Monday, April 29, 2013

Enjoying the unscheduled runs

Last weekend's Pike's Peek 10k was the end of my spring racing season - a great way to end it. Before gearing up for the next adventure, I've been enjoying a gap between schedules. And I love schedules - I can check things off my list and roll with it. But for brief periods of time, I do appreciate the unscheduled runs.
I can dictate the runs, how long they are, and not get caught up in meeting any formal expectations. Now, all runs should be fun, and they mainly are, but there is something liberating about just going out for a run without thinking how it is an important building block in training. I got in 37 miles last week in just fun runs. And I felt like each run was appreciated for its own sake. It wasn't phoned in to make it fit in, it happened because I wanted to run.
Lately, because I'm more productive in the mornings, I've been doing most of my runs in the late afternoon. But after a sleepless night on Tuesday, I found myself up working very early. Why not get in a morning run, since I was already awake? I took to the mall, and after a Cherry Blossom season of tourists, was welcomed to a peaceful, quiet Mall. As I approached the WWII memorial, I could hear a lot of shouting. It was the local ROTC battalion, carrying flags, chanting out commands, as they got their morning run in. To see them en masse like that was so moving. I continued on, passing the Lincoln Memorial and then crossing the bridge to Arlington. That bridge is part of so many big races here that I've done: Marine Corps Marathon, Cherry Blossom 10 Miler, Army 10 Miler, and so a whole host of memories came flooding back. I was also just moved by how lush everything was: the grass so green, and the blooming flowers so bright. Everything was fresh, just like it should be in Spring. After getting near the Arlington cemetery, I headed back to DC. Instead of following the Mall path precisely, I detoured and ran along the Constitutional Pond. Very beautiful landscaping, and even more quiet. An oasis in a bustling city. I could hear myself think, and instead of the thousand thoughts running through my head as usual, there was peace. And as I embarked back on the path, towards the Washington Monument, the ROTC battalion emerged yet again, vigorously chanting and running. The sun was slowly rising, brightening the mall. No photograph could capture this beauty justly. In the end, I had covered about 8.5 miles, and had my breath taken away, not from the labor, but the pure sensory experience. It was perfect - nothing could have been better.I have also had great experiences beyond the mall, but DC's great running trails, like the Capital Crescent and Mount Vernon trails. But there is another which I had yet to enjoy: the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad trail. In total, it stretches about 40 miles, with markers every half mile. And lucky for me, where I'm moving to soon, it is only a mile away from my new apartment! I had a chance to try it out over the weekend, and I am completely in love. It is much hillier than some of the other DC trails, and so it can simulate better racing conditions than just a flat, straight path. Now, instead of taking the metro to get to a trail for tempo runs, it is nearly in my backyard. Plus, it has lots of opportunities to hop off and run through the local neighborhoods as well. I look forward to exploring and seeing all of these new places. I tend to only create a couple of routes (mainly because I am so bad at directions and fear getting lost on the run), so these areas will give me more flexibility.And at the end of the day, that's a good thing for me - more flexibility. I cannot become rigid and entrenched in my ways. So for the time being, in this gap between seasons, I am flexible in the run and hoping that will help me to loosen up in life in general.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I ran for Boston: Pike's Peek 10k

Sunday was the Pike's Peek 10k. And no, not the one in Colorado. The Rockville Pike - this 10k is a 3,000 person race and $1,000 on the line for the winner. Spoiler alert: it's not me. But, what it means is that the competitive is incredibly fierce, and a lot of big runners come out to score a good pay day. And for me, it meant there were a lot of fast runners to hang onto!
After the Cherry Blossom 10 miler 2 weeks ago, I had done a few workouts to keep the speed intact, but basically the hay was already in the barn. My PR from the fall was 39:50, and I was hoping to chip about 10 seconds off of it. After all, I had knocked off 18 seconds in my 10 mile time, so I probably wasn't going to be able to milk much more out of the 10k. I was a woman on a mission, and Boston only added fuel to the fire. I was going to run well for my adopted city and put everything out there to make that happen. They gave out blue and gold ribbons, which I attached to my 2011 Boston shirt. Boston Boston Boston.
My boyfriend had driven me to the race, and I do really love that he's embraced and supported my running as much as he has. It was a cold morning for April - 35 at the start! I was actually glad that the hot streak had fizzled out. I got in my warm up, and took my spot in the first wave (yes, they actually break this up into corrals with separate starts, which is pretty cool). I was fairly far back, as the bigwigs were out there. Even my coach/trainer/grad school friend Sarah was racing too - although beyond the start, I knew I wouldn't see her for the rest of the race. We bowed our heads for a moment of silence, which it was definitely hard to keep emotions in check. Another pause, and we were off.
This is a point to point race. We made one turn out of the parking lot, and then it is straight for the last 6 miles. There are a lot of rolling hills, but because it is relatively straight, you can just push hard and not have to ease off for so many turns. Things felt so fast going out - and that's because they were - 6:12 for the first mile. I could ease off and relax, because that way too fast. Yet, I also had in my ear a loud breather named Hector (his name was on his shirt), whose breathing was so distracting that I just wanted to get away.
Getting away from Hector (in bright blue)
Less than .2 to go!

Have you ever ran alongside someone whose breathing (or moaning, as it were) just made you yourself feel sick? I needed to get away, but that wasn't a good reason to press the pace either. I picked things up just enough to get out of earshot, and continued on. There were a few steep uphills, although nothing harder than what I had trained on. I just aimed to be not too aggressive on these. I came through mile 3 in about 19:12 - and while there wasn't a 5k mark, I knew I was right under 20 minutes for the 5k, and needed to pick things up in the second half. 
The 10k is my favorite race in terms of pacing. I can really determine how much to put in, and how to just pick things up a little at 5k, 4 (little more), 5 (throw it all down), in order to negative split (second half faster). Damn it, I was going to push hard - this was for Boston! Things had spread out with the people, so I was working to try to catch up with the next pack. I didn't feel the sense that I could blow up. Unlike Cherry Blossom, when I felt just awful the whole time (even though en route to a PR), I felt strong this time and consistent with the pace. I was getting a lot of cheers with my Boston shirt of "Go Boston" and there were a lot of other Boston alumni out there too. 
This was the first time in a while where I didn't write on hands my expected splits - I was hoping that I could just go and not be fixated on the numbers. Bad choice - here I was, running 9+ mph trying to do math in my head to see if I was on track. I thought I was pretty close, but math is hard while running!
After cresting the last hill, someone shouted, "It's all downhill from here," and really, it meant half of a mile of just going for it. I just put everything I had with the finish in sight. Right after I got through the 6 mile mark, there was Pat cheering for me (you can actually see him in the picture - he's taking a picture - very meta), giving me that final boost for the end. I was all in, and my eyes widened in shock as I crossed the finish line.
6:22 pace
Overall: 148/2446
Women: 32/1276 (you can tell how competitive it is!)
Student and Coach (or PhD candidate and PhD)
Age group: 14/150
To put it into perspective, I ran 2 5ks and an 8k earlier this spring all at a slower pace than this 10k - proof that it takes time to build up speed. Goal races are there for a reason, and it takes a season to get there.
This was a big victory - for me and for Boston. It was faster than I believed I could go, and really, that's what Boston stands for at its best - conquering the insurmountable. 
I caught up with Sarah after and she ran very well (36:32) - once we started, she was so ahead of me, I didn't see her until the end. She just defended her dissertation on Tuesday - showing that the PhD is achievable. Really, she's showing me how to get both done: fast times and a successful dissertation. 
It was a phenomenal morning - better than I could have imagined. And Boston was very much on all of our minds that morning, as it will be for months to come. Boston is a place where heroes are made, and this weekend was a salute to Beantown's heroes.
A run to remember

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Heartbroken and Hopeful for Boston

My heart is broken for Boston and I don't know how to put that ache into words.
To the runners: I am sorry that the race that was supposed to be your Olympics turned into an utter nightmare. You have hundreds of thousands of Boston alumni behind you, and millions of runners who are behind you.
To the spectators: You are the lifeblood of the running community. You pull us through our races, and it is you who we look for. We are here to support you now. I read that crowdfunding has already led to $1 million raised to help with medical expenses. I cannot describe how sad I am for the three victims of the bombing, for the scores of wounded with irreparable damage, and the friends and families of the victims and. I just cannot fathom all of this.
My marathon, the Boston Marathon, gave me some of the happiest days of my life. And I still cannot fathom that that day has now delivered one of the most horrific acts of terror in recent history. That finish line delivered such promise and hope, and now is permanently enmeshed in the public memory in a tragedy.
Thinking of the Boston Marathon has always brought a lump to my throat, for it brought back memories of joy. Now, I'm moved to tears when I think of it the end of the innocence and of an era when running was so purely joyful. In 12 seconds, that joy disappeared.
I know that Boston will come back stronger. Boston is amazing. The citizens went under lockdown and the police enforcement knew what to do to get suspect #2. There are so many stories of heroic acts of bravery that have been pouring through all week - it makes me proud to be affiliated with the city.
I knew more than a dozen people who ran on Monday, and I am so proud for all of you, those who finished and those who didn't. I got to track one of my closest friends, Jenny, who ran her Boston debut and finished under 4 hours. 4 years ago, she could run a 5k, and now she ran Boston. I'm beyond grateful that she and everyone else I knew was okay. A lot of great stories happened and races unfolded before 2:50 on 4.14.13, and we need to remember that too.
We need to remember the resilience of Boston and our country. We need to remember that gutted feeling of utter sadness and fear and learn yet again how to create a world that uses love, not violence. We need to remember Marathon Monday for both the good and the bad.
I'm running a 10k tomorrow, and I have more determination than ever to run strong - Boston strong. They handed out ribbons at packet pick-up last night - not that I needed a reminder. For the city that has given me so much, I run for them. I love Boston and its people, and I'm proud to be connected with one of the greatest cities in the country.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Cherry Blossom 10 miler: 6 months for 18 seconds

Would you rather coast on the way to victory? Or is there something to be said about scrapping your way to the finish line, fighting and throwing down the gauntlet for the triumph?
While the former is certainly easier, I do love a good fight to the finish. And my PRs have been a mix. I've had banner days when the road rose to meet me, and there have been other days when I've clawed my way the whole time. I was not sure what was in store for me at the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile. Rightly so, as this past week was one of the most challenging and rewarding weeks of my career. I had a presentation for my department on Wednesday, when I reported on my progress for my dissertation proposal. I was incredibly nervous and very relieved My schedule has gotten so busy that the only blogging I've done lately has been after races! Hopefully after the semester is over I'll be able to get back in the habit. After all, I love to write anything (which is good that I'm taking on a dissertation), and I find blogging to be so much fun, and I miss doing it on a regular basis.
All of my running eggs were going into the Cherry Blossom basket. I hadn't PRed yet this spring, and Sarah said that it meant that all of the strength training was going into this race. And that was scary too. While it is not a marathon, this was supposed to be my premier race of the season, and I really wanted it to count. My PR from last fall, 1:06:10 was still relatively shiny, but I also wanted to go sub 66 minutes.
I was seeded relatively well for this race, up several corals from the last time I did this in 2009 (I ran 1:23:30). At the start, I felt good and ready to take things out hard. There wasn't anyone else who I was running it with: I would be just doing all the work to get there, not tagging onto anyone else. When the gun went off, I was struck by how far back I was...or that some people were standing closer to the front that they should have. It meant my first mile was 6:50...about 15-18 seconds slower than goal pace, and I just felt stuck. Would I be bobbing and weaving for a place? I hoped not. It took about 2 miles for me to get settled in. My heart felt like it was racing: I needed to calm down and get in a relaxed groove. I could relax a little because even though the paw wasn't ideal, I was going to see my boyfriend soon, who was camped out along the course just before the 3 mile mark. And that gave me a little boost, but before I knew it, the moment was over and I was all alone again.
I was struck by how tired I felt. This felt incredibly hard, and I felt overwhelmed by how tired I was so early into the race. Was it because of my intensive week leading up to it? Was it the final hard weeks of training? Probably a combination of both. I was kind of freaked out (I had never felt so mentally worked up during a race) some races, I've felt that I could shift into another gear. In this case, I felt all in the whole time. So, if I was feeling tired now, at mile 4, how the heck could I sustain this pace for 6 more miles?
I came through the 5 mile (halfway mark) at 32:56, which was on pace for my PR goal, but I could just feel my effort flagging. It was a no excuses day, as the race director announced, the weather was perfect, and I did not want to blow it. I was coming up on Haines Point, an area of DC where I've run some great 10k races at. I had told myself to just hang on to get to there and hopefully I could reign things in. At the 10k mark, I was at 40:50-which this time last year was a 10k PR. But on Sunday, it just felt a small benchmark en route to finishing this friggin race. At mile 7, we started to really get a strong headwind, and with the 40 degree weather and being near the Potomac, it felt icy cold. Was this race ever going to end? I just felt awful: so tired and worn out.
2 miles to go, and I told myself that PR or not, it was all going to be over in less than 14 minutes. I was running with 2 people carrying flags on poles and wondering how they were beating me. Another guy stopped at an impromptu beer table and chugged a cup of beer. Come on, pick it up! 1 mile to go, and I was checking my watch, wondering if I could get back that PR that I had been working for all year. With 3/4 of a mile, they had banners marking off each 400m left, and all I could do was recall my workout of 20 x 400 at 6:20 pace. Surely I could just knock off 3 of those.
There was a small hill to crest with 400m left, and after that, I could finally see the finish line and the clock. I started to pump my fist and manage a small whoop of joy and nearly started to weep as I crossed the finish line.
6:35 per mile
24/2819 in age group (25-29)
73/10321 women
An 18 second PR
It all paid off. Things felt bleak for the first 6 weeks of 2013, like I couldn't get more than a few consistent runs in. All of the work of strength training, cross training paid off and I was able to finally resume a regular running schedule. This race and what it stood for just meant so much for me. I scrapped my way to the finish and was met with victory. And it all comes back to my favorite Deena Kastor quote, "Sometimes the moments that challenge us the most, define us." I got to define myself as the scrappy, then happy runner at Cherry Blossom.
I was sore through Wednesday. Not post marathon sore but sore enough that it still hurt to turn over in bed and my quads screamed as I walked down the stairs. Proof that I ran outside of myself and had put everything into that race and left it out there on race day.
At this point in my running career, I've made enough progress that PRs won't mean multiple minutes knocked off of my time. 18 seconds may not seem like much, but I worked my butt (and legs) off to crack into 1:05. This was the perfect way to end a week of evaluating. While stressful, I got to demonstrate my research abilities, teaching, and running - 3 components that define me.