Sunday, January 17, 2010

A PR to start the Series?

The way the trip to Phoenix for PF Chang's Rock & Roll Arizona Marathon started, didn't set a very good precedent. I left the office early for a 3pm flight and after breezing through the security line wound up sitting in the airport through delay after delay. My US Airways plane had a mechanical issue they were determined to fix and so we sat as about 7 other flights (all sold out) took off before us. We finally boarded at 7pm but didn't leave the ground until 8pm. Needless to say, getting into Phoenix at midnight wasn't how I planned to start the weekend. I hadn't seen Reesa in over a week and when I finally arrived we crashed into the Marriott bed.
The following morning we headed down to the expo to get my race bib and other stuff and to sign up for the last of the 2010 Rock & Roll Endurance Series events - Denver. This marathon was added to the schedule in October of last year but wasn't open for registration until this week.
14 events in one year; what was I thinking? The organizers from were impressed as I'm still the only person who has signed up for all the events. If you were thinking about it but didn't run Arizona, sorry, but you are out of luck.

So it's now official, I'm signed and sealed for the entire Endurance Series in a single year. Now I just need to deliver.

We spent a relaxing day in Scottsdale, doing a little sightseeing, shopping and watching the NFL Playoffs, then went to bed early to prepare for marathon Sunday.

As usual, I didn't get much sleep the night before the race. Woke up about every 2 hours, looked at the clock and rolled back over. I've never been able to shake the fear of sleeping through my alarm and being late for a race. Even though I have completed over 20 marathons, I still get keyed up for them every time.

Our hotel provided free shuttles the start line and I got there about 40 minutes before the 7:45am start. Phoenix served up absolutely perfect weather for the day - 46 degrees at the start which never got above 65 during the race, with gorgeous blue skies and scattered clouds.

When the gun went off, it certainly didn't seem like I would have a fast day. I was able to get to running almost immediately, unlike the undulating cattle call found in most marathon starts. I told myself not to go out too fast and to listen to my body about what pace to maintain. Mile one, though, was a bit more leisurely than I would have liked: 8:28. So I picked it up the next mile clocking a 7:15. That was too fast but it felt fine so I pulled back a little and tried to focus on my cadence - short, fast steps to conserve energy.

Strangely, every time I approached a street light on the course it turned yellow. You can ignore street signs in a marathon, because the course is blocked off but if yellow means yield was the course trying to tell me something?

I don't run with an iPod in events and especially not Rock & Roll events because I want to hear the bands which are placed about every mile. Again, I felt the course was trying to tell me something because when I passed nearly every band they were on a break. Come on!

What gave me a sign that this might be a good day, though was the fact that up until about mile 10 I hadn't been passed by any pace teams. When the gun went off, the 3:10 pace team took off ahead of me but 3:20 and all slower pacers were well back. Then as we headed into the 10th mile there, just ahead was the 3:10 pace group. I was catching them.
Then at mile 11, I was passing them and then they were falling further behind. Could I really be doing a sub 3:10 pace? The runners around me were Garmin-watchers, calling out to each other the pace they were holding and whether they were on target for their goal of Boston qualification or not. "We're looking good. 7:10 that last mile. If we can hold it, we should BQ for sure," said one of them.
7:10?! That was too fast, I'd never hold that pace for 15 more miles. I pulled back a bit, again concentrating on cadence -- fast feet, short steps, comfortable.

I learned this technique my first season of Team in Training. Coach Vince had us run around the track working on increasing the number of steps we take per minute around the track. At first, I just didn't get it. Shorter, faster steps just didn't feel natural and I certainly didn't feel like I was conserving energy. If anything, it feel harder. We kept at it for several more laps but I just couldn't get the feel. Then on my final 800 of the night, it clicked. Somehow I had caught the rhythym he was talking about and that was my fastest 800 of the night and I didn't even feel winded.

By the half marathon mark, the 3:10 pace group was still behind me at I clocked in a 1:34. This is just 3 minutes off my half marathon PR and the fastest half I've run in about two years. Wow.
I was right about not being able to hold this pace, though. By mile 14, the 3:10 pace group had regained its lead on me. It didn't bother me, since I knew my pace was too fast and so I was glad to see them go by. But when the 3:15 group came past me at 16 miles that didn't feel so good.

But it was ok, because I've never run a negative split (when you run the second half of the race faster than the first half) and for the last 6 or so marathons I've finished around 3:35 and that's what I was shooting for today.

I kept focusing on cadence as the miles went on, as we left Phoenix and passed through the scenic town of Scottsdale and then on out towards Tempe where the race would finish. When I hit the 35K mark, my watch said 2:30 hours. 7 K to go and only 2 1/2 hour had passed? What was going on here? Gee, I might log a really good time today.
Makes sense, the weather's perfect, the course is nearly dead flat and I've locked in a good pace.

I hit 24 miles and my watch said 3 hours. Huh? I had 2.2 miles to go and was still logging a fast pace. My marathon PR, set in 2007 at California International Marathon was 3:18 and it nearly killed me. Could I match that time today? I pressed on.

At mile 25 it was 3:07. Oh my gosh, 1.2 miles to go and 11 minutes to beat my best time. I tried to step up the pace. As I was passing the final water stop, an announcer said, "The 3:15 pace group went by about 3 minutes ago so you're on pace for a 3:20 finish. Keep pushing!"

3:20? But wait, the 3:20 pace group was nowhere in sight. I had a shot at my PR time. I kept pushing as she said. As I turned one of the last corners I saw the 26 mile sign ahead and decided to sprint the last 0.3 miles. Ok, it wasn't exactly a sprint. When your legs have 25.9 miles on them, you kinda go a little faster. I passed the 26 mile sign, rounded the final corner, saw the finish line and heard the announcer call out 3:17! I pushed it a bit more. Then he egged us on further by saying, "295, 296, 297...Just three more runners to make the top 300! You can do it!" There were about 6 people ahead of me and we all pushed a little harder. Especially two guys in their 20s who were running neck and neck. "298, 299. The next guy through will be number 300!" The two young guys were really pushing now. The one on the left just nudged out his colleague to take the title.

Even though I wasn't going to be in the top 300, the clock above still said 3:17, so I kept pushing. Come on! PR, baby!

When I crossed the line the announcer called out my name and I pressed stop on my Timex Ironman watch. The time: 3:17:58. I had done it. A new PR!

After receiving my medal, I headed into the finishers corral gingerly. After a lot of walking I grabbed a Cytomax recovery drink, stretched and headed out of the corral to greet Reesa. She said that she almost missed me. She had been planning to arrive at the finish line to see me cross at my usual time of 3:35 but had decided to get a good spot early. Just as she arrived, she saw the flash of my blue SMS running shirt and proclaimed, "That's my husband!"

It was about 11:15 when we hugged and we started walking into Sun Angel Stadium as Everclear was scheduled to take the stage at 11:30am. To my utter surprise, I was walking normally. During the show, I was even dancing around. This is definitely a first for me. I could barely walk after CIM when I set my PR and here I was dancing to Father of Mine. I felt amazing.

I can't say enough about the power of cadence. I really believe that was the magic trick to today's race and how I felt afterwards. Well, and also the flat course, the perfect weather and the fact that I'd done 20 marathons prior. But still...

I'm sure I'll be doing the marathon shuffle a bit tonight and tomorrow but right now, I'm going to savor this one.

Next up: Rock & Roll Mardi Gras Marathon on February 28.

A very special thank you to everyone who has supported my efforts thus far. Your donations have taken me above $5,000 and over the half-way mark to my goal.

Thanks also to PowerBar for keeping me fueled up during this endeavor and to for putting on a fantastic event. See you in New Orleans!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My running career was doomed at age 8

It was a brisk, wintry morning in El Paso, Texas and as usual I was on the upper field at Western Hills Elementary School playing touch football with my buddies before school. The field was well short of Texas Stadium. There were no grandstands, the field was covered in yellow grass had gone dormant for the winter and rusting uprights played the part of goal posts at each end of the field. Yard markers and sidelines were more patches of dead grass than true lines of demarcation, but this was football heaven for me and my friends.
Each of us was a different famous NFL player in our own heads but a scruffy set of boys filling every position on both sides of the line of scrimmage to any outside observer. I have no idea what the score was at the time of the incident but was feeling glorious at the time. I bolted from the line of scrimmage on a post route and broke free just as the quarterback's pass appeared in my field of view. I caught it and began running straight for the goal post at a breakneck pace. I was fast but knew I wasn't the fastest player on the field that day - a fact that became all too clear at the 10 yard line, when I was caught from behind. The boy who caught me was closing so fast that his forward momentum overwhelmed mine and sent him over my hips as he brought me straight down into the turf. This tackle pushed all his weight and momentum directly down on my right femur which snapped under the strain and the unyielding, semi-frozen ground beneath the opposite end of my t-boned bone. I had broken my leg in three places.
My first reaction was to see where I was on the field. Had I made it to the end zone? No, 5 yards short. My second reaction was to try and get up. Bad idea. While my femur was roughly in the right position and there were no Afterschool Special-worthy protruding bones, my leg wasn't about to move from its last position and sent a shocking set of nerve alarms to my brain just in case I thought about forcing it.
This level of pain was new to me at this age and the realization that I couldn't get up led me down a harrowing path of emotions that nearly every child exposes in the same way - "Ahhhh!!!"

My friends ran down the hill to the school. Up came the PE teacher who tried his best to make an assessment as to whether (and how) to carry me down to the nurses office. My dad arrived shortly after this and into his yellow 1970s Plymouth Barracuda I went with the hospital awaiting.

It took a few hours of surgery, an experimental cast with a steel rod going through my leg and six weeks of traction to repair my femur. This was in lieu of a full body cast, the best non-experimental treatment at the time for such an injury, so I was grateful for the approach taken.

Afterwards, I was presumably back to normal. I, being a Texan, of course returned to playing touch football but was a bit more careful. My repaired leg even became stronger than the healthy one and I began to play the role of punter and placekicker more often. A few years of soccer felt good too. But the lasting effect of that day was that my right leg would be forever shorter than my left. While the difference is only a few centimeters it is enough to affect my running gait - a fact I wouldn't realize the impacts of until much later in life.

If you've been reading my blog, you know that I started out hating running. And who wouldn't when the only times you ran in school were when you were being punished. I actually tried out for cross country in middle school but in the Texas desert heat that felt like punishment too; although in this case I didn't know what I did wrong.

It wasn't until I started endurance running that the aftereffects of that fateful day would be fully appreciated. You see, if you have good running form, then there is an effortless fluidity to running. As one leg touches down and pushes off, the other is rising and carrying you forward. The very best runners have a full body rhythm with there arms, legs, glutes, abdominals and every other part moving with the strides.
In my case, this also was true except that when my right foot touched down it did so with a bit more force as the rhythm was off by those few centimeters to the right. I didn't know this at the time, of course, but the symptoms were there. why was my right IT band the one that was always hurting? Why did only my right quad tighten up? I initially went through the usual diagnosis steps: Was it the shoes? Was it my running form? Was it an uneven pronation?

It wasn't until I went to see Dr. Amol Saxena a podiatrist specializing in runners and other athletes that this somewhat obvious culprit was found. His answer: one Superfeet insole - on the right foot.

I can't say this was a miracle cure. I still get IT band issues on the right side and a few other right-only ailments but the degree of problems declined dramatically. I still spend a lot of time rehabbing and caring more for my right leg but am now able to run and recover from full marathons very rapidly. My right side still hurts more than the left after a long run but it's clearly been a big improvement. I've also found that the harder I run the more prominent the pain. So alas, I won't be taking the crown from Ryan Hall anytime soon.

If you see me at the end of any of the Rock & Roll Endurance Series events this year, icing my right knee, you will now know why. I love running too much to let this situation keep me from my passion and I have no regrets about how my life turned out. OK, maybe one. I wish I'd scored on that last pass play.

Happy running, all.