s a looooooooong time to wait when you’re raring to go! (What, you couldn't, like, take a nap or something?) My ride to the relay point arrived and we finally headed out, getting there with about half an hour to kill. The mood was fun even though the weather was grey and a bit rainy. There was music (not great music, mind you, but music nonetheless) and lots of cheering spectators and all the B leg relay runners, who looked as anxious as I did to get running.

The A leg relay runners were trickling in to lots of fanfare – “RELAY RUNNER COMING” and everyone would buzz around to get chips changed over, medals dispensed and mylar blankets handed out.

Finally, I saw Emily! I started jumping up and down and screaming my head off “There’s my girl!!!!”. She crossed the relay finish line, they got the chip off her shoe and onto mine, she gave me her Garmin and I was off!

There she goes!

It felt great to finally be moving!
The route was beautiful and the Garmin helped me keep a good pace and not go off too fast, which is something I think I’m inclined to do. I was running around a 9:50 pace, no heavy breathing, no burn. I have to say that the first five miles just flew by. I passed a lot of marathoners, which made me feel good until I realized that, uh, yeah, they already had way more miles in than I did. The aid stations were fantastic. Lots of excited teens and kids handing out water and Cytoplex (or whatever that stuff was – blech) (I believe it was Cytocrap... er... I mean Cytomax).

I was on track for a great PR! I should have known the gods of fate would have something to say about that. Between mile 6 and mile 7 (I think), I started feeling some muttering from my intestinal region. Stop here if that was TMI because, oh boy, it gets better! (It's okay. As we say in the running business, "Sh*t happens" - I think we have all been there before.)

I stopped at the next aid station and grabbed the thankfully vacant porta-potty. Aaand…. nothing. Okay, fine. Back on the road, things were vaguely uncomfortable, but still okay. Next aid station, I stopped again. Nothing. Now things were far more uncomfortable. Two aid stations later, while the sun beat down on the plastic, turning the portapotty into a kind of sauna that was filled with ladybugs, there was some relief.

That’s when the aid stations ran out of water. WHAT???? How does that happen? I ran on. I walked some. I started eyeing the Niagara River. How bad would it be if I just scooped some up? Hmmmm… it probably wouldn’t help much with my gut issues. I was slowing down, walking more, but at least I was in good company. Finally, at the Mile 24 aid station, they had water! I guzzled two cups and soldiered on. I knew I wasn’t going to make my stretch goal, but I figured I could maybe still PR.

Suddenly, I could see (and hear) the Finish. It was just up there, around that bend. And when I got around that bend, there was my Coach (that's me!), ready to run with me those last few hundred meters (I had just had a big lunch and a beer, so I wasn't sure of my ability to sprint to the finish, but I was sure gonna try!).

I picked it up. She started yelling at me. " COME ON, YOU CAN DO IT!!!" I think I yelled back – "I CAN’T!!!!" (I kept yelling at her, and I think she ran faster just to get away from the yelling - hey it worked, didn't it?) Then I sped up and kicked it across the damn finish line, where I immediately ran to the fence and crouched down because I thought I was going to toss my cookies.

Our big team finish!!!

A nice paramedic man came over to make sure I was alright and I think I might have uttered a few choice words about the lack of water at the aid stations. I do distinctly recall saying “I’m NEVER doing this again.”. (Yep, she did say that, and I responded with hysterical laughter, because she said the same thing after the last half-marathon she ran. Maybe that's what we were laughing at in those pictures. Yes, I suspect that was it.)

So…. Flying Pig Half-Marathon, anyone?
(See what I mean? She's already planning the next one. Never doing this again, MY FOOT!)

After Shelley got over her initial nausea, she proceeded through the finish area and collected her medal, space blanket and bag of food. Then our cheering squad met up with us and took some pictures of Team Ooo A Shiny Medal donning their shiny medals. It's amazing how normal I look in this picture. In reality, I was dying on the inside. DYING! You wear death very well, my friend.
Ooo, TWO Shiny Medals!

The relay medals are very cool. I think these may rank in my Top 5 favorite (or favourite, for you Canadians) medals of all time. The A Leg medal has a star (for the USA) and the Peace Bridge on it. The B Leg medal has Niagara Falls and a maple leaf (for Canada, eh) on it. Put them together and they make a complete picture, kind of like those Best Friends charms from way back when. And it's rather appropriate considering I ran this relay with my best friend.

BFF medals!

Next year we could run opposite legs of the relay and get the other medal, then we'd each have both medals. But it would mean I'd have to run over the Peace Bridge, and as previously mentioned, I don't "do" bridges. That would be due to my absolutely crippling fear of heights. Well, I seem to recall you running over some pretty long bridges over the Ohio River in the Flying Pig, and you lived to tell the tale. You know what they say: if you want to overcome your fear, you must face it head-on. Joey from Friends said it best when he said "You're afraid of bugs? Get a bug!" So, afraid of heights? Get high! No wait... that's not right. Run across a bridge!!! I am sure you could do it.

Incidentally, upon reviewing the final race results, it turned out that Shelley and I placed 4th in the Women's Relay Team division. We were only 8 minutes away from a 3rd place award! That's pretty darn close in marathon minutes.

So, to sum up a very long race report (probably the longest ever in the history of Sweat Like A Pig)... This was a beautiful race that was mostly well-organized (not counting the customs issues and the whole running-out-of-water thing) and had great swag. I would definitely recommend this race to anyone (anyone with a valid passport, that is). With the breathtakingly scenic course and plenty of elbow room, it is a nice change of pace from a crowded, big-city marathon like Chicago. So get on "oot" to Canada and enjoy Niagara Falls with a nice marathon, eh!

Peace. Love. Train.