Tuesday, May 31, 2016

I Can See the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Until recently, I had serious doubts about whether I could qualify for next year’s Boston Marathon.  I was making progress with my physical therapy, but it was slow.  Likewise, I was making progress on getting back in shape, but the emphasis was on being able to finish a marathon.  I couldn’t even run one mile at the pace I would need to run a 3:40 marathon.

I could feel good about the progress I was making, but I was running out of time.  Registration for Boston will open in September, and it will probably fill during the first two weeks.  That means I have to have a qualifying time by the middle of September.  Actually, I need to run a few minutes faster to actually get into the race.  Boston registration is usually over-subscribed, and priority goes to the runners with the best qualifying times.

I was encouraged by my time in the Prague Marathon.  It was 15 minutes faster than my time in Boston three weeks earlier.  Of course, two points are not enough to establish a trend.  I had three more weeks until the Med City Marathon.  If I could shave off another 15 minutes, that would be a good sign.

Between those two races, I had some encouraging training runs.  In treadmill workouts, I managed to run a mile and then two miles at my old marathon pace.  There’s a big difference between two miles and a marathon, but these were steps in the right direction.  I also started feeling more power on my outdoor runs.  I could finally accelerate going up a hill.  I could even push hard on every hill in a 10 mile run.  Overall, my pace was pretty slow, but I could feel the difference.  I felt like I was really running, instead of shuffling along slowly with an awkward gait.  I could tell I was utilizing more muscle groups, which has been the whole point of my PT.

My recent progress in PT has also been encouraging.  I can finally do exercises I couldn’t do a month ago.  At first, I couldn’t do any exercise that involved standing on one leg.  Eventually, I could do single leg deadlifts and single leg quarter squats, but I had still trouble maintaining my posture.  After doing side planks to strengthen my obliques, I’m finally seeing improvement in my posture.

The last time I saw my therapist, he commented that he was pleased with my recent improvement.  He also said there was still a lot I could do to build strength in my core muscles.  I expect PT will be an important part of my overall training for at least a few more months.

Lately, I’ve been taking things one race at a time.  Because so many muscles were still weak, I wasn’t sure how much my legs could handle.  Ideally, I wanted to run marathons every two to three weeks, but I wanted to see how I felt after one race before scheduling the next one.  I penciled in a few races that I could schedule on short notice.  They had to be close enough to home that I could drive.  They also had to be races that don’t fill too far in advance.

For late summer races, however, I had to make a choice.  In late August and early September, there are two Minnesota races I’ve never done.  Unfortunately, they’re both trail races, so they weren’t suitable as qualifying races.  Likewise, there are some interesting international races during that timeframe, but if I tried to qualify for Boston on another continent, I’d have to contend with jet lag.  I’ve done it successfully before, but this year I can’t afford to handicap myself.

I’ve seen enough progress recently to believe I have a realistic chance of qualifying for Boston.  I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  I know I’ll get there.  It’s just a question of whether I can get there in time.  Accordingly, I picked out two races with fast courses where I can attempt to qualify.  The first is the Super Tunnel Marathon in late August.  This race is run on the same course as the Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon, which I ran two years ago.  The course has a gentle downhill grade almost all the way.  If it’s not too hot, I can make a serious attempt there.

The second race is the Big Cottonwood Marathon in September.  This race is sharply downhill.  It’s similar to the Rockies Marathon, which I’ve run twice.  I know from experience that this type of elevation profile can be blazing fast if you’re prepared, but it can also be punishing if you’re not.

I discussed these races with my physical therapist.  He wasn’t concerned that it would be too hard on my legs.  He liked the idea of using Super Tunnel to help prepare myself for Big Cottonwood.

I don’t like the idea of using a downhill race to qualify.  I used to be able to qualify for Boston on any course that wasn’t unusually difficult.  Ideally, I’d like to be able to qualify on a loop course.  This is a compromise.  This year I’ll try to qualify on a downhill course.  Then I’ll keep working to get into better shape so I can qualify on a loop course next year.

My result at the Med City Marathon was a big confidence builder.  My goal was to improve my time by 15 minutes.  Instead, I improved by 34 minutes!  In the last six weeks, I’ve taken 49 minutes off my marathon time.  To get into Boston, I’ll probably need a time of 3:37 or better.  That gives me 15 weeks to take another 43 minutes off my marathon time.

While I’ve made good progress so far, continued improvement will get more difficult.  Besides my PT, I’ll need to improve my training.  Lately, I’ve only been running 20-30 miles per week.  I need to ramp that up.  I need to do some real speed work, not just running a few miles at race pace.  Finally, it wouldn’t hurt to lose some weight.  I’ve gained about 10 pounds in the last year.  That’s probably costing me 15-20 minutes in a marathon.  I could really use those 15-20 minutes.

I know I can do it, put I have to put it all together.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Race Report: 2016 Med City Marathon

This morning, I ran the Med City Marathon in Rochester, MN.  I attempted this race a year ago, but had to drop out halfway through the race.  That was my first race after a groin strain, and I was starting to experience pain.

A year later, I’m healed from last year’s injuries, but I’m still working to strengthen weak muscles and regain my form.  I chose to return to this race for two reasons.  First, I wanted to redeem myself for last year’s DNF.  Also, this was one of six Minnesota marathons that I had never finished, and I wanted to finally cross it off my list.  Nothing, however, is easy these days.

You know how major appliances have a way of breaking right after the warranty expires?  I think my warranty expired a year ago.  Since then, everything seems to be breaking.  My legs are improving, and I’ve had some encouraging training runs, but my latest problem is a stiff neck.

I didn’t sleep well Wednesday or Thursday nights.  When I don’t sleep well, I toss and turn, and I end up sleeping in awkward positions.  Sometimes, I’ll wake up with a sore shoulder.  On Friday, I woke up with some stiffness in my neck.  It was only a minor annoyance at first, but got worse throughout the day.  Friday night, I had trouble sleeping again.  When I got up Saturday morning, the left side of my neck was painful.  Any movement caused spasms.

I gradually learned to avoid sudden movements.  I also learned to avoid moving my neck when I moved the rest of my body.  I took some ibuprofen.  My neck started to relax, but I had to be careful.  I was glad it wasn’t race day yet.

Rochester is about a 75 mile drive from where I live, so I didn’t have to leave until after lunch.  I think the drive was good for my neck.  It forced me to sit up straight and look straight ahead.  When I got to Rochester, I felt better than I did earlier in the day.

I stayed at the Doubletree in downtown Rochester.  Having stayed there last year, I knew it was a good location for the race.  Last year, I only stayed one night and got a late checkout.  Since I’m a slower runner now, I wasn’t confident I could finish in time for a late checkout.  Instead, I booked a second night.

After checking in at Doubletree, I walked over to the expo at the Mayo Civic Center.  My legs felt good.  I didn’t have any stiffness or soreness in my hips.  Now my biggest concern was my neck.

I kept a low profile for the rest of the afternoon.  I mostly stayed in my hotel room and read a book.  To help keep my neck relaxed, I wore a neck pillow (one of those U-shaped pillows people wear on airplanes).  I knew my neck would gradually get better if I could keep the muscles relaxed.

I was planning to have dinner in one of the downtown restaurants, but first, I stopped by the hotel’s executive lounge for happy hour.  I expected to find free drinks and appetizers.  I discovered they also had dinner entrees, including pasta with chicken.  I had dinner in the lounge and then returned to my room.  I spent the evening the same way I spent the afternoon.  I read a book, while wearing a neck pillow.

I also slept using the neck pillow.  I can’t sleep on my back, but I could easily roll onto my right side.  Rolling onto my left side wasn’t as easy.  I slept on my right side when I could.  When I needed to roll on the other side, I did it carefully.  I slept for about half the night, which isn’t back for the night before a race.

When I got up, my neck was stiff, but it felt much better than it did on Saturday.  I took two ibuprofen with breakfast.  I usually avoid taking any type of painkillers before running, but I decided to make an exception.  I wanted to keep my neck muscles relaxed if I could.

The marathon route starts in the small town of Byron.  There were busses to the start from downtown Rochester.  The pick-up-point was only a block away from the hotel, but I had to be up early to board a bus.

When I left, it was 60 degrees, but I still wore warm-ups for the ride to Byron.  We were dropped off at the high school, where we could go inside until the race started.

The temperature climbed into the upper 60s during the race.  That’s warmer than ideal, but I’d rather be too warm than too cold.  There was also a chance of a passing thunderstorm after 11:00.  I kept a rain poncho in my fanny pack, but never needed it.  We never saw any rain.

Between the Boston and Prague marathons, I was able to improve my time by 15 minutes.  My hope was to improve by another 15 minutes in this race.  That meant I was shooting for a time around 4:38.  I’ve had some encouraging training runs that suggested I might be able to run faster, so I wasn’t sure how I wanted to pace myself.

I lined up near the 4:30 pace group.  As we started running, the pace felt uncomfortably slow.  I moved ahead and ran behind the 4:15 group instead.  There was a cold wind, but after the first two turns, the wind was at our backs.  After that, getting cold was never a concern, but I got hot at times.

Unlike my first two races of the year, I didn’t take any walking breaks.  I wasn’t sure how fast I would run, but I was confident I could run the whole race.

The first six miles were rolling hills.  After that, it was mostly flat.  As we started the first long downhill stretch, I slipped in front of the 4:15 group so I wouldn’t be bottled up behind them.  I’ve been working on leaning forward slightly as I run, so I’m forced to use my glutes.  That causes me to go faster running downhill.  I wanted to run the hills at my own pace without bumping into people.

It was hard to gauge my pace in the early miles.  Some were mostly uphill, and others were mostly downhill.  My mile times on this section ranged from 9:09 to 10:09.  I couldn’t settle into a consistent pace until we reached Rochester.

After we reached Rochester, we went back and forth between paved bike paths and streets.  In mile seven, we were on a path between two ponds.  There, I felt a much needed breeze blowing across one of the ponds.  At mile eight, we started getting crowd support.

Since I ran the first half of this race last year, this part of the course should have been completely familiar to me.  I recognized a few landmarks, but other streets seemed unfamiliar.  That may be because I was too concerned about my injury last year to notice my surroundings.  It’s also possible that I wasn’t real observant this year, because I was trying to avoid turning my head.

At 10 miles, I recognized the intersection when we cross Broadway.  By this point in last year’s race, I realized I would need to drop.  I was wondering how close we were to downtown.

At 12 miles, I recognized an aid station that was next to a park.  I was confused at first, because I never saw the 11 mile sign, but I was sure this aid station was at the 12 mile mark.

A few blocks later, I saw a runner down at a corner where we turned right.  You never want to see that in a race, but EMTs were attending to him.  After rounding that turn, I realized that was where the marathon and half marathon routes separated last year.  I wondered if I made a wrong turn, so I stopped and looked back.  I couldn’t see anyone going another direction, so I continued.

This part of the course was different than last year.  After a few extra turns, we eventually reached the spot where the two courses split.  It was well marked, and a course marshal made sure everyone went the right way.

By now, it was after 9:00, and the ibuprofen I took with breakfast had probably worn off.  I wasn’t having any issues with my neck, so I didn’t see any need to take more.

I reached the halfway mark in 2:06:45.  I set a goal for the second half of keeping my pace under 10:00 per mile.  That was an aggressive goal, but I was feeling good.

We were running alongside the river as we left the downtown area.  I had never run this part of the course before, but I remembered from the course map we would mostly be alongside the river.

My split for the 14th mile was well under 10 minutes.  That was a good start.  Now I could tell myself I had fewer miles left than I had already run.  I could feel the fatigue in my glutes.  That was both good news and bad news.  The good news is that my form was improving.  I was using all the right muscles.  The bad news is that these muscles tire faster than the muscles in my legs.

The 15th mile was also well under 10 minutes.  So was the 16th.  With each passing mile, the remaining distance seemed more manageable.  I could almost tell myself it was raceable.  I had a more aggressive mindset than in my previous two races.  I wasn’t just trying to finish.  I was racing for a better time.

The section between 13 and 17 miles was out-and-back.  We could see the lead runners coming back.  Then we began a big loop.  At first we were on a paved path through a nature area.  We encountered a few short hills.  They weren’t big, but they took me out of my rhythm.  Running up a small hill, I felt myself slowing down.  Then running downhill, I got just fast enough to be uncomfortable, but only for a few seconds.  It wasn’t long enough to gain much time.

I do OK on long gradual hills, but I struggle with sections like this.  For the first time, I started to feel tired.  When I reached the 19 mile mark, I saw I slowed to 10:05 in that mile.  Overall, I was on a good pace, but I wondered if I was starting to come apart now.  I was pleasantly surprised to run the next mile in 10:02.  I could no longer break 10, but I wasn’t giving up too much time … yet.

The path eventually turned out onto a busy road with a wide concrete shoulder.  Having a level surface enabled me to get back into a consistent rhythm, but I never got back to my previous pace.  Now, other runners were passing me.  Mile 21 took 10:35.  That was demoralizing.  I had assumed that even if I struggled in the late miles, I wouldn’t get slower than 11:00.  Now I had to wonder.

As I neared the end of the loop, I was passed by a pace group.  It was the 4:15 group.  I remember moving in front of them in the first mile.  Then I forgot about them.  Apparently, I was running a minute or two ahead of them the whole way.  Realizing their pace was too fast for me, I didn’t try to stay with them.

I got back onto the out-and-back section just in time to see my friend Halbert, who was about to start the loop.  I also saw a few other runners I knew.  Getting onto the out-and-back give me a psychological lift, but physically, I was wearing down.  I had soreness in my quads and hamstrings to match the soreness in my glutes.  Salty sweat was dripping into my eyes, making them sting.

I ran the next mile in 10:29.  With 4.2 miles to go, I had a good shot at breaking 4:22.  That would be huge.  Remember, my original goal was 4:38.  Despite slowing in the late miles, I was crushing it.

After running mile 23 at a similar pace, I was shocked to run the 24th mile in about 9:30.  I suspect that mile marker was misplaced.  I had noticed one or two mile markers in the first half that seemed to be off.  While I didn’t really believe I sped up that much, it was a good sign that I wasn’t slowing down.

Coming back into downtown, we ran through a veterans’ memorial.  There were dozens of plaques on the sidewalk which were memorials to individual veterans.  In addition to their names, they listed which branch of the service they were in, which war they fought in, and when they died.  I appreciated this course routing for a race held on Memorial Day weekend.

I ran mile 25 in 10:46.  Instead of being discouraged, I was relieved to have kept it under 11:00.  Now I had a good chance of breaking 4:20.  As I got closer to downtown, I started recognizing buildings.  I saw Holiday Inn, then Doubletree, then the Mayo Civic Center, where we would finish.  Were we really that close?  No.  The approach to the finish was deceptively long.  First we had to go past the civic center, but on the opposite bank of the river.  Then we had to follow a bend in the river, which took us farther away.

I was losing my focus.  I ran that mile in 11:02.  Still, with two tenths to go, I knew I would break 4:20.  I finished in 4:19:27, after being passed by three solo runners and a relay team.

After getting my finisher medal and T-shirt, I stayed in the finish area to get some snacks.  They had Great Harvest rolls, which are a favorite of mine.  I also drank a bottle of Muscle Milk and a bottle of water.  I usually skip the water, but I knew I was dehydrated.

I stayed long enough to see the 4:30 pace group finish.  I knew the pacer.  Then I retrieved my gear bag.  I was ready to walk back to Doubletree, but I felt like I was forgetting something.  Oh yeah.  Free beer.

Walking back to the hotel was difficult.  Every muscle in both legs was tight.  It seems like I was completely spent when I reached the finish line.

This was a breakthrough race for me.  I wanted to improve my time by 15 minutes.  Instead, I improved by 34 minutes!  Nothing about my stride ever felt awkward.  For the first time in several months, running felt normal.

I also redeemed myself for last year’s DNF.  I had unfinished business here.  Now I can move on.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What's Next After Prague?

I finished the Boston and Prague Marathons.  Now what?  I had a physical therapy appointment today, and we talked about how I’m doing and where I go from here.

About a month ago, I started some new exercises.  I really struggled with them at first.  By the end of the first week, I realized I couldn’t run and do my exercises on the same day.  Since then, I’ve been alternating between running days and exercise days.

My therapist, Ben, wanted to see how I'm doing, so he had me do a few reps of each of these exercises in his office.  He was pleased with my progress.  I still struggle to maintain my upper body alignment when I do single-leg deadlifts, but it’s much better than that it used to be.  I could see my improvement.

Ben suggested modifications to two of my exercises.  He also gave me a new one.  The latest addition is this reverse lunge.  He said I wouldn’t have been able to do this two weeks ago.

I’m able to run a marathon, and my mechanics are improving, but I’m still pretty slow.  That’s because there just isn’t much power in my stride.  These exercises should help me to get more power.

We also talked about my future training and racing plans.  I mentioned that I was thinking about doing the Med City Marathon over Memorial Day weekend, but I wasn’t signed up yet.  Ben thought that was a good idea.  Today, I signed up for the race.

I’ve only scheduled one race for this summer.  I’ll probably do others, but I’ve been taking a wait-and-see approach.  There are local races I can sign up for without having to commit too far in advance.  After Med City, I’ll start thinking about the next one.

Today, I did my modified exercise routine for the first time.  I think it was a good workout.  I’m sore in the right places.  Tomorrow I’ll go for a short run.

My time in the Prague Marathon was about 15 minutes faster than the Boston Marathon.  More importantly, I’ve felt pretty good since the race.  I didn’t have as much soreness as I did after Boston.

I’d like to run like I used to, but that’s a long way off.  I’m hoping I can eventually qualify for Boston again, but that’s probably still several months away.  It’s hard to quantify my progress, but I’d guess I’m still only 30-40% done with rebuilding strength in my hips, glutes and core muscles.  I need to make more progress in PT before I can ramp up my mileage.  Then I’ll need to do speed work.  Then I’ll need to lose some weight.

The training is something I’ve done many times before.  It’s hard work, but I can do it.  In some sense, though, I still haven’t made it to the starting line.  I can still remember the first time I ran a mile on a track.  I started running fast, but I quickly got out of breath.  Today, I’m the opposite.  I have better cardiovascular fitness, but the power just isn’t there.  Hopefully, it’ll all come back, but this is new territory for me.  I don’t know how long it will take.