Tuesday, August 18, 2009

When Triple-H Comes a Knockin'!!

After running Sunday’s NYC Half-Marathon in some pretty grueling hot conditions I thought that I should talk a little about training and racing in the triple-H (Hazy, Hot, Humid). You know what I am talking about, the type where you look out the window at 6 a.m. excited to throw down a nice long run – beautiful, sunny, slight breeze in the trees to keep you cool. Then you open your door and it’s like breaking the seal of the airlock in “Aliens,” steam shooting out, that nice muggy, wet slap in the face, and you feel your body wilt, like spinach in boiling water, saying to yourself in an instant, “This is really not going to be that fun.” So how do we combat the forces of nature when they decide to stack the deck against a good day?

Be smart. Hazy, hot and humid conditions are tough on the body. With the heat comes a rise in core temperature, which gets the sweat flowing early and often. It also diminishes the amount of fluid available to your exercising muscles. As a result, those muscles receive less oxygen and nutrients, your body can’t get rid of lactic acid readily and you start to slow down. Let me tell you, when you feel that hit you, you really need to take notice. Here are a few little things that we can do to keep our training going without getting hammered by Triple-H!

First thing to consider is your timing. Get your butt out of bed in the morning early enough that the sun hasn’t put the World on broil just yet. Or, you can be like me, since I hate the morning anyway, and run at dusk while the day is cooling off – for those in the burbs, just be sure to wear reflective clothing for any traffic or poorly lit areas.

Secondly, and this is sort of a no brainer: dress for success! You want to try and be as comfortable as possible. Light, loose fitting, breathable, moisture wicking, technical materials are the only way to go. This is particularly important when it comes to socks, because of your susceptibility to blistering. There is nothing worse than basting in your own fluids on the course, because you’re wearing something that was a little thick (ex. Regular cotton t-shirt or tank top) and super saturated with your sweat. So much fun to be able to ring out your clothes on the street and see how many fluid ounces you managed to excrete!

Another thing to consider in the clothing department, and this is a bit more touch and go due to the self-consciousness factor, but the less you can wear the better. Gentlemen, this is not just for the boys that weigh four pounds and need to show off their 6-pack abs, this applies to you as well. Ladies, this is lot touchier subject, but I wanted to raise it just the same. The simple fact is that the more you let your skin breathe during runs on hot days the better. Sunday I ran in a short-sleeved shirt, because I could not for the life of me find my racing singlet, and I felt like I was stuffed in a pressure cooker. As soon as I wised-up, stopped worrying about the visibility of my race number, and stripped the shirt I felt so much better and was regretting the fact that I didn’t do it sooner. Even just the little breeze you get from moving through air at your pace can cool you off just enough to make things a little more bearable.

Over the last couple of seasons there is one piece of equipment that I have come to see as REQUIRED and that is a good pair of sunglasses. Slaves to fashion, leave your D&Gs and Ray Bans at home! A good pair of lightweight running sunglasses can do wondrous things for you while out on the course. I have had horrible runs simply because the sun punished my poor baby blues giving me the nicest and longest lasting headaches you can imagine! Seriously, it’s no good. It seems like such a small petty thing, but not having to squint or fight off the glare and feel beat down by the sun in that way really does a lot for you physically and for your psyche as you pour on the miles. By the same token, visors and running hats are also great things to have!

This one is a big one to remember and there are a lot of us that struggle with it, but in the heat you have to be willing to SLOW DOWN. I know, the two words that none of us want to hear, but if you don’t do it yourself your body will do it for you and it won’t be nice about it at all! Take a walk/shade break just to let your body adjust a little bit.

Lastly, and this one goes without saying, hydrate the hell out of yourself inside and out! If weather.com, and I know you are all slaves to the weather widget, indicates that you will be doing a hellfire run the next day, prepare well the night before. Make note of your urine color, yes I am being that gross, and make sure that it is just faintly tinted yellow, so you know you are hydrated well. If it is clear you may be a little over hydrated and you could be pissing away nutrients that you need. During your run, make sure you take the time to have a few good solid sips of cold water, if that is even humanly possible in this type of weather, every mile or two. Cold water gives you that little psychological kick you want/need and it also passes through your stomach quickly. Also, douse your head whenever you take the time to have a drink, that way you try and keep that internal temperature down a little bit.

OK, enough of this public service announcement-esque blog post! Hope it helps a little bit. Run Smart & Be Safe!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Why do we fall?

There are so many amazing things to be excited about when it comes to running and we all love to hear about and make the sport so enriching: the beautiful scenery of trail running, getting that “runner’s high,” running a sub-whatever mile for the first time, the camaraderie of the running community, passing people during a race, hitting a PR, qualifying for Boston. But, what about those nasty, gritty, sweat drenched, lip biting, lung burning, gasping, lead-legged, self-doubt laden runs that we all dread? Why SHOULD we love those just as much? Quite simply, and I am now showing my extreme dorkiness, but it is still very true, “Why do we fall, sir? So that we might learn to pick ourselves up.” – Alfred (Michael Caine) “Batman Begins.”

I was reminded this weekend why horrible runs are so important. I was talking with a fellow runner about their week and they were almost sullen about the run they had had that day; it was long, hot, muggy, crampy, lead-legged and was so miserable that it nearly brought them to tears. That, my friends, is a tough day. As we talked about the rest of their week, they had had an amazing training week and all of their runs to this point had been without much adversity, that is until that day. It took a while to meander through all of the detritus, because emotions can be so tightly bound to our training, but the why became quite clear and it made me think. Why do we NEED these runs that make us want to quit the sport we love? Good question, right?! I know! And trust me I have answers!

As in all life experiences, these train wrecks are incredible teaching tools for us all. I don’t know how many times I’ve said it, but training is 70% mental and 30% physical. Utter dog crap runs like this one test your metal. They make you question everything you are doing. You hit a wall. It’s when you hit that wall that you have to be ready to peel yourself off and know that one run does not make or break your training. They also teach you how to fight. How to focus your mind on the task at hand and FORCE your body to respond. Make your body your mind’s bitch! Even if the run is absolutely horrific in your mind the moment you finish take comfort in the fact that you DID finish and fought through it. When you hit the wall during a marathon it all becomes about mind, will and your ability to focus yourself on positive thoughts and energies that will fuel you to the finish: “Oh my God my legs are tired and hurt like hell! BUT there is NO stopping. There is NO walking. I OWN this race and when I get through that finish line there is NO PAIN.”

Taking the mental aspect a step further, when you have a run like this it is the perfect time, once you get over the whole tragedy of it all, to do a serious self-assessment and analysis. Take a good hard, objective look at your run and your performance and figure out where things went awry. Start simple with the run itself, while it's fresh in your mind. Work your way from your body and the physical conditions to the execution of your plan for that particular run. Ask yourself some questions: What exactly was my issue? My legs? Lungs? Cramps? When did they start? Was it the heat? Was I sweating more than usual? Did I go out too fast? Did I have enough nutrition and water on the course? Is the timing of my nutrition off? Did I have enough this morning before I started?

As you pull those answers together start looking at your preparation that day and the night before, if it was a long run. Then look at it in the context of your week. Maybe you did two really hard, focused runs during the week that took more out of your legs than you anticipated and this run was a little too ambitious given the rest of the week? Finding the why is always an amalgamation of details. For example, hazy, hot & humid + dead legs + not hydrating properly + tough pace plan + long distance = WORST RUN OF MY LIFE! As is the case with most personal problems – and yes runners, when we have issues with runs they are always presented as personal problems – we can just be too close to things to see them clearly, so go ahead and bounce it off of someone, a coach, your running partner, even talking to your dog works, because when you start to hear what went on in your own words out loud it can quickly come into focus.

Craptastic training runs and races are an education! They teach us sooooo much about ourselves and what we are capable of. How tough we are mentally, how well we know our bodies, and how far and hard we can push both. Next time you have a run that makes you want to ask for a trial separation from your running shoes, which you really just want to push through a wood chipper, and just give up on the whole running thing remember a few things: 1) If it was easy EVERYONE would do it, but they don’t because they think it’s insane. 2) You are, in fact, insane. 3) One bad run does not make or break your training or racing season. 4) Take all that you can learn from such an experience and use it to make you a stronger and smarter athlete. 5) We are all out there with you, you are not alone and we’ve all been there and will be there again.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Testing, testing, one, two, R2C14!

It has been a year since I broke into the World of distance relay running, something which I have become rather enamored with ever since that first experience. What race could have possibly stolen the pitter-patter of my loping heart … The River to the Sea. Oh yes, that’s right folks my relay virginity, as disgusting as it may sound, was claimed by “The Dirty”, a.k.a. New Jersey. It is an insanely sick concept, a 7-person (there will be no sexist crap here) team running from Milford, New Jersey, on the East bank of the Delaware River 92 miles across the state till they hit the Atlantic in Manasquan. Sounds fun, right? Toxic waste, unidentifiable odoriferous emanations, the outstanding housewives, the Sopranos, and the goddam Jets! Regardless of the innumerable shortcomings of the so-called Garden State, this race is a lot of fun.

Last year I was invited to run this race by one of my former Race With Purpose coaches, Dave Darcy, and happily accepted not knowing what the hell I was getting myself into. At that point I was only maybe a month into running outside again coming off of injury. I spent most of the winter lifting weights, doing the elliptical, getting on the stationary bike and eating, the combination of which had added a number of pounds to my upper body. These were all pounds that made this race particularly difficult, but it was good. I needed to get out on the road more and really test my foot and fitness and this seemed like a great way.

Our team, Fast Forward, was a nice mix of guys from 30-65 (Irving, John, Miles, Dave, Kiet, Al and myself) … ya, that’s right, we’re not ageists either! Just so I don’t regurgitate two races at once, here is the long and short of it. We came in 4th overall and won the Men’s Open division. It was fantastic and I was told, not asked, but told that I had to do it the next year to defend our crown.

Just for the pun of it, Fast Forward to 2009 and time to defend our title! For those who know me, I am NOT morning person, regardless of the SOP of the road-racing World, and the R2C, like Jersey, sucks because I had to get up at the unholy and painful hour of 3:30 am. It was so freaking early that when I got down to my rendez-vous point to catch my ride at Canal and Broadway people were just stumbling out of the bars and clubs in the area! Last year I saw a nice brawl on the corner, but no such luck this time around.

It took us a while to get out to the start and the ground fog heading through some of the farms on the back roads out there was pretty impressive. I mean you couldn’t see anything it was so thick. When we reached the start it was just as quaint as the previous year and Irving, the captain and organizer of our team, was just as edgy as I remembered from last year. He has this way of eyeballing everyone, sizing up the competition as we prep our support vehicles and double check our supplies, which is very amusing and yet very unsettling. There were 120 Teams and we were listed as #4.

Just as in the previous year, I was once more being forced into doing leg 4 and 13, which are two of the longer and more difficult legs. The most difficult ones were reserved for the fastest and most fit, which were Kiet and myself. I may have whined and complained a bit for fun, but I really didn’t mind as my mindset going in was to go out and really test my legs and fitness, something that I have not done in some time. These two legs were just what the doctor ordered, hilly, hot and unrelenting … delicious!

Our Team started out at 7:10 am, a full 35-minutes later than last year, but we started out quite well and we quickly gained a lot of grain on the Teams already out on the course. Now my first leg, leg 4, is called “The Beast” (be sure to turn on the elevation chart) and it is for good reason. Within the first half-mile or so you just start to climb and then continue to do so for what appears to be FOREVER, but what I have recently mapped out to be approximately 3.5 miles (I also appear to have misplaced a turn that has the missing half mile). What makes “The Beast” even more difficult is how little shade there is and you’re left out there gassed by the course then slapped in the face by the heat; a nice test of ones character and metal. I LOVE IT! I ended up doing the 8.7-mile leg in 53:46 (6:11/mile pace), which shocked me as I did the math. I had issues breathing along the climb and was fighting the whole time, never finding my rhythm. When I finally hit the decline portion of the course my breathing balanced out, the battery acid in my legs subsided and rhythm was restored and I really started to push it out. I ended up passing 7 Teams on my way through leaving only 4 ahead of us.

Just to bring things into focus with this particular relay, all of the starts are staggered in the hopes that the majority of the Teams will be finishing around the same time … everyone jockeying for position into the final leg. It is an amazing idea, one that rarely yields the desired result, but somehow this small race manages to create that great competitive drama annually, so my hats off to them!

My second leg, leg 13, is the “Do or Die” leg, pretty flat, really fast and the one that can make or break your day. I love how I always seem to get these. At this point we already knew that victory was not going to be possible. We had been caught by Bucknell’s cross country team, who were running low to mid-5s, as well as a few others and the last leg is only 3-miles, but is run by 66-year-old Al … not exactly our fastest, but certainly our most impressive! Love Al, quality human being and a damn fine runner.

Heading into this 8-mile leg I just wanted to go out there and keep us from dropping any more places. I didn’t realize how hard I ran “The Beast” till I started this one out. It took a while just to shake the acid out and feel ok. The first few miles were horrible and completely unpleasant and I really just felt like slowing down and stopping. We weren’t going to win or even repeat as Men’s Open champions, but then it happened … there was someone to pass in front of me, a good ways off but still in eye-shot. My teammates kept telling me, “He’s 50-seconds ahead of you, you got him!” “He’s 30-seconds out, keep it up.” “The gap is only 10-seconds, you’re right on top of him!” This went on for 6-miles and then the course takes the runners onto a trail for the last two.

The trail section is a straight shot with tree branches draped over the top of the path on both sides creating a tunneling effect and as you looked down the path you could see almost all of your competition. Legs on fire, lungs ready to quit, stomach ready to puke and all I could think was, “Just keep turning them over! You walk now and this will all be for nothing and it will be an awfully long walk!” My mind really focused on that idea, my breathing adjusted to a really fast rhythm, but one that I could bear, and my legs just kept churning it out. I ended up passing three teams in that last two miles and for the first time doing the R2C I was passed … he was maybe 20 years old, maybe weighed 130 lbs, and maybe had had his testicles drop already … and I was ok with that. Final time for the 8-mile leg was 49:50 (6:16/mile pace).

Al did an amazing job on the final 3-miles tearing off solid 8s and we ended up finishing 7th. I love the end of this race because you finish on the sand of the beach at sunset and they feed you, which needed to happen! As for the test, I have to admit that I was really happy with the results, because I really didn’t think that I had that sustained pace in me, but the human body never ceases to amaze. Now we’ll just have to wait and see what this old group of guys can do next year!