Tuesday, November 1, 2011

26.2 Miles Later

Well, kids, it's all over. As a lot of you know, I finished the marathon- my time was 4 hours and 36 minutes, just a few minutes over my goal time of 4:30. The first thing several people have asked me is: "How was it?"  It's too hard to synthesize the experience into one sentence, honestly, so I have mostly been responding with "painful but rewarding."  In reaction, people ask, "Why? Why was it painful?" Well, I'll explain.  Here's my story of what happened that day; I realize it's quite long, so feel free not to read all of it, but I thought you might like to hear what it's really like to run a marathon- at least, for me. Here we go.

I went out for a pre-race dinner at 5:30 pm with Flash, his husband, my mother, and grandmother (who came from Colorado to support me), and we had pasta, of course.  At dinner, I was feeling pretty relaxed; as I told Flash, I was no longer even really nervous.  I think I had used up all my nervousness in the days preceding that last one, and I was just ready to do it.  We ate a great last carb-filled meal, then I went home to get ready for bed. I had been preparing (more like obsessing) for the whole week about what gear I was going to bring, what I was going to wear during the race, what music I was going to listen to, where I was going to meet Flash beforehand, what sweats I was going to wear to the start and throw away, etc.  So I had little to do the night before the race except put on my race clothes one last time and pin my bib onto my race shirt.  The temperature forecast was 36 degrees at the race start and barely over 43 by the finish, so I had decided to wear a thin long-sleeved shirt under my bright pink race shirt and some compression shorts.  I stood in front of the mirror for a good ten minutes trying to straighten the bib out of nervousness, then checked and double-checked my gear, but finally I had to acknowledge that everything was ready, and I hit the sack at 9:30 pm for my 5:15 am wake-up call.

Though I woke up a couple of times during the night out of nervousness, I felt relatively rested when my alarm went off.  I put on my race clothes and extra layers, made my breakfast and coffee, grabbed my race check bag (a plastic bag they give you to check before the race and retrieve afterward) and ran out the door.  I took bikeshare to the metro to save time, but I had no idea how long it was going to take for me to get to the race- the metro was not running all that often, and there were already tons of racers on the trains. As I waited in the station with other runners, I started pacing back and forth because I was feeling so restless, but many other people looked really very calm and relaxed.  By the time I had switched lines and arrived in Pentagon at 6:40, I stepped out into a wall of marathoners who were all inching forward, trying to funnel into two tiny escalators.  I was supposed to meet Flash, Speedy and M at one of the race bag dropoff trucks at 7, so I was already starting to panic that I might miss them and have to run the whole thing alone.  By the time I finally got outside, it was still the cold darkness of predawn.  I followed the stream of runners who were pouring in from several directions, and we had to walk for at least 10-15 minutes to get to the runner's village, then stand in line again at a security checkpoint. I ran over to the trucks, arriving just after 7:05, and didn't see Flash or Speedy anywhere.  I checked my bag and headed back to the truck at which we were supposed to meet- and just then, Speedy spotted me, and grabbed and hugged me.  We were both so excited to see each other, because he had been very nervous, like me, that we were not going to meet up in time.  Flash and M showed up a bit later, and once we were all ready, we walked over to the race start.

I have been in several races, but nothing quite like the Marine Corps Marathon.  For those of you who don't know, there are 30,000 marathoners, 11,000 of which are first-timers (which means that almost 20,000 are not only crazy enough to run a marathon once, but to do it again).  As we lined up according to expected finish time (M went up further, since she was shooting for sub-four hours), there were helicopters circling overhead and music over the loudspeakers.  The sun finally started to come up, and it was a beautiful clear day, though still very chilly.  Speedy, Flash and I killed time by checking and re-checking our gear, starting to peel off layers, stretching, and hugging one last time.  Finally, it was time for the start. At 8 am, Drew Carey (yes, the comedian), who also ran the marathon, came over the loudspeaker and fired the starting gun.

Believe it or not, it took us a good ten minutes to walk to the start after the gun, because there are just so many racers. In fact, I didn't take off another layer until we had almost gotten to the start line.  Flash insisted that we not start jogging until we cross the actual starting line, so finally when we got there we all started our watches and were off.

The first part of the race was pretty much, well,  gravy.  The adrenalin rushed my system, and we took it slow for the first couple of miles to warm up.  People were chucking layers off as we went (don't worry- they donate them to the Goodwill!) and there were quite a lot of spectators even early on, cheering and holding signs.  My favorite was a guy holding a sign that said, "My hot wife runs marathons. I drink beer." I was feeling fine, even merry, several miles in- thinking "this is fun!" and then, "Hmm... Remember this feeling at mile 21. You'll need it."  For the first 7-8 miles we were in Arlington, and there were some pretty long hills, but we still picked up our overall pace (which may have been a bad idea, in retrospect).  By the time we crossed the Key Bridge into Georgetown, I was feeling pretty warm, like I was getting more into my rhythm.  Once we got over the bridge, we veered left and went out the C&O for a couple of miles (including the last big hill).  At one point Flash asked us if we felt ok at the pace we were going (9:30s or so), but we all felt fine at that point, so we just kept going.  By the time we ran down M street, turned down along the Potomac past the Kennedy Center and then the Lincoln Memorial, I was feeling pretty awesome.  My mom and grandmother were waiting just outside the Lincoln (about mile 11) and as Flash, Speedy and I ran by they waved ecstatically. I beamed at them, waved, then kept plodding along the wall of cheering spectators.

Finally, we reached Hain's Point, which is a long strip of land that juts out into the Potomac (the northernmost part has the Jefferson Memorial on it).  I had run a couple of races and several training runs on Hain's Point, so I knew what to expect, but it's an extremely long and boring stretch.  I started feeling more tired than I had expected to at that point in the race, and my right knee was starting to get stiff when we got to the first water station. I had felt fine during the 20 mile races pretty much the whole time, so I wasn't sure why I was already feeling fatigued: from the cold weather, or the excitement of seeing my family, or going out too fast at the beginning, or if it was just psychological.  Basically, I started to think: "what did I get myself into?" We had already been running for almost two hours, and we still had 15 miles to go.

We ran past my mom and grandmother again at about mile 16, and my legs were feeling pretty tired. That next part of the race looped around the Washington Memorial and down one of the side streets on the National Mall  to the Capitol, then back along the Mall to the intersection with 14th street. I was really starting to feel like I needed to slow my pace a bit, and I told Flash and Speedy to go ahead, but they insisted we stick together.  We ran past the Capitol at mile 18.5, where a couple of my friends were waiting to see me go by, and I was really starting to dread the last six miles.  I had a feeling that Flash and I were not going to be able to stay together, and I was going to have to go it alone.  My triathalete friend Jen, who was originally going to run with me for the last six miles, had gotten very ill recently and (understandably) didn't think she could run, and I had no backup plan if I got separated from my running buddies.  Need I remind you that I had never run more than 20 miles before in my life, even though I had run 20 more than once.  After I passed my friends and we got to the last Mall water station, Flash, Speedy and I got separated by the crowd, and I didn't see them again.

By the time we rounded the corner onto 14th and started running across the highway on the big Memorial bridge, I was feeling pretty horrible. I was alone. The crowd of spectators thinned out, and the wide bridge seemed like an interminable expanse in front of us.  And there was still another hour of the race to go.

By now I wasn't really worrying about my pace or time. I wasn't in it to win it, so to speak.  I was just trying to finish.  When I had talked about how I was training for a marathon during these preceding months, people who had already run a marathon before would get this odd, pained look on their faces and say, "oh, those last six miles... you find out a lot about yourself in that last six miles," or "that last hour was probably the longest of my life." A coworker who has run several marathons before even told me that the difference between 20 miles and 26 miles is so huge that it is basically like the 20 mile mark is the halfway point.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the reason why you aren't supposed to train over 20 miles is because you run out of glycogen and your body is running on empty- you are going on sheer will at a certain point, and many people start cramping up.  No matter how much I  prepared for it mentally and physically, though, I had no idea what it was really going to be like.  It's the kind of thing you can only really appreciate when you have been through it.

As I started over that bridge, I thought about all the times that Flash had told me about his experience with it the year before.  I saw people start to walk and even to stop on the side of the road and try to stretch out their cramping legs, and I knew that was one of the worst things you can do. A couple of times I even started to feel like the world around me was going a little out of focus, like it was a mirage, but I wouldn't let myself stop.

At some point at about mile 21, my legs started cramping. It was the strangest sensation, and something I had never felt before in my hundreds of miles of training.  It was like one of the muscles connecting my thighs to my knees (on both legs) just started seizing.  I remember just thinking, "Huh. That's new..." but surprisingly, I didn't panic; I was already way past that point.  Luckily, my marathoning co-worker had warned me this could happen and told me to bring ibprofen, so I had packed several  in my handheld water bottle. I popped one in my mouth, took a big swig of water, and kept trudging- but that seizing feeling was really only held temporarily at bay.

We finally looped down off of the highway and turned down to Crystal City, which was a "short" out-and-back final portion of the race- so as we were running out, we saw people running back. Everyone looked miserable by that point, and they definitely looked like they did not envy those of us who were still on our way out.  I was having trouble even drinking water at that point, let alone downing gatorade or my gel chomps, but I walked through the water station and made myself drink a bit more. Every time I ran a step by then I was in pain; I had already been running for almost four hours. I just kept a running monologue in my brain to keep my mind off it: "You can do this. You trained SO HARD. You can't stop now. You only have a little more than a half hour to go. It's a walk in the park. You will never forgive yourself if you stop. If this were easy, everyone would do it."

Finally I reached the turn around and passed mile 23, taking another ibprofen when my legs started to cramp again.  I was basically in a comatose state by then, just hoping to get to the finish line before I passed out.  Just then, in a true feat of deus ex machina, my friend Jen popped up out of nowhere and yelled, "I found you!!" I just said, "JEN!" and started almost crying, taking a stutter step and half hugging her as we kept running. I had not expected her to run with me at all, but I had no idea how much it would mean to me that she showed up right then- I was losing my will to keep going, and the fact that she showed up meant more than I could possibly tell her.  She said, "you're doing so great!! You're going so fast! the 4:30 pacer is right up there!"All I could say was, "Jen, this sucks SO MUCH!"

The rest of the last three miles is somewhat of a blur- I remember that marines were holding out pieces of doughnuts at about mile 24 (Flash told me later that he had some- I felt nauseated when I saw them).  Jen kept up words of encouragement, and I couldn't respond that much but I was really grateful that I didn't have to keep encouraging myself.  We passed the 25 mile marker, and Jen said, "Only a mile to go! You are rocking it!" and even though I felt like I was dying, I took the breath to say, "Jen. Never. Let. Me. Do. This. Again. EVER."  And right next to us, a woman piped cheerily, "That's what I said last year!" I would have laughed hysterically if my diaphragm would have allowed it (I couldn't).

After an agonizing ten more minutes (and more ibprofen), I finally could see the finish- which was straight up a hill for the last .2 miles.  Flash had told me about it, but I didn't realize just how bad it would be after all you have already been through.  I took a deep breath and started to grit my teeth in preparation- and just then, I tripped! I stopped myself from falling flat, but stopping short like that was the death knell for my seizing legs. A woman ran by me and screamed, "good recovery- come ON!" and I tried to follow her, but it's like my legs didn't belong to me any more.  Jen was yelling over the crowd, "c'mon!  You can do it!! You're so close!" So I waddled a bit until I felt like I could do it, then I ran to the finish. I made it.

The aftermath is a blur- waddling through a packed crowd of finishers, shaking hands with marines in uniform and getting my finisher's medal (I started crying), wishing I could find Flash and hug him. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done, mentally and physically, and it was over.

People have asked me if I will ever do it again, or what I'm going to do in the future. I guess I should never say never, though I told Flash right afterward I would never do that again. I will still run, of course, and do shorter races; we are signed up for a half marathon in the spring. I'm also excited to try some triathalons- my next great adventure!  But the real truth is that it doesn't matter. I ran a marathon, and now I can always say I have done it. And the best part is, there is no end- it's the beginning, because I have the rest of my life to aspire to ever greater fitness.

One more thing I should say before I close: I decided to start eating poultry again.  I realized after a certain point that I was just feeling too weak after really long runs, and my doctor advised me to take in another pure protein source other than fish (especially since it turns out I am allergic to soy).  For my body, it seems, it's just not something that can be sustained long-term.  I still don't eat red meat (right now at least), and I'm going to try and eat antibiotic-free and environmentally-friendly as much as possible.  But I applaud all of those continuing veggie athletes out there- well done, good for you!  The MOST important thing, which I hope I got across in this blog, is that you should listen to your body and give it what it needs.

As far as all my training this year, thanks to all my friends and family who supported me, cheered me on, and put up with me during this whole process; I couldn't have done it without you.  Thank you to my mom, grandmother, and friends for cheering me on in the race.  Thank you to Jen for getting me through that last three miles when I felt like my body was falling apart. Thank you to Speedy for being the cheeriest running buddy ever at 6 am on long runs.  And most importantly, thank you to Flash: you inspired me a year ago, when I had only ever run an 8K and you had just finished your first marathon, to go on to ever greater challenges. You got me to sign up for my first and second half marathons, and my first full marathon, with only words of encouragement all along the way. You got me up on those cold mornings to run, drove me to races, and always coaxed me through self-doubt.  You are a truly inspiring two-time marathoner and running buddy, and I can't even imagine how I would have done this training without you.  But most importantly, you're an amazing friend, and I'm so glad that we get to run together.

If you found this blog inspiring in any way to re-think your lifestyle and food choices, then I feel that I have succeeded at least in part.  If not, I hope at least it was entertaining to read about my many antics over the months.  I may start a new blog about overall fitness (and triathalons?) in the future, but until then, this is Dash, signing off...

The end (and the beginning).

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Taper Tantrum

There is now less than a week until my marathon- and I can hardly believe that it's finally almost here. I run so many miles (at least a thousand this year), trained for so many hours, and put so much mental sweat into this race, let alone all the general nutritional preparation and decreased social life (ha).  But the biggest thing about the final week is that you basically can no longer prepare; it's already essentially already done.  The way you treat your body for the final week is, however, extremely important to being able to perform on race day. As I once read a coach say in a running magazine: the hay is already in the barn, you just have to stack it.  During this last week, you don't go on some last long runs to make sure you are ready- far from it. Instead, you have to make yourself just rest, sleep a lot, and wait. And eat more carbs.

So what happens during this time? Shouldn't it be a nice break? Well, not necessarily.  In fact, marathoners often call how they feel during this time a "taper tantrum." Like other runners, running is usually my distraction, my release from stress at work, my time to get my thoughts in order. I'm also an endorphin junkie at this point. I'm used to running at least 30 miles a week, sometimes as much as 50 in a seven day period, and now I had to bring it down to 7 total for the whole week.  I feel like I am chomping at the bit, feeling more and more nervous about the race, yet unable to release most of that nervous energy.  What's more, the very short runs sometimes even don't feel that enjoyable, because I am used to warming up for the first few miles.  I have to say, a couple of those three mile runs have just felt- awkward, as if I was no longer quite able to get fully into my rhythm. I also feel like I have had so much time on my hands- especially on the weekend, because I haven't been either preparing for or recovering from a 14-20 mile run.  I actually cleaned and organized my apartment for about 10 hours on Saturday as a result.

Flash had warned me that tapering would be difficult, and I knew it would be- but it's quite different when you are actually experiencing it.  It kind of feels like I'm being wound up like a spring, like my muscles are itching to really run.  To tell the truth, Flash has been having an even more difficult time with tapering than I have- he went on an unscheduled jog last weekend, and he ran the three miler yesterday reallly fast.  I have been having a pretty difficult time making myself only do what's on the schedule, but I'm doing it. I know that the people who created it know what they are talking about.

Five more days.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Chase the Rabbit

It shouldn't come as a surprise to many, but runners are a quite competitive bunch. I have spent a lot of time talking about the different psychological processes which help or hinder running, but one that I have yet to mention is what I call the "chase the rabbit" syndrome. When I am out running on roads, paths, and in races, I often pass or am passed by other runners, and an interesting phenomenon occurs: the person who is passed often speeds up their pace in order to keep up (hence the term "chase the rabbit"-- the passer served as an impetus to go faster).

This happens to me a lot when I pass someone, particularly a male runner. They hate being passed by other runners (especially a girl) so they speed up to run by again. I usually roll my eyes as they blaze by, since they had previously been just trotting along really slowly. It also happens to me in the opposite, however. Last week I set out at around midday on a cool and rainy Saturday for a solo 12 miler. I was planning on trying to go at a medium pace, since I had a 20 mile run the week after, but I didn't want to go too slowly either.  About a half mile into my run, a girl in a brown rain jacket ran by me, and I automatically sped up behind her. I didn't feel like I was really going all that fast, but at the same time, I wasn't holding back. A while later I looked down at my watch, and I was going close to 8 minute miles! I made myself slow down a bit, because I was not used to going so fast for such a long run. I ended up averaging just under 9 minute miles for the run, though, which was pretty good overall.

This last Saturday, my training friend and I all did our second and final 20 mile training race, this time down in Spotsylvania, Virginia. Flash and I went down the night before so that we could sleep in a bit more (as in, until 5:30 am instead of 4:30). The morning of the race it was about 47 degrees and sunny at the start, and warmed up to about 60 by the end, which was perfect for running.  There were only a couple hundred runners in the whole race, most of whom were using it as a training run for a marathon (like us).  At the gun, M was off like a flash with a blistering pace, and Flash and Speedy were both taking it slow- Flash likes to take races at a big negative split.  So I was sort of left in the middle, not wanting to start out too slowly, but not wanting to go too fast either.  Just like in my other 20, I chose a person up ahead of me who was easily recognizable (a couple, one with a bright yellow shirt, the other with a bright orange one) to be my "rabbits"- they seemed to be going at about the pace I wanted to go. Mostly, I didn't want to be out in the middle of nowhere all by myself again, so I thought that I could at least be near them.  As the crowd started to thin out a bit, the couple and I were getting to water stations at about the same time, and eventually we all started chatting with each other.  I was really glad that I had the chance to run with them, because I would have gotten so bored for another three-plus hours all by myself.

At about mile 15-16, though, the group I was with started to slow down, and I knew that would be deadly for me.  So I ended up having to go ahead, and lo and behold- at a water station, I saw Flash and Speedy behind me! They had whittled down their splits to mid-eight minute miles, so as they came up with me I tried to run at their pace.  It ended up being a bit too fast  for me, so I slowed to about nine minute miles, and as they pulled ahead they became my new "rabbits" (I didn't lose sight of them until we rounded a blind bend at the very end).  The end of the race was a bit odd; it was a dirt trail that led up a steep incline until there was a flat plateau to the finish.  Even though my feet were killing me, I sprinted up that hill and into the finish.  My time was 3 hours and 16 minutes, a whole five minutes faster than my time from the first 20 miler.

Now it's time to start tapering, or resting, before the marathon, which is less than 20 days away!!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Carnivorous Cravings: The Breaking Point?

One month from today, I will have run my marathon. I feel ready for it, even though I have another 20 mile race standing between me and tapering (for you non-competitors out there, tapering is resting before the race).  I have come so far, yet there's still another whole month to go, and who knows what other monkey wrenches will be thrown my way. So close, yet so far!

One title I thought about for this post was "20 miles: the aftermath," because a lot of what I have been struggling with over the past couple weeks was in the wake of my 20 mile race.  There seemed to be a huge difference between how I felt after the 17 mile training run and the 20 mile race (granted, I also  kept a faster pace in the 20 than Flash, Speedy and I ran the 17).  I had a very hard time recovering in the week following that run in comparison with most other training runs- my legs were sore, and my joints ached. But what else was different? I noticed that, for the first time, I was really craving some chicken or turkey.

The day of the 20 mile race, I felt fine- I made sure I ate at pretty consistent intervals to fuel my recovery, but as I mentioned earlier, I probably should have rested more (instead, I went out that night and hiked the next day).  But the real problem came after the hike.  I have noticed a couple of times that the day after a really long run, I sometimes get really ravenously hungry without warning (blood sugar drop? protein or iron deficiency?) and if I'm not able to eat sustaining food pretty quickly, my body goes into panic mode.  That's what happened the day after the 20 mile race: I had eaten a piece or two of toast that morning, but nothing else until 4 pm after the short hike.  We stopped at a sports bar to get some food, but of course, what is mostly on the menu at a sports bar? MEAT, MEAT and MORE MEAT. One thing I can say for sure is that America loves its football, beer and meat. Oh, and frying everything.

So, what can you do in this type of situation? During my training I have run into this problem all the time, because vegetarian options are not necessarily that healthy.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but trying to find a meatless salad in America is much harder than you'd think, and so you are often left with some kind of fried vegetable sandwich on white bread (not ideal). Your body is raging for food, and you are not really able to get to your normal, vegetarian and healthy options (such as veggie protein-rich foods like lentils).  You ran 20 miles the day before, and you are really craving something filling. Your options are:

a) Eat something vegetarian, but unhealthy, such as fries or creamy white pasta (which isn't even really that filling OR good for you)
b) Eat something vegetarian and healthy, but also not very filling (cup of soup and meatless salad)
c) Eat something healthier but not vegetarian (i.e., a turkey burger or grilled chicken sandwich on a whole wheat bun)

What would you do? Now my friends, I have to admit, I really was craving a turkey burger. It was a very difficult decision to make, because I knew my body wanted it. But I wasn't sure if it was just a craving that could be satisfied later by some other food. To tell the truth, I almost got it, until my friend said "WHAT? will you feel like a fraud as the meatless marathoner??" At that moment, I faltered, wondering if it was really what I needed. I couldn't decide, so I ended up getting a small soup and salad, which isn't what my body wanted, and I was still very hungry later. But what really stopped me from eating it? Because I have been touting to all of you that being a no-meat athlete (even for a marathon) is doable. I have been running an experiment to see whether that is true, and up until that point it was never really difficult; I haven't been sitting around for the past six months and dreaming about greasy chicken wings or bacon double cheeseburgers.

But here's the thing: as I have thought about it more, I have realized that eating that turkey burger would not have been fraudulent, since I have told all of you time and again that the most important thing about eating lifestyles is listening to your body. When it tells you that you need vegetables, eat vegetables! If you really feel like some popcorn at the movies, get some popcorn. If you deny yourself what you need or want, you'll just end up unbalancing your body and possibly overeating later.  I wouldn't say that you should go indulge in 20 cheeseburgers and a whole chocolate cake every day because you "feel" like it. But fighting against your body's natural cravings (especially if they are healthy ones) is not good either. Yes, a plant-based diet (or mostly so) is much better for you and for the environment. But at what point do you have to cut your losses and give your body what it's screaming for?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Physiologically, there is a certain point at which the human body has gone past its natural limits-- that is, when it has expended all its stored energy. According to runners old and new, there is a natural "wall" around mile 20 of the marathon. Despite the fact that a marathon is another 6.2 miles after that, most marathon training schedules never have you run past 20 miles. Scientifically speaking, the reason for this is that your your liver simply can't store any more glycogen than it takes to run that 20 miles. Even if you keep drinking gatorade or eating nutrition, your body will simply use it all up, and your body starts to break down after that point. The best analogy, as an experienced marathoner put it to me recently, is that the last six miles feels like running when you're completely hungover (which I have never attempted, but it sounds awful).

When I have explained this to some friends recently, several have asked the following: "Why don't you practice running past that point in the training schedule? Wouldn't it benefit you to see what it's like to run past that wall and keep going?"

According to several sources, running past 20 miles would actually hinder my training. Past that point, the body can't really recover fast enough for me to keep training right away, and I may even injure myself. After the marathon, I may be barely able to walk for several days, because I have simply pushed my body past its breaking point. 

This past weekend was my first-ever 20 mile run.  Flash had done a 20 mile training race called "The Revenge of the Penguins" (which is the nickname for slower endurance runners) as a training race for Marine Corps last year. Our training schedule doesn't necessarily call for the 20 milers to be a race, but the benefit of having aid stations as well as other racers to keep us company for three and a half hours is too large to pass up. Surprisingly, I didn't dread the race at all; possibly because I had handled the 17 mile run reasonably well. I even helped my friend move later that afternoon. Basically, I couldn't think too much about the enormity of the undertaking or I wouldn't be able to motivate myself to begin. Moreover, I knew that my fitness level now is such that I am capable of doing it, even if it's not particularly fast.

Saturday dawned with perfect weather for a really long run: high 50's to low 60s and cloudy, almost chilly.  I have gotten into a good routine recently of going to bed really early on Friday nights and waking up at the crack of dawn to go on long runs, so I felt pretty rested. I drove up to Calderock, Maryland on the Clara Barton Parkway for the start, which seemed like it was out in the middle of nowhere.  I knew that we would be running on the C & O trail,, but what I didn't know was that we would essentially be running from the forest up north down to where it begins in Georgetown and back up again. I ran into Flash and his friend Mer (a 7-time marathoner) before the start, but I still had to get my race bib and timing chip, so I got separated from them. I didn't find them or our other training partner (let's call him Speedy) before the start. There were several hundred runners, and we all were pretty close-packed on the narrow dirt/rock trail at first. I figured that Flash, Mer and Speedy would catch up to me at some point, and I saw them at a mini-turnaround point a couple of miles in, but unfortunately we never ended up running together. As Flash and I discussed later, though, for this kind of run it is actually really crucial to run at your own pace. and not to worry about running faster or slower to stay paced with the people near you. Even a 10-15 second difference can really change your gait and make it that much harder for you to get to the finish.

The race itself was very strange in some ways. The trail is basically a long path which follows the canal, and there were few enough racers that we basically all thinned out over the course until there were sometimes several minutes between people. It almost felt like I was the only one out there at some points, but there were one or two people who were running at about the same pace as I was, so we basically played leap-frog for most of the race. For the most part, however, I felt like I was going solo with only my music for entertainment.

I'll admit, it was sometimes very difficult to keep myself motivated. I used my trick of compartmentalizing the running segments (i.e., "Only three miles to go before 10, then you're halfway" or "Two more miles until the next water station") because allowing myself to think about the fact that I still had an hour to go after running for two and a half hours would be mentally crippling. The path was also very rocky, and my running shoes are reaching the end of their lifespan, so I felt sharp edges through the soles pretty much the whole way.

By the last five miles, I was starting to feel pretty bored. I wasn't exhausted, or at least I had convinced myself that I wasn't, but I was reaching the limit of mental fatigue. By the time I had passed the 17 mile mark, which is the farthest I had ever run, I just wanted to be done. I had started to speed up my pace by then, and I ended up powering in the last couple of miles at a half-minute faster pace than my overall average.

Mer was waiting for us at the finish, seemingly not that tired. As we waited for Flash and Speedy, she told me "You did it! Now you can do the marathon, no problem!"

I just shook my head, pointing out that another hour of running on top of that seemed insurmountable. Mer didn't listen to my defeatist attitude, however, pointing out how fast I was running in at the end. She said I probably had more 'juice' left in me than I realized, so I suppose I'll have to take that one one faith. Flash came in a few minutes later (he had gotten a second wind at about the 13 mile mark), and Speedy came in a few after that.

I felt a huge difference between my recovery from the 17 mile training run and the 20 mile race over the next couple of days. I'm not sure what it was in particular; whether it was breaking "the wall," or because I ran at a faster pace. Whatever the case, I got home, showered, and curled up in a ball under the covers (I couldn't get warm) and slept for hours. I had, unfortunately, made more plans that weekend, thinking that I would feel better than I did, and I had planned to attend a friend's birthday party that night starting at 10 pm. I also had hiking the next day. I ended up doing both and had fun, but it probably stretched me too thin. As Flash has said, I need to take my own advice and rest more.

We have only three more weeks of peak training (culminating in another 20 mile race) and then we start to taper for the marathon at the end of October. It's getting so close, yet a month and a half is still a pretty long time. I feel like I am really pretty ready for it at this point, so more fitness is just icing on the cake.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fighting through Fatigue

I'm now on week 11 of 18 in my schedule, more than halfway through official training for the marathon.  At this point, the normal weekday runs are 5 miles, 8 miles, then another 5 miles, and the longest weekend run so far has been 17 miles, so 35+ miles total.  At this point, I have had to scale back quite a bit on my cross training (usually only once or twice a week), because I have to fit in all the running days as well as try to rest for one day a week.  A couple of weeks ago, when the weekly mileage started to climb above 30, I started feeling very fatigued, especially when I was doing high-intensity workouts on my "off" (that is, non-running) days.  In the past year, I have really been used to running every other day and alternating with cross training, but not running four to five times a week, especially at such high mileages on weekdays.  I wasn't sure if my nutrition or sleeping patterns were more of the issue, but I was starting to get worried about being that tired for the rest of my training. 

One thing that I now know is really important, and which Flash has been hounding me about for many months, is to make sure that you actually give yourself one full rest day a week.  I could get away with not doing that when I wasn't doing the marathon training schedule or even when I was training for the half marathons in the spring. But now it's really crucial to rest and recover, even though I sometimes hate to do it (I feel weird on days when I don't work out). There are several reasons for this: first of all, if you never get enough rest, your muscles won't have time to recover and rebuild (duh).  I usually try to take my day off right before the long run of the week so that I feel pretty rested and not sore on my really long runs. 

Second of all, mental fatigue can be a huge problem, and forcing yourself to take a day off can alleviate some of that.  I have virtually been training non-stop for races (starting with shorter ones and building up to this point) for the past year straight.  I really love to exercise and train, but even the best runners I know, like Flash, sometimes start getting mentally fatigued after so many weeks of intense training.  I am pretty confident most of the time, but even I sometimes have doubts about whether I am capable of all of this.  I have to tell you, there have been several times in the past few weeks when I have had to go to sleep really early on a Friday night (my social life is sometimes nil these days) and just sat there thinking, I have to get up at 5 AM and run for three hours tomorrow morning. Why did I think this was a good idea? What did I get myself into?

But I can tell you, when I have gotten going on those long runs- the 14, 15, 17, etc. milers with Flash and our other running buddy- something has started happening.  It's like I'm tapping into the real endurance runner within me, a whole new level that I didn't even know I had.  I start feeling stronger and stronger as we run, and I hit a really great stride at about mile 8-10 which only builds as we go. It's an incredible feeling. Granted, we are not running at a really fast pace, but that's what you are supposed to do for these long training runs- go about a minute and a half slower per mile than your race pace.  Regardless, in the past week or two I have started feeling like I'm reaching the best running fitness level I have ever been in.  Last week, I was supposed to run 8 miles after work on Wednesday, and I felt so good that I ran 10 miles in my fastest training time ever.  Then only a few days later, I ran 17 miles and didn't even feel that fatigued afterward- I ran errands and helped a friend move for the rest of the day.  I'm discovering that my body is very resilient and can rise to higher challenges than I thought possible. Of course, it helps that I try to treat it really well- as I have mentioned before, I am still not drinking at all, I don't have refined sugars, and I eat lots of wholesome foods.

One more thing that I have noticed, though, is that nowadays I can get pretty hungry ALL day, because I'm just burning so many calories.  In the past five days, for example, I ran 17 on Saturday, swam for 45 minutes on Sunday, ran 6 miles Monday, ran 8 miles really fast on Tuesday, then ran another 8 yesterday.  I was ravenous all day afterward. I'm attempting to eat every few hours so that I don't get TOO hungry and so that my body has enough fuel, and as usual try to get enough protein and good fats.  One thing I recently discovered (curtesy of a friend) is a cool fueling/recovery drink: all natural peanut butter, almond milk, and banana smoothies!!

The only thing I'm worried about now is peaking too early... since the race is still a month and a half away.  Even though I feel really strong now, I guess I can just get better from here! Next up: 20 mile race on September 17.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Training when Traveling

When you are training for a race for four to six months, you are pretty much bound to be out of town for at least part of the time and/or will have to adjust to training under abnormal circumstances.  For the month of August, especially, DC becomes a ghost town- Congress goes out of session, and everyone is out on vacation at some point, fleeing the heat and the influx of tourists.  A couple of weeks ago, I went to meet my family in San Diego for a short vacation with a stop in Colorado on the way back.  It was nice to escape the oppressive humidity for a while, but training for the marathon when you are traveling has its own set of challenges.  It makes me realize how used I am to running certain routes here in DC- I have done all of them so many times that I can basically run on autopilot, without having to think about where I am going, and I know exactly what to expect at every turn (down to which water fountains work, and which don't).  When you are in a new place, you don't have that luxury.

There were a few surprising blessings to running in San Diego.  For one thing, it was really very cool weather (about 65 degrees in the morning, and never higher than 75).  What's more, it was always cloudy in the mornings (sometimes burning off by midday or the afternoon)- all in all, it was perfect weather for running, if not for tanning on the beach.

Trying to find good running routes when you are in an unfamiliar place, however, can be difficult.  When we first got to La Jolla (a small town north of downtown San Diego where we spent the first couple of days), I asked the front desk of the hotel if there was a running trail nearby, and they pointed me to the "boardwalk" on the beachfront.  My brother, sister and I set out the first (cloudy) morning, walking down to the sidewalk near the shore to do a four mile run.  The "boardwalk" was really an extremely narrow sidewalk, with a lot of people strolling around, and it was only about a mile long.  My brother and sister and I ended up weaving our way around through neighborhoods, getting lost, running up and down steep hills, and having to stop and start a lot (which can get very frustrating, even on a short run).

My next scheduled run was a 7 miler, and I knew I couldn't handle that kind of stopping and starting again, so my brother researched actual running trails in the surrounding area.  He found a running/biking trail that started up on the plateau around the Torrey Pines area near the University of San Diego, which boasted that it was about a 10K round trip- not quite long enough, but had to make do.  We couldn't find the beginning of the trail at first, and then it took us at least a half hour to find a place for our Mom to drop us off, so I was getting pretty antsy by the time we actually started running. It was a much better run at first, mostly flat, and there were gorgeous views because we were on a plateau with dropoffs on either side (towards the water on one side, and towards the land on the other). A couple of miles in, though, we noticed that the "trail" was really a road which led straight down the cliff on a steep incline.  Sam and I tried to find a trail that stayed on the plateau, but after a couple of failed attempts we just decided to follow the road.  It ended up being a steep hill for at least a mile which led all the way down to the beach- and we still had to run further once we had gotten down in order to get to the turnaround point of 3.5 miles. When we finally turned around and started climbing back up the hill, I had to keep my head down.  That's one of my tricks for a long hill- I don't look up to see how far I still have to go, because otherwise I lose a lot of mental drive.  So I just look at my shoelaces or the pavement in front of me, and try to push my cadence as high as I can stand it (slowing down can also be a killer).  We finally made it to the crest of the hill, but we still had a couple of miles to go.  It was, all in all, a quite tiring run; I was much more sore than I usually am after that kind of distance.  Finally, my mom was out hiking on the plateau and we couldn't find her for a while, so by the time we actually got to have some food Sam and I were pretty much starving (it's best to eat right after a run like that).

Having had enough curveballs thrown my way, I decided to really plan out my 14 mile run, especially since it was the longest I had ever run.  I vetted out a location that was a flat, paved bike path (from Coronado island down the Silver Strand highway), and made sure that it was long enough (it was 11 miles each way, more than far enough).  Unfortunately I didn't have Flash with me, but I did have the advantage of an entourage (my mom, sister and brother) as support.  My family dropped me off, then went to get a lot of post-run sustenance (bananas and larabars) as well as to pick out a place to eat right afterward, then drove to the six mile point.  As I ran past, I handed my mom my camelback (water pack) and she refilled it as I ran another mile out and back.  When I got back to the car, she passed it off to me as I ran by, and Sam joined me to run the final 6 miles.  I was feeling great, because it was flat, the air was cool, and I was extremely well rested- in fact, by the end of the run I was running mid-eight minute miles, below my half marathon pace. 

I was lucky that my family was there to support me that time, but that has not always been the case.  A few mishaps (such as when I twisted my ankle on a run in Virginia Beach a couple of months ago) have shown me that there are a few things that you should pretty much always have with you when running in an unfamiliar place by yourself.  First: a phone, preferably with GPS.  Even though it might seem like a pain to carry a phone, I can't tell you how many times I have gotten turned around in an unfamiliar place, and how the GPS on my phone has helped me figure out how to get back.  Even if it doesn't have GPS, you can call someone to find out how to get back on track. Second: money (this applies to when you are on a long run at home, too).  You may not think about it, but it's very possible that you could get injured an hour and a half into a three hour run and you'll have no way of getting back- since you have already gone so far, you would have to walk for miles and miles to get home or to your car.  If you don't have a phone, you wouldn't have any way to call someone to pick you up, and even if you did, there might not be anyone who can come to get you; so it's really important to have some money for a cab just in case.  Third: an ID. It's scary to think about, but runners have gotten hit by cars and have no form of ID on them, and the hospital has no way of knowing who you are or how to contact your family.

Anyway, enough serious stuff (ha).  Even without traveling, there are sometimes adjustments that you have to get used to.  Flash was out of town on vacation for the first week of August, then I was in California and Colorado for the second week, then he was out again for work the third week- in all, almost a month without my running buddy! I was starting to get really tired of running by myself all the time, because it can get pretty boring. We finally got to run together again last week, along with our other work running pal who is training for Marine Corps.  We had a 15 mile run on the schedule, so we decided to meet up at 6 am at Flash's house and run on the Rock Creek Parkway- which meant that I had to get up at 5 am.  It was awesome to get to run together again, especially since we were all chatting for a lot of the first half.  I forgot how much faster the time passes when you have that kind of distraction, instead of being alone with your own thoughts.  The three of us are getting amped up for our next long run- 17 miles- this Saturday, again the longest I have ever run.  Wish me luck!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Delicious Meat-free Things

Hey all! Sorry about the lag between posts, but I have been on a bit of a haitus because I was on vacation in San Diego and Colorado (expect a post soon about travel training!).  Anyway, I have had some requests to post more delightful recipes, so I have accumulated a bunch of photos and new recipes for all you vegetarians, flexitarians, or meat-eaters who want to try some other healthy food (you can even add a chicken breast or something to most of these, if your heart so desires-- I won't hold it against you).

Here are some of the things I have made lately:

Summer Squash and Arugula Salad

I got a LOT of squash in our CSA this summer, so I was searching for ways to eat it that weren't either roasting or sauteeing for dinner. This salad was a fresh, light lunch, and the homemade lemon vinaigrette added a light sunshine-y touch of citrus:

  • Small handful sliced almonds
  • 1 pound summer squash (a mix of green and yellow)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 minced garlic clove (or tsp ground garlic)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Baby arugula
  • 1/2 cup chickpeas
Place almonds on a cookie sheet and roast in the oven at 400 degrees until fragrant. Meanwhile, trim the ends off summer squash. If you have a vegetable peeler or mandolin slicer, thinly slice the squash lengthwise into strips and transfer to a large bowl (in the picture above I just sliced them into sections because I made it at work). In a small bowl, whisk together extra-virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, minced garlic clove, and kosher salt to taste. Pour dressing over squash. Let stand for a few minutes (this gives it the flavor), then add a few handfuls of baby arugula. Add the chickpeas and toss. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Garnish with the crushed almonds.

Spinach, feta and tomato quiche

I made this quiche one Sunday afternoon and had it for breakfast for a few days.  I used whole wheat, organic phyllo dough that I found at Yes! organic market, and tomatoes, spinach and eggs from Eastern Market.

  • 6 sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed
  • 3 Tbs. olive oil
  • Bunch of fresh spinach
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 10 cherry tomatoes, halved
Quiche Batter
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup low-fat milk
  • Pinch ground nutmeg
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

To make Crust:
Coat 9-inch pie pan with cooking spray. Lay one phyllo sheet on a work surface, and brush it all over with oil. Top with second phyllo sheet, and brush with oil. Repeat phyllo and oil layers three times more. Press into prepared pie pan; trim edges with scissors.

To make Filling:
Sauté spinach in a pan over low heat using olive oil until spinach is just lightly wilted. Sprinkle feta cheese over Crust. Top with spinach.

To make Quiche Batter:
Whisk together all ingredients in medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper, if desired. Pour Quiche batter over the filling in the crust. Arrange the tomatoes on the top so that the sliced parts face outward. Set quiche on baking sheet, and bake 45 to 50 minutes, or until top is brown and center is set.

Braised Lebanese Eggplant with Chickpeas and Roasted Corn

Another ingredient we have gotten a lot in the CSA is eggplant, and I have really never cooked with it before. Since I became vegetarian, though, I have noticed that I have begun to crave it more (and my sister has said the same).  I have tried grilling it or making eggplant sandwiches, but I came across this recipe recently and decided to break out my Dutch oven for the first time since the winter!
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced (1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 eggplants, halved lengthwise and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 clove garlic, minced (1 tsp.)
  • 1/2 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 cup marinara sauce
  • 1 Tbs. red wine vinegar
  • 1 15-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 2 large mint sprigs, plus 2 Tbs. chopped mint
  • Ear of corn (NOT shucked)

(Pic of the eggplant in the Dutch oven)

  1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion, and sauté 7 minutes, or until soft. Stir in eggplant, and cook 5 minutes or until beginning to brown. Add garlic, allspice, and cumin, and cook 1 minute more.  
  2. Stir in marinara sauce, vinegar, and 2/3 cup water, and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in chickpeas. Season with salt and pepper. Lay mint sprigs on top of eggplant mixture, cover, and transfer pot to oven. At the same time, put corn directly onto grill rack in the oven. Cook 45 to 50 minutes, or until eggplant is tender (also keep an eye on the corn). Remove mint sprigs, and stir in chopped mint.  Remove corn with tongs and shuck (careful, it's hot!). Serve ear of corn on the side of eggplant.
Risotto Primavera

I was in the mood for something a little more filling one day, and of course I had tons of veggies, so I decided to make a light summer risotto.

  • 3/5 cups vegetable broth
  • Olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 small carrot, peeled and julienned
  • 1 cup uncooked Arborio rice
  • 1 cup broccoli florets
  • 1 small zucchini, julienned or shaved with a peeler
  • Grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup milk (I used lowfat)
  • Grated Parmesan cheese
  • Parsley for garnish
1. In 2-quart saucepan, heat broth over medium heat
2. Meanwhile, in a large non-stick saucepan, heat a tablespoon oil over medium-high heat.  Add onion and carrot, stirring frequently until tender.
3. Stir in rice. Cook, stirring rice, until it begins to brown (this step is important for flavor).
4. Reduce heat to medium.  Pour 1/2 cup of the hot broth over the rice mixture.  Cook uncovered, stirring frequently, until broth is absorbed.  Continue cooking 15-20 minutes, adding broth 1/2 cup at a time and stirring frequently until rice is tender.
5. Lastly, add 1/2 cup milk and some of the cheese (this makes it more creamy). Add broccoli and zucchini.
6. Serve with sprinkle of parmesan on top and parsley garnish.

Veggie Red Curry Stir Fry

This is a good "recipe" for those of you who don't really like following a lot of instructions and/or using a lot of ingredients.  This is something I make when I don't have a lot of time to make the sauce from scratch and want to make something fast with lots of vegetables, since I usually have most of these things on hand. Here's what I used for this one, but you can use any combination of vegetables, tofu, meat, etc. your heart desires:

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • Couple cloves of garlic, minced
  • Red and green bell pepper, chopped
  • Head of broccoli, broken into bite size pieces
  • Baby carrots
  • Fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • Udon noodles (these are made with wheat flour!)
  • Edamame pods (fresh or frozen)
  • Olive oil or hot oil
  • Red curry sauce (I like the one from Trader Joe's)
Heat water in a small pot (for steaming veggies). When water in the pot is boiling, place broccoli, carrots and edamame in bamboo steamer (this adds flavor) and steam for several minutes until soft (I like to have my veggies a bit al dente).

Meanwhile, heat oil in a big wok (I love my huge round sided one) over medium heat. Add onion, bell pepper, and mushrooms, and stir occasionally until soft.

When the steamed veggies are done, remove the bamboo steamer and add udon noodles to the boiling water. Boil for a few minutes, then quickly remove to strainer and blanch with cold water.

When Edamame are cool, shell them and add them to the wok.  Finally, add the noodles, steamed veggies, garlic and red curry sauce to the wok and cook for a couple more minutes. Voila!

Avocado, Tomato and Spinach sandwich

Sometimes I get tired of eating salads or soup for lunch, but there just aren't that many ways to have a vegetarian sandwich.  This is a good combination of food that is filling and satisfying (to me anyway) without imitation processed soy meat, etc. I just toast the bun and slap it all together with a small salad on the side and some fruit, and it's a great lunch!
  • 3-4 avocado slices
  • 2 large slices tomato
  • Slice buffalo mozzarella
  • Multigrain sandwich thin (I like the ones from Trader Joe's)
  • Red pepper hummus
  • Pesto (I made my own)
  • Field greens

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Breakfast Club

I am not a morning person. I have been a night owl for my entire life; even when I was little, I would stay up late on family vacations watching re-runs of I Love Lucy when everyone else was long asleep, and I would be the latest riser. The only times when I would actually get up early to work out was when I had to rise at 4:30 in the morning to go to swim practice in high school (ugh), and my coaches would always say, "why are you swimming so badly?" ("It's five in the morning, and no one should be awake, let alone jumping in cold water," I wanted to reply).  In college, of course, my biorhythm was ideal; I could stay up late studying, wake up late, work out, then go to classes in the afternoon.  During the past year, though, I have had to completely change my patterns, since I work from 8:30 am to 6 pm.  Getting up at 7 am in order to go to work is hard enough for me, so I would usually work out during lunch or after work. The few high-minded attempts I ever made to run before work usually met a swift end when I cracked a bleary eye at my alarm then hit the snooze button.

Having had too many jaunts on the treadmill and in the heat lately, though, I decided that enough was enough, and I have been getting up at 6 am to run before work. I'm still getting used to it, and I don't always enjoy it, but I'm hoping that my body will start to adjust.  I have been having to make sure and turn out the light at about 10 pm, too, which is really hard for me (the night owl in me wants to stay up until 2 am), but with the kind of training I do, getting enough rest is vital.

When I get up, I have a bit of coffee waiting for me (thanks to my delay timer), and I whip up a quick sunrise (literally) smoothie: a banana, strawberries, a couple dollops of plain greek yogurt, a scoop of protein powder and some OJ.  I noticed that it gives me a lot more quick energy for short runs in the morning than the toast with peanut butter option I usually have before a long run.  I am out the door by 6:30, and the sun is just coming up, so there is still a bit of almost-coolness to the air.  Lately I have been riding Capital Bikeshare to work and running from there, but that means that I don't start running until 7 and it's already getting hot (sadly), so I might run from home next time to benefit the most from the coolness.

One thing I noticed is that there is a very interesting crowd running at that time in the morning.  I have even started giving them nicknames (to keep myself from falling asleep as I run? maybe), and they are similar to the personalities of the brat pack kids in The Breakfast Club.  If you don't know what I am talking about, go and rent the movie right now (or watch it on Netflix, or whatever the kids are doing these days), because it's an awesome movie. Anyway, here are the categories of runners I have seen...

"The Athlete": Obviously, anyone who is out running at this time of day is a kind of athlete, but these guys (or gals) are hardcore so they deserve the title. As I'm running along, trying to keep up a relatively good pace, suddenly one of them grazes by me like an antelope and makes me feel like a snail.  They usually have the defined musculature of someone who has about 2% body fat, which I can see because the males are wearing very short running shorts, while the females are in just a running bra and spandex.  They all probably are doing a half marathon before work (no big deal). As they go by I wish I could shout, "You go, Glen Coco!" but they are already a mile ahead.

"The Princess": These girls are in their matching, pretty lululemon gear, and don't even seem to glisten while everyone else is sweating bullets.  They aren't really running that fast, but they don't look to concerned about it. In fact, I'm surprised they are running at this time of day, but they are probably trying to fit in some "exercise" before their later microderm abrasion and massage.

"The Burnout":  These macho guys crack me up; they can also be seen on the Mall during the afternoons.  Sometimes a really muscle-y male will blaze by me at a startling pace, obviously trying to look really spiffy. At first glance, this species can be mistaken for an "Athlete," but they are usually not as lithe and have big arm muscles from weight lifting.  After about a half mile, I'll catch up to them, because they are walking with their hands above their heads, heaving for air and drenched in sweat. Turns out that lifting weights for four hours doesn't translate so well to running, eh?

"The Brain":  These are the over-analyzing runners who have a very expensive GPS running watch, complete with a heart rate monitor strapped to their chest and/or the Nike running chip shoes. They know and record all their splits and pace, and probably sometimes forget that running is supposed to be... fun?

"The Basketcase":  There are also some very strange people running out there. Once as I was running on the Mall I saw a guy running in a full sweatsuit in the heat, going at a pretty slow pace.  He looked like he was having a hard time, as his stance was slanted at an almost 45-degree angle.  I caught up with him, and started running a bit faster to go by him.  As I got level, though, he started running faster. So I started running faster. Then he ran even faster. I could tell he wasn't trying to attack me or anything (there were people around and he didnt seem aggressive), but he just kept going faster to keep up. This went on for about ten minutes (and we were pushing under 8 minute mile pace) when I finally got annoyed and veered onto a side road.

These characters are very entertaining, especially when you aren't the kind of person who wants to be out and about that early in the morning. It's kind of calming, though, running that early- especially since there (mostly) aren't hordes of tourists yet, and after about twenty minutes of sluggishness I usually start feeling more awake. I even ran up and down the stairs the other day on the Lincoln Memorial before a Park Policewoman kicked me off. So hopefully I'll get in the habit of joining The Breakfast Club, at least until the fall!

Sunday, July 31, 2011


I have been talking a lot about running, which is obviously a big part of training for a marathon.  But even the most running-based training schedules recommend a day or two of cross-training per week, sometimes more. When I was training for my half marathons last spring, I would usually run every other day, alternating with cross training days (working in a rest day maybe once a week).

I have actually had a surprising number of people ask me: what, exactly, IS cross-training? Isn't marathon training just running? Cross-training, simply put, is any kind of training or working out that is not running.  So it can be as simple as walking, or as much a complete other sport, such as swimming.  But why cross-train, you may ask? There are multiple benefits: first of all, it helps to rest your muscles and give them more recovery by doing a different kind of workout for a day or two a week.  This has the added effect of reducing your tendency towards injury, since you are resting your joints and at the same time strengthening other muscle groups.  Finally, it increases your overall fitness. Your body can get "used" to the same kind of training over and over, so if you change what kind of workout you are doing more often, you are more likely to reap more benefit.  And most of all, I find that it helps with that most burdensome of demons: workout boredom.  If you get bored with your workouts, will you keep doing them over and over? Probably not.

Here are a few of the kinds of cross-training I do:

-Swimming: As you probably remember, I was a competitive swimmer from the age of 7 until 18, so swimming pretty much comes as second nature to me.  Swimming is a fantastic cardiovascular workout (four times harder than running and sixteen times harder than biking), and has the added benefit of being completely non-impact, which means that it doesn't hurt your joints at all.  It's also a full-body workout because you use both your arms and legs.  I often go to one of the free local pools once or twice a week (sometimes with friends), swimming about 2000-3000 yards or between 45 and 60 mins.  I like swimming, especially on these hot days, because it is complete quiet, and you can just get into a rhythm of long strokes in the cool water.

-Boxing: I started taking boxing classes when I was in college, and it's one of the most intense workouts I have ever experienced.  Now I want to point out, this is not cardio kickboxing (I have never done that- I'm sure it's great, though). It's the kind of boxing where you actually have wraps and gloves (I have my own!) and punching bags.  I have even sparred- that is, fought someone- and it's so intense that a minute and a half leaves you feeling like you have worked out for an hour.  It's also a great compliment to running, since it is a lot of arm strengthening.  I basically think of boxing as my ultimate workout apart from running, and it's also really fun!!

-Yoga: Cross training can also be very relaxing and low-intensity. On days when I am particularly sore from running or I am stressed out from work, I like to go to yoga class at one of my gyms.  Some people consider it to be an hour of "glorified stretching," which in a way it is, but it's fantastic stretching. I get really stiff and tight-muscled because I work out so much, so it's really helpful to unwind.  And believe it or not, it can be HARD, especially for someone who isn't that flexible to begin with (um, me).  I have broken into a sweat on more than one occasion in yoga, depending on the instructor and the poses.  I always leave feeling lighter, and taller, and less coiled up like a spring.

-Spinning: I have yet to get a road bike (hoping to save up for one soon), so in the meantime I go to spinning classes.  Spinning is fun for everyone, from "non-athletes" to hard-core triathletes who bring their own clip-on shoes.   I enjoy having an instructor to change up the kind of cycling we do- hills, sprints, etc. And one instructor even has us do arm weights on the bikes, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

-Personal training: Personal training is a luxury that can be difficult to afford, but luckily I have a pretty good rate as a government employee.  I have the ability to lift weights on my own (leftover knowledge from being a swimmer and a rower) but I never really push myself hard enough.  Having personal training every week or two reminds me that even though I am somewhat fit, I have a lot of potential to strengthen my body. I sometimes leave the workouts feeling like I can barely move, and I am sore for days afterward.  Flash and I sometimes have arguments about strength training and weights- as far as runners go, we are not like the tiny, wiry people (he is over six feet tall, as I mentioned, and I'm 5'8'', which isn't short for a woman).  He sometimes says that he thinks lifting weights puts on too much muscle for runners, and that it just adds bulk.  That can be true, but my trainer and I try to stay with lighter weights and more reps to make it so that I add just lean muscle. Strength training also can reduce your potential for injury.

-Lacrosse: Up until recently when the session ended, I was playing lacrosse once a week in an adult DC women's lacrosse league.  I played lax from elementary school through varsity in high school and then on a club team in college, so from my first days in DC last year I was looking for a way to play again (I didn't find a league until the spring).  I really liked being able to play, since I am running around (including sprinting) for an hour without really realizing it!  There are lots of other teams in the DC area such as club or pickup soccer that you could also play as a way to get in some extra running outside of the gym.

-Elliptical: When all else fails, I sometimes do the elliptical.  I feel at this point in my fitness that it doesn't really give me as much of a workout, so I usually put the cross (that is, the height) at 10 and the resistance at 10-12, and watch a movie or read a book while I'm on the machine.  Today, for example, I watched a couple of episodes of Seinfeld and an hour passed by pretty quickly.

I obviously don't do all of these in one week, but I usually do each of them at least once or twice a month in rotation.  I pretty much always cross-train a few times a week in addition to running 25+ miles, which means that on some days I double up running and cross. As I said, I really enjoy cross training, because just running all the time can get very monotonous. That's one of the reasons I might be more cut out for triathaloning in the future! For now, though, I think it really helps with my overall strength and cardiovascular fitness.