Saturday, March 31, 2018

Day 4,108: Atlanta Children's Shelter 5 to Thrive 5K

5 to Thrive 5K: Not my best race.
"We should have fucking gone straight!" I yell to the lead two runners as we are well on our way along the Active Oval, running literally parallel to the finish line.

It's the end of the Atlanta Children's Shelter 5 to Thrive 5K, a race I've run in the last three years and had hopes for getting a new qualifying time for the Peachtree Road Race.

Already there were quirks, which should have been warning signs. First the race was going to be held in the afternoon, at 2:15 p.m. at the hottest time of the day. The last two years the race had been in the morning, the traditional time of races in the park. The weather is usually cooler and there are less people mulling about in the park.

The last time I ran in a non-morning race in Piedmont Park, I ended up off course before correcting and getting my first Master's win.

The next warning sign was they decided to have the same goofy age-group categories as last year, putting me in direct competition with guys in their 30s (typically age groups are five year spans, such as age 45-49). It looked like they were only awarding first place age group winners instead of three deep as last year when I placed third in the race for the hybrid age group but on Athlinks was first in my traditional age group category.

But whatever, I thought. The race is USATF-certified, meaning I can use it as a qualifying time if I run fast enough.

When I got down to the race, it was apparent the race was not going to be the same one as the one that is accurately measured and listed in the USATF archives.

Even then, I wasn't really nonplussed about this, just thinking I would use it as a tempo run and would just try to enjoy my first 5K since the Vinings Downhill 5K last August. I knew I would struggle a little bit but that these kinds of races have been extremely beneficial when run the week before a longer race.

When the race started, I intentionally told myself to hold back ... way back. I mainly accomplished this goal, even though I fell behind quite a few people. My first mile was 6:59 as we made our way down and around the splash pad in the northern part of the park.

I knew I was slowing after this, putting up a 7:22 mile as we rounded the bowl in the southeastern part of the park. Still I felt pretty good, as I passed a few guys that had been ahead of me or passed me earlier and was running behind a teenage girl as the course made its way back up the hill behind the tennis courts.

As the hill reached the top of the Active Oval, two guys who had been in the lead came up and ran by us. I wasn't sure where they came from but I think they had somehow been told to run down in between the Active Oval and the pavilion where the finish is and then been told to rejoin the course.

I passed the girl and was running behind the two leaders with the final turn toward the finish on the path that goes by Lake Clara Meer just before us when the leaders turned into the Active Oval. There were children's shelter signs with arrows pointing this way and as I turned I didn't see any signs on the path where the final turn was.

I followed the guys and then it dawned on me as I ran on the gravel of the oval we were way off course. I followed the leader up around the Active Oval, and out down toward the finish in between the tennis courts and the oval. My watch showed 3.1 miles on this path at about 22:44 for me. I ran Mile 3 in 7:34.

By this time I knew everything was screwed up. I could see runners crossing the finish from the proper way. I made my way around to the finish and maybe was 7th with a time of 23:44.

I'm not sure whether we three runners were officially disqualified as I left immediately after the race feeling it was pointless to stick around when I likely did not even win the age group. I took it in stride as this really was just a community fun run for a good cause instead of the Olympics. It happens, right? But not too often, since this is the first time in 30 years of running that I have ended up off course in a way that was not correctable.

It's too bad it happened, though and I'm really unlikely to run in this race in the future, especially since the design of the park always gets in my head somehow and I run 5Ks here in the 22:30 range, maybe about a minute slower than what I'm probably capable of.

Still, I could tell I was way out of 5K shape, I tried to take things too easily and not aggressive enough. While my Vaporfly shoes probably gave me a cruising cushion to run with, I felt like they were too soft and not responsive when I really thought I should be running harder.

Time: 2:15 p.m.
Temp: 64 degrees
Gear: Technical T-shirt, short (Big Peach Sizzler 10K), shorts, Nike Vaporfly 4 percent.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Day 4,080: Snickers Marathon (PR)

I ran the 2016 Bank of America Chicago Marathon with a stress fracture and while I came within 2 minutes of setting a personal record in that race, I'd always thought it was not a fair fight.

Four weeks leading up to that race, my training came to a standstill. I couldn't run with any intensity and I didn't know why I couldn't accelerate. I knew I would want another chance at the marathon distance.

I'd had the Snickers Marathon in Albany, Ga. (about three hours south, southwest of Atlanta) on my radar since last year. It's known as one of the top Boston Marathon qualifiers because of its generally flat course. When I learned last November that I'd been picked to run in the BMW Berlin Marathon I knew I wanted to run in a spring marathon to set the stage for that race.

From November I carefully planned out my mileage, using Hansons Marathon Method as the template, and carefully built my training up to avoid any chance of injury. My training was pretty lackluster, until in January when I did an 18-mile run on a park loop outside Las Vegas. At that point, everything clicked. It was like a sports team that finally galvanized after a win on the road.

For the next seven weeks or so, I was crushing workouts -- 10 mile tempo runs at a 7:40/mile pace, 6-mile strength intervals at 7:30/mile or better. I entered this marathon with a high level of confidence.

It was pretty easy to get to Albany, once I got out of Friday's rush hour traffic in metro Atlanta. The race expo keeps its doors open until 9 p.m. (maybe for Atlanta participants who travel after work?) and I easily got my race bib -- and a bunch of Snickers bars as per the race sponsor -- and settled into my hotel. The hotel offered a free late checkout of 1 p.m. race day and even opened their complimentary breakfast at 5 a.m. so marathoners could get a bite to eat before heading out.

Race morning it was pretty cold out -- my Garmin has 36 degrees as the official temperature. There was plenty of parking in the civic center lot (where the expo was) and while I didn't exactly know where the start line was, I just followed everyone else there. I did about a half-mile warmup, mainly to find a spot in the woods before the race began.

I shed my layers (long sleeve shirt, arm warmers and a visor) and was a little slow to the corral and was in the 8:12/mile pace group. Up ahead was my goal, the 7:50/mile pace group.

Although I'd trained for this race at a 7:40/mile pace which is the pace for a finish of 3:21 or so (my age group standard for the Boston Marathon is 3:25), for some reason there was not a 3:20 pacing group, the lowest was 3:25. I'd previously talked to my friend Anna who was doing this race and she was planning to be in the 3:35 pace group that I was currently standing in before the race started. I didn't mention my ambitious plan to be in the 3:25 group but instead ran up to that group after the race started.

Since the 3:25 pace group existed (and the 3:20 one did not) I decided to run in that group because a 3:25 marathon time would qualify me for Boston (although probably still not fast enough to run in the race because of the sheer number of qualified runners who do apply) and would give me guaranteed entry into the Chicago Marathon. I also felt like it would give me a little physical cushion for a time that I'd never before tried to do.

The race started and a bunch of us were off in the pace group. I'd never run in a pace group before simply because many times the pacers were too fast for me (I have many memories of seeing the group slowly fade away in the distance from me). This time it was pretty exhilarating. A bunch of us were all running with the pacer, who was a 2:50-ish marathoner, all in time. We did a bunch of surges depending on how close we needed to be to our mile pace.

Sometimes I felt like it was too fast and I tried to slow a little. I probably should have slowed more, but was relieved when I made my way back to the pack. One thing was sure though -- I was not confident I could maintain this 7:50/mile pace on my own. To get separated from this pack would be death.

We crossed the race's first official timing mat at 10 miles. Timing mats give you an idea of how you are doing and also serve to prevent anyone from cutting the course to get an ill-gained race time. I crossed in 1:18:05, which gave me a four-minute PR for that distance, one that I was unsuccessful in breaking last fall in the Army Ten Miler and the Atlanta 10-Miler.

At the half marathon mat, I felt like we had increased our pace a little. It felt a little harder to keep up but I still felt like I was doing well. Maybe around Mile 15 I felt a slight warning -- a small tinge in my right calf. In the next mile, a few things happened that I think set me up for doom.

I was wearing a set of wireless headphones and had my iPod clipped to my shorts waistband. We were at this point running in a residential area and up to Mile 16 the headphones cut out three times. Each time I would have to pull my right hand up to my ear and hold down the part of the headphones to turn it back on. It would have to re-establish its connection to the iPod and I would also have to play the track before trying to tuck it in my waistband.

Each time I did this I would lose a few seconds from the pack. The first two times I caught up with not much effort, but the third time my right calf started to cramp and I knew my goal of a 3:25 marathon would be over.

At this point I reached into my hip pouch and pulled out a bottle of what's marketed as "Pickle Juice." It basically serves to help alleviate pain from cramps. I'd never tried it before and popped open the top and drank it. It basically was pickle juice. Drinking it reminded me of the drink in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster -- and that's what I called it the rest of the race.

I only had two bottles with me -- I threw them in my pouch almost as an oversight, since I'd run 18 miles, then 20 miles and 17 miles up to three weeks before this race with no calf pain. At Mile 16, I had to stop when the last remaining bottle popped out of my pouch onto the street. Then my iPod fell on the ground. The pack was nearly out of sight now. I will never wear headphones in a marathon again.

I've never run a marathon without calf cramps and I should have known better. But one thing for sure is that when you have had as many bad races as I have, you know better than to just give up. I trotted along, each time surprised that my watch hadn't shown double-digit split times. Sure, my time had gone up but not by too much. Mile 17 was 8:13. Mile 18 was actually under 8 minutes and I wondered if I could continue this pace with my calves playing ping-pong with each other.

At Mile 19 I ran 8:32 and I was just trying to get to Mile 20 to eat the fifth of the six gels that I carried with me. I continued on until Mile 21, when I decided to use my last pickle juice. People were passing me, in ones and twos and I knew at some point my friend Anna and her 8:12/mile pace would too. I prepared for this by thinking I would say "You're doing great -- I'm still going to get a PR." At one point, a guy in a small group of spectators at the side of the road said aloud, "That guy isn't doing too well." (Anna's friend later mentioned the same thing to me when he saw me crossing the finish).

Through Mile 24 I plodded along and wanted to just drop out of the race, although I still wasn't seeing double-digit split times. I mentally broke down the remaining distance at this point in two-mile segments, much as I did in November when I ran a very slow Rock'n'Roll Savannah Half Marathon (in 1:56). Just get to this mile and the next two miles will be crucial.

Unlike in the Chicago Marathon when the whole crowd around me started to speed up at Mile 25, there was really no one to do so. I knew that at this point I could walk and still get a PR as long as my last mile was under 30 minutes. I really wanted to drop out at this point but remembered the sections from Alex Hutchinson's book Endure about human endurance and thought, "Why in the world would my brain want me to drop out of the race when I'm so close to finishing it?"

And so I plodded along, my split now dropping to 10:25 for that mile and finally 10:57 for Mile 26. At the end you run through an archway into a park and can see the Mile 26 sign, followed by the 13 Mile sign for the half marathon.

At this point I knew there was just a tenth of a mile left, but I really didn't have any speed in me (I finished the remaining tenths of the mile at a 9:42 pace). There was a timing clock at the slight turn before the finish and I could make out the seconds ticking. I'd thought that I was probably running at a 3:44 pace but it turned out the clock was still on 3:40. (Had I known that I was close to running a 3:39, I might have run faster but I didn't know and thus didn't care).

I finished with a 17-minute PR despite the calf cramps. It was a relief to be done and after the finish I stood for a second, not knowing whether to backtrack to the medical tent or to just get a draft beer (I chose the beer but I just didn't feel in regular health at that point).

Later, I saw my friend Anna after the finish. She finished in 3:43 and I thought about that whole section of the race where I just knew she was going to pass me. In the parking lot, a lanky guy asked if I ran in the 3:25 group. I told him my predicament and he mentioned that he was one of the last people who ran with the pacer but in the end, the pacer was the only one to run 3:25. The cool weather was near-perfect but many people ended up a little slower than they'd planned.

It was an amazing day, such a nice community event where all the organizers and volunteers were extremely friendly and helpful. Because of the calf cramps, I went through a range of thoughts on whether I should do another marathon again but I have an idea now why they've happened to me in every marathon I've raced, whether I've tried to run fast, too fast, or slow.

I came back home happy and refreshed. I didn't get the PR that I wanted but was super pleased with the result. After the 2016 Chicago Marathon it took me months to determine if I ever wanted to run in another marathon again ("I don't think this is my distance," I told my wife). I delayed for so long that I missed the October application period that year to run in the 2017 race.

This time around, I set another running-related record -- it only took me a day before thinking, yeah I want to run in another marathon again.

Time: 7 a.m.
Temp: 36 degrees
Gear: Techncial T-shirt, short (Nuun Pactimo 2018), Mizuno shorts, cep compression calf sleeves, Nike Vaporfly 4 percent.