Thursday, July 13, 2017

Thoughts on the 2017 Boilermaker 15K

I ran my first Boilermaker 15K in 2001, at the tender age of 17. It took me an hour and a half, and over the next five years, I would only improve to about 1:10. Finally, in 2006, after realizing that training year-round has huge benefits, I ran a huge PR to break 60 minutes for the first time with a 57:27. Every year since then, I have been lucky enough to finish the Boilermaker in under an hour. My times have ranged from low 54 minutes on an unseasonably cool day to 58 minutes after taking several weeks off to tramp about Europe the month before.

This year I was shooting for my 12th consecutive year under 60 minutes. Despite having a hip flexor injury in the beginning of the year, my training was progressing nicely through May. Then, my gallbladder had to be forcibly extracted, which came with a 4-week moratorium on running. I had about four weeks to train for the Boilermaker, starting at a level where even walking was still painful. To add to the worry, I also was in my friend Andy's wedding the night before the race, out in Albany. So, I resigned myself to the fact that my streak of sub-60s might end this year.

Race day came, and my alarm woke me up in the hotel at 4:00. I was dehydrated, exhausted from dancing all night, and regretting my decision to drink as much beer and wine as I did. But I slowly re-hydrated on the drive to Utica, and by the time I parked, I was feeling mostly normal, except for some slight pains in my hip flexors. I was lucky that the weather was fairly mild; it was only 60 degrees and not at all humid.

I met up with my friend Mark Saile at the start, and we agreed to run together as he wanted to break the hour mark as well. As usual, I started out conservatively; my first 5K split was 20:02 and Mark was right beside me. We opened it up on the downhill after mile 4 and I was rewarded with a 5:40. Mark's younger, fitter legs propelled him to an even faster time and I lost sight of him (he went on to run 57 minutes!). I split the next 5K in 19:15 feeling good. The hill from mile 6 to 7 always drains me, and this year was no exception. Still, the course is mostly downhill after that, and I was able to use that to pick up the pace. I always feel that this course affects my legs more than my lungs, so that by the last mile, I am running as fast I can while not even breathing hard. Despite this, I was able to pass many runners in the last mile, and split an even faster final 5K on 18:54 to finish well under 60 minutes with a 58:11.

Yes, this is my slowest sub-60 clocking since 2008, but it's also my proudest. I was most worried about this year, given my lack of fitness and pre-race activities. However, I was able to stay calm and collected, and use an intelligent race strategy to achieve my goal.

So what's the moral of this story? I think it's two-fold:

  1. Don't try to make up for lost time. I was smart and cautiously increased my mileage after my surgery to about 40 miles per week. Had I panicked and immediately started cranking out 60 mile weeks in an attempt to get fit, I have no doubt that I would be injured now. Instead, I listened to my body, carefully adjusted my training load as I healed, and went into the race as fit as I could have hoped for.
  2. What you do on the day before the race doesn't have as much of an impact as you think. I had too many drinks, did not re-hydrate well enough, and danced so much that I was actually sore. But when the gun went off, I felt fine. This is why many college runners can "double" in meets; running one event one day and then coming back the next day for a different event. It takes 24-48 hours for a stressor to really affect your body, so you'll be fine even if your preparation isn't optimal. Don't stress over it, and you'll be fine.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

My biggest mistake

Looking back on my training over the past ten years, I have tried a lot of different things. I've done high mileage, low mileage, strength training, cross training, and yoga. I have found what works for me and what doesn't. I don't consider the cycles where I learned that something doesn't work to be a failure though, because it taught me what not to do in the future. For example, I typically do not run many workouts faster than 10k pace while training for a marathon because the intensity of those runs is too much when coupled with the amount of miles that I run.

However, there is one lesson that took me a few years to realize, and it is my biggest mistake. For the longest time, I did lots and lots of miles during my base training, with no quality. I was literally slogging seven days a week for months at a time, completely ignoring the need to always be in touch with speed. I mistakenly thought that base phases needed to be completely dedicated to quantity at the expense of quality.

This training method did allow me to run lots of miles, but year after year, it resulted in sub-par performances for the first half of my season, until I was able to get a month or two of workouts under my belt. It is the reason why I would end a season with a personal best, then six weeks later run several minutes slower. After a few rust busting races and workouts, only then would I start rounding into shape. Fellow runners would marvel at the disparity between my performances and how quickly I fell out of shape.

Now I realize that a competitive runner should never go more than a few days without doing something a little quicker, except of course during a true recovery period. But even as you are building mileage and working on your base, you need to be running quick at least a few times a week. It doesn't have to be much; some strides at the end of your run or a moderate progression run are fine examples. I also like doing effort-based fartlek and hill repeats during the base phase as well.

Effort-based workouts are terrific during a base phase because you run them at your current comfort level, and don't need to worry about paces. They also build your tolerance for work, so that when you do start structured workouts, it won't be such a shock to your body. Plus, you start the intense training phase with a higher level of fitness, setting you up for a higher peak at the end of your season.

Finding the right combination of speed and mileage is trial and error for most people. Too little quality and you want reap all the benefits. Too much quality can lead to burnout and injury. I believe that finding the optimal balance of quality and quantity is key to having a successful racing season. After all, the bigger the base, the higher the peak!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Wherein I complain heartily about my sad state of affairs

It seems like I can't catch a break these days. After a 9-year injury-free streak, the past three years have been very troublesome for me. In the beginning of 2015, I strained my hamstring which turned into a two-year ordeal with proximal hamstring tendinopathy. Then, after a good training cycle leading up to the Rehoboth Beach Marathon, I pulled my hip flexor on one of my first runs back, and spent the next few months nursing that back to health. Finally, just as I was rounding into decent shape and looking forward to running the Vermont City Marathon next weekend, my gallbladder decided to try to kill me and had to be forcibly removed from my body. This graph illustrating my monthly mileage over the last three years illustrates just how inconsistent my training has been.

Each red line is a setback. Wah.

After undergoing emergency surgery on Monday, I was forced to withdraw from the Lilac 10K and the Vermont City Marathon this spring, and my summer racing schedule looks iffy as well. Right now my main concern is my streak of sub-one-hour races at the Utica Boilermaker, which currently stands at 11. I will have 32 days from my first jog back until Boilermaker Sunday, and I'm hoping to progress from 1.5 miles at 11:00 pace to 9.3 miles at 6:25 pace in just over four weeks. Needless to say, I have my work cut out for me.

The good news is that running feels ok, but the bad news is that I had four weeks of forced rest, plus am still recovering from the surgery. I ran Steve's 5K to Run Down Cancer on Saturday, and ran my slowest time since high school. While it was quicker than my first few runs back, it still was slower than I want to run for the Boilermaker. But, I felt fine aerobically, and it was just my legs that balked at the pace. So, I'm interpreting that as a good sign. Stay tuned for more updates in the next few weeks or months!