Saturday, July 24, 2021

Race Report: 2021 Xenia Avenue Marathon

On July 24, I race-walked the Xenia Avenue Marathon in Champlin, MN.  This is the second time I’ve done this race.  I ran the inaugural race last year.

When I signed up for this race, I was training for the 4-day Alaska Series, but I wanted to get one marathon under my belt before doing four in a row.  More recently, I walked three other marathons, making this my fourth race in a span of nine days.

Champlin is about 35 miles from home, so I didn’t need to stay in a hotel.  I drove up on Friday to pick up my race packet.  Then I drove up again this morning for the race.

The weather was much warmer than you want for a marathon.  The overnight low was 72 degrees, and I expected the temperature to climb into the upper 80s by noon.  It rained during the night, but the rain was done before the race started.  It didn’t do anything to help with the heat, but it did take some of the smoke out of the air.

Because I did this race last year, I was already familiar with the course.  Most of the course was along paved bike paths.  We did one relatively short loop that included some residential streets.  Then we did five laps of a longer loop that was entirely on bike paths.

There were two aid stations on the course.  One was in the start/finish area, and the other was about halfway through the main loop.  Volunteers set bottles of water on tables, and we could grab a bottle as we went by.  I wore a fuel belt, so it would be easy to keep a bottle with me until I finished it.

The biggest difference between this year’s race and last year is that I was race-walking this year.  That meant I could expect to be on the course for about an hour and a half longer.  That’s if I put an all-out effort into walking as fast as I can.  I wasn’t planning to go all out.

I never bothered to look at who else was registered for this race.  When I got to the start, I was surprised to see Alexis Davidson.  Alexis is a race-walker.  He’s walked hundreds of marathons, and his time is usually less than five hours.  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t expect to be able to keep up with him.  Because of the heat, he said he’d be happy with any time under six hours.  With that in mind, I lined up next to him.

We started in a small neighborhood park across the street from Champlin Park High School.  By the time we got out of the park, most of the runners were ahead of us, and I was walking next to Alexis.  It wasn’t long before I started finding the pace to be a little bit tiring, and I wondered how fast we started.  We walked that first mile in 11:38.  Had I been on my own, I would’ve tried to keep my pace between 12:30 and 13:00.  I was a little worried about blowing up, but I decided to stick with Alexis for a few more miles and see how it went.

By now, we were on the only part of the course that follows residential streets.  That included two blocks along Xenia Avenue, for which the race is named.

I was expecting the aid stations to have bottles of water and Powerade.  The water was in  bottles, but the Powerade was in cups.  I drank a cup of Powerade and didn’t carry anything with me.

I didn’t notice my split for the second mile, but the next two were with in the 11:40s.  This was still somewhat fast, but it no longer felt tiring.  Alexis and I were talking constantly.  Normally, I can only walk fast if I’m completely focused on both my effort and my mechanics.  Today, it seemed to help me to be distracted by conversation.

About halfway through our first big lap, we reached the other aid station on the course.  They also had water in bottles and Powerade in cups.  I seemed to be doing fine just drinking a cup of Powerade at each aid station, so I continued to do that.  I could always start drinking water later, but for now, it was nice not needing to take a bottle with me.  I did, however, feel foolish wearing a fuel belt that I wasn’t using.

For the next several miles, we slowed down a bit.  Now our pace was settling into the 12:00 to 12:30 range.  This was still faster than I planned to walk, but it felt comfortable.

We were almost halfway through the race before we finally had a mile that was slower than 12:30.  We reached the halfway mark on pace for 5:20, but I expected to slow down in the second half.  By now it was getting really hot.  Earlier in the race, we had some cloud cover, but now it was sunny.

Over the next several miles we gradually slowed down from 12:30 per mile to 13:30.  Alexis was struggling with the heat.  I wasn’t bothered by the heat, but after starting so fast, I was content to slow down, as long as we were still easily on pace to break six hours.

After about 19 miles, we slowed down dramatically.  In one mile, our pace slowed from 13:30 to 14:30.  Alexis was really bothered by the hot conditions.  On my own, I would’ve gone faster, but I stayed with him for the whole race.

We were on our second to last lap.  As we went through the remote aid station, we didn’t see any more water bottles on the table.  We decided to each grab a bottle when we got back to the start/finish area, just in case they ran out of water at the remote aid station.

As we began our last lap, I drank a cup of Powerade and put a full bottle of water in my fuel belt.  For the first time in the race, I was carrying a little extra weight, but I was finding the pace to be easy at this point.

I didn’t drink any water before reaching the last aid station.  I drank a cup of Powerade and kept walking.  About half a mile later, I finally opened the bottle and started drinking the water.

In the last two miles, we slowed down some more.  We weren’t really race-walking any more.  Now we were just walking at a brisk pace.  I could live with that as long as we would finish in less than six hours.  We were still way ahead of that pace.

When we finally got back to the park for the last time, I looked ahead to see the digital clock at the finish line.  It didn’t look like I would break 5:45, but I neglected to consider how much time in took me to cross the starting line after the race started.  Alexis and I were lined up near the back.  When I finished, my chip time was 5:44:44.  Alexis was right behind me.

It was really nice having someone else to walk with.  When I'm race-walking, I'm usually by myself for the whole race.  I don't see many other race-walkers, and it's rare for a runner to be consistently going at the pace I'm walking.  This was a nice change of pace.

This was my fourth marathon in a span of nine days.  In the first one, I learned how fast I can walk a marathon with an all-out effort.  In the second one, I was reminded how badly I can crash if I start too fast.  In the third one, I found a pace I could comfortably sustain when I already had tired legs.  In this race, I could’ve gone much faster in the second half, but I had the patience to hold back.  I’ve been preparing to do a series of four marathons in four days.  I think all the pieces are in place now. 

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  5:44:44
Average Pace:  13:09 per mile
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  435
Minnesota Marathons/Ultras:  82
Marathons/Ultras Race-walking:  18

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Summer Camp, Day 4: Wandering Wolf

Today was day 4 of the Summer Camp Series.  Today’s race is also known as Wandering Wolf.  The course was a section of the Beaver Islands Trail that was just south of River Bluffs Regional Park in St. Cloud.  It was an out-and-back route.  To complete a marathon, we needed to do 14 laps.

I had trouble sleeping last night, because one of my toes hurt when it rubbed against the sheets.  When I got up, I drained the blisters under the toenails of both big toes.  I’ve been doing that twice a day, but there’s always more fluid.

Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to drain much fluid from the blister on my left heel.  There’s a thick bump there, and I can’t flatten it out.  There’s a spot that’s sensitive to pressure, and that bump ensures there’ll always be extra pressure there when I walk.  On Monday, I was feeling it even when I walked at a casual pace.  I knew that would be an issue today, but I just had to tune it out.

The regular start time was 6:00, but there was an early start at 5:00.  I didn’t expect it to be as hot today as it was on Sunday, but I still took the early start.  That’s what most people were doing.

Last Friday, I learned that I can walk a marathon in 5:15 with an all-out effort.  On Sunday, I learned that I couldn’t expect to bounce back and do the same thing after only one day off.  Today, I was hoping to learn what pace I could sustain without blowing up, when I already had tired legs.  I was guessing that pace would be somewhere between 12:30 and 13:00, but I wouldn’t know for sure until I tried it.

I was conflicted about whether to wear a GPS watch or a plain stopwatch.  On one hand, it would be nice to see every mile split, so I could associate how I felt with a precise pace.  The problem with that is I tend to get preoccupied with my pace instead of paying attention to how I feel.  I opted for the GPS watch, so I would know if I started walking too fast.

We started about 45 minutes before sunrise, but there was enough ambient light that I could see the trail without carrying a light.  As I started walking, I quickly got into a nice rhythm.  I wasn’t trying to walk as fast as I did in my last two races, yet there were only two people in front of me.  One was Tim, who was the only person to run the entire race.  The other was Jesse, who was leading us through the first lap.  Everyone else was either walking or doing a run/walk mix.  Apparently, they all started out walking.

Because of the blister on my left heel, I was reluctant to let my heel make contact with the ground.  For most of the first lap, I was walking on the balls of my feet.  That shortened my stride, but I seemed to have a fast enough turnover to maintain a descent pace.

I walked the first mile in 12:32.  That was at the low end of the range that I thought would be sustainable.  Based on how it felt, I decided to keep my pace between 12:30 and 13:00, if I could.

By the end of my first lap, I was sometimes making contact with my heel.  When I did, I felt the blister.

I walked my second mile in 12:23.  After realizing I had inadvertently sped up, I eased up in the next mile.  That’s how it went for most of the race.  If my pace ever got faster than 12:30, I slowed down.  If I was in danger of getting slower than 13:00, I sped up.  Most of my mile splits were in the 12:30s, but they ranged from 12:23 to 12:59.

By the end of my second lap, I was rolling through my whole foot, instead of staying off my heel.  That was inevitable.  It caused some discomfort from the blister on my heel, but now that I was in a nice rhythm, it was getting easier to tune out the pain.

I was in the second half of my third lap when the 6:00 runners started.  Most of them were doing the 5K or 10K, but there was at least one additional runner doing the marathon.  Later in that lap, Tim lapped me.  He would go on to lap me two more times, but nobody else ever passed me.  Despite walking the whole way, I was the second fastest person in the marathon.

When I finished nine miles, it occurred to me that I was more than one third done.  I compared how I felt today to how I felt at the same point in Sunday’s race.  It was an easy comparison.  On Sunday, I was already running out of gas at this point.  Today, I was under control.  The pace I was walking took some effort, but the effort seemed sustainable.

In the middle third of the race, I started to notice some sore muscles.  I’m used to having soreness in my glutes, hamstrings, and/or shins. Those are all things I experienced at different times in my other races.  Today, I also had soreness in my quads.  I don’t usually get sore quads when I’m walking.  I think it’s because of the undulations in the course.

Earlier in the race, my impression of the course was that it was flat.  When Tim passed me in lap three, he made a comment about the hill being tiring.  I didn’t notice the same hill until the next lap.  The course was actually rolling.  There was one particularly long section that had a gentle upgrade.  I found myself working harder here.  In the opposite direction, this section was downhill.  It was here that I was most apt to notice soreness in my quads.

By the halfway point of the race, I was no longer confident that my pace was going to be sustainable.  For now, I could keep my pace within my target range, but it was starting to take more effort.  I was confident, however, that it wouldn’t be a struggle to finish the race.  That was a big improvement over how I felt on Sunday.

We occasionally went under trees, but most of the course was exposed to the sun.  Fortunately, we had some cloud cover.  We also had a breeze.  That helped a lot.

When I finished my 18th mile, I was more than two thirds done.  For the third time, I compared how I felt today to how I felt on Sunday.  I was having to work harder, but I was still keeping my pace in the same range.  On Sunday, by contrast, I had given up on maintaining my pace.  In the last third of Sunday’s race, I was just trying to finish.

At some point, I started to feel pain from the big toe on my left foot.  That was both good news and bad news.  Obviously, any time you have a new pain, that’s bad news.  Why was it also good news?  I no longer noticed the blister on my heel.  I also no longer noticed any sore muscles.  When you have multiple aches and pains, you tend to notice the one that’s screaming the loudest.  I wasn’t happy about the pain in my toe, but it was actually a welcome change of pace to feel that instead of my heel.

The breeze became more noticeable, but it depended which direction I was walking.  In the first half of each lap, I tended not to notice it.  In the second half of the lap, it had a really nice cooling effect.  That made the two halves of each lap feel different, both physically and psychologically.  When I started a lap, I focused on how many laps I had remaining.  When I reached the turnaround, I looked forward to enjoying the breeze on the way back.

With two and a half laps to go, I glanced at my watch.  I’m not sure why I did that.  I was reading splits at each mile, not by lap.  Still, I noticed the total elapsed time.  By now, I had an idea how long it would take me to finish the race.  If I was correct, I still had more than an hour to go.  Two and a half laps sounded manageable.  Having more than an hour left didn’t.

As I finished my 12th lap, I finally felt like the remaining distance was something I could easily handle.  After slowing down to drink some Gatorade at the aid station, I really launched myself into the next lap.  As a result, my next mile was a few seconds faster than my target range.  Normally, I would’ve eased up a bit in the next mile, but I maintained the same effort.  At this point, I was no longer worried about wearing myself out.  I didn’t work hard to keep up the same pace, but I also didn’t go out of my way to slow down.  The result was that my next mile was also in the 12:20s.

I did the same think at the start of my last lap, and I had the same result.  My last two full miles were also in the 12:20s.  That’s four straight miles that were below my target range for pace, but none of them was faster than 12:25.

I kept up the same effort until I came around the last corner and saw the aid station.  Then I walked as fast as I could to the finish.

I finished in 5:33:16, which was good for second place overall.  When I thought the last two and a half laps would take more than an hour, I was wrong.  I didn’t realize they would be my fastest laps of the race.  I was assuming the second half of the race would take at least as long as the first half.  Instead, the second half was three minutes faster.

After the race, I was winded.  I was under control until the last tenth of a mile.  It was my fast finish that left me out of breath.  I spent longer than usual rehydrating and talking to people in the finish area.

When I got back to the hotel, my quads were unusually sore.  That’s normal after running, particularly after an all-out effort.  I don’t usually have sore quads after walking.  Also, this wasn’t an all-out effort.  I felt better after a hot bath and some stretching, but I’m looking forward to a rest day tomorrow.

Today’s race was slower than my last two, but I felt like it was a success.  I did a good job of keeping my pace in a sustainable range.  I have a better idea now how I should pace myself during the Alaska Series.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  5:33:16
Average Pace:  12:43
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  434
Minnesota Marathons/Ultras:  81
Marathons/Ultras Race-walking:  17

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Summer Camp, Day 2: Lazy Loon

Today was the second day of a series of races called Summer Camp.  There are five races in the series, but I’m only doing two of them.  I skipped yesterday’s race, because it was on a dirt and grass trail with roots.  I can’t race-walk on that surface.  Today’s race was on a paved path.

Out route was around a small pond next to the Sartell Community Center.  For each lap, we went from the aid station to the pond, went counter-clockwise around the pond, made a U-turn, went clockwise around the pond, and then back to the aid station.  We had to do that 18 time to complete a marathon.  I was already familiar with this course, having done two races here last year.

My biggest concern for this race was the blood blisters under the toenails of each of my big toes.  Those developed during Friday’s race.  When fluid builds under a toenail, the pressure under the nail can get painful.

I didn’t do anything to treat these blisters yesterday.  It was a rest day, and I waited to see if the fluid would get reabsorbed.  During the night, I woke up and had trouble getting back to sleep, because I was feeling some discomfort from those toes.  When I got up this morning, I finally relieved the pressure by poking a pin under the corner of each of those toenails.

The regular start time for today’s race was 6:00, but they also offered an early start at 5:00 for people who expected to be on the course for a long time.  It was a hot day, and there’s no shade on this course, so most people took the early start.  I hated getting up that early, but I took the early start too.

This was Kevin Brosi’s 800th marathon.  Kevin is known for placing rubber ducks and various plastic animals around the course.  In Kevin’s honor, most of us wore yellow shirts.  Some runners also had green hair.  I’m not sure what that represented, but I’m sure there’s a story behind it.

As usual, Kevin had his ducks in a row.  He also brought his usual sense of humor.

I went too fast in my last race.  I was intending to do a measured effort, but it turned into an all-out effort.  Today, I didn’t expect to be as fast.

I wore a plain stopwatch instead of a GPS watch.  That gave me the option of ignoring my pace and just going by how I felt.  When I wear a GPS watch, I see all my mile splits.  If I get that much feedback about my pace, I’m more likely to push to stay on a fast pace.  That’s what happened on Friday.  If I wanted to know my pace, I could always check my time at the end of a lap.

On Friday, my time was 5:15 and change.  To finish in 5:15 today, I would need to average 17:30 per lap.  I wasn’t necessarily trying to walk that fast, but it was a useful benchmark.

The temperature at the start was in the upper 60s.  That was 10 degrees warmer than Friday, in spite of the earlier start.  Starting early meant less time in the sunlight, but it was still going to get hot.

As I started walking, it took a minute or two to find my rhythm.  Then I settled into a smooth gait with a rapid turnover.  I suspect I was going too fast when I started breathing hard after only a few minutes.

I checked my time after the first lap.  It was 16:53, confirming my suspicion that I started too fast.  Over the next few laps, my pace gradually slowed.  By the end of three laps, my average pace was already a bit slower than on Friday.

So far, I wasn’t noticing either of my big toes.  Unfortunately, I was noticing a blister on the back of my left heel.  I was making a concerted effort to make contact with the middle of my foot, rather than with my heel, but I felt that blister anyway.  By trying so hard to avoid striking with my heel, I was limiting the length of my stride.  That forced me to have a rapid turnover to compensate for the short stride.  For the first few laps, I was able to do it, but it was tiring.  I couldn’t keep it up for the whole race.

As I started my fourth lap, I saw Gwen and Kristina step off the course to take pictures.  I looked across the pond and saw the sun just above the horizon.  It was a deep red disk, partially obstructed by some short trees just beyond the other end of the pond.

I walked past this end of the pond twice per lap.  Each time, I looked accross the pond to see the sun.  As it rose higher above the horizon, it’s color changed from red to dark orange to light orange and finally to yellow.  As soon as the sun was above the trees, I saw its reflection on the water.

By the end of my fifth lap, I started to notice some discomfort from the big toe on my left foot.  The big toe on my right foot didn’t bother me.

After six laps, I was on pace to finish in about 5:20.  Even though my pace was slower than Friday, it was wearing me down.  I was already getting tired, and I was only one third done with the race.  Also, it was going to get hot.  I already realized I was going to blow up badly in the second half.

For the next few laps, I considered dropping down to the half marathon.  That decision would’ve been easy to justify.  Friday’s race was my first marathon in almost six months, and I didn’t leave any gas in the tank for today.  Trying to bounce back and do it again with only one day off was ambitious.

I still had three laps to think about it.  During that time, I reminded myself that I’m training to walk marathons on four consecutive days.  If I couldn’t do this, how would I do that?  I was going to crash and burn today, but maybe that was the purpose of today’s race.  I had to go through this experience as a harsh reminder of what happens when you pace yourself too aggressively.  If you start a race too fast, the second half is going to be slow and uncomfortable.  The more important lesson is that you always have to leave some gas in the tank for the next day.  I was learning those lessons, but I had to learn them in slow motion.  By the time I reached the halfway point, I was committed to finishing the race.  I was still on pace for 5:20, but I expected to slow down.  My hope was that I would break 5:30.

Having committed to finishing, I found the next few laps easier.  They weren’t any easier physically, but I had more motivation to keep up my effort.  I still had too many laps remaining to think about the remaining distance.  Instead, I continually told myself to keep doing what I was doing.  My cadence gradually slowed down.  I tried to keep it up, but I was getting fatigued.

I started to notice the sun again.  Now, instead of seeing it across the pond, I was feeling its radiant heat.  It was going to get hot soon.

I felt the need to make a bathroom stop, but I waited as long as I could.  I was afraid after stopping I would have trouble getting back into the same rhythm.  I postponed my bathroom stop as long as I could.  After 12 laps, I couldn’t wait any longer.

I was right to be afraid.  After my bathroom stop, I struggled to get moving again.  My legs were suddenly stiff.  It took an effort just to get back into any kind of rhythm.  I managed to get back into it, but my cadence was slow.  Next, I forced myself to pick up my pace.  I put more effort into my pace in that lap than in any previous lap.  I got back into a decent rhythm, but I don’t know if it was as fast as before.

By now, the temperature had climbed into the upper 70s.  On top of that, the sun was getting higher in the sky, and I rarely felt any breeze.  I was running out of gas, I was feeling the heat, and my legs were stiff.  Nothing was going to be easy.  One lap at a time, I just forced myself to keep on keeping on.

Every so often, I would look at my watch.  My pace continued to deteriorate, but I was still on pace to break 5:30.  That was the only thing that kept me motivated to maintain my effort.

I got a lot of encouragement from the runners.  Everyone complimented me on my fast walking pace.  I didn’t say it, but I was disappointed with my pace.

Finally, as I began my last lap, I found the strength to really pick up my cadence.  Knowing I only had one lap to go made the effort seem sustainable.  When I reached the midpoint of the lap, I checked my watch.  That lap was my fastest since the beginning of the race.  If I could maintain the same pace in the second half, I would come close to breaking 5:25.

Now I really pushed.  I walked as rapidly as I could.  I didn’t quite break 5:25, but I was close.  I finished in 5:25:24.

The second half of the race was five minutes slower than the first half.  I’m not generally happy with positive splits, but I expected it to be much worse.  I thought it would be closer to 10 minutes.  I felt miserable, but I actually held up better than I thought.

After finishing, I ate one of the cookies made in honor of Kevin’s 800th marathon.  I also had some chocolate milk and some pickle juice.  If you saw all the salt crystals on my skin, you’d understand why I would want to drink pickle juice.

The Summer Camp Series is a rebranding of a series that used to be called the Minnesota Brothers Trail Series.  They got rid of one race venue, but added two others.  This was one of the new venues.  Each race in the series has a name and a corresponding medal.  This race was called Lazy Loon.

This race venue was just a couple blocks from a good pizzeria.  I picked up a take-out pizza on my way back to the hotel.  I ate half for lunch and saved the other half for dinner.

After taking a bath and stretching, I started working on my blisters.  To drain the blisters under my toenails, I had to poke a pin under my toenail, surround the toe with a tissue, and apply enough pressure to force the fluid out.  In the short term, that was painful, but relieving the pressure will make it less painful in the future.  For the next few days, this may be a daily ritual.

I couldn’t do much about the blister on my heel.  It’s deep under thick layers of skin.  It also seems to be underneath the empty chamber of an older blister that I already drained.  When you have blisters underneath older blisters, it gets increasingly difficult to drain them.  The long-term solution is to adjust my gait until I’m no longer making contact with my heel.  I’ve been working on that, but it’s a long-term project.

I have another race on Tuesday.  I’m going to have to give some thought to what pace is realistic.  My average pace today was 12:25, but I did it the hard way.  It would’ve been easier if I was averaging 12:25 from the beginning, instead of starting faster and slowing down as I got fatigued.

I’m viewing today’s race as being about learning a lesson the hard way.  On Tuesday, we’ll see how well I learned.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  5:25:24
Average Pace: 12:25 
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  433
Minnesota Marathons/Ultras:  80
Marathons/Ultras Race-walking:  16

Friday, July 16, 2021

Race Report: Heartland Series, Day 7

A few months ago, I started training to race-walk a series of marathons.  As part of my training, I’ve been doing progressively longer walks each week.  Last Friday, I walked 22.5 miles.  This week, I was going to step up to 24.5 miles.

Last weekend, I started seeing Facebook posts from friends who were running the Heartland Series.  That’s a series of seven marathons in seven days.  Each race is in a different state.  They started in Ohio on Saturday.  The next five races were in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin.  The last race of the series was today in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

I wasn’t playing that much attention to the race calendar.  I was training to walk a marathon next weekend.  When I realized the Minnesota race of the Heartland Series was going to take place the same day I was planning to do my last long training walk, I changed my plans.  Why walk 24.5 miles on my own, when I could walk 26.2 miles in a fully supported race?  I had to go two miles farther, but it was like a catered training walk.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done just the last day of this series.  I did the same thing in 2016.  Back then, the Minnesota race of this series was in Albert Lea.  Since then, it’s been moved to St. Cloud.  That’s more convenient for runners who are also doing the Summer Camp Series.  That series is also in the St. Cloud area, and it starts tomorrow.

Is it crazy to sign up for three extra races during the last week of your marathon training?  That’s basically what I did.  In addition to today’s race, I’m also going to do two of the races of the Summer Camp Series.  I’ll rest tomorrow, do a marathon on Sunday, rest Monday, and do another marathon on Tuesday.  I’ll stay in St. Cloud the whole time, so I don’t have to keep driving back and forth.

I’m staying at the same hotel where I stayed for last year’s Running Ragged 20in20 Series, which was also in the St. Cloud area.  My room has a kitchenette with a full-size refrigerator.  After arriving in St. Cloud yesterday, I immediately went grocery shopping.

The course for this morning’s race was a paved trail that follows the Mississippi River.  Like all Mainly Marathon races, it was multiple laps of a relatively short out-and-back.  The out-and-back format serves two purposes.  First, it gives all the runners opportunities to see each other on every lap.  Second, it makes it possible to have one well-stocked aid station, since we keep coming back to the start/finish area.  Each lap was roughly 2.2 miles.  To complete a marathon, I had to do 12 laps.

In my long training walks, I was able to keep my average pace under 12 minutes per mile.  That took quite a bit of effort, and I usually felt wiped out afterwards.  Because I’m doing three marathons in five days, I didn’t want today’s race to be an all-out effort.  With that in mind, I told myself I should be happy with a pace anywhere between 12:00 and 12:30 per mile.

A couple weeks ago, I walked 5K as fast as I could.  I think I overdid it.  Ever since then, I’ve had some sore muscles.  When my pace is 12:00 or faster, I feel those muscles.  With that in mind, I started walking at a pace that didn’t cause any soreness.  The pace felt brisk, but nothing felt sore.  I was surprised to see that I walked the first mile in 11:33.  I eased up slightly, but still walked the second mile in 11:42.  My third mile was 12:09.  Not wanting to slow down too much, I picked up my effort again.  The next several miles ranged from 11:57 to 12:06.

I can think of only two explanations for why I started so fast.  First, I took a rest day yesterday.  Lately, I’ve been training seven days a week.  Some days are hard, and some days are easy, but I always do at least a few miles of walking.  Yesterday was a complete rest day, and that may have been the difference.  The other possible explanation was the weather.  It was only 58 degrees at the start.  My summer training has been in temperatures ranging from upper 60s to lower 90s.  I can’t remember the last time I went walking in temperatures as cool as 58.

During the pandemic, Mainly Marathons has changed their aid station procedures.  They don’t use any open cups.  There was a table where runners could place bottles with water, Gatorade, or their preferred beverage.  If you needed to have a bottle refilled with water or Gatorade, you took the top off, and a volunteer would refill it from a pitcher while you held the bottle.  Nobody else ever handles a runner’s bottle.

Various snack foods were separated into individual portions by volunteers wearing gloves.  Then they were put in sealed plastic bags.  You could grab a bag as you went by the aid station.  Nobody else ever touches your food.

I didn’t eat any solid food during the race.  I just drank Gatorade.  I didn’t feel like I was drinking that much, but I was only a few laps into the race when I realized I would eventually need to make a bathroom stop.  There were two port-o-potties next to the course.  I waited as long as I could before I stopped.  I finally stopped as I was finishing my 5th lap.

After my bathroom stop, it was tough getting back into the same rhythm.  It didn’t help that I was trying to get going on the only part of the course that wasn’t paved.  There was a short section of dirt trail going to and from the parking lot where the aid station was set up.

Whenever I went through this section, I regretted not having gaiters.  I was afraid a grain of sand would get into the back of one of my shoes.

When I recorded my next mile split, I knew it would be slow.  It was 13:11.  That was my slowest mile so far by more than a minute.  The bathroom stop accounted for most, if not all, of the extra time.  It seemed to take forever to empty my bladder.  I don’t know where all that fluid came from.  I didn’t think I was drinking that much.

In my next mile, I was able to get back to my previous pace, but it now took more effort.  As I finished the first half of the race, I was almost on pace for 5:15.  That was the easy half of the race.  The second half would be more difficult.

By now, it had warmed up to about 70 degrees.  By the time I finished it would warm up to 80.  Thankfully, most of the course was well-shaded.  If we were exposed to the sun, it would’ve felt much hotter.

My mile times weren’t as consistent in the second half.  Sometimes I’d do a mile in 12:14 or 12:15.  Then I’d work to bring my pace back down to 12 minutes or faster.

It gave me a psychological lift when I finished my 7th lap.  Now I could tell myself I had fewer laps left than the number I had already completed.  That helped a little, but not much.  I had to keep finding ways to encourage myself.  After eight laps, I told myself I was two thirds done.  Again, that helped a little, but not enough.

After my 9th lap, I tried telling myself I was three quarters done.  That didn’t do it.  That was too abstract.  It helped more to say I just had three laps to go.

I couldn’t actually think in terms of complete laps.  I had to focus on half a lap at a time.  I would try to maintain my effort until the turnaround.  Then I’d keep up my effort coming back.  That worked.  I got through my 10th lap.

Most of my long training workouts were on a 2.25-mile loop.  That was just slightly longer than the laps we were doing today.  My longest workout was 10 laps.  I had already completed something roughly equivalent to that, but I still had two laps to go.  I continued to take them half a lap at a time.

My mile times were getting erratic.  I had couple that were as slow as 12:24.  Then suddenly, I recorded a mile time of 13:18.  I found it hard to believe that I could slow down that much from one mile to the next.  I wondered if the heat was taking a toll on me.  To keep up my pace, I needed a fast turnover.  That took focus.  When I’m hot and fatigued, I can have lapses in concentration.

In my next mile, I tried to get my pace back down to 12.  I didn’t know if it was fast enough.  As I finished that lap and left the aid station to begin my last lap, I saw my next split.  It was 11:23.  I didn’t believe that for one second.  I may have sped up to 12 minutes, but not 11:23.  Now I was even more skeptical about the previous mile being 13:18.  I no longer trusted the splits from my watch.

It's worth noting that we were running under a canopy of trees.  The trees gave us shade, but they also prevented my watch from having a clear line of sight to the GPS satellites.  My watch was probably getting location data only sporadically, and I was getting some wonky splits as a result.  At this point, it didn’t matter that much.  I just had one lap to go.  All that really mattered was my official time at the finish.  I pressed on at the best pace I could.

I finished in 5:15:44.  At the start of the day, I would’ve settled for anything under 5:30.  I was pleased with my time, but I wondered if I would regret it on Sunday, when I race again.

The medals for this series are designed to link together to form a chain.  Every runner who does at least one race in the series gets the top piece with the ribbon.  There are separate pieces for each race, in the shape of each state.  For runners who do the entire series, there’s an extra piece that goes on the bottom.  Since I only did today’s race, I just have the top piece and the Minnesota medal.

Besides my T-shirt and medal, I also received this plaque.  This is for doing 50 races with  Mainly Marathons.  That includes a 50K race, 48 marathons, and a half marathon.  I’ve also done a 5K race with them, but races shorter than a half marathon don’t count toward these lifetime awards.

There are always people walking some or all of the race at a casual pace.  I didn’t expect to see other race-walkers.  I saw three.  One was an older gentleman who I didn’t recognize.  When we were going in opposite directions, I noticed his pace was similar to mine.  I passed him once during the race.  In that lap, it took a long time for me to catch up and pass him.  Another walker asked me if I’ve ever done the We Walk Marathon.  I did that race in 2019.  Until today, that was the last time I walked a marathon.  The third race-walker recognized me from the Savage Seven series in 2019.  As it turns out, he’s a race-walking judge.  He complimented me on my form.  He said I reminded him of European race-walkers.  I’ve made some adjustments to my race-walking mechanics this year.  Hopefully I’m getting more efficient.

Late in the race, I was noticing a blister on the back of my left heel.  By the time I got back to the hotel, I was also noticing some pain in both of my big toes.  When I took off my shoes, I saw some purplish discoloration under both of my big toenails.  I had developed blood blisters under both of these toenails.  They hurt, because the toenails kept them under pressure.

I had a similar problem once before.  At first, I couldn’t remember when.  Then I realized it was during last year’s Running Ragged 20in20 series.  On the second day of that series, I was alternating between running and race-walking.  I don’t remember what I did to prevent the same thing from happening in the future.  I also don’t remember what I did to relieve the pressure.  I may need to re-read some of my race reports from last year.  Here’s what I do remember.  The course for that race was the same one we’ll be using for Sunday’s race.

I noticed one other thing when I took my shoes off.  Some dirt had filtered though my shoes and into my socks.  I noticed this around my toes and my heels.  That probably contributed to the blisters.  I was glad I had leftover pizza from my dinner last night.  I didn't want to put on shoes again any sooner than necessary.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  5:15:44
Average Pace:  12:03 per mile
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  432
Minnesota Marathons/Ultras:  79
Marathons/Ultras Race-walking:  15

Saturday, June 5, 2021

News Flash! I Went Running Today.

Minnesota has the nation’s second largest state fair, drawing two million visitors annually.  Only Texas has a larger state fair.  It’s often referred to as “The Great Minnesota Get-Together.”

Every year, the local TV stations send their news teams to cover the state fair.  I suspect they treat it as big news, because reporting live from the fair gives the local newscasters an excuse to attend the fair as part of their jobs.

Personally, I’ve always been annoyed that they devote so much airtime to reporting “news” that’s no more newsworthy than reporting that the sun rose this morning.  It’s not really news that there’s a state fair this summer if there’s a state fair every summer.

In all fairness, I won’t complain about it this year.  Last year’s Minnesota State Fair was cancelled because of the pandemic, so it really will be news when the fair returns this year.

Today, I’m guilty of my own “the sun rose this morning” headline.

I went running today.

Why is that news?  After all, I’m a runner, and this is a running blog.  It’s news because it’s the first time I’ve done any running since January 31.  That’s more than four months.  I couldn’t remember when I last went that long without running.  I had to look it up.  It was more than 36 years ago.  Even after having back surgery four years ago, I only went about three months without running.

In February, I took a long-overdue break from running, so a knee injury could heal.  I wasn’t going to run again until I could walk up and down stairs without discomfort.  I thought it would take two months.  It took longer.  When I was still sidelined after two months, I started doing race-walking to get back in shape.

My knee is actually coming around, but about a month ago, I suffered a lower back injury.  The doctor said I could try race-walking and see how it feels, but I should hold off on running.

At first, I had to limit my walking pace to 15 minutes per mile or slower.  Anything faster than that caused inflammation in my lower back.  My back has gradually improved.  Now I can walk as fast as 12 minutes per mile without it bothering my back.

About a week ago, I was finally able to walk up and down stairs with little or no discomfort.  I thought my knee was finally ready for running, but I didn’t know if running would be OK for my back.

On Thursday, I had a physical therapy appointment.  My therapist thought it would be OK to try running for a minute or two at a time during some of  my walks.  During that same appointment, I did a few single-leg quarter squats.  That was a wake-up call.  I could do squats comfortably using both legs, but when I supported my weight with just my right leg, I felt soreness in my knee.  Later in the day, I started noticing soreness on stairs.

Today, I tried running for the first time.  I would’ve tried running yesterday, but I was still having a little discomfort going down stairs.  This morning, the stairs felt more comfortable, although they still didn’t feel perfectly comfortable.

I chose a one-mile loop through my neighborhood.  It’s relatively flat, but there’s a stretch that’s slightly uphill for about a quarter mile.  I walked at a brisk pace until I reached this uphill section for the first time.  Then I started running.  I limited my running to the uphill section, because you don’t strike the ground as hard going uphill.  If that’s not obvious, think how you feel when you run down a hill.  It’s easy, but there’s more pounding on your joints.  Running uphill is the opposite.  It takes more effort, but there’s less impact. 

As I ran, I took short strides, to further minimize the impact.  Right off the bat, I could feel a little soreness along the top of my right knee. I continued running until I reached the top of the hill.  Then I switched to race-walking for the rest of the loop.

I did the same thing on my second lap.  This time, I didn’t notice as much discomfort in my knee.  I might not have noticed at all, but I could discern a difference between my right knee and my left knee.

In all, I did four laps, running the uphill section each time.  The second lap felt about the same as the first lap.  The fourth lap felt about the same as the first lap.

Over the next day or two, I’ll pay attention to how my knee feels going up and down stairs.  The running itself, however, told me most of what I need to know.  I’m not ready to run yet.

There was good news.  Running didn’t seem to bother my lower back at all.  Over the next day or two, I’ll also pay attention to how my back feels doing my other daily activities.

I’ll wait about a week, and then I’ll try this again and re-evaluate how my knee feels.  In the meantime, I’ll go back to race-walking.

I’m signed up for a series of marathons in August.  Earlier in the year, I assumed I would resume running in time to train for them.  That was “plan A.”  In April, when I still wasn’t ready to run, I switched to “plan B.”  Plan B was to begin training by race-walking, but with the expectation that I would still resume running in time to run the marathons.  Now, I have to seriously entertain  “plan C.”  Plan C is to race-walk the marathons.  I still hold out some hope that I can resume running in time to do some sort of run/walk mix, but I can’t count on that.

Friday, May 14, 2021

I Hit a New Bump in the Road

If you have a Facebook account, you’ve probably seen a feature called, “Your Memories on Facebook.”  Every now and then, Facebook will show you something you posted several years ago on the same date.  At the beginning of the month, I saw this post from five years ago.

I posted that on the eve of my 55th birthday.  The previous year had indeed been a rough one.  I suffered groin injuries in both legs, but had dozens of races lined up.  I skipped a couple, but ran most of them, despite the injuries.  I often spent most of the week resting and healing, so I could limp through a race (or two) on the weekend.  By the end of 2015, I had shredded the tendons connecting to my glutes.  The muscles had become weak as a result.  I couldn’t even walk normally.  My hips were stiff and immobile, so my walking resembled the waddling of a penguin.

As if the injuries weren’t bad enough, I also developed stiffness in the muscles of both legs any time I was inactive for a while.  When I tried to get out of bed or get up out of a chair, most of the muscles in my legs would cramp up violently.  I eventually learned that it was a worsening of a circulation disorder that I’ve had since childhood.  I’ve always had issues with my hands, but it had spread to my legs.  Apparently, I was OK as long as I was doing lots of running.  As I did less and less training, my circulation wasn’t as good.

My doctor was able to prescribe a medication that helped with my legs.  The symptoms didn’t go away completely, but they were manageable.  It wasn’t until I was able to run again that the symptoms went away completely.

At the beginning of 2016, I took a break from running, so I could heal.  It only took a few weeks for the groin injuries to finish healing, but the secondary injuries took much longer.  It was two months before I could begin running again.  Even then, I still couldn’t walk normally.  It took many more months of physical therapy before I could once again run a marathon in four hours or less.

The question remains: was that year an outlying point, or was it the beginning of a trend?  I made a full recovery, but since then, I’ve hit other bumps in the road.

In December of 2016, I fell during a trail run and broke a rib.  I recovered from that.  In April of 2017, I had a disc protrusion in my lower back.  It only took a few weeks to recover from that.  At the end of May, I started to notice symptoms from a herniated disc in the middle of my back.  That injury required surgery.  It was three months before I could run at all and it took a year before I felt like I was fully recovered.

It took two more years of hard work, but by the end of 2019, I felt like I had regained my old running form.  I knew I was finally back when I ran times in the 3:20s on three straight weekends.

This year is shaping up to be another difficult year.  At the beginning of February, I took another break from running.  This time, it was to allow a nagging knee injury to finally heal.  It was taking longer than I thought it would, so in April, I started race-walking.  Until a week ago, it was going well.  In just a few weeks, I got to the point where I could walk seven miles at an average pace of 11:20.  My plan was to race-walk until I could resume running.

Then I hit another bump in the road.  Last Friday, I felt some discomfort in my lower back.  At first, I thought it might just be a pulled muscle.  By Saturday, I knew it was something worse.  I had pain in my lower back that felt similar to what I experienced the last time I had a lower back injury.  By Sunday, I was feeling pain in more areas.  I sometimes had a burning sensation in my right hip or in my glutes.  When I went for walks, I sometimes had an odd sensation along the side of my right leg.

There was no longer any doubt in my mind that I had some type of spinal injury, and it was impinging on a nerve that goes to my right leg.  I didn’t know if race-walking was aggravating it, so I temporarily stopped training.  Since then, I’ve been walking four to six miles a day, but only at a casual pace.  I’m walking enough to get circulation into my legs, but I’m not doing anything strenuous.

Reflecting on the two back injuries I had in 2016, one healed in just a few weeks, while the other required surgery and had a long recovery time.  I wasn’t sure what this one would be like, so I’m tending to err on the side of caution.  The worst thing that can happen if I’m overly cautious is that I would lose a week or two of training.  I can afford that.  My goal is to be back in marathon shape my August, and I still have plenty of time to train.  What I can’t afford is for this be an injury that would sideline me for months.

On Wednesday, I saw an orthopedist.  Without an MRI, he couldn’t say for sure if this was a protrusion or a herniation.  The treatment, at least initially, is the same in either case.  He started me on the same course of treatment that worked well for my lower back injury in 2016.  If I’m not noticing improvement within a week, then I can get an MRI.

I’ve already improved noticeably since Wednesday.  I still have some discomfort in my lower back doing certain things, such as bending down to put on socks and shoes.  I’m no longer having pain or burning sensations in my hip.  I’m also no longer having any weird sensations in my leg when I go out for a walk.

I was already doing physical therapy for my knee, but today I had my first PT appointment for my back.  Today’s appointment was very encouraging.  None of the motions I tried during my appointment caused pain.  On Wednesday, at the doctor’s office, if I bent down to try to touch my toes, my back hurt as soon as I reached down as far as my knees.  Today, I could reach within inches of my feet without experiencing any pain.  The only thing that kept me from touching my toes was my chronically tight hamstrings.

Ironically, this happened just as I was noticing improvement in my knee.  I was holding off on running until I could walk up and down stairs without discomfort.  I feel OK going up steps, but I still have a little bit of discomfort going down steps.  Before the back injury, I figured I was within a week or two of beginning to run.  Now, the doctor wants me to hold off on running until my back heals.

The doctor said it’s OK for me to try race-walking, but I should stop if it causes pain.  I’m not sure if I can trust myself to do that.  When it comes to running, I have two distinct modes.  In “training mode,” I stay within my comfort zone, and I’m pretty good about listening to my body.  In “racing mode,” I get so focused on my goals that I can be oblivious to pain.  When I race-walk, I only have one mode.  Walking fast is hard work.  To reach the kind of pace I need to finish a marathon in a reasonable amount of time, I really need to focus.  Consequently, even my training feels like I’m in “racing mode.”

I’m optimistic that this injury will heal quickly, but I’m still being cautious.  If all goes well, I’ll be perfectly healthy in time to finish training for late summer races.  I don’t want this year to be like the one I recalled in that Facebook post.