Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Confession: My timing was off

A few changes occurred in my running habits after my move to the Des Moines metro area.

It began with the whole "you're an undersized woman in a totally unfamiliar city" thing, which prompted me to bring my cellphone on almost literally every run.

That then led to a newfound interest in and dedication to timing my runs, which has spawned a new set of questions: When I stop, do I stop the timer as well?

This is more complicated than it sounds. I'll start with the less shameful subquestion: What do I do when it's traffic that's halting me?

I've approached this from a couple angles. On the one hand, it's not 100 percent my decision to stop (yes, jaywalking is an option, but traffic's flow doesn't always allow it). On the other hand, it frequently benefits me, such as when a busy intersection is in the middle of a long uphill. Or, while it might help me catch my breath, doesn't it also give my muscles a chance to stiffen up and break my rhythm?

Ultimately, I suppose, on race day this mostly becomes a moot point; I've only encountered auto traffic in one race over the course (ha!) of my career.

The more guilt-inducing subquestion, though, is whether it's legitimate to pause the clock when I'm the only one forcing myself to stop — whether it's a sinus issue, a loose shoelace or just shortness of breath.

My rule of thumb has been wholly self-serving. If I walk, I keep the timer going, but if I stop for any length of time — be it for the traffic question or the wimpiness question — I pause the GPS. My justification is that I know I don't have that luxury on race day, but that in training, I don't have the luxury of extrinsic motivation (the no-excuses race clock).

All of this rationalization fell apart Friday, when I set a three-mile PR. My pride in the achievement was tempered by a timing glitch and a deliberate timing alteration.

First, the glitch: As I approached the entrance to a small strip mall, I slowed down to let a car turn in. The car's driver, however, stopped upon seeing me and waved me through. After I reached the other side, I realized I must've bumped the timer and paused it — so I hastily hit "resume." This alone wouldn't have added more than 12 seconds onto my time, though.

What would have added 12 seconds onto my time, at least, was the break I took after running west, into the wind, and preparing to turn north, possibly still into the wind and definitely slightly uphill.

I paused. Blew my nose. Gave myself a silent and speedy pep talk. And off I went to finish out my three miles.

When the final time read 25:48, I was elated. It took a few minutes for me to realize that it was a tarnished PR. I'd been able to dismiss my slight worries about pausing for any number of reasons, be it my fault or just stoplight synchronization, because I hadn't been notching any times of which I should actually be proud.

It doesn't resolve the stoplight question, but I think it's resolved the other ones: As I practiced race pace Monday, I sacrificed seconds during mile five — ultimately, the second-slowest — to take a Kleenex break.

So now that I've made my confession, anyone out there care to weigh in on the traffic question?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The runs that made a believer out of me

I went out with purpose Friday and Monday: Hal Higdon said to run fast on the former, I decided to target half marathon pace on the latter.

Both were achieved. Couch time and cookies were definitely earned.

I almost whiffed, though: On Friday, I checked and rechecked the weather widget in hopes it would say something different than still-below-freezing and strong wind gusts. It never did. 

"But how am I gonna run faaaaast?" I wondered petulantly. "Should I go tomorrow morning, even though I work the night shift tonight and have an earlier start tomorrow and the temperature is expected to drop?"

Yeah. I shut up and went. First on a half-mile warmup, which served my head well (in knowing when the wind was going to punish me later) and my legs even better.

The first 1.5 mile of my out-and-back was slightly downhill and with the wind at my back, so I was happy but unsurprised to see an 8:30 average pace at the turnaround point. Now for the wind to be in my face before I hit the uphill section. Gulp.

I did stop once, and I did experience a minor technical error (to be discussed in a later post), but as I surpassed 2.75 miles, I realized I was in a race against the clock ... that I could win. The seconds ticked toward 26:00; the hundredth-miles slipped away at what felt like an agonizing slow pace but was somehow faster than MapMyRun's timer.

End result: 3 miles, 25:48. Had I continued to a full 5K, I wouldn't have beat my PR — I'd averaged 8:35 – but I beat my previous three-mile PR by at least a minute. That's including the time I spent but didn't record. 

More importantly, I'd shown myself that last fall's 8:29 wasn't a fluke.

And most importantly, I'd shown myself that with weeks more of practice, 8:22 isn't beyond possibility.

My next run was successfully delayed by the weather ("But it's icyyyyy!"), but also ultimately successful (when it happened a day late). 

I headed into the five-miler hoping to stick around 9:30 per mile, my ambitious goal for April's half marathon. The end splits: 9:26, 9:22, 9:04, 9:04, 9:24, for an average of 9:17. Bonus fact: This route included my least-favorite hill (an overpass, actually), other elevation variation and wind in my face for half the run.

Just like with Friday's record-setting run, the muscles at times were reluctant, the stomach complained on occasion, and the lungs burned once in a while. And yet I came back with all the numbers I sought.

Right now, I couldn't attain either of the goals I set for myself in January. But after only two full weeks back running, I'm greatly encouraged that I can come near, if not attain, those goals once I've put three months of work in.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

I have to at least try

We're only a few days — out of I don't know how many — into the cold snap, so I'm afraid that I'll jinx myself by saying this.

It's not been that bad for me ... running-wise. (I didn't particularly enjoy that frozen gas line that killed the heat for at least seven hours Monday.)

I nearly wimped out Sunday, walking from my car back into my apartment. The previous night had included a bizarre two-hour wakeful period, and my stomach was happily full of El Mariachi. A nap sounded far better than cold, snow and wind.

It was too early in the training schedule to cave, though. "You have to at least try," I told myself, and I ended up having a fabulous run. Getting the windy portion out of the way first helped, but I also just love the squeak of sneakers in the snow. Don't know why.

Hal Higdon said to rest Monday, and I did not argue (in fact, I don't think I saw a single runner out and about). Tuesday's weather reading didn't look much better — 6 degrees, with a wind chill of minus 2, at 9:30 a.m. — but Sunday's wintry triumph kept me on the straight and narrow. You at least have to try.

From the neck up, I looked like a bug exterminator:

And from the neck down, I looked normal ... but I wasn't. Yoga pants over the running tights; thermal socks over the Balegas; short-sleeved T-shirt over the thicker long-sleeved T-shirt, all topped by a windbreaker; and gloves tucked into the jacket cuffs.

The final measure of protection: Because I only needed to go three miles, I just picked a half-mile stretch along my apartment complex and did it six times, in case hypothermia set in.

So of course, everything went fine; I even pulled down the face mask a few times. My thighs never quite loosened up, and I found myself stopping for a breath and a nose-clearing every half-mile, but otherwise it was pleasant enough where I couldn't even brag about still going out despite the conditions.

At this point, I was bursting with love for winter runs. I shed a layer (the outer T-shirt) in celebration of Wednesday's 17 degrees ... but picked a route based on terrain, not wind direction, and suffered all the way home.

Still, though I couldn't wait to return to the warm, still air of my apartment, that failed tempo run was exactly what I needed. It feels refreshing and invigorating, despite the fatigue; cleansing, despite the sweat and car fumes; and disciplined, despite all the procrastination and escape plans I build in.

And I've found the phrase that will push me out the door: I have to at least try.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

I did something right, according to the New York Times

Rationally, I know that any health-related article I read is likely to be disproved, then proved again, etc., in an endless and never-resolved cycle, and that I should adjust my reaction to them accordingly.

I fail at this. (See "I have to cancel my grumpy post.") And I'm unlikely to correct this failing until the glow of doing something right, according to the New York Times Well blog, wears off.

Now, I didn't exercise for 90 minutes, 15 minutes after getting my flu shot, as the research in this post suggests. But to sum up all the studies cited, it concludes:
"So for now, (a doctor) says, the best course of action is to get a flu shot, since any degree of protection is better than none, and, if you can, also schedule a visit to the gym that same day. If nothing else, spending 90 minutes on a stationary bike will make any small twinges in your arm from the shot itself seem pretty insignificant."
Or, in my case, spending 30 minutes with only minimal feeling in your toes thanks to a brisk Iowa winter wind made the tenderness a moot point. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mostly wordless Wednesday

Photographing the back of your ankle/calf — NOT A CANKLE THOUGH — requires some contortion skills, which I don't have.

How best to cap off a tough workout the day after you quit hibernating? Let the zipper on your tights gnaw away at your calf.

Apparently I lost my ability to properly zip the bottom of my running tights during my two-week layoff. Oops. And ouch.

But better this than blisters and calluses.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hibernation ends; life returns to normal

Yesterday I ran three miles. Before I headed out, I was euphoric over the upcoming run; during the run, I was often cold, often breathless and occasionally annoyed at my hobby; after the run, I was zen.

I feel like life is back to normal.

Week one without running was crappy, because I had a nasty cold, but otherwise welcome — I needed the rest.

Week two without running was also crappy, which I at first attributed to the sinus infection that replaced my cold. In addition to the usual fun symptoms of sinus infections, I started struggling to sleep, feeling generally repellant to other people (nothing says "let's hang out!" like filling a tissue with snot every 10 minutes), and growing irritable.

This probably makes me the asshole runner everyone loves to hate, but I'll say it anyway: I think the sinus infection contributed to my insomnia and crankiness, but quitting running cold turkey probably exacerbated the situation.

On the bright side, when this epiphany occurred over the weekend (with a few more days of hibernation still scheduled), I realized it was a rare running layoff that I didn't fear would turn into a permanent end to running.

And out I went. The run wasn't spectacular, but it wasn't terrible, either, like I thought it might be. (Another bright side: Two weeks is not enough to destroy my fitness!)

Endorphins still came, the shower felt that much more amazing because of all the sweat it washed off, the food tasted that much better, and the sleepiness that hit during "Lincoln" was that of a good effort given, not of sitting mostly motionless in a darkened room for hours.

So as enjoyable it's been to have legs that don't stiffen up after long periods of sitting, or not having to practice time-management skills, I'm not sorry to see it end.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Running goals for 2013, round one

For the first time that I can remember, I successfully kept a New Year's resolution for all of 2012: I embarked on, and nailed, the Great American Apparel Clothing Diet. (Clearly I am not among the original crowd, as you'll see if you click the link.)

There are several reasons, almost none of which pertain to running, that I believe were reasons for my victory. But there's one tweak I made to my personal clothing diet that I'm going to apply to this year's running goals.

When I set out not to buy new clothing — unless it replaced worn-out or ruined items — for a year, I realized that if I caved in, say, June, I would be tempted to see it as a failure ... even though that would've been five-plus months of not purchasing unnecessary clothing.

So I took it three months at a time instead. It gave me an extra thrill each time I surpassed a quarterly mark; it made the year seem less overwhelming; and it allowed me to adjust when needed. On my trip to London, for example, I decided that if I found something memorable, I would buy it, guilt-free. (I didn't encounter any clothes  worth the awful exchange rate or the resolution-breaking, if you were curious.)

I've decided to take that same approach in setting my 2013 running goals, though because I signed up for a race in April, my year will be a hockey game and have three periods. In the first period, I want to:

Run a 2:05:00 half marathon. My PR is 2:08:32, which was a 9:48-mile average; a 2:05:00 would be 9:30 per mile, which I think I can do. The key will be, of course, not bolting out of the shoot, as I've done every single time, only to wilt later.

Runner's World suggests coming up with a set of goals for each event — one based on time, one based on feeling and one based on something else I can't remember and don't feel like researching, lest I make a long post longer. I will say, though, that a new PR, even if it's by seconds (OK, I want it to be more than seconds) will be an acceptable alternative.

Run a 26:00 5K. Betting folks out there should put money on the previous goal, not this one. Last summer's 26:22 might stand for a while, given how luxuriously flat the route was, but who knows? The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick might hold true to their name and find us a pancake-like route, and if March is normal this year, the weather will be more to my liking than that of the Remembrance Run.

I'll need to speed up from 8:29 miles to 8:22 to get there. Yikes. But then again, Miss 9:00-Miler never saw sub-8:30 coming.

Focus on pacing. Like clockwork, I'll mention my poor pacing skills and vow to improve them in blog posts. It hasn't happened yet — the improvement, that is — but for me to achieve either of this period's goals, it needs to start happening.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Plans for the new year emerge

First things first: I'm still not running, nor have I picked training plans or their desired outcomes. However, thanks to friendly nudges from my co-workers, I have been finding and signing up for races.

Originally I'd thought of doing the Dam to Dam, mostly because I knew it existed, but I showed up at work Tuesday to find that Emily — who'd invited me to do the Des Moines Half — wanted me to join her at the Drake Relays' half marathon.

The benefit of having a buddy to hang out with pre-race aside, the Drake Relays also appealed to me because of how much earlier it is: I'm less likely to be overtrained by April 28 than I will be June 1, and I'm also less likely to overheat in late April than I am on Memorial Day weekend. The memories of melting down, literally and figuratively, during a half marathon last year on May 20 are too vivid to risk a June 1 distance race.

Hibernation ends Monday (yep, once it gets cold again in Des Moines, go figure), so that would leave me with 3.5 months to prepare for Drake — a big enough gap to tempt me to overtrain.

I'd been urging various other runner friends to either join Emily and me for the half or any of the shorter events on the same day. My reference to making matching T-shirts might have scared some of them off, but it didn't dissuade Marco — whose Remembrance Run registration I used after he pulled a muscle — from showing interest in the 6K.

And there was my answer to how to stretch half marathon training across 3.5 months: pick a smaller distance in the meantime. A tip on the Capital Striders' Facebook page led me to exactly what I wanted, a 5K in March in the Des Moines metro area. It's the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick 5K on March 24 ... with a start time of 11 a.m. What a great stroke of luck!

During my search for that 5K, I did come across a 10K that seemed intriguing: the Capital Striders' Loop the Lake, held at the same spot where I PR'ed so emphatically during the Remembrance Run 5K. (Is it a sign ... ?)

However, I think I'll hold off on signing up until I build some sort of responsible training plan, i.e., decide which distances I should train seriously for in hopes of reaching any goals (that I haven't set yet), and which distances should be fun tune-up races ...

... says the person whose most strenuous activity in 2013 has been carrying laundry up and down stairs.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I have to cancel my grumpy post

Among the entries that were percolating in December but never came to fruition was one centered on the idea that I might be doing everything running-related wrong.

This was born of a New York Times Well blog post titled "For Athletes, Risks From Ibuprofen Use" and then nurtured by another post a week later titled "Why Afternoon May Be The Best Time To Exercise."

If you haven't guessed or don't follow, I do use ibuprofen, and I've significantly cut back on afternoon runs (in favor of morning or evening ones) since leaving my second-shift job.

So reading these posts while worn down from a year-plus of running without significant interruption caused some out-of-proportion irritation.

(Never mind that at the end of the afternoon running post, the experts concede they're not sure how the mouse research translates to human behavior, and that the most important thing is to exercise, period. And never mind that the ibuprofen article focused mainly on the gross risks of popping the pills right before working out, which I've never done.)

Obviously, I never got around to writing that post until now — when, refreshed by a week of just resting, I don't care. Absence is definitely making this heart, so eager to take a break, fonder of running.

And the payoff of this admiration from afar is that all the snazzy workout recommendations in the blogs I read and the latest Runner's World magazine, plus those two aforementioned lectures, are no longer fostering inferiority complexes, insecurities, defeatist attitudes or straight-up fear for my health.

Instead, it's psyching me up for 2013. (Goals to come later; I'm ambitious not only for this year but for the planning of this year.)

I knew that the rest I needed was both mental and physical, but I think now — with the clarity that extra sleep brings! — that I'd underestimated how much of it was mental.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

An easy hiatus from running

I don't always follow through on promises about running, but I'm pretty reliable when it comes to promises about not running. This period of hibernation is no exception.

On New Year's Day, the final day of the holiday run streak, I woke up for good around 1 p.m. and felt awful — not because of the alcohol, but because of a nasty cold virus that had settled in with a vengeance.

Keeping my vow to spend a week being lazy and not exercising at all suddenly became a piece of cake. Not that I wanted cake all that badly, considering how my taste buds succumbed to the virus, too.

After a few nights of sleeping nine-plus hours (and occasionally napping), the haze of mucus and NyQuil finally began to lift, and I became coherent enough to wonder: If not for my illness, how else would I be spending this run-free week?

Today's my first day off work since New Year's Day, so between working eight hours a day, then sleeping for nine or 10, I haven't had to struggle with the new void in my schedule — yet. Thank God, because otherwise this layoff might've been a tough one.

See, now that I'm not running, the sidewalks and parking lots are nearly ice- and snow-free. The temperature has risen, slightly. Other runners are out there taking advantage of this, sometimes in shorts even (OK, I'm not jealous of that). And the latest Runner's World has arrived in my mailbox.

With all of this going on, the allure of sleeping in and/or napping might've worn off after a day or two, and I might've been tempted into activity.

That would've been a shame, because even these four-plus sedentary days have paid off: Either I'm too focused on the sinus-related unpleasantness, or my creaky hip muscles truly are calming down and complaining less when I stand up.

By no means am I going to see this cold as a blessing — it's been far too nasty for me and for everyone around me — but I will concede that it deserves an assist for keeping my lower body's healing on track.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Time to air out the shoes and wash the tights

Runner's World tweeted a post from Pavement Runner that had a badge for all finishers of the holiday running streak ... and, if you couldn't figure it out from the image, I am among that proud group.

My final two runs were prime examples of why people find runners so annoying (or at least my theories for such irritation):

* On New Year's Eve, I left two houseguests from Iowa City behind for a two-miler; I'd intended to do simply one, but I was in the middle of a couple days' worth of overindulging and under-running. I'm sure that extra mile made a significant difference in the caloric input-output equation. (Yes, I'm being self-deprecating.)

* On New Year's Day, the head cold that had been creeping in earlier settled in firmly. And speaking of cold, the high was 18 degrees. But it was the last day of the streak, so all of this — plus some achy muscles unused to dancing in dress shoes or ice skating — had to be ignored for a few minutes.

All that aside, though, I'm quite pleased with how the streak went. For all my love of rest days, skipping those for 41 (!) days in a row turned out to be fairly easy. (It helps to have the option of a single, slow mile, and to have reasonable career demands and minimal personal ones.)

And of course, once any sort of streak builds up steam, sticking with it becomes so much of a point of pride that it almost sustains itself.

What I'm most pleased about, though, was how few times I had to be a jerk about the streak.

New Year's Eve was the only time I had to make out-of-town guests accommodate the challenge, and that was only because these folks had arrived the day before and were staying until earlier today; Dec. 20 was the only time I went out in borderline dangerous weather conditions; Dec. 15 was the only time I went out during questionable health; and only once or twice did I have to run late at night during the winter.

When I write them all out, it sounds like I was reckless or rude fairly frequently — but hey, it was over the course of 41 days. That's nearly six weeks.

It was a fun ride, one that I'd happily do again: As the streak's creator intended, it did keep me grounded during peak eating season, and hopefully it kept a few pounds from taking up permanent residence (it was not intended for weight loss, nor did it accomplish that).

But now it's time to kick back and relax for a few weeks. I'm slightly sad to see the streak close and the season take a hiatus, even though I need it; I hope this means that when hibernation is over, I won't struggle to start moving again.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My 12th and final check-in on the Rock River 1000 Mile Challenge

One running challenge down, one still left to go. (I haven't gotten my final holiday running streak effort in yet, but I will after I post this!)

I wrapped up my 2012 running season with two very cold and shockingly, nauseatingly fast miles on New Year's Eve. That put me at 931 for the entire year, running and walking.

The night before that — New Year's Eve Eve — I went ice skating at Brenton Plaza with two good friends, one of whom is a natural athlete and the other of whom is, well, more like me. (However she can swim laps around the two of us, so it evens out.)

As natural athlete friend outpaced the two of us who were clinging desperately to the handrail, I found myself thinking: "This was an ill-advised decision for a runner who's just days from completing two challenges she's worked fairly diligently on ... "

But as I found my stride and completed a loop or two, I tried desperately not to jinx myself with thoughts of "wow, I haven't wiped out yet!" but rather "I wonder how far each loop is" and "Does this count toward my run streak?"

It was facetious, sort of; I'd argue that skating is more worthy of being counted than biking, which I definitely saw people doing and definitely am not bitter about.

Thinking back on it post-challenge, however, makes me vaguely nostalgic, because it's emblematic of 2012 for me: I spent the year focusing on mileage, asking my companions "How far do you think we walked around [insert outdoor event or city]?",  re-creating the hike from Ogilvie Transportation Center to Chicago tourist attractions on MapMyRun, live-tracking a midparty liquor quest. 

Can I quit measuring any move of significance, cold turkey? Can I stop demanding that someone else uncork wine because, after all, I walked 1.7 miles to get that wine to share with her?

I should probably say yes to the latter and no to the former. The race against the calendar lit a fire under me to keep active this year, but the takeaway — for a nonwinner — was ultimately a helpful reminder that the walking miles add up in an important way for fitness purposes.

But first comes a well-deserved and much-needed period of inactivity. That will be the true judge of how deeply the fitness-tracking bug bit me.