Sunday, June 26, 2011

Will suffer for hardware

Short races are very, very painful.

5k's, 3 Milers, 4 Milers, 1 Milers - they all hurt like hell. The process of quickly achieving an anaerobic state and then trying to hold onto it for several minutes makes me question my sanity every time I do it. For a 5k or 3 mile race, the thought process generally goes something like this:

Mile 1: Wheeeeee! This is fun! I feel like I'm flying!
Mile 2: OMG, I'm not even halfway through this race and I am fighting for air! Why am I doing this??? And where has all the oxygen gone???
Mile 3: I really want to puke!

So why do I continue to put myself through the torture of short races? Well, aside from the fact that they help make me a faster runner, I also have a serious trophy/medal hoarding problem. I haven't hoarded very many, mind you. But they're so shiny and pretty, I just want them all. And so I tend to carefully select races where I actually stand a chance of getting an age group award. And when I see a display like this...

Look at all the shiny trophies!!!! OOoooOOOoooo... makes me run that much harder. I am willing to suffer for hardware.

In yesterday's Lincoln-Douglas 3 Mile Race, it was even more imperative that I win a trophy because last year I actually won my age group in this very race. I needed to defend my title!

I thought about all the mistakes I made in last year's race, the biggest one being the fact that I started out way too fast. This is a common problem for me in short races. I am pretty good at pacing over long distances, but when it comes to short distances, I shoot out of the gates at lightning speed... and then I die.

So after a quick 1.5-mile warm-up jog, I lined up at the start line, fully intent on reigning in my pace for the first mile.

Well, at least my intentions were good...

The race started and off I went at what felt like a pretty slow pace. I was worried that I was actually running too slow. I rarely look at my Garmin during races (which is a habit I should probably break if I want to get better at pacing) so I really didn't know what my pace actually was. I just felt slow.

But then I passed the 1 mile mark and the nice man with the stopwatch called out "7:10!"

Wait... What??? 7:10 is my Main Street Mile time! I had just ran my 1 mile PR in the first mile of a 3 mile race. This was not good. Not good at all.

After that, it was a slow and painful death all the way to the finish line. It didn't help that the race was downhill for the first half and uphill for the 2nd half. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that I was actually passing other runners in the last two miles. I wanted so badly to stop and lie down in a cornfield, but as I slowly picked off other runners, I felt small bursts of energy that drove me home. And in the last tenth of a mile, I saw an angel from heaven: Kris Stash (yes, one of the Stashes for whom the Stashies are named), was cheering for me. I gave it everything I had (which wasn't much at that point) and finished strong. And without puking!

According to my not-entirely-accurate Garmin, my 2nd mile was a 7:36 pace, and my 3rd mile was 7:56. Talk about losing steam! It was pretty much a repeat of last year's race (where my splits were 7:31, 8:08 and 8:36), just at a faster pace. Apparently I'm a slow learner. But hey, at least I'm a faster runner!

And the good news is that I still managed a very nice PR. Last year, I finished in 24:43 (8:14 pace), which was somehow good enough to earn me a 1st place age group trophy. This year, I finished in 23:06 (7:42 pace). I was very happy with this time... but would it be good enough to defend my 1st place title in the 30-34 age group?

As it turns out... no.

The competition in this year's race was pretty stiff across the board. There were more runners in general, and a lot of them were fast.

For the first time ever, this race was chip-timed, which meant the results were posted very quickly. So even before the awards ceremony, I knew I had placed 2nd in my age group. Disappointing? A teeny bit.

But you know what? 2nd place gets a trophy too!

I was so far behind the 1st place woman in my age group (who ran at a 7:05 pace), that I didn't even stand a chance of winning 1st. Like I said, the competition this year was pretty stiff. So I was pretty darn happy to win a 2nd place trophy.

And what's more, my good friend and fellow FASTie/Stashie, Louisa, won 1st in her age group!

Louisa and I showing off our new hardware

So maybe I didn't run the best race in terms of even pacing, and I didn't exactly defend my title... but all things considered, this was a successful race. I ran a new PR, I still won a trophy, and most importantly, I got to celebrate victories with my runner friends. Louisa won her age group, Jim ran his best race so far this year after coming back from injury, Caleb was 3rd place overall, and Bill ran strong in the 8 Mile race. It was a very good day.

Winning a shiny trophy was just icing on the proverbial cake.

Mmmm... cake...

Peace. Love. Train.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Illinois' Toughest 15k? Bring it!

Since I began this blog nearly a year and a half ago, I have written many times about the wonder and torture of the Hill of Death. I have run many a training run up and down its steep and unforgiving slopes, and even though it hurts like hell every time, I'm pretty sure it has made me a stronger runner. For this reason, deep down, I love the Hill of Death. However, I have never said to myself "Self, wouldn't it be fun to run a race that includes the Hill of Death... twice???"

Until now.

After five years in a row of running the Steamboat Classic 4 mile race ("The World's Fastest 4 Mile Race"), I decided it was time to take on a new challenge. And what better way to take on a new challenge than by running "Illinois' Toughest 15k" which takes runners up the Hill of Death not once, but twice?

This was a welcome change for several reasons. First, I really prefer longer distance races to shorter ones. Second, I have never raced the 15k distance before so it would be an instant PR. And third, and most importantly, finishers of the 15k event receive a shiny medal.

I'm a sucker for a shiny medal... even if it means running the Hill of Death twice.

I have run the race course several times before as a training run with my beloved Stashies and I felt pretty comfortable with it. As a training run, it actually isn't too difficult. Yes, the hills are tough, but for every uphill there is a downhill. I have found that I rather enjoy the variety of this course, with its fast flats and undulating hills, and bustling city segments and tranquil park segments. I knew my opinion would probably change when I attempted to race it though.

Based on my training runs, I thought a reasonable goal for this hot, humid and hilly race would be under 1:30. (Steamboat is always hot and humid; I'm pretty sure it's in the official race rules that the weather be as miserably summery as possible.) Yes, that's even slower than my half-marathon pace, but I had to take course and weather conditions into account in my goal-setting.

The elevation profile for the Steamboat 15k. Ouch.

And so when race morning finally arrived, I set my sights on 1:30. The weather was hot and humid, as expected, but thankfully, it was cloudy. I felt good. My coaches had me do a short taper in the week leading up to Steamboat, and although I suffered a bit of taper madness from running so few miles, my legs felt fresh for race day.

Runners lined up at the start and ready to run!

The gun went off (I didn't actually hear a gun, but everyone had started running, so I just assumed...) and away I went. The first two miles are flat, so I used this to my advantage to bank some time. I ran about a 9:00 pace for those two miles, which was faster than goal pace, but not so fast that I wouldn't have any energy left to tackle the hilly miles (miles 3 - 7). When I finally reached the Hill of Death (the first of several hills), I felt great. I climbed the hill at a relaxed pace, rather than trying to attack it, so that I would be able to take back a fast pace as soon as I reached the top. This was my strategy for all of the hills and it worked great.

As I made my way around the first loop of Glen Oak Park I was joined by fellow FASTie, Anna. We had a nice chat about marathons and beer and race hydration strategies. Anna told me about her idea for margaritas made with Gatorade instead of margarita mix. They would be called Gatoritas. This is beyond brilliant, and I hope the idea catches on with marathon race directors. At Mile 22 of a marathon, nothing would be more refreshing!

When I came around for my second loop through Glen Oak park, I picked up my pace a little bit, because I knew I was almost done with the hills. Before I knew it, I was running down the last downhill, out of Glen Oak Park, and into the home stretch. The last two miles of the race are pretty much flat, with a nice downhill segment in the last 1/4 mile. It was time to kick it up a notch.

I really had no idea what my pace had been during the race. As I typically do during races, I ran entirely by feel, and I rarely looked at my Garmin. Based on the race clock at the 10k mark, I knew I was on track for sub-1:30, but I really didn't know by how much. (My computational skills during races leave a lot to be desired.)

So imagine my surprise as I surged down the final downhill, around the corner, and toward the finish line, when I saw the race clock at exactly 1:25:00. Suddenly, a man came flying past me in his sprint to the finish line. Not wanting to be outdone, I kicked with all I had and passed him with 20 feet to spare, crossing the finish as the clock struck 1:25:08. Knowing it had taken me at least 30 seconds to cross the starting line of the race after the gun was fired, I knew my chip time should be well under 1:25. I was ecstatic!

After collecting my shiny medal and high-fiving my fellow FASTies and Stashies who had already finished, I proceeded to the post-race party where I enjoyed the optimal recovery fuels of bagels, orange slices, and beer with my friends. Many of us celebrated PR's, and several even won awards.

Me and fellow FASTie, Cathy, both celebrating PR's!

When chip times were finally posted (36 hours after the race - talk about slow!), I was very pleased to see my time was 1:24:34 (9:04 pace). I do believe I properly earned this shiny medal:

I love that it says right on the ribbon "Illinois' Toughest 15k" - damn right!

Coach Brad has always said that there's really only one race at Steamboat: the 15k. After having raced both the 4 mile and the 15k, I can now understand his logic. The 15k is far more fun (even with the Hill of Death), the pace is more comfortable, the course is more shaded and less crowded, and there's a shiny medal at the finish. It may be Steamboat's best kept secret. So many more runners opt to do the 4 mile because it promises to be "flat and fast". But I think if they gave the 15k a chance, they'd realize that flat and fast isn't always better.

I will be back again next year for the 15k. And now I have a time to beat. Look out!

Peace. Love. Train.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hey, can someone please shut down this blast furnace?

Gather round, kids; it's time for your semi-annual lesson in metallurgy! (Actually, I don't think I've ever given a metallurgy lesson here before, but after you read today's post, you're definitely going to want it to be a semi-annual thing. Trust me.)

As a metallurgical engineer, I've spent my fair share of time in heat treat shops, metalcasting foundries and steel mills. I find these places intensely fascinating - there's something hypnotic and awe-inspiring about glowing liquid metal and the processes by which it is produced.

Let's take steelmaking, for example. The first step in steelmaking is the chemical conversion of iron ore into a type of iron metal called pig iron. This process, known as smelting, takes place in a large chimney-like tower known as a blast furnace. Iron ore (which is basically rusty-looking rock) is fed into the top of the tower, along with coke (a coal derivative), which I assure you is neither an illegal controlled substance, nor a fizzy beverage. Very hot air, known as "blast", is blown into the bottom of the tower (at about 2200ºF), where it combines with the iron ore and coke from the top. This combination of materials, heat and oxygen produces a chemical reaction (aka, "magic") that causes the iron atoms to release from the ore as a hot liquid pig iron. The bottom of the blast furnace is tapped with a drill, the liquid pig iron pours into special rail cars to be transported to the next stage of the steelmaking process.

Blast furnaces like this one are used to convert iron ore into pig iron. They are really, really, REALLY hot. I mean, like, REALLY.

Now please wake up so I can explain why I just told you all that crap! Did you all realize that the term "sweat like a pig" has absolutely nothing to do with pigs of the animal type? It is, in fact, related to the production of pig iron in the steelmaking process. When pig iron is cool enough to be used in the next step of steelmaking, beads of condensation form on the surface. It begins to "sweat". And I'll bet you thought metallurgy had no practical application to running... just think of pig iron the next time you're pouring sweat during a hard interval workout!

It should come as no surprise that blast furnaces, and the buildings in which they are housed, are quite toasty; steelmaking is not for the faint of heart. If you don't believe me, just take a gander at this video of a blast furnace in action. Steelmaking will make anyone sweat like a pig.

But you know what else is not for the faint of heart? Running in Central Illinois in the summer heat.

Earlier this week, I went for some runs that felt exactly like running around a blast furnace. And for those who doubt my comparison... yes, I have been around a blast furnace; I know what it feels like (although I will admit I've never been compelled to run around one).

Last Saturday, my 12-mile long run was a hot, miserable slog, even at 7 o'clock in the morning. Sunday wasn't much of an improvement, although at least there was cloud cover and rain to cool me off a little bit. On Monday, my afternoon "easy" 3-mile run was anything but easy as I battled a heat index of 96°, a hot wind, and glaring sunshine. And Tuesday, at a 93º FAST run, I found my pace slipping with each consecutive 400m repeat, while my effort seemed to increase exponentially. It was only a 4 mile run, but I could not have run any farther if I wanted to. It was just ridiculous.

So after several days in a row of running in the Blast Furnace Zone, I really needed a break. The heat was dragging me down both physically and mentally.

The forecast for Wednesday called for more of the same - relentlessly hot, humid, and sunny. I wanted nothing to do with it. It was time to revisit my old friend, the indoor track. Some might say running in circles is worse than running in the searing heat. I respectfully disagree. Of course, I have logged so many miles on the indoor track, thanks to training for the indoor marathon last winter, that I have learned to find enjoyment in it.

And believe me, I enjoyed every one of my 75 laps (10 miles) around the track in relatively cool comfort. It was actually pretty warm and humid on the track, but it was much cooler than the 95º weather outside. My effort felt easy the whole time, my pace wasn't reduced to a crawl, I sweated but not like a pig, and when I was done, I felt like I could've kept going. It was exactly the boost in morale that I needed.

Mother Nature has finally given us a little break outside, and for a few days the temperatures should stay below 80º. What is it they say about the weather in Illinois? If you don't like it, just wait 5 minutes and it will change. Or 5 days, as the case may be. One minute it's a blast furnace, the next minute it's a cryogenic treatment chamber (that's another metallurgy lesson for another day... probably a day in the middle of winter).

So kids, let's sum up the steelmaking-running analogy (because there will be a quiz later): In Illinois in the summertime, we sometimes have to run in blast-furnace-like temperatures, which causes us to sweat like pigs (of the iron variety, not the animal variety).

For your homework, I expect you all to memorize the process of converting iron ore to pig iron. And I would like a 4-page typed, single-spaced essay on the history of steelmaking and how it relates to the sport of long-distance running. Extra credit for anyone who includes credible references to Jim Fixx and/or Katherine Switzer.

Who knew my engineering degree would come in handy for so much more than engineering??? I bet my parents are beaming with pride as we speak. And if they happen to be reading this, they should know they are not exempt from the quiz.

Peace. Love. Train.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sweat Like A Pig: Birthday Edition

Well folks, this past Monday was my birthday, which of course means I am 29 once again. As I begin another year of being alive, I find this is a good time to reflect on events of the past year, and look forward to what the next year of life has to bring. I also find it a good time to eat cake. And for anyone who is trying to decide on that perfectly-themed birthday cake for me, look no further:

It's a running shoe! It's a cake! It's both! Although I'm pretty sure fondant, buttercream and devil's food cake don't offer much in the way of cushioning or stability. So we'll just skip the run and eat cake instead.

My birthday is also apparently a good time for my coaches to inflict all manner of pain and torture upon me and my teammates.

In all fairness, yesterday's FAST workout was one of my favorites. You all remember "The FAST", right? It's a tough workout, but the combination of hills and speedwork give it nice variety to keep it from getting boring (not that anything we do at FAST is ever boring). We hadn't done this workout since late last summer, so it was a pleasant(???) surprise when the coaches sprang it on us last night. The concept was simple: alternate 800m hills with 800m flats, with very brief recoveries between. As a member of the (unfortunate?) Black group, I had to run four sets of these, which really wasn't too bad. It was a shorter workout than we usually have (remind me to tell you all about last Thursday's 9 mile extravaganza of 800m repeats sometime).

I should've known, though, that a short workout meant the coaches were up to no good. They had a special birthday surprise for me in the form of, you guessed it, a maintenance mile. But this gift wasn't just for me. No, it was for all the FASTies. As Coach Brad put it, "The maintenance mile is a very large cake, and everyone gets a slice!"

That was not the kind of birthday cake I had in mind. *scowl*

The last time I ran a maintenance mile, which I remember quite distinctly because it hurt like hell, was during Winter FAST on the blissfully flat and climate-controlled indoor track (in a time of 7:24). Now I would be running a very hilly, hot and humid mile. Given how sluggish I had felt during the workout, I did not expect anything better than 8:30. And even that might be pushing it.

Coach Maggie wrote down everyone's predictions; whoever ran closest to their predicted time would get a Running Central gift certificate. Oh, and there were no watches allowed during the maintenance mile. I was exhausted and overheated and there was a big hill on the mile route, so I predicted 8:45.

Brad started several of us together, since he was the timekeeper. I tried my darndest to keep up with speedsters Tim and Brian, but I only made it about 10 feet before they took off like rockets and left me in their dust. I settled into a painful-but-not-quite-nauseating pace and tried to remind myself that it would all be over in just a few minutes. Then I got to the big hill and suddenly a few minutes felt like eternity. I was positive my pace had slowed to a crawl and that I would be lucky to finish this mile in under 10:00. I crested the hill and sailed down the other side, taking advantage of the "recovery" to get a little bit of my breath back, and then rounded the final corner to the mostly flat final portion of the route. Before I knew it, I was making my push for the finish and Brad was calling out my time.


Huh. Turns out I had more juice left in me than I thought I did. It wasn't a great mile by any means, but it was a whole lot better than I thought it would be. Needless to say, I didn't win the gift certificate (but big congrats to Brian, who did win it with his super-speedy 6:16 mile that was only 4 seconds off of his prediction. Talk about great pacing!).

So to sum up: For my birthday, my wonderful coaches gave me "The FAST", a maintenance mile, and no cake. There's something seriously wrong with this picture.

But the fact is, it's "gifts" like those that have made me a better runner in the last year. The numbers speak for themselves. In the last year, my average run pace has improved by nearly 1:30 per mile (that's right, a minute and a half... per mile!), my average run distance has increased by over 2 miles, and my weekly and monthly mileage has almost doubled. I am also running more days per week. Just this last month (May), I ran a record 185 miles. Also in the last month, I had a record mileage week of 48 miles. And the strange thing is, I'm not even really training for anything at the moment. I'm just running because I can and I want to.

I definitely wouldn't be where I am today without the pain and torture of FAST. So maybe their birthday gift to me was appropriate, even if it wasn't very much fun. Although I still think that some post-maintenance mile cake would've been nice. I mean, come on guys, we gotta refuel!

Peace. Love. Train.