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 4ยบ). 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.