Race Summary: Philly Marathon 2011

The marathon is humbling, no matter what pace you are running.   This year, I decided to be the rabbit for my wife in the Philadelphia Marathon in her quest to qualify for Boston.   This kept me interested in training in a year I have struggled to get out of a running rut.

Jill’s goal was 3:50 (8:46 per mile pace), which would give her a 5 minute cushion (qualifying requirement for her age is 3:55).  This would increase her chances of not having to register for Boston on the “last” day of a new rolling registration process.  Her fear was that the race would be full by the time she registered.

Her previous PR was 3:55:03 (3 seconds away from the new qualifying time for her age!). So, this time around, I trained more with her (long runs, and track workouts, in particular Yasso 800s).  The more we ran together, the more I noticed her newer, tougher runner’s attitude.  We both started to believe she could do it.

She had control over her training.  The only “x factor” for a race in late November would be the weather, which was nearly perfect (borderline warm) on race day.

So, the blaring horns sounded the Olympic theme song, and we were off.   I simply wanted Jill to be patient for the first two miles, which include lots of jockeying and elbows (some treat the start as if it is a 5K).  Mile 1 was at 8:59, which was fine.

When she threw down her “throw away” gloves after Mile 2, I said to myself, she will break 3:50 today.  It was in the way she threw down the gloves (very business-like).  At that moment, it was clear to me that she was on a mission.

After the wide expanse of Columbus Boulevard, we weaved through Center City.  Around Mile 5, she got a little weepy as we made the left turn onto Chestnut Street, near Independence Hall (she is a history geek, and loves our city so much, she got caught up in the moment).   A fellow runner can never judge another’s emotions during a race.

Chestnut Street is dangerous because the crowd support is so good, you are tempted to run faster.   When you get to high five someone cheering you on dressed as a pancake, it tends to pump you up.  I had to help her put the breaks on a few times because I knew the hills of Miles 8-10 would be coming up.

I warned her not to worry if Mile 10 was closer to 9mins (and it was because of the longer hill).  Nothing to panic about.

The next danger was West River Drive.  It is a race track, especially because the race is mixed with half marathoners nearing their finish.   She had to fight the urge to go faster.  When she is running faster than 8:30 pace, I usually say: “Take it easy Paula (Radcliffe).”

At the half, she was under 1:53 (2+ minutes ahead of pace).  A bit fast, which slightly worried me, but not to the point of panic (since her Yasso 800s were at 3:47).  So, we made our way out on Kelly Drive, a more quiet, lonely part of the race.  It is also a bit intimidating because you start to see other runners coming inbound on Kelly Drive, and you realize how far you’ve still got to go.

At Mile 14, I was reminded I was running a marathon too.  I turned my ankle, and let out a brief shout.   I didn’t want to scare Jill, so I said everything was fine (lie).  Her next three miles were consistently 8:30 pace. She was officially going into “Mr. Spock” mode (I will explain that in a future post).

Jill survived the Manayunk miles by staying around 8:45 pace.  At this point, I was struggling despite the fact that this pace was much slower than I am used to running. My breathing was labored (I was fighting off a cold), and my ankle (ouch); however, I think it had more to do with the fact that Jill was simply kicking ass.  I almost told her to go on ahead of me, but I didn’t want to miss out on her amazing performance.  I was witnessing the “race of her life” as she kept forging on.

Heading back onto Kelly Drive (the eternal home stretch), it was clear to me at Mile 22 that she would shatter 3:50.  This is when I got weepy (yes I admit it).  When you are witnessing your spouse’s strength and determination, and you are overcome with pride and emotion, you will lose your cookies too.  I do not apologize for crying.  I was simply in awe.

The last two or three miles were a bit slower than 8:45 pace, but I knew it was going to happen for her.

As we neared the finish line, passing the Art Museum, I almost wanted it to slow down for Jill (even though she simply wanted to speed up to cross the line).  I just wanted her to be able to soak in the moment for “just a little longer.” I screamed out to her: “Boston baby!”

We crossed the finish line (3:47:32), a PR for her by over 7 minutes!  Jill got her high five from Mayor Nutter, and we both got shout-outs from Bart Yasso!   We hugged and there were more tears (we are criers).

(Later, we were saddened by the news of the deaths of two runners, ages 21 and 40.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to their family and friends.  Once I get my legs back, I will dedicate my next run to them).

The Taper Chronicles: Philly Marathon 2011

Blisters or Black Toenails?”   This has become my wife’s dilemma as she chooses between two pairs of sneakers for the actual marathon.  “Do I go with the ones that cause blisters, or should I go with the ones that will result in black toenails?”  This is just one of the many nutty thoughts that go through a runner’s head during The Taper.

The Taper: three weeks of angst, psychosomatic drama, tripping over nothing, nightmares and orthopedic mysteries.   I have decided to chronicle my wife’s taper for the upcoming Philadelphia Marathon.  She won’t be upset with me because if you are reading this, you’ve most likely had similar crazy thoughts and experiences too.

My wife, Jill, went with black toenails, as she concluded would be the lessor of two evils.  Good choice if you ask me; however, the running sneaker choice is the easy part.  What we do to fill the (eternal) three-week period to keep from going crazy is another thing altogether.

During the taper, nothing feels good, not our runs, and not what we normally do (not even what we normally wear).   I believe Jill summed it up at one point: ”Every shoe I put on my feet hurts me.“

Shall I move on to the phantom (or real) pains she has shared with me?  In no particular order:

ITB, shoulder (twice), arm, oh and “electricity” shooting up her leg and back.   It doesn’t end there.

This past weekend, I was sightseeing at Red Rocks while visiting family in Denver.   My wife stayed home for a few reasons, primarily because you just don’t want to tempt fate during the taper and travel.  Just as I was being wowed by the amazing rock formations of the serene environs of Red Rocks, my fourteen year-old stepson calls me from 1600 miles away.  The call went like this:

Me: “Hello?

Ethan:  “G, can you please talk to mom and calm her down?  She is crying about her hip.

Me: “Sure

Jill (crying): “I can’t even run as far as Lou’s house (our neighbor two doors down).”

Me: “Everything will be fine, just take another day off.  You will be fine tomorrow or Monday.”

There were some other words of encouragement, followed by the rest, ice, Aleve pep talk, etc, and the next day she was able to run eight pain-free miles.  Another inexplicable mystery during the Taper.

In addition to navigating the pain concerns, the other issues my wife has experienced can be described as “Tripping Over the Invisible” and a “Weather-Obsession.”

In one case, she actually tripped with no obstacle in sight:  ”I just tripped over nothing.   That sounds about right.

Thankfully, the weather is looking good for the Philadelphia Marathon this weekend; however, my wife won’t fully trust the forecast yet.

Finally, there was “The Nightmare.”  I’m sure you’ve had it too: the one in which you missed the race or went the wrong way on the course.  She had that one four days before the race.

The one consistent question Jill has asked me over the last couple of weeks:

I’m going to be OK, right?

As the supportive husband, the only answer is ”Yes.“

So, the next time you’re in the Taper, try to stay sane and try not to trip over anything, even though, based on our experience, it is mathematically impossible.  No matter how nerve-wracking it has gotten for Jill, I still maintain that she is the toughest runner I know. In fact, I predict a Boston Qualifier for her.  Stay tuned.

The Music of Running: Vol. 1

Music and Running: two of my passions in life.   It has, therefore, become a habit for me to attempt to combine the two.  Why not?  After all, Seinfeld’s George Costanza liked to combine his passion for pastrami with, well, you know.

Sometimes music is needed during a run; sometimes it is not.   In fact, sometimes the quiet is better.   I limit the use of the IPOD to one run per week, but when I am in the mood, the combination of the music and running is everything I need in life.  Both activities can be enhanced with the combination of the two.  George Costanza was no runner, but he would approve of this logic.

The following are some songs and song quotes I have collected over the years.   Some are great running songs.   Some songs just have good inspirational running associations for me.  Others have inspired some of my writing themes.  This is the first installment of “The Music of Running.”  It is the back-story to my other writing.

The only thing I’ll ever ask of you, you’ve got to promise not to stop when I say when.“ – Everlong by Foo Fighters

The theme?  It’s about wanting something good to last.  This is possibly the one song that will hold up forever for me as a running song.   When we run, there is a cadence, and this song mimics the cadence (no matter what the pace).   It starts slow, but builds into a metronomic sound that is one with a runner’s stride.  I try to listen to this song closer toward the end of a run because if I hear it too soon, I go out too hard.

The road has got me hypnotized,and I’m speeding into a new sunrise!  – Radar Love by Golden Earring

This is my wife’s favorite running song.   A few reasons: 1) It builds itself up, so if it takes your body a little time to warm up, the timing within the song might be a good match for you, 2) It occupies you for over six minutes (6:27), and 3) Depending on your stride, its pace is sometimes synced to your own.  It’s about driving but it makes you want to run further and faster.

My mind is open wide and now I’m ready to start” – Ready to Start by Arcade Fire

This song has come to be hummed by my inner voice just before a run or the at the starting line of the few races I have done this year.  Thinking about racing, it is so difficult not to be amped up just before the start.  It’s even hard to swallow.  Sometimes hearing a familiar song just before a race can be calming, and help with focus.

If you don’t run you rust.” – Big Weekend by Tom Petty

Self-explanatory.  Plus, my wife and I live by this:  When you stop working out, you lose your fitness and vibrancy. Gotta keep on going.   Also, the song title and theme focus on a weekend road trip.  Let’s face it, the races to which we travel are part of a “Big Weekend.”

Run…and don’t look back.“   – A Sort of Homecoming by U2

U2 is the sentimental link to my childhood, and this song slowly builds and sustains me during a run.   There are plenty of other U2 songs I could write about, but this will be their first song I will mention.  Once in a while, I’ll catch myself looking back to my younger days when a U2 song is played, but you can’t do that too often.  Sort of like you shouldn’t look behind you too much during a race!

Believe in me, help me believe in anything. I want to be someone who believes.“ – Mr. Jones by Counting Crows

This song does not jump out as a running song; however, it was played at the halfway point of the 2008 Philadelphia Marathon, and it totally inspired my friend Jeff and I.  I was helping him finish his first marathon, and Mr. Jones helped us out along the way.   Those “short yet lasting” interactions I sometimes write about can be applied to a song overheard during a race too.  Three years later, Mr. Jones is still there.

I’ve got to keep going be strong, Must be so determined and push myself on.” – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Iron Maiden

This one is not for the faint of heart.  It is a song that used to get much play on the “Walkman” at high school track meets, and it holds up today.  It is 6:31 of built up intensity.  By the time it nears the end, you will be out of breath and running faster.  This tune should not be played on “recovery day” or during a cool down

Is it really all that much to lug around? Better run like hell when you hit the ground.” – This Too Shall Pass by OK Go

The theme of this song is helpful during a run, especially when struggling.   Let’s face it, we’ve all had tough moments, either in races or workouts, and these moments pass.  For me, this song is also symbolic because I listened to it a lot when my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer.   I kept repeating “This too shall pass” and it did pass….he is cancer-free (knock-on-wood).

Courageous just like the Captain, marching forward with no doubt in his head.” – The Captain by Guster

This is another song about forging on during tough, uncertain moments.  To me, it’s about taking a leap of faith, whether in yourself or others.  Sometimes you need to trust your own running instincts, and not what the countless experts say.  Sometimes you need to be “The Captain.”

And in this perfect weather, we’ll find a place together…Fly on my wing” – The Zephyr Song by Red Hot Chili Peppers

The melodic sounds of this song are a good match for a run on a beautiful day, or any day for that matter. If it is possible for a song to make you feel “lighter,” this is the song.  It helps you feel as if you are running two inches above the ground.  This particular tune helps me focus on the gorgeous settings for some of my runs.  It reminds me how lucky I am to be a runner.

Something strange do you know what I mean?   Something’s upside-down.  When the wrong people never go away and the one’s you connect with, cherish every second, they are here and gone forever….” – Celeste by Huffamoose

This is not a running song but this quote pops into my head when I think about the short yet lasting interactions runners sometimes have with each other.   These interactions are here and gone, but not forgotten.

I think people can be perfect …when they do not think about it…I think people can be perfect.”

For hours and hours…run from the evening…run with the water…from debris, you and me…

Both quotes – From Debris by Matt Pond PA

This is a great song by a talented band from Philadelphia.  The pulsing drums alone will get you going; however, digging deeper, the song is perhaps about being ourselves.   When I run, I feel like myself.   There is nothing to think about, and the act of running feels perfect.

Like any Playlist, that is it for now.   Coming Soon: Volume 2.  The second installment will include more songs and song quotes, but I will also explain why sometimes a slower song can be a good for running too.  I might even discuss why Mr. Spock could have been a good runner.

“I Love NY, Too!”

(This is either two months late or a week early)

I remember being ridiculously mad at the conference organizers for not interrupting the keynote speaker to tell us the news.  On September 11th, 2001, I was attending a conference at the Lowes Hotel at 12th and Market Streets in Philadelphia.

Nearly two hours earlier, terrorists had attacked the Twin Towers using two commercial airplanes, and news was already unfolding about possible crashes at the Pentagon and Western PA as well.   Once we were told: silence.  After gathering up my belongings, I left, immediately trying to call loved ones.

We all remember the spectrum of emotions we felt from those moments on and the days and weeks after that.

That night in Philadelphia, it struck me how quiet the city was….eerily quiet.   Nobody was honking their horns, conversations ceased.  Some friends and I met up at a local restaurant, and sat outside speechless.  Still stunned, not wanting to believe it was real.

Five days later, thousands of runners, including me, would be doing what is now known as the Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon (then known as the Philadelphia Distance Run or PDR for us Philadelphians).   Of course, there were mixed emotions: “Should I still participate in the race?”   Also, there was uncertainty whether or not there would even still be a race; however, when they announced it was still on, the decision was easy: I would be running.  My first half marathon would be run with a heavy heart.

This was the first large-scale Post-9/11 road race, and the patriotism was everywhere.  Reds, whites and blues popped up from the spectators, and some of the runners were even carrying flags, a sight that is typical for larger races now.

Before the start, names were read of the PDR entrants killed in the terror attacks.  This was followed by “God Bless America.”  There was not one runner with dry eyes.   For those of you who remember, the PDR used to start on Market Street, facing due east, right into the sun.   This was even more challenging with tears in the eyes.

An emotional race was run, and there were even more tears at the finish line.   This was the beginning of an autumn filled with fear,  anger and tears.  Coincidentally, it was a time in which I happened to be training for my first marathon: Philadelphia.

While training that fall, there was the fear of more terror attacks.   My runs on Kelly Drive were carried out, but with a cautious look up to the skyline here and there.  I remember hearing and seeing an airplane again for the first time during one of my runs.   I simply looked up, stopped for a bit, took a deep breath, gathered myself and moved on.   Clearly, the world was different now.

As race day neared, I eventually focused more on the actual marathon.   Normal runner’s fears returned: taper angst, logistics, pre-race jitters, etc.  Despite the anxiety, I tried to soak in how special the marathon would be.

Everyone remembers their first marathon; however, with my first being so soon after a Post-9/11 reality, I felt the need to do a little something to honor those we lost.  It was simple: Instead of my usual Phillies bandana, I would be wearing one with the American Flag. Second, I decided to wear an “I Love NY” shirt.  It wasn’t much of a tribute I guess, but it was something I thought to myself.

On race day, the same emotions that I felt during the PDR returned.   Tears and determination followed.

As far as the race itself, well I made the rookie mistake of going out too fast, so the last 10k was a torturous eternity.   At one point, I didn’t think I would finish; however, I started to hear cheers from the crowds, and people kept saying the same thing to me:  “I LOVE NEW YORK, TOO!”

“Why?” I thought.  “OOOH, the shirt!”

These cheers kept me going.   They put me back on point: I thought, “this is nothing compared to what many families have been going through.”  I eventually finished with all of the emotions (and then some) that go along with finishing one’s first marathon.  Obviously, it felt good to accomplish something like this, but it also felt good that life was continuing on.   We will never forget, but we also remember to live on.

So, next week is the ten year anniversary of my first marathon, and my wife and I will be celebrating it by running the Philadelphia Marathon again: Fitting.  It must have been a coincidence then that during a recent long training run, I could have sworn I heard someone say “I Love New York, too!”

The Breakthrough Run…

Did you ever have a run that felt effortless?  Have you ever noticed how easy it looks for the elite runners and wished you could look and feel that way too?  This is as close as it gets…

I am talking about one of those runs where you really felt like a runner?  A run that might have started out as a three-miler, but you stretched it out to four or five because you felt so good?  I call these runs “Breakthrough Runs.”

It takes a long time for a “Breakthrough Run” to actually happen.   For a newbie runner, this might occur for the first time a few weeks after initially picking up the sport.  Prior to that, your first several runs might be torture.   It is torture “during the run”…breathing is nearly impossible, your lungs and muscles are on fire.  You might have to stop here and there to walk.  It is torture “after the run” as well.  Your quads discover what lactic acid is for the first time, and stretching is so painful, you doubt whether or not you’ll stick with running.

However, something happens if you decide to stick with it:  The cadence of your breathing and pacing slowly improves.  You still might be hunched over at the end of a workout, but running is not total torture anymore.  Your muscles become less sore and adapt to your new-found activity.  Your runs might still be difficult …until that one run.

“Until that one run”…a run in which you feel as if you can “go” forever.  At the end of such a run, you actually feel the need to tell someone about it.   The Breakthrough Run is a rare and wonderful thing.  It boosts our energy, and motivates us to continue participating in this wonderful sport.

This feeling is not limited to new runners.   Those of us who have had an injury know what it’s like to start running again after a layoff…after a doctor has recommended the one word a runner never wants to hear: “Rest.”  These initial runs can be even more torturous because you know what your fitness level was before the injury.  You know what the Breakthrough Run feels like, and you want to feel it again.

So, after countless impatient thoughts and with some trepidation, you start up again after your “rest” period.  It takes several runs to rid yourself of the worry that the injury might return:  “Is my hip pain really gone for good?”  Once these thoughts disappear, you slowly get back to feeling like a runner.   You eventually have that effortless run again.  You eventually “break through” again.

If you’re lucky, a Breakthrough Run can even occur during a race.   This may happen if you’ve trained for a PR in addition to training for a finish.  Sometimes the weather helps with such a run.  Perhaps the race occurs on a crisp autumn morning, on a day when the summer humidity is gone for good.  The stars align for you.

You check the mile splits, and you’re pleasantly surprised, not only about the pace, but also at how good you are feeling.  Your stride feels automatic. That PR might just happen after all.  At the finish line, you’re exhausted yet satisfied.  You’ve run your fastest race.  You have once again “broken through.”

A Breakthrough Run does not occur every time you lace up your sneakers.  It can be fleeting and elusive, but when you have one, you know it.  Such a run helps us forget our “problematic runs.”  It can even help us say “goodbye” to a rut.  The Breakthrough Run reminds us of the many reasons why we love running.

“Do I still look like a runner?”

 (Written while in a running rut six months after a PR @ the 2010 Philadelphia Marathon)

I keep thinking of what Steve Prefontaine asked his girlfriend (at least the way it was portrayed in the movie “Prefontaine”):   “Do I still look like a runner?”  Now here was the most famous US runner of his time asking such an insecure question.   Obviously, I’m no “PRE” but I ask my wife Jill this question all the time, especially when I am in a running rut.  Yes, I am lost in Rutville.

Some have asked:  “How the heck can you be in a rut?  You just ran your fastest marathon!!”   The truth is, running can be cyclical.    It is difficult to maintain the same intensity throughout the year, and throughout your “running life.”   There are lots of peaks and valleys.   The peaks are tremendously wonderful, while the valleys are tough to shake.

For me, the valleys have sometimes occurred after an intense period of success.  There were many successes for me last fall (my fastest 5k as an adult, my fastest half marathon, and my fastest marathon). Cue the rut: a cold, harsh winter, a hip injury, a transition in employment….life.   The insecurity settles in, and the question arises again:  “Do I still look like a runner?”  No matter what successes we have as runners, doubt can creep into our consciousness once in a while.

Of course, ruts have also occurred after failures  There was the Bonk during my first marathon, in which I went from having a goal of 3:10 to having a goal of “finishing” to having a goal of simply “surviving.”  Second, while I broke three hours last year, it was my fourth attempt.  There were three failures prior to that.

Failure to achieve a running goal can lead to obsessive doubt.  For me, to continue running after a perceived failure, I had to find some kind of positive in each race in which I failed.  In my “bonk” race, my thought was “Hey at least I finally finished.”   For my failed sub-three hour races, two out of three were PR’s, and for the third race, let’s just say the temperature was above 70 degrees.

So here I am in Rutville.   I know I won’t reside here forever.  It is temporary, and I am not pressuring myself to crank up the intensity yet.   I still run regularly, but I don’t wear my watch during every run.

It has been almost six months since my last race.   I have not gone this long without racing since I ran the Boston Marathon for the first time.  I’ll just chalk that particular rut up to the “Post-Boston Blues.”  After all, many of us tend to think of Boston as the pinnacle running goal.  After that it was “now what?”

As runners, we often need worlds to conquer to stay motivated.  We usually need goals.  Sometimes, in order to remain a runner, we need to be dissatisfied with our performance in some way.  It is a progression that can go something like this: Goal 1: Run a half marathon.  Check.  Now what?  Goal 2: Run a marathon.  Check.  Now what?  Goal 3: Qualify for Boston…Qualify for Boston at Boston…Run a Sub 3-hr marathon…and so on…

This is just one example. The “Now what?” can be different for every runner, but it is a question that keeps us hungry to run.

At times, I think somewhere in-between the peaks and valleys is the place to be.  I’ll call it the gentle “rolling hills” of our running lives.     Maybe it’s better to sometimes have a less-intense race goal; to be able to take off our watches once in a while…and “simply run.”  My friend Bob seems to have this mentality, and I admire it.  He rarely races, but runs almost every day.  He “simply runs.”  My intensity about running is often in conflict with this mentality, but I’ve learned to take a step back once in a while before running forward with the next racing goal.

I hope I will ask myself “Now what?” again soon.  As far as the other question: “Do I still look like a runner?”   Hmm, does it matter?   Maybe the question should be: “Do I still feel like a runner?”

Epilogue (10/1/11):  If you’re ever in a running rut, one possible cure is to attend a race as a spectator.   If you’re not coming out of your skin out of a desire to run the race, maybe you’re not ready yet.   If you are coming out of your skin, maybe it’s time to sign up for a race again.   I was a spectator at my wife’s 5K today, and I was coming out of my skin.  Maybe I will move out of Rutville soon.


The Toughest Runner I Know….

Who is the toughest runner you know?

The toughest runner I know is not the fastest runner I know.  I will define toughness as “having sheer will that nothing or nobody can interfere with.”

This runner once ran the Marine Corps Marathon with a broken toe.   She once ran the Wilkes-Barre Half Marathon with torn back muscles.   Yet that was nothing compared to what she faced before her marathon running days.

In October 2003, she was hospitalized with a serious skin infection.  At first, the doctors thought she had Necrotizing Fasciitis, better known as the “skin eating disease.”  For days, nobody knew if she would survive.  Doctors debated on whether or not they would have to perform surgery, including severing her arm to contain the disease.   Fortunately, she ended up having a Strep A infection instead, still a very serious infection, but treatable with a long course of antibiotics.   Nine long days later she was able to leave the hospital.

For weeks, she was on IV antibiotics, along with physical therapy.   It was months before she was able to run again.   Slowly but surely, she got back into it. Bear in mind, she had never run a marathon up until this point.

Eight months after her hospitalization, she signed up for her first: the Steamtown Marathon, which coincided with the one-year anniversary of her discharge from the hospital.  It would be a symbolic benchmark to her recovery.   Those who love her were a bit worried since her immune system was just getting back to speed.   Since it was her first marathon, her goal was simply to finish, and finish she did in a time of 4:43.   It wasn’t a world record time, but she had the time of her life.  More importantly, she still had HER life.

You would think that the story would end there, and cue the Hollywood movie credits.   However, in 2010, she was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, which is an autoimmune disease in which white blood cells attack the moisture producing glands.   Symptoms include dry eyes, dry mouth, hair loss, fatigue, and, for some, joint pain.   You might recall that tennis star Venus Williams was diagnosed with the same illness.  The symptoms of Sjogren’s are annoying but she is learning to live with them.   It has not slowed or stopped her from running.

This fall, she will be running the Philadelphia Marathon, her twelfth marathon, and her goal this time is to qualify for Boston.  She is not one to shy away once she has a specific goal in mind.   She might not qualify, but I wouldn’t bet against her.   After all, this is the same woman who not only got up and finished after falling during the Disney Marathon, but she also beat death.

That is toughness.  Oh, and the runner?  My wife.