Monday, August 29, 2011

And THAT'S how we defend our title...

Anyone who knows me personally knows I have a pretty serious fear of shorter-distance races right now. 5k, 1 mile, 4 mile, 3 mile... they all terrify me to my very core. Yes, I realize this is somewhat irrational for someone who routinely runs 8+ miles per day and 14+ mile long runs. But the amount of pain and suffering required for a short race is, in my opinion, much much greater than that required for, say, a half-marathon or marathon. I have realized, however, that in order to be a more well-rounded runner, I need to face my fears and, occasionally, run 'til I very nearly puke. I am much more agreeable to doing this if there is a potential for winning hardware.

And so this past Saturday, I headed north to the small town of Lacon to attempt to run really fast at the Marshall County Old Settlers' 5k race.

Those of you who have read my blog for a while may recall I secretly ran this race last year, and I managed to both PR and win 2nd place in my age group. Not only that, but fellow FASTie Kristi also secretly ran this race last year and placed 2nd in her age group as well. We both kinda-sorta really wanted to defend our 2nd place statuses in 2011. Neither of us were planning to try to PR, considering we had a 20-mile long run the very next day, but we figured we could at least place in our respective age groups without completely killing ourselves. So we both showed up in lovely Lacon, ready to take some names and kick some ass.

Wait. Did I say that out loud? Oopsie! What I meant to say was, we showed up in lovely Lacon to run a leisurely 5k and enjoy the post-race food and festivities.


Kristi and I did a short warm-up jog and then headed to the starting line. As we were walking, we were quietly assessing our competition. Yeah, Coach Brad always says to "run for fun and personal bests", yadda yadda yadda. Because, apparently, it's not all about the hardware. But what Coach Brad doesn't realize is that one of the funnest things about racing a 5k is winning hardware. Because, let's face it, the actual running part sure ain't any fun. No, the running part of a 5k really sucks. So I was fully intent on running "for fun" this day, where fun = winning shiny medals/trophies.

I find that in races like these, it's best to make the competition a little nervous before the race starts. You know, plant the seeds of doubt in their minds. Kristi and I stationed ourselves out in front of the starting line and did a variety of impressive-looking dynamic warm-up moves. Not only were these moves good for our legs, but I'm sure they made us look like Olympic track athletes getting ready to crouch in the starting blocks. If there had been starting blocks available, I totally would've used them. They could've given me a 5 or 6 tenths of a second advantage! Plus, I would've looked like a really serious runner. (As if the dynamic warm-up moves didn't make me look serious enough.) (And by serious, of course I mean ridiculous.)

We toed the line (sans starting blocks) with about 100 other runners and walkers, and when the flag dropped to signify the race start, I took off like one of those Diet Coke and Mentos bottle rocket things. That is to say: really fast... at first. This may not have been the best course of action, considering the first 3/4 mile is a steady uphill. Kristi was right beside me. Usually she's waaaay ahead of me, so I knew I was probably running a teeny little bit faster than I had intended.

First mile: 7:31

Uhhh yeah. That was a lot faster than I had intended. I had planned to run at about my PR pace of 7:45. Whoops. If I could hold onto that 7:31 pace, it would be a pretty impressive new PR. The problem was that I could not hold onto that pace on this hilly course. What followed that first uphill mile was a slow and steady death. 7:31. 7:36, 7:50...

My legs just got heavier and heavier, my breathing became more labored, and with every step I ran, I wanted more and more to just stop. I did not plan to run this race all-out like that, but apparently I am unable to hold back when presented with a race situation where there is hardware at stake. In the back of my mind, I briefly worried about how my hard effort this day would affect my 20-mile long run the next day. The smart thing to do would've been to back off a bit and save something for the long run. My oxygen-starved brain was incapable of that sort of high-level logic, however, and I continued to push at maximum intensity. My thoughts became smaller and smaller until I was only able to process one- or two-word thoughts. My stream of consciousness sounded a lot like "Ouch... Hate.... Never again... Hurts... Why... Death soon... Must puke..."

As I rounded the final turn of the course, I relished the fact that it was literally all downhill from there. I flew through the final 0.1 miles at a blistering 6:43 pace and finished strong. Then I spent the next 30 seconds trying not to throw up (and fortunately for the finish line volunteers, I was successful).

I knew I had just PR'd because I had been vaguely aware that the race clock read 23:something when I finished, and I had never run sub-24:00 in a 5k before. A quick glance at my Garmin confirmed this - 23:39. I was pleased as punch! It made all the suffering instantly worthwhile. I was eager to see the official race results, and find out where I had placed.

While Kristi and I waited for the results to be posted, we enjoyed the post-race smorgasbord of goodies: bananas, grapes, brownies, cookies, rice krispie treats, Subway sandwiches, and ice cold bottled water, among other things. This small town race really knows how to make runners feel better after they have suffered for 20-some minutes.

After I had eaten far more calories worth of cookies and brownies than I could have possibly burned in 3.1 miles of running, the results were posted. I rushed over to the bulletin board to check them out. I let out a squeal of delight when I saw my official time of 23:36. A wonderful new PR, by almost 30 seconds! And then I nearly peed my pants with excitement when I saw that both Kristi and I had won our age groups.

First place, baby! BOOYAH!!!

I can't believe how much we rule.

And what of our 20-mile long run the next day?

No joke, it was the best 20 mile training run I have ever had. It certainly helped that the weather was perfect. But the route we ran, which took us literally from one side of Peoria to the other, and through various parts in between, was a difficult route with a lot of hills. Kristi and I didn't really expect to be running very fast even in good weather. So imagine our surprise when, after running the first 3 miles at about a 10:00 pace, we knocked out mile after mile at a sub-10:00 pace while feeling pretty darn good. We negative split the 20 miles, and our last mile was our strongest, at a 9:13 pace. Average pace over 20 miles? 9:45. It was the first time I had ever run any distance greater than 15 miles at a pace under 10:00. Not only that, but we felt fantastic for having just run such a speedy 20 miles. It was a far cry from just a year and a half ago when I was doing long runs at a 12:00+ pace and spending the rest of the day feeling beat up and exhausted.

So I officially proclaimed Kristi and myself to be a couple of bad-ass rockstar runners. We raced a 5k hard and won 1st place awards, and we ran a really strong 20-miler all in the same weekend. I am sure Nike will be calling us any day now to offer us a rockin' sponsorship deal.

Well, either them... or Walmart.

Peace. Love. Train.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Madison Mini-Marathon: How Walmart Saved My Ass

There is nothing quite like a fun and relaxing girls' weekend. Which is why I was really looking forward to my Madison Mini-Marathon weekend with fellow FASTies Kristi and Becky. We were going to run a half-marathon at a relaxed pace, and then spend the rest of the weekend hanging out, chillin', eating good food, and drinking tasty beverages. It was going to be a perfect weekend away.

Or so I thought.

I left for Madison early on Friday morning, intent on getting there in plenty of time to hit the race expo and get my and Kristi's race packets. And that's just what I did. I got into town around 4:00pm on Friday, checked into my hotel (conveniently located within walking distance to the expo and the race start/finish), and took a leisurely stroll across the University of Wisconsin campus to get my race packet at the student union.

The expo was moderately-sized and all the typical outfits were represented: shoe companies, chiropractors, local running shops, and several marathons looking for runners. Packet pick-up was well organized and staffed by dozens of volunteers. The race shirt was surprisingly nice, and even though it was unisex-sized, it fits me pretty well.

A cool tech shirt, a car magnet, and a personalized race bib (and yes, that's a QR code on the bib, so you can scan it to get your race results)

Fast forward to later that evening... Kristi had arrived and gotten her race packet from me, and we were both in our own hotel rooms, calmly getting ready for our half-marathon in the morning. At about 9:30pm, I was digging through my running gear bag so that I could lay out my running clothes and pin on my race bib. I was digging and digging and digging, when it occurred to me that there was a critical item that I swore I had packed (I had even crossed it off my packing list), but I couldn't seem to find.

My running shoes.

My stomach sunk like a rock and I felt physically sick. What followed was a colorful and animated monologue that sounded a lot like:


Except instead of "spit" and "duck" I said different, but rhyming, words. It was so late in the evening, I knew there would be no running stores open, or any store that sold remotely decent shoes. The race expo was long since closed too. I knew I was screwed.

In a state of complete and utter panic, I texted Kristi, who was in the room directly below mine. The exchange went like this (remember "spit" is just a substitute word):

Me: SPIT SPIT SPIT! I forgot my running shoes! I'm freaking out! What do I do???
Kristi: Are you spitting me? I have an extra pair of shoes, but they are size 10. You might need to run to Walmart or something!
Me: Ummm... don't suppose you'd want to go with me?
Kristi: Of course I will. Meet you in the lobby!

And so at almost 10 o'clock on the night before a race, Kristi and I were driving around Madison, looking for the Walmart Supercenter. I was so relieved Kristi had agreed to go with me; I really needed the moral support during this shoe emergency. Plus, she knew where the Walmart was and I didn't. When we finally arrived, we quickly found the shoe department and immediately noticed the selection was... well... lacking. Not that we expected to find Nikes and Asics at Walmart, but the women's "athletic" shoes consisted of 4 different types of "toning" shoes (you know, those shoes with the really thick, ugly soles), and two types of grandma-looking walking shoes. Oh, and a pair of fake "Shox" type shoes.

I panicked again. I thought I was doomed to stand on the sidelines of the race wearing one of the two pairs of flip-flops I had brought (that's right folks, I didn't bring running shoes, but I brought two pairs of flip-flops). And then Kristi found them on the clearance rack...

They looked like fairly normal sneakers. No "shocks", no abnormally thick soles, and they didn't weigh 7 pounds like the grandma shoes. I felt cautiously optimistic. So I tried them on.

Maybe it was the fact that I was desperate, but they didn't feel half bad! I walked a few steps up and down the aisle, and jumped up and down a few times. They felt... better than expected. I had found my race shoes. I looked at the box.

Danskin NOW: Forward. Originally $22.87. Marked down to $17.00. Now on clearance for $15.00.

I was going to try to run a half-marathon in $15 "bubble sneakers"? They weren't even running shoes! I ran through all of the possible outcomes in my mind: the shoes could fall apart in the middle of the race, they could be so horribly-made that they cause some sort of weird foot injury, or they could turn my feet into two giant blisters. Given my high-mileage marathon training, I figured the risk of injury over 13 miles was fairly low. It was the other two scenarios I was most worried about. I was just glad I wasn't planning to race this half-marathon. There was no pressure to achieve a certain pace or finish time; I was just going to enjoy a fun run with my girlfriends.

As I stood in the aisle of Walmart pondering my fate, Kristi pulled out her iPhone and started snapping pictures so she could post them on Facebook. So that was why she had wanted to go to Walmart with me: to point and laugh and gather photographic evidence!

Save Money. Live Better. $15 Danskin "bubble sneakers" to the rescue!

I didn't get a lot of sleep the night before the race, thanks to the late-night Walmart run, and the subsequent Facebooking (I had to respond to the hoards of "OMG, how could you forget your shoes???" comments I was getting). So when the alarm went off at 5:15 the next morning, I made a beeline to the coffeemaker, feeling bleary-eyed and desperate for caffeine.

The race was set to start at 7:00am. This was fine by me; I like an early race. The earlier a race starts, the earlier it's finished, and the earlier I can enjoy the post-race festivities!

Mother Nature had other plans though.

I put on my running gear, including my super-awesome $15 Walmart shoes and made my way to the hotel lobby to meet up with Kristi and Becky. As we were walking to the race start, we noticed the ominous-looking clouds in the sky and some distant lightning. We didn't think much of it though. If you recall my Flying Pig experiences, both times I ran those events, I walked to the starting line in a severe thunderstorm and those races started right on time.

The race director, however, did not like the dark clouds and distant lightning. And so as we were getting situated in our starting corral, the announcement was made that we were all to take shelter immediately and wait for the impending storm to pass.

Ready to run at 7:00am... but it was not to be.

In all the bazillions of races I've run, this was the first time I had ever had a race delayed. I didn't particularly mind. If there was severe weather coming, I would rather not run in it. I can handle just rain, but I prefer not to have to dodge lightning.

So the three of us sought shelter under a building overhang, between bicycles parked on a bike rack. We waited. And waited. And ran across the street to Einstein Bro's Bagels to pee. And ran back under the overhang to wait some more. And waited. And waited. And commented on how hungry we were getting. And ran to Walgreens to buy an energy bar. And ran back under the overhang. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, at about 8:15, over an hour after the scheduled race start, an official-looking man came by and said that he would know in about 10 minutes whether or not the race would be canceled. We all looked at each other in disbelief. Cancel the race? They couldn't possibly! Not after driving 3.5 hours to get there. And certainly not after making a late-night Walmart run to buy crappy "athletic" shoes to run in! I was ready to run in my cheap shoes, dammit, and the weather was not going to stop me!!!

Fortunately, they decided to go ahead with the race, an hour and a half late. So at 8:30am, we all lined up in our corrals, in the very cold rain, and anxiously awaited the starting gun. When it finally went off, we were so relieved because it meant we might finally warm up.

Where are my tiny windshield wipers???

The first few miles were very, very wet. The rain poured and the wind blew, and I honestly couldn't remember the last time I had felt so cold during a run. I was trying not to complain, though, because it was really a nice change of pace from the 95ยบ weather we've been running in lately. Still, it was hard not to whimper a little bit when the wind came whipping through and made us all kinds of goose-bumpy. I was afraid my cheap shoes would turn into a soggy, squishy, blister-making mess, but they actually stayed relatively dry. I credit my moisture-wicking socks (which I think cost more than the shoes). The rain was short-lived, and by mile 5 we were squinting from the glare of the sunshine bouncing off the wet pavement.

Kristi had requested that I provide a "shoe update" every mile. And so shortly after most mile markers, I would comment: "Well, they haven't fallen apart yet" or "They're actually not too bad". As we got toward the later miles of the comments were more like "It feels like I have plywood strapped to the soles of my feet!" and "I am never wearing these shoes again!".

The race course itself was wonderful. It was scenic, full of variety, and well-organized with plenty of aid stations and lots of enthusiastic volunteers. We ran through neighborhoods, along bike paths, through parks, near the lake, and through the university. There were a few hills, but nothing major (just enough to keep it interesting). We ran at a relaxed pace, so we were able to truly enjoy the course and our conversation.

When we crossed the finish line, the three of us had our linked hands raised high. The finish line announcer yelled out "And here come the three amigos!" We hugged each other, feeling victorious, and collected our shiny medals. Oh, but these weren't just any shiny medals. No, these were multi-functional medals!

It's a shiny medal. It's a bottle opener. It's BOTH!

Not only did we get wicked-cool bottle opener medals, we also got quite the post-race buffet, including bananas, granola bars, rice krispie treats, Cheetos and Doritos, and real Wisconsin chocolate milk. It may have been the best chocolate milk I had ever had. And of course we can't forget the free post-race beer! The post-race party on the union terrace was just splendid, with its beautiful views of the lake, abundant sunshine, and live entertainment. We hung out for a while and enjoyed our snacks and beverages.

Becky and Kristi enjoying free frosty beverages on the union terrace, overlooking Lake Mendota

My feet were a little sore and tired from my cheap, stiff-soled shoes, which didn't have very good arch support, but all things considered, I felt pretty darn good. I never would've dreamed I could make it through a half-marathon in $15 Walmart shoes. I credit my rigorous marathon training; if I hadn't been running such a high weekly mileage, I think this race would've done me in. But given my current training regimen, 13 miles is a relatively short long run, so I can wear less-than-ideal shoes and live to tell the tale. I don't think I would've been able to run, say, 20 miles in these shoes, though. So to anyone who might be thinking "Hey, she should run a full marathon in those shoes!" *ahem, Coach Brad* I say "Fuggedaboutit!"

I hope someone from Walmart's executive management reads this (although I know the chances of that are slim to none), because I want them to know that Walmart was the reason I was able to run the Madison Mini-Marathon. I expected disaster from those $15 shoes, but what I got was a mostly pleasant surprise. I don't really want to run in those shoes again, but it's nice to know there are feasible options for those of us who are... um... brilliant enough to leave their regular running shoes at home during a big race getaway weekend. And let's face it, when it's late at night and you have an "OMG I forgot something!!!" emergency, where do you go? Walmart. You may not be happy about it, but in many cases, it's the only option. So I'd like to suggest a new slogan for Walmart.

Walmart: Saving You Money While Saving Your Ass

Peace. Love. Train.