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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Happy Pain

It's no secret that runners are kind of a strange breed.  Running is a sport that many people associate with pain, and while it doesn't always hurt, those of us who partake in running do derive some sick sense of satisfaction from an especially difficult or painful effort.  It's a happy sort of pain, though - the pain of hard work and accomplishment.

Since last week was my peak marathon training week, it was time to bring on the happy pain.  I wanted to sufficiently wear my legs out, without injuring them, before beginning my beloved/dreaded taper.  So I logged 30 miles of easy- and moderate-paced running during the weekdays.  And then I had a brilliantly crazy plan to put my pre-fatigued legs to the test over the weekend: 
  • A 5k race on Saturday.  Yes, a race race.  An all out, balls to the wall, give it all I've got kind of race. 
  • And a ridiculously hilly half-marathon on Sunday...  as part of my 22-mile long run.
I know what you're thinking.  Holy crap, woman, what are you smoking???  Okay, I didn't know you were thinking that. But if you must know, I am not smoking anything.  I am in complete control of my mental faculties.  True story.

So on Saturday morning, I headed down to Pekin to run the Marigold Festival 5k.  It was like déjà vu all over again, because the race was on the same course and had the same race director as the Running With The Saints 5k I ran earlier this year, and my coworker/friend Mike was running it too.  Even the trophies were the same.

Hey, did somebody say "trophies"???

That was all I needed to hear.  I put on my game face.  I was in it to win it.  I didn't know if I would be able to set another PR, since I had just set one two weeks earlier, but I was going to run the best I could and try to score some hardware in the process.

After a short warm-up jog, we lined up for the start.  I knew Mike was shooting for a PR, and I knew what his goal pace was.  I didn't think I could run quite as fast as his goal, so I was fully prepared to watch him run out ahead of me and leave me in his dust.  When the race started, and he didn't pass me, I grew concerned.  I glanced down at my Garmin and saw that I had started off at about a 6:45 pace for the first 1/4 mile.


Well that was way too fast.  Far faster than my goal pace, and even Mike's goal pace.  And Mike, who happened to be running just behind me, told me as much.
 Running like I'm being chased...
(photo by Stephanie M)

For most of the race, I was aware of Mike running just behind me.  This put a little pressure on me (okay, a lot of pressure).  I didn't want him to rely on me for pacing and then end up falling short of his goal if I died off (as I tend to do in short races).  I pushed on as best I could.  As the frontrunners started coming back the opposite direction from the hairpin turn, I was vaguely aware that there were three females ahead of me, and none of them looked to be in my age group (although you can never really be sure with runners).  If I could hang on, I stood a very good chance at earning some hardware.

With about 1/4 mile left to go and the finish line in sight, Mike dropped the hammer and finally passed me.  I experienced feelings of intense pride (since I am his running coach and I knew he was about to PR), mixed with feelings of intense nausea (since I was accelerating for a finishing kick myself).

I watched Mike cross the finish in 23:04 - his best time by nearly 2 minutes. And I stumbled across the finish shortly thereafter, in 23:13 - a PR by 23 seconds.  Considering my previous PR was set just two weeks earlier, this was pretty significant. I was ecstatic!  I checked my splits and was pleased to see 7:16, 7:42, and 7:18.  The middle mile was a killer (it was mostly uphill), but I somehow managed to speed back up for the final mile.  And for the last 0.1 mile I managed to kick it up to a 6:50 pace.  I was very pleased with how I ran.

But wait; there's more!  I also won the Female 30-39 age group.  And that meant a shiny trophy for me.  Score!!!

First place, biznitches!!!  Is it just me, or does the trophy figure look like she's bowling instead of running?

You would think that running a 5k PR would be enough happy pain for one weekend.  And normally you would be right.  But I needed to get in 20+ miles on Sunday, and I sure didn't want to run it alone.  I knew a lot of fellow FASTies and Stashies were running the IVS Half Marathon in the beautiful Springdale Cemetery, and I thought it would be fun to incorporate this race into my long run. (I use the word "fun" loosely here.)  My plan was to run 6-7 miles before the half-marathon, run the half, and then run 1-2 miles afterward, giving me a total of 20-22 miles.

I stumbled out of bed at 4am and had a light breakfast and some much-needed coffee.  Then, at 5:20, despite the fact that I really wanted to crawl into bed and go back to sleep, I headed out the door and enjoyed one of the most peaceful runs I've had in a very long time.  I donned my headlamp and reflective vest, and ran all over the still-sleeping town under a starry night sky, with the full moon slowly sinking toward the western horizon.  I saw Orion to the south, and the big dipper to the north.  All was quiet, except for chirping crickets, my own easy breathing, and my gentle footfalls on the road.  The air was crisp and cool.  I felt like I could run forever.  I really hoped that feeling would continue, because I had a lot more miles to cover yet that morning.

After logging just over 7 miles on my own, I headed to the half-marathon start as the sun was starting to come up.  I had never run the IVS Half-Marathon before, but I have run in Springdale Cemetery enough to know that there were going to be a lot of hills.

Hills?  More happy pain, right?  Bring it.

As runners lined up at the start, we had a brief moment of silence in remembrance of 9-11.  Then it was time for the national anthem, but for whatever reason, the sound system wasn't cooperating and the music wouldn't play.  In a beautiful display of unity and patriotism, all the runners, volunteers and spectators began singing The Star-Spangled Banner, sans accompaniment, perfectly on-key.  It was better than any pre-recorded version of the song ever could have been. 

Then we were off.

The half-marathon course consists of two identical 6.55-mile loops through the cemetery.  The first loop is hilly but beautiful.  The second loop is brutally mountainous and never-ending.  Yes, the loops are identical on paper.  But they are not the same when you're actually running them. 

 After the first loop, I still felt pretty good.  This feeling would not last.
(Photo by Becky T)

My goal was to at least run even splits.  I didn't really care much what my pace was since it was just part of a training run for me, as long as my pace didn't slip in the 2nd loop.  This made the 2nd loop a right pain in the ass.  And the quads.  And the calves.  And the hamstrings. 


As I climbed all those hills a second time, I cursed myself for thinking this was a good idea.  Who, in their right mind, runs an uber-hilly half-marathon as part of a 20+-mile training run? 

Clearly, I'm not in my right mind. 

It was nice the way the course wound through the cemetery in  way that allowed you to pass by runners both ahead of and behind you, going the opposite direction.  So every time I ran past a fellow FASTie or Stashie, I got a little mental boost.  I tried not to think about the fact that when I was at Mile 9 of the race, I was actually at Mile 16 of my long run. I also tried not to think about the fact that the sun was getting hot.  My calves screamed with every steep uphill climb, and my quads protested with every steep downhill descent.  "Happy" pain, my foot!!!  All I wanted was to be done with the hills.  Fortunately, the final mile and a half are mostly a gentle downhill, and I was able to cruise into the finish with renewed vigor. 

 Did I say the course was hilly?  I meant freakin' mountainous.  Over 1,000 ft of climb (and descent).  My quads still haven't forgiven me.

With a finish time of 2:05:51, my third fastest half-marathon ever, I was very pleased.  I expected to be closer to 2:10 or 2:15, given the hilliness of the course.  Even better, I exceeded my goal of running even splits, running the first half in 1:03:20 and the second half in 1:02:31.  No wonder my legs were weeping!

I had run just over 20 miles so far.  But I really wanted to get to 22.  I reset my Garmin and headed back down the path toward the cemetery for another couple miles.  It was very tough at that point.  I didn't get anywhere near the steep hills, but my legs shook with fear.  Or fatigue.  Probably a bit of both.  I ran past other runners who were on the home stretch, and I gave them all a "Good job; you're almost there!"  Then I turned around and started heading back, and people started telling me "Good job; you're almost there!"  They thought I was just finishing the half-marathon, but I was actually just finishing an epic (for me) day, weekend, and week of running. 

A hilly half-marathon, a 5k PR, and a 56-mile training week - good job, indeed.  I had accomplished everything I set out to accomplish in my peak week of marathon training, and much more.  Yes, it was definitely all happy pain.

You all know what this means, though.  Now that my peak training week is over, it's time for... 


You have been warned.

Peace. Love. Train.