Archive for May, 2014

May 28, 2014

Hacking the Marathon


I’ve been working on the training plan this week, starting with setting my priorities for the marathon.  Obviously, getting to the start and finish as happy and healthy as possible are the most important things.  Rather than framing the race as the ultimate test of my training or some kind of referendum on the season, though, I’m trying to approach it from a broader view.  What kind of runner do I want to be at the end of this season, and how do I use this training as a means to get there?  

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past several days, trying to take a mature and objective approach to a mid-season evaluation.  I thought about what worked, what hadn’t, and what I could do better.  And it was intensely boring.  Eventually I realized, though, that what I was really trying to do was hack my training, and that sounded hardcore and awesome.  In that spirit, I recognized the following:

1. I love structure, but I start to get stressed out when I just can’t fit everything in.  

2. I run best when I trust my training 100%.  My schedule needs to allow some flexibility so that if I miss a workout or need a little extra time to recover that I don’t start to panic.

3. I like having numbers and data that I can use to evaluate my progress.

4. I tend to underestimate the need for, and benefit of rest.

In understanding how I work best and where I’m most likely to falter, I am aiming to create a training plan that plays off my strengths.  I know I will need a schedule that is highly structured (RLRF), but also has some slack in the system.  Given the choice between pushing through a scheduled run when I’m not feeling up to it or missing an important workout in favor of rest, I will always choose to push myself.  If I’m going to stay healthy, I need to give myself permission to take a day off when I need it.

With that insight, I returned to defining my big-picture goals for this year.  I’d like to get stronger in a way that I can quantify.  That means weight training, complete with logging weight, reps, and sets.  (Data, hooray!)  I’d like to be a bit leaner going into the marathon.  Again, this will probably take some dietary hacking, but shouldn’t be too difficult to quantify.  Third, I want to continue to build my confidence and work on my mental game over the next few months.  This one will be harder to measure, but I can at least be deliberate about the steps I take to get there.  If I can toe the line in Baltimore having accomplished those goals, the race will be a victory lap.  There’s just one teensy other thing that I want, and that’s a sub-four finish.  And that is totally doable.

May 22, 2014


I love laying out a new training plan.  There’s something incredibly satisfying in looking ahead to the next big goal lurking out there in the mist, and then breaking it down into an actual executable plan of action.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been using the Run Less, Run Faster plan all season, with solid results.  I bought a used copy of the book, which is by Bill Pierce, Scott Murr, and Ray Moss years ago.  My copy happens to be signed by Scott Murr to the previous owner with an inscription that reads something like, “To Tom, stick with it for the long run,” which Tom obviously didn’t.  

The story goes that the idea behind their training plan came during a stint when the authors switched from running to training for a triathlon.  They reduced their running mileage significantly to accommodate their swimming and biking, keeping the overall training volume about the same, but found their their running times actually improved.  After doing some studies on other athletes with similar results, they concluded that by alternating focused, quality runs with (non weight-bearing) cardio cross training, the body was better able to recover between running workouts.  (You can hear an interview with Scott Murr discussing RLRF on a recent Paleo Runner podcast here.)

The plan is somewhat unique in that you start by selecting your goal race time (with some guidance on how to choose something reasonably attainable), and work backwards from there.  Each week of training includes an interval run, a tempo run, and a long run.  Add in your two cross training workouts and that’s it.  The specific workouts to be executed are hyper-detailed with distances and paces for every day, all specifically attuned to get you to the goal race pace.  The book itself is largely a collection of these tables that map out paces at various distances.  Happily, RLRF is now an app, and by plugging in a recent finish time it will generate a personalized training plan pretty much instantly.

The approach appeals to me for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I almost feel like I have a coach when I’m following it.  I also appreciate that at 6AM, I don’t have to make decisions about what I’m trying to accomplish with my workout.  I can easily tell if I’m on track for my goal or not, and by the time I get to race day, I know what I can expect from myself.  I’ve also been able to break through mental barriers that I never thought possible.  Tempo runs in the 7’s?  I would never have even thought to attempt it, except that my google calendar told me to.  The only real complaint I have about the system is that I hate cross training.  Up until now in fact, I have been doing more of a RMRF plan.  Every time it said cross train, I did an easy run.  I know. I really tried to do it properly a few years ago, but I found that I really missed the easy days.  When you’re only putting in “quality” workouts, you don’t get the chance to space out and watch the scenery go by.

I am now, however, trying to craft a bulletproof plan to get me to the finish line of the Baltimore Marathon in October, and I’m willing to consider desperate measures.  Like cross training.  In my first and only previous attempt at 26.2 (for which I also tried a Run More, Run Faster plan), I ended up too injured and overtrained to race.  I know my biggest challenge in facing the marathon is getting myself to the start, strong physically both and mentally.  I feel like I’m ready, and that this is my year.  I know that in order to do this, I’m going to have to train holistically.  I’ve been thinking a lot about what a mind-body training approach might look like.  It’s got to help me continue to get mentally strong, but without pushing myself to the breaking point.  I think it may involve some regular massage.  And maybe I can even make friends with a spin bike in the process…


May 19, 2014

2014 Brooklyn Half Race Report


I’m coming to realize that one of the best parts of running in New York is the train ride to and from races.   At any other time, subway rides are an exercise in pretending that the strangers who are occupying your personal space (and who could potentially fall and/or step on you at the next curve) don’t actually exist.  On race mornings, however, runners smile at each other and say hello, chat about race plans, and cheerfully dispense advice.  Sure, there’s the occasional guy talking way too loud about his PR and how he usually only runs ultras, or complaining about the starting time/location/corral system, but all in all it’s generally a friendly, happy bunch.  Saturday morning was no exception when we headed off at 5:30 to the Brooklyn Museum.

We had actually gotten out the door a little later than I’d hoped, and in my rush I gulped down my smoothie and pounded some beet juice faster than was probably wise.  I nursed some butter coffee on the train, but by the time we arrived at the start it was clear that my digestive system was not fully on board with the morning’s activities. Thankfully, the Caveboy offered to make the run to baggage check while I waited in line at the porta-potties.  We reunited briefly for quick wishes of luck and a discussion of where to meet after the race, and then he headed off to the Wave 2 start.

I had a long wait ahead, as the corrals closed at 6:20 and the race was not scheduled to start until 7:00.  I tend to get nervous and a little too amped up waiting in the corral, particularly with the aggressive jock-rock music that tends to be blasted there.  I’ve realized that if I plan for it, I can use that time to calm down, so I’ve started including some chill pre-race music in my playlists.  After saying goodbye to the Caveboy, I popped my headphones in, did a last gear check, and tried to get into my race mindset.  After the usual chitchat and shuffling, we finally ended up getting off about 15 minutes late due to a car parked on the course (?) near the start.

This was my first Wave 1 start, and due either to the extreme competence of NYRR or simply the speed of the runners ahead of me, we got out FAST.  There were roughly 12,500 runners in the crush through the starting line, and within the first 20 seconds I realized I was already running faster than race pace.  I had been vacillating all week about how hard to push it in this race–I already had two half marathon PR’s on the season and part of me wanted to run this one on cruise control and just enjoy the day.  Another part of me felt like I had worked really hard training for this and it was the perfect opportunity to really push myself and leave it all on the course.  I ultimately decided to try the latter approach, and was shooting for 8:30 splits, which would be good enough for another PR.

For some reason I was more nervous for this race than for anything else I’ve run this season.  I spent the early miles focusing on settling into a steady pace and staying loose, trying to keep my shoulders down and breathing deeply.  I could feel the slight pulling of a side stitch starting, but I did my best to breathe and stay focused and positive about the race ahead.  Somewhere in the third mile I realized that my mouth was really dry, and I grabbed some Gatorade at the mile 4 aid station.  I was starting to get hungry already (probably due to the, um, compromised digestion earlier).  I had brought two gels, but had really only planned to eat one, probably around mile 7 or 8.  I decided that I would have one at at mile 6 instead and then judge from there if my stomach could tolerate another around 9 or 10.

We turned into Prospect Park not long after the mile 4 aid station, and from there the course starts rolling gently uphill for the next mile or so.  I was holding just ahead of my pace and feeling good.  The only real hill of the course comes around mile 5 and rises about 300 feet in a third of a mile.  I run it nearly every week on my long runs–usually several times–and I’ve actually developed some affection for it.  I charged up it this time, pleased with the number of runners I was passing and probably speeding up a little too much in the process.  I crested the hill knowing the hardest part was now over and focused on recovering a bit and finding a good pace on the next downhill.  At the mile 6 aid station I had my first GU (chocolate mint) and grabbed some water to wash it down.  I don’t know if it was the slight change in my breathing when I ate, or just the effort of the hill sprint catching up with me, but the side stitch that had been threatening since the start suddenly kicked in with a vengeance.  Without slowing my pace, I tried to adjust my breathing and footfalls, hoping to alleviate the sharp pain.  I rarely get side stitches, but I had a similarly severe one during my last 10K that nearly doubled me over for the last two miles.  I was now finding it hard to breathe deeply, and after some agonizing, I decided that power walking as briefly as possible was preferable to potentially running the second half the race with that much discomfort.  I walked as fast as I could for about 30 or 40 seconds, lamenting that I was wasting a particularly speedy downhill in the process.  The stitch let go a bit though, and I was quickly able to resume the 8-ish pace I’d been holding on the downward slopes.  It still hurt a lot, but I told myself I could deal with the pain as long as I could at least breathe normally.

I started counting the exhales just to focus my mind, and got to about 56 before the ache started to lessen.  (Full disclosure: the last-minute addition of the perplexing Work, Bitch to my playlist may have aided in effectively distracting me at that point.  Has anyone worked out what the correlation is between fitness and living in France?) A few minutes later I was out of the park and making the turn onto Ocean Ave, which would lead us south to Coney Island.  Without the cramp and with some sugar in my system I was feeling really good again, and started doing some quick math as I approached the mile marker at 8.  I was still ahead of my goal pace and if I maintained an 8:30, I would finish around 1:51.  I had five downhill miles to go, though, and was already running 8:15’s.  I realized that if I could keep that up, I’d break 1:50.  Suddenly, the PR seemed trivial and cracking the 110 minute mark was all that mattered.

I hammered on with renewed resolve, which was probably good, since this stretch of the race is pretty monotonous.  I pulled over for Gatorade at mile 9, but opted not to eat the gel since the side stitch seemed to be reawakening every time I took in any nutrition.  This may or may not have been the best call, but at the time I figured I could hang on without any problem and refuel post-race.  I don’t remember much about the next few miles, but by 11 I was still holding the 8:15 pace, but starting to feel it.  My legs felt good, but I was working hard and starting to feel a little loopy.  I hadn’t sipped much of the Gatorade at 9 and I was pretty sure the added speed had already burned through what little sugar reserves I had left.

Through the next mile I kept checking the instantaneous pace readout on my Garmin to make sure it stayed below 8:15, but I couldn’t really summon the focus to compute how close I might be to 1:50.  When I passed the aid station for 12 I really wanted to grab a cup, but I was afraid that if I slowed down at all I wouldn’t be able to pull it back together for a fast finish.  I remember having a conversation with myself at one point as to whether I was willing to puke for this, and I decided that I was, if it came to it.  As I charged on I started to feel vaguely detached from my legs, which seemed to be doing a remarkable job of holding pace despite my mental fog.  It was kind of disconcerting, actually, and I tried to think as little as possible that last mile.  The pack around me slowed down a bit as we negotiated a narrow pedestrian ramp, and then we finally made the turn final onto the boardwalk at Coney Island.  I picked up the pace as much as I could for the final push, hampered a bit by fatigue, but mostly by the wet, sandy boardwalk, which was quite slippery.  I ran through the finish line and stopped my watch without looking down until I was clear of the chutes.  1:49:45!  I wouldn’t have wanted to cut it much closer, but there it was!


With a few days perspective, I have the following take-aways:

I am really, really happy with how I ran this race.  I was more nervous than I expected or would have liked, and it led me to slide back into micromanaging my race a bit.  Despite that, I stayed positive, confident, and pretty happy throughout.  I really fought for this one in a way that I haven’t been able to do before.  The sub-1:50 was a huge accomplishment for me, especially given that until last November I hadn’t run sub-2 hours since 2011.  The course was downhill and about as fast as you could get, though, so I’m considering it more of a course record than a PR.

The other major point that I learned on Saturday is that if I’m going to run faster paces, I probably need to consider including more starches and carbs in the week before the race.  Stomach issues aside, I maintain a pretty low carb diet and I clearly did not have enough glycogen in my system to really turn on the jets at the end of this.  I’m planning to reread The Paleo Diet for Athletes to get some ideas on how much and when to incorporate carbs and starches.  I also may start using Generation UCan, which I initially tried a while back but haven’t reordered.  If anyone has any suggestions for “safe” carb-loading, let me know!  This was the last big race of the season for me, and my plan right now is to take the next couple of weeks with reduced mileage to recharge, retool, and get ready for the next bid thing.  Details to follow.

P.S. My 8:23 average split is precisely my BQ pace.  I cannot imagine maintaining that focus and energy for 26.2 miles.  I am totally fantasizing about maintaining that pace for 26.2 miles.

May 16, 2014

Race Prep

I feel like getting number 14,000 is auspicious. Thanks to my PR in the 10K last month, it’s also my first-ever Wave 1 start. I feel like one of the cool kids!


May 14, 2014

Smoked Trout Power Salad

I really don’t have a grand plan for race week nutrition and I generally use it as an opportunity to experiment a bit.  This time around, I’m focusing on quality fats and proteins for most of the week and plan to ramp up the starches and fruit a bit in the last days before the race. 

For lunch, I usually bring a mess of fixin’s for my salads to work on Monday, and then combine as mood dictates.  Today’s creation turned out particularly well, and I thought I’d share.
Smoked Trout Power Salad
4 oz. tin of oil-packed smoked trout
2 small roasted beets, sliced
1/3 cup (or more) roasted butternut squash
3 cups greens of choice
1/8 cup crumbled blue cheese (optional)
2 tbsp. olive oil or dressing of choice
It’s a nice pre-race combo, as it covers the bases for quality fats, protein, and starches, with bonus points for some beet loading. For the greens, I had a half-and-half mix of baby lettuce and spinach, but I think this would also be fantastic on a bed of warm kale. Walnuts would also make a nice addition.   
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May 12, 2014

Taper Panic

Tuesday: Tempo – 5 min warm-up; 3 mi @ race pace (8:29/mi); 5 min cool-down
Wednesday: Easy 3-4 mi
Thursday: Rest
Friday: Rest
Saturday: Brooklyn Half

It’s taper week, otherwise know as the-week-I-have-a-valid-excuse-for-being-cranky-and-irritable.  Like a lot of runners, I have a love-hate relationship with the taper.  Through the final high-intensity training weeks, I find myself counting down the hard workouts remaining until the glorious relief of the taper.  When it finally comes and I am suddenly without the structure and discipline of track repeats, though, I’m immediately uncertain of everything:  “Am I running too fast?  Too long?  Not long enough?  Should I even be running at all today? 12×400’s sound like a good idea…”   

Ultimately, this race is fairly low stress for me, and my goal is to run well and have a smile on my face throughout.  The course for the Brooklyn Half is fast, I know the Prospect Park loop like the back of my hand, and the last five miles are a straight shot to the finish line at a gentle downhill slope.  I’m trying not to think too much about a PR, though, since my pace and strategy will largely depend on the weather on Saturday.  New York has warmed up very quickly this spring, which means that I haven’t had much chance to acclimate yet.  I’m expecting it to be about 20-25 degrees warmer at the start than at the NYC Half in March.  Doing my interval and tempo runs at the gym all winter has definitely helped the transition, but adjusting to the humidity is a further challenge.  Still, I feel like I am as prepared as I can be and I’m looking forward to a fun race on Saturday.
Given that I am chronically under-rested and that I did my runs this weekend a little faster than I meant to, I’ve decided to take a pretty aggressive taper this week and focus on resting and re-energizing for Saturday.  That means not much running, early bed times, and trying to find new and exciting recipes for beets, which inevitably ends in me googling “beet cocktails” in desperation.  Let the tapering begin!
May 8, 2014

Does Your Iced Coffee Have Hidden Sugar?

New York City requires chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, and when I was in Starbucks this week I noticed that their tall (12 oz) iced coffee is listed at 60 calories.  A tall brewed coffee has 10, and I was curious where those 50 extra calories came from.  According to Starbucks’ website, their regular iced coffee is “slightly sweetened,” to the tune of 15g of sugar.  As an alternative, one can order an iced Americano, which is not pre-sweetened, though it will cost you a bit more.  (Interestingly, both Dunkin Donuts and Seattle’s Best do not sweeten their regular brewed iced coffee, although SB does serve something called a “Frozen Birthday Cake Latte.”)

If you prefer to DIY, you can brew your own super-fabulous cold-brew iced coffee, and it couldn’t be easier.  I use a French press, but you can also use a jar and several layers of cheese cloth.  There is a batch of this in my refrigerator pretty much all summer long:

45g high quality coffee, fresh ground if possible

30 oz. cold water aerated water 

Put your ground coffee into the French press (or bundle in cheesecloth), pour in the water, and stir with a wooden spoon until all the coffee is submerged.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.  In the morning, press (or remove the cheese cloth).  If you’re using a French press, I like to pour the coffee off of the grounds and into another container if I’m not going to be using all of it right away.  

Cold brew coffee has much less acid than it’s hot counterpart, the cold process allows the more delicate notes of a good bean to come through.  For an added energy boost, skip the iced latte and instead soften a tablespoon of butter (pastured, please!), a little coconut oil, and blend it on high with a cup of iced coffee. You can add a little half and half or heavy cream if you want a creamier blend, and few dashes of cinnamon or cardamom is always a nice touch.  Throw in a few ice cubes if you want to capture that iced-blended coffee experience, and enjoy all those medium chain triglycerides.  I’ve been drinking a cup of butter coffee before my runs and I definitely feel like I’m getting a nice energy boost without the crash.  


May 7, 2014

Getting Your Head in the Game

To follow up yesterday’s post about finding some positive head space, wanted to add a couple of resources I’ve come across recently.  As I’ve said, I think that more than half the battle is finding a strategy that’s personally meaningful, and that can take some amount of trial and error.  The links below are free resources you can try out for yourself.

This week’s Runner Academy podcast had an interview with Dr. David Asp, who discusses productive goal-setting, impostor syndrome, and aspects of mental preparation.  There is also a  free 25-minute visualization audio by Dr. Asp available for download on the site.

Carrie Cheadle has given several webinars for endurance athletes which are available on YouTube, including this one on the Psychology of Suffering.  She is the author of Top of Your Game, which is in the Kindle Lending Library, and her website has additional free resources and downloads.  I like her goal-setting worksheets in particular.

Good luck!



May 6, 2014

Finding My Way

Tuesday: Intervals – 5x1K @ 7:21 pace

Wednesday: Easy

Thursday: Tempo – 2 mi easy, 3 mi @ 8:04 pace, 1 mi easy

Saturday: Easy

Sunday: Long – 8 mi @ 8:48 pace


Somewhere around mile 8 of my long run on Sunday it occurred to me that I actually respect myself as a runner now.  I wasn’t really sure at the time what that meant exactly, but I knew something had shifted.  It isn’t easy to pin down.  It isn’t about finally being able to run a particular pace, although it has everything to do with the progress I’ve been able to make this year.  It’s not really about dedication and hard work, because I’ve always been committed.  It has a lot to do with PR’s and getting out of my comfort zone this season, but what I would consider the turning point came in a race where I didn’t PR.  What I realized Sunday was not that I had improved my self-image as a runner, but that I had one at all.

I should, of course, know better.  I’ve read a number of sports psychology books over the years, and the model is pretty much the same: We all put perceived limitations on ourselves and it is very difficult, both physically and mentally, to break through those barriers.  The stress response arises when we encounter a situation which requires more than we believe we can deliver.  The cascade of physiological fight or flight responses then ensue, all of which can further interfere with our ability to perform.  For many people (myself included), the realization that this is happening creates further stress and then you’re off on a vicious cycle of stress -> physical symptoms -> poor performance -> additional stress…

The hard part, of course, is breaking the cycle.  I’ve tried visualization, meditation, relaxation, and my old stand-by—reading a ton of books on the subject.  While they were all very pleasant activities, I never felt like I was fundamentally changing the way I thought about things, or what I believed about my abilities.  Self-talk cheerleading is not something I’ve been able to pull off, and I suspect that, like actual cheerleading, the activity only brings out my general sarcasm.
I’ve been trying over the past few days to deconstruct what finally clicked for me, and I think it really comes down to finding something I could actually believe in.  For me, that was the way I was training.  The thing I really love about RLRF (and I promise I’ll do a post soon exclusively on this topic) is that it very clearly maps out each workout to get you to your goal time.  If there’s one thing I do trust, it’s empirical data.  Once I could see my training run paces improving, I could buy into the system, and ultimately, trust myself to deliver.   Basically, if I can do the training runs at the proscribed paces, I have no reason to think that I can’t run the predicted finish time for the race.  
I still have the occasional bad workout, and when I do, they still stick with me longer than I would like.  I continue to worry that if I take too much recovery time between races that I’ll lose my speed and my confidence with it.  I worry that that tendency will lead to injury.  I’m sure that I’ll always be dealing with my confidence and nerves to some extent.  But I do feel like I’m able to enjoy running in a way that I never have before, and I’m actually kind of proud of myself.
May 1, 2014

Embracing the Hard Days

This morning’s tempo run was one of those workouts. It started promisingly enough. When I rolled out of bed at 5:30 and checked my calendar to see what was on the schedule, I thought “Great. 5 mile tempo at 8:19. No problem–I ran a 10K faster than that a few weeks ago.” Visions of flitting daintily over the treadmill while watching Sportscenter danced in my head.

Reality, however, is a cruel and sweaty mistress. Thanks to the incessant rain of the past several days and the warm front that just moved in, the gym had transformed overnight into a hot, humid pain cave. By the time I had finished my warm-up, I knew I was in for a rough time. I was already so sweaty that my Yurbuds kept falling out, which NEVER happens and is kind of the point of Yurbuds. (It also raises the unsettling question of whether the insides of my ears were actually sweating.) .05 miles into the actual tempo portion of the run, the cheeriest thought I could muster was, “Well, I’m 1% of the way there.” Generally when this kind of running math pops into my head, I eventually lose interest, or at least lack the blood sugar to maintain the calculations for long. Today, however, I managed to count up, 1% at a time ( and if you’re playing the home game, that’s every 80 meters), for five miles.

It was hot, sweaty, and physically and emotionally draining, which is really everything a tempo run should be. One of my goals for this training cycle has been to get better at embracing the hard days. I made a deal with myself that I don’t have to like it, but I do have to find the good in what is difficult. The heat, the driving rain, and the days when I’m redlining on the last three intervals all make the workout (and ultimately me) that much better. So there.