5K – Fred Lebow Cross Country

The 5K is often wrongly considered the “beginner’s” run, thanks to many fun runs and charity runs around the country being that distance. The 5K is actually one of the toughest races you can be in, if you actually race it. In the ideal 5K you are literally on your last legs as you cross the finish line, with nothing left in the tank other than sweat and spittle. If you find you have an extra spurt over the last 100 meters, you didn’t run hard enough mid-race, but if you cramp up and collapse after 3 miles, and don’t make that final 0.1, you ran too hard or just were not prepared. The 5K is literally 13- 14 minutes of agony, if you’re a serious 5K athlete.

Thankfully I am not a professional runner in the 5K category, so it won’t quite be like that of me, but the 5K is a great opportunity to stretch your legs and maybe just about get a PR. I don’t often run this distance, but have enough races under my belt now to know what to expect; good, bad and ugly.

My PR for 5K was this year in April, when I ran the Red Hook Criterium in 23:36 (7:36/min), on a flat road-course of 4 1.25KM laps.

My Red Hook Criterium Lap Times
My Red Hook Criterium Lap Times

The slowest race I have run, for which I still have the times, was in June 2013 when I struggled in New Jersey finishing in 31:28 (10:09/mile) in blazing heat having been grossly under prepared.

Tomorrow I am running the Fred Lebow 5K Cross Country race in t \he Bronx at Van Cortland Park. In 2013, I ran the same course in October 2013 in 28:12 (9:06), although I had forgotten my running shoes that day and ran in some very flat minimal Merryl shoes.

So, after a middle of the year lull, I am hoping to go out with a bang (I have a 4m race in 3 weeks as well) – I should beat my 2013 time fairly easily, but probably won’t get close to the Red Hoot Crit time given the hilly course.

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Now the Marathon is Over, I Can Focus on my Running

OK, let’s talk about my 2015 NYC Marathon. It would be a mild understatement to say it didn’t exactly go as I planned. Back in July on this very blog, I was pretty bullish about getting this one right compared to 2014, but a combination of a niggling foot injury, a personal loss and what my wife described as “second year marathon syndrome” somehow combined to knock me off track. What’s frustrating is that I knew as early as late September that I had missed far too much training to really have a go at last year’s record, but I allowed that to be an excuse to give up entirely on a decent run. I am going to describe below exactly what happens when, and how it feels to, entirely abandon your training. My time was 5:25:55, or 52 minutes longer than in 2014.

2014 Vs 2015!

In 2014, with the 5% adjustment for the GPS inaccuracy, I ran 481 miles during my training from July 17th to Nov 2nd (not including the marathon itself). That’s an average of 4.5 miles per day for 108 days.

In 2015, I ran just 335 miles in 112 days (July 11th to Oct 31st) or an average of just 3 miles per day. So in 2014 I clocked 50% more miles than this year. The effect?

2014 Vs 2015, 5K section paces and cumulative time.
2014 Vs 2015, 5K section paces and cumulative time.

The difference is dramatic as you’d expect. I started much slower and slowed down much faster, and from around mile 9 onwards (around 15 km) I was really uncomfortable. 17 miles is a long way to run when you’re already struggling and I’ve never had a bigger urge to quit something than I did on that day. Somehow though I convinced myself to keep going (after all I didn’t want to miss out on a post-race poncho) and made it across the finishing line.

Looking OK at about mile 22... I was faking!
Looking OK at about mile 22… I was faking!
Finish Line
Crossing the Finish Line!
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Self at the Start
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Brave Face at the Finish. Walking the almost mile stretch from the finish line to the poncho pickup was pure agony.
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The Sea of Ponchos!

In the title I said that now this is over, I can concentrate on my running. Well that’s true to an extent. It feels like a huge burden has been lifted and at this point I am not intending to run another marathon on 2016. I have two more races this year, a 5K in a week and a 4-miler in early December before a trip to Chile. Next year I am going to focus on the half-marathons and some middle-distance improvement before doing this again in 2017.

Loss and Losing

My last post was on August 9th, some 10 weeks ago, and much has happened since then. Not all good, but much to learn from and much to take great strength from. Before that, what happened in week 5? Well I am so glad you asked!

After week 4’s slow improvement, week 5 built upon that and was (and still is) my best week in this training plan. I ran 38 miles, although my average pace was quite slow, only 9:38. On the Sunday, I cut short my long run from a scheduled 15 miles to 12 miles, and this was the start of my problems with training this year. It was a stick 86 degrees; not the worst for an August day in New York, but warmer than you’d want for a long run.

A few days later, after a subway ride I got an intense pain in my right foot across the top. This was similar to the injury I had in 2014 after over-stretching it on a sidewalk step, but somehow felt different. I managed to keep my running up a little in August, but it was characterized by being slow and skipping runs. Between August 16th and the end of August, I only ran 5 times for a total of 33 miles, less than half my target distance.

Also at this time, I found out that my faithful Beagle had cancer. Only weeks before he’d become sick and after taking him to the vets, he was treated for pneumonia for 3 weeks before the vet realized it was something much more serious. A CAT scan and a visit to a radiologist and a surgeon later, we were told that there was little hope and he wasn’t going to get any better. In the space of 8 weeks, he’d gone from a seemingly healthy eight year old beagle, to a dog that could barely breath in his own bed. It was a heartbreaking episode and my wife and I made the decision on September 1st to have him put to sleep.

Best Dog in the World
Best Dog in the World

Dog’s really are beautiful animals that sit in your heart and won’t leave even for the tastiest treat. You don’t realize it at the time, because like so many things in life, while they’re there you take them very much for granted. Losing him was really like losing my best friend, and even now I feel a deep sadness I have never felt before with any loss.

My running in September took a big hit, and I only managed 68 miles, barely half what I should have run. That, along with my foot injury which is still bothering, has pretty much put an end to any hope of cracking last year’s marathon time.

In October 2014 I ran 141 miles. So far this October I have managed only 16.
In October 2014 I ran 141 miles. So far this October I have managed only 16.

As if to hammer home the point, I suffered terribly in two warm up races. First off the 18 mile Marathon Tune Up race in central park. 3 grueling laps which I am very happy to say I managed to complete, albeit at a snails pace. In 2014, I ran this in 2:47, a very healthy 9:20 per mile. This year I ran it in 3:21:51, which is 11:13 per mile, a pace I’ve never dropped to in any race prior.

Perhaps even more tellingly, the Bronx 10 miles just a few weeks ago I ran in 1:31:05, which was a 9:47/mile pace. In 2014, I ran that race in 1:20:01 (my 10 mile PR) which is a quite respectable 8:31/mile.

What has been difficult to know for sure is how much of this is all in my head. I started the summer running slower than expected after a fairly decent start to the season, but haven’t really picked it up at any point. In my head I am saying it’s OK to stop, OK to hit the quit button, OK to slow down to 11 min/miles and this is something that wasn’t going on last year.

Tomorrow I have the Staten Island Half Marathon. Again, last year I ran this in 1:56:07, which is still my Half PR. Tomorrow I am not expecting to beat 2:05, which would make this my slowest half yet. I know I am in no shape to run it hard, but perhaps if I can get my mind into a better place, I can beat my expectations and give myself a lift 3 weeks before the Marathon. I rarely if ever exceed my own expectations, which is troubling given they’re not particularly high.

Dedicated to my beautiful dog, Ranulph. Aug 2007 – Sept 1st 2015.

Ranulp Roller

Marathon Training Week 4, A Slow Improvement

After last week’s capitulation, this week needed to be pretty decent to give me a little more confidence. Luckily, or perhaps by design, it was exactly that and I feel more or less back on track. But it didn’t start out that way.

Two days after I abandoned my long run at mile 7, I had to run an 8 mile ‘regular run’. This is one of the things I don’t quite get about NYRR’s Virtual Trainer. This was supposed to be my recovery week, and yet it kicks off with an 8-miler at marathon pace, which I’ve been struggling to hit for the entire training period. Sure enough, I ran 7.43 miles in 1:12:05 (9:42). It was 82˚ and I was feeling a little unwell, but even so that’s a weak performance after a day’s rest.

The next day I was scheduled to run my intervals, and then had 2 consecutive days off. I switched things around and took the two days off, and instead ran my intervals on a Friday evening, in the cool (almost dark) and with no thoughts of an early rise the next day or work. Guess what? I nailed it…

I was supposed to run 3 miles easy, then do 8x400m at 2mins and reduce down to 1:48 if I could managed it. My splits after the 3 miles were: 1:58, 1:48, 1:48, 1:49, 1:51, 1:50, 1:48 and 1:47. After the splits, the idea was to run a mile at marathon pace (my range is 9:06 to 9:16) and I rain it in 9:10. That’s about as good as it gets to nailing your training.

Intervals Wk4

The next day, I ran an As You Feel Regular Run (7.43 miles, same as at the start of the week) and managed it in 9:24 without really trying. The difference was huge. I think there is a lot to be said for putting in a 2 day break for people who clearly have not been running as much as the training program demands. Jumping from ~20 miles per week to 33 – 35 in a space of 2 weeks, in mid summer, doesn’t seem particularly wise.

Finally an 11 mile long run on Sunday, with 2 miles at marathon pace, wrapped up a week that wasn’t easy, but seemed designed to help. I just wish the rest days were a little better placed.

With my adjusted 2014 distances and times, I am now clearly ahead in 2015 than 2014, and feeling better. I am looking forward to my rest day tomorrow, and what looks like a tough week in training.

Week 4 Summary

Marathon Training Week 2

Time flies when you’re running (yes it really does!)

So week 2 cranks things up ever so slightly, from 33 miles to 35 miles. The extra two miles come from the long run going from 9 to 10 miles, and an interval session early in the week which is 7 miles.

The interval session was the hardest run of the week. It’s a 2 miles warmup, and then 7x800m intervals, with 45 seconds passive rest between each (passive rest is walking, rather than jogging/running easy). It’s one of those workouts that looks easy, starts out easy, and then bites.

The first lap is supposed to be 4:24, then a reduction of 2 seconds each lap if you feel strong enough. If you’re at full stretch, then maintain the speed. My splits were 4:21, 4:26, 4:24, 4:20, 4:15, 4:13, 4:12 – not bad for an old timer. I do remember doing this last year and starting faster and ending slower, which was the wrong thing to do. With a heart rate monitor, it’s interesting to see how your body responds to such a workout.

Intervals (July 26th Blog)
Heart rate is an excellent indicator of how hard you’re working out. If it feels hard, it IS hard.

Above you can see the splits and the effect of the interval and following rest. For my age, my workout heart rate is quite high, and my resting heart rate if about 62bpm currently. The idea of this exercise is to get a high intensity workout without introducing the fatigue of a race. The heart rate peaks show this is exactly what is happening.

After this interval run, my easy run and regular runs immediately afterward felt hard because my legs were sore, but I’ll be feeling the benefit of this workout within a couple of weeks.

As for 2014 Vs. 2015, after figuring out my GPS error last year, I’ve adjusted all of my 2014 workouts to reflect the times I would be getting with a GPS watch (i.e, reducing the distance by about 5% or 0.05 miles per mile. With this adjustment, I can see in 2015, I am very slightly faster (which I would expect)

Week 2 Summaries

One thing that jumps out is that in 2014, even with the adjusted pace, week 2 was faster than week 1, with a lot more mileage. In 2015, I’m slightly slower with marginally more mileage. One of the reasons is that my watch still counts the rest times during intervals as part of the total workout, and I was walking in one part of the track to stay in the shade so it looked like no movement. Otherwise my average speed is 9:38, slightly quicker.

Another thing is that for most of my regular runs, I have actually missed my target speed. I should be going for 9:05 – 9:20, and over the last two weeks my average regular run speed has been 9:27. It isn’t far off the low end of the expected speed, but it’s enough to be noticeable. I’ll see if my coach recommends switching to a more conservative plan until my fitness improves.

Week 3 cranks it up a notch again to 36 miles, introducing 7 miles to my regular run and a 7 mile fartlek. More on that next time.

Happy running!

Marathon Training 2015 – Week 1

I survived week 1, although barely. Today in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, runners were struggling with the heat, even as early as 8:00am, as NYC basks in a heat wave over the next two days.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am using New York Road Runner’s (NYRR) Virtual Trainer, which I am going to review fully later. One of the good things about this plan is that after you input your current running regime, fitness and experience, it creates a plan based on that and gives you a target time for your marathon, which should be realistic. What’s a little surprising is the huge jump in mileage right from the start.

I told it I was running about 20 miles a week, and 3 runs (barely true) and had 3 years’ running experience. Most coaches and most literature tell you not to increase your mileage by more than 10% a week. Instead of suggesting I slowly increase my miles until the official training kicked in (I signed up at the start of June) it actually told me to maintain my current mileage. So imagine my surprise when week 1 is 33 miles, which is more than a 50% increase. I can tell you I felt it.

To be completely fair, the VT did actually tell me I was making a big jump and suggested I move to a more conservative plan, but even that plan starts at 31 miles, still a 50% jump on 20. It might be better if it suggested a slow increase in mileage before the 16 weeks starts.

Week 1 by the numbers

The week was 4×6 miles, at different paces, plus a long run of 9 miles for a total of 33 miles.

Day one was a regular run. My prescribed pace range is 9:05 – 9:20, but in the 77˚ heat and 81% humidity, with zero wind I wilted and only managed a 9:33 pace over 6 miles. Day 2 was an ‘as you feel’ day again over 6 miles, meaning I was supposed to run however I wanted. I ended up doing 9:22, the temperature was 79˚ but the humidity was only 58%.

Day 3 was a tempo run, with a mile warm up, 3 miles at sub-9 mins miles (8:50 – 8:55) and then a 2 mile cool down. My splits for the tempo part was an average of 8:56, although my Garmin 225 seemed to lose the per mile splits because I entered the 3-miles as a single split in the training (more on that another time). After a flex day, when I did almost nothing, I had another regular run day, 6 miles at 9:36 pace, again 75˚ with 79% humidity. So hot hot hot.

Finally today I ran 9.2 miles in what I can only describe has brutal heat and humidity and collapsed to a saunter of 10:24 per mile overall. More wrongly my heart rate went from the low 160’s to spiking at 173… and this was my ‘long run’ which is supposed to be slow, and around 60% max effort.

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Slow pace but high effort is usually a worry, but the heat and humidity were a strong contributing factor. You can see the water breaks as the white lines in the ‘pace’ graph. 11:35 was my slowest pace!

So overall a inconspicuous start to my training. I get tomorrow off, but will be looking for some improvements over the next few weeks, as I feel and actually am slower than this time last year!

Week 1 – 2014 Vs 2015

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More Miles, but Slower

A Second Crack at the NYC Marathon (Part 1: What Happened in 2014)

In 2014 I ran my first ever marathon, something that only a few years earlier I never thought I would even consider, let alone actually do. My finish time was 4:33:33, and was a bitter-sweet achievement. At the time I was delighted I even finished, and I got so much support from family and friends, it was hard to be disappointed. However, my training all pointed towards a much faster finish, with my predicted time being around 4:08. All runners, regardless of ability, want to do the best they can on race day. So while my time probably isn’t as important to me as it is to say, Meb Keflezighi, it is was important enough to feel a twinge of disappointment, especially in missing it by such a large margin.

Race Strategy

Before the race, I had a strategy to bring me in just under 4:08 as predicted. This wasn’t based on pure fiction; two months before the marathon, I’d run an 18 mile tune up in 2:47:25, an average of 9:18 per mile, and never dropping below 10min/mile.

18m Tune Up
What would turn out to be my best ever long run, my marathon tune up 6 weeks before the race. I felt great at this point.

That was a good 10 seconds/mile faster than my marathon goal pace, so the theory was I could manage another 8 miles at 9:28 to get me to 26.2. In practice, perhaps my training runs were too fast (more on that later). However my race day strategy did follow the rule of running slower than my average long run pace, which is what I followed for my tune up (see chart below). It felt realistic.

Aside from mile one, which includes the long climb up the Verrazano Bridge from the starting line, I started too fast. After you descend into Brooklyn, the crowds appear and the adrenaline kicks in – you literally feel invincible, with 16 weeks plus of training behind you, you’re going to be in pretty good shape. Coming up to mile 6 was a long stretch up Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue, and there were constant gusts of wind up to 25 mph. On race day, don’t under-estimate the impact the wind can have on your effort and speed. Miles 7 – 10 I got back more or less on track, running through my old neighborhood, seeing my wife on the course, and the hundreds of cheering spectators.

Race Strategy
My marathon day times in red, Vs my tune up (light green) and strategy (blue)

Aside from mile one, which includes the long climb up the Verrazano Bridge from the starting line, I started too fast. After you descend into Brooklyn, the crowds appear and the adrenaline kicks in – you literally feel invincible, with 16 weeks plus of training behind you, you’re going to be in pretty good shape. This is a rookie mistake, and although everyone knows you shouldn’t do this, almost everyone does. I read somewhere once that for every 15 seconds you gain during the first 10 miles, you’ll lose a minute during the last 10.

Coming up to mile 6 was a long stretch up Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue, and there were constant gusts of wind up to 25 mph. On race day, don’t under-estimate the impact the wind can have on your effort and speed. Miles 7 – 10 I got back more or less on track, running through my old neighborhood, seeing my wife on the course, and the hundreds of cheering spectators.

During miles 11 – 14 I started to struggle, and could feel it. At the half way mark, I was at 2:05, and in theory in good shape, but I knew I’d slowed significantly and the thought of ‘only’ being half way seemed an enormous burden. The half marathon marker is at the foot on the Pulaski Bridge, which is relatively small compared to some of the others, but the slight climb and exposure make it seem harder than it should be. Mile 15 and 16 I faded below 11 mins/mile for the first time, the Queensboro Bridge in the middle of that. It’s more than a kilometer long (around 3/4 of a mile), there are no spectators on it, and it’s the one part of the race where you feel very alone.

On miles 17 and 18, coming into Manhattan and running up 1st Avenue, I clawed my way back to 10mins/mile (for the last time in the race) before a slow but steady plummet to a 12:37 at mile 24. The only time I really picked up again was the final 800 meters or so running along 59th street, the crowds and the thought of my wife being near there gave me a minor lift at the end. At that point, I did feel pretty good and the disappointment was cast aside by the excitement of the finish. At least I hadn’t quit, and that in itself was huge.

So what happened? What can I learn for next time, and most importantly what do I need to do differently this year to get closer to that magical 4 hour finish time. Let’s start with race day itself.

Race Day Jitters

I am pretty prone to have an upset stomach on race day, but never before a race. Usually it’s in the 24 hour after a race, probably due to over consumption of carbs and hydration aids after the event, along with the pure stress and strain of running as hard as you can for an extended period of time. On the day of the marathon though, things felt different right from the start. I was up around 4:00am, which in reality was 3:00am thanks to the clocks going backward on the same day, and immediately felt tired. After a coffee and some oatmeal with banana, my stomach turned over – it felt bloated and unhappy with life in general. This didn’t really subside prior to the start, and the the net effect was I was pretty much unable to consume any fuel throughout the race at the start. I didn’t eat anything until almost 2 hours in, and at that point it’s too late. This didn’t stop my enthusiasm, I actually felt pretty good despite this, but at the 2 hour mark I really felt it, and bonked at mile 18 (very common).

While the wind was a factor, obviously this affected everyone, and so I can attribute perhaps 5 mins or so to it, no more. Under-estimating New York’s bridges was also a small factor. I definitely slowed down significantly on 3 of them, and while that only accounts for a minute or so of total time per bridge, during a 26 mile race, it has a larger effect that you might think. Finally going out too fast, given my fueling situation, probably compounded the other problems. Just giving up 2 and a half minutes in the first 10 miles may have saved me 10 mins in the last 10, so perhaps I could have finished 7 to 8 mins faster.

Training

My marathon training plan was the most rigorous, and probably most difficult thing thing I have ever done as far as physical exertion is concerned. To give you an idea, during the 16 week plan, I ran 541 miles (including the race itself). That was more than half of my entire mileage for 2014, and more than twice as much as I’d run in 2013 and 2012 combine. I was, and still very much am, a novice runner. It’s easy to forget that some of the people I run with ran track in high school, or have been running for 10 or 20 years. Apparently for people starting running in their 30’s or 40’s, can improve continuously for up to 15 years! While that gives me great encouragement, it’s rather humbling to know even at year 3, just starting out.

I follow NYRR’s Virtual Training plan, but with a real coach (I will review this in a future post), and there are a few things now with hindsight I would change. Often I would exceed the plan’s suggested speed (although not always) and while it’s occasionally good to push a little harder on good days, it’s actually more important to conserve the energy and push through on the bad days. For example, if you’re supposed to do a 12 mile run at 9:35, and actually do it at 9:05. OK, sounds good right? But if the next day you’re supposed to do a 6 mile regular run at 9:05 and actually barely hit 9:20, the reason is the over-exertion during the long run. What’s more, the effect of doing that can’t be under-stated; it can last for days, and is unconsciously training your body to slow down under fatigue. Marathon training is all about doing exactly the opposite of this – to keep your pace down at the start when you feel great, and then keep going at a steady pace when you’re fatigued towards the end. I was unconsciously training myself to start fast, and finish slow!

Aside from the relatively minor indiscretions of knocking 5 – 10 seconds off interval splits on the track, I actually ran two races on days I was supposed to do slow long runs.

On September 28th, 2 weeks after my 18m tune up, I ran the Bronx 10 mile race in 1:25:10 (8:31/mile). A few weeks ago, I couldn’t even manage a 10k at that speed, but again it’s amazing what 10 weeks of training will do you for. Originally I was supposed to run 20 miles on that day, but my coach adjusted my day to take into account the race, and prescribed 12 miles (2 miles for warm up and cool down, plus the race) and gave me a target of 8:35 – 8:46/mile.

Not only did I blow away the target time (those 4 seconds are huge over that distance) but I stupidly went on to run the extra 10 miles AFTER the race, clocking in at 1:34:37, or around 9:28/mile.

The second time I did this, I ran the Staten Island Marathon on October 12th, only two weeks later. I got a PR of 1:56:07 (which still stands now). This time I was in the zone set by my coach, but again I ended up running the full distance prescribed in the original plan (prior to registering for the race) so actually ran 22 miles in total that day.

For someone with 5 -10 years’ running experience behind them, perhaps this would have mattered less. But I was naive, I really wanted to get the miles under my belt, and thought doing so would be better than resting. My biggest concern was not getting the full effect of running 18, 20 and then 22 miles continuously. Ironically I didn’t get that anyway, as I completed my mileage a few hours after the races in both instances, which while might give you more or less the same physiological workout, the psychological difference between running continuously for 3.5 hours, compared to breaking it up into a 2 hour and 1.5 hour workout, is huge.

Sleep

One final thing I’ll mention is sleep. It’s a wonder of the modern world that we crave more hours in every day. There just isn’t enough time for work, training, rest, eating, play and all the other distractions of the avant garde. As such, we’re often sleep deprived, and runners are probably the most sleep deprived. After training, the next most important thing, perhaps even more important than nutrition, is sleep. It’s only when you’re asleep that the body really recovers from what you put it through when you’re awake. Muscle regeneration and other physiological changes that are critical to improving fitness all occur while you’re catching your Z’s. I have a habit of staying up later than I should, and throughout my training probably averaged less than 7 hours sleep a night, with some nights more like 5. Ultimately I don’t know how much impact something like this has, but from what little I have read on the subject, it seems this is something that can lead to long term exhaustion and fatigue.

While it’s easy to be critical, and I just spent 1700 words being exactly that, I really should be very proud of myself. Sure, on the day I could have done better – it’s mentally difficult to keep going when you know deep down you’re going to fall short, and although I often felt like giving up, I never actually did. However, getting through 16 weeks of training during a New York City summer at that, is something I’ll never forget, and it’s a great baseline for 2015. That is something to discuss next time.