Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook: My Slacker Half Marathon Race Report

I typically have three goals when I go into a race.  The first goal is to complete training and arrive healthy.  With the rigors of marathon training a that's not always automatic.  After that I have a goal that's pushing myself, but within reasonable reach to attain.  After that, are the "stretch goals."  Stretch goals assume everything has gone right with training and on race day and that I push myself as hard as I can push.

Last Saturday was my first distance race since the Boston Marathon at the Slacker Half Marathon in my home state of Colorado.  Slacker is a misleading term as this race starts out at over 10,000 feet and is virtually an all downhill race ending in the historic silver mining camp town of Georgetown, Colorado.  Years earlier, I made the mistake of posting on Facebook that I wanted to qualify for the New York City Marathon.
Start of the Slacker Half Marathon
Yes...Seeking Boston Marathon has been secretly (or I guess not so secretly, if it was on Facebook) Seeking New York City Marathon.  At the time of my proclamation, a fellow run group member retorted, "do you know how tough it is to qualify?"  I did, but at the time, I had just run another fast downhill marathon at a half marathon PR of 1:32.  I merely needed to shave two minutes off my time to hit the 1:30 mark to qualify for the "Big Apple."  As we all know, there's a bit of a rivalry between New York and Boston.  Just ask any Yankee fan what they think of the Red Sox and vice versa.  No love loss between the two.  The little problem this rivalry created for me was that when Boston raised the qualifying times for the Boston Marathon, New York had to follow suit and raise their standards.  Even hitting a new age group last year did not help as the new time for a "NYQ" was 1:29 for me.  With a new coach and running stronger than I ever have, I shared my "stretch" goal with only two people; my coach and my wife.

"I want to run sub 1:30 and qualify for the New York Marathon."  
Tight corner turn of the finish line.

I shared this goal right after Boston with coach Benita and she laid out a plan to achieve it.  Post Boston, my confidence couldn't have been stronger. I had run my second fastest marathon and felt strong up to the finish.  Game on.  The only distraction was that my love of marathons had a mistress called triathlons.  I shared with my coach that my primary goal was a NYQ, but I wanted to also race in a triathlon in June.

Subsequently, my training "playbook" focused on speed, hills, strength, and cross-training that would fit in some bike and swim.  I competed in the Greeley Triathlon two weeks before the Slacker and coach told me to take that one easy so as to not to wear myself out for the half.  I "half listened" and raced to win.

Between my "cow country" 1st place AG (age group) podium in Greeley and the Slacker was two weeks of travel to Chicago and San Francisco.  Whether it was pushing myself in the tri, or the travel, it started to show its effect as I was downright "sluggish" at the BCSM (Boulder Center for Sports Medicine) workout one week before my ambitious half mary.  This was not exactly a confidence boost.  I hopped on a plane on Father's Day which put me in a foul mood to start race week.  Flight delays and a towed rental car within a week and a half of my race did not put me in a happy place.  Trying to turn the situation around, I arranged my travel plans to maximize the hotel sleep.
Georgetown, Colorado

During this training, I also broke my streak of consecutive days worked out by taking two rest days leading up to the race.  I had worked out over thirty days straight, and 41 of 42 days.  My last "test" if you will was a short tempo interval on Tuesday in California.  I had an "okay day" on the Bay Area (aptly named) Bay Trail, but was still a bit on the sluggish side.With the race on Saturday, I was back in Denver and focused on getting a great night's sleep two nights before (on Thursday.)  That part worked.

My confidence was rebuilt with a phone call from my coach on Friday.  She brushed off last Saturday's run and focused instead on the strength of my training which included some monster uphill intervals, and the fastest Yasso times I've ever recorded (running sub six minute per mile pace.)

From there, things went as they normally do on "race eve" with absolutely no sleep on Friday night.  I constantly rolled over and looked at the clock...four hours rolled by with this bullsh*t version of sleep.  My alarm went off at 4 something AM...that is my mental alarm, knowing my phone's alarm was about to go off.

The rest of the morning routine was just that...a lot of bathroom stops, and heading up to the foothills to the end of the race where buses would shuttle all the runners up to the start.  The start was the least picturesque part of the course as it was a gravel lot for the Loveland Ski area.  Good news...plenty of porto-pottys along with a Red Bull party van blasting music to lighten the mood.  Routine kicked in (Part II) as I did a brief run along with some strides to get loosened up and the race adrenaline going.  I was also eyeing the crowd looking for the really fast runners in my age group.  The one thing about Denver being so close to Boulder is that there are some crazy fast runners.  With a goal of running a 1:29, I felt a podium was also within reach.  I spotted one of my age group rivals, but another athlete in my age group had run a tough ascent race the week before.  No sign of him.  "My odds just improved," I thought.

Benita set up a race strategy that was set out to hit the goal.  Run even splits for the most part, don't overdo it in the first few miles, and after mile five, start to run more by feel.  The last couple miles...kick it up a notch if I could.  I did not "toe the line" up near the front of the start as I didn't want to overdo it early on.  The only issue with that strategy was literally eating some dust as we tore through the first part of the course.  I stuck to my coaches recommended splits through the first five miles running between a 6:40 to 6:50 minute per mile pace.
Just a "little bit excited" about the podium.

My breathing was a bit strained at first, but I started to settle into a nice rhythm.  The nice part about running a half marathon at this pace, is that the mile markers seemed to come by quickly.  One of my run teammates (Todd) had mentioned an in-race strategy of thinking that your feet were shuffling along a treadmill.  I would also occassionally glance at the river that mirrored the course...as it flowed, I got into my flow and thought of a treadmill.

As the miles passed, my confidence built.  As each mile passed, I played with the race math in my head...I was "banking" small amounts of time, but still hovering around the pace that coach had prescribed.  I pre-fueled with Generation UCAN and Power Bar Gel Blasts within the race.  There seemed to be plenty of water stations yet I seemed a bit dehydrated.  I hit one slightly lower split around mile six where there was a bit of an incline on the all downhill course.

It "played with my mind" that I had fallen behind my overall race pace.  The good news was that around mile 12, it was all downhill with what seemed like a much steeper decline.  I got an energy boost from somewhere and started to fly down the hill running at a 6:30 pace.
BCSM Run Team

The "reward" for this screaming downhill stretch was a couple of turns once we got into town on gravel roads with just enough of an incline.  I'd slowed down again.  I was running on pure guts at this point as I was completely "spent."  I watched my brother-in-law race the Slacker last year so I knew where the last turn was.  I dug deep to turn it up once again knowing I was within reach of my goal.  My last tenth of a mile was back in the 6:30 minute per mile pace.

As I passed my family cheering me on at the finish, I pushed my Garmin stop button as I crossed the finish line timing mat.  1:29:18.  This was a new PR by three minutes and my first half marathon below 1:30.  Crazy fast, but 18 painful seconds away from my stretch goal.  Looking at my splits afterwards, I had slowed down a bit around mile 10 as well.  If only I could have run 9 seconds faster over those two or three stretches.  Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

While I'm normally critical of myself after a race, this one was a lot like Boston.  I knew I trained hard and smart and turned in a good performance.  I had no more to give on those gravel roads in the finish town of Georgetown.  The icing on the cake was I soon learned I took "silver" (2nd) in my age group.  Not easy to do in run-happy Colorado.  A "gold rush" in a silver mining town.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Silver Bullet; Skora Running Shoe Review

Minimal has been the hottest trend in running shoes over the last few years and I've slowly migrated myself to much lighter shoes over the last twelve months.  Up until my last two marathons (Colorado and Boston,) I have largely trained and raced in shoes that accommodate a runner who over-pronates with a high arch and a history of lower leg injuries that include plantar faciitis.  This meant shoes with a fair amount of posting and cushioning.  Much of the hype around the minimalist movement is that injuries actually decrease vs. increase as you move towards a more natural running experience.

In terms of marathons, I have always gone with a heavier shoe along the lines of an ASICS 2170 in the race itself.  I would also typically log most of my training miles in the same shoe.  For the first time in a marathon, I went with a much lighter Brooks Racer ST5's in Boston two months ago.  While I give most of the credit to my coach, and training plan, it was by far my best marathon yet.

Training for Boston and since then, I tend to rotate my shoes quite a bit, but have stuck with a much lighter shoe.  The latest addition to my run shoe "arsenal" is the Skora Base running shoe.  Skora is based out of Portland, Oregon which knows just a little bit about building shoes.  Upon receiving my Skoras in the mail, I marveled at the shoes once I opened them.  As far as looks go, it is one "badass" shoe.  Even the box they came in is cool with a magnet flap that encloses the carriage they arrived in.

The first thing you notice about the shoes is the unique x-shaped Velcro strap that closes the shoe on the foot.  Shoe designers have been "playing around" with where traditional laces land on the top of the foot implementing slightly off-center lacing.  This strapping system sits on the top of the foot, but equally distributes a taut feeling once you're strapped in.  This eliminates the either too tight or too loose issues you get with a traditional shoe lace.  We have all had races where the laces are too tight which can become a distraction in the midst of competition.

I'm not a professional shoe scientist, but the other thing I noticed was that the padding on the sole of my Skoras was largely in the front of the shoe which would favor a mid-foot or forefoot striker.  Trying them out on concrete this last weekend, it's apparent that your heel is quite close to the impact.  Aside from my migration to a more minimal shoe, I have also shifted my strike to more of a mid/forefoot strike so the Skoras seemed like a natural fit.

With the "X-Factor" strapping system (my term, not theirs) once in the shoe, they feel like slippers.  Not the furry variety...I'm talking more along the lines of the Brookstone memory foam slippers.  Not too tight, not too loose, just right.  Skora touts the sole of the shoe as having "a moderate amount of cushioning with excellent grip and great groundfeel." Their R01 (sole) system "has been designed to match the natural foot shape with curved heel and sidewall profiles and a concave forefoot to allow for natural motion."  In other words; #likeaglove

I've heard (run shoe) horror stories of people who have tried to move too quickly (no pun intended) to a minimal shoe, or any major change in type of shoe (see Newton.)  The good folks at Skora suggested I "ease into them."  It didn't take me long since it was tough staring at these beauties in my office for a couple of days.  I decided to try them out on a "speed day."  The "Silver Bullet" silver gray shoes sure looked the part, so I tried them out on a progressive speed workout.  For speed Tuesday, my run coach had prescribed,

"Two mile easy jog warm up, drills, strides then three sets of four x 400m with a 45sec recovery.

1st set - aim for 6:10 pace or so (don't kill this set);
2nd set - aim for 6:00 pace or so or a touch under.
3rd set - aim for sub 6:00 pace or so. Not killing it but try to run faster than your 3rd set and be going fairly hard so the last 2 or 3 reps, you're feeling a little lactic.

Finish with two miles easy jog warm down."

I ended the last segment at a 5:35 minute per mile pace, and quite honestly could have gone either faster, or longer at that pace.  I had just "clocked" my fastest time ever in a speed workout.  As Spike Lee once said for another Portland shoe company, "It's gotta be the shoes."  In this case, my coach and training had a little bit to do with it, but I was "flat out" impressed (pun intended.)

The only mistake I made with this test drive was that with two warm-up miles and two cool down miles, my total workout in the Skora's was over seven miles.  The following day, I did feel a slight muscle "tweak" behind my knee.  As a zero drop construction shoe, I would not recommend going from whatever you're running in to all miles right away in a Skora, or a crazy aggressive run for the first time in these shoes.  I would definitely recommend them for triathletes as they are super easy to slip on and super fast.

I recall an old friend who rides motorcycles and was trying to provide advice to someone buying their first bike.  They wanted something fast.  He recommended against it, and the new rider should have yielded to the advice.  If you've never raced on a fast bike before, don't "open up the throttle" on a Ducati on your first time out.  Take a few lessons, take your time, ease into them, and you will fly safely.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Four Seconds; My Greeley Triathlon Race Report

Four seconds.  Half the time required to score on a professional bull ride, the same length as Amanda Bynes career, and length of my first ever (ahem) romantic interlude.  It was also the gap between first and second place in my age group this last weekend at the Greeley Triathlon.  While the marathon race is in my blood, I have made triathlons a part of my annual routine now for the third season.  Sunday's race was my first outing "sandwiched" between Boston and my next true target race which is the Slacker Half Marathon in two weeks.  My training has been all about hitting certain goals in the upcoming half marathon, but my "off days" or cross training days have been on the bike and in the water, so why not "tri" it out in a race?

Only issue that caused consternation with my run coach was that she had three tough run workouts last week culminating in a simulated half marathon progressive run on Friday...a couple of days before my triathlon.  She strongly encouraged me to treat Sunday as a "just a solid effort. Don't kill yourself, just look at it as an hour of reasonably hard exercise but hold back if you can so as you recover quite quickly. Think of the Slacker Half and other races which are more important, and use this as some good aerobic training for them."  In other words, "coast" this one and don't "knock yourself out." Easier said than done for this type A runner/triathlete.
My new shoes rubber-band'ed to my Trek Speed Concept

Sunday was also part trois of the Father vs. Son battle that started last summer.  My youngest (14) was also racing on Sunday in his first open water swim.  We have been "jousting" back and forth prior to the first race we both entered last year as the younger "Seeking Boston Marathon" athlete was boasting about how he was going to "school" the old man.  He's already faster in the water as he is a natural swimmer turned triathlete swimming on his high school team and club team.  I'm the runner turned triathlete.  I'm honestly anxious for the day he eclipses me and guessing it will be sometime this summer if he works at it with his new triathlon team (Teens that Tri.)  Having said that, I told him he's gonna "have to earn it" as the old man is not giving up the podium without him working for it.

Back to the training.  While my conditioning and fitness is probably the best it's been this spring, I really didn't train for a triathlon.  No brick sessions (back-to-back intervals of swim/bike, or bike/run.)  No transition training (unless the two days before the race count,) and I threw in a few new race day items which is never a good idea; new wetsuit, new bike shoes, and the "flying squirrel" bicycle mount (more on that later.)

With the typical early morning start, we opted to drive up the hour and a half to Greeley the night before which gave us the chance to bike part of the course and check out the Promontory Park water.  Greeley is a smaller town north of Denver known as farm and cattle country and boasting the state's 3rd largest college, University of Northern Colorado.  After registration and picking up our race shirts ("thumbs up" on the quality--I may actually wear this one again,) we took in the BBQ with my son's triathlon team before settling into the hotel and organizing for the following morning.  Just like a marathon, there's a checklist, but there's literally three times as much stuff to lay out.  After some "choppy" sleep (one of the three in the room snored,) the alarm clock went off after what seemed like an hour of sleep.
My son on the bike course

The day turned out to be a gorgeous day for a race as the sun came up and the wind that howled the afternoon before (which is quite common on the northern plains of Colorado) had not woke up yet.  While the triathlon is my second sport, I can no longer play the "rookie card" as the Greeley Triathlon would be my eighth tri.  This lead to a pretty routine pre-race routine of picking out my bike rack spot, putting air in my tires, and laying out my gear for the two transitions (from swim to bike, and bike to run.)

One of the "new" things I was trying in my race was having my bike shoes pre-clipped to the bike with rubber bands securing them horizontal to the ground.  I have been intimidated by this process and without a (triathlon) coach, I've basically been learning how to do it from YouTube and talking with the local (Kompetitive Edge) triathlon shop where I bought my new Louis Garneau bike shoes.  I practiced this rubber band trick and flying mount a number of times in front of my house, and wondered how smart it was trying it in a race as I attached the Whole Foods produce (and deli) rubber bands to my shoes and bike.
Son finishing his run.

My first mistake of the morning was not getting a warm-up swim in.  By the time I wandered over to the swim entrance, they were pulling swimmers out of the water.  The first time my new Blue Seventy Helix wetsuit would get wet would be in a race.  That's wasn't entirely true.  With my full bottle of Generation UCAN in my system and the youth division, and Jr. Nationals going out first, my full bladder was ready to empty.  Yes folks, I pissed myself standing there in front of several hundred people.  The fun part was noone knew except me.  Liberating...and relieving at the same time.  My wetsuit was now wet and christened. #TMI

While my pool times in the calm serenity of the recreation center have improved, my open water experience is weak and it showed in the opening segment of my race.  Quesiness set in within the first 20 yards of the 500 yard swim.  "Great!," I'm thinking to myself..."Not again!" as this has happened before.  My strokes were not as smooth as they were in practice, my form was horrible, and I took the serpentine path around the four buoys out in the water.  I normally reserve, "why am I doing this" second-guessing to the last few miles of a marathon, but this self-doubt set in early.  The only thing that helped me was finally hitting the turnaround point and knowing it was half over.  Have you had nausea issues in the open water?  I definitely need more open water practice (here's more on what may be behind the issue.)

As I entering T1 (transition one from swim to bike,) I was a bit wobbly dealing with my sea sickness or whatever it was.  Knowing I was about to try the "flying squirrel," I wanted to be more methodical in this transition and not "rush it."  I seemed to resemble a drunk fraternity guy trying to get his pants off as I struggled a bit getting out of the wetsuit.  Again...lack of practice, and lack of open-water (and wetsuit) experience hampered transition one, but I got in and out in a min and 21 seconds (respectable, but room for improvement.)  With my shoes mounted on my bike, my only other nanosecond mistake was grabbing a running shoe (my mind told me I needed shoes to ride a bike.)  I would not need one left shoe for the bike portion of the race so I tossed it back down.

I wished I had videotape of the mounting of my bike as the mount itself went fine.  The only issue there was getting into the shoes and laying over the velcro strap took a bit longer than expected, but I avoided disaster and the rubber band experiment paid off...and I was off on the 9.5 mile bike ride.  Riding the course the day before provided some help, but perhaps still groggy from the water, the first couple turns didn't seem right and I yelled out to a volunteer "am I going the right way?"  My god...I am looking like a rookie here.  I was not off course and on my way.

With a staggered time trial start, and my slow swim it was hard to tell who was in front of me on the bike section, but I felt strong as took off on the fast course.  One thing I noticed was that I was peddling practically the whole course in a strong gear so it felt fast--my results would later reveal a 21 MPH average which is a PR for me on the bike portion of a triathlon.  The other new twist in this race was also slipping out of my shoes before hitting the dismount section.  I had also practiced this the couple of days before and knowing the course helped to understand when to slip out of the shoes.  When I hit the dismount line, I was then barefoot heading into T2 (transition two/bike to run.)
"More cowbell"  My first place prize.

With all the speed and hill training, I was heading confidently into the strongest section of my triathlon--the run.  With two strong transitions and what I felt was a strong bike section, I felt I was certainly within striking distance of getting a podium.  I had only been passed by a couple on the bike (younger cyclists with the faster Zipp wheels.)  Gotta get me some of those I muttered to myself.  Despite my coach's advice to take this one slow, I settled into a pace and chose to ignore my Garmin.  I was only passed by one runner (a 37 year old.  You know this in a triathlon as they mark your age on the back of your calf.)  The good news was that I passed a couple guys in my age group who were winded.  I felt pretty good, but tired from the week's training.  The last guy I passed looked like this was not his hobby sport.  I could hear him get slightly pissed as I passed him within the last mile of the 5K, but he and I both knew I passed him for good.

With a horrible swim and a staggered time trial start, I couldn't tell whether my 6:43 5K pace would be good enough.  As they finally posted the results sheets in the tents, I'd find out the last guy I passed came in second place in my age group...four seconds behind me.  My son would get 9th in his AG which is pretty darn good considering it was his first open water swim and he's just begun his run and bike training.  All in all, a good day up in the pasture country.  My reward for 1st place...a cowbell of course.

Author's Footnote:   In terms of the triathlon, I would highly recommend it.  It's a bit smaller (221 entrants in the Sprint) was well organized, and I enjoyed the course...other than wanting to throw up in their lake.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Thank You Sir May I Have Another

This marathon sport is a crazy thing.  We pay money for pain.  Out of my ten marathons, there were at least eight of them where I wished it was over as my body was rebelling and my mind was losing the battle.  I've "hit the wall"...HARD and paid good money for it.  Yet the crazier part is that I keep coming back for more. In other words, you could argue that marathon runners are a bit sado macoschist (see blog post on Fifty Shades of Marathon Grey.)

Many of us learned about Pavlov's dog experiment in school.  A very basic instinct of reward or punishment that creates learned behavior.  Do something good and you get a "Scooby snack" (or marathon medal.)  Do something that elicits pain and you're not likely to do it again.

While cooking dinner for the family Sunday night, the timer went off on the oven, but I was busy doing other things (grilling burgers and brats.)  I realized I ignored the timer long enough and opened the oven to reveal the dessert had gone from the desired light golden brown to darker brown on the edges.  Not wanting to ruin the meal, I grabbed a wet towel nearby thinking a cold wet tower equaled an oven mitt.  This is why they created the "Darwin Awards" as only a man would use such logic.  My favorite Darwin Award is the guy who decided to use a chair with wheels to water his plants on his high-rise apartment patio.  You know how that one ends.

While I'm used to having blisters on my feet (and a few missing toenails,) my soft "white collar" hands are not.  I am sporting blisters on my supple finger tips today.  While I should have learned not to grab a hot pan as a child, apparently, I'm still learning.  Pavlov would be confused about the hot pan and further confused on why I keep self-inflicting run pain.

This brings me to my latest training plan for the Slacker Half Marathon on June 22nd.  As I've written here often since the Boston Marathon in April, I seem to have found the right coach and the right training plan as Boston was my first mary where I had uncanny energy in the last five miles.  At this point, if coach Benita asked me to grab a hot pan with a wet towel, I wouldn't question her.  While I understand the logic on most of the workouts she throws at me; intervals, tempo, slow recovery, and progressives, I occasionally raise an eyebrow over the workout that pops up in my daily email.

Let's start with the fact that the Slacker (is anything but that and) is a (Rocky) mountain DOWNHILL course starting at the Loveland Ski area (at 10,660 feet) and ends in the mining town of Georgetown (elevation 8,525 ft.) Makes sense that I would be doing a lot of downhill training with my Slacker training plan.  Coach "crazy" has had me doing hill work alright; UPHILL speed workouts.  Not just hill training, but intervals at 5K pace and faster.  This is the point where I love my coach and (mildly) hate her at the same time.  Not hate in a literal sense, but perhaps in the way a wife tells her husband that she hates him and his (man weapon) while giving birth in the delivery room.  I really don't mean these thoughts I'm cursing under my breath while racing up a hill these last three weeks.

With the half marathon right around the corner, my confidence is building.  My Tuesday morning speed work was not uphill, nor downhill, but she wanted me to push below a 6 minute per mile pace on my last set of 4 x 45 seconds.  I didn't run them at a six minute per mile pace...I pushed it to a 5:30 pace and could have run faster.  I take back all the things I said during those hill workouts.  Thank you sir, may I have another.

Authors Footnote:  For the female readers, please don't send me (complaint)email regarding my comparing a marathon or training for one to childbirth.  No, 1) I'm not a woman, 2) have not delivered a baby (see #1,) but 3) I did have a part in two conceptions and witnessed aforementioned writhing and birth-delivery name-calling.

About Me

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Average guy w/ an above average appetite for marathon racing and triathlons. Ran my 5th Boston in '15. 3:21, 1:29, 19:21 PR;full/half/5K Opinions & wit are mine