Friday, May 13, 2011

No words. Only pain. Lots and lots of pain.

I usually don’t have much trouble writing blog posts about various workouts and races, but today I find myself at a complete loss for words. Last night’s FAST workout was simply indescribable. But that isn’t going to stop me from trying to describe it anyway, because in my state of post-run exhaustion and pain, I need a little sympathy.

I should have known when I showed up at the park and Coach Brad said “We have a totally new workout for you all tonight” with an evil glint in his eye, that we were doomed.

Gone were the days of predictable and measurable workouts like 800m repeats and timed fartleks. The coaches had cooked up something completely crazy and we were all going to suffer.

"The workout is easy to understand, but not easy to do," he said.

Oh dear.

The coaches had marked off a loop that was a little over a mile long. Within said loop, they had marked off intervals of varying length and hilliness. The concept was simple, run the intervals hard and recover between the intervals. This workout wold be difficult enough under normal circumstances. But the loop in question was insanely hilly, with hardly a flat section to be found. And the hard intervals included both steep uphills and steep downhills. My quads were whimpering already and I hadn't even started running yet.

Coach Brad's instructions were to "run as many loops as you can, and when you think you can't run any more, run one more loop."

Well gee, doesn't that sound fun???

We started out with a short warm-up (1/2 mile) and then proceeded right into our loops. In the map below, I have marked the warm-up route and the interval loop. I have also indicated approximately where the hard intervals were by painting shaky red lines over the map. I apologize for my poor mouse-painting skills. As you can see, the intervals varied greatly in length. And the recoveries were all short. Too short!

As soon as I started up the first hill of the first loop, I knew I was in for a rough workout. I wasn't sure I'd be able to manage more than about three of these loops. They were that bad. I ended up slowing down a bit after my first loop just to keep from passing out and/or throwing up and/or dying. Oh, and did I mention it was 82°? That's not exactly hot, but it's a whole lot warmer than what we're used to running in, so it made the workout that much more difficult.

After my third loop, I was pretty sure that death was imminent.

I was also sure that I was not going to be doing more than five loops. I just didn't have it in me. I had just raced a half-marathon five days ago, the weather was warm, and I was tired. Five loops would make for about a 6.5-mile workout. That was plenty!

But then, as I was getting ready to start my fifth loop, fellow FASTie Yvonne said "You're only doing 5? But you're in the Black Group!" (The Black Group being the highest mileage of the FAST sub-groups.) Great. I had just gotten peer-pressured into running more. Thanks a lot, Yvonne!

So I managed to get through six crazy hilly loops without dying. Although my legs were so fried by the end that they were both numb and in pain at the same time. It was easily the single most difficult FAST workout I have ever had the "pleasure" of doing. And that's really saying something, because we have done some real doozies before.

All in all, last night's workout totaled 8 miles, and the average pace wasn't any faster than my usual easy pace. It's almost disappointing to run so hard and feel so exhausted for such a ho-hum pace. But just looking at the elevation plot (the green graph in the plot below) tells you that this workout was anything but ho-hum.

(Click to see full-screen)

You know, a workout like this really needs a name. Remember "The FAST"? Now that was a workout that deserved a name. But this workout is even worse (better?) than The FAST. It needs an appropriately evil and horrible name. Might I suggest "Satan's Pitchfork"? It's just a suggestion...

Peace. Love. Train.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Indiana wants me... to set a new PR!

Another weekend, another road trip! This time I headed to Indianapolis for the country's largest half-marathon: the 500 Festival Mini-Marathon. After all the easy-paced running at Flying Pig weekend, I was kind of itching to run fast. I had mentioned this to my coaches, so they had me do a brief taper this week at FAST, just in case I did decide to race. It was going to be a nearly game-day decision, based on the weather (which wasn't supposed to be great) and how I felt, but I was optimistic that I'd get a shot at a new PR.

Just can't wait to get on the road again...

When I finally reached wonderful Indianapolis (one of my favorite cities, along with Cincinnati and now Milwaukee), I checked into my hotel and headed straight for the race expo. It was a short block-and-a-half walk from my hotel. As expos go, it was okay. The Flying Pig is an event roughly half the size of the Indy Mini (20,000 runners versus 40,000), but the Flying Pig's expo is easily three times larger than Indy's. But it's like they say: it's not really the size that matters, it's how they use the floorspace. (They do say that, don't they?) There were some cool booths to check out (Saucony Kinvara 2's are out now!) and lots of official mini-marathon gear for sale. If I had known what was in store for me at the race, I might have actually bought something.


I picked up my race packet and headed back to the hotel to see what sort of swag I had gotten. The last time I ran this race (two years ago in '09), I believe I got a long-sleeved cotton shirt and a tech hat. The swag is still similar, but the shirt is tech fabric and, thankfully, not white. Plus they've added something new: washing machine cleaner. I know what you're thinking. What's washing machine cleanliness got to do with running? Well, everything! If your washing machine is grimy, it means your running gear isn't getting clean. And dirty running gear is less aerodynamic, causing you to run more slowly. It's all scientifically documented. Really, I swear. So a clean washing machine equals faster running. I, for one, cannot wait to clean my washing machine and see a measurable improvement in my race times as a result.

Long sleeved-tech shirt, tech hat, and washing machine cleaner - score!

I was supposed to meet up with fellow FASTie, Nikki, and her family for dinner... but circumstances beyond our control prevented that from happening. So I ended up down at my hotel's pasta buffet for dinner. This turned out to be an excellent choice. I didn't have to make a reservation, I didn't have to walk anywhere, there was no wait, and the food was outstanding. I had a salad, some grilled vegetables, a breadstick, some penne with creamy tomato sauce, and far too many desserts (they were tiny, I swear). I definitely felt properly carbed up after all that. Nevermind that one really doesn't need to carb load before a half-marathon.

I moseyed back up to my room, relaxed on the very comfortable bed with my iPad, and then eventually drifted off into a good night's sleep. I woke up feeling refreshed, which was a stark contrast to how I felt the morning of my last half-marathon. No seagulls disturbed my sleep this time! I enjoyed a light breakfast and a cup of coffee and then I turned on some Get Pumped Music. Hopefully I didn't disturb my neighbors too much, but with a song like this, you just can't keep the volume low:

A snippet from my new favorite Get Pumped Pre-Race song. The Vulture, by Pendulum

I checked the weather forecast one more time, expecting to see lots of rain ahead for my race. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the rain was supposed to hold off until about 10am. There was also very little wind. With temps in the low-to-mid 50's, a bit of cloud cover, and no wind or rain, I was definitely in business for racing this half. I was pumped!

The air was crisp and cool as I walked the several blocks to the start area. The sun was just starting to light up the eastern sky and runners were spilling out onto the streets from their various hotels and parking garages. This event, which consists of a half-marathon and a 5k, draws a combined total of about 40,000 participants. The starting corrals, which go from A to Z, stretch five city blocks. The last time I ran this event, I was in Corral S. It had taken me 45 minutes to cross the starting line after the gun was fired. This time, I qualified for a Preferred Corral, and was in Corral F. I could actually see the starting line from my corral! It sounds kind of ridiculous, but just being in this corral made me feel a faster and stronger. And part of me felt like I needed to prove that I deserved to be there.

Lucky Corral F?

As race time drew nearer, people starting filing into their corrals. I wanted to be front and center in my corral, so I got in early to stake my claim. I started chatting with a nice woman standing next to me and she mentioned that her husband had bought her an entry into this race for Christmas. She seemed to think that was kind of weird. Personally, I think it's awesome. I think more people should give race entries (especially for hard-to-get-in-to races like this one) as gifts!

Representing Team FAST

Soon we were singing the national anthem, and everyone was positioned in their corrals. I had nearly forgotten about the beach balls until I got hit in the head by one. Apparently this is a tradition, because it happened the last time I ran this race. Somebody (race officials?) release hundreds of beach balls into the corrals and runners hit them around until the race starts.

Balls flying everywhere!

Before we knew it, we were counting down the last 10 seconds until race start, and then we were off! It took me less than 4 minutes to cross the starting line. What a difference from last time!

I wanted to try very hard to run even splits for this race. That meant I needed to ramp up to my goal pace very quickly, which is something I'm not used to doing. No 11:00 pace for the first three miles to get warmed up. No, I needed to turn it on, and I needed to turn it on fast. My goal pace was 9:05, which would allow me to squeak in at just under 2:00. I honestly wasn't sure if I could run that pace for the whole 13 miles, but I sure was going to try. My first mile was slow, at 9:21, due to crowds of runners that were hard to get around. I didn't want to waste a lot of energy zig-zagging around people, so I just surged ahead when I was able and hoped the field would thin out soon. The field never did thin out, but the distribution of paces seemed to adjust itself naturally so that I wasn't constantly trying to get around slower people.

My next three miles were 9:00 spot on and I felt great. I decided to try to stick with the 9:00 pace until after Mile 7. If I still felt great at Mile 7, then I would try to pick up the pace a bit from there.

I can't say enough great things about the Mini Marathon course. It's flat like a pancake (mmmm... pancakes), and there's nonstop entertainment the whole way. The spectators are wonderful too. There is definitely no shortage of motivation in this race, and I could tell it was really helping my run. I pretty much smiled the entire race (except for maybe the last mile or two, when it got pretty intense). I sang along with some of the bands, high-fived lots of kids, and laughed at some of the more amusing entertainment (like the old ladies who were country line-dancing - awesome!). Who knew running at a 9:00 pace could be so much fun?

Then the course entered Indy Speedway. This part was wicked-cool last time I ran this race. And it is still wicked-cool. It's the most pristine running surface I'll probably ever encounter; nary a pothole in sight. This is probably the quietest part of the entire course, although there were several cheerleading squads in the speedway to give us a mental boost. They were truly wonderful - I don't know how they cheered for so long without losing their voices.

After leaving the speedway, we were at Mile 8, and I was still feeling very strong. So I decided to push a little more and see what I could do. I knew if I stayed at a 9:00 pace, I would be cutting it very close for a sub-2:00. I kept thinking to myself, "Leave nothing to chance"... I wanted to be absolutely certain I would come in under 2:00. If I ran a little faster, I could give myself a bit of a buffer. And so I pushed.

From Mile 8 until the finish, my pace was well under 9:00. In fact, each mile after 7 got faster and faster. It was definitely my day, and I was so ready to join the ranks of the sub-2:00 runners. I knew anything could happen between Mile 8 and the finish - I could trip and fall (a disturbingly likely scenario), I could hit the wall, the guy in front of me shaking out his left arm could have a heart attack and I'd need to stop to help him, etc. But I was trying not to think about those things, and instead focus on the fact that I had less than 5 miles to go... less than 4 miles... less than 3... less than 2... just 1 mile to go....

The last mile felt the longest, even though it was actually the shortest, time-wise. It was incredibly difficult. There was a man running slightly ahead of me in an orange shirt. I made it my goal in life to stick with this man. I was not going to let him get away from me. There were markers along the side of the road that said "3/4 mi to go", "1/2 mi to go", "1/4 mi to go". It seemed that these markers got farther and farther apart, and I was pretty sure they were moving the finish line away from me as I ran toward it.

But then something amazing happened. I made it to the finish line! It was a bit emotional, finally running a half-marathon in under 2:00. I glanced at my Garmin as I hit the Stop button. 1:56:55. Over 3 minutes to spare; I had left nothing to chance.

Leaving nothing to chance: the best half-marathon of my life. (click to see full-screen)

As I was walking through the finish chute, a man came up from behind me and said "Thank you. I just want you to know that you were my pacer from almost the very beginning. I just kept looking for your pigtails and red shirt. You really helped me. I just wanted you to know that." I don't think I have ever felt so honored in my entire running career as I did right then.

The Mini Marathon really knows how to make tired runners happy. First, they give out a super-cool medal which weighs about 6 tons. But they know that's a lot to carry around when you're famished, so then they give you a plastic grocery bag and fill it up with bananas, fruit cups, cookies, bottled water, granola bars and Gatorade. It was a veritable smorgasbord of post-run delicacies, and I was starving, so the banana and the cookie got gobbled up right away. They had professional photographers taking post-race portraits, so I stood in line for my picture, and then made my way to the post-race party.

Since I was alone, I didn't really plan to do much actual partying. But I wanted to find the Results Tent and get my official race time. When I did, I was beyond ecstatic.

1:56:52 (8:56 pace)

It was a PR by nearly 8 minutes (and that PR had only been set a month ago). I felt like a rockstar. I also felt really good, physically. When I had crossed the finish, I was exhausted. But I think that post-race banana and cookie really perked me back up. The walk back to the hotel was easy-breezy (no hobbling!), except for the ice-cold rain that was falling on me.

Did I mention the rain had started almost as soon as I crossed the finish line? It was like I had just outrun Mother Nature. And she wasn't happy about it at all! So for several blocks, I was wet and cold... but that made my post-race hot shower all that much better. Ahhhhhh....

And now, without further ado, the Shiny Medal of Victory!

Look, it's bigger than my head!

So now what? I have reached a huge milestone as a runner: the sub-2:00 half-marathon. I am absolutely thrilled! But am I satisfied? Heck no! I have new goals to achieve. New races to run. New paths to tread. The great thing about running is that you never have to be content with where you are; there is always something else to strive for.

I actually didn't believe I was capable of running sub-2:00 until I actually did it. It makes me wonder what else I'm capable of that seems unattainable at the moment. I suppose only time will tell.

In the mean time, now that Flying Pig and Indy are behind me, I am ready to start planning out my training for the Lakefront Marathon. Do I have goals for that race? Absolutely. Am I going to tell you what they are? Absolutely not!

So don't even try to ask. Because I ain't tellin'. At least not now...

Peace. Love. Train.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Hamming it up at the Flying Pig!

Well, folks, it's that time of year again: the time when we put on poofy tutus, squeal like pigs, and get funky in Cincinnati. No, it's not crazy Cousin Eddie's wedding... it's Flying Pig time!

Just like last year, Cincinnati put on an amazing weekend full of fun, challenges, adventures and laughs. My best friend Shelley and I had the privilege of running three of the Flying Pig races: the 10k, 5k, and half-marathon. (Our friend Michele also joined us for the 5k) Here are some highlights from the weekend events:

The Flying Pig Expo

This year's expo was pretty much identical to last year's, in terms of size, offerings, and organization. It is hands down one of the best expos around. The volunteers (called "Grunts") are friendly, efficient and always smiling. The swag is second-to-none. And the Flying Pig-themed gear you can purchase is very high-quality. I may or may not have purchased several super-cute piggy-themed things.

Shelley is very excited about the swag - three t-shirts, art posters and an embroidered backpack!

Toyota 10k - Saturday, April 30, 8:00am

The first race event of the weekend was the 10k. The start area, just outside the Great American Ballpark (home of the Cincinnati Reds), was fun and energizing with a live DJ and lots of runners. Shelley and I had opted to wear our Team Shiny Medal shirts (which we wore for the Niagara Falls Marathon Relay last fall). We were pretty darn cute, if I do say so myself.

The shirts say "Ooo Shiny!" And yes, we have the same shoes.

It was a cool and sunny morning in downtown Cincinnati - perfect running weather. The 10k course starts at the ballpark, crosses over the Ohio River into Kentucky, meanders along the riverfront, crosses back over another bridge into Ohio and finishes back at the ballpark. It's not an easy course. The bridges (there are three total) are essentially long hills, and there are also several other hills along the route. As you will soon see, it was just a warm-up for what was to come on Sunday.

We had no intention of racing any of the weekend's events. I know what you all are thinking. Yes, it's true I have a long history of not being able to not race races. But I assure you, we actually stuck to the plan of not racing.

However, it had been over 3 years since the last time I ran a 10k. So I was able to set a new 10k PR in this non-race just from running at a moderate pace. It's not a particularly impressive time and I know both Shelley and I are capable of significantly faster. But coming away with an unexpected PR is still a nice little bonus. It is more proof that I am less slow than I used to be!

Flying Pig 5k - Saturday, April 30, 10:00am

The next event in our Weekend of Running was the 5k. We were joined by our good friend Michele. For the most part, we let Michele dictate the pace, since she is a run-walker. But occasionally, we gave her a little nudge to run a bit farther or faster. And also, to not cheat. (That's right, Michele... we're on to you!)

Me, Michele, and Shelley before the 5k

After completing our Saturday morning races, we spent the rest of the day shopping, eating, and enjoying the city. I also went to the Flying Piglet Diaper Dash event to shoot video of a friend's daughter who was participating. It was very cute, and all the babies got medals, which promptly become teething toys. All of this walking around the city and the mall was taking a toll on my legs without me realizing it, until...

Flying Pig Half-Marathon - Sunday, May 1, 6:30am

Shelley and I woke up dark and early at 4:30 Sunday morning to get ready for the big run of the weekend. I would like to point out that Cincinnati is on Eastern Time, so 4:30am in Cincy is 3:30am where I come from. Yes, it was painful to wake up that early. The good news is that I actually slept pretty well that night, so after a cup of coffee and a light breakfast, I was ready to roll. I donned my traditional Flying Pig gear...

...and as we made our way to the starting line at Paul Brown Stadium (home of the Cincinnati Bengals) amid thousands of other runners, history repeated itself.

The rain started.

It was very light at first. Not quite like the torrential downpours and nonstop lightning and thunder of last year. But it was definitely building. And as we walked, it rained a little more. And as we waited in line for one more port-a-potty stop, it rained a little harder. And as we made our way to the "Pig Pen" corrals with less than 10 minutes til the race start, it rained a little harder still.

The Flying Pig instituted a corral start system for the first time ever this year. It was much-needed, since this race is quite large and not all runners are effective at self-seeding. We were supposed to be in Corral D. We never did get there though. We made as far as Corral C when they opened up the barriers between corrals and the race started. Oops! We were not alone, though. Another girl, who was running her first full marathon, hadn't made it to her corral either. She asked us what kind of pace we were running. We said we didn't really have a planned pace - we were just going to run easy. She said that's what she was doing too... And so, for the first several miles, we were joined by the adorable and bubbly Allison, from Charlotte, NC. We ran and chatted for the first four miles, until she stopped to stretch. She is also a blogger, and here is her very cute blog.

After the Kentucky and downtown Cincinnati miles, things get very hairy in the Flying Pig half-marathon and marathon events. After Mile 5, the Big Climb begins. And it just never seems to end. Just when you think the course has leveled off, you turn a corner and there's more hill to climb. But the great thing about the Flying Pig is that even the hills are fun, because the spectators and course volunteers are so enthusiastic and energetic. Even in the pouring rain (and it did pour rain for most of the run), Cincinnatians crowd the streets by the thousands to cheer on the runners. You can't help but feel a burst of energy from all the excitement.

Elvis performs at this spot every year, near the bottom of the Big Hill

The reward at the top of the Big Hill: the view from Eden Park. It's a Kodak Moment! Look how drenched we are from the rain.

Now's a good time to mention the aid station entertainment. The Flying Pig has a contest every year where runners can vote on their favorite aid station. And the aid stations work very hard to earn the title of Favorite Fluid Station. Some of our favorite aid stations included the Avondale Running Club at Mile 6, who were rapping such classic and witty things as "The Gatorade is in the green cups. The Gatorade is in the green cups." Entertaining and informative! We also very much enjoyed the Walnut Hills High School Football Team at Mile 10, and not just because they were very cute. *wink wink* They were also unbelievably enthusiastic, giving out high fives and shouting encouragement to every runner who passed by.

The last few miles of the race were pretty tough for both of us. Cardiovascularly, I was fine; I wasn't breathing hard and my heart rate was low. But my legs were very tired and my feet were sore. All of the running and walking yesterday must have taken a toll. Shelley was also suffering a bit since she is getting over a recent bout of pneumonia. So we did take a few walk breaks on some of the steeper hills.

I felt a little wimpy about those walk breaks. But when I got home and uploaded my Garmin data, I was shocked to see that the total climb on the half-marathon course was over 1,000 feet. The full marathon course climbs about 1,500 feet total, so the half-marathon is actually a tougher course than the full marathon, on a climb-per-mile basis. Also, the Big Hill is from Mile 5 - 8.5 on both courses. This means it's late in the half course, but early in the full course. The full marathon lends itself well to negative splits for this reason. The half... not so much with the negative splits.

At about Mile 10, the half course takes a nosedive and it's 2 solid miles of fairly steep downhill. It's easy on the heart, but hard on the legs. Fortunately, the race is almost over by this point. Before we knew it, we were climbing the final small hill and we knew the finish line (er, I mean, finish swine) would be just on the other side. Shelley told me she didn't have any kick in her. I told her it didn't matter because we weren't racing. She sped up anyway. So I sped up. And then she sped up some more. So I sped up some more. No finishing kick, eh?

We collected our final medal of the weekend and made our way through the insanely long finish area, where they were serving up everything from bananas to donuts to Swiss cake rolls to chocolate milk. We made our way back to the hotel, got cleaned up and put on warm, dry clothes, and wore our three medals around for the rest of the day. We were very noisy with all the clinking and clanging of the medals. But it was the sound of accomplishment. And also the sound of insanity.

Why did we run three races? Because we have a sickness. And we love shiny medals. And something about personal accomplishment and stuff.

The three little piggy medals

We will, of course, be back again next year. The Flying Pig is now a tradition that cannot be broken. Which race(s) will I run next time? Your guess is as good as mine. But I do love me a good hilly marathon...

Peace. Love. Train.