Saturday, July 9, 2011

Race Recap: Madison Marathon - Half Marathon

This recap is way late. But, better late than never I suppose.
At the end of May I completed my first half-marathon at the 2011 Madison Marathon. I had two goals for myself: 1) finish, and if possible 2) finish under 2:30. Despite some unorthodox training (read: minimal) and first time half marathon mistakes, I managed to accomplish both goals and chalk up my first official half-marathon time of 2:24:30.

Over the winter I toyed with the idea of running the Madison Marathon. Most marathon training programs are 16-18 weeks so I figured I had enough time to build up my mileage before the end of May. Well, as Sun Tzu said, no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. My January and February mileage sucked. Like, 10 miles in January and 5 miles in February sucked . In March I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to scale up to the distance I would need in order to complete a marathon in May without hurting myself. I still wanted to keep the Glacial Trail 50k as my big goal for year so I needed to make sure I still did a long race in the spring. I figured I'd split the difference and do a half-marathon. I justified it to myself after the fact that the half was the natural thing to do because the longest race I'd ever done was a 10k so the half was the next logical step. *cough*Bullshit*cough*

Despite forking over the not-inconsiderable registration fee, I still found it a little hard to make time to get out and run. It's not that I didn't WANT to go running. I just found it really easy to make excuses as for why I couldn't. I'm kind of lazy like that, and if anything's a struggle with me and running it's getting out the door. Once I'm out there, I'm golden. But getting up and putting on the shoes... let me tell you. Herculean effort. Through March and into May I managed a measly 2-3 runs a week, mostly in the 3-5 mile range with the occasional 6 miler. I managed to squeeze in one 9.5 miler a week and a half before the race, but otherwise that was it. It was betting everything on proper form, will power, and being well rested.

So having never raced a half-marathon before (heck, having never run that far ever) I was flying a little blind as to how to best prepare for the race. Here are a list of good calls, rookie mistakes, and just plain boneheaded moves:

Good call:
  • Bringing my own pack with a bottle of lemon lime NUUN and a flask loaded with slightly watered down Cliff Shots Double Espresso gels (mmmm... caffeine)
  • Wearing my Merrell Trail Gloves and Recofit calf sleeves
  • Chia Fresca half an hour before the race
Rookie Mistakes:
  • Not cutting down on the fiber in the days leading up to the race
  • Not budgeting enough time for pre-race bathroom trips before getting to the starting area (these two would create a related problem)
Boneheaded Moves:
  • Wearing a new top for the race
  • Not tending to the nipples pre-race (also related issues)
Next to the Crazylegs Classic and the Madison Ironman, the Madison Marathon is probably one of the largest non-UW Athletics events in Madison - although the Crazylegs could be considered related since it's a fundraiser for the athletic dept. The Madison Fesitvals people do a great job putting it on but there are a couple things that could be improved:
  1. More porta-pottys at the start. I know it's hard to imagine more. But seriously, doubling the number would be totally reasonable. 
  2. Better staging (any at all would be great) for the half and quarter marathon. 
As you may have surmised, I was denied a last minute opportunity to tend to personal business before the start. I figured everything would be fine though. Heck, I'd be at the finish in two and a half hours. I could wait two and a half hours right?

After listening to my friend the Mayor give the same announcements to both the marathon and half marathon starters (seriously, I'm sending him some material for the next race), the starter lined up the front of the pack and cut us all loose. With no visual staging of runners by pace, I locked onto the 2:30 pace team's sign in the crowd and followed that out of the starting corral. I figured I would hang back with them for the first half of the race and assess whether I had it in me to pick up the pace in the latter half. I got separated from the pace team some time in the first mile due to some course management issues but managed to reel them back in by mile 2. I tried to stay with them for a few miles but, to my surprise and delight, I found that the pace was actually too slow for me to run comfortably. So, I decided to forge on ahead and take my chances managing my own pace.

I made it to about mile 4 when I realized that nature was calling and that I was going to have to stop at some point during the race. I skipped the mile 4 aid station and figured I'd hit the next one. When I got to the mile 5 station the lines were still longer than I cared to wait. I pushed on ahead to the next station, but I kept thinking about a line from a blog or a book I've read that talks about how some ultra-runners run into problems when, due to late race fatigue, they are unable to tell the difference between a bowel movement that is imminent and one that is in progress. Needless to say I stopped at the next station, paid my newbie penalty on the race clock and moved on. (I promise that's the last of the poop talk)

Much to my dismay, as I was waylaid in line at the aid station the 2:30 pacers caught back up with me and stretched out a good couple minute lead for good measure. As I started back on the course, I considered my strategy for the second half of the race. I was quickly going to be venturing into unknown territory but I figured I still had the legs to click back into the slightly sub 11 minute pace I had been running, and persistence hunt the 2:30 pacers. Then, once I caught up with them, if I felt I had enough gas left, I would hold that pace until the finish. Otherwise, I'd just hook into the 2:30 group and cross with them. But I'd be damned if I wasn't going to catch them.

Despite the slight hassle of having to lug the weight around, I found it nice to have my own water and gels because it made it so that I didn't have to get caught up in the traffic jam at all the water stations. It wasn't so much about the time as not wanting to slip on cups, crash into someone, or get run over negotiating the entry and exit. I don't have much of a frame of reference versus water, but the NUUN seemed to work well and it remained palatable throughout the race. The Double Espresso Cliff Shots became a little hard to suck down near the end, but otherwise I had no complaints there either as I never really experienced any real glycogen deficit.

Throughout the race I had been employing a "strides" technique I picked up from Jason Robillard's blog where, instead of slowing down for a break when your legs feel tired, you actually speed up and do 10 or 20 strides. It seems counter intuitive, but the logic is that speeding up works more fast twitch muscle fibers giving your slow twitch muscle a short break. That's close enough to real science for me, and I can't really argue with the results. Other than my little 5 minute bio-break, I never stopped or slowed down.
Between miles 6 and 9 I was passed by a guy with a sign pinned to his back that said "Still Running from Scott Walker." I have to admit that, at the time, I found it pretty darned funny. During this stretch I also ended up running along side this tall, cute girl with a massive overstride. She had the obvious look of a regular runner so I figured I would stay with her pace as it was close enough to mine but pushed me a little bit. We caught up to the 2:30 pace team around 8.5miles. I wasn't sure if I had enough to hold my pace until the end, but I figured that I was close enough that I would push it till I finished, or something blew up. I started playing games with myself like, "only 5 more miles, you've run 5 miles tons of times." and "Only 5k left. A 5k is nothing."

A little before 9.5 miles my tall coed "running buddy" dropped the hammer and left me behind. Looking back at my splits, I know she actually poured on a decent amount of speed because my pace was pretty consistent throughout but she was just plain gone. A little later, I passed a guy running barefoot who was looking pretty good for his pace and for the fact that he had put down 10 miles on asphalt and cement. At about the 10.5 mile mark, there was an Elvis waving a sign that said "3 miles till beer." Mmm... beer.

At around the 11.5 mile mark, the Marathon winner came running past. I tried not to think about the fact that he had run more than twice as far as I had in about the same amount of time. As we headed towards the 12 mile mark, it was then than I knew that I absolutely was going to finish the race. With one mile left I decided to lay it all out and push for a descending series for the last four quarters. I hadn't really been looking at my time, but I didn't want to finish and then know I could have done better if I had pushed it harder. I knew hitting that kind of pace on spent legs was going to be a challenge, particularly since the last mile includes the climb back up W. Washington Avenue to the Capital Square, only the second real elevation change in the whole race (the first was back at the beginning when you run out from the Square, down W. Washington). Still, I managed to push it through, the growing crowd, cheers, cowbells, and vuvuzelas urging me on. I crossed the finish with nothing left, and had to restrain myself from puking on the back of the guy in front of me in the finish chute. I found Andie at the sideline and she told me that I had managed to finish under my goal time. After walking for a bit, I grabbed some food and started to feel better. I made I may over to the beer tent and grabbed myself a cup of slightly chilled Michelob Ultra (mmm... light beer)

As I tossed back the brew, I basked in the fact that I had just finished my first Half-Marathon.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why I run

I was originally going to have a race recap of my first half marathon at the Madison Marathon as my first post back on this blog. However, I had a somewhat heated conversation with a good friend of mine that has since been banging around in my head for a few weeks, and the monster wants out.

My friends Eric and Kevin participated in the Capital View Triathlon last month, and as my wife and I stood around talking with them after the race, Kev asked "so you going to join us next time?" I gave my pretty standard answers, that I don't swim well enough (true), I don't own an appropriate bike and the Boss isn't likely to let me buy one (true), and that I really just wanted to focus on long distance running for now and didn't think I had the time to properly train for two other events (true and true). I got some nods, provided some basic surrebuttal to their rebuttal questions (like "you know, I don't really dig on having a hard metal object up my backside for 10+ miles"). But, for the rest of the day my answers bothered me. They felt like an attempt at a dodge and that I wasn't truthful about why I would have, at that exact moment, been more likely to agree to have my eyebrows waxed than sign up for a triathlon.

Why then do I run? Why does the notion of doing a marathon or a trail ultra light the fire in my belly where the triathlon clearly does not? Since the Internet is the modern surrogate for a shrink's couch (That is what folks do these days, no?), I might as well plop right down and work out my issues.

The first reason I came up with was pretty straight forward: I run because I enjoy running. When running isn't fun - and I will concede that I'm working with a variable definition of "fun" - I don't do it; such as when I injure myself or overdo the mileage. I don't listen to music when running because it takes away from the experience. I often like to run alone, just me and the sound of my feet against the ground and the rhythm of my breathing. As a result I'm not very fast, but that's fine by me. I go at a pace that feels good, or feels challenging to me at the moment, depending what I'm in the mood for.

I participate in races from time to time because I like to run, not the other way around.  I also register for some events just to keep me honest, to make sure I have some goals out there, and as a check to make sure I maintain a certain level of fitness. But generally, I just like going out and hitting the road or trail. Races are the byproduct of my desire to run, not the other way around.

I know for a lot of people though, it IS the other way around. They're competitive and want to do events like 5ks, marathons, or ultras, and so running for them is simply training for the event, a byproduct. The event and the competition is the objective, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, for hundreds of years mankind has used sports and athletic competition as an alternative to conflict and war. After all, there is more honor in beating a man in a race than in killing him. Healthy competition, whether with others or with ourselves, is a commendable pursuit.

Then there are always the folks who run for exercise, where weight loss or fitness is the goal. They're typically easy to spot, as they're the ones who look like they are hating every minute of life while they're out on the road. I feel bad for those people, because for them there is nothing in the act of running itself that they enjoy. The competitive person at least gets off on the thrill of the race. They may not always enjoy the training, but at least there's always the competition. But for the fitness or weight loss runner, running is simply a means to an end, much in the same way colonoscopies are a means to an end. "We want to to be thinner, healthier and cancer free, but why in god's name would I enjoy what gets me there?"

There's nothing wrong with either of these reasons to run. They are both noble causes. I wish that the fitness runner could learn to enjoy running a little bit as it would probably help them stick with it and achieve their goals. I wish that some of the competitive types could dial back the competitiveness, because (and we all know at least one) sometimes they can be a real douche. Although I suppose for that sort, sport is a better outlet for those impulses than, say dog fighting or overthrowing a small third world government. In the end though they are both admirable causes. (Just try not to be "that guy" okay?)

Which brings me back to triathlons. And the other reason I run. But before I continue I need to make one thing clear:
The triathlon, regardless of length, is a test of endurance and the completion of one is to be commended.

There. Now that that that is crystal clear, I can continue.

As you can probably guess by now, a triathlon does not fall into the category of things I would consider fun. More specifically, I really have no desire to spend hours and hours training on a bike and in the pool, just so I can do a tri. Additionally, as I've long abandoned the illusion that I will ever  be competitive in individual sports, I don't really feel that competitive bug that might allow me to overcome the aforementioned un-fun-ness. Finally, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that no one, or very few people anyway, does triathlons to get into shape. I mean really, there are much less masochistic ways to get into decent shape. Like wrestling a bear, that's probably easier.

So clearly, there's nothing in it for me - nothing that makes me WANT to do a triathon. Which is fine. Whatever. The one thing I discovered though, in talking this out with people, is that there is a perceived negative (at least for me) that tacks onto my complete ambivalence about the triathlon and totally kills it for me. That's the fact that I don't want to get tagged as a triathlete. Allow me to explain.

Most people who do triathlons do them for some of the reasons I've identified: 1) Because they inherently find all three events so much fun that they want to string them all together into some kind of glorious celebration of all things swimming, biking, and running; or 2) they are competitive and want to prove their mettle, either to the world to to themselves. Both of these reasons are hot-damn, fantastic reasons to enter into a triathlon and you go get on with your bad self. There is this small minority however, that's into it because the triathlon is the new "it" thing, the new status symbol - and for some reason when economics enters the picture it really cheeses me off and totally ruins the party for me. 

I seem to remember marathons being the athletic status symbol, and at least I can deal with that. At the end of the day, a marathon is a foot race and there is almost no amount of technology or money that can compensate for pure athletic ability. You can beat my ass at a marathon? I will concede that you are the superior human specimen. True, greater affluence makes it easier to find the time to log the miles and have better nutrition. In the end though, it's still mano-a-mano with little bullshit in between - and the scrawny kid from a village Kenya is just as likely to beat you as the son of a millionare with too much time on his hands. More importantly, this is true whether you're an elite runner or a back of the packer like me.

That's not the case with the triathlon. 
  • Full wetsuit for added bouyancy and reduced effort during the swim: $400
  • Tri singlet to reduce transition time during stages: $80
  • Tri bike with carbon frame and tricked out components for decreased weight and increased efficiency: $4000+

Access to better gear can make a huge difference in performance, particularly in the middle of the pack. The result is an ability to essentially buy performance. 

And it's not just the gear. I've noticed that this particular type of triathlete is particularly taken with the Ironman distance events. It takes some serious time to train for a marathon - you're talking runs at least 3-4 times a week, typically with a long run each week that hits around 20miles at the peak, pre-taper. And that's for one event. There are two others you need to train for, each equally as demanding. Realistically, unless you're a college student, it takes some non-trivial economic means to be able to afford that much time on the road, in the saddle, and in the pool, both in terms of opportunity cost and access to the necessary equipment and facilities.

Most people who consider themselves a triathlete are aware of the fact that they are blessed with the means to train and participate. Most are thankful and are unpretentious about it. The status seekers however, flaunt it. They rock out with their Ironman branded apparel, while driving around in their Prius, with their tri bike strapped to the top, and an ironman bumper sticker on the back and a 140.6 sticker on the hatch.

I will concede that it is a fine line between doing all of those things because one is justly proud of having finished a triathlon, and doing so because one feels superior for it. Nevertheless, there is a line, some people cross it, it makes me want to punch them in the ear, and I want nothing to do with it.

What does this have to do with why I run? Well, in exploring my deep seeded hatred of douchey behavior, it occurred to me that I like running precisely because of how simple it is. Do I usually run with a garmin on my wrist, and the newest in minimalist shoes on my feet? Yes. But, I am equally as happy when I go out for a run with no timing device, wearing huaraches that are little more than sheets of rubber strapped to my feet with nylon cord. I like running for the purity of it. But moreso, I like it because it's something that anyone can do, no matter who they are or how much money they have. I like it because it's about the most democratic (if I may use that term) sport there is. Now, if this makes me my own special brand of asshole I guess that's something I'm going to have to live with.