Thursday, December 1, 2011

California International Marathon, December 2011

A year ago I had no idea what the letters CIM stood for. I saw it referred to time and again on MRT (the Marathon Race Training forum on RWOL) but never bothered figuring out what it meant until one of my online friends announced that she was thinking of running it in 2011.

Turns out CIM stands for the California International Marathon, which is held in Sacramento at the beginning of December each year. It is well-known as a FAST marathon course on account of its net elevation loss: it rolls at the start but the overall effect is very much downhill and it's a popular place for runners to try for a time that will qualify them for Boston or, for the super-talented, the Olympic trials.

At the time this came up it was only 4 weeks since I ran the Canberra marathon, and soon my mind was thinking it over....hmmm....actually, CIM might be a very good course for me to have a tilt at running sub-3:10. It didn't take much more prodding from my online friend before I signed up to run CIM in 2011.

The training

The original plan was some kind of Pfitzinger pain-fest involving at least 70 miles per week (112km) but this was significantly derailed by a host of minor injuries that took me off the road most of July and August. After my slightly insane return to racing in September (see here and here) I reeled things in for a week and then cautiously (well, for me at least) embarked upon rebuilding my mileage to a point where I could jump into a proper marathon training program.

I started off following an 11 week multiple-marathon plan, which meant a slow buildup (which I needed) but a decent peak as well. I decided in a moment of rationality to leave out the speedwork, and then ended up pretty much making it all up as I went along anyway.

The result was a 3 week build-up, 7 weeks of decent mileage peaking at 72mpw, then a 2 week taper. The middle 7 weeks averaged 59mpw and the longest run was 22 miles, so despite the slightly haphazard nature of the whole thing, I felt relatively happy with my preparation as I got ready to hop on a plane to California. Oh, and the 10K PR I set in November didn't hurt either!

The travel

Never one to pass up the opportunity for international travel sans children, I settled in and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the flight to LA and then on to San Francisco, despite the hopeless movie selection.

my ride to LA

The A380 is an incredible aircraft and my window seat and comfy pillow - plus a judicious amount of sleeping pharmacopeia - meant I managed to get almost 8 hours sleep on the way to LA. Hopefully that would set me up well to cope with jetlag over the 2.5 days until I had to be fronting up to run CIM.

The lead-up

Once in Sacramento I had the great pleasure of meeting up with a whole host of imaginary friends from MRT, which made for an entertaining and enjoyable 2 day lead-up to the marathon.

With Weslie and Annette from the BQ ladies' thread

The night before the race was one of the highlights: a huge group of MRT runners gathered at the Old Spaghetti Factory to eat pasta and talk running, and this meant another 8 or so imaginary friends became real friends, which was totally awesome.

Over dinner I spent a lot of time talking with Ron, a very experienced (and fast) marathoner who gave me a LOT of helpful advice about the course, and when I told him my recent 10K race time, said (very accurately, it turns out) that 3:08 was a soft goal for me.

Another highlight was the running partner I managed to acquire on Friday morning as I stood outside the hotel, waiting for my Garmin to load up the satellites in the frustratingly slow manner it always does when I move the poor thing thousands of miles to another continent.

I was standing there with my arm stuck out when a foreign voice said "You go running with me?" I looked over and saw a woman whom I remembered seeing the night before when I was checking in - small and wiry, with a shock of blonde hair - she was smiling encouragingly at me and clearly really wanted someone to run with her. I ummed and ahhed a bit, then thought "Why not?", gave up on the Garmin and off we went. I immediately asked her about her time goal for the race on Sunday, and almost fell off the kerb when she casually replied, "Oh, 2:48".

Turns out my running buddy was Alina Gherasim, a Romanian professional runner who competed in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 (I probably saw her run past on Oxford St) and was the female winner at CIM in 2006! She is not only my age but also has a daughter almost the same age as mine, so we chatted happily as we ran along at her "easy" pace, which turned out to be 7:24 min/mile or so - I checked when my Garmin finally figured itself out! - for almost an hour. So my easy 5 miler turned into something more like a 7-8 mile mini-tempo run, but it was absolutely worth it to run with a former Olympian. And the stories she had to tell about her life as a professional runner - SO thrilling!

Race Day

Getting up at 4am on Sunday morning is quite the challenge, but my roomie Weslie is up already at 3:45am and she kindly brings me a white bagel from downstairs, which I sleepily eat as I drag my race clothes on. I'm wearing a LOT of my lucky racing colour - pink - and it turns out to be a great omen for the day.

Downstairs we meet up with two other friends from MRT and together we head out into the cold - thankfully the wind has died down completely overnight but it's still a chilly 38F or so - and are soon aboard a toasty warm school bus, headed for the start line at Folsom. It takes a disturbingly long time to actually get there, and we are all thinking "We have to run ALL THAT WAY back?? Really??" but once we hit the start area there isn't much time to stand around and think.

I down a vanilla GU, line up for the porta-potties, drop off my bag....and suddenly the start is almost upon us. I position myself close to the 3:10 pace group; the gun goes off and it takes about 30 seconds to get moving, but then I'm off and running. YEAH!

Miles 1-2: 7:18, 7:10 (pace in min/mile)

A lot of zigzagging gets me through the worst of the congestion, but the 3:10 pace group is HUGE and pretty early on I decide I don't want to risk hanging around amongst all these dudes and possibly getting tripped up or slowed down. So I thread my way forward and position myself right next to the 3:10 pacer, who is chatting and encouraging the runners in his group. I introduce myself, turns out his name is Mike, and we run along talking comfortably for the next 6 miles. Pace feels nice and easy at this point.

Miles 3-4: 7:10, 7:05

I'm following the advice I've been given on MRT and deliberately not charging the hills, which are small but consistent: the "rollers" I have heard so much about are definitely there. Other than that, I'm too busy yapping to Mike about running in Australia to notice much else.

Miles 5-6: 7:16, 7:05

A bit of pace variation here, but I'm not worried. I start to pull a little ahead of Mike at this point, but I can still hear him right behind me talking to others. There's a dude ahead of me with a red shirt on and some quite distinctive logo on it - something about San Francisco and a bridge - he seems to be running about my pace so I start talking to him and ask him his time goal. He replies with "3:10 or a little under" - I tell him cool, that's my goal too! - and we run together for the next 10 miles.

Miles 7-8: 7:03, 7:07

Sean (the red shirt dude) and I are just loping along here, talking a bit and enjoying the run. It's a PERFECT running day, a little warmer now that the sun is up, but still cool enough that I'm very comfortable in my arm warmers (old knee socks with holes cut in the toes) and gloves. I take my first GU (vanilla, the magic type) just before the water station around mile 8, and I'm still feeling awesome.

Miles 9-10: 7:07, 7:01

The crowd support is a little sporadic, but where there are people there is certainly a lot of yelling. I feel very comfortable, and am hearing a lot of "Go Pink!" and "Looking strong there in pink!", which I'm totally lapping up (of course) - I'm waving to all kinds of random people and calling out "Thank you!" a lot. Is marathoning supposed to be this much fun?

Miles 11-12: 7:07, 7:10

Can't remember much about this bit. Pace is still feeling really good; I'm just loving it. And I'm still talking quite a bit to Sean about goodness knows what. We go past some photographers and I do my very best to strike a cute pose; I'm wearing pink after all and the photogs are yelling out "Runner's World! Come on, guys!" - who could pass up an opportunity to be in RW, seriously??

Having waaaaay too much fun!

Miles 13-14: 7:04, 7:00

We go through the half in 1:34 exactly on the clock; later I find my official half time is 1:33:26, so it must have taken me 34 seconds to cross the line. I'm pretty thrilled with this - it means I'm exactly on track for the 3:08 that I'm aiming for, and if I can negative split then I'm on track for something even better. Awesome! I throw my gloves at a spectator (“Dude, you want some gloves?? Here!”), take another GU and do a little victory dance in my head. First half well-executed; second half awaits.

Miles 15-16: 7:13, 7:05

Around mile 15 something totally fantastic happens. I'm just cruising along quite comfortably when suddenly I hear someone SCREAMING my name and look over to see a very excited person jumping up and down and waving at me. What ON EARTH?? I automatically grin and wave back, whilst trying madly to figure out who it could be and how they know my name - and as I pass her I realise, OMG it's one of my imaginary MRT friends whom I haven't met in person yet!!!

So I turn back and yell "PAM!!! HI!!!!!!" and then my momentum carries me onward and I'm gone....but her excitement is contagious and I'm grinning crazily for the next few miles at least as I keep running. A big THANK YOU to Pam Kennedy for making the drive up from SF to be a part of this awesome day with me!

Miles 17-18: 7:06, 7:10

By now I've pulled ahead of Sean and I'm pretty much running on my own at times. At the 18 mile mark I realise, wow, I've only got 8 miles to go and I feel pretty much as good as I did at the beginning of this marathon. Maybe it's time to push a little harder - the rollers are well behind me now and I know it's pretty much all flat or downhill from here.

Miles 19-20: 7:07, 7:07

Considering how late it is in the race, I'm happy to be able to hold 7:07 pace fairly consistently at this point. I keep telling myself not to cut loose altogether, and it seems to be working. Time for another vanilla GU at mile 20 - that stuff is even starting to taste goooood!

Miles 21-22: 7:07, 7:06

Okay. Right now I'm telling myself "2 more miles at a comfortable pace, then it's GO time, girl". My definition of "comfortable" right now means "not killing me", and I'm certainly feeling good still, although my quads are starting to feel like they actually did just run over 20 miles. Nothing to worry about, though; I still have fuel in the tank, for sure. Enough to be still striking silly poses at the photographers along the course:

Miles 23-24: 6:53, 7:00

Time to drop the hammer. I think back to the "assassin-mode" that I know some of my friends on MRT use over the final miles - pick a person ahead of you and make it your goal to pass them - it's a term I think was coined by one of the people on MRT that I respect most. So I think "Yep, time to go into assassin mode", put my foot on the accelerator and start passing people. Man, it feels good.

Miles 25-26: 6:44, 6:28

I'm really going for it now. I concentrate on keeping my head up, shoulders down, and swinging my arms the way my PT guy (god bless him) taught me. I hear Audra and Barb (two of my former-imaginary-now-real MRT friends) yelling encouragement at me but I'm going too fast to do much more than wave and yell "Wheeeeeeeeeee!" before I'm gone past them. I'm passing people all over the place now - some obviously in pain and struggling - but I feel GREAT. Onward!!

Final 0.2: 5:48

I'm sprinting all-out after I pass the Mile 26 banner. A guy in yellow - whom I have just passed - races past me again but then blows up completely and stops. I snigger to myself as I shoot past (just chicked him, poor thing) and make the final turn into the women's finish chute - strange that they separate men and women, but whatever - I look up and see the clock reading 3:05.

photo courtesy of Steve, ultrarunner and all-round awesome dude

Oh. My. God. I put my head down, charge for the line and make it over before the clock hits 3:06. OH YEAH BABY!!

Finish time: official chip time is 3:05:13, pace 7:04 min/mile - a 7 minute PR and without a doubt the smartest race I've ever run in my life.

Placings: F40-44 AG 22nd/444

Females 108th/2484

Overall 467th/5755

My splits for the 2 halves of the race are 1:33:26 and 1:31:47, so a 1:39 negative split - and that means I've achieved just about everything I set out to do at CIM, as well as have the most fun weekend of running of my life.

note Australian flag on left shoulder


Unlike other races where I've felt like death as I cross the line, this time I feel really good. No wobbling around, none of that. I see Pam again and go over for high-fives and hugs from her and Steve, another incredible runner and MRT friend. Soon I'm joined by two others who have each run a PR (personal record), one by a whole 10 minutes. This particular friend was sick in the days leading up to the race and I am actually standing there considering checking the medical tent for him when he grabs me and it turns out he's run a 3:10, a time he never imagined was possible for him. Other friends arrive with similar stories - it's PRs all-round for my MRT crowd. AWESOME!!!

I also spot Mike, the 3:10 pacer, and go over to thank him for running with me those first 6 miles. He did a great job - ran 3:09:something - and he congratulates me warmly on my time. Runners are such great people, did I mention that?

The first priority is to get a shower and get changed, so we walk over to the hotel to do that, but then all thoughts turn to BEER and FOOD. We head to the Pyramid Alehouse and sit a long time over burgers, fries and beers, and the company is just as good as the refuelling process itself.

Awesomeness in human form: the post-race crowd at Pyramid Alehouse

The analysis

I'm really pleased with how I executed my race plan - it went almost EXACTLY as I wanted it to - and of course totally thrilled with my new marathon PR. CIM is certainly a great course to run a fast time, many other courses are much harder, but the big lesson I have learned is NOT TO GO OUT TOO FAST. Surprising that it took me this long, but I never said that listening was my strong suit.

The most exciting thing is that now I can really see how my training has paid off, and for the first time I'm thinking that one day I may indeed run a sub-3 marathon. The other thing I'm thinking may be more difficult, which is that I now need to convince my husband to move to the United States. That may take more time than the sub-3, but I'm certainly going to be working on both goals in the near future.

Next up? Boston 2012! It’s very sad to say goodbye to so many great running buddies as I prepare to make the long trip home, but on the other hand my parting words to many of them are “See you in Boston!” and that feels really, REALLY great.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Run4Fun, Sydney Olympic Park, November 2011

The Rebel Run4Fun 10K race is one I have run before in 2009. At the time I was running fairly low mileage and baby #2 had just turned 1, so I wasn't in the best running shape of my life and I ran it in 42:09.

This was good enough for second in my AG (F30-39) and 12th female OA, but I remember feeling pretty unimpressed with myself, particularly since I had been easily running much more difficult courses in less than 42 minutes just two years earlier.

The awesome thing about this race is that the course is entirely run within Sydney Olympic Park, where the Olympic Games were held in 2000. The finish line is inside the main stadium, where I saw Cathy Freeman win gold in the 400m final at those Games, and it's an incredible feeling to run there.

So when an email advertising the run landed in my inbox in September, I decided it was worth a shot at improving on my time from 2009, and in October as my running was looking up again I decided to enter.

The Training

Being in the middle of a Pfitzinger marathon training cycle, I moved some runs around to accommodate the 10K race. This resulted in an all-time record for mileage over a 7 day period in the 10 days beforehand: 85 miles, or just under 137 km. I then had a few days of mini-taper before the race, including one full rest day, and I was happy to feel relatively well-recovered by race day.

Race Day

I travel down to Sydney by plane the day beforehand with my 5 year old son, for whom the whole thing is a marvellous adventure. We get the train into the city from the airport and eat lots of banana bread (carb-loading for a 10K? absolutely) whilst wandering happily around the shops, then catch up with my father and other family before sacking out at our hotel around 9:30pm.

The weather forecast is not terribly encouraging the morning of the race: low of 18C/62F and predicted high of 30C/86F, which with Sydney's humidity can be pretty miserable. It's already 21C/70F in the shade as we park Dad's car out at Olympic Park and walk up - in full sunshine - to the start; I'm prepared, though, and apart from compression socks am wearing as little as decency will allow. I take a Gu (my first ever, ewww yuck disgusting) 15 minutes before the race, try to wash away the taste with a lot of water, and head over to the start.

I have a preferred entry - courtesy of some HM result last year - so I get to line up at the front, hooray! The people up there with me don't look too intimidating, and as we wait for the start all I can think is: sub-40, sub-40, sub-40. The announcer is being all upbeat and yelling out "Who's going for a new PR???", and secretly I'm answering "ME!!" but I don't want to jinx myself, so I don't say it out loud. My old PR is 39:54 and it's from 2007, so I'm hopeful I can beat it today, but it's hot and I've trained in cold weather for the past 4 months, so who knows?

Mile 1: 6:08 (min/mile)
The gun goes off and we're off up a slight incline past the stadium. Surprisingly, there seem to be a LOT of slower people ahead of me and I feel quite boxed in for the first 400m. I decide to put on a burst of speed to get away from some people, and then I feel really good so I keep going like that. Looking at my Garmin at the 1km mark, lap pace reads: 5:48. Oooops! Too fast! I pull it back some and the first mile is soon over.

Mile 2: 6:19
Now I'm just focussed on keeping the pace comfortably hard. I've decided that 6:20 is a good target so this mile I'm close. There's more shade than I expected, and I stay in it as much as possible.

Mile 3: 6:14
Speeding up a bit again. This despite going back up that slight incline to pass the stadium once again - and people are starting to drop out. I see a girl who started next to me leave the course and bend over; further on in the bushes there's a guy on hands and knees, revisiting his breakfast. Wow, this heat is something. I feel okay though, so onwards I press.

Mile 4: 6:22
Ok, that's a bit slower, but I know that averaging 6:28 will still get me 40 minutes and I'm ahead by quite a bit now so I don't freak out. Instead I congratulate myself at finally hitting something closer to my supposed goal pace, and keep going. Still feeling relatively comfortable, too.

Mile 5: 6:24
This is a tough one - a lot of turns, some small rollers - and no less than 3 people who I've been running close to for most of the race now stop and pull over. Wow, again. I think of my best running friend, who told me to be sure to save something for the last 2 miles, and then we turn into the final mile and I can see the stadium ahead. Time to pull out all the stops....

Mile 6: 6:08
Full sun now, and again that incline up towards the stadium. For a second I feel a bit lightheaded and shivery, which is a slight worry, but then it passes and I hit the accelerator with everything I've got left. I'm passing people left and right now, which feels good, and then we hit the final turn - into the tunnel and I know I'll be on the grass inside the stadium very shortly. This pace feels REALLY hard, but I still have the presence of mind to attempt a cute pose for the photographer just before the tunnel entrance, and it kind of works......

Last 0.2 mile: 6:01 pace
Running as hard as I've ever run, I hear the announcers yelling something about "sub-39 minutes", but I don't hit my Garmin stop button until I'm well over the line (it looks silly on photos) and when I do, it reads 39:03. New PR!!! By almost a minute!!!

Shortly thereafter I get a text message on my phone, informing me that my official time is 38:59 - I have indeed broken 39 minutes, by one whole second, but I'll take it!

The single best thing about the stadium finish is that there is lots of room for spectators, so Dad and my son have seen my strong finish, and also there are HEAPS of volunteers who are armed with hoses which have spray gun attachments. I'm hot but otherwise I feel okay, so I slug down some water and head into the stands, where one of them comprehensively hoses me down and I feel MUCH better. It's about 27C/80F by now, so I'm mostly dry by the time we get back the car. Winning!

Turns out my time puts me 10th overall female and 1st in my AG (F40-49), which is a result I'm very happy with.

The Analysis
It seems that maybe I'm really learning something about proper pacing now, from all the people who regularly beat me up on RWOL about running too fast all the time. My old racing strategy - which was pretty much "Go out as hard as possible and hold on as long as you can" has been replaced with something far more sensible. And I'm learning how it should feel to be running just fast enough that I'm doing my best whilst simultaneously keeping something in reserve so I don't run out of gas before reaching the finish line.

My finish in this race was the polar opposite of September's Lake to Lagoon fiasco, where I ended up in the medical tent after almost collapsing. And yet I really didn't leave any time out on the course AT ALL - maybe I could have run a little faster in those middle miles, but that would have posed a real risk of blowing up before the end, so I'm glad I didn't do it.

So it all bodes well for next month's marathon in California, which is now looking like a real goal race again for me. Hooray!!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Blackmores Sydney HM, Sept 2011

The Sydney running festival is one of my favourite events and my entry for the 2011 HM was already in before I got injured in early July. Originally it was going to be a big goal race for me - I was hoping to break 1:27 and get back close to the times I was running in 2001-2002. Alas, it was not to be, but I was adamant that I still wanted to run it if possible. Hot on the heels of my Lake to Lagoon triumph-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-disaster, I resolved to give the Sydney HM my best shot.

The training

Training? What? None to speak of - see previous post regarding the Lake to Lagoon race for details.

Race day

I'm up bright and early at 5am, heading over on the train to Milsons Point to start the race in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge. I run into my old friend Polly at Town Hall and we take the train together in the kind of easy companionship that comes from knowing someone for 25 years. She's in the C corral, I'm in the A group so we hug and wish each other luck before heading to the start just after 6am.

I don't even look for Paul, my Wagga colleague who led me so badly astray the weekend before, even though I know he's there somewhere - no way I'm getting myself into another medical tent only 7 days after the last event! The weather is quite warm even before the sun comes up - 21C/69F and it's going to warm up even further pretty fast - so I know it won't end well if I go too hard.

The past 2 times I've run this race I've been right up the front at the start. This year, since I'm supposedly NOT racing, I hang right back and pretend it doesn't annoy me when it takes me a good 90 seconds to get over the line. At least it convinces me that I'm not here to go nuts and set a new PR, but I don't like it.

Off we go up the hill and I settle into a pace that seems comfortable but challenging at the same time. I check my Garmin when it beeps the first 1km split - because I'm being conscientious about pacing now, ahem - and find it reads 4:15 (6:50 min/mile). Not bad! We head around the corner and over the Harbour Bridge and I relax, take in the scenery and break into a huge grin when I realise, I'M DOING THIS! So recently I thought I wouldn't have a chance - and my knee isn't hurting at all. Most excellent!

Miles 1-2: 6:56 (average pace in min/mile)
I reel it in a little heading over the bridge - don't want to overdo it - and there's a sharp turn right before we turn down onto the Cahill expressway. I'm trying to remember if this is the same route the race took last year and that mental exercise keeps me nicely distracted.

Miles 3-4: 6:58
Still going a little bit too fast. But it's so much FUN!! I need to keep my excitement in check. I decide to watch for photographers and ham it up whenever I see one.

Miles 5-6: 6:46
Again a bit too fast, but it feels AWESOME. I'm actually laughing to myself now because the pressure is off - no PR attempt today - and I'm just loving being in my favourite city in the world, running my favourite distance.

Miles 7-8: 7:12
We weave down through the Rocks and head out along the edge of the harbour. Passing under the Harbour Bridge I'm on my own and I spot a photographer. An excellent opportunity to strike a pose, and it works perfectly:
Best running photo EVER!!

Miles 9-10: 7:04
Now this is some really good pacing I'm doing here. I'm enjoying myself thoroughly and take the opportunity as we head along Dickson Road to clap and cheer the leaders, who are heading back in the opposite direction already. Normally I'd be watching and counting the women ahead of me but this time I'm too busy yelling encouragement to care.

Miles 11-12: 7:09
This bit gets tough, with some nasty sharp uphills and downhills, followed by a punishing hairpin turn in Pyrmont. But I'm feeling great - I was told sternly by a running buddy right before the race that I MUST drink at every water station!! - so I grab some water and down a GU chomp just to be sure I don't hit any kind of wall on the way back to the Opera House finish. Onward!

Mile 13.1: 7:00, then 5:49 over final stretch
Coming around Circular Quay I'm holding it together just perfectly and when I see the "400m to go" sign I cut loose with everything I've got left.

Sprinting like a maniac and grinning like a lunatic, I'm over the finish line in 1:32:53. It's the slowest HM I've ever run, but one of the most enjoyable ever.

Later I find out this is good enough for 3rd in my AG (F40-44) and I have a moment of "wow, could I have WON my AG if I was properly trained and racing this?" but it doesn't last long because I'm just so happy to have run to the best of my ability on the day.

Crossing the line, I hear my own name closely followed by that of my erstwhile colleague Paul. For a confused second I think "Why are they reading out all the names of the runners from Wagga together??" but then it hits me - I've finished at the exact same second as him! Turns out he started ahead of me and my time is 10 seconds faster: REVENGE FOR LAST WEEKEND IS MINE!!! I grab him in a bear hug and he's as surprised as me that we finished so close together.

I am pretty sure there's nothing I could have done better or differently in the way I ran this race. For the first time - and largely thanks to the advice and admonishment I've regularly been receiving from my RWOL (Runner's World) friends - I managed to pace myself intelligently and run my best without overdoing it or fading significantly at the end. I'm thrilled and more than a little bit encouraged that I can still run a pretty decent time on literally no training - it bodes well for the upcoming marathon in December. Hopefully it won't be the extended training run that I thought it would be....I have 11 weeks left to change that destiny.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Lake to Lagoon Fun Run, September 2011

The Lake to Lagoon Fun Run (9.5km or just under 6 miles) is one of the very few organised running events held in Wagga Wagga each year. I ran it in 2009, rather undertrained, didn't much enjoy the experience and skipped it in 2010 in favour of a 20 mile (32km) training run for NYC marathon later that year.

This year I have to admit I am not sure why I even considered running it. In early July I was sidelined with an early stress reaction in my left femur, and when I tried to start training again a month later this promptly turned into a nasty pain in my left knee. The diagnosis: that leg length difference (12mm, almost an inch) that I had been trying to ignore for the last 6 years of running, finally had managed to injure me by affecting my iliotibial band on that side. This was insanely tight and pulling my left patella over to the side, causing pain when I tried to run.

With some excellent help from a wonderful local physiotherapist I managed to have my first truly pain-free run just 3 days before the Lake to Lagoon was held. Of course my next thought was: I'll do it as a fun run! Run with DH! Yeah!!

The training

Yeah, none. I might have run 10km once or twice in the preceding 2 months but not without knee pain. Excellent preparation, not.

Race Day

The Lake to Lagoon traditionally has the ridiculous starting time of 10:30am, and not only that, the runners start AFTER the cyclists. It's not uncommon to catch up to the last of the family cyclists as they meander along the levee bank beside the river, which can be extremely frustrating. And in 2009 it was very HOT by the time the race started, but this year we are in luck. It's cool (10C/50F) at the start and there are some clouds about, although these do clear pretty quickly.

DH and I jog the 1 mile from our house to the start line at an easy pace and my knee - which I haven't run for 2 days now - feels great. At the actual start line I start to feel REALLY excited that I'm here and my knee is better and I'm FULL OF BEANS! because I'm so fresh from not much running for almost 8 weeks.

That's me in pink on the left.

I spot my physiotherapist - who is also running - and I literally bounce over to him, grinning wildly. He laughs at me and tells me to go easy, okay? Yep, sure, bounce bounce bounce. I find another friend, Paul - an anaesthetist colleague of ours actually - who tells me he's shooting for 42 minutes. That sounds reasonable, so I tell him I'll hang with him and see how I feel at the half-way mark, which is also the end of the huge hill that dominates the first part of the course.

After a dorky warmup led by some local gym instructors, the gun fires and off we go. Rather a LOT faster than would be appropriate for 42 minutes, but whatever, it feels great and I just chase Paul down and go with it. I know it's too fast, but some rational connection in my brain has just snapped and suddenly I just want to see if I still know how to run fast.

1st km pace: 3:50 min/km (6:09 min/mile)
Wow. This is fast. I feel okay - maybe I can stick with this pace. Can't remember last time I ran a race at sub-4:00 pace, though - was it 2001? Hmmm.

2nd km: 4:04 (6:32)
Now we're going uphill. Awesome. But I still feel okay, it's hard but not unsustainable. My knee isn't hurting AT ALL. And I'm in front of Paul now! Onward!!

3rd km: 4:16 (6:51)
This hill sucks. Is it going to be over soon?

4th km: 4:09 (6:39)
At last we crest the hill. I'm still in front of Paul and, is that a woman ahead of me? No - it's a dude in a big wig. I think I'm the first female! Onward and downward!!

5th km: 3:52 (6:11)
Oh yeah baby. Downhill is the way to go!

6th km: 3:45 (6:02)
The fastest 1km split I can ever remember seeing on my Garmin. For a second I'm thinking, maaaaaaybe I'm going too hard here. But I'm still going and the road has flattened out. Time to dig in and hold on; someone at the corner onto the river path says "First lady!" to me and I think, stupidly, of Hillary Clinton. But that's obviously not what he means....

7th km: 4:03 (6:29)
So, if I can hold it together I'm going to win this. I've placed 2nd and 3rd in half-marathons in the past 5 years, but I haven't outright won a race since the infamous Potato Race in Dorrigo back in 2001. It's GO time now.

8th km: 4:25 (7:05)
Uh oh. My head is starting to spin. Is that a sign of dehydration? It's only been 5 miles and it's not that hot - um, now the world really is spinning, this is weird - maybe I did go out too fast after all? Too late to change it now, just got to keep the legs turning over.

9th km: 4:38 (7:25)
Oh dear. This is not good. By now I know I'm in serious trouble, but I'm still WINNING goddammit, and there's only half a kilometre to go. I think "finish strong" and try to tell that to my legs, but it's not happening.

Finish stretch: 5:27 (8:39)
Paul blows past me yelling "Keep it going!!" but I barely notice. Can't feel my legs. The video footage on the news the next night will show me staggering through the finish like a drunk, and I barely avoid landing in the lap of the timing lady as I cross the line.

Oooh, I'm going down.....

I've finished as the first female as far as I know, but I don't know much of anything right now. Someone says to me "Did you run the whole way?" and I don't answer, but I think "Do I seriously look like I didn't??"......and off to the medical tent I go, supported by two concerned volunteers.

The weird thing that happens here is that shortly after they sit me down, an official-looking guy comes in and I ask him, did I win? He hesitates and then says, No.

Really? Someone passed me and I didn't even see them? It seems plausible - I was pretty out of it those last few hundred metres - so I think to myself, okay, 2nd is not bad! After a few cups of water I feel less like I'm going to pass out, and DH finishes and comes over, completely unconcerned that his wife is in the medical tent. WTF??

When they let me out, I spot Paul and go over to berate him for inspiring me to almost kill myself....and am intercepted by a reporter from the local newspaper. She starts to ask me questions and I'm sort of puzzled - I ask her, so did I win then?? She seems to think I did, and tells me the newspaper photographer took MY picture (that's going to be a good one, I think).

Eventually it's all too puzzling and I go over to ask the official people, um, sorry to bother you but did I win? And the answer is YES! I'm officially the fastest woman in Wagga!

A pretty cool trophy and a medal for winning my age group are now mine! And two days later I get a phone call from the Race Director who wants to apologise for having asked me "Did you run the whole way?" at the finish. Oh, that's right, I remember that now! He's a little incoherent so I never really grasp why he didn't think I had run all the way - surely I wouldn't be almost passing out if I'd walked it or hopped out of my car just around the block? - but we have a nice chat about running and that's that.

The Analysis
Obviously I ran just way out of my fitness level, and now I know how that feels. Despite the shortness of the race, I hit "The Wall" and bounced off pretty hard. Clearly it's not the best strategy to show up completely untrained and just wing it like I did, and my only defence is to say "Well, I WON!!"

I confess my craziness to my RWOL friends and they are very understanding. Still, I don't tell them what I have planned for the next weekend......

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

ODDyssey HM, Philadelphia May 2011

I have mentioned my love of running tourism many times before in this blog, and in the process of planning our latest trip to the USA, I decided to take advantage and turn it into a little running adventure for myself. I had already figured that the easiest way to get ourselves, our children and all our STUFF from Washington DC (where DH's conference was being held) to New York (where much shopping awaited) would be to hire a car, so it was a simple matter to settle on a stopover in Philadelphia, where the ODDyssey half-marathon was going to take place on the very weekend we would be in town.

It's been a while since I have run a HM without being in the midst of a grander scheme (aka marathon training plan) so I had no idea how I would perform - especially given that it was only 6 weeks after the Canberra marathon - but by the time this reality occurred to me I had already registered for the race. Ooops.

The training

See above: no specific training plan for this one. After Canberra I vaguely followed a Pfitzinger recovery plan, gradually easing back into longer runs but always keeping the pace easy. As a result I did no speedwork in between the two races, none whatsoever. My longest run was 12 miles about two weeks earlier, and jet-lag had made for some slow, spaced-out runs after arriving in the US. In short, I was feeling woefully underprepared as race day loomed.

The travel

We were over a week into our travels by the time we arrived in Philadelphia, but even so I was still feeling affected by jet-lag. The first two nights in DC I slept like the dead, but from the 3rd night onwards I was having trouble, which has never happened before.

My body seemed to want to sleep from 2am or so until 9 or 10am if possible; this is so far from my normal sleeping pattern at home that it made me feel very disoriented. I tried to bash my circadian rhythm back into shape, using motrin PM and prescription sleeping tablets in slightly alarming quantities, but all this did was make me feel hungover in the morning and I was still lying awake for hours at night. By the 5th night I had given up and accepted that sleep would elude me until at least 1am, and so I stayed up reading/surfing the internet instead of lying there fuming. Understandably, this was a lot more fun.

This is how I came to be still up past midnight the night before the race, blathering on Facebook and Runners World about how I was going to run sooooo slowly, it would definitely be a new PW (personal worst) time for me, I was just going to do it as a fun run, not racing, definitely not, blah blah blah blah blaaaaah.

In the words of my husband: "Yeah, right".

Race day

Despite the late bedtime I'm awake the second my alarm goes off at 5:45am. I've actually been missing early morning running and I'm kind of excited despite my pessimism about how I'm going to run.

Thanks to our car GPS (how did anyone ever get anywhere before they existed??) I'm out at the starting area with plenty of time to spare. The start line happens to be right outside the Please Touch museum, which is where we stupidly left our travel stroller (a nice Maclaren one) folded on the ground behind our car the day before, so I jog over to look for it, even though DH has already pronounced it gone.

To my delight the stroller is right there, propped up against a tree. I grab it and set off back towards the car. I must look bizarre to the other runners who are now streaming towards the start - I'm moving in the wrong direction, despite being dressed to run with a number pinned to my singlet - with a stroller under my arm and a silly grin on my face. But I really don't care what they think, because I've decided it's officially a Good Omen and that the race is therefore going to go very well for me.

Back at the start I once again find myself right up the front - gotta love these small races - so once the gun goes off it takes mere seconds for me to cross the line. Unfortunately my Garmin has gone to sleep (the start was exactly one minute late) and it takes me around 400m to figure this out and start it properly. Annoying, but I try to shrug it off and focus on the run.

Miles 1-2: 6:49 (average pace in min/mile)
Off we go. The start is not too crowded, but I'm trying not to go too hard so the first mile or so isn't at top speed. After the first split beeps on my Garmin, I realise that my "comfortably hard" pace is actually a decent race pace - especially given my expectations - so I settle in and resolve not to look at the splits from now on, just so I don't freak myself out. Holiday me is apparently easily spooked.

Miles 3-4: 6:41
The course winds, in an undulating fashion, around Fairmount Park and back through the start. I have no idea where it's headed and briefly wonder if we'll be doing 3x4 mile loops through the park: hardly an appealing idea. Right at 4 miles though we head down a steepish hill to the Schuylkill river.

Miles 5-6: 6:39
We head out one way and then back - the perfect opportunity to confirm what I already know: I'm in 4th place and about half a mile behind the 3rd female. Another race seems to be setting up down by the river, so there are water stations everywhere but not all for us. It's confusing. I distract myself by aimlessly wondering how Schuylkill is pronounced. Skull-kill? Shool-kyl? Skyoool-keel?? This pointless exercise keeps my mind happily occupied for quite a while.

Miles 7-8: 6:37
I'm just moseying along by the river, enjoying myself more than I expected to. And I'm slowly making ground on the girl in front, although she's still a long way ahead.

Miles 9-10: 6:44
The "non-compulsory obstacles" that this race supposedly has near the water stations begin to appear. Why anyone would want to take a break from running a half-marathon to scale a jumping castle, or hurdle a barrel? It's mystifying. If you have enough spare energy to do that, then clearly you're not running hard enough. No-one appears to be taking part anyway.

Then, around the mile 10 mark, I see a sign that reads "Heads Up! Water Balloons!" and a couple of dudes hanging around holding small round balloons. I think to myself "Ooooh, they won't, will they?!?" and briefly consider giving them a warning glare, but then decide to use the "I can't see you so you can't see me" treatment I usually give unleashed dogs, and it works perfectly. Phew.

Miles 11-12: 6:51
We're heading back now and somehow we have to get back up to the museum, but I am holding onto the vain hope that the sharp downhill we took to get to the river won't reappear as a horrible uphill at this point. Surely we'll go back some other, less extreme way? Nope, there it is, right as we pass the 12 mile mark. The elevation profile says it all:

Mile 13.1: 7:03
The final mile is uphill?? This is torture. And it's time to try some of the tricks I've read about in Runners World and online: I relax my upper body, lean forward slightly and pump my arms for all I'm worth. I still feel like I'm crawling through quicksand, but eventually the gradient levels out and there's the finish line (not to mention the 3rd woman, whom I have almost caught, but not quite) just up ahead.

I cross the line in 1:28:24, my fastest HM time since 2007 and an official Masters PR!

It's good enough for 4th female overall and 1st place in my AG, which apparently earns me a medal that the organisers promise to send me, since I have to leave fairly promptly in order to pack up the family and get on our way to New York. I'm thrilled that my HM time has benefitted so much from all the marathon training, and what a great way to remember Philadelphia!

Bonus extras

One of the coolest things about being a runner in the 21st century is the internet and the online communities that like-minded people can join. This has been a big thing for me since way back in 2006 (see here for details) and since becoming a regular on the Runners World forums I have many running friends - the vast majority are Americans - whom I have "met" online.

In Philadelphia I was very excited to have the chance to meet two of these imaginary friends for the first time in real life. On Saturday night before the race, my friend Lynn and her husband Steve very generously invited us to their home for dinner, and I was able to use my upcoming race and carbo-loading as an excuse to eat a LOT of very yummy cake. A wonderful evening of food, good company and manic children was had by all - thanks, Lynn and Steve!

And after the race it was a great pleasure to meet another friend for brunch, the inimitable Flo, whose running blog is here. We chatted happily over pancakes and coffee about running, racing, training, Runners' World, more running - while my husband's eyes glazed over and my children made increasingly wild but futile attempts to attract my attention. Once again an almost complete stranger seemed like an old friend - it was great to meet you, Flo!

I'm hoping my next trip to the US will be another running tourism trip - stay tuned!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Canberra Marathon April 2011

When I was looking around for my next marathon, all enthusiastic in the afterglow of my fantastic New York trip, there was nothing to be found online about Canberra's annual marathon. Canberra is our national capital and only 2.5 hours drive from our house (very convenient), but in 2010 there was some legal dispute about who owned the rights to stage the race, and at the end of the year this was still unresolved. There was some doubt about whether the 2011 race would actually go ahead.

Despite the lack of a suitable goal race, after my 5 week post-marathon Higdon plan I decided to embark on another marathon training plan anyway - never let it be said that I am not a goal-oriented sort of person! And then in January an email arrived in my in-box about "The Australian Running Festival" in April, and lo and behold it was the re-born Canberra Marathon, scheduled for April 10 and fitting in perfectly with the training plan I had already started. Hooray!

The training

Pfitzinger 18/55. For the uninitiated, Pete Pfitzinger is an American former Olympic marathoner whose marathon training plans are well-known amongst the marathoning community and renowned for difficulty but also spectacular results for those who make it through uninjured. This plan stretches over 18 weeks and peaks at 55 miles per week (88km) - I actually added some miles to max out at just under 65 miles, or 104km. It is comprised of speedwork, intervals and long runs, and yes, it is every bit as intense as it sounds.

I had no major problems with the plan, though, and felt well-prepared in the lead-up to Canberra. So well-prepared that I somehow thought it was a good idea to invite a whole bunch of experienced marathoners on Runners World Online (RWOL) to place bets on how much I could improve on my NY time. I can't account for why I felt the need for some extra pressure to achieve, but there it promptly was, in the form of a raft of seriously fast predicted times. Ooops.

Race day

During the night before the race I'm awake every hour from 1:30am onwards, thinking "Is it time yet??" At 4:30am I'm awake for good, but I feel well-rested, probably from going to bed at the insanely early hour of 9pm the evening before. I check the weather - there is apparently a 40% chance of rain, but outside the road is dry - and after a breakfast of chocolate milk and raisin toast I drive over and park near the starting area.

It's still dark but there are a few people around, so I go over and check out the starting line. The race office is in a school hall, so I go to use the bathrooms and I'm the only one in the whole block. Could this be any more different to New York?? I head back to the car to stay warm, even though it's currently overcast and about 14c/57F, so not cold, and there is no sign of the wind or rain I was expecting. I make the incredibly stupid mistake of posting on Facebook that it's not cold or raining, and five minutes later the heavens open and the temperature drops by at least 5 degrees. Duh. Next time someone needs to tell me to STFU about the weather, honestly.

When I head over to the start with 30 minutes to go, NO-ONE is lined up yet apart from one dude in a red shirt. Again, the incredible difference to NY strikes me. I loiter around under some trees for a while, staying out of the rain, and when I do go to line up a few other people eventually come over. I end up in the very front line, thinking "I do NOT belong at the very front, how did I get here?!", until some more people come over and I can fade back a few paces. Two fast-looking women show up, one with a half-marathon bib on, the other a full. Ms HM and I start talking, she introduces herself as Hannah and says she's shooting for 70 minutes. Whoa! What?!

There are no seeded runners or preferred runners at the race, but the city is home to the Australian Institute of Sport so it's actually not too surprising that amazingly fast runners like this have showed up. Sure enough, I find out later that Hannah was the female HM winner (in the somewhat slower time of 1:23:36), and her friend with the marathon bib on wins the ladies' marathon. I see her a few times during the race, waaaaaay out in front of any other female runner, and am not surprised that her time of 2:50:49 puts her almost 7 minutes ahead of her nearest rival.

With a minute or so to go I'm still only about 3 rows back from the very front, and when the gun goes off I'm over the line in seconds. And so it begins!

The race

The course is a multi-lap affair that winds around the parliamentary district before heading across the lake and along a major road (thankfully closed to traffic) to a turn-around point. The marathoners do 2 laps of this circuit, the half-marathoners only one. My Garmin is set to lap automatically every 1km so for brevity's sake these are the paces in min/mile, averaged out over each 3km, which is just short of 2 miles.

Miles 1-2: 6:58
This is mostly due to a 6:40 pace first 1km - I reel it in quickly when I realise how fast I'm going, and the rest is around 7:08. It's raining steadily but not too windy; I get a bit of a lift when a Scottish voice behind my shoulder says "That's the most efficient gait I've seen this morning" and yes, he's talking to me! I thank him and float onwards feeling great.

Miles 3-4: 7:09
Right on pace. I get the shock of my life as we run beside the lake - a dude in plastic flip-flops and a bucket hat goes tearing past with the loudest footfalls I've ever heard. Seriously, flip-flops?? I see him later much further on and he's still going, but on the second lap there is no sign of him.....

Miles 5-6: 7:02
Too fast again. Oops. Around mile 5 I realise my right shoe is squelching every time it hits the ground because the rain is really pouring down now. Niiiiice. For the first time, my running friend Ilana's words to me come into my head and it soon becomes my race mantra: Suck it up, Princess, and run!

Miles 7-8: 7:03
Still too fast - there are lots of people around me and I'm matching their pace. I concentrate on running MY OWN race and try to slow down, even if it means I'm getting passed.

Miles 9-10: 7:10
Back on the right pace, but the weather is miserable. There's a guy ahead of me running in a see-through singlet and Speedos. This cheers me up moderately and I think to myself "What is this, Mardi Gras??" Or maybe he just had a better idea than I did of what the weather was going to be like, who knows.

Miles 11-12: 7:12
We go past the HM turn-around and the crowd thins considerably. The leading marathoners are on their way back already and I count (slightly incorrectly) that there are a total of 8 women ahead of me. Hmmmm - I decide a top ten finish would be just the thing to help me forget this misery. It's still pouring with rain, by the way.

Miles 13-14: 7:10
Don't remember what this bit was like. Too busy telling self to suck it up, and trying to stay on pace.

Miles 15-16: 7:12
Out for lap 2. Now I'm lapping HM runners so at least I'm overtaking people, but it's getting harder to stay on pace. I remind myself that this bit isn't meant to feel easy, and to suck it up. I pass a female runner and now I'm in 8th.

Miles 17-18: 7:20
Past the HM turnaround again, I get passed by a girl who looks like she's just cruisin'. Rather than getting annoyed or despondent I think, ok, 9th is still top ten, and keep plugging away. Positive thinking!!

Miles 19-20: 7:25
Near the marathon turn I see someone coming out of a porta-loo ahead of me and lookit that, it's a female runner. She sets off at a fast pace and I think, ok, good for you, that's cool - but am secretly pleased when she slows down dramatically after the turn and I pass her with ease. Back into 8th spot.

Miles 21-22: 7:35
The rain, which had just eased off a bit, now picks up again and there's wind gusts as well as a small but significant incline - I start to lose focus and slow down. Back to chanting my mantra.

Miles 23-24: 7:22
The mantra appears to be working, but only just. All I can think is, when will this be over? By now I'm checking my watch and figuring out what time I'll do if I tank completely and slow down to 8:00 pace, and it's still faster than my NY time, but I'm trying not to succumb to the temptation to give up.

Miles 25-26.2: 7:47
Uh oh. I'm giving it all I've got, but the legs just won't turn over any faster. In a cruel irony, the rain chooses this moment to finally ease almost completely. I get passed by a female runner but whatever, I'm past caring. Just before the finish I hear my 4 year old yelling out "Go Mama! Go Mama!" and it's all I can do to muster a silly grin and wave to him, then THANK GOD it's all over.

The time on my Garmin is 3:12:25, my official time 3:12:27 - turns out I was 10th woman and managed to place 2nd in my age group.

On reflection, there was one person I saw who was coming back when I was suffering my way out on the second lap - by whom I was initially baffled but ultimately decided was male - who clearly was actually female. Whatever, 10th is still technically top ten, and enough to get my name in the local paper. Cool!

The analysis

I'm not sure I could have improved on the training that I did, but it's clear that I still lack somewhat in endurance. From mile 17 or so I definitely shifted down a gear, and by mile 21 I was finding it really hard going. The weather didn't help, but I can't blame it entirely - if I can run 16 miles in those conditions without slowing down, why couldn't I keep it going for the whole 26.2?

I've come away with a new respect for the marathon distance; in New York it was just fun and new and a bit like being in the Olympics, in Canberra it was something entirely other. Take away the 2 million cheering spectators, the perfect weather and, um, NEW YORK, and you've got 26.2 miles of tough slog through teeming rain. I'd say about 17 of those were pretty fun, 4 or 5 were pretty tough and the last 3 or 4 were bloody horrible. I'm proud of the way I approached it, though, and that I never threw in the mental towel.

I'm planning my next marathon now with a new determination and awareness of just how hard it can be......and 3:10, I'm coming for you.