I’ve re-written this post a few times and it keeps getting longer, so for this post, rather than discuss the running itself, I just want to mention my training method. I was hoping to have done a lot more research about running so that I could come up with, what is to me, the best possible training program I could think of. Of course, that program would be tailored to me and my strengths and weaknesses. I really wanted to understand the art of running at its core before I ventured out and wasted time with a half-baked idea. Life saw to it that I wouldn’t be afforded the time or energy to do that research. So, I’ve taken what I do know and come up with a simple plan.
My biggest obstacle to running is my knee. I have to be careful to not overdo it or run too often. I have learned over the past year or two that if I give it the requisite time to adapt it can hold up pretty well. Though, I am not always great at being patient when it comes to these things. For this plan, I’ve decided to start out with a very low training volume: each run won’t be over a mile. Training frequency will depend on how strong my knee feels. So far, I’ve had one to two runs per week.
Running form goes hand in hand with injury prevention. I’m 100% on board with the idea that if you really work on your form you’ll minimize your risk for injury. Of course, there are always overuse injuries or those times you step wrong and roll your ankle. But, if I want to put any serious mileage on my knee, I’ve got to have my form in check to reduce stress and wear.
To compliment my running form I know I need to up my cadence. You’ll get a lot of options on this topic, and I’m not going to spend a lot of time here. I do think it makes sense that a faster cadence reduces ground contact time. Reduced ground contact time puts less stress on the joints and connective tissue and therefore would reduce the potential for injury. There is some data that suggest the ideal stride frequency is 180 steps per minute. If you’ve never tried to turn your feet over that fast it doesn’t sound too bad. But once you’re out there trying it, it’s much harder than it sounds!
I am also very interested in doing heart rate training. This seems to be where it’s at in terms of developing aerobic capacity and to run longer distances. By training to your heart rate you’re able to decrease the amount of work you do to achieve the same result. I do have a heart rate monitor I can wear while running and have done some preliminary testing with it and so far the results have been positive.
Now, when you’re out of shape and a little overweight, as I am, training your cadence at the same time as heart rate is next to impossible. Spinning my legs around like that really jacks my heart rate up. I’ve been debating recently which I think is more important since I can’t do both in one run. This internal debate has lead me to my current training plan.
As I mentioned, I’m starting with low mileage, but as the soreness subsides and I can feel the strength returning I’ll increase it. Soon I’d like to be running every other day and eventually (almost) every day. Things might change along the way, but for now, I’m going to keep up the same routine until it becomes comfortable. Since I can’t run at a 180 strides per minute cadence yet, and when I try it feels like I’m sprinting, that will be my main focus. In my runs so far things have been pretty good here, better than I thought, but I’m nowhere close to where I’d like to be. I try to keep my cadence as close to 180 as I can, and when I feel like I’m dying and I can’t sustain it anymore I stop and walk. I walk long enough to allow my heart rate to come down and for me to catch my breath a little, then I start trying to run at that 180 pace again. Rinse and repeat until I reach a mile.
Running like this is doing a few things for me. First of all, it’s strengthening my nervous system, allowing me to recruit more muscles more quickly. Being agile and light on your feet can really help to improve your running. Secondly, it’s giving me some heart rate training, by getting my heart rate up and letting it come back down it’s conditioning my heart to work better under stress and it’s also giving it some more versatility. This will be especially useful in OCR where you are rarely running at the same speed the whole time and you often slow or stop for obstacles. And it’s also sort of like HIIT training, which is good for lots of things, but burning fat is one of them.
So, I think I’m going to keep at it like this until I can run a mile at 180 steps per minute without stopping. Once I get there, I will take my time, run several miles at that pace just to make sure I’m really used to it and I’m not just hitting it on my good days. Then I’m going to start moving the mileage up. Slowly, of course. I might be a month or even two before I’m running two miles at a time, but that’s ok. Then once I’ve started going for longer runs I’m going to start mixing up the training a bit. I’ll have a day that’s dedicated to heart rate training, and maybe a day that’s dedicated to running drills, not just running. Some might argue I need those things before I start or at least along the way, but I don’t want to put too much on my body at once. This might not be the fastest way to get better, but given my unique circumstances, I think it’s going to work for me. I think the infrequent short distances will give my body the time to adapt without injury. This will allow me to add in that other stuff without having to worry I’ll get hurt.
Anyway, that’s the plan! We will see how it goes. Look for another post soon that actually has some data from my runs. I might do one post for each run or I might combine them to more easily compare the results. I haven’t decided. Either way, something will be coming soon. I’m actually pretty excited and encouraged by this. It’s not going to get me running fast as quickly as I’d like but I think it’s going to make me better and more solid. Nothing worth doing ever comes easy so I need to keep that in mind and be patient and trust the process.
This is the persistent thought I’ve been plagued with for the past few weeks. As the race gets closer and closer I think it more and more. Sure, on one hand it’s not really anything different than the many other OCR races I’ve run. It’s some trails, some things to climb over, some things to pick up, and some things to swing from. On the other hand, this is a Championship event!
I was over the moon excited when I qualified to run, but for all of the reasons I haven’t been training, I haven’t been training. I think heading into this feeling prepared would have made a big difference. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still pumped to be a part of this event, but there’s been this voice in the back of my head telling me that, while I did work hard and earned my spot, I am not that same person anymore. I haven’t been eating right, I haven’t been exercising. The person that I am today does not deserve to be here. I’m not the excited person, eager to attack the course. Instead, I’m the guy having serious concerns about coming in last (this is a Championship after all, most of the competitors here are skilled racers). I’m the guy worried that they are going to pull me off the course for hitting the 5 hour time cap on the 15k race. I’m the guy going into the race knowing my chances of keeping my bands are close to zero.
This all kind of came to a head when I was staring at my gear for the event. The production quality of everything is top notch, even the bib is very high quality. But the thing that got me most was the lanyard. The more events I attend the more I notice the distinguishing lanyards people are wearing. Maybe it’s the press, maybe it’s the talent. But either way, it’s never me wearing it. And now I have one.
There it is: a beautiful cardboard rectangle attached to a branded lanyard that has my name actually printed upon it. Below the name is one simple, sobering word.”Athlete”.
I was sitting there staring at it, embarrassed. “I’m no athlete…” I felt guilty, almost like I’d take it from someone else. Someone who deserves it. I took time off of work, spent a decent sum of money, and dedicated a lot of time to coming here. And for what? To lose my bands? To come in last? To get pulled from the course?
All of these thoughts were swirling around in my head and then I had a moment of clarity. During this moment I realized that I did actually deserve to be here. Yes, it’s true I’m not in the shape I was in when I qualified, but I busted my butt to get the race time that brought me here. I sacrificed food, time, energy, money, social gatherings, and other hobbies to get here. I had the goal of qualifying, I worked hard, and I got it! So, while I might not do great, that doesn’t mean I don’t belong here.
I know I fall into this, and I am sure many others do as well, but it’s too easy to define ourselves by a snapshot of our lives. I’m not the person I was when I qualified, so I thought I didn’t deserve it anymore. We take a look at ourselves at any given moment and make an assessment that we accept as fact.
“I’m out of shape”
“I’m not good enough”
Whatever it may be, we think these thoughts and them commit them to our identity without question. Well, right now I’m fat, out of shape, and probably not good enough to do well in these races. But you know what? That doesn’t mean I don’t deserve to be here. It turns out that I am the same person who qualified. The situation might be different, but the same hard work that got me here can re-chisel out that ‘other version’ of myself that got the qualifying time.
I have adopted a song lyric as my life mantra but I need to remember it more often. I do repeat it to myself before every race and it has helped me through some hard times in my life. The lyric is: There is no Truth. There is only you and what you make the Truth.
You are not the number on the scale or your pants/dress size. You are not your mile time. You are not your salary. You are who or whatever you want to be. Of course, becoming that person can take time and hard work; no one said it was easy, but it is possible. You can get that promotion, you can ask out that cute person on the subway, or, if you work hard enough, you can even be that “fat and lazy” person who is about to compete in their first championship race.
This is likely to be another unconventional post for me. I’m also wiritng it on my phone and I probably won’t edit it, so forgive any typos or weird grammatical anomalies.
So, I started this blog to document my journey to running a sub-5 minute mile. It’s no secret that I love love obstacle course racing. Oddly enough, the two don’t go together as well as you’d think. That’s not to say many successful OCR racers can’t run a 5 minute mile. In fact, I bet most of the best could do just that. But, for a lay person just starting out, training for both at the same time probably isn’t the best strategy.
What your body needs to develop to run a fast mile is pretty different from what you need to run a 26.2 at any speed. And if you compare that to what you need for OCR it’s a different game completely. I was previously preparing myself for OCR. The focus on this sport bled over into this blog, which got away from me talking about running and the new health or fitness things I learned and it pretty much became Race Review Central.
I still value the race reviews and I’m going to continue doing them, but if I really want to reach my goal I need to change focus a bit. I need to focus on running. I’m doing this for two reasons: first, there’s no chance of ever getting on a podium if you can’t run fast, and two, doing a bunch of pull-ups does absolutely nothing for my mile time. (Full disclosure: I can currently do exactly .5 pull-ups)
I did a lot of self-examination and decided that I’m strong enough (for now). I genuinely love lifting heavy weight, but it’s not really helping me much. I was already strong. I’ve always been strong. Even when I did my first races, completely untrained, I had no problems with any of the strength obstacles. I don’t need to spend hours every week working on the things I’m good at. What I’m not good at is running 4-14 miles straight or with any speed.
That being said, supporting you body weight with your hands is critical in OCR, so I’m going to work at that as well. My training for this will be a little different as well, since my grip is actually pretty good. Somewhere between my elbows and my lats something is weak. It’s this break in the chain that makes those overhead grip obstacles so hard for me. I’m also still over 250 lbs, which doesn’t help either!
So, focus is going to shift to running and hanging from things. I think that removing the other body parts will be less wear on my body and it will allow me to recover faster. Also, it’s going to take the thinking out of it. If each day I’m working those two things in some way, I know I can reach my goals.
I want to call myself “A Runner” again. This portion might be more controversial, but please understand this is just about me. Most people hold themselves to a higher standard than they do other people. I’m no different. I’d say most people who run, are runners. But I don’t say that about myself. For me to call myself that I’d have to feel like I’m not just someone who runs, but that running is part of my identity. I don’t have to be ‘good’ at it, it just has to be something I associate with who I am. Right now I run, and I do races. Running is a part of all that, but it’s not everything.
Years ago there was a feeling I had when I was a runner. Running was different for me back then. I loved it. I missed it when I didn’t do it. And it was something I looked forward to. Now, it’s just sort of a feature of the other thing I’m doing (OCR). I’m putting it back out on the internet that I’m committing to my goal of breaking a sub-5 minute mile. I hope that anyone who reads this will help keep accountable on that commitment. In fact, let’s give myself a year from today. July 14th, 2019. Last time I did this I have myself a year and I barely made it to an 8 minute mile. I let my OCR training distract me and I fell short. I don’t want to make that mistake again. So, here we go.
I guess it’s time to go dust off those running shoes…
This probably won’t be a long post. I sort of just wanted to blurt out what’s been on my mind lately. Sometimes it helps to just let things out, and I don’t want to pay for a therapist, so I figured letting it out on the internet is the next best thing. This post isn’t really about anything in particular and I don’t plan on editing it, so if you want to click off now, I won’t hold it against you! 🙂
When race season ended for me last year, I crashed and burned. I lost all motivation to work out. Racing stopped seeming fun. I let unhealthy eating habits creep back into my diet. I stopped waking up early to take advantage of those early morning hours. I stopped my cold shower routine. I put back on about 20 of the 60 pounds I had lost in the previous year. I went to bed late and slept poorly. This was my life for months. It felt pretty miserable. Over time, I gradually started feeling a little better about getting active again, but those spurts were brief. I might work out for a week and then I’d quit again. I’ve done a few races, and I’ve done surprisingly well at them considering the amount of training I’ve done, but I know I can do better.
Things have been stressful at work as well. There have been several rounds of layoffs and that specter is looming over my department at the moment. More work is getting put on us with no extra compensation. When people leave they are not filling those positions, adding to an already overloaded workload. They’ve all but said there won’t be any merit increases next year.
My toddler is getting to that age where she wants to be defiant and likes to test limits. She’s going through a sleep regression period which makes getting a full, good night sleep something I haven’t seen for a couple of months now. Then there is all of the questions and teaching you have to do as a parent. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but it is still something that takes energy when energy is in short supply.
The thing about exercise is that it makes you feel better. Exercise is something I’ve always enjoyed. And if you’re a healthy weight, eating the right foods, and are getting enough exercise, you often have that extra energy to tackle all of these things life has to throw at you. But, not having that extra energy makes it hard to do all of those things that give you energy, if that makes sense. And this is basically where I am stuck right now.
I want to finish losing weight. I want to be fit. I want to run and spend more time outside. I want to feel good again. The fact that I’m not doing these things gives me anxiety. I feel like every day that I don’t do something I am wasting time. Even if I wasn’t “going hard” every day in a killer workout, just doing something small each day would start to add up over time. But I don’t. And that makes me sad. Which makes it hard for me to start doing anything about it. It’s not a fun place to be stuck.
I know life is always going to give you things to fret about. I’m used to that and I’ve accepted it. But, no matter how prepared you are to handle what life throws at you, sometimes you just get tired. And I’m tired. I keep waiting for that magical day to come where I wake up feeling okay. Not great, not even good: just okay. I feel like that will be a huge win for me. But, there’s no promise that this day is ever going to come. At least not without some intervention.
And that brings me to the real point of this article. It’s not to spout off some platitudes about making this your best life. There aren’t going to be any anecdotes about overcoming adversity. In fact, there’s not really any positive message to this post at all. The only silver lining of the whole thing is that I feel like I’m getting ready to start making some of those small changes. Even if I don’t work out, just getting out of bed a little earlier will be a huge win. Even if I’m not losing any weight, having the strength to say no to a big temptation will be a huge win.
I’m not “there” yet. I wouldn’t dare to claim that “I’m back”. The best I can do right now is to say ” I am present. This is where I am and I am okay with that.” Even though I am not satisfied with the state of things in my life right now, I am forever grateful for the things in my life that are going great. I want to start taking advantage of those small opportunities that I so frequently squander each and every day. I want to give myself a break and not beat myself up each time I slip or make a mistake. I want to try to right the ship with the understanding that it’s going to take time and effort to get back on course, but that I will get back on course eventually. All of this is completely within my control, I just need to be conscious of that and act on it.
If you made it this far I want to thank you for wading through that stream of consciousness and staying with me. It is actually a big help to think that there are people out there that I may never meet that care enough about a stranger to read their entire ‘stream of consciousness venting session’. So, if you’re reading this thank you, I appreciate your support. I’ll do my best to use that positive energy to get my act together. Thanks again!
I’ve been really bad at updating this lately. Part of that is because I created this blog as a way of tracking the progress of my return to fitness. It’s hard to write posts about that journey when you’re not doing anything. Most of the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 didn’t have a lot going on. Over the past few weeks, I’ve finally started getting my act together and I’ve been working out semi-regularly. I’m still not quite where I want to be in terms of consistency, but it’s definitely getting there. Since I’ve let myself go a little bit various body parts are hurting more than normal and I’m feeling sorer than I’m used to. It’s hard to convince yourself to get out of bed to do another workout when it hurts to move! But, those feelings are fading with each workout and it’s getting easier to get up and move more often.
Anyone who’s read any of my posts knows I have some trouble with my left knee. As expected, once I started running again it reminded me that it’s imperfect. It hasn’t been that bad though, and for that I’m grateful. I think I’ve learned how to avoid injuring it and when it does hurt I’ve learned how to care for it better. As of now, it feels a little loose and weak, but there is no pain, and I can perform pretty much any activity I want. I’m going to keep working on strengthing the joint so that I can feel more confident when I’m pushing it. In addition to the knee, my left hip has started demanding some attention. This started during the 15k I did untrained in January. I did a lot of research on it and I am pretty sure that I haven’t hurt myself, that it’s just irritation from my IT band being too tight. This could be, and likely is, contributing to some of my knee problems as well. I got the pain to go away shortly after the race and it’s been gone since. But, I did a 10k a week ago and my hip started hurting around mile 4. It’s fine now, so the time to heal is minimal if I’m tending to it. I don’t think it’s something I’m going to have to be concerned with much going forward, I just need to make sure I don’t take my attention off of it while I keep increasing my activity.
Speaking of the 10k, I know I normally write a whole post about my races, but I don’t feel inspired to do that this go around. The race went just fine. The weather was good and the race went smoothly. I didn’t run as well as I would have liked to and finished almost 12 minutes slower than I did last year. That being said, I have been working a little on my breathing while I’m running and trying to control my pace and I was very successful during the race in these categories. Also, I felt like I was doing better with my running form for most of the race. Some of the photos near the end showed my fatigued-self was suffering a little but overall I still consider it a success. I am finding that it’s very important to find something positive in everything, even if you have plenty of reasons to be negative. I can easily rationalize that I didn’t perform as well because I haven’t been taking care of myself, but if I had been taking care of myself I would have run at a faster pace. And I have been working on improving other aspects of my running, not just finishing time, and in those I was successful. I’m going to say this race was a win!
Hopefully, as my knee starts getting stronger I can start putting in some more miles. My ability to run long distances has diminished significantly. By the end of the race season last year I could actually go out on a decently long run and enjoy the whole thing and I miss that. I’ve tightened up on my diet as well, so hopefully dropping a few of these extra pounds I put back on will help my knee and my endurance. I’m a little sad I wasn’t able to keep up my training over the winter, but it is what it is, and I’m not going to dwell on it. I am where I am right now and all I can do is keep working to get it back. The good news there is that I’m in a much better place physically now than I was when I first started this blog. It’s easy to be disappointed by a setback, but it makes its a lot easier to be encouraged when you can look back and see how far you’ve come.
My first OCR event of the year is coming up this weekend. I’ll be racing the BONEFROG event in Virginia Beach. I initially had decided to try the endurance event, but I had to make the decision to step it back when I realized my offseason wasn’t going to put me in a good place to handle that. I’ll be doing the Tier-1 Challenge, which should come out to around 9 miles. Then it’s time to go into hardcore recovery mode as I have the Maryland Savage Race the following weekend. I’m going to play it by ear, and I won’t do anything to hurt myself, but I’ve already paid for two races that day. I was disappointed last year that I wasn’t able to get into the Savage Syndicate (Running two races in one year). So, when I was planning my schedule this year I tried to figure out a way I could do it. Sadly, there was only one option: Run the race twice in one day. At the time I figured I would have been training all winter so it shouldn’t be a big deal and I went ahead and signed up. Well, I’m not as fit as I wanted to be so I’m going to have to be careful. I think the first race I’ll actually try to ‘race’ it and the second lap I’ll just take my time and enjoy it. Running two of them will put me at around 18 miles. That’s a lot, but I should be ok. I’ve done Spartan Beasts with less training, and those have gone as long as 15-16 miles. If I’m smart and don’t push too hard I should make it to the finish line of both races just fine. Then, I have the Spartan Nationals Stadium race the weekend after that! Hopefully beating myself up for two weekends in a row, with plenty of recovery time will set me up to do well there. I really want to redeem myself after I was dissatisfied with my performance last year. After that race, I’ll have a bit of a break until the Tough Mudder in June.
The next few weeks should be interesting! I’ll be busy, but I’m going to try to make some time to make blog entries for those races. Even though I’m not feeling as strong as I’d like to going into this race season I am still very excited for it. Since I’m not racing as frequently this year it’ll give me more time to train and recover from the events and I really think that by the end of the summer I’ll be even better than I was at the end of last season. I’ve definitely got some work to do, but for the first time in a few months, I’m actually looking forward to doing that work.
So, I decided at the very last minute to sign up for a 15k road race. I had first heard about this race, the Frostbite 15k, sometime in November 2017, back when I was still training regularly and feeling fit. At that time, I had committed to running it in my head but hesitated to sign up. The next couple of months came and went and race day was upon me. Looking back at these past months I can’t help but be disappointed. The number of times I’ve done a full workout I can probably count on one hand. I’ve run exactly 4.1 miles in that time. I’ve put back on more than a few of the pounds that I had worked so hard to lose. Even just doing normal activities in my day reveal that I’m not as strong as I was a couple of months ago. It is for all of these reasons that I wasn’t going to run the race after all, but ultimately it’s for these reasons that I ended up running the race. Warning: this is going to be a long post!
I felt really good coming off my 8k in November. I set my PR by a good amount. I finished solidly. I ran the entire race without much difficulty. Even though I had put on a little bit of weight through OCR season I was still feeling pretty good about the state of my body. It was a little beat up from all of those intense races, but it managed to make it through everything and was still doing some impressive things. In October, I wanted to see where my mile time was, since getting that sub-5 minute mile goal has kind of gotten lost in all of the OCR craziness that was 2017, and I ran it in 7:12! That’s a huge improvement over the 9:45 that almost killed me when I was first starting out. The Spartan Sprint I ran in September was good enough to qualify me for the OCR World Championships. I got hired on as a contributor to the preeminent OCR news and media website Mud Run Guide.
Everything was going pretty great! Even though progress was a little slower than I had hoped it would be, it would be awful of me to not be grateful for all of the wonderful things that had happened over the past year. And I was grateful. I was also tired. It was an ambitious year and it took a lot out of me. I decided to take a couple weeks off to celebrate; A nice little off-season break to let my body and mind heal. After all, Every elite racer out there talks about the off-season and how they take time off to “reset” before they start training hard for next year. I figured, if it works for them there must be something to it. Now, I know myself pretty well and I should have known that time off would have to be carefully managed or it would end up disastrous. I didn’t put any time or energy into planning the off-season. I didn’t watch what I was eating, I didn’t work out, and I didn’t have any firm date that I’d start training again; what was supposed to be a break for a week or two quickly turned into a month. Even though a month is a relatively short period of time I really had let myself go.
“How much fitness could you really lose in a month? I have been active all year, so taking a few weeks off can’t hurt me that much, can it? Even though I’ve put on a couple of pounds and have been eating junk food, I know that I’m resilient. I’m going to prove it and sign up for a 5k and crush the PR that I had set at the beginning of the year!” That was my thought process about halfway through December. The race was the Run-A-Latke which was hosted by the Jewish Community Center here in Richmond, VA. It’s a small event that is family run. This was the 8th running of this race and seemed like a promising event with an easy course. So, I went ahead and signed up for it. I know that I normally write race reviews for all of the races I do, but I didn’t write one for this event. Why? Because I was so embarrassed and ashamed by my performance. So, to fix that I’ll give it a short review now: The race was great! It was extremely well run for a small event. It had a much better production value than I was expecting. They had finisher shirts and medals. They gave out Latkes, hot chocolate, coffee, and doughnuts at the end of the race. The course was clearly marked and they had great volunteers. It’s a race I look forward to running again in the future!
As for my race, shortly after the race started I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath and my legs felt like lead. No matter how much I pushed I couldn’t really get any speed. Even settling into a pace that felt ‘comfortable’ had me breathing heavily. This was a far cry from the 8k I had run a little more than a month before. What happened? Could I really have become out of shape this quickly? It seemed ludicrous, but there I was struggling on this nice, flat course. Even the end of the race shocked me. I have always, no matter my level of fitness, had a good ability to sprint at the end of a race. Even if I’m feeling gassed, knowing that the finish line is right there lets me dig down and really put it into high gear. After all, at the end of the race, what are you saving it for? Go for it! Well, I tried that strategy this time and failed. Even when I tried to sprint, I couldn’t tell that I was moving any faster. Honestly, even thinking about running faster made me want to throw up. I let go of that ‘strong finish’ mindset and just trotted to the finish line. I finished the race in 28:06.
I realize that me running a 28 minute 5k and describing it like I did so miserably could sound bad. I know there are a lot of people that have worked really hard and can’t run that distance in that time. I’m not necessarily upset with the time but more about the amount of effort I had to put in to get that time. I really had to push myself and by the end, I was suffering. In the preceding month during my 8k race my 5k split was a 26:21, almost two minutes faster. I got that time when was pacing myself knowing I still had another 2 miles left to go. So, I am satisfied with the time and I’m happy that I still came in under 30 minutes, but I’m less happy with how difficult it was for me. The revelation that I was beginning to lose my fitness hit me pretty hard. Unfortunately, it didn’t hit me in a good way.
I made an attempt to use this race as a catalyst to re-ignite my health/fitness routine, but I was completely unsuccessful. In fact, I think it actually might have made it worse. I think that by performing so poorly I actually got a little resentful about exercise as a whole. I spent the next few weeks sleeping in, eating junk food, and getting fat. The whole time I kept having these thoughts “You have plenty of time to get back in shape. You worked hard in 2017 and you deserve a break. A few weeks won’t hurt you. It’s just one (more) treat. You’ve got this under control, don’t stress out about it.” But I didn’t have it under control; I was in a downward spiral. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this these past few weeks and I think I came to a couple of conclusions.
My first mistake was over-doing it this year. That’s not to say I don’t think I can handle what I put myself through, but I think I did it a little prematurely. I apparently trained just enough to get myself through it, but it left me completely burnt out by the end of the season. Working out wasn’t fun anymore. I didn’t look forward to it. And on those rare occasions where I got myself out of bed and did something my heart just wasn’t in it. When I worked out I felt good amount doing something, but just going through the motions isn’t going to really get you much progress. Paradoxically, the second mistake I made was stopping. I know that I was burnt out, but I think if I had kept up my routine, even if I wasn’t pushing myself, I would have ended up in a better place. I’ve been keeping up with all of the elite OCR racers over social media and I realized something. It’s not hammering yourself in the gym for an hour+ every day that makes you great. All of these racers are also in their off-seasons, but they don’t spend their time sleeping in and eating candy. They are out on hikes, climbing rock faces, skiing, and all around just having a good time. For them, their off-season is more active than most average people’s workouts. They aren’t pushing hard. There isn’t a number of reps or max weight they are trying to move. But they are outside and they are keeping active. I think this is a big part of the reason that they can be professional athletes; they have designed their lives in such a way where they can maintain their elite level of fitness without having to think about it. I am sure they still get in workouts, and I am sure that once they get done with their adventures that they spend a lot of time training as well, but the reason I brought it up was the stark contrast I noticed between their ‘down time’ and mine.
I’ve spent the last two months quickly destroying much of what I have spent the past 16 months building. The more this realization sets in the more panicked I become. The 2018 race season isn’t going to wait for me to get back in shape. Knowing this puts me in another bad situation because I know that I tend to fall apart when I feel that kind of obligatory, negative pressure. Rather than using this pressure to motivate me I tend to pull back from it in an attempt to escape it. But I’ve already signed up for some races and we all know they don’t give you your money back, so I had to do something. And this brings us to the weekend of the 15k. As I said, I first heard of the race in November, back when I was still feeling encouraged about my fitness. I thought it could be interesting because, while I’ve run 9+ mile OCR races before, the longest road race I’ve done was a 10k. I was curious to see how I’d hold up for that distance on the road.
Leading up to race day I was getting more and more worried about it and was trying to talk myself out of it. The 5k I just completed shook my confidence and I wasn’t sure running the longer distance was a smart decision. After all, I have had all of those issues with knees and Achilles tendons. I remember about this time last year when I was starting to try to increase my mileage during my training. I was only usually about to run twice a week, usually for 2-3 miles, before I’d be in pain. Surely, 9 miles would destroy me. It is January, so it’d be cold. If I could barely run a sub 30 minute 5k in December, this race would likely be really hard and it would hurt my confidence even more. My wife had plans that weekend, and you can’t have strollers in this race, so she’d have to adjust those plans to watch my daughter. On top of that, I hadn’t signed up yet so the entry prices had gone up. You name an excuse and I probably thought of it. I was really on the fence and I know that I’m pretty good at taking the easy way out. The 15k was on a Sunday and here I was at 11:00 on that Friday night still debating what I was going to do. Everyone is going to have a different opinion about this, and that’s fine, but I do believe that if you are open to it, and you’re paying attention, that you can get help from a higher power in times of need. Remarkably, I didn’t ask for this intervention, but I got, what I felt, was a pretty clear sign that Friday night that I needed to sign up for this race. So, I did! I was nervous about it, but I had faith that I was making the right decision.
I’m not going to go over the race in as much detail as I typically do. Not that the race doesn’t deserve its own post, but that’s not the goal of this post. The race itself took place in a historic part of Richmond and ran through and adjacent to two of the cities most iconic parks: Maymont and Byrd Park. Having the race in this area is pretty cool, though the majority of the race was through residential areas. The surrounding area isn’t unique, so the race itself wasn’t as captivating as some other races, but this race had a really serious tone about it, so I think having a scenic route was pretty low on their priority list.
Apparently, this is the 34th running of this particular event. I was surprised to hear that as I’ve never heard of the race before and I’ve been in this city for around 16 years. It was even more surprising with 34 years of experience how rough around the edges the race felt. First and foremost, was the bathroom situation. The check-in was indoors at a local elementary school, but we were not permitted to use the facilities there, we had to use the port-a-potties outside. That, to me, is perfectly reasonable. What was not reasonable was the number of port-a-potties that were available. The race website stated the race was limited to 1000 racers. When I signed up the website stated there were only around 40 spots left, meaning this event was almost sold out. I don’t know what sort of turn out they have had in the past but they concluded that 6 port-a-potties would be enough for this race. But if we do some math we can clearly see that their predictions were way off: If 500 of those 1000 people needed to use the bathroom and they divided up neatly into 6 lines, one for each toilet, that would mean there would be around 83 people per line. If each of these people took exactly 30 seconds in each stall that would mean if you were last in line you’d be waiting in line for 41 minutes just to use the bathroom!! We all know that runners are some of the most notorious bathroom users that exist on the planet. And while not everyone is going to need the bathroom and not everyone will need to go at the same time, you should expect these toilets to be in high demand. As you can see from the image below the situation was not good. If you had to stand in this line you definitely were not going to get the proper time to warm up and stretch before the race started. In fact, I’d say about 80% of the people in this photo were still in line when we were summoned to the start line.
Speaking of being summoned to the start line, I thought it strange that they didn’t have a PA system at all. Perhaps it was because the start line wasn’t far from some houses, but there were zero speakers there. So, no music, no announcer, no anything. Instead of that, there was just a very angry sounding guy near the start line yelling at everyone in the bathroom line when there were 7 minutes until the race started. There was also no audible countdown or anything prior to the race start. We were all just kind of standing there and then the people in front of us started moving. This was a significant departure from what I am used to both in OCR and from other road races. Another thing I didn’t like was that I didn’t get a shirt. I know I signed up last minute, and they said last-minute sign-ups aren’t guaranteed a shirt. I accept that and I did get fair warning. However, I do think that if you’re putting on a race and you know there are only going to be 1000 people you could probably put in an order close to that number. This by itself wouldn’t have upset me too much, but combined with some of the other things left me questioning the race organizer’s commitment to this event.
It was an interesting race as the course had a pretty strange layout. It crossed over itself quite a few times and they did a good job of making sure you wouldn’t be colliding with other runners, but it did make the course a little confusing. Luckily, I had hundreds of runners in front of me to follow so I never got lost! The most strange thing about the course is that they didn’t shut down any of the roads to traffic. So, there were literally parts of the race where you are running around/behind/in front of/beside moving cars. They do warn you of this on the site and tell you that you are responsible for your own safety, but it was weird to share a race course with cars. I did feel kind of bad for the residents of those areas where we were running. I am sure some people had a hard time getting to work, Church, or brunch.
This post is getting long enough as it is, so I’ll spare many of the boring details of the race itself. I did manage to convince my body to run the first 5k. It was hard though. I’d say right around the first half mile my instinct to stop started kicking in. My 5k time was around a 30:40. Another 2.5 minutes slower than my 5k in December… If you think I was disappointed by that 5k, this 5k time made me forget all about that one! After the first 3 miles, I wasn’t able to run a single mile under 10 minutes for the rest of this race; which is evidenced by the guy that passed me who was juggling the entire time. That’s right, a juggler just cruised right past me while I was running my heart out.
As I mentioned in my 8k post I typically pick an enemy to beat in each race. It took a little while for the field to spread out enough for me to choose anyone. As a matter of fact, that didn’t happen until around mile 3.5, when I was walking. That’s when two ladies passed me. One of the ladies I recognized at a former bank manager from a bank I used to frequent. The other was a lady who was a little older than I am; She might have been in her mid-to-late 50s, possibly even early 60s. It was apparent after some time that we were all moving roughly around the same speed, so I decided to have two enemies this race. My bank teller friend was the fastest of the three of us, and there were plenty of times where I wasn’t sure if I’d catch her or not. Beating her was more of a stretch goal and so I set my sights primarily on my other enemy.
This race had a lot of downs for me without very many ups. I was truly struggling almost the entire time. I walked way more often than I wanted to and for way longer than I wanted to. I just couldn’t seem to get it together. I couldn’t breathe well, my legs were heavy and uncooperative, and I lacked any sort of endurance. My primary nemesis, on the contrary, had it all. After she passed me the first time I spent the entire rest of the race trying everything I could to finish before she did. She was truly amazing out there and was a formidable opponent. Like I mentioned, she is a bit older than I am. She had light colored, slightly greying hair. She appeared to have a pretty serious case of kyphosis (rounded upper back). Her running stride was short and choppy and her foot strike really needed some work. These are some of the judgemental things that came into my mind while I was desperate to find some strength to finish this race.
These observations weren’t coming from a negative place though, they came from some really profound revelations that I had while I was out there. The reason I noticed any of these thoughts was because no matter how hard I tried I could not catch this person. She would be far enough ahead that by the time I would start running, and I would gain some ground on her, I’d feel like I’d have to stop again. When I stopped running, there she was pulling away from me again. No matter what I was thinking, it didn’t change the fact that she was out there and that she was ahead of me. There I was with all of the things I’ve studied and all of the running mechanics tweaks I’ve worked on; I was the younger person with ‘better form’ and all this knowledge, and no matter what I tried, I just could not catch her. No matter what the mile marker said, there she was trucking along like it was nothing. I’m going through bouts of wanting to throw up and quit altogether and she’s there in front of me, charging forward. I kept switching from running to walking and she just ran, each foot landing like a metronome, the entire time. The only time I saw her walk at all was at the last water station to grab a cup of water. She drank it and tossed it in the trash can, and then started right back up running again. I had all of these reasons that I “should be” faster than she is, but at the end of the day, none of them could change the simple fact that I wasn’t.
I think with anything competitive there is a certain amount of ego you have to worry about. I think that without some sort of drive to make yourself better you can’t really have any fun in anything competitive. And while I know that I probably won’t be winning any races, I still want to get out and do the best that I can. The harder you work at something the better you tend to become. The better you become at something the more confident you feel about it. Confidence is a slippery slope though, and I feel like if left unchecked it can easily slip into vanity. I don’t think I’m a very vain person, most of the time, though I do think that this race showed me that I was getting a little more arrogant than I’d like to admit. There’s no reason that I should “expect” to beat anyone. When you show up to the start line anyone could be there, and it’s always possible you could be the worst one. There’s no reason, superficial or otherwise, that you should expect to beat another person. You never know how hard they’ve trained or how much heart they have. I know I have a problem where, because I’ve done something once, I expect to be able to repeat it at will, even if circumstances have changed. It’s not easy for me to admit that I’ve gotten worse or that something is not achievable.
I think thoughts like these have been holding me back and are detrimental to my success, not just as an athlete, but as a person. This past year I made a lot of improvement and finally started showing some promise. But it’s wrong to believe that just because two months ago I ran a much faster time that I somehow deserve to run that fast now. The fact of the matter is, I didn’t take care of myself. I wasn’t training and I wasn’t eating right. Every bit of agony I felt, I deserved. My performance this day was the direct result of my actions, just like everyone else out there had a performance that was the result of their actions. My race enemy should be extremely proud of herself. It’s obvious she’s put in the work to compete in an event like this. The fact that she could run the entire event is amazing, just like anyone who ran the whole race is amazing. The fact that she is as consistent as she is, amazes me. I am sure she’s trained for a long time to get those results. And while I had a grimace on my face the whole time, whenever I saw her face she seemed as though she was having a blast out there. I think the ability to focus solely on having fun while competing is something I lost a time ago, and I really need to work on getting that back.
One final note about this topic is that I want to express my gratitude for this racer. If this person had not been out on the course I would not have finished with the time that I did. It sometimes felt torturous to try to keep up with her, but if she wasn’t there pushing me the whole time I know for a fact I would have walked a lot more and I would have run more slowly. So, I want to thank her for pushing me and giving me a better race time. But more importantly, I want to thank her for opening my eyes. I think it’s important for people to be humbled once in a while, and I think I was overdue. So, to this runner, I want to say something directly: I envy you. Your commitment to succeed is truly inspiring. I hope one day to have half the heart you displayed out on that race course. You may not know it, but you taught me a lot that day, and I’m better for it. I know it’s unlikely that you’ll ever read this but I still wanted to say, for everything that day, thank you!
I suppose after all of that I should say something about how the race ended. Well, it took almost the entire race, from around 3.5 miles to almost the 8th mile, but I eventually caught my first race enemy. It wasn’t easy and it cost me a lot of energy to do it. Once I caught her I had to try really hard to make sure I stayed in front of her. Even if I needed to walk, I had to keep it short because I was so tired at this point that I didn’t know if I’d have the energy to catch her again. Despite my best efforts, she did manage to catch me once, but I got lucky as I had been walking a while and had caught my breath so I started running again soon after she passed me. I knew she was there, hot on my trail, the whole time so it really helped to push me to the finish line. I guess my bank manager friend put a little too much into the first half of the race because as we were getting closer to the end of the race she got closer and closer. I saw her walk a couple of times and when she was running she wasn’t as quick as she had been before. I got my hopes up a little bit that I might also be able to catch her, but it was looking more and more hopeless as the finish line approached. After the 8th mile, I was pretty much exhausted. My legs were heavy, sore, and unresponsive. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath and my will to live was waining. I was starting to give up hope that I’d catch her. I had come around one corner to see her walking in front of me, but unfortunately, as I needed to stop for a moment to walk she started running again.
At this point, I figured catching her was a lost cause, so I stopped thinking about racing anyone else and just tried to muster the strength to get to the finish line. I was maybe about a half mile from the finish line and was very eager to get it done with. Despite the protests from my legs, I made a mental commitment to finish that last half mile without walking. I managed to do it, though I am sure I looked like I was hurting and my form was probably awful. As I usually do, I tried my best to sprint the last little section. In this race, it was a straight shot to the finish line for the last 300-400 meters. Interestingly, it was on an incline, so that made it harder to get much speed when you’re already exhausted. But, I did my best to get up that hill and I managed to pass a few people right at the end. It was difficult and I was on the brink of getting nauseated again, so I held back just enough at the end of this one to prevent that.
I crossed the finish line in 1:45:37. My goal for the race was 1:30:00, so I missed my goal but not really by that much. In a race this distance, a few seconds on each mile add up, so I feel like I was actually pretty close to where I wanted to be. Of course, 1:30:00 was my time to beat, my real (vanity) goal was 1:20:00. But you know what? I’m perfectly ok with my time! I went out there and did the best I could and that’s all you can ask of yourself. Sure, I’m discouraged that I didn’t do better, but again, that’s the result of my lifestyle and I’m aware of that now. If I want a better time I have to work for it, it’s not just going to ‘happen’ for me. And if I want to keep my fitness I have to maintain it and watch what I eat. Fitness is truly a “get-what-you-give” endeavor. I’ve got some work ahead of me to get back to where I was a few months ago, and I’ve got even more work to get to where I want to be. It’s reassuring to know that I will get there if I just keep it up. Life itself is not (or it shouldn’t be!) a race, and I need to learn to cut myself some slack. I need to trust in the process and put in the time to get the reward, whenever that might come. Sometimes I think it can be hard to work so hard for something to get no immediate return on your investment. I’m starting to realize, that the best, most rewarding things in life are like that, though. And it makes it so much more meaningful when you do finally reach your goals.
Oh, and after the fact, I went online and checked the race results. I was so concentrated on running that last bit that I really wasn’t paying attention to anything but that finish line. After the race, I realized I didn’t know if I finished ahead of my second enemy or not. According to the official race results I managed to squeak by her right at the end, finishing a whopping 30 second ahead of her! She was definitely a worthy adversary!
On that note, I think I’m finally going to wrap up this post. If you made it all the way down here I feel like you deserve a medal!!
So, this post is super late but it is better late than never.
Along with the larger Anthem Richmond Marathon is the Markel Half-Marathon and the VCU Health 8k. This is a long-standing tradition in Richmond and this year the race is celebrating its 40th year. Of those 40 years, this year was my fourth year running this particular 8k. It’s a nice race; it’s mostly flat and the last half mile or so is completely downhill, so you can let gravity help pull you across the finish line. The course has been the same every year that I’ve run it, which is nice because, not only is it a fun course, but it also gives you a consistent race that you can use to measure your fitness.
In the past, I have always tried to “train” for this race. Not real training, more like, a few weeks before the race I realize there is a race coming up and I start running to get ready for it. For that reason, my times have never really been where I wanted them, and the race always seems much harder than it should. I was excited to race this year because it’s the first time I’ve really put any good miles on my legs leading up to the race. Going into it I definitely felt like I was going to set a PR, but one never knows how things are going to go on race day, so I was trying not to get my hopes up too much. As this race is solidly in November every year it’s usually pretty cold in the morning. Most years I’ve been out there it’s under 30 F ( 0 C) when the race starts. The cold temperatures have been the biggest obstacle in this race each year. I’ve found that if I’m not used to breathing heavily in the cold air it can be very difficult to run well. This year Mother Nature played a cruel joke on us by giving us hope that maybe this year would be different. The Friday morning before the race it was in the mid-40s and it was a lovely afternoon. Sure enough, the next day (the morning of the race) it was around 26 F (-3 C)!
I actually fared much better in the cold air than I thought I would, considering it hadn’t been that cold for the weeks leading up to the race. I don’t know if training helped or if I just got lucky, but my body responded much better than I was expecting. If anything, by the time I was done running I was too hot! I wore the same outfit I typically do: Long track pants, a light hooded-jacket, and running gloves. Shortly after the race started the hood came off, and by half-way, the jacket was unzipped. By the end, I was even thinking of taking off my gloves. There wasn’t a point where I felt like the cold air was really holding me back, and that’s a good thing.
As is typical in my road races of late, mile 4 is the hardest mile. I ran the first three miles pretty quickly. In fact, the first mile I ran too fast! It was my fastest full mile in the race and came in around 8:15. I was definitely feeling it in mile 2 and slowed down to around a 9 minute/mile pace for the next two miles. Strava has my 5k time as 26:21 which is a little over a minute faster than my 5k PR I set in March. According to Strava I actually ran the fourth mile in 8:48, 12 seconds faster than the previous two miles. While this is possible, it certainly did not feel that way. I was hurting a little in the fourth mile. I know I had a goal in mind for this race, and perhaps it was my mind fighting my body in that mile that pushed it to such a quick pace.
The last almost-mile (8k is just under 5 miles) felt pretty good. As previously mentioned, it’s almost all downhill and it’s a pretty steep downhill. Knowing this allows you to tell yourself “Hey, you’re almost there, and the last bit is super easy. Just keep it up and you’ll get there.” And that’s exactly what I did. In past years, I opened up too late and felt like I should have picked up the pace a little earlier. So this year, as soon as we turned that last corner and started the downhill I picked up the pace. I started gradually, but as the hill got steeper I pushed harder.
Now, I always pick an “enemy” when I race. This person is not someone I dislike at all, but instead someone that I deem to be at around the same fitness level as myself. Most of the time I choose my nemesis by the second or third mile, as we’ve had time to settle into our run and I can say confidently that we are about as fast as each other (or maybe that they are a little faster). This person silently helps motivate me to keep pushing when I want to stop. I can’t just let my enemy beat me! But I didn’t have an enemy for most of this race. I started the race with my wife and some friends so we were way back in the pack. This allowed me to pass a lot of people early on. Once I had settled into my pace I was either passing other people or being passed, but I didn’t really have anyone to run with. Somewhere between mile 4 and 4.5, there was a gentleman who pretty easily cruised past me. He was older than me, I’d say in his mid-to-late 50s. In my head, I congratulated him as he passed me, but I was a little jealous. When I made it to the downhill and started running a little faster I noticed that I could still see him. He was a good distance ahead of me, but not so far that it seemed impossible to catch him. So, at that moment he became my race enemy.
The rest of the race was me racing this gentleman. He didn’t know we were racing, but I almost wish he did, because he really pushed me at the end and I’d like him to know how much he helped me. It seemed like we had the same strategy in mind and every time I picked up my pace he seemed to pick up his as well. There was a solid moment near the end where I started doubting that I’d be able to catch him. We were in the last 400 meters and I still wasn’t sure if I could do it. I dug deep and really gave it my all, I really wanted to pass this guy and to get the finishing time that I wanted. With maybe a hundred feet to the finish line, I had finally made up some ground and pushed past him to the finish!! The feeling of success and pride quickly faded and turned into focusing solely on not throwing up in front of the hundreds of people surrounding the finish line. I have only ever made myself throw up from running once and that was in high school when I was training with a college track star after a breakfast I shouldn’t have eaten. Needless to say, I pushed myself a little too hard here and my body was quick to let me know it. I had three people ask if I was ok after I finished. I assured them I was fine, but I think the intermittent gagging told a different story. I tried to play it off and act cool about it all, but I don’t know how convincing I was. Luckily, after about a minute of heaving breathing and panicking my body calmed down and I was able to claim my medal and start to feel good about the race.
I ended up finishing the race in 43:06. There was a small part of me that was curious to see if I could finish in 42 minutes or faster. I didn’t quite get there, but that was a stretch goal. 45 minutes was really my goal and I managed to beat that without too much trouble. I would have been sad if I didn’t beat my previous PR of 52 minutes. Luckily, I finished out the race feeling pretty good about it. It was the first race I’ve run in a long time where I felt pretty confident for most of it and there weren’t many times looking back where I thought I could have pushed harder. I can say that I am 100% satisfied with my race and I am proud of my time.
I was excited when I was looking over my Strava data for that last section of the race. It says that the last half mile was run at a 6:16/mile pace and that the last 400 meters were run at a 5:30/mile pace. For me, that is a super quick pace!! There was a huge part of me that felt exhilarated running at that speed again. There is another part of me that feels a little intimidated by it though. Pushing myself to run at that pace almost made me throw up and I was only able to run that fast because of the downhill. Remembering how that felt makes it feel like that sub-5 minute mile is a little further away than I think is. It blows my mind that anyone can run that fast comfortably! Even so, it does reassure me that my body is capable of such a feat, I just need to condition it better. Now that I don’t have any more races for a few months I can finally dedicate some time to training.
I had a really good time at this race and have discovered that road races can also be fun, you don’t always need mud and things to climb over. I think when I lost my fitness I lost my ability to enjoy just running. This race made me remember that you can have fun with running, but you need to put in the time and work to get to a point where you’re fairly comfortable. Once you get past that first tough part, the activity becomes much, much more enjoyable. Now, I am looking forward to signing up for more road races! I guess we will see what 2018 brings!