Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Totally an Expert Now, or Five Things I Learned Training for My First Marathon

When I woke up this past Sunday in the early afternoon at a totally reasonable hour, it really sunk in that, barring any sort of awful tragedy, in two weeks I would be done with my first marathon. (Hopefully eating in the finishers' tent and not lying on the ground in agony.)

Of course, I've always had the race at or near the front of my mind these last 16 weeks, but now it's knocking on my door. I'm planning to do a pre-race post in about a week, but suffice it to say I'm currently vacillating between complete confidence bordering on hubris and an impending sense of utter doom. Sometimes I even feel both of these at the same exact time.


Even though I'm not ready to hammer down my race strategy enough to blog about it, I've been doing a lot of reflecting about my training. Without further ado (and in no particular order), five things I've learned while preparing for my first marathon:

1. Compression socks are amazing.

I had seen various sources of running information, including Runners World and bloggers, tout compression wear, especially socks, for quite some time. Usually it seemed runners used them to boost performance. I don't remember when or how, but I became aware that they could also be used for recovery. In the past, I had only used my trusty Stick and the legs-up-the-wall pose to ease my tired legs. I thought I might treat myself to some new gear, but I almost backed out because of sticker shock. $30 for one pair of socks?

And then I paid extra so I could get purple instead of black.
I'm so glad I made the investment! Whenever my legs feel tired, I put these on and within 20 to 30 minutes, I can feel a significant difference. My Stick works great on tight legs, but my compression socks are better suited to fatigued legs. I also have discovered an hour power nap while wearing them makes me feel like I can conquer the world.


2. Active recovery days feel even better than rest days. 

I was a little nervous going into training without any complete days of rest. At the beginning I definitely felt like I was over-training (read: I turned into an insufferable cranky monster), so I did skip one run. However, after that initial week or two, I never really noticed. Two days out of the week I only swim and strength-train, so they're certainly no- to low-impact workouts.

I wouldn't want to run every single day, but I've started looking forward to hitting the pool or the gym. They give me a nice endorphin high and keep me from feeling like a lazy blob without beating up my legs.


In fact, the day before the fall semester started, I was stressing out getting ready for class and thought about skipping my run. I had pretty much committed to this decision, but I got so antsy that I ended up going out late to get it in. Even though I got a little less sleep than I would have otherwise, I felt so much better. I'm now sort of terrified for next week when I have three whole days of complete rest. I may have to impose a sequester on myself so that no one (very understandably) murders me.

3. Strength-training is a great way to round out my running.

Over the summer I went to a strength-training class twice a week. It was definitely targeted at women, most of whom were out of shape. In the beginning it was great; they had plenty of light dumbbells for me to progressively work through, and I got good explanations and demonstrations on proper form. I knew it was time to move on, however, when our instructor warned us we would do a "killer" leg day, and I wasn't sore at all the next day, even though I used the heaviest weights of anyone in the class. They were still pretty light, but when everyone else hobbled in two days later, I knew I was ready to move up.


At the beginning of August I started following the New Rules of Lifting for Women program. I really like it because it lays out each workout for me exactly. I've obviously no expert in the gym, so having clear instructions helped me transition from having an instructor to being on my own. While it feels strange almost always being the only woman on the floor, I actually haven't had any awful experiences. (Though I will pay you if you can explain to me why gym bros are apparently allergic to wicking fabric.)

Two weeks ago I finished Stage One, which is six weeks long and meant to build fitness. It kicked my butt in a good way. I'm really pleased with how much I improved over that time.

How does this relate to my running? In the last week or so, I've noticed my easy pace has improved without feeling any harder. The first time it happened, I was completely baffled, but I realized I must have added some muscle. I have no problem with speedwork, but so far this seems almost like a "cheat" way to get faster.

4. Food is amazing.

Or, as Michael lovingly put it, I "really put it away when I eat." (I promise this was actually a supportive comment in context!) I have a sort of "make better choices" weight, where, if I hit it, I really think about my food choices aka I stop eating so much crap. I've heard and read a lot about the marathon munchies and how weight gain can easily creep up on long distance runners. I've always been extremely fortunate to have a fast metabolism, but it's slown down a lot since puberty, so I assumed this would still be an issue for me.

Since the beginning of June, I haven't even gotten close (in relative terms) to my MBC weight. And I have been putting it away and then some. I sometimes feel bad having people over because then others are witnessing my constant eating. I don't mean this in an eating disorder/I feel ashamed way, but more in that, as an adult, eating every hour is not necessarily socially normal.

I refer to myself as a hungry hippo on a regular basis. True fact.
I was still worried that during taper I would gain some weight but decided not to worry about it. While I eat a lot and don't always make the healthiest choices, I do try to insure I get enough protein and I eat to my hunger. I might eat a piece of candy if I'm stressed, but I certainly don't binge. These fears also seem misplaced as I've actually lost weight. I know it's early into taper, but I'm going to keep an eye on it. (I secretly hope I was eating too little so that I can justify even more food next training cycle.)

5. Running is so much more mental than physical.

This is one of the standard axioms that any runner worth their salt can spit out, but some hard workouts really emphasized this. Before this training cycle, I had never gone past six miles in a tempo run. (I've run longer training runs and races, but that's the farthest I had ever pushed the pace really hard.) The whole week leading up to my first eight mile tempo run, I felt physically nervous. I knew I could slow or even stop the run at any time, it was all a mental fear of failure. 

This saying is cute until you're in pain.
I went slower than I would for a normal tempo run just in case, but it actually felt great. When I had to run another one later on in the training cycle, I wasn't nervous at all. In this same way, my first 20-miler sounded scary, while the second didn't really phase me. (Not to say it wasn't hard, but I knew I could crank it out.)

While I might actually be more worried about the Mount Desert Island Marathon because it's hilly in a way I can't replicate in training, I think I am/will be less nervous for it overall because I'll already have one (knock on wood) marathon under my belt. I'll have pushed through that barrier already.

I guess none of these revelations are earth-shattering. Re-reading this post, I realize I've heard them all before. Still, it's completely different to live these things for four months rather than just read about them.

Now it's time to read a million last-minute advice articles while making unhealthy choices.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Playmakers Classic Triathlon Recap

I find waiting two weeks to blog about a race really insures the memories will be fresh in my mind. Also, my usual hilarity that entertains all of about three people is lacking because I'm the throes of my biannual sinus infection. Yay fall.
I signed up for the Playmakers Classic Tri in order to have a second individual tri on my schedule for the season. Unlike a lot of tris, it was within a reasonable driving distance. It was also the last day before my semester started, so I thought it would be a fun way to end my summer. I was a little uneasy because the website lacked some information and was a little sketchy, but I hoped all would be well since it was sponsored by Playmakers.

Michael was tricked volunteered to come with, and we were out the door before 6. I also got to introduce to Michael my method of transporting my bike, which basically involves jamming it into the trunk until it can close. Not only will my next car have four doors, I will make sure it can handle a bike rack. 

The drive was sort of eerie, since we had to drive through cornfields before the sun was up. The race was at a relatively new county park. I'm not sure why they chose the location they did, but it is in the middle of nowhere. There would be no chance of finding of it without knowing where it was. 

Not pictured: anything.
The park was pretty nice: it had a lake (I assume man-made) and probably 30-40 picnic tables, each of which had their own grill. Playmakers had warned that parking was inadequate for the number of athletes coming (I said it was a bit shady), but we got there early enough that we didn't have a problem. People who came later were directed to park on the sides of the road along the course. Not well organized at all.

I had no problem with packet pick-up and went to transition. I'm not sure if this is common or not, but I thought it was clever that they used the helmet stickers to also mark our transition spots; once you racked your bike, you could take your helmet sticker with you. 

I then had about an hour to kill. I spent some time trying to scope out the competition (I'm hardcore like that). Last year, only two people were in my age group, so I was hoping I would be able to place. I spotted one girl body-marked as 20. (This fact is important for later.) Otherwise, I didn't see anyone. I almost got excited, but then I realized I probably would get second out of two, so I just let it go.

We had a brief, pre-race meeting, at which we were warned that we could not grab onto the boats if we needed assistance in the water. I was confused since that is against USAT policy, but apparently the stand-up paddleboarders on the course didn't want to be dumped in the water. This seemed incredibly selfish, and I felt uncomfortable that the RD was okay with this. 

If the watercraft makes it hard to assist in the water, maybe you shouldn't use it. Pro tip.
I lined up with my wave three minutes before we went into the water, and it was surprisingly small. The one girl in my age group was also in the back of our wave, so I started to wonder if I had a slim chance of actually earning an AG award. 

I started out in the swim way too fast. I'm not sure why I thought I could magically sprint 600M, but obviously I cannot. I struggled to get into a rhythm and kept swallowing water. Eventually, I settled down, but our first swim leg was into the sun, which made sighting very difficult. I nearly took out a paddleboarder. (Question: Did I feel bad? Answer: Not at all.)

I was a little nervous not having a wet suit, but I was very comfortable. Another shady event happened when the RD kept emphasizing there would be no penalty for wearing a wetsuit, although the temperature was warm enough participants wearing them should have been excluded from AG awards.

I was surprised how slow the swim was when I started passing people. I thought maybe I had transported into an alternate reality. I know these people weren't exactly setting Olympic records at the speeds they were going, but it was a nice surprise confidence booster. 

Look, there are men behind me!
 Swim Time: 15:59 (avg. 2:40/100M)

I ran up the sand and grass to transition. This race was much better than the Oswego Tri, where my bike couldn't fit under the bike rack. I had plenty of room here, which saved me some time and energy. I took some extra time to clean and dry my feet, figuring preventing blisters would be worth it. 

T1 Time: 3:03

I then headed out for the out-and-back 18 mile bike course. It was on paved roads through the countryside, though I did not appreciate having the mount line part-way up a hill. I settled in for a steady diet of being passed by people 50 years older than me. Don't get me wrong, I think it's fantastic they're out there, but it stings a little when someone in their 70s tells you to keep up the good work as they blow your doors off. 

I felt like I was flashing back to Oswego, as I biked mostly through cornfields. The course was open, but there were volunteers at every intersection and all the cars were respectful. I also got to see some cool wildlife, including a hawk swooping right overhead and some turkeys that gobbled very angrily when I nearly ran them over. 
You think it's not seasonally relevant, but I'm sure my Spartans will make me weep bitter tears soon.
I also got to check out an abandoned apple orchard. (It's for sale! I should make a bid. Forget accounting, I'll become Johnny Appleseed when I graduate.) There were also active mining sites, which made me feel uncomfortable. I don't know what there is to mine in Maple Rapids, but it's probably unhealthy to inhale.

There were also mile markers every five miles on the course, which was nice to compare my bike computer with. I also had a great volunteer moment, where I was told I was at mile nine when I was really almost at mile 10. I'm so glad I have a bike computer and a Garmin for these situations. I know it might seem petty, but it's really awful to be told you're in the wrong spot, especially by a whole mile.

The one thing I really noticed with this bike was how uncomfortable I got in the saddle after going for so (relatively) long. A few times near the end I coasted just to be able to stand up for a few moments. I also managed to wrangle my water bottle, which helped make it less miserable. I'm definitely jealous of the people with the front-mounted bottles with straws.

I tried to power until the end, but I just wanted off.
Bike Time: 1:20:18 (avg. 13.4 mph)

I then ran down the hill with bike back to transition. I think it must be a secret USAT rule that transition must be at the bottom of hill so that there can be a fun suicide run on bike legs.

I took some fluids and ran out. It was a little unclear where to go since I shifted so far back in the pack on the bike, but I found it.

T2 Time: 1:17

The run was five miles total, mostly on gravel roads, with the final mile on grass. (I can't escape this new found running friend, it seems.) Again, the course was open, but the volunteers had everything under control. I was just happy to be off the bike and out running. Just like Oswego, even though I did approximately zero bricks, I felt fine taking off on the run. I felt a little blah, but I think that was mostly heat-related.

I pushed myself to run until the first mile marker and then assess. I was pleased with my pace but felt strange on the different running surface, so I just focused on passing other runners one person at a time. I felt especially vindicated when I passed a guy wearing cargo shorts that I remembered from the bike because of his BMX-style helmet. 

This is what the Tour de France actually looks like.

Then, to my total amazement, I spotted the other person I knew was in my age group.  I lost her on the swim and had almost forgotten about her. She was walking, but I wasn't sure if this was part of a planned strategy or not. I debated drafting her until the end and trying to fly under the radar, but I felt surprisingly good, so I went for it. Shortly after I made my move a volunteer asked her how she was doing, and her response was pretty garbled. I checked her results afterwards, and she might have walked the last three miles, I felt pretty sorry for her.

Obviously, I don't think I'm some amazing athlete for passing her, but I've never overtaken someone in my age group before and held a lead for a substantial period of time. The shot of adrenaline felt great, and it made me feel good about how my speed has really improved over the last year.

The turnaround was staffed by angels who gave me a cold towel. It was into the 80's at this point, without shade, and I really was able to keep pushing with their help. I didn't know what to do with it, so I ran with it in my tri top for awhile, before dumping it in a pile of towels along the road.

A little after four miles I hit the grassy section.

Off to the magical land of pain!
To my great surprise and joy, the grass was much more hard-packed dirt and singletrack type running than deep grass. I passed a few more people on this stretch and felt strong. We looped around the lake, and when I looked back, the girl from my age group was nowhere to be seen. It hurt, but I pushed myself to the end.

I know running through this was probably supposed to be fun, but it just stressed me out because I didn't know what to do with my tiny arms.
Run Time: 48:17 (avg. 9:40 min/mile)

Overall Time: 2:28:52

Little did I know, it was time for the culmination of the shady events. I checked the results and saw one person kicked my butt placed ahead of me, so I would be second of three. If there are only three people in my age group, I hate being last because accepting the "award" feels so lame. I enjoyed my banana and tiny cup of water with ease. (Yet another major oversight - I can't believe there were no water bottles at the end of the race.)

In any event, the awards began shortly thereafter. The third place finisher from the females 14-19 was still on the course, but I didn't think anything of it. While they were announcing the males 20-24, the girl I passed went up the RD. I rolled my eyes, thinking she had finished and was too antsy to realize they hadn't done our age group yet.

Her parents went with her, too.
But then she got a glass. Because she was third for females 14-19.

My head nearly exploded. She was clearly body-marked as 20. I had totally cleaned her clock on the run, but I wasn't going to get credit for it. I lamely took my glass, but it felt embarrassing.

I tried to give Playmakers the benefit of the doubt at first, even though they had already messed up other basic USAT rules. However, I checked my age on the results, and I was listed as 20, even though my racing age is 21. I'm obviously aware of the rule, so I would've put 21 for my age during registration. However, we must have entered our birthdays instead, which mean Playmakers messed up and used our race-day ages, not our racing ages. In the case of someone bridging to the next age group, this actually makes an important difference.

I know I can get arbitrarily angry at times, but there's absolutely zero excuse for an athletic store that sponsors their own tri team to completely miss the boat on racing age.

Nice to meet you, I'm Playmakers.
I would not recommend this race at all. While it was their first year in this location, it was their fourth year organizing it. These rookie mistakes shouldn't happen. It makes me sad to give it two thumbs down because I love Playmakers, but this was just a bad bad experience.

The swag was at least nice. Most comfortable shirt ever.
I'm glad did this race, though. It was nice to round out my tri "schedule". It showed me I really need to work on my swim. Over the winter I'm going to go through the next five swim plans in my tri training book. I know swimming twice a week won't significantly increase my speed, but I'm hoping I can go into next season without needing to rest in a sprint or maybe even Olympic distance tri. (And unless someone gifts me a tri bike, I'm not going further than Olympic. It would just be no fun.)

I'm also happy with my results. My swim time was a tad bit faster, I did not spend an hour in T2, and my run pace was the same, even though the race was longer. My bike technically looks slower, but my bike computer registered the course as almost a mile long, so I believe my speed was actually better.

I'm really glad I added tris to my racing schedule. I like having a set plan for my cross-training, and the upper body strength makes a difference on my runs. I've only done two, but I think they'll push me out of my comfort zone for awhile yet.
Drown, ache, gasp for air.
The good news is that my first marathon is my next race, so I have nowhere to sublimate my worry anymore. One week until taper!