Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Mind of This Marathoner

"It's very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit."
- George Sheehan

In 3 weeks, the Mercedes Marathon will be run here in Birmingham, Alabama for the 12th year. I have participated in all 12 and in many other marathons and ultras. These are amazing endurance events to finish. To accomplish crossing that finish line takes a lot. The obvious is the physical.  Everyone always thinks of the physical strength every marathoner must have and use in order to make sure they finish. My scrawny Coach when I ran High School Track back in the 60's (the 1960's, not the 1860's), Mr. Babbitt, was the first person I knew that finished the Boston Marathon.  He certainly didn't look strong..."How the heck can he run 26 MILES?". Of course, back then, I was running the 440 and wondering WHY anybody would want to run the insane distance of a mile. What folks don't realize is how much willpower and mental strength is also needed, and at times, it's like Yogi said, "It's 50% physical and 90% mental".

A perfect example is almost every endurance event I've ever run. You start the race convincing yourself that you feel great. You brush aside any of the nagging feelings in the legs or doubts you may have. The gun goes off and for me this is easy through the first 5 miles.  I am running a little slow, but assure myself that this is the smart way to begin. 

My perceived invincibility would slowly slip away over miles 6-9 as the miles stretched on.  Mind you, my pace is still the same for the first third of the race, but I could tell things are tightening up as I close in on halfway point. I have a theory that your body will dole out just enough energy to get you to the goal you have mentally set.  In a marathon, you can't help but be looking for that halfway point, and in a two-loop course, like Mercedes, it is doubly true. You have to get to 13.1.  There is something about that number, just the same as 26.2, or 50k, or 10k, or 100 miles, that I absolutely love reaching. It is a mental goal that you have to dig up the "ummph" for. Once I take one step past that 13.1 mile marker, I know that I have less than half the course to go! Woohoo! But, this is a strange part of the race, because despite the momentary surge of endorphins, or whatever it could be that pumps you up, the wind also lets out of the sails as you realize you just lost 75% of the folks around you as they head for their Half Marathon finish line! It's sheer willpower that pushes me through to mile 14 and in the back of my mind I would start wondering, "Will this race ever end?  Man, I feel like I am going so slow". How do you go from "Yes, done with half" to "What the...?".  

Finally, mile 15.  Now, I always get a boost at 15 because my cloudy mind will say "only 11 miles to go" and no matter what training program you're following, 11 miles is a short Sunday run. Is that 16 up ahead?  One step past that 16 mile marker the mind begins to say "Now you have only single digits to go". I would have less than 10 miles to go. Yes! But, let's face it, it's not just around the corner.

Then my self-fulfilled prophecy hits 19 miles and I ALWAYS get kicked here. For some reason, 7 miles now registers as a lot more than 11 miles did a few miles ago. What's that all about? All I want is for this to be done. It would feel so good to just stop and sit down.  Eat something.  At this point I always begin to wonder why I would ever decide to sign up for a marathon, or worse, why did I already send in my registration for Oak Mountain 50K? I mean, what kind of sadomasochist am I to willingly put myself through this?  Mile 19 usually comes as my lowest point in the marathon, I am usually hating life as I struggle to maintain a steady zombie shuffle.  After all, I am certainly not a lead gazelle...I am no Kenyan...I simply very seldom can run a marathon with ease.  It is usually a struggle for me, no matter how much training I've done. It happens, and I almost always struggle. And I hate that. Shouldn't it be smoother? No, not really.

But something begins to turn around at mile 20.  It is that in between mile for me. The mile right after I had hit the low point.  David Goggins once said "When you hit the wall, don't try to slam through it. Mentally, ease up and slide along the wall and you'll find a door to go through", and I've learned to do that. Just on the other side of mile 20 I know we'll just click these miles off one at a time. My mantra has always been "Every step is a step closer". Late in the race, you know you'll finish, but dagnabit, you still have to do the work. Crap!

I know my legs are tired.  I know that my calves hurt. I can tell my muscles feel like cramping and that I am starving and low on energy.  But, the end is finally in sight.  With every passing mile it becomes less than 4 miles...less than 3 miles, etc. Whereas miles 16-20 seemed to take forever, miles 20-26.2 just tick by (although slowly). I move. I continue to move. And with every mile marker I now know that I am "a step closer". 

Any race is always a magical experience.  I actually enjoy the wall, after the fact, of course.  It always puts me in my place and shows me that I am doing something very difficult. Invariably this always happens to me. What has changed through the years is that I know to keep going on. I will almost always begin a war with myself, berating myself for trying to do something that is much grander, something that is much more powerful that I am capable of...believe me, it can even happen in a 10k race.  That mental battle will mean the race, right there. But the race is not grander than me. I am trained, I am experienced. At every marathon, you will have to struggle with yourself, but it is what makes the marathon so tough, and the reason why mental strength is needed just as much as physical strength. 

Is it worth the momentous struggle during those miles?  Without a doubt it is.  For the struggle is but momentary, maybe a couple of hours, but the joy and the feeling of accomplishment at the finish line cannot be measured.  I've now finished 79 marathons and 53 ultras and I can say without a doubt that I have felt these ups and downs at every single race, and at the finish line I am always smiling and am already (sort of) impatient for the next one.

 Everyone's body is different of course.  Maybe you don't run into these problems the same way I do when I come to a daunting part of the race and wonder, "How will I get around this?". But I would wager that there is a mental battle that begins as you lead up to that tough set of miles. If you know that it is there, it won't clobber you. But, don't plan to clobber it either. Accept it as part of the race, run many races and that experience will eventually learn to be the referee between your body and your mind to get you to that finish line. Run long and prosper my friends.

I'll see you all on the roads - AL

PS - If you're training for Mercedes, next Sunday at 6:30, we will meet at Boutwell Auditorium for our 2nd 13 mile run (8.6 for half marathoners) on the Mercedes course. Any questions, contact me

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world" 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Superstitions, Habits, and Rituals

“If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere.” 
― Groucho Marx

I am not a superstitious person, I believe we make our own luck. Each day that I hit the trails or roads and train ("train" is a very relative and casually thrown around term), I increase my chances of doing well. Or, maintain where I am. Or, at the very least, slow the steady degradation of my running self.  Yet, after being in countless races over countless years (I love hyperbole), there are a few things that I have noticed about myself and although I don't put them in the superstitious category, they may scrape the definition of ritual. Perhaps these rituals have developed more out of habit than out of an offering to the running Gods to assure a good race. 

When you enter a race, there are so many variables that can affect your performance, maybe we develop these rituals in the belief that our figurative rabbit's foot is an attempt to control some of the factors that encompass the whole race experience. Perhaps the enduring nature of these rituals as we do them run after run is proof of our desire to control or increase the likelihood of success.

Those of us who live for the run and have been at it a long time tend to have our habits,rituals and quirks and may not even realize some of them. Do you dress differently for a race than a training run, eat differently, wear a certain memento, anything that has become a habit that if not done can actually affect your already fragile confidence. When we begin to associate success with these rituals, we rely on them, and without them, we can have a slight chink in our armour that protects us the day of a race.

Although I say don’t believe in luck or superstitions, when I race next I can guarantee that I will be performing some habitual quirks that are just how I roll. Some of these are performed without the realization that I'm doing them, but let's go through some of these things.

The night before a race, usually a marathon or ultra, I have to put out all my clothes that I will race in the next day. I don't mean just get them out and put them in a pile for the morning. I will put the hat on the bed, then below that I spread my shirt, then the shorts and the socks. It looks like one of those 1950's Science Fiction movies when the poor farmer gets vaporized by the martian and all that's left are his smoking clothes. Anyway, I then pin the most important memento of my race to my shorts - a purple bar that was worn on my late Dad's Army uniform representing his Purple Heart. I carry it with me everyday and it's been with me in all of my 132 marathons and ultras. Yes, it's important. Does it give me strength? In some races, it must have been on a break because I sure could have used a little more magic, but my dad never saw me race, and so I carry this small symbol of his courage to help give me some late in a race. Sometimes I'm strong, sometimes I'm not...the pin has nothing to do with it, but it will always be there.

As far as specific gear or clothing, I only have one shirt that I wear to most of my races. Well, it's actually one of several of the SAME shirt. You see, for 15 years, I was a running coach for the Leukemia Society (old name). During those 15 years, I went to many marathons with them and (against the Society's regulations) I also ran the races. We were given a new purple Leukemia Team singlet each race, so I have several. I was very involved with the mission of the Society. It still is important to me and so I wear one of those shirts to almost all of my races. Because we distance runners are creatures of habit, that shirt is now automatic. One less pre-race decision to make.

I don't have any race rituals that I perform. I can pretty much drink any flavor drink (except Ultima, which is vial, or Accelerade, which gives me the trots) and I can down Gu, Hammer Gel, Powergel, or Honey Stinger. I have my favorites, but it doesn't really matter TO ME. Actually, the one thing I always do before a race is to fold my race number as small as I can where you can still see just the advertising, no race logos, just the facts Ma'am! Always do it!  

Do we all have a pre-race routine? Sure we do. But a routine is different from these rituals that are actions that really have no direct bearing on the race. They are very personal. You may carry a photo, a bracelet, a religious item, or a Purple Heart Bar. They are different from the routines like what to eat the night before, what drink to mix in your bottle, or what flavor Gu to pack, UNLESS you can't race without a night-before meal of Baked Ziti, or have only Strawberry Banana Gu. A routine is Gu, a ritual is Strawberry Banana Gu!

Runners who have been at it for awhile and would be described as experienced (old) are locked into the racing systems they have followed for years. They are very unlikely to go with the hot new fad that's being touted. They'll tell you they've been around long enough and have seen them come and go. They plan to stick with what works for them. Some have a basis, but some are those personal quirks.

If any of you have rituals, quirks or habits you'd like to share, send them along in the comments below. I'd love to know I'm not alone.

One habit I have is that I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world "

Saturday, January 12, 2013

My Role As a Pace Group Leader

"(Leadership) is nothing more than motivating other people" - Lee Iacocca

This year will mark the 12th annual Mercedes Marathon here in Birmingham, Alabama. I ran the first edition of the Marathon in 2002 as it traversed Red Mountain TWICE making one big 26 mile loop. A killer of a run. Looking into the future, I decided I can't look forward to RACING my local hilly marathon every year, so, I talked to Valerie McLean, the Race Director, about me leading a Pace group and for the past 11 years, I have been the Director of the Mercedes Marathon Trak Shak Pace Teams. It has been a pure joy to direct this team and help runners achieve their PR's, first marathons, or just reach the finish line. Most of our pacers have been split between local Birmingham Track Club folks and a steady contingent from the Darkside Running Club in Atlanta, of which I am also a member. I'm in one of those envious positions that if the pacers do their job, then I come out looking like a genius, and so far, our pace leaders have been spot-on. Each week around the country, this scenario is repeated in most marathons. But how does a Pace Team work, and what are the responsibilities of both the Pace Team and the runners? Here's my take on all this after 11 years. 

To run with a pace group at Mercedes, (which, by the way, has changed to a two-loop, less hilly course) you don't have to sign-up, wear any kind of identifying bib of what pace you're keeping up with, and it's free, with never any pressure to remain with the team throughout the race. All you have to do is show up, find your Pace Team Leader(s), and throw your trust in them that they know what they're doing (A big leap I realize).

But, let's also realize one important thing here...the Pace Team Leaders are human too. Runners are always told to run their own race.  When you're a pace group leader, this isn't an option.  You have to stick to a plan to finish within a couple of minutes of your target time. People are counting on you. The pace you are leading should be comfortable, but as always, THINGS happen and even a Leader's race can go down the tubes. At Mercedes, ALL paces will have 2-3 Pace Leaders for each pace just in case one of the pacers has to bail. At last year's race, we had 3 pacers for 5 hours and at 19 miles, one of our pace leaders had a terrible cramp. Vanessa Stroud was one of our pacers and she was running the race like it was a sunny day at the park, so I told all the 5 hour pacees to go with her and I walked/ran with the other pacer to the finish (5:19).

So, how does a leader get his group in within a minute or two of the target? I'll speak from my angle, and it can get a little complicated. Let's look at the 5 hour group - about 11:27/mile pace - 
 Most of the runners are trying to run the best run they can do, so to say "Let's put some time in the bank" and run much faster than the 11:27 is suicide. You know the old saying "Time in the bank...nails in the coffin!". However, a Pace leader has to study the course and decide "Where can I pick up some time to offset the time I'll lose at aid stations, hills, and the expected natural slowdown of the 2nd half?". So, I study the course...the first 4 miles are flat, so we'll average about 11:17/mi, though the first mile will be slower. If you don’t start your training runs at race pace, why do so on the most important day you’ve been gearing up for? Then we hit hills, one short, and one about 3 miles long, so there will be a controlled slowdown to 11:45/mi. This brings us to about 8.5 miles, with the next 1.5 miles up and down to mile 10. From here to the end of the first loop (13.1 miles)is pretty much flat and a gradual down hill and we'll try
 11:15-11:20/mi pace. This plan will get us in for the first half at about 2:28. I'd rather be a little closer to 2:25, but it depends on the group. You see, I don't want to run anybody into the ground, but that 5 hour target is my main responsibility. You can view a course and elevation map at the Mercedes Marathon website.

I have found the kick-in-the-butt problem with this plan is aid stations, and the hills. My plan for the aid stations is I will walk briskly at the first table and begin running again at the end of the aid stations. Should take about 45-60 seconds. Hopefully, this way nobody will lose me or have to run like a bat out of hell to catch me after choking down a drink.

One thing I have found is NOT to get hung up on "What pace am I running at this moment?". I try to get in the flow of checking overall pace every 3 miles or so. I'd say 75% of my focus is to get through the first half of the race ON PLANNED PACE. The 2nd half of the race is a different animal and the Pace Leader's responsibility is to see who is still in their group and get them home. If runners are drifting from the safety of the leader, this is not a case of no runner left behind...EXCEPT, remember, we have 2-3 Pace Leaders per group, so we can throw a runner a lifeline late in the race with one of the leaders to encourage them and get them home a few minutes behind schedule. That's a good plan because I usually feel like crap at the end of the race and can act magnanimous by sticking with a fading runner while backing off myself!

Along the way, a Pace Leader will also try to keep the group motivated and divert their minds from the 26,000 steps required. We can coach, cheer, give advice, tell stories, tell jokes, get the runners involved with their own stories. I'm pretty familiar with all the sights we pass through downtown along the way, so I'm like a tour director. Birmingham is an old Southern city with a lot of it's landmarks still standing and new sights springing up. I tell my runners that I don't mind them watching their own watches, but don't give me CONSTANT updates on the pace...I've got a plan - and you don't know if I'm on Plan A, Plan B, or Plan K. Once, when I was pacing the 4:30 group, a runner asked at the start "If I stay with you, do you guarantee I'll finish in 4:30?". I answered "No, I guarantee I'll finish in 4:30!". 

Seventy-five percent of the runners who start with a particular pacer won't go on to finish with the group.  Some will go ahead, and a few are forced to drop back.  It's not usually a problem with the pacer, but with the runner's expectations. Some people who choose to run with a pace group are pushing themselves to the limit, trying to reach a goal that is right on the outer fringes of what they are able to achieve.  But when they do make it, the rewards are spectacular. Usually, I'll start with about 15-20 runners and finish with 4-5, and none of those were any of the original 15-20. 

The nice thing about pace groups is you aren't married to them. If the pace isn't right for you, you can take off, drop back, or just split away. The 3 most common mistakes I see a Pace Leader make are:
1) Starting out too fast. It’s very easy to give into the temptation of starting out too fast with the adrenaline rush of race day.  If you’re thinking about starting out at the targeted pace, that usually doesn’t allow people to warm up properly. So, I like to start off slowly, let the group get organized, and instill some confidence in them that I'm not going to kill them (at least not early in the race!).

2) Rushing through the aid stations. There is no worse feeling then relying on a Pace Group and watching them run off into the sunset because the group has all broken apart at the aid station. The reality is that the early aid stations are the most critical for optimal performance. Therefore, the Pace Leader should tell the group what the plan at the aid station is. I like to begin walking at the first table of the station, go to the opposite (less-crowded) side of the street, and begin running slowly after the last table.

3) Pushing too hard on the uphills. You will always use more energy going up a hill than you will gain going down. You need to back off on the up and use gravity to assist you on the the way down. Trying to maintain an even PACE is suicide - you need to expend an even EFFORT, which means you’ll naturally and appropriately slow down and speed up according to the terrain to conserve energy.

Some can run with a Pace Group and for some, it drives them crazy. It's up to you. I just think it’s so much easier to let someone else set the pace (especially someone who will do so intelligently) and simply follow along. As in training, it's much better running with a group. But just remember, these Pacers are humans. Most of them ordinary runners, who sign up for the job. This isn’t their full time job. They didn't go to Pacer College. They are not experts at pacing marathons, though they all are accomplished marathoners. They are there to help you reach your goals. Run with them all the way, drop them in the middle, or just pick them up in the last few miles to help get you in. Do what you think will work for you. Use the pace group as a marker and for motivation during the race, but rely on your own sense of pace (or watch) and natural strengths and weaknesses when it comes to executing your race strategy. Take advantage of the pace group as an
 opportunity to have a barometer to assess your progress — as well as a group for motivation, should you need one.

So, that's it in a nutshell. I am sold on Pace Groups because I know these folks are dedicated to try to get you to attain your goals. They all love to talk and along the way, you can have a rolling Q&A session, or talk about just about anything. If you get the right pacer they can be your biggest cheerleader.

And so, remember that tomorrow morning (Jan 13th) we will meet downtown at 6:30 at Boutwell Auditorium and run on the Mercedes Course. If you have any questions about the Pace Groups or our Sunday runs, be sure to contact me.

I'll see you all on the roads - AL 

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Miles...How Far?, How Fast?...Hard Question!

"If you put all your eggs in one basket, you better watch your basket" - Mark Twain

Having been a runner for over 3 decades, I've been repeatedly asked "How many miles per day do you run?". The questioner could be someone who might see me run often, like in my neighborhood. Or it might be someone who just knows that I run, like a patient or a casual acquaintance. Or it might be someone who has just found out that I run, like at a party or meeting. But usually this is commonly the sort of person who assumes that I follow a periodic routine, and that I run pretty much the same amount every time I go out. The most frequent expectation is that I run so much per day, which all runners know is miles (no pun) from the truth. The "per" designation is just a handle by means of which one may discuss averages, which themselves may or may not be meaningful.

And so, it's not unusual to be asked often "How much do you run every day?". There is no answer to that question if taken literally that is both easy and correct. I could do a mental calculation in the knowledge that this past week I ran 35 miles, so could say "about five", when the real answer is that I did a couple of short runs, took a couple of days off, a 10-miler on Saturday, and ran 15 on Sunday. Or I could say "about 30-40 miles a week", or I could say so many miles per month. But when you're dealing with someone who asks the question in passing and really doesn't give a Rat's Tail to a specific answer, that's not the time to get into a big discussion or to present a lecture on how runners train.

My own routine is surely not much different from most thoughtful runners. I record all pedestrian miles covered while wearing running clothes for the purpose of "working out" on a daily basis, often in GPS measured miles to two decimal places, whether I'm going for a short jog in my neighborhood or a long run on some technical trail at Oak Mountain. A training session for me can be anything from a couple of easy miles to over twenty. The distance is almost always predetermined, usually at least days and sometimes weeks in advance.

In turn, those daily accumulations add up to seven-day weeks. In my log I record the week as measured from Monday to Sunday,  including  rest days. That number can be a good predictor or reflection of how well I'm doing or it might just be some needless record for my own self-satisfaction. Weeks add up to months. Week and month totals tend to build and diminish over the course of a year, but then of course, these months add up to years. In the 30+ years my feet have hit the pavement or trail, I have logged over 78,000 miles! I used to run over 3000 miles a year, but these days, I struggle to be within shouting distance of half that. But that's ok, I'm still moving forward. 

A few weeks ago, I ran into a former patient I hadn't seen in a long while. He was going one way, I was going another, but he asked  "How did you do on your last marathon?", knowing that I was a long distance runner. Well, the last race I had done was the very technical Crusher Ridge Trail Marathon at Ruffner mountain. I said "A little over 8 hours!". As we glided out of conversation range, knowing he wouldn't have a clue what I was referring to, I wanted to explain to him that this time didn't mean that I had suddenly become a mere slow walker of long distances and I wanted him to know that it was a pretty difficult effort. But, he shouted back, "Very good!" in a voice that clearly indicated he had no reference as to what time or distance meant and didn't understand my answer. But, his response seemed sincere and I said "Thanks". 

As runners will do, I'm always happy to discuss this topic in any amount of detail with persons who are really interested and have the time. With those other folks who are just making conversation with "How far do you run every day?" or "How fast can you run the mile?", be tolerant of their lack of knowledge. 

Actually, the only question that STILL irks me is "What was your pace?" after a tough, root-strewn, hilly, muddy, 50k. You tell them "Oh about 14 minutes a mile". They look at you and say something like "I ran a 7 minute mile when I was in High School!". Aaaaagggghhhh!! Shouldn't bug me, but it does! Life goes on. And we go on.

Ok, just a reminder to those training for the Mercedes Marathon - next Sunday (January 13th), we will run from Boutwell Auditorium,  the starting line of the marathon, at 6:30 and do one loop (13 miles) of the course. Half marathoners will run to the 7 mile mark and return via 20th St for a total of 8.6 miles. Thanks to Valerie and the Trak Shak guys, the lobby to the Auditorium will be open (warm), and they will also supply water and Gu for the run and coffee for after the run. Thanks guys!

I'll see you all on the roads - AL  

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"