Sunday, October 22, 2017

Race Report: Athens Half Marathon, October 22, 2017

In the end I did what I wanted to do, well almost. My goal was to break 1:50:00 for the half marathon distance. That would shave off 7:26 from my previous PR, which happened in 2015 (at the same race btw). I ended up 13 seconds short of my goal, but I'll take it. I took this race seriously, I trained hard, I applied lessons that I learned in my last race, and I finished knowing that I had nothing left at the end.


But to understand this race, you have to go back to last race that I took very seriously: the 2016 New York Marathon. That race was a profound disappointment. So disappointing in fact, I've not talked much publically about it until now.


To get ready for NY I used the Hansons 65mi/week training plan for 20 weeks. I've never run so much in my entire life and I was lucky that I didn't end up really hurt. But I bought into the Hansons kool-aid about being super prepared and having an easier finish because I trained constantly with "accumulated fatigue." It didn't work for me. Predictably, I hit the wall somewhere between 18 and 20 miles but I wasn't mentally prepared for it because of the kool-aid. It was a humiliating performance, almost an hour slower my previous marathon PR (which came when I was hurt BTW), and I don't think I exercised the demons of this race until I did a sub three-hour olympic triathlon this summer. When you are being passed by blind runners at the end, it's pretty humiliating.

New York was a disaster for several reasons, among them:
  1. I overtrained and did not rest up enough for the race.
  2. I wasn't prepared for a 10:40am start time and I did not eat enough for breakfast that morning or dinner the night before.
  3. When I hit the wall early I was so surprised that I didn't know what to do and I ended thinking it would be ok to walk a bit. I was never able to get it going again.
I was in a funk for almost three months and I almost quit running races for good. I promised my wife that if I ever did another one I would get the help of a professional coach. So in March of this year, I started by taking the running clinic at Horizon Physical Therapy. It was a wonderful experience. Jimbo Wood helped me understand the need for a stronger form, much faster cadence, and how to run much more economically. Carrie Hilley taught me how to improve my mobility and durability by taking a few minutes to stretch every morning and evening (which I have followed religiously ever since). Improved running economy did not happen overnight, in fact at first it caused significant IT band issues because I didn't have enough strength in my back and glutes (i.e. I did 20 weeks of Hansons with poor form and all I did was build up my calves).

At the start of the year, I decided that I would switch to multisport training (swim, bike, and run) instead of just running and that I would only run three days a week. No more overtraining. That led to my first triathlon (a sprint) at the end of the summer and then a second (an olympic distance event) a few weeks later. At both I surpassed my goals: under 1:30:00 for the sprint and under 3:00:00 for the olympic. My running partner, Bobby Laurine, always runs the Marine Corp Marathon each fall and while I was not successful getting in that race via drawing, I trained with him for a full marathon but planned to instead run the 2017 Athens Half Marathon the same day.

For the training regime, we switched to the Furman training approach. The approach is laid out in the book Run Less, Run Faster but we simply followed the paces and program outlined in the Runner's World article linked above. Compared to Hansons, with Furman you only run three days a week (a sprint workout, a tempo run, and a long run) up to a max of 35 - 40 miles a week. The other days you cross-train. For me, that meant I spent the other three days a week biking, swimming, or lifting weights. In the middle of the summer, at the suggestion of a friend, I added a small group strength training regime two days a week with a professional strength coach (at the sports performance center operated by Athens Orthopedic Clinic).

With Furman you run less but there are no junk miles. You get your 10k pace using a one-minute time trial (which for me was 7:20/mi in the spring) and then you set your training paces based on that. The long run pace (9:40/mi) was 1:00/mi faster than I used when preparing for NYC. The tempo runs were anywhere from 8:25/mi to 8:55/mi depending on the distance. Together with the heat and humidity of Athens, Georgia this was a very difficult training cycle.

For my own variation of the program, I passed on the sprint workouts specified in the Furman plan and opted instead for a weekly high intensity interval training class at Orangetheory. I like Orangetheory because it's been great for getting my metabolism up and helping me break through a weight plateau (I lost 5lbs this training cycle). But it ended up doing more than that. The sprint portion of each Orangetheory class has helped me get better control of my breathing when sprinting all out as well as keep a strong form and faster cadence (reinforcing everything that Jimbo Wood taught me earlier in the year).

With this background, I ran the Athens Half Marathon today. Leading up to the race, I have never felt stronger. The failure in NYC resulted in my becoming a much improved runner, with better form and economy, with increased strength where it matters, and a better head game when things get tough (brick runs off of the bike have helped enormously with that).

It's been much cooler this past week, with mid 40s in the mornings leading up to the race. But, over the weekend temperatures went up quite a bit. I woke up at 4:30am to get ready and temperatures were already in the mid 50s - tank top weather. I helped organize and put on a quick runner's church service at my church (First Presbyterian Church) at 6:30am and then after some group photos with friends I went down and lined up for the start.

I was nervous. I wanted to break 1:50:00 for this race which would require me to average 8:25/mi for the duration. During the heat and humidity of the summer my lactate threshold pace was around 8:50/mi. I knew that because I had run up against it week after week when doing the Furman tempo runs. I was successful skating above that threshold when running 8 or 10mi tempos at 8:55/mi. But on shorter runs of 3 to 5mi the Furman protocol had me run under 8:25/mi. Inevitably on those runs my legs would be full of lactate by five miles. The Furman program was good at teaching me what that felt like and how to slow my pace to allow the lactate to clear. The long runs all went well at 9:40/mi - even the two 20 milers.

I was also careful to really taper this week. It was really tough, going from 10 - 12 hours/week of intense exercise to less than five. On Tuesday morning my head was in such a fog that I told my students the wrong day for an upcoming test (and had to be corrected by one of them). But by Thursday I was feeling the effects of improved rest: my body had fully relaxed, my legs felt strong on a couple of short, easy runs, and my mood improved dramatically.

But I was extremely nervous and worried about this half marathon. I didn't sleep well at all the night before. I knew that with cooler temperatures my lactate threshold pace would drop substantially, but I figured it was close to 8:30/mi. That meant that hitting my goal of 1:50:00 would require me to run below that the entire race. That coupled with the fact that the course was very, very difficult with over 1400ft of climb meant that I knew that I would be very uncomfortable the last five miles of the race.

There was one other lesson that I learned from a summer of training. I wouldn't try to pace myself through the event using my watch. Instead, I planned to stay right with the 1:50:00 pacer the entire time and have him pull me through the race. That removed the pressure of constantly watching my watch, readjusting my pace, and pushing myself unnecessarily when I shouldn't.

The gun sounded and we were off. One thing that was new and cool - I was actually close enough to the start that I heard the gun go off this time. Over the first three miles things went precisely as planned. I stayed right with the pacer while the route proceeded to drop almost 200 feet of elevation. My heart rate stayed out of Zone 5 most of the way and after I had warmed up (about 3mi) I was feeling pretty good. My breathing was under control, my legs felt strong, and I was feeling confident.

The next mile and a half (miles 3.5 - 5) had us going up a long incline where we picked up that 200 feet of drop. I knew I would need to drop the pace a bit and that meant falling behind the pacer (who looked like he was 20 years younger and weighed about 30lbs less than me). It was a difficult climb and my heart rate went well into Zone 5 and stayed there even though I dropped the pace by :20 - :25/mi. I was winded but my breathing was still controlled and I got to the top about 50m behind the pacer.

Over the next 1/3 miles the elevation dropped 100ft suddenly. This was pretty steep. Instead of being able to take advantage of that and catch up with the pacer I actually had to maintain a slower than expected pace to avoid pounding my knees as we went down. That was unexpected. Then, over the next mile (which gets us to 7mi total) we picked up that 100ft of elevation again. Watching myself fall more and more behind the pacer (by this time I was at least 100m behind) caused me to push the pace a bit more going up the hill than I should. In the end my heart rate was at the top of zone 5 (and into zone 6). I was winded, my breathing was labored, and I was starting to feel lactate build up in my legs.

Now, all throughout the race my legs felt strong. I never really began to feel the inevitable weakness and heaviness that comes from legs full of lactate. The problem was that from time to time I struggled to get my breathing under control and my heart rate back down into Zone 4. I assume that the strength training was really paying off and that I was struggling with the limits of my aerobic capacity. Even with the recent weight loss, I'm still 6'2" and I was at 199lbs the morning of the race. I've never been someone considered a "fast runner." I knew by mile 7 of the race I was at my aerobic limits.

Mile 7 was basically flat, but I really struggled to maintain my 8:25 pace and get my heart rate out of Zone 5 at the same time. I caught a big break on the eighth mile when we dropped another 50ft of elevation. Finally, I was able to get my breathing under control without dropping further behind the pacer. But by now I was more than 100m behind and I began mentally dealing with the fact that I probably wouldn't be able to catch back up and hit my goal of finishing under 1:50:00.

At that point, with less than 5mi to go I faced the dilemma all runners sometimes face: with the goal slipping out of sight do you pull up and take it easy (as I did in NYC to disastrous effects) or do I keep it going to get as close to my goal as my possible. I figured at this point a finish of 1:52:00 or 1:53:00 would still be a PR (under 1:57:26) and that I needed to give it everything I had.

So, starting at mile 9 I stopped focusing on the pacer and just ran based on how I was feeling at that moment. The tempo runs from the Furman program helped me get really comfortable running right above my lactate threshold so I started focusing on feeling just like that. Running uncomfortable but not so uncomfortable that I knew I would have to quickly shut it down. But something really surprising happened: I was able to keep under my goal pace of 8:25 but I wasn't really aware of that because I wasn't looking at my watch.

Coming up mile 9 we picked up 75ft of elevation and my pace dropped a bit but then we immediately dropped 30ft of climb at mile 10. I picked up the pace a bit, running at an uncomfortable level but not too uncomfortable. At the end of mile 10 I looked at my watch and I was at 1:24:26 - less than a minute off of breaking my 1:50:00 goal. The mental gymnastics at this point was fairly easy: to meet my goal time all I had to do was run a 5k in less than 25 minutes. The pacer was obviously running well ahead of target pace! That had to be doable. At both my sprint and olympic triathlons a few months earlier I was able to do that after biking 15 and 25mi. At this point I stopped running by feel and started running by pace again - working to hold a 8:10ish pace for the final three miles. The race was still on!

Things were going very well for the first mile. My breathing was labored but my legs were strong. Then close to mile 11 we went up a slight incline and my heart rate jumped right back into Zone 5/6 and I had to slow a bit to catch my breath. The first half of mile 11 took us downhill again (a drop of 50ft) but it was so steep I had to slow down to protect my knees. My heart rate did drop a bit so my labored breathing slowed again. Then the rolling hills began - climbs and drops of 25 - 30 feet each half mile for the duration of the race. At this point I simply gave it everything I had. I would say I was under extreme duress at that point, but I felt confident that I could keep it going for less than two miles - the end was close.

Then at mile 12.3 we took a steep drop of 20ft over ten or twenty meters. At the top I was at an 8:00/mi pace but I immediately had to drop it by 1:30/mi in order to slow down and protect my knees. Even at a 9:30/mi pace it was really hard on my knees and I immediately began feeling Charlie horses in both calves. Misery. But, the fact that we were in a series of rolling hills was actually helpful as I was able to push myself up the next incline and my legs stretched (I am getting to the point where I prefer inclines to declines). Three quarters of a mile to go and I was at 1:44:02 - the goal still within my grasp.

The last 20ft climb, right at 12.9mi was incredibly difficult. I entered the climb weezing loudly as my breathing was incredibly short (a couple runners I passed turned their heads not knowing what the sound was). At the top, right at mile 13 we had 30 feet of drop and I opened it up to a full on sprint.

I crossed the finish line right at 1:50:13 by my watch (1:50:10 by official results). Good enough. In NYC I left knowing that mental errors and overconfidence based on marketing nonsense resulted in the worst possible performance. In Athens I write this report knowing that I left everything I had on the road today and my finish was good enough. I was able to keep up with some local runners that I never thought I could run with and my recovery over the rest of the day has been much better than expected (I am sore but not so sore that I can't move).

There are lessons learned from this race:
  1. The "less is more" Furman approach to running worked better for me than Hansons. At my age, weight, and size it's better to avoid unnecessary miles and cross train instead.
  2. There's no way to avoid being really uncomfortable in endurance sports if you are really pushing your limits. The secret is to expect it, know your limits, and push yourself just below and above those limits based on how you feel and not arbitrary indicators you see on a watch. The watch knows nothing about you, the local conditions you are under, or what you want, need, or can possibly achieve at that moment.
  3. Strength training matters: two sessions a week with a professional coach is a part of my life for as long as I am taking endurance sports seriously.
  4. Running economy matters: keep the posture straight, cadence shorter and quicker, and push yourself forward with a heel flick instead of pulling yourself with a longer, slower cadence that heel strikes.
What's next: I'm gearing up for what I hope will be a year to remember.
In between there will be several sprint and olympic triathlons. In addition to my strength coach, I now have a tri coach. Her name is Wendy Mader and she is one of the best. Her biggest claim to fame is taking the top amateur award at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii in 2008. She ran Kona just last week and finished 8th in her age group (her marathon time was fast enough to qualify her for the Boston Marathon in 2019 - after biking 110mi!). I have my first video conference with Wendy this week and I'm looking forward to doing this under the watchful eye of an expert and without the pressure of having to figure out the training program on my own. Like following the pacer today, my goal is to take things less seriously, follow the advice of an expert coach and let them pull me through it, and just continue to push my limits in a way that helps me do things like I did today and not like I did last year in New York.



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