The Road to Boston

Boston Hat Photo

Before I ever ran ultras, indeed not long after I started running (period), I decided I wanted to qualify for the 2014 Boston Marathon. Initially, I hadn’t realized that you even need to qualify for the race, but my friend Sheila had done so and explained the process. It sounded really challenging. I like challenging.

It was after the bombings had already happened. I’m not much of a writer to begin with, so I don’t know how to capture the way I felt about it, the way I will always feel, without saying anything but the most obvious things. Things that have already been said a thousand times over. I suppose I feel the way I imagine you feel about it. Anger, horror, disbelief. In particular — as a mother — grief. Just thinking about it still rips a tear in my heart. Like so many others, I wanted to run to show solidarity and to pay respect for the fallen and the maimed. In a small way, which, when grouped together with so many other runners would have become a big way, I wanted to be part of what it meant to be defiantly Boston Strong.

When I started training, I could barely string together three miles at the 8:24 average pace I would need to qualify (I was 38 and needed a 3:40 finish). Undeterred, I worked away at it, week after week. The first time I hit the 20 mile mark, I cried. Literally and figuratively, I had come such a long way.

Soon, the training started coming together and I was clocking 24 mile training runs at well under BQ pace. I stepped up to the start line of the August 2013 Santa Rosa Marathon brimming with confidence and eager to run, joining the 3:30 pace group.

If the experience hadn’t been so incredibly painful, it would have been humiliating. The Wall snuck up on me and pounced like a cat. It threw me in the air and dumped me on the pavement, pummeling me with its leaden bricks. In was unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life, before or after. Ultras included. By mile 16 I was dizzy, nauseous, suffering from both tunnel vision and double vision (quite the combo!) and had stabbing heart pains so severe that I could not adequately catch my breath. To add insult to injury, my quads seized up. It’s no exaggeration to say I could barely stay upright. I came through the half in 1:44, and hobbled through the finish in 3:53.

A few weeks later, baffled and humbled, I discovered that I was suffering from iron deficiency anemia. That’ll happen when you abruptly adopt a pescatarian diet, begin losing weight and piling on the miles all at the same time. Taking iron pills took me from a constant state of complete and utter exhaustion, thinking that I never wanted to run another step again, to feeling that life itself was breathing energy into my oxygen-starved body. Anemia is a cruel master; it had stripped me bare and robbed me of my dreams. I wanted revenge.

Six months later and without any specific training, I ran a surprise 3:06 at the 2014 Napa Valley Marathon. The accomplishment was a turning point for me. I had more than BQ’d (though too late for the 2014 race) — I’d started a personal revolution. The race was the kind we all fantasize about. Dead-even splits. Near-effortless. Running each mile faster than I ever could have imagined was possible. It lit a fire and left me ravenous for more. I hired a coach and salivated at the prospect of going sub-3.

The finish-line joy of a near-perfect race at the Napa Valley Marathon.

The finish-line joy of a near-perfect race at the Napa Valley Marathon.

Flash forward another six months to the Ventura Marathon (September ’14), where I ran 2:51:49. It wasn’t my best race and I think I can do a lot better than that, but it’s hard to complain about the progress it reflected. Since I turned 40 in December, my Ventura result was enough to qualify me for the elite field at Boston for the upcoming 2015 race, where I’ll be competing in the Masters Women division and hope to end up with a top five result.

A hot day at the Ventura Marathon.

A hot day at the Ventura Marathon.

Of course, in the background to this story is that during this time I’d started to run ultras — and started to do well at them. So it is that I find myself not only in the 2015 Elite Women’s Start at Boston, but a Nike Trail sponsored athlete. Just a few short weeks after Boston, I’ll be toeing the line at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race, and (someone! please!) correct me if I am wrong, but I believe I’ll start the race as the women’s leader in the 2015 Montrail Ultra Cup [as of the time of this post, the official 2015 standings had not yet been published].

It all sounds so absurd, ridiculous even. Because the reality is, I’m just like anyone else. I’m just a Mom who has, rather late in life, discovered that she loves to run. Who finds perfect moments in the movement. Those moments when all of the work comes together and the body abides. That’s why I do it, that’s what I love. Just like you, right?

So… I want to know. What’s your Boston story?

Ventura Marathon Race Report

Me and my crew.

Me and my crew.

Having great training runs is nice and all, but come race day, you’ve got to deliver. In that respect, despite achieving an impressive-sounding, nearly 15-minute PR, the day was a bit of a mixed bag for me if I’m honest. Why? Well, it wasn’t the slam dunk, magical, racing-strong to the last, sub-2:50 boo-yah effort that I know I’m capable of. Right. Now.

I can do better. I will do better.

Do not be concerned. I’m not exactly sitting around feeling bad about it. Quite the opposite. I’m ecstatic at the progress in my running these last months and see Ventura as a solid stepping stone towards my goals. I’m simply excited to get out there again and absolutely crush it, whether on the road or on the trails. Given that I immediately went home and signed up for a new trail race, I guess that means trail! (In fairness, I also signed up for the Chevron Houston Marathon in January).

There are always a number of factors that go into whether a day is a shining, defining moment, or something somewhat less. Here’s my very personal list of what went right, and what didn’t, in the weeks, days and hours leading up to the race:

Weight, Weight, Don’t Tell Me. Seven weeks before marathon: goal racing weight achieved! (down from 131 to 125 lbs, in consultation with a nutritionist well-known to the endurance community). I’m running better than ever. BUT THEN… One week before marathon: realize to my horror that I have managed to pack back on almost three of the six pounds I lost. This despite 85-100 mile weeks, cross training and eating super clean and healthy – and I haven’t even started carbo-loading yet. Seriously, WTF!

Pain in the Butt. Six weeks before marathon: high hamstring strain. BUT THEN… Four weeks before marathon: after using Alter G treadmill for rehab find I’m able to run groundbreaking speedwork and tempo paces. Nice!

Catching My Breath. Two and a half weeks before marathon: have awesome tempo session on the road: 2 x 5 miles at avg 6:19 pace, BUT THEN… worry because it felt HARD.

Speed Demon. About two weeks to race day: last workout. Yasso 800’s. Which I bomb. Sucked so bad I decide to pull the plug on the workout. Leave feeling totally deflated. Day after failed Yassos: realize, during an easy run, that I now have another niggle. Get diagnosed with medial glute strain, can only run on flat surfaces. BUT THEN… Dust off foam roller, actually use it, do stretches on the hour all over Temecula, San Diego and wherever else I was that week, get ultrasound on that butt a few times and hey presto, feeling pretty good.

That’s Sick. Four days before marathon: begin getting symptoms of cold virus passed along from the back-to-school petri dish. Take vitamin C, zinc, kale, green tea, blueberries, strawberries, apples, garlic, lemon tea. Get extra sleep. BUT THEN … Two days before marathon: realize the germ-zapping efforts have actually worked. Phew!

Just Another Saturday. Day before race: first time taking family to an away-race experiment goes horribly wrong. Spend all morning packing up kids and family while kids run around the house throwing things, screaming and trashing everything in sight. Get stuck in endless LA traffic with two overtired small maniacs who simply Won’t. Go. To. Sleep. Husband turns into grumpy bear and I feel about ready to cry. Have to take Tylenol to dull the resulting stress headache. BUT THEN… Night before race: actually manage to get a halfway decent night’s sleep (thank you melatonin!) and wake up feeling ready to roll. Bring it!

But I Didn’t Come For The Pina Coladas. Race Morning: optimistically walk outside with gloves and a fleece on for my warmup only to find that, even at 5am, it’s surprisingly balmy outside. Tell myself that it won’t feel hot so long as there is cloud cover. A few minutes into the race and up comes the beating sun. Race into the rising sun for the next ten miles. BUT THEN… 2:51:49 and second place female. Plus, I beat all but six of the men 🙂

Oh, You Wanted A Race Report.

It warrants a mention that Ventura is a lovely little beach-front town packed with vibrant restaurants and shops, located just across from the race’s host hotel. If you book early enough you can get a discounted room at the Crowne Plaza, located right on the beach and just ¼ mile from the race start. That’s where we stayed and it’s a nice, clean, well-managed and staffed property. (Don’t stay in neighboring Oxnard. It’s scary.)

As I mentioned earlier, the day would have benefitted from lower temps, less humidity and some cloud cover. It wasn’t scorching hot, but at the same time, cool, cloudy mornings make for the fastest marathon times. I certainly felt overheated by the time I was finished. Even so, the first 18 or so miles were a breeze (no pun intended), feeling super comfortable and sustainable, almost easy. Accordingly, it was a surprise when I began struggling between miles 18-20. I felt my fueling and hydration were 100%. The issue was simply fatigue. Bummer.

I poured my heart, soul and guts into the last seven miles. I was mentally prepared for it to get hard and my mental strength was certainly tested. It took all the focus, dedication and positive self-talk I could muster to get through that seemingly endless patch. Sure, my pace fell off. After hitting the half in 1:24:07, I finished in 2:51:49, a significant positive split. At the same time, I’m proud of the way I cajoled my body into producing a still-solid effort right until that finish line, overriding its many objections and uncooperative tendencies.

The Ventura  Marathon is a well organized race, despite 2014 being only the event’s second year. Perks include an almost totally flat course, a prompt start, nice beach/coastal views along the way, easy to spot pace group leaders (for those who use them) and quality free race photos. RD Josh Spiker is working hard to make this race stand out and is doing a fine job. It’s still a relatively small race and there aren’t exactly massive crowds out supporting the runners, but the volunteers were awesome and plentiful.

One quibble I do have is course congestion towards the end of the race. The half marathoners and marathoners converge around mile 18/19 of the course. For me, this meant that I was hitting throngs of half-marathon runners going at a pace almost two and a half minutes per mile slower than me just as I was starting to tire. Many of these runners were wearing headphones and had no idea I was behind them. I tried calling out “heads up please!” a number of times, but it was a lost effort as most didn’t hear me or do anything about it anyway if they did (huge thank you to those that did let me pass). I dodged around people as best I could but it was inefficient, frustrating, and distracting. In the end, I don’t think it cost me a ton of time, but it definitely wasn’t ideal.

While I’m somewhat disappointed not to have run sub-2:50, it’s the days like these that drive me the most. I came close to my goals, but ultimately fell a little short. Next time though, it won’t be my aim to meet that missed goal. I’ve already left it behind. Instead,what motivates me is to take my running to another level entirely.

As for now, I’m breaking out my hydration pack, gazing at the mountains and gearing up for a little dust between my toes.

Ventura Marathon finish line


The Ethics of Defying Gravity

Maybe it’s my age (I’m 40 this year). Or the fact that I came to running later in life and my body is still adapting. Whatever the cause, I tend to get injured on an annoyingly frequent basis. After running a successful half marathon race at Napa to Sonoma, I managed to strain my high hamstring just days later. I’m working on achieving a fast marathon time at the upcoming Ventura Marathon on September 7, so — as it probably seems to most people whenever they get injured — the timing could not have been worse. The very next week was to be the start of an almost 90 mile training effort. How could I possibly do the daily double-digit easy runs let alone the speedwork or the long run/tempo run combo that my training plan required on a bum hamstring? Enter the Alter G.

I’ve been seeing the fantastic folks over at the San Diego Running Institute (SDRI) since my calf injury in May. One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with medical professionals as a runner is that most of the time they just advise taking weeks off coupled with physical therapy. SDRI is different, and encourages runners to continue doing what they love to the extent they are able to without exacerbating the injury. For me, that meant continuing to run on easy days at whatever pace my body dictates as acceptable. I was surprised to find that my body could indeed handle the stress of running at a slightly modified easy pace even the day after my hamstring injury. Granted, this injury was much milder than my calf tear had been, so the program could be a little more aggressive. As runners, though, isn’t that just what we want when injured: to be able to continue doing the maximum running possible while minimizing the risk of further damage?

Off to one side of the SDRI clinic is an area dedicated to a unique kind of treadmill called an Alter G. I had been intrigued about this from the moment I saw it, but now I had a reasonable excuse to check it out (and justify paying the associated cost). I was told that it would be perfect for the intervals and tempo runs I had planned, work which would be all but impossible otherwise until further healing took place. I quickly scheduled my time. The idea of losing a week of faster runs this close to the marathon was distressing, even depressing. Here, in all its glory, was a solution.

The Alter G works in ways best explained by the folks who invented it, but essentially, it allows you to run in a pressurized air chamber from the waist down, which has the effect of reducing your body weight and allowing for much lower physical stress when running. When the day came, I stepped into the modified wet-suit style shorts, into the chamber, and zipped in. Since my intent was to run for injury rehab rather than as a supplement to regular training, my weight was reduced to about 70% of normal (I think many people run at closer to 90%+ for regular training benefits). The chamber filled with air, and I felt as though I was being lifted up. When I started running, it was nothing less than extraordinary.

My intervals called for a two-mile warm up, 10x 1k repeats at about a 5:45 pace (with two min rest), and a 2-3 mile cool down. As I started the first interval, it quickly became apparent that I was going to need to increase the pace substantially. It was just too easy. I finally settled on a 5:27 pace, but only because this was the maximum leg turnover I felt comfortable with given the injury, even with the reduced weight. Cardiovascularly speaking, I may as well have been running a 10 min mile. My mouth was closed, my breathing normal. I could converse fully. In that respect, it was not a particularly noteworthy or productive workout. On the other hand, below the waist, my legs were spinning at a pace I would not normally be able to hold for 800s, let alone 1k. It took a little focus, but within a few seconds I got into the rhythm and it felt great. My legs had an amazing workout, even if my heart and lungs were missing out on the action.

Tomorrow, I’m going to do the long run with the tempo segment. This involves running 22 miles, with the first 12 and last two at an easy effort and the middle eight at tempo pace. Since the tempo portion won’t require the same kind of leg turnover as Wednesday’s speed workout, I’m thinking I’ll probably be able to run it on a greater body weight in order to try to tax the cardio systems a little more. I’ll have to adjust on the day based on how it all feels, but one thing I know for sure is that I’ll be able to run the tempo portion much faster than my normal pace.

Since my time on the Alter G is a temporary measure, intended to allow my training to continue while injured, and since my maximum leg turnover is limited by the injury even with reduced weight, I feel (mostly) comfortable that I’m not crossing into an ethical grey zone in using it. It did make me think, though, that if I had the resources and the inclination to routinely use this machine while perfectly healthy, I am quite sure it would have a dramatically positive effect on my running ability. Quickly. At the same time, would doing so be fair?

A tangled set of arguments can be made. The Alter G is widely available, albeit at a cost, to many runners across the country willing to seek it out (I drive a 2.5 hour round trip to use mine). Its use is not banned by any athletic association I’m aware of. Many pros use them — most famously, Alberto Salazar and the runners of the Nike Oregon Project. The technology uses the physics of air pressure to assist running. Regular old air. What could be more pure than that? Still, it confers a distinct advantage to those who use it, something I believe is only fully appreciated when a runner actually tries the machine and experiences how profoundly easier running becomes. It’s expensive (even on an hourly use basis), but so are many things that runners regularly use, such as special recovery drinks, and shoes, and, yes, even coaching services — things they believe offer them an advantage over the choices of other runners. Some of these may be only as effective as placebos, but undoubtedly some do confer an edge. In this way, we are lying to ourselves if we think the playing field is ever truly even.

The upshot is that when I first experienced the instantly gratifying, wondrous, weightless sensation of the Alter G, I fell deeply, madly in love. If you just close your eyes, it feels like everything running is supposed to be. It is effortless, flowing, fast, and powerful. It wasn’t until I was driving home in my car that doubt about the ethics of using it started to creep in. As with many things this thorny, I don’t think there is any one right answer, but I’m curious to know what others think.

Has anyone else tried the Alter G? Whether you’ve tried it or not, what do you think about the philosophical implications of using it?

Alter G shot


Pounding Pavement

I get the impression trail runners aren’t always thought of as serious athletes outside of the trailrunning and ultra community. Undoubtedly, many ‘normal’ runners might wonder, why go for a slower time on the trail when you could be honing your speed on the track and setting a blazing time in a half marathon or 10k? I think this completely misses the point — it takes a different skill set altogether to run mountain terrain well. Still, on one level it makes sense. There’s a lot to be gained from the discipline of a traditional approach to running that includes intervals and tempos runs, and that type of structure is easy to neglect when miles of gorgeous single-track are calling. Sure, being fast is no guarantee of trail and ultra success, but at least at in distances up to 50 miles I do think it carries over and offers a distinct advantage. You can see what I mean if you look at recent trends in ultrarunning, with 2:26 Olympic marathoner Magdalena Lewy-Boulet and 2:32 marathoner Emily Harrison setting blistering paces at ultra distances up to 50 miles. Or take the road-fast, but largely ultra-newbie Nike men’s trail team similarly kicking ultra-butt when they emerged on the scene this year.

I’m going to make a confession. I sort of skipped the road part on my journey to ultrarunning.  When I started running, again, after several half-hearted similar attempts over the years, it was on the treadmill. In the garage. Hey, it got the job done while the kids were napping.  With my husband’s encouragement, I finally decided to check out the 44 miles of hilly, technical state park trails located less than a mile from our home that I vaguely knew existed. It was such a revelation for this (at the time) full-time mama. That first run, and the countless that followed, were such life-affirming, ‘oh-my-god-the-outdoors-is-amazing!’ and ‘oh-how-wonderful-it-is-to-experience-serenity!’ experiences that they quite literally made me want to dash over and hug the nearest tree. I became an addict. The crack was free, my adoration boundless. Needless to say, the roads barely got a look-in and my dear husband probably wishes he’d never mentioned it.

Soon, with the encouragement of a surprisingly ‘strong to the last’ and reasonably successful 50k debut behind me (5th at the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k Championships in Marin), I moved up to 50-milers. These also went better than I could ever have guessed they would, with top-ten finishes at two national-class Montrail Ultra Cup Races, Santa Monica’s Sean O’Brien (8th) and Sonoma County’s Lake Sonoma (10th). Remember, I’m just a 39-year old Mom who likes to run trails. I never expected that I might actually become even remotely decent at it. Then, the combination of a fortuitous association with half-marathon race company Destination Races via an old book-club friend and a calf tear at my latest 50-miler (Ice Age) invited me to take a temporary step back from trail-mania. I decided maybe it was time to go back to basics and give the asphalt a little love too. After all, I reasoned, any speed I might gain can only help the ultras I have planned for later in the year.

So it is that I find myself training for Destination Race’s Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon (July 20), the Ventura Marathon (September 7) and the inaugural Temecula Wine Country Half Marathon (November 15). I’ve done a couple of these race distances before, but this time I’m actually training for them, not just running them on a whim because there happens to be a road race up the street next week and I thought it might resemble a tempo run. I even started thinking I might be able to get kinda fast (this is a relative term, mind). On a really, really good day in my July half-marathon, a top five finish, perhaps?

Then, the press release went out. I mean, the Napa-Sonoma Half has always attracted a strong field, but I had no idea that the likes of Olympian Ryan Hall, his wife, elite speedster Sara Hall, Runner’s World columnist/elite 5000m meter specialist Lauren Fleshman and a bunch of other pros would be lining up come race day this year. Paced by Olympians Meb Keflezighi and Mary Decker Slaney on Elliptigos, no less! That’s a lot of Olympians. For crying out loud, these people have their own Wikipedia pages. And then there’s — you know — me. HA! Humbling, to say the least. Well, maybe it will provide additional motivation to PR, now that my admittedly always rather optimistic hopes of a top-end finishing place have been well and truly eviscerated. Joking aside and much more importantly, it will be a true honor to line up somewhere near-ish, but definitely a wide berth back from, these amazing and inspiring professionals who will leap at the gun and make my pace look like I’m standing still.

With my calf tear healed and a decent chunk of training in the bank, my only question remaining is, which shoes should I wear on race day? Have readers tried any of the racier Newtons? I’m in love with the Gravity IIIs* and the Distance IIIs*, but haven’t tried any of their racing offerings. Alternatively, I’ve had good success with Brooks T-7 racers — well, except for that blister they always give me on my right foot. Suggestions and comments most welcome!

Training in the rolling hills of Temecula's wine country: could be worse!

Training in the rolling hills of Temecula’s wine country: could be worse!


*Full disclosure: I received one comp pair each of the Gravity’s and Distance’s in relation to my role as an Ambassador for Destination Races (with no expectation that they be so much as mentioned here or in any other context). No matter. It doesn’t change the fact that these are hands down my favorite road training shoes ever. I honestly love them about 10x more than any other road running shoes I have tried and fully intend to plonk down my own $$ on my next pairs. I also don’t plan to race a half marathon in either model, since I tend to go pretty minimal on race day.