Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Year In Pictures

Well friends, yet another year of running has come to a close, and this is a great time to look back on all that has happened in the last year.  I could sit here and type up a table of statistics and make up some pie charts for you (which actually sounds like a lot of fun to my engineering brain), but I know you'd all rather watch paint dry.  So instead, I'm going to look back on 2011 in true SLAP style: pictorially.

I logged a total 1,932 miles in 2011.  (That's over 500 miles more than I ran in 2010!)  And every one of those 1,932 miles had a purpose.  Some of the miles were fast, many of them were slow.  Some of them were race miles, most of them were training miles.  Some of them were logged on my own, and some of them were logged with friends.  But every mile made me a stronger runner in some way.

So without further ado, let's look at some of the highlights of those 1,932 miles!

The first event of 2011 was the Icebreaker Indoor Marathon in January, where I PR'd with a time of 4:53, finally breaking the 5-hour barrier.  After that, I told myself I wouldn't run anymore marathons in 2011.  Turns out I lied to myself.

In April, I ran under an assumed identity, along with several fellow FASTies (who ran under their real names) at the Lincoln Presidential Half-Marathon...  and Honest Abe didn't seem to care about my fraudulent behavior. 

My BFF, Shelley, and I had a blast at Flying Pig weekend in Cincinnati, where we ran the 5k, 10k, and half-marathon events...  just for fun!  We also ate a lot of cupcakes.

In Indianapolis, I broke 2 hours in the half-marathon for the first time.    I began contemplating a very aggressive  fall marathon goal of under 4:00, despite having told myself in January that I wasn't running anymore marathons in 2011.

In the stifling heat/humidity of July, Kristi and I tackled the super-hilly, super-fun Bix 7 race.   And we took full advantage of the post-race food and frosty beverages.

In August, I forgot to bring my running shoes to a race weekend in Madison...  so I ran the half-marathon in $15 Walmart sneakers.  My friends Becky and Kristi teased me mercilessly.  I deserved it.

At the Pekin Marigold Festival 5k, I set my third 5k PR for the year and took home a 1st place trophy.

At the Fox Valley races in September, it was PR-city for several FASTies, including Katie, Kristi, and me in the half-marathon.  And as a completely unexpected  bonus, I took home a 3rd place trophy too!

Of all of the wonderful races I ran in 2011, Milwaukee's Lakefront Marathon in October was the pièce de résistance.  It was both the most difficult and most rewarding event of the year.   And the post-race beer was outstanding.

Shelley and I ran all the way from the USA to Canada in the Niagara Falls International Marathon.  It was Shelley's first marathon ever, and my first marathon in another country.  How come every time I run with Shelley, I'm wearing a tutu?

And there you have it...  just a few of the most memorable miles of 2011.  What will 2012 bring?  Only time will tell, but I have a feeling there will be many more memorable miles to come.  Happy New Year from SLAP!

Peace. Love. Train.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Those Three Special Little Words Every Marathoner Loves To Hear...

"It's taper time!"

Hard to believe it, but the Goofy Challenge is only 3 weeks away.   That means we are entering our beloved taper phase.  *sighs contentedly*  As such, I think this is an excellent time to reflect on the highs and lows of this relatively brief training period.

Training for the Goofy Challenge is similar to training for any marathon: run a lot of miles.  The main difference is that one needs to become accustomed to running two long-ish runs on consecutive days.  For me, this meant doing a middle-distance run on Saturdays, followed by a long-distance run on Sundays.  My training buddy, Kristi, took the opposite approach, by doing a long run on Sundays followed by a middle-distance run on Mondays, just because this worked better with her schedule.  Either way, the idea is to get the legs used to running while tired.  And boy did we tire our legs out!

As I mentioned earlier, training for this event was relatively brief.  We both ran late-October marathons, which we then had to recover from before we could ramp up our mileage again in preparation for Goofy. So my weekend training schedule looked like this:

Week 1: Saturday - 6 miles, Sunday - 14 miles
Week 2: Saturday - 7 miles, Sunday - 16 miles
Week 3: Saturday - 8 miles, Sunday - 18 miles (and a brutal 18 miles it was, thanks to three straight weeks of building up)
Week 4: Saturday - 6 miles, Sunday - 12 miles (ahhhh, relief!)
Week 5: Saturday - 10 miles, Sunday - 20 miles (that was today!)
Weeks 6, 7 and 8: Taper!!!

So yes, this was a very condensed and accelerated training plan, simply out of necessity.  I would not recommend anyone but the most seasoned marathoner / crazy person attempt this plan.

After logging 30 total miles this weekend, I now feel well-prepared to take on the 39.3 miles of the Goofy Challenge.  And I now have a pretty good idea of how I'll feel after finishing the Goofy Challenge: very, very tired and pretty damn sore.  But at least I'm prepared for that feeling!

The great thing about this training weekend was that it felt much better than my training weekend two weeks ago.  The 8/18-mile weekend was definitely a low point in this training schedule.  About 6 miles into the 18-miler, my legs started to feel like lead (and Kristi said the same thing, so it wasn't just me!).  The last 3 miles of that run were a death march for both of us.  Kristi and I both commented that neither of us had felt so completely and utterly horrible during a long run before.  Needless to say, it shook our confidence a little bit.

But it's amazing what a recovery week can do for the mind, body and soul.  Week 4 of training was exactly what we both needed to rest our tired legs and prepare for peak training week.

So the lesson out of all of this is that, at least for me and Kristi, three weeks of mileage buildup in a row is a bit too much.  But the recovery week worked its magic and we were able to finish our peak training week with renewed vigor.  Or something resembling vigor.

I would like to take this opportunity to give a little shout-out to Mother Nature for being relatively cooperative during this training period.  Late fall / early winter marathon training is not easy.  Especially for those of us who are self-proclaimed cold weather wusses.  I hate the cold.  And I hate the wind.  And did I mention that I hate the cold?  But somehow, we managed to run three of our five long runs outdoors, including today's 20-miler.  We battled some serious wind during these outdoor runs, but it still beat running around in circles at the gym.  

And now I'd like to give a HUGE shout-out to my training partner, Kristi.  I wouldn't have gotten through all of my long runs without her.  Indeed, it's extremely likely that I would've bailed on my 18-miler at about Mile 10 if she hadn't been there suffering right alongside me.  Misery really does love company!

People often ask me "What do you think about while you're running for so long?" Maybe a better question would be "What don't you think about while running for so long?", but when you have a buddy to run with, it really does make the miles go by much more quickly.   We certainly don't talk the entire 20 miles, and the last several miles tend to be very quiet as we become more internally-focused on our bodies and just putting one foot in front of the other, but there's something calming and reassuring about having someone else to share the experience with. So thanks, Kristi, for the camaraderie.

And you know what else Kristi is always there for?  The post-long-run food.  The best part about long runs is when they're over and we get to go eat delicious things at our favorite local restaurants.  Today's cuisine of choice?  Gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.  Is there anything better on a chilly winter's day?  I think not.

So it seems to me that successful marathon training is really composed of two critical features: running many miles (with a good friend), and eating tasty food (also with a good friend).  Yes, I think that about sums it up.  Now, without further ado, let's get this taper started!

*does happy taper dance*

Peace. Love. Train.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

'Tis The Season...

...for a lot of indoor running!

In less than a month, winter will officially be upon us, and already we are being subjected to crappy weather and a severe lack of daylight in good ol' Central Illinois.  Distance runners like me have two choices: (1) suck it up and run outside in the freezing cold and pitch black dark, or (2) act like wusses and run in the temperature-controlled and well-lit indoors on treadmills and tracks.

I'm a wuss and I'm proud of it.

It's not that I don't like running in the cold, but the fact that cold is often accompanied by rain, snow, sleet, ice, and a ridiculous amount of wind.  I HATE WIND!  (The fact that I typed that in all caps, bold and italics should adequately reflect my level of hatred for strong wind.)  So in order to avoid the adverse conditions of the upper Midwestern winter, I find myself running indoors a lot these days.

I'm currently in training for the Walt Disney World Goofy Challenge in January.  For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, it's a half-marathon on Saturday followed by a full marathon on Sunday...  That's right: over 39 miles in 2 days.  For fun!  My good friend, marathon training buddy, and Bad Axe Pigeon bandmate, Kristi is also engaging in this crazy endeavor with me.  Thank goodness for that, because I'm not sure I could get through the long runs without her.

Just this morning, we did a 16-mile long run on an indoor track.  On this particular track, that was 120 laps.  There's no feeling quite like being on a 120-lap run, feeling like you've already run 75, and looking at the lap counter on your watch and seeing you've only run 10.  Even with a great running buddy, an indoor long run can be mentally fatiguing.  People often ask us how we do it.

How do we combat the mental fatigue when running around in circles for hours and hours?

Well, it's not easy, but we've found that a clinically-proven combination of guided imagery and creative visualization really helps.

Will run for food/beverages.  Mmmmm...  falafel.

Peace. Love. Train.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Gimpy Twins Take on Niagara Falls

I have always been a firm believer that a marathon is much, much more than just a race.  It's an adventure.  And not just the event itself, but also the months of training leading up to it.  One cannot truly understand the epic journey of the marathon until one experiences it for oneself.  So when my Canadian BFF Shelley told me several months ago that she wanted to train for and run her first marathon, I knew I had to be with her on her marathon adventure.

The site of her adventure: Niagara Falls International Marathon.

My long-time readers may remember that she and I ran this event last year, as a two-person marathon relay team.  So we actually ran the full marathon course once before, but we each saw two different halves of it. This year we were both going the whole way.

Despite having just run a huge PR at the Lakefront Marathon three weeks earlier, I was feeling surprisingly good in the week before Niagara Falls.  My legs had much of their pep back, and I was really looking forward to a more leisurely marathon experience.  Shelley's only goal was to simply finish, which meant no time or pace pressure.

I arrived in Buffalo, NY the day before the marathon.  My flight was on time and uneventful.  I deplaned (am I the only person who thinks that's a weird word?) and made my way out of the terminal.  As I always do when I visit Shelley, I spotted her and ran toward her to give her a big ol' American hug.  What happened next is beyond inexplicable. One second, we were hugging and squealing.  The next, we were crashing down to the floor, Shelley on top of me.  People stared.  We acted like we totally meant to fall over.

 Unfortunately, somehow during the toppling over, my ankle had gotten twisted in an unnatural way.  It didn't seem too bad, just a little sore.  I figured I'd just walk it off and be okay.  I collected my luggage, and Shelley and I made the drive from Buffalo to Niagara Falls.

Since Shelley is Canadian, she actually has to drive across the US border to pick me up at the airport, and then we drive back across the Canadian border together.  Border patrol officials are always intrigued by us and like to give Shelley the third degree.

Officer: "Where are you from?"
Shelley: "Well, I'm from Hamilton, Ontario, and she's from Illinois."
Officer: "And how do you know each other?"
Shelley: "We're friends."
Officer: "How did you meet?"
Shelley: "On the internet"
Officer: *raising eyebrows* "Oh really?"
Shelley: "Yes.  We met on the internet 6 years ago."
Officer:  *looking intrigued and a little frightened* "Is this your first time meeting in person?"
Shelley: "No.  We've gotten together many times."
Officer: "Okay then. What are your plans for this visit?"
Shelley: "We're coming back to Buffalo tomorrow morning to run a marathon back across the border up to Niagara Falls."
Officer: *looking dumbfounded* "So, let me get this straight:  You met on the internet 6 years ago.  You drove into the US to pick up your friend, and are driving back into Canada tonight, so that you can drive back into the US tomorrow morning and then run back into Canada."
Shelley: "Yep!"
Officer: "Um.  Okay then.  Well, good luck in your marathon!"

Our first stop upon crossing the border was the marathon expo, at the Skylon Tower in Niagara Falls.  In order to pick up a packet for the full marathon, runners must present their passports to Canadian customs officials at the expo.  This allows us to run across the border without having to stop and show our passports during the actual marathon.  Upon clearing customs, we were able to pick up our bib numbers and race swag.  And what wonderful swag it was!

Gender-specific long-sleeved tech shirt, cute running hat, personalized race bib, and lots of FOOD! Yes, that's a whole box of spaghetti noodles.  Mmmm...  carbs.

We then proceeded to our hotel, where we found the view from our "Partial Fallsview" room to be rather ho-hum.

American Falls, as seen from our room at the Sheraton.

Did I say ho-hum?  Because I meant friggin' awesome!  Also, our room had a television in the bathroom.  If that isn't the height of awesomeness, I don't know what is.  Once we got all settled into our room, we realized quickly that we were very, very hungry.  

Commence carb-loading!

Last year, we carb-loaded at a wonderful Italian restaurant called Carpaccio's.  It was so wonderful, in fact, that we decided to return this year.  We were not disappointed.

Spaghetti! (Of which I had already eaten some before I remembered to take a picture.  What can I say? I was hungry!)

Roasted vegetable pizza!

Apple tartlet.  Amazing.

We then returned to our hotel in a full-on carb coma.  Somehow we managed to put together our race outfits and set a couple of alarms for the morning. I also got some ice for my ankle, which was now very obviously swollen and tender.  I remained positive about the marathon despite this.  We went to bed early and slept as well as anyone ever does the night before a marathon (that is to say, not very well).

Before we knew it, it was race morning.  We went through the usual pre-race preparations, except for eating  breakfast, and headed down to catch the shuttle bus to the race start at about 7:30am.  My ankle was definitely stiff, and a little sore, but I was still optimistic.  The marathon starts at 10am, which is a pretty late start, if you ask me.  Because of this, we held off eating our bagels and bananas until we were on the bus.

And what an interesting bus-ride it was!

First, our bus driver was clearly lost, as she drove around the same block a couple of times trying to find her way out of Niagara Falls.  Fortunately, she did eventually get directions and we were soon on the road.

The ride seemed to last forever.  Just like Lakefront Marathon, this marathon is a point-to-point course, and for some reason, point-to-point courses seem much longer than loop courses.  The endless bus ride really puts into perspective just how long a marathon actually is.  It makes even the most seasoned marathon veteran a little nervous.

When we reached the US border, we all whipped out our passports (mine was conveniently stored in my sports bra), ready to face the border patrol officers.  We had to wait in a long line of buses, and it seemed to take forever, but finally two officers boarded the bus and checked everyone's passport one-by-one.  Just when I thought we were in the clear, the officers pulled four people off of our bus and told the bus driver to pull of the side and wait.  It turned out those four people were neither US nor Canadian citizens, and they didn't have the required documentation to enter the US.  The documentation they needed cost money. And none of those four people had brought any money with them.  Oopsie!  Fortunately, some other generous runners coughed up their own money to help out the runners in need, and then we were all on our way.

We finally arrived at the beautiful Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY with just over an hour to kill.  We hit up the restrooms (much better than port-o-potties), and wandered around the gallery, admiring the fine works of art.

I can sense the artist's inner turmoil from the expressive use of colors and textures.  Or something like that.

Oh, and did I mention I was wearing my tutu for this marathon?  No?  Well, now  you know.  And as far as we could tell, I was the only runner in the whole race wearing a tutu.  This meant I got a lot of comments.  Shelley and I decided to make a game of it, and keep count of all the tutu-related comments I got during the marathon.

With about 15 minutes until race start, we wandered outside and positioned ourselves in the start corral.  This is a small marathon, with only about 1,100 in the full marathon.  (Incidentally, this is one of the few fall marathons that does not sell out, and for as scenic and flat as the course is, I find this very surprising.  Take note, all of you runners who like to wait til the last minute to sign up for your fall marathons!)

Before we knew it (and we really didn't know it, because there was no gun or cannon to indicate the race had started), we were off!

50 yards down, only 26.18 miles to go!
The weather was beautiful.  Sunny, cool, and crisp.  The first few miles, through the beautiful neighborhoods of Buffalo (yes, Buffalo really does have beautiful neighborhoods!), went swimmingly.  My ankle didn't hurt to run on, and we were keeping a comfortable and conservative pace.  These miles seemed to fly right by, and suddenly we were approaching the Peace Bridge into Canada.  Just as we were getting ready to turn onto the bridge, we witnessed a marathon marriage proposal!  A male spectator was holding a sign that read "I love you. Marry me." and his girlfriend was running right beside us.  She said yes.  (Everybody in unison now: "awwwwww!")

Once the excitement of the marriage proposal was over, Shelley quickly realized she was on the bridge.  And it was a big bridge.  And Shelley is, well, terrified of heights.  I was willing to do whatever was necessary to get her across the bridge, even if it meant holding her hand and leading her across while she kept her eyes shut.

Shelley, however, was a bad-ass marathon-bridge-crossing animal.  She powered through, seemingly unbothered by the fact that we were 100 feet above the Niagara River.  She even paused to take a couple photos.

As we crossed the border to Canada, we sang the Official Evily rendition of the Canadian national anthem. It was beautiful and moving.  And by "beautiful and moving" I mean "off-key and amusing". And by the time we left the US, I had amassed a dozen tutu comments.

The rest of the marathon, from Mile 6 onward, is run along the Niagara Parkway, which is the road that travels alongside the Niagara River, on the Canada side.  It's very beautiful and scenic, but spectators are few and far between.  It's actually a lot like Lakefront Marathon in that regard.  However, the volunteers at the aid stations, which were roughly at every mile, provided enough enthusiasm and entertainment to more than make up for any lack of spectators.  They were, quite simply, awesome.  And the tutu got a lot of attention from aid station volunteers.  I would say 75% of my tutu comments came from the volunteers.  At one aid station, staffed by what appeared to be middle-school-aged cheerleaders, a young girl squealed with delight, "Ohmygod, I LOVE your outfit! That is every girl's dream!"  I wasn't sure if she meant the outfit itself, or running a marathon in said outfit.  But it was fun counting the number of comments.  I set a goal of getting 50 comments by the end of the marathon; with a stretch goal of 60.

Shelley and I were trucking along quite nicely, feeling generally good (even my ankle felt fine).  But at around Mile 8, things took a turn when Shelley's IT band started hurting.  Badly.  She had no choice but to begin inserting walk breaks.  I didn't mind; I was in no hurry and had no goal time for this marathon.  Just finish.  And if walking was what it took to finish, then so be it.

Unfortunately, the walking started to take its toll on my ankle.  For some reason, running didn't hurt, but walking did.  So, for 18 miles, we alternated walking and running.  When we walked, she felt better, and when we ran, I felt better.  I could tell she wasn't happy about having to walk because she proclaimed, quite emphatically, "I am never doing this again.  I am never running any races ever again!"  Naturally, I didn't believe a word of it.

The miles passed more slowly now than they had earlier.  The sun was out in full-force, and even though it wasn't hot, it was still quite warm as far as late-October marathoning is concerned.  We were both thankful we had opted not to wear long-sleeved shirts.  I was starving.  I wanted food badly.  And beer.  But we had 10 more miles to go...  9 more miles...  8 more miles.  Hey, 8 miles really isn't that far!  We could even see the tall hotel buildings of Niagara Falls way in the distance.  The finish was literally in sight.  Before we knew it, we had passed Mile 20.  Delirium had set in.  For reasons I can't explain, we stopped to take a picture at the Mile 21 marker.

I have no idea why.

And as we hobbled slowly along, we saw one of those Brightroom photographers sitting along the side of the road with his big camera.  I said to Shelley "We have to run and look happy, so we look good for the picture!"  And so we mustered up enough energy to look reasonably peppy for the photographer, and as we jogged past him, he said in a very creepy voice "Ohhhhh yeeeeahhhh...."  Thank you, pervy Brightroom dude, for that inappropriate display of affection.

"Ohhhhh yeeeeahhhh..."
For the rest of the race, we alternated hobbling and shuffling (what would you call that? huffling? shobbling?) until we reached the most glorious mile marker: Mile 26.  And then I stopped to take a picture.

A rainbow in the mist of Horseshoe Falls at Mile 26
We were so very, very close to the finish.  And so we gathered up every last ounce of energy we had left and ran the last 0.2 miles.  There was no stopping us now.  Shelley was about to finish her first marathon and I was going to be right there with her.  Since she was worried about finishing last, I promised her that I would let her finish ahead of me so that she couldn't possibly be last.

We did it!!!
Sure enough, per the official results, Shelley finished 0.5 seconds ahead of me.

Shelley had achieved her goal of finishing a marathon.  As her coach and her friend, I was doubly proud of her.  She had trained hard for it, and even though she struggled with IT band problems, she still pushed through and finished strong.  26 miles is not easy even under ideal circumstances, but it's much, much more difficult when body parts are in pain.

As for me, my ankle took a bit of a beating on that marathon course, but it was worth it because I met and exceeded my tutu comment goal.  I garnered a staggering 69 tutu comments over the course of 26.2 miles, plus quite a few before and after the race.  In a race without many spectators, I think this is pretty impressive.

We collected our shiny medals and hobbled back to our hotel for the most cherished of post-marathon activities: the hot showers.  And then we hobbled to the Hard Rock Cafe for the other most cherished of post-marathon activities: refueling (foods with lots of cheese on them) and rehydrating (beer).

Feeling much better after showers, food and beverages!

And as for Shelley's proclamation that she was never running a marathon ever again...  Well, I was all prepared to unleash a whole big encouraging pep-talk spiel on her, maybe a week or two after the marathon, but as it turned out, I didn't need to.  Allow me to show you what she posted on Facebook the day after the marathon.

Well that was easy!  *saunters away smugly*

Peace. Love. Train.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Milwaukee's Lakefront Marathon: How I Became An Official Badass

I would just like to start off by saying that I am not declaring myself to be an official badass.  That would be presumptuous.   No, that declaration was made by my own Coach Brad, who is an expert in the field of badassology (true story).  So if Coach Brad calls someone a badass, you don't argue with him.

Now, allow me to explain how I became an official badass.  It wasn't easy.  Earning such a prestigious title never is.  But it was absolutely worth the effort.

It actually started months ago, before I even began training for the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon.  A seed was planted in my mind, after I ran my first sub-2:00 half-marathon. A good friend and fellow marathoner (who runs really really fast) said to me, "I think you should shoot for sub-4:00 in the marathon."  At first, I laughed him off.  Ridiculous!  I just barely broke 5 hours in the marathon in January.  No way was I ready to conquer sub-4:00 in the same year!

But as much as I tried to ignore it, the seed had been planted and was starting to take root in my somewhat-competitive brain.  Maybe it wasn't that far-fetched after all.  Maybe if I trained really hard over the summer, it could be done.  Maybe if the weather on race day was just right, I would stand a chance.  So before I knew it, The Sub-4:00 Marathon had become my ultimate goal.

It's worth noting that the pace required to finish a marathon just under 4 hours is 9:09 min/mile.  Two years ago, I could barely run a 5k at this pace.  The thought of trying to cover 26 miles at this pace was positively terrifying.  I believe I had several panic attacks about it during the course of marathon training.

Fortunately, the panicking led to working hard.  I trained harder for this marathon than for any of my other previous four marathons.  When I say "harder", I don't mean I ran at a higher intensity. If anything, the vast majority of my mileage was easy to moderate in intensity.  But I ran a lot more miles than before.  Instead of peaking at 40 miles per week during training, I peaked at 56 miles.  And I averaged 45 miles per week during my training season.  It's simple: the more you run, the easier it gets.  The trick is running more without getting injured, and that's why the bulk of my mileage tended toward the easy side.  A funny thing happened, though: the more miles I ran, the faster my easy pace became. So when taper time rolled around, I was actually feeling pretty good about my ability to at least knock out a 4:15 marathon on race day.  That would still be a very substantial PR.

Fast-forward to race weekend...

The weather forecasts for race day had me a bit worried, because even though the temperature looked great (low 40's for race start, low 60's by the finish), the predicted 25 mph headwind did NOT.  Lakefront Marathon is a north-to-south point-to-point course, so the worst possible wind scenario is a strong wind out of the south.  Unfortunately, that was what they were predicting.  I remained optimistic despite this and reminded myself that weather forecasts are often a load of made-up crap.

I arrived in beautiful Milwaukee on Friday evening, where I headed immediately to the small race expo (pretty much what you'd expect from an event this size) and picked up my race packet.  Packet pick-up was well-organized, and I was in and out in a matter of minutes.  The swag was pretty decent.  I really like the race shirt, which is a gender-specific tech shirt that looks red in this picture, but is really more of an orangey-salmon color in person.  Very unique.  I also loved the custom-printed personalized race bibs.  The names were highly visible, which ended up being a very good thing for me on race day, as you will soon see.

The swag: a  tech shirt, a custom race bib, and some other random crap that I'll probably throw away.

On Saturday before the race, I had a lot of time to kill, but I couldn't very well go around sightseeing.  I needed to rest my legs and feet as much as possible.  So I walked a couple blocks to Starbucks, and a few blocks to a pizza place for lunch - just enough to keep the legs loose.  And then I decided to be a little adventurous and go on a tour of one of Milwaukee's many breweries.  I chose Lakefront Brewery after I saw that it was rated #4 on the list of Top 10 Brewery Tours in the US.  I was not disappointed.  Without going into a ton of detail, I learned a lot about beer, I got to sample some very tasty beers, and I was crowned the Bung Queen by the tour guide.

Okay, I know what you're wondering:  What did you learn about beer and what kind of beers did you sample?

Oh, and you might also be wondering what the heck a Bung Queen is.  It's not as weird as it sounds, I swear.

Okay, it's exactly as weird as it sounds.  But not in the way you think.  You see, a bung is a round wooden stopper used to plug up beer kegs after they're filled.  The hole in the barrel is known as the bung hole.  In order to insert the bung into the bung hole, in the old days, they would use a large wooden mallet known as a bung-whacker.  I swear on Prefontaine's grave, I am not making this up.  Anyway, the tour guide was so impressed with my enthusiasm on the tour, and the fact that I took approximately 3,679 pictures during the 45 minute tour, that he crowned me the Bung Queen and bestowed upon me my very own bung.  All the other people on the tour were green with envy.

Tour guide Sir Willow shows us his bung hole. The one in the keg, I mean.

After being crowned the Bung Queen, I didn't see how my weekend could possibly get any better!  But just you wait, boys and girls...

My tour was early in the afternoon on Saturday, allowing me the rest of the day to relax at the hotel and stay off my feet.  I decided to have dinner in the hotel restaurant, since they had a pasta special and it wouldn't involve walking anywhere.  At first, dinner was pretty uneventful and I just sitting there by myself worrying about the impending race...  until two women were seated at the table next to me who had Lakefront Marathon gear check bags.  Ah ha!  Fellow marathoners!  People who could possibly commiserate with me in my state of pre-marathon madness!

I sneakily inserted myself into their marathon conversation, and the three of us spent the rest of our dinner enjoying lively and relaxed conversation about running and races we've enjoyed.  Now, I don't normally weasel my way into other people's conversations but there's a special camaraderie among runners, and especially among marathoners, that allows us to be instant friends without even knowing each other's names.  And sadly, I never did catch the names of these two ladies, but I want to thank them for making my carb-loading feast much more enjoyable and taking my mind off my marathon worries.  I hope they both achieved their marathon day goals.

Later that evening, as I was getting ready for bed, I had a couple moments of "OMG, I'm running a marathon tomorrow!"  but for the most part, I felt surprisingly calm.  I set three alarms, and went to bed early.  I slept unusually well.  The first of my three alarms to go off in the morning was the clock radio, which was playing "Moves Like Jagger".  I remembered this song motivating fellow FASTie Cathy in her recent marathon PR at Fox Valley.  It had to be a good sign!  I hopped right out of bed and did a little dance as I went through my pre-race routine.  I didn't feel nervous at all.  I was cool as a cucumber.

There was shuttle bus service right from my hotel to the race start in Grafton.  I hopped on the bus at 6am and rode for what seemed like an eternity.  The man sitting next to me on the bus said "Wow, this is a really long ride.  And we have to run all the way back!"  I glared at him.  When we finally arrived at Grafton High School (which really did feel like a million miles away from downtown Milwaukee), I stepped off the bus into chilly morning air.  I could see my own breath as I made my way into the school to stay warm.

This race is fairly small, as marathons go, with only 3,000 participants (in contrast to the Chicago Marathon's 40,000 runners).  So there's no need to line up a the start an hour early.  With 15 minutes to go, I moseyed outside, and I quickly found the 4:00 pace group. I wasn't planning to run with them, but I wanted to keep them in my sights as a sort of gauge, so I settled into the crowd behind them.

There was no question about it.  It was cold.  I was used to running in 85°+ temps all summer and now it was 39°.  I had on long sleeves, mittens and a hat and I was still cold.

Brrrrr!  At the starting line, ready to go!

Before I knew it, we were off.  I wouldn't be cold for very long.  The 4:00 pace group was about 20 or 30 feet ahead of me and I felt like they had started off a little fast, so I didn't try to catch up.  I had plenty of time to catch them.  The first two miles were largely downhill, so I was able to get up to speed pretty quickly.  The first water station was less than two miles into the race, and I had already planned on skipping this water station. The 4:00 pace group, however, stopped at this water station (I assume the pace leaders are instructed to stop briefly at every water station) and I whizzed past them.

I never saw them again.

I would love to give you a mile-by-mile rundown of my marathon experience, but I actually remember very little about the later miles of the race due to the fact that it was all I could do to just keep moving forward.  So I will break the race up into four unequal segments.

The First Half:  For the most part, I felt great.  I fueled according to my plan.  I high-fived spectators, chatted with other runners, listened to the conversations going on around me, enjoyed the scenery and soaked up the sunshine.  Somewhere around Mile 6 or 7, I ditched my gloves and hat and pushed up my sleeves.  The terrain was gently rolling, mostly rural roads lined by shady trees.  I crossed the halfway point in 1:58:47, a pace of 9:03.65.

Thumbs up was my theme for the first half.

The Second Half:  After the halfway point, things started to get intense.  My breathing wasn't labored, but my legs were feeling heavy.  I was on track for sub-4:00 though, as long as I didn't slow down much, so I remained optimistic.  I started to focus less on my surroundings and more on my body and keeping it moving forward.  I was vaguely aware that the scenery was becoming less rural and more suburban.  There were large beautiful homes on tree-lined residential streets.  More spectators were out in these miles.  I got a lot of "Great job, Emily!" and "You look strong, Emily!" and "Cute skirt, Emily!" which really helped snap me out of my internally-focused state.  One foot in front of the other.  Keep moving forward.

The Last Two Miles:  In the 24th mile, the course takes a nosedive down a huge hill and onto the lakefront path.  The downhill was wonderful.  The lakefront path was not.  Oh, it was scenic and beautiful whatnot, but all the shady trees were gone and the sun was now beating down on me.  Not only that, but it had suddenly gotten windy and I was running against the wind. I could hear Coach Brad in my mind, yelling at me "Dig deep!".  The last two miles, I had to dig very deep.  They were the hardest two miles I have ever run.  I could feel my calves starting to cramp up.  I prayed they would hold out for just a few more minutes.  Just get me to the finish line, I begged of my calves.  One foot in front of the other.  Left, right, left, right, left, right.

The Last 0.2 Miles:  Finally, I could make out the finish line ahead in the distance.  It seemed so far away.  Spectators were lined up along both sides of the path, cheering loudly.  "Just 600 feet to go!" I heard one of them say.  I have never calculated run distance in feet before, and I could not, for the life of me, figure out what that was in meters.  My ability to do math was completely gone.  All I knew was that 600 feet really wasn't very far.  Not compared to the 26 miles I had already run.  Then, I saw a bright spot in the line of spectators: my good friend and fellow FASTie, Becky, who had driven up to Milwaukee that morning for the sole purpose of cheering me on at the finish line.  I mustered a smile, not because I was happy, but because she had a camera, and smiling for a camera is an uncontrollable reflex.  Then, with less than 100 feet to the finish line, I saw another bright spot in the line of spectators.  My dad reached out of the crowd and high-fived me while cheering at the top of his lungs.  After seeing two people who were so dear to me, I grew wings.  And then I flew across the finish line.

That's a look of victory and pain on my face.  It's not too far off from the Mark Remy "race face".

I was now a sub-4-hour marathoner.  I was in shock; I just couldn't believe I had really done it.

I hobbled slowly through the finish chute, and a nice man came over to me, introduced himself as "Kevin from Medical" and asked if he could walk with me for a bit.  He asked me some questions about how I felt, to which I responded "Well, I'm really tired and sore, but I'm pretty happy.  Oh, and I feel a little nauseous."  He chuckled, and I guess he decided I wasn't delirious or knocking on death's door, so he let me go collect my medal and post-race refreshments.

My legs were toast.  It took every ounce of strength I had, and then some, to hobble over to Becky, and then hobble slowly to the beer tent and then the results tent.  The beer was wonderful.  The official results printout was even more wonderful.

3:57:49.  Sweet.

Then we found my dad, who I think was pretty darn proud of me.  Indeed, he spent the rest of the afternoon telling anyone who would listen, and several people who wouldn't, that his daughter had just run a sub-4-hour marathon, and asking people if there was any sort of special "marathon discount".  The waitress at the restaurant where we later had lunch apologetically replied that there was no "marathon discount", but then she brought me out a piece of chocolate cake with a candle in it.  So, thanks to my dad, I got free cake.  You can't beat that!

Father, daughter and beer...  a trifecta of awesomeness.

I should take a moment to mention that the Lakefront Marathon was a top-notch event: well-organized, with enthusiastic volunteers, great course support and lots of great perks (free locally-brewed beer at the finish - awesome).  The course, or at least what I remember of it, was beautiful.  It's not a big-city marathon, and the streets aren't lined with spectators 5-deep the entire 26 miles, but the spectators who are out there are encouraging and energetic.  There aren't dozens of rock bands playing at every mile, but there was a really awesome old guy singing and playing an accordion in front of his house at one point.  For anyone looking for 26 miles of entertainment, this is probably not the marathon for you.  But for anyone looking for a well-organized event that caters to runners who just love to run, look no further.

I also want to take some time to mention the people who helped me achieve my goals, because I could not have done it alone.  Thanks, Chris, for planting the sub-4:00 seed in my brain so many months ago.  And thanks to all my fellow FASTies and Stashies for your encouragement and enthusiasm as I set goals over the summer and achieved them.  A special thanks to fellow FASTie Kristi for enduring so many long long runs with me, and also enduring a lot of post-run refueling at One World Cafe.  It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it, right?  And thank you to all my friends and family who cheered for me from afar and tracked my progress in the marathon on race day.  Knowing that people were tracking me was extremely motivating, and helped keep me moving forward when my legs wanted so badly to stop.  And huge thanks to Becky and my dad for being at the finish line for me and being the best cheerleaders ever.  Or is it athletic supporters?  No.  Cheerleaders.  Definitely cheerleaders.  Thanks, guys.  You all rock.

And of course, thanks to my coaches who didn't laugh at me when I told them I wanted to run a sub-4:00 marathon.  Upon learning of my 3:57 marathon, Coach Brad posted on my Facebook wall "You are an official badass in my book."  At least I think it was because of my 3:57 marathon.  He didn't really say.  Maybe it was actually because I had been crowned the Bung Queen.  Because, that's pretty badass too.

Peace. Love. Train.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Cure For Taper Madness, Part 2: The Fox Valley Marathon Races

There is so much to say about the Fox Valley Marathon Races, that I've decided to do something a little unorthodox with this race report and tell the story mostly with pictures.  Oh, there will still be plenty of words, because y'all know me - I just can't shut up.  But in the interest of not boring you all to tears, I think pictures are really the way to go with this story.  So let's start with a little backstory....

Fox Valley was a big event for several FASTies, so I was really excited to meet up with everyone in St Charles and have a fun race weekend.  It wasn't an A-race for me, since I'm in the midst of tapering for my A-race marathon, but it was an A-race for fellow FASTies Kristi and Cathy.  And it was going to be Katie's first ever half-marathon.  I texted Kristi on Saturday morning to find out when she was planning to leave for St Charles.  Her response...

(Click to enlarge)

...had me pretty worried.  We had been looking forward to this event since January!  She couldn't possibly miss it just because she wasn't "feeling the greatest".  That was not an acceptable excuse!  Fortunately, she texted again later to say she couldn't cancel her hotel reservation, so she was just going to "run it and hope for the best".  Good, because otherwise I would've had to kidnap her and drag her to St Charles myself.

I made the 2.5 hour drive up north and headed directly to packet pickup.  After I got my race packet at the small, but well-organized expo (where I was enthusiastically greeted by race officials), I headed to my hotel to check out my swag.  By the way, I was relieved to note that my hotel was only a block away from Walmart...  just in case.

Best.race.shirt.EVER.  Comfortable and slimming. I kid you not. I look 10 lbs thinner in this shirt.

Then I met up with my fellow FASTies at a carb-loading feast at Za Za Trattoria in downtown St. Charles.  This dinner was arranged by the Fox Valley Marathon organizers as an opportunity to dine with actual race officials and other runners, so we could ask questions about the event and get to know some of the people who helped make the event possible.  I'd like to give a huge thanks to Dave and Jodi, who were our race committee hosts for the evening. 

Dave and Jodi answer questions about the Fox Valley events while the rest of us stuff our faces with bread and olive oil.

 But once the food came out, I forgot all about what's-his-name and what's-her-name from the race committee, because I was too busy drooling over my wild mushroom ravioli in a light basil cream sauce.  *drool*  Believe me when I say it was some of the best carb-loading I've ever done.  I would drive 2.5 hours just to eat at this place, it was that good. 

FOOOOOD!  Oh yeah, and the FASTies are in this picture too.

*burp*  All gone!  I was sufficiently carb-loaded.

After a so-so night of sleep (you would think all those carbs would've knocked me right out, but I guess not), I got up bright (dark?) and early on Sunday morning and went through my usual race-prep routine.  Coffee - check.  Granola bar - check.  Banana - check.  Running shoes - double check!

Team FAST representin'!  Yvonne, Kristi, me, Cathy, Katie and Louisa.

Kristi, Katie and I were all running the half-marathon, so we decided to carpool together.  It took a little effort to find a parking spot, but all things considered, being parked in FREE parking just 3 blocks away from the race start/finish was a pretty good deal...  As opposed to, say, paying $25 to park a mile away from the race start *cough cough* Chicago Marathon *cough*.  We moseyed on over to the start area with about 30 minutes til race start and performed that most important and beloved of all pre-race rituals:

When you gotta go, you gotta go... before the race starts!
Notice the sun is shining in that picture. The forecast actually called for clear weather until early afternoon.  The forecast lied.  Like a dog.  As soon as we started lining up in the start corrals, it got cloudy and started drizzling.

Hey sunshine, where'd ya go?

It also got rather chilly, so I was pretty antsy to start running, just so I could get warm.  My plan was to run this "race" at goal marathon pace, as a sort of pacing exercise.

Well folks, plans change.

I started off faster than I intended simply because I was trying to get warm.  I tried to slow myself, but my legs just seemed to want to go.  So I went with it.  My first mile, at 8:50, was well below my existing half-marathon PR pace of 8:56.  I didn't know if I could hang on to that pace, given that I hadn't tapered for this race and my legs were definitely not fresh, but I felt pretty good over the first few miles, so I figured I'd give it a shot. 

Yes, I almost always smile when I run.  I'm weird like that.  And who's that right behind me?  Oh, it's Kristi-who-almost-didn't-run!

Kristi stuck pretty close behind me for about 8 miles.  Pretty impressive for someone who wasn't feeling too well the day before.  I knew what her existing PR was and I thought she had a pretty good chance of beating it, even if she fell behind me in the latter miles. 

Despite the drizzly rain that soaked us for almost the entire race, this event was simply wonderful.  The course was scenic and beautiful, running along a lot of riverside bike paths and over bridges across the Fox River.  I wouldn't call the course "flat", at least not compared with courses like the Indy Mini-Marathon, or Chicago Marathon, but it wasn't really "hilly" either.  I thought there was just enough terrain variation to keep it interesting.  The water stations were plentiful, and the volunteers...  how do I even begin to comment on the volunteers?  They were outstanding in every way.  They cheered loudly and enthusiastically for every runner by name.  I lost count of the number of times I heard "Way to go, Emily!" "Want some water, Emily?" "Emily, you're looking strong!" and other personal words of encouragement. 

These personalized cheers came in really handy in the last 3 miles, when things started getting pretty intense for me.  I had managed to hang on to my pace thus far and I knew I would PR if I just hung on a little longer.  I was well past being able to do time math in my head, so I didn't even try to calculate what my finish time would be at my current pace.  But in my mind, I was hoping to break 1:55 (my existing PR was 1:56:52).  I thought I might be  close to being able to do that.  I pushed hard in the last 3 miles, willing my tired legs to keep going.  When I rounded the final turn and saw the finish line, I kicked with all I had left.  I had the entire finish to myself; nobody else was beside or ahead of me.  I pumped my fist to get the crowd going.  They cheered for me.  I ran faster.  They cheered harder. The finish line announcer called out on the loudspeaker "Give it up for Emily from Metamora!" and I ran faster still.  It was easily the most enjoyable finish I've ever experienced; I was grinning from ear to ear.

Woo hoo!

I glanced down at my Garmin and was thrilled to see I had PR'd and made my 1:55 goal.  A very kind volunteer placed the medal around my neck, and another kind volunteer gave me a much-needed mylar blanket, and yet another kind volunteer came over to me, personally congratulated me and asked me how I was feeling.  I had never experienced such personal attention like that before.  I was astounded. 

And just a couple minutes after I finished, guess who came sailing through the finish line with a huge PR...

And to think, she almost didn't run!

Several minutes after that, Katie came down the final straightaway to finish her very first half-marathon.  PR's all around for Team FAST! 

We made our way through the finisher's area and my eyes grew as big as saucers when I saw this most glorious of post-race sights:

A veritable smorgasbord of post-race treats! Bananas, bagels, pretzels, chips, cookies... you name it - they had it.

We then found the results tent and proceeded to get printouts of our official finish times.  I was very pleased to see my finish time of 1:54:54.  It was a PR by about 2 minutes, which was really something considering I didn't taper at all for this event.  And heck, I didn't even decide to race it until I started running it!  But if not for Kristi's keen eyesight, I would've completely missed something very important.

"Wow, look at your Division place!" she gasped.

Um.  Ohmigosh.  I placed?  In a half-marathon!?  I PLACED???

I actually didn't believe it.  I thought surely someone would finish behind me with a faster chip time and I would get edged out.  It says right on the bottom of the printout that "Divisional placing is subject to change" and I was positive it would change. 

Well, it didn't change.  A few minutes later, I received the most beautiful trophy I've ever gotten.  It's etched clear glass and is exceptionally difficult to photograph, but that didn't stop me from whipping it out for our group finisher's photo.

Drenched, freezing and happy!  And ooooo, look at that shiny trophy!

If not for the fact that it is made of breakable glass, I would carry this trophy with me everywhere and show it to anyone who seems remotely interested.  And also probably to anyone who doesn't give a crap. It was a completely unexpected, incredibly wonderful way to cap off a great race. 

By this time, we were drenched with rain and freezing, so we headed back to the hotel to get dried off and warmed up.  Then it was back to the race finish line to watch the marathon finishers come in.  Fellow FASTie Cathy had been training hard for this marathon, and I had a feeling she was going to do very well. 

Why didn't I think to bring one of these umbrella things while I was running?

As we were standing around at the finish line, I happened to pull my phone out of my pocket and saw that I had just gotten a voice mail from Cathy.  I panicked!  Had she gotten hurt?  Was she not running well?  It turned out she had just called to tell me she was at Mile 25.  I glanced at the race clock.  She was on target for a serious marathon PR.  I relayed the good news to Kristi and Katie, and we staked out a spot at the finish where we would be able to see Cathy running in. 

Then I got another phone call from Cathy.  I panicked again!  Turns out she had butt-dialed me.  So all I could hear was the sound of her running and breathing.  I took that as a good sign and hung up.  (As a side note, I figure it's only a matter of time before I butt-dial someone while running. I apologize in advance.)

A few minutes later, there she was coming down the final stretch.  She looked strong.  And very emotional.  She knew she was about to PR.  I felt a little misty-eyed myself, I was just so proud of her, and of all my fellow FASTies.  Cathy took 10 minutes off her previous PR! 

The face of a serious marathoner.

How do you celebrate so many victories in one day?  With delicious food, of course!  After Cathy got dried off and changed, we found a neat restaurant called Prasino and proceeded to have a delicious post-race feast. 

My pizza.  MY pizza.  Yes, I ate the whole thing.  No, I don't feel guilty.

After that, it was time for us all to go our separate ways and head back home.  As I tried to keep myself awake on the drive back, I thought about what a great day it had been for all of us, and how the rain didn't spoil any of our parades. 

We all agreed we wanted to run this event again next year.  It was so well-organized, so personal, so affordable and so scenic, that I can't imagine ever doing another huge marathon.  So I guess it's a good thing my upcoming marathon is also a smaller event.

Oh crap.

I have an upcoming marathon! 

It's only a week and a half away!  I haven't picked out my race clothes, or packed my bag, or shined my running shoes, or anything! *begin panic attack*

Well, so much for being cured of taper madness... 

Peace. Love. Train.

A Cure for Taper Madness, Part 1: The Pumpkin Classic

Taper time is upon us, and we all know what that means.  That's right: the madness is rearing its ugly head.  As marathon day gets closer, and my runs get shorter, I find myself growing increasingly uneasy.  "Uneasy" is probably too nice a word.  "Irrational" and "obsessive" might be more accurate descriptive terms.  But I may have discovered a possible cure for taper madness.  Well, maybe it's not so much a cure as it is a diversion tactic.  It simply involves running lots of races.

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that one of my personal mottos is "Why run just one race in a weekend when you can run two (or more)?"  So this past weekend my plan was to run both the Morton Pumpkin Classic 10k on Saturday, and the Fox Valley Half-Marathon on Sunday, as well-organized training runs.  No racing, no pressure. 

I hadn't run the Pumpkin Classic since 2008, so I was fairly certain I could PR without running a hard effort (I have run only one other 10k race since 2008, and I didn't race that one either).  My good friends Becky and Mike were also planning to run it for fun, so we decided to all run together.  After picking up my race packet (which included a long-sleeved cotton t-shirt), and attaching my bib and timing chip, I lined up with my friends by the 9:00-12:00 / mile pace sign.  I figured since the race was chip timed and we weren't planning to race, it wasn't important to be near the front.  Too bad I didn't realize they didn't have a timing mat at the start of the race.  Good thing I wasn't actually racing this race, or I would've been a bit upset about that.

I was shooting for a 9:00 - 9:30 pace for this "race", which was comfortable given the nice cool weather.  The three of us stuck together for the first 5 miles, running and chatting and enjoying the course entertainment (there were several bands playing along the course).  But in the last mile, Mike started picking up the pace, and I followed suit.  Becky (wisely) didn't want to play our silly race game, so she let us go on ahead.  After Mike kicked my butt in the 5k race last weekend though, I didn't want to get beat again.  He sped up a little.  I sped up a little.  He sped up a bit more.  I sped up a bit more.  We came around the final turn and the finish line was in sight, so I sped up a lot.  I thought I had lost him and I was going to cruise into the finish, but then he caught back up to me and we kept running faster and faster. By the time we got to the finish line, we were doing about a  5:30 pace and I was yelling "Dammit, Mike, slow down!!!" 

He did not slow down. 

Nor did I.

Mikey got chicked! (by choice)
Mike let me beat him.  Barely.  But he let it happen.  I am pretty sure he could out-sprint me with both his hands tied behind his back, so yeah, he totally let me win.  Even though we have the same time in the official results, my result is listed first, which means I WON.  HA!  *sticking tongue out at Mike*  Not that I'm competitive or anything.

Oh, and incidentally, it did end up being a 10k PR for me, although I hesitate to really call it a PR, since I have run faster-paced half-marathons than this.  But, in a strictly technical sense, it was a PR for the 10k race distance.  It was also a PR for Mike since it was his first 10k ever. Go us!

Mike and I collected our medals ("oooo, shiny!"), met up with Mike's wife and her friend (who had both done the 2 mile walk event) and enjoyed the post-race "feast" of bananas, granola bars and orange slices.  It wasn't really much of a feast if you ask me.  Uhhh, hello?  This is supposed to be the pumpkin festival!  Where's my post-race pumpkin pie???

Loser on the left, winner on the right. 
Of course, if Mike reads this, I don't think he'll ever let me win ever again...  
All things considered, this was just an okay event.  The course was fairly flat and fast, so for anyone wanting to really race a 10k, I think this is a good one.  But the lack of chip timing at the race start is annoying.  Also, the age groups in this race are 15 years, which meant that I was competeing against 20-year-olds.  How completely and utterly ridiculous.  In an event with this many runners, there should be standard 5-yeard age groupings. I was also irritated by the long line for post-race refreshments.  One line for 1500 runners and walkers?  Not cool.  I did, however, enjoy the course entertainment, especially the band playing Beatles songs.  And the finisher's medals are pretty nice too.

With a few small tweaks, this could be a really great event.  I would sign up for next year's race right this minute if I was promised free pumpkin pie at the finish.  True story.

Now if you want to hear about a truly first-class event, stay tuned for Part 2 of this weekend race report...

Peace. Love. Train.