Thursday, January 5, 2012

Back to Training

From the outside looking in: a cold winter morning before the first run back.
After a year of undisciplined living, I'm going after Boston again. Keybank Vermont City Marathon will be the race. And on May 27th I'll try for 26.2 in no more than 2 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds.

Since injuring myself during training for the 2010 Mohawk-Hudson Marathon and missing my goal time of 3:10:59 by 8 seconds, I have been unable to get back on a solid training schedule and eventually I even began to define myself by that failure.

Many things have changed in the period since those training days before the race. I have gone through a fairly radical diet change from when I took a break from running. For nearly a year I ate a vegan diet. Combined with my newly sedentary lifestyle, this diet caught up with me in the form of chronic fatigue and a few months ago I decided to abandon my vegan diet and returned to vegetarian eating. But, shamefully, I ate a sad and pathetic diet of pasta, pizza, chips, etc. I still had my staple rice and beans with chopped veggies, but with such consistency that I wasn't getting nearly the nutrition that I needed. My diet reached an all time low. And while I didn't become fat exactly, I certainly became soft.

Although I never gave up running entirely, I only ran very sporadically. I'd get psyched about running for a few days and go out and tackle 10 miles of hills, only to throw my running shoes in the closet for the next two weeks. Or I'd hit the track and do 45 minutes of solid interval work and then go home and eat a pizza and not run again for another 10 days. I stopped reading running blogs and obsessing over running videos on youtube. I didn't re-up for Runners World and my stable of running shoes gradually dwindled from 10 to 2 as I started throwing away unused gear around the apartment. I quit reading running books, and I didn't geek out on running gear. To sum it up: I quit dreaming about running.

I tried running longer distances with less frequency because, well, distance is fun. But that didn't work. I tried running shorter miles more frequently because consistency and discipline are inspiring, but that didn't work. I couldn't spark the fire. Where only a couple of years earlier I practically defined myself by my passion for running, I reached the point where I considered the possibility that perhaps running was just a phase that occupied a few years in my mid-20's. But I was reluctant to accept that. And then I came upon the quote "Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries", and I liked it. And I finally realized that without a goal to work towards, I have serious motivational problems. Whether time, distance, or a pattern of consistency, I thrive on hitting goals. I love challenges. I love discipline. I love extremes and exploring limits. Without these things, I sometimes fall apart. So, after a long vacation, I will return to a disciplined lifestyle of hard work, physical exertion, and honest living.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cold Winter Nights

Summit of Blackhead Mountain in the Catskills over the weekend. Beautiful but treacherous, icy scrambles lined the descent.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. - H.D. Thoreau
After weeks (months?) of somewhat aimless drifting and low output, I'm up to 7 mile daily runs. I'll build to 75-80 miles/week over the next few months. Despite an aching left ankle/arch, I can feel the past months of training haven't left my legs, even though I took nearly a month off. Although I've been slowly building a base for almost 3 weeks, tonight's run represented something new for me: a return to purposeful and disciplined living. A discipline that extends beyond running but finds its expression most succinctly in it.

Tonight also marked the first sub-10 degree run of the winter. The familiar sensation of a frozen mustache, numb fingers and toes, and the bemused stares of neighbors suggest that the winter running season has arrived. Where 3 months earlier the streets were crowded with each and every variety of runner, now the running community is pared down to the passionate and determined. There is a certain thrill to stepping out into freezing, blustering winds, and finding yourself alone in the streets. Block after block, turn after turn, with nobody in sight; the solitude of running is pronounced on cold winter nights. 

So imagine the curiosity when you see a blinking light in the far off distance and you realize that what you see is not a car or a bike, but... another runner! And your pace increases almost imperceptibly as you anticipate the meeting. And if it's an especially cold night you share a smile and a nod as you pass. I'm not sure what the nod means, but it's a feeling of communion. In that brief and silent moment, you'll share more in common with a stranger than you will with most people you encounter the rest of the week. And you reflect on that for a minute, two minutes, three minutes.

And then, seamlessly, thoughts evaporate and your attention flows back into the rhythm of the run.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mohawk-Hudson Marathon: Race Report

 "If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!"
-Rudyard Kippling

At 8:20 on Sunday morning, 850 runners lined up in Central Park in Schenectady, and awaited the gun that would mark the start of the 2010 Mohawk-Hudson Marathon. Conditions were perfect. At 8:30 the gun went, the race started, and we ran...

As for the race:

I positioned myself at the front and ran the first mile in 6:35. Too fast. Maybe 10 people were before me, the rest behind. The second mile went by with only 13 something expired and I hadn't slowed down. By the third mile my calves were tight.

I finally pulled back to 7:15, but had already strained my muscles. The remainder of the first half was spent mostly alone. Of the 850 runners, 30 in the front pack were out of sight and the other 820 or so were behind me. 13 miles went by more or less like this.

My half split was 1:32:54: over 2 minutes ahead of pace. The tightness in my right calf and left quad was was mild but steadily worsening. The main struggle of the half was my uncertainty with the condition of my legs.

At 18 my calves started cramping badly. It occurred to me that I might not finish the race. This was when everything began to change. Before, the prospect of my legs failing was a possibility, but now it was happening. My breathing became labored and runners began passing me. I had 8 miles to go.

In an endurance race, the first 2/3 of the race seem almost a prelude to the real race. You spend 2 hours getting to the 18th mile so that you can test yourself and your training over the remaining miles. Anyone can get to 18 in their projected time. What matters is the toll that those 18 take on your body as you enter the final 8. You train to absorb those miles, to deflect those miles. You train so those first 18 don't eat you. The struggle in the first 18 is the mental gamble: how much can you give and still have something left?

I was ahead of pace though it seemed unrealistic to maintain it. But my strategy from the start was simple: hit my splits for the first 20 miles at any cost and deal with the final 6 when they arrive. 2 miles more was possible, so I kept running.

In Once A Runner, Quentin Cassidy describes the third lap of the mile to be the most difficult because your legs scream, you're against the clock, and yet you must leave something for the final lap. In contrast, the fourth lap is simple because you don't have to keep anything in reserve; you open up and your body takes over.

Miles 18-20 were my fourth lap. I banked on the unlikely possibility that something metaphysical, unnatural, unearthly would take me from mile 20 to mile 26.2, and I went all in. And I made it to 20, and I was still on pace.

By mile 20, my form had fallen apart. A runner would pass me, then another, and another. I had now caught the half-marathoners and was having an impossible time distinguishing between marathoners and half-marathoners, which somehow made everything more difficult. I struggled to extract my cheat sheet from my pocket to check my splits and found that once it was out, I could no longer focus my eyes enough to read it.

By 23, all I could feel was a fog of vague, intense pain pervading my lower half. Where before I could isolate pain to my right calf, my left quad, my right arch, now I could only sense an opaque and ubiquitous cloud of overwhelming discomfort. I remembered something about adrenaline taking hold in the final mile and thought that if I could make it to 26th mile, this "adrenaline" would pull me through. By now, the only connection between my mind and body was pain sensation. I felt that I could control my legs only by tossing them forward with my hips, and so I did that. And I continued to hit my splits.

I left myself over 8 minutes to run the last mile. Despite my exhausted condition and unspeakable form, my strategy had so far worked. But adrenaline never kicked in, or at least I left it nothing to work with. I heard people yelling, "Half mile!". Finally, I could hear my dad yelling and I saw the finish line and next to it the the clock read 3:10:24. I was in the final chute and had 35 seconds to cover the remaining distance and it was time to go.

And now there occurred a pure, unadulterated push. I cannot describe it or quantify and I can't remember it. The struggle was the thing, and my taking part in it seemed secondary, if I even took part at all. A three hour marathon concentrated into a 30 second effort...

To qualify for Boston I needed to run 26.2 miles from Schenectady to Albany in 3:10:59. I crossed the finish line at 3:11:07. Three months of training, three hours of running, three weeks of missed training - all came down to 8 seconds.

I averaged 7:18 and came in 54th out of 850. I was the first name in the results without an asterisk next to it to indicate a qualifying time for Boston.

I constantly replay the race in my mind, and I search for where I could have picked up 8 seconds in all of that 3 hours, 11 minutes, and 7 seconds, and I keep coming up blank. And though I feel disappointment, I feel no regret, because I don't think those 8 seconds were anywhere to be found on the course that day. And I gave everything and that was the first time I've done that, and it felt good.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mohawk-Hudson Marathon - October 10

"It was a run indeed now, and what Joe called, in the only two words he spoke all the time, "a Winder." Down banks and up banks, and over gates, and splashing into dykes, and breaking among coarse rushes: no man cared where he went."
- Charles Dickens

For 15 weeks now I've been training for the Mohawk-Hudson Marathon on October 10th. This was the first time that I read books, took notes, and designed a training plan for a race. I wanted to use this race to qualify for the Boston Marathon in spring 2011.

Most marathons are open to anyone, but Boston remains one of the few races you must qualify for by hitting a certain time in another marathon. 27 year old guys have to run 26.2 miles in 3:10:59, or in other words, 26 miles at a 7:15 pace. The Mohawk-Hudson Marathon in Albany is a fast race and it's in my backyard. This would be my qualifying race.

I dedicated myself completely. I woke up early for pre-work runs. I did 15 mile runs at midnight when I couldn't fit them in earlier. I did doubles. I did tempos. I did aerobic and lactate thresholds. Intervals, fartleks, long runs, medium-longs, blah blah blah. I never skipped a mile. I ate dinner at 10 p.m. after runs on most nights. I never had an afterwork beer, because I had to get the miles in. I didn't answer my phone and didn't return phone calls. I didn't see people. I ran all the time.

My decisions were made always with consideration paid to the schedule. I mostly went easy when I was supposed to go easy, and I was surprised that I remained injury free, despite jumping my mileage from 50-60/week before training to 90-100/week during training.

But three weeks ago the miles caught up to me. At first I thought it was a stress fracture in my left foot, but I've since re-diagnosed myself with posterior tibialis tendonitis. No health insurance means no doctor means online forums for medical advice and self-diagnosis. The forums told me 8-10 weeks of rest for full recovery. But it was only three weeks to the marathon.

I took two weeks off and spent the time biking when I could, but mostly hiking and camping. I took a complete break from running and was relieved from the routine but mostly stressed and depressed because of wasted time. Within 10 days, I felt like I couldn't remember the mechanics of running. I'd drive down the street and see a runner on the sidewalk and it was difficult to imagine myself running.

This past weekend it occurred to me that the marathon was in 9 days and I hadn't run at all over the past two weeks and had cross-trained minimally and in fact had sort of forgotten about it but probably mostly repressed it. I have no idea what this does to my fitness. How quickly do you lose it all? I was pretty thoroughly disinterested in the race. My foot was hardly improving. I had planned to overnight the Escarpment Trail from Saturday to Monday, 25 miles through the Catskill Mountains on my last weekend before the race just to keep my sanity.

But I decided to take the remaining 9 days until the race, and do everything I could to make a last attempt at hitting 3:10. I already invested 3 months of my life to this stupid race. I cancelled the hike. I unrolled the yoga mat and have been doing futile, copious, painful pushups and situps every morning and night. I iced and ibuprofened and elevated. On Tuesday night I went for an easy 3 miles at 6:44 pace and, despite some tenderness in my foot, felt amazing. I had a new pair of legs.

I'll run once or twice more for 3-5 miles before Sunday, mostly for confidence. And on Sunday at 8:30 a.m. I'll run from Schenectady, out of Central Park and east along the Mohawk river until it hits the Hudson River. Then I'll turn right and head South and run alongside the Hudson River until I cross the finish line at the amphitheater in the Corning Preserve in downtown Albany.

And I have no idea what to expect. I have my plan: 7:15 pace for 20 miles, then open it up for the last 6. And if I have anything left at 20, I'll qualify for Boston. And if I run out of steam, I'll try next year. And if my foot fails along the way, I'll pull out. Either way, Monday marks the start of something new.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Becker Hollow Trail - Hunter Mountain

Becker Hollow Trail is the shortest, steepest, and most challenging ascent to the summit of Hunter Mountain in the Northern Catskills. 2.2 miles covers 2,210' of elevation gain.
A fire tower waits next to a cabin in a clearing on the top with 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape.Hunter Mountain is an hour south of Albany. I was on the road by 5am and most of the drive was in the dark. Loud music, windows down, and sugary coffee shook me out of my 4 hours of sleep. I arrived at the trailhead off Rt. 214 around 6:30 as the sun was coming up. Sticky air, warm sun, and a constant incline made for an uncharacteristically balmy September hike. I carried a daypack with first aid, 2 liters of water, knife, map and compass. I didn't know what to expect, so overpacked a bit. Next time I'd wear running shorts, trail runners, carry a bottle of water and race to the top as fast and stripped as possible.
Leaves changed from green to yellow and from the outside it was like a kaleidoscope shell. From the outside it's hard to imagine the trails on the inside. On the inside I've forgotten what it looks like from the sky, from the ground, from the road driving up. It's two different worlds, the mountain from the outside and the trails, leaves, wood, rocks, and fields on the inside.
There is stillness on the bottom. I climb higher, higher, the branches whoosh, the leaves rustle and the trees sway slowly left, now right. The wind carries sounds above me and I hear animals around me. Scared of me? Bears are scared. Squirrels are crazy. Frogs are camouflaged. I wonder sometimes if I've ever stepped on a frog.
A clearing at the top let me catch my breath. I rip-roared my way to this point, making fast time. Aerobically, I was pushing it. I made two miles in an hour andfound myself at the cabin and firetower an hour earlier than I expected. The climb was steep but the terrain not nearly as technical as the climb up neighboring Plateau and Twin via Devil's Path. A workout, maybe a run when my foot heals.
On top of the mountain.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Snowy Mountain - Central Adirondacks

"Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." -J.M.
View from Snowy Mountain looking west from the summit.

Snowy Mountain lies just to the west of Indian Lake in the Central Adirondacks. At 3,899', it's the tallest mountain outside of the High Peaks region and its 2,000'+ elevation gain to the summit is greater than many mountains in the High Peaks.
On Sunday night we camped at Lewey Lake State Campgrounds five miles south of the Snowy Mountain trailhead. We wanted the lean-to six miles west of the campground, but didn't have time to hike the six miles back to the road in the morning and were up against the clock on Monday: we needed an early bird start. We didn't stand a chance in that lean-to.
The trail began with 200 yards of steep, rocky hiking before it flattened out for 2 miles. Most of the hike was dirt singletrack with rock steps and root ladders up hills. The trail followed a stream and we crossed it a half dozen times. The weather was dry, but the ground was muddy, so that where there weren't natural footholds, 4x6's were laid out to protect the land and prevent erosion.
Only one section of stream was deep enough to justify a stretch of footbridge. His heart is awed by all the wild things in all the wild world.

With 3/4 of a mile remaining to the summit, we still had 1,000' feet to climb. We inhaled the first 3+ miles in less than two hours with gradual ascent, but the final climb was still in front of us. Technical terrain required consideration and concentration. A root trail marked the start of the scramble to the top.
Looking back I could feel the elevation we were hitting, and I saw views of northeast mountain ranges behind trees. When we thought we were at the summit we found unspectacular views, mostly shielded by pine trees. But it wasn't the top. So we explored the false summit and realized we still had to push more to the true summit.
This rocky cliff was the the finish line: we had to go over it. Or around it. We went around it.
At the top was a far away view to the east. The lake stretched itself out out, further out, south toward Lewey Lake and only just missed it by two lanes of blacktop and two metal guardrails. Or the skinny finger lakes actually burst asunder from beneath bridge and pavement, metal and paint congesting Lewey, and charged north, coming together to make Indian Lake at the foot of Snowy Mountain.
The mountains to the west were grand. The wind was sharp and triumphant and I liked it. The skies splashed forward and the clouds were infinite and the green mountains rolled forever and were countless. We ate granola bars and were wild mountain climbers taking respite from the wild-ness all around us. The trek down was a slow exhale and the ground was a little more sure and the colors a little less vibrant and our feet hurt but not too much and time flew but really it went slow and for at least a minute it didn't go anywhere at all.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Eastern Section of Devil's Path - West to East

The Devil's Path is a 28 mile trail through the Catskill Mountains. I hiked the 13.4 mile eastern portion, described as the "classic Devil's Path" from the west heading east, covering 12,000' of cumulative elevation change. Considered to be one of the most difficult trails in the eastern U.S., it summits 4 mountain peaks: Plateau, Sugarloaf, Twin, and Indian Head.

I dropped my car at the eastern trailhead at Prediger road off of Platte Cove and got a ride back to Devil's Tombstone at the base of Hunter Mountain where I camped for the night.

Sunday morning brought overcast skies and a cell phone that wouldn't turn on. I carried my tent, sleeping bag, 100' of rope, knife, map, compass, first aid, headlamp, mp3 player, ~3 liters of water, trail mix/granola, base layer, light rain jacket, and running shoes. Started out in Fivefinger KSO's, running shorts and tech shirt.

The trail reached a rocky chute and I spent the first 2 miles climbing climbing climbing. I was winded early and slowed a bit until I found a pace. Made some minor adjustments to my pack and felt strong. Crossed paths with another hiker at the top of the mountain and continued across to the other side where I began the descent.

About 4 miles in I put my fifth toe on my right foot into an immovable object and hobbled for two miles before switching to my running shoes. By the time I finished, my toe would swell up, turn purple and red, and creep up green along the top of my foot: broken? Once I laced up my running shoes the pain was less.

The terrain was varied: mostly rocky scrambles on the ascents and descents with minimal switchbacks, making for lots of grabbing and climbing up/down steep inclines. The most challenging aspect of the 13.4 mi was finding the safest way to navigate the technical terrain, which became more difficult when the rocky climb was wet from the rain.
The first four miles took me 3.5 hours and I had to pick it up to make it back to my car before sundown. I had my headlamp and gear to spend the night in one of the lean-tos along the way, but wanted to make it back that night.

As I climbed a chute up Sugarloaf I felt the ground shake beneath me and heard the sound of a horse galloping next to me. I figured it was a bear so I sang the rest of the way to avoid surprising another one. Mostly sang about love lost.

Summits that should have offered views of upcoming mountains and conquered miles were instead covered in mist. At every summit the air was thick with moisture. Above 3,600' felt like Ferngully.

My time on Twin and Indian Head was spent entirely under rainfall and I wore my Buff because the wind had become intense. But I seemed to be getting more energy with every step and by the last 2 miles I increased my pace to a jog: the terrain had finally flattened out.

The drive home was strange. I thought of my foot and the race I've been training for the last 3 months. I thought about the rain and the rocks and I felt my face with my fingers. I saw my reflection in the rear view mirror. I listened to Superwolf on repeat. I thought I would find a bar and have a beer. But I went to sleep.

Monday I woke up to a redblackswollen toe. I stood up and felt my thighs screaming gloriously: burn burn burn. I tested my weight on my foot. It felt used. I threw on yesterday's running shorts, laced up my beaten Nike Katana's and stepped out into the cool 60's for my Monday morning recovery run.