Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Santa Rosa Marathon - August 25, 2013 - A Boston Qualifier

For most part of my running from 2010-12; I did not have the sense of what I could do in running. I struggled with injuries, get disheartened when I did not see much improvements after two years, and all my runs would be just workouts. There was little fun, apart from fleeting feeling of accomplishment about finishing/surviving Half Marathons or Full Marathon.. When I met Jim, my running guide in tail end of 2012; one of the things, he told me that all your runs should not be workouts. I could not understand what he meant by that, and did not ask to clarify. Running IS like doing a workout !! Probably the hardest thing, I ever did physically and mentally. Well, after a good workout, you were supposed to feel tired and muscle should be aching, and later recover to get stronger. That was what I thought.

When he told me about easy aerobic running and through many discussions, I realized that most of the runs should be easy and fun; and two workouts, at most, per week were more than enough for Master runners. Whenever in doubt, go easy, and it still helped me with overall endurance and speed. Well, this theory was further confirmed by most of the books I read on running, later. I had great year after embracing this paradigm, with 80% - 90% of mileage as easy run. I got injured couple of times, but kept running easy and slow, let go of the workout runs during recovery. In the process, not only I improved my endurance but the race pace for every distance from 1 mile to Marathon; and more importantly - I started enjoying my runs.

I broke 20 minutes in 5 K and soon after 1:30 minutes in Half Marathon; and now I had Boston Qualifying
time in Santa Rosa Marathon, finishing it in 3:23:27. All these three achievements were not even my dreams at start of the year; let alone the goals. After witnessing initial improvements, with in two months of changing my training, I just focused on process.   I never gave importance to a single event/race; as long as I was following this training and improving over a period of time, that was all that mattered. Jim mentioned that it takes around 10 years to reach your peak; initial gains might be big. Well, that was correct, and 'big' was relative term.

I brought my 5 K from 22:30 to 21:25 to 20:45 and finally to 19:27 in last 10 months; Half Marathon from 1:47:01 to 1:35:00 in Feb 2013, and then to 1:29:10 in August 2013. Before running these PRs, I did not have the confidence that I could even achieve these. It was Jim (and sometime Ken) who had to tell me that I could do that, and then I went ahead and did those, with that belief. Part of it was I raced poorly before, went too fast early (I still do that lot of time) and I raced less. Besides, mentally it was still difficult to believe that all the slow/easy running had been helping me.

 At start of year, I just had one goal, to run a Marathon under 4 hours. My last best, which was in 2012, was 4:11:13. Running Half Marathon under 90 minutes, opened up my eyes to dream about running Marathon under 3:25, a Boston Qualifying time for me.  I had traumatic experiences from last two marathons, where I crashed and cramped, and had to walk a lot in later part of the race.

Well, that did not change here either. Though I mentioned earlier that I did not give importance to one event, and tried to run my best in races, whatever best race I could do on that day; clearly that was not true for the Marathon. I still remember, vividly, nightmares from my first Marathon. And variation of those were back now, after I decided that I would run Santa Rosa Marathon 4 weeks ago.

In one nightmare, I was driving to Marathon, and wearing my office dress; changed quickly, and did a bag check. I was rushing to starting line, as race was starting soon in 5 minutes. When I looked down at my legs, I was still wearing office pants and I had one dress shoe and one running shoe on. I panicked and ran back to get my checked bag; but it was already moved to a different location; I ran to other location; and tried to talk urgently to people. However, they were discussing something about the race, i.e., that timing chip equipment was not working so they were going by gun time for this race. I had been sweating already, without taking a single step in the race. Finally, somebody heard me, they could not locate my checked bag. I was thinking to run in my underwear, trying to remember, if I have a cleaned one, but shoe conundrum had to be resolved; I was not thinking of running barefoot. I heard the gun, another 5 minutes went by, I was sweating much more and trying to remain calm. I was doing mental calculations, as how long could I wait before I give up Boston Qualifying dream in this race, may be another 10 minutes. 15 minutes passes and I woke up; drenched in sweat.

Registration to Santa Rosa Marathon did not prove easy either. This was the only local California Boston Qualifier after June and before December. I was not ready in June. Though my weekly mileage was up, I did not have over 16 miler in my long run. I decided to do 19 miler, it went very well, without much water. And then I called Santa Rosa Marathon to find out what Gatorade were they providing on water station during the race. Following weekend, I did another 19 miler, sipping on that Gatorade, making sure it worked for me. However, after that, when I went to register, it was already sold out. SOLD out for more than 6 weeks in advance !! Who are all these crazy people ? I tried to find other Marathons around this time frame, I could not. The reason I wanted to run, as I was injury free and running well for last 2 and half months. Generally, a good training period of 3 months, followed with 2-3 weeks of racing (small races) hard or running just one Half or full Marathon, end the running season; as your body needs some breather. With injury scare always at horizon, it was hard to fit in a Marathon in schedule.

Anyway, I sent them email that if something opens up, I was really interested in the Marathon; and forgot about it. After two weeks their reply came, that they opened up for registration as lot of other runners approached them with similar requests. Now there was no holding back; I was relatively confident that I would be able to run under 4 hours for Marathon. With that in mind, I register for Half Marathon on August 3, just three weeks before the Marathon, to see where it would land me on time charts for full marathon. That Half Marathon proved to be another dramatic event for me, and while running on sore calf, I promised that if I could just do sub -7  for whole race, I would not worry about the Marathon. I did achieve that goal; and with nothing more to lose, I tried to recover soon from that all-out effort. This was practically a three week taper; only thing which was missing from my training was one long continuous run 2 or 3 week before Marathon. My last 19 miler was 6 weeks ago from Marathon date. Well, not ideal training, but nothing much could be done now.

My sub-90 minutes Half Marathon was putting my ideal Marathon time at 3:10. So I thought, 3:20 would be good goal to achieve to account for weakened calf, lack of long run and hard HM three weeks ago. While checking on pacer information, there were 3, 3:15 and 3:25 pacers. Further checking race course and reading about it, it did not appear to be fast as it had been advertised. It has lots of ups and downs; as with life. Nothing much could be done here, just take this information and process it to adjust your pace.

I called to book hotel in Santa Rosa, and all the hotels in 10 mile radius were sold out. This might be when frequency of nightmares increased. I thought I would just have to drive on the day of the race. Race started at 6 AM and Santa Rosa was 2 hours away, meaning I had to wake up at 2 AM, eat something, and start driving little before 3 AM. Promila and Prem liked Santa Rosa, we had been there multiple times, to check on Charles Schulz Museum, Whole Foods. Promila liked the place, and was disappointed when she came to know that there was no hotel available. She tried, but of no help.

A day before the race, on Saturday, when I had to pick up the bib, Promila called in to find out if there were last minutes cancellations, and she got denied again; and just 5 minutes before we were leaving, she called again, and this time she got the reservation. As luck would have it, hotel was 0.5 mile away from the race start, and part of the race went through a trail which passed through the hotel. This put my mind at somewhat ease, I could sleep in for two hours more; and all the anxiety (which consciously I was not admitting) to reach at starting line melted away. Bib pick up was at beautiful DeLoach Winery. We took the tour of winery, all the runners got wine bottle. Though it was beautiful set up, I was looking at the road on which we came from, it was rolling hills. I knew this was where part of the race would be happening. I told myself, just go slow (how much slow ? relative ?) tomorrow. We took tour of winery, and where they kept barrels for wine tasting; everything looked picture perfect.

At dinner, I ate as much as I could but all healthy stuff  at Whole Foods and you would be surprised to know how much a thin runner could eat  - one Julliard vegetarian Sandwich (this was the name of park where the race started), followed by Taco salad which was topped with Spanish rice, fajita vegetables, black beans, guacamole and salsa. After finishing that, I cleaned up pizza crust and crumbs left by Prem.  We checked into hotel. We walked to start of the race, and I was further bummed to see the trail was all concrete on which we walked. I knew there was around 14 miles of that trail on the race course, and was hoping that not all of it would be concrete, as it was going to be much harder on legs. I saw two under passes with in half a mile, another sign to go as slow as possible in beginning, to save legs from all ups and downs.

Set up the alarm to wake up at 5 AM, however, kept waking up to check on it, multiple times; finally decided to wake up at 4:30 AM. Drank whatever was available in room, coconut water, water; tried to clear bowel; not much success. Finally left the room 20 minutes before the race; my throat felt extremely dry; could be the nerves; came back to room and drank another glass of water.

Jogged to the start of line in dark, and saw lot of sleeping bags on the trail. Note to self - It seemed that some of the runners, just came in night, parked and slept around the trail - good strategy. I found 3:15 pacer group; was surprised to see over 300 runners standing ahead of him. I thought that crowd would thin out after a mile or so. Ate a packet of GU Chomps; which I had tried earlier in one long run. Pacer was instructing everybody that apart from first mile, he would try to keep even splits; people can take water breaks in between and catch up with him.

My sub-90 minute Half Marathon was indicating 3:10 as my ideal Marathon. From past marathon scars, ups and downs on the current course; barely any long consistent run in last 5 week of training, weak left calf; I wanted to go super conservative. My Boston Qualifying times were 3:25; and I was thinking of doing 3:20 to account for last mile cramping etc. Not much of a wiggle room. Ken and Jim knew my problems with pacing and going too fast in beginning. So they drilled down into me; stay very slow for first 3-5 miles. To me, it translated into stay slower than 7:15 pace (which is 3:10 for whole Marathon) and I would be OK. You hear what you want to hear.

I stayed behind the 3:15 pace group; there were around 40 people in that group. And the crowd did not thin out at all for 4 miles. This was when I ran into Neil, a veteran from West Valley club. He ran an excellent HM on August 3 with me, and I was not surprised to see he was running ahead of me. I asked him what was he planning to do today; he told me that he wanted to keep under 4 hours. :-)

I could feel the moisture in the air, though pace felt like a jog to me, I had started sweating. My strategy for hydrating and calories intake was to ingest Gatorade at every aid station. I tried to do it first while running, and could not drink it while running. After first couple of aid stations, I would just stop, drink and move. Since pace seemed slow to me, I was easily able to catch up with the pace group. Day was breaking out, and sky was turning crimson red over DeLoach vineyard. I was enjoying the run and scenery. Race path went through the winery and then INSIDE through the wine cellar where I came yesterday to pick up the wine !!! One could literally pick up grapes as snack on the run or drink wine from the barrels. I completed half distance exactly at 1:37:31. At the time, I thought, I could run at this pace forever.

Ups and downs had been taking toll on my legs, but it was hard to judge if I would go all the way at that pace. Passed 18 miles, and told myself, now this was just like my 8 miles easy daily run. I felt no energy depletion, all the sugar in Gatorade was working for me. Well, that was not be the case, just before I cross the mile 19, I felt my first cramp; while going down on one of the rolling hills.

I had to walk a bit to break it, but still had a long way to go. There is some truth to the saying, 2nd Half of Marathon starts at 20 miles. After that, both my calves and hamstrings would cramp, I knew I was hydrated well; may be TOO WELL. I felt some nausea from all the Gatorade I drank, I switched to water; could not run even quarter of a mile before stopping. Walked on my heels, since I run on balls of my feet; to give my running muscles rest. My running form deteriorated, and uneven surface of trail and ups and downs; were not helping me keeping a rhythm. It was now a matter of survival. Surprisingly, there were lot of runners around me, who were doing the same dance. 3:25 goal was in danger; so just did some quick calculations, and told myself, if I could 10 min a mile for last 3 miles, I would be fine. However, there was no control on cramps/muscle spasms.

Carefully looked ahead, and tried to run all straight portion, and walk the underpasses and water stations; this strategy helped keeping mind calm. Ate banana and a gel, weather was still not hot; finally saw the finish line in sight, and ran the whole way, as fast as I could to barely make it under 3:24. Though I crashed in this race at mile 19, I liked the feeling of comfort till then and enjoyed the race. My neck, stomach, and legs were cramping. Joined Promila and Prem at finish line, tried to walk around; and drink/eat as much as I could, watermelon, oranges, coconut water; followed by Pancakes. Race coordinators had done tremendous job. Pancakes with real butter calmed me down, followed by beer and french fries. Prem asked me, if red thing on my white shirt was blood; it took me some time to acknowledge that my nipples might have bled.

Surprised to see email from Ken who knew my chip time before I did, and congratulated me. Replied back to him and Jim; who was waiting for results of this race. Both of them knew that this was a big long term goal for me, and had been guiding me and sharing their experiences. It was another matter, how much of it I was following. Their words were great help in having the self belief that it was doable. As expected, Jim scolded and mocked me for going too fast in beginning and not sticking to 7:40 pace as discussed; while admitting that he had done the same in half of his Marathons; and understood how difficult to implement the pace strategy; and good thing was that I was still able to finish under 3:25.

My mile splits were  8:04, 7:32, 7:24, 7:06, 7:09, 7:18, 7:20, 7:22, 7:21, 7:12, 7:16, 7:20, 7:25, 7:19, 7:13, 7:15, 7:21, 7:16, 7:25 (19 th mile), 7:50, 7:55, 8:38, 8:59, 8:51, 9:05, 9:21, 8:18 (last .39). My average pace for whole Marathon 7:46. 

After driving back home, I took shower to get ready for a Birthday Party. I sprayed deodorant over my shirt to kill any residual sweat smell, and it hurt like hell as I forgot all about my bleeding nipples. I could finally say that it took lot of sweat, some blood and few tears to accomplish Boston Qualifying time.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Summer Breeze Half Marathon in San Leandro - August 3, 2013

Another very satisfying race for me for multiple reasons.

One of the directors, I used to report into, retired on August 2. She had her best Half Marathon at 6:57 min/mile pace. When she told me this 3 years ago, I could not even run 1 mile at sub-7 pace. So at the time, this was not even my goal. She ran 5 HM, so I thought, I could probably do that. And that was that. However, at times, I used to think, how it would feel like to run that fast, for whole Half Marathon ! Now I know, extremely painful, after completing it in 1:29:10 @ 6:49 pace. Trip to rest room are a major hurdle; anything I do, which require flexing calf, is huge pain.

I almost did not register for this race as I was thinking of running Marathon on August 24. Last Sunday, during my long run, which was one of my key work out, I pulled my calf muscle 12 miles into the run. Harder part of the run was over (which was running tempo intervals sub 7 pace). Had to make up my mind whether I should run another 3 miles or walk. Then I thought, that in most of my races, over 10 miles, I always have some similar issue, and I should learn to run in pain. This could have led into major injury, as a runner, you want to avoid that at all cost. But such opportunities, to running on pulled muscle, comes rarely. Ummmm...what to do ?

Hoping that it would not become major injury, started running along with my running partner and guide Jim, I thought it would be a good recovery pace, since both of us ran a good 5 K previous day. Boy, I was wrong. Jim did not know about my pulled left calf muscle, and decided to speed up last 3 miles. Well, while keeping up with him, my body and mind were learning to run in discomfort. This sure came handy on race day.

Yes, about 5 K, a day before my fateful long run (July 27), I had 19:27; another PR on track; and a week before that, I ran my first mile race, so that was an easy PR. Since I read 'Once a runner'; I wanted to run a mile; and was very satisfied with 5:33. These two results were very satisfying, since my training was more gear towards Half and Full Marathon distance; and practically, had no VO2 max intervals or intervals of shorter distance than 1200 m. All the slow aerobic running was making it happen, so far.

I read another 6 running books in last 3 months. And discussing with Jim, it was clear, to avoid injury at all costs (means do not try to be hero in training runs to go fast); run lot of slow mileage for at least a year; save yourself for key race. In that regard the 5 K and miler were not key races for me, and it was very pleasing to see those times. Key is keep running, get 2-3 months of consistent good mileage. For last 3 months, I am averaging over 9 miles per day. My training has just two intervals at tempo pace (HM pace), no VO2 max intervals so far. This is to build a good strong base for a key race. As with anything, in running too, you want to peak during your key races. Generally, strategy was to have good training of 3-4 months, followed by key race - either multiple shorter races of 1 mile/5 K/10 K over 1-3 weeks OR single HM or full Marathon. And after that you slow down, recuperate, and decide for another 3-4 months period.

Coming back to pulled calf last Sunday, I did not do any intervals, during the week, which is not ideal for a key race. However, one has to adapt, based on where you are. I was not sure whether I should register for the race or not. Left calf was sore, and so through out the week, I kept testing it with slow running of around 8 min pace. Promila made Quinoa and Garbanzo beans, so I was eating them, hoping that would help. I thought it did.  I was holding up well, and on Thursday, I register for the race; thinking if calf bother me during the run, I can just jog along for rest of the race and would have my mileage in.

While driving with Jim, who was little disappointed with my last Half Marathon at 1:35:04, he implicitly told me that you better do 1:31 or 1:32, otherwise those weekend work outs, you were just running them too fast. For me, I still did not have confidence, that running 2 miles X 3 (total of 6 miles with break of 2 minutes between each interval at 6:55 pace) could result in 13.1 mile at the same pace. I mentioned, that I had to watch out the calf pull and soreness and reminded him 'avoid injury at all costs' mantra. Jim had a good week and was running well. He is probably the most efficient runner I know, barely lifting his feet, and still ran 1:40 HM.

My major issue with all my races, is that I go in too fast, and lose it in the end. Last 5 K I ran, I was 6:08 pace for two miles and then averaged 6:16. It could be that I have lack of mental toughness to keep the same pace through out or I just have to pace slower in beginning. This is very common for people who race less, with more race experiences, I am hoping to get it right. Even for a mile run, my first lap was 80 seconds.

With injury scare of calf, I was determined that this time I would go slow in beginning. My training runs and recent 5 K times, were indicating that my best pace could be 6:55 pace on this course (gravel for around 9 miles). I set up my watch to show me average pace for whole run and average pace for the mile I was running. I focused only on my form and would look at the watch for only average pace of current mile, mentally that was easy to control than the whole course average pace.

Half mile into race, I looked at average pace, I was doing 6:25 pace; had to slow down to keep it just under 7. First mile still was 6:35, 2nd 6:41. I thought may be it was downhill a bit. And then my left calf muscle pulled. I had to decide quickly, while I slowed down, as what to do, i.e. to pull out of race or just jog along. I told myself, if I do 6 miles today, that would be my regular quality work out for the weekend. Also I tried to think what Yiannis Kouros would do. He is the best Ultrarunner for all time, who ran over 7 marathons in less than 24 hours, on little training; and it is all mind over matter for him. His records, as per other great ultra runners, probably could not be broken. I had to get his heroics out of my mind as they were conflicting with 'avoid injury at all costs' mantra. 3rd mile was at 7:06. Seemed like, today was not going to work out.

This was when I moved into gravel which seemed much easier on calf then the tar road. So kept running,  just had a small goal of completing 6 miles at sub 7 pace. Looks like mind was fine with this goal, next three miles were just barely under 7 min pace. Turned around at half way; and just focused on one mile at a time from then on, and to keep pace under 7. Whenever, I would see the 7 min average pace, I would try to speed up little bit, telling myself, that it is just for a mile, and I could just stop after that. Games we play, thought about the record of my director, was probably not going to happen today.

About 10 miles, I hit the tar road, and left calf was screaming again. Looked at overall time for first time in the watch, 68 minutes and some change. Gave myself pat on the back to break 70 minutes first time for a 10 mile run. Then told myself, if I kept another 3 miles sub 7, this pain would be worth the injury and I would not think of Marathon at end of the month. As per Jim, breaking 1:30 in Half Marathon is much tougher than running Marathon under 3:25. Couple of runners past me, and I looked at my watch, I was still doing average pace for 1 mile lap for less than 7 min. Ran into Meenal and Kids who were running 10 K. Meenal was encouraging one of the twins who seemed frozen at that time. Sumeet ran a good race at 2:17 which was a PR for him.

Did not try to dig in in last 400 yards, and finished the race with last mile at 6:55 pace. I was very happy to
see that and did not know my overall time, I knew most of my miles were sub 7. Could not walk straight after that, muscles were so sore that I could not think of stretching or anything. Drank muscle milk, ate an ice cream and some other junk immediately after the run. Limping around, when Jim (67 year old) came in at 1:40; and Neil showed up who ran 1:35 (62 year old). These two are from running club I go some times. Both seemed extremely happy with their times. Neil knew about my times in the race, it was good to see that he was happy for me. He has the reputation of very tough runner and not giving an inch, if you are neck to neck with him in a race. Jim did not expect me to break 1:30 on this race and he knew about my calf issue. I was 3rd in my age category.

It was perfect day for running, temperatures in 50s and Summer Breeze from Pacific Ocean was drying the sweats from runners. This is my 2nd race with Brazen Race organizer group. They do a great job in selecting the flat trail, chip time, posting result on internet, free photos, and really good food in the end.

It feels like good end for the running season for me, i.e., 3-4 months of hard training, followed by miler at 5:33, 5 K at 19:27 and key HM at 1:29:10 over last 3 weeks; learnt something about mental toughness. May be time to slow down and recover, and may be run something at end of the year or early next year.