Off these feet (Part 2): Lean mean Hood to Coast machine

That title was penned in jest.

In truth my biggest fear while up in Truckee was that I would blow my training for Hood to Coast because of the cards stacked against me: the altitude (6000-6600 feet), the hilly terrain and the usual distractions of summer in paradise. Here I was finally going to experience the Hood to Coast relay. I didn’t know how serious of a runner my teammates were but I refused to become the deadweight. So I set out to be 100% ready to do my share. Lean and mean was never the goal. Just in shape to give a solid effort.

My preparation can be best summarized as “opportunistic training loosely based on the Ryan Hall Half Marathon plan.” It was summer, and I have kids, so things had to be fitted in on whatever days they could. The plan provided clear targets. I adapted purposefully around them.

There were a few key elements that I knew, based on prior experience with the training plan and my own quirks, were non-negotiable. One, I had to adhere to the prescribed paces — no faster and no slower. Two, I could not skip the speed work. And three, I had to cross- and strength-train.

Within those boundaries, I began tinkering. The first big switch-up was to focus more on speed than distance. A running coach friend said that for relay racing it was more important to get used to running fast each time you run than to run long. The same point was made in various articles I found online. They all concurred that to train optimally for a relay, specificity is key. This meant practicing the individual distances and target paces, if possible on the same (or harder) type of terrain for each leg.

Truckee proved to be the perfect training ground for my H2C legs, which were 4.84 miles flat and paved, 4.18 miles rolling hills and paved, and 7.2 miles uphill mostly unpaved. The 6-mile tempos along Donner Lake and 5-mile tempos on the Legacy Trail strengthened my legs for rolling hills. The 800s at 5K pace – to the point of visibly gritting my teeth and feeling like I was about to puke and pee my pants at the same time – gave my neuromuscular system a jolt. The hilly roads in my neighborhood tested my resolve on hot afternoons to keep the legs turning and not stop or walk. And the trails familiarized me with the leg and lung burn associated with continuous climbing on uneven ground. Two weeks before H2C, my training peaked with a 6-mile, 2280-foot trot to the summit of Mount Pluto in Northstar. I had no fear of hills left in me after that.

The Legacy Trail

Other changes had to do with being flexible, listening to my body and not spoiling my summer. I would miss a workout (or two or three) because I had no childcare or made social plans, then have to decide whether to move the runs to another day or scrap the entire week and reattempt them the following week. I would listen to my body and err on the side of taking it easy. If I was struggling to complete workouts, I would repeat them rather than move ahead.

And by the way, I struggled a lot. If there was a phrase to be emblazoned on the tombstone of my summer training cycle, it would be: “Truckee Summer 2012, wherein Tita struggled.” I rarely felt good during a run. Even when I podiumed at a race, I did not feel like a winner. It took me four weeks to complete a prescribed speed workout on pace. I ended up falling permanently two weeks behind schedule. I sank to a very low place during the eight weeks. I found that the only way out of the doldrums was to accept struggle as a necessary part of training…and to indulge in diversions.

Diversions consisted of any and all other opportunities to be active. If someone invited me to run a trail on a tempo run day, I went on the trail run and called it tempo workout, figuring the effort was probably about the same. I played tennis with friends, biked with my kids and paddleboarded despite my fear of falling into frigid Donner Lake. I would jump at opportunities to do these things even if it meant working out twice in a day or skipping a run.

Even the cross- and strength-training became welcome diversions. Just when I thought I had seen plenty when it came to producing sweat while riding a spin bike, or tormenting one’s core, I was introduced to yet another plethora of instructor-led torture. The spin instructor was fond of simulating long, slow climbs (ouch). The core instructor’s MO was to do 25 reps of each exercise with no rest for 45 minutes (there was a day when I began to see stars in this class). But week after week I went, because I liked the instructors and the people in the class. Some were fellow moms, most were locals, and all were friendly down-to-earth folks. The classes were a counterpoint to my solitary running. I looked forward to my hour of catching up on local gossip and getting tips on fun things to do around town.

The beauty of these diversions was that they contributed to my fitness and, more importantly, gave me the mental balance to keep slogging through the training. They made me enjoy the experience as a whole. And who would have guessed that my favorite secret indulgence by summer’s end would be…swimming?

To be continued in Part 3: Chicken or fish?


Off these feet

It’s November and I’m finally going to put my summer experience into words, in several parts. July and August were immense and changed me profoundly as a runner. Something so big cannot be encapsulated all at once. I need to take small bites, chew slowly and digest.

Where to begin?

Our family carves out a chunk of our summer to stay at our place in Truckee, in the North Lake Tahoe area. Truckee is our playground. In summertime, life up there suits all of us. We are a family that likes being outside and needs to roam. Truckee gives each of us everything we need to thrive.

This year we planned to spend the longest stretch of time there yet — 8 weeks. To say I looked forward to it is an understatement. As I checked off the last few days of school in early June, I was living and breathing for Truckee Summer. As we vacationed at my in-laws’ home in coastal North Carolina, relaxing and fun in its own right, I was giddily anticipating waking up to the scent of evergreens, the sound of a train whistle echoing off mountain peaks, the bright sun, the limitless blue sky. I knew it would be divine. I had no idea it would be even better than I imagined.

I had set a few goals for the summer:
1) I wanted to be optimally trained for Hood to Coast.
2) I wanted to get better at swimming.
3) I wanted to run more trails.

Happily, I saw them all through, and even got a surprise bonus for my efforts. How many times in your life does something exceed your expectations in an abundance of unanticipated ways? I wound up uber-trained for H2C. I came to love swimming. I learned that the secret to my improvement as a runner was to submit to trails.

I also grew to enjoy the solitude of training on my own because when you’re surrounded by nature, you don’t feel lonely. Nature is brilliant and alive; it is quiet in the best way. And the occasional runner who passed me on the road or trail would always wave and smile as if we had known each other for months. I was never lonely.

I learned that making time to do other things made me a happier runner. So I mountain biked. I went stand up paddling. I stopped being paranoid about busting my knees on the tennis court, played a lot and even took lessons. I’m still not very good but had a blast anyway.

I grew enamored of small town living. Small local races where it’s not a hassle to get to the start line, there is no parking stress, no bureaucracy, and everyone knows everyone.

The Truckee Summer just swept me off my feet…

To be continued in Part 2: Lean mean Hood to Coast machine

France en courant

Two memorable running journeys I had last month during a whirlwind 4-day trip to France, both to World Heritage Sites:

Paris, October 12

4 miles roundtrip from our hotel in the Madeleine District to a place that needs no introduction. Damp, cool autumn morning. Overcast skies with breakthrough sunshine. I ran with my husband – a rarity. I waited 4 hours for this to happen, thanks to my jet lag, a late (8 a.m.!) sunrise per Central European Time, and my husband not having jet lag. But I wanted this to be something we did together on our anniversary getaway: running to Eiffel. As Parisians walked, biked and drove to work, we ran. Past the US Embassy and the Place de la Concorde, where revolutionaries set up the guillotine. As tourists sauntered their way through the Tuileries and toward the Louvre, we ran. Over to the left bank, down the Seine toward Invalides. Le Tour Eiffel was bustling with visitors at 9 a.m. – no surprise. It is an incredible sight that gives me the same chills as the Golden Gate Bridge. To think that humans are capable of building something that big, that magnificent, with the means available more or less a century ago. To witness how the human imagination dares. Creations like these are an affirmation of all that is good about our species. And Paris has a disproportionate number of them.

Fontainebleau, October 13

About 4 1/2 miles through town and the grounds of the Chateau de Fontainebleau – the hunting lodge of French kings. The air smelled like rain, the sky threatened rain, and sure enough it eventually rained. Fallen chestnuts everywhere, reminding me it’s autumn. I did some intervals on the nice flat dirt walking paths that flank the canal and other walking paths radiating from that area, to add distance. I had to admire the exacting layout of even a remote part of the royal residence like the park. Every tree, every path was placed just so. I imagined gardeners hundreds of years ago toiling away during the hot summer months, trimming every branch, picking up every twig, maintaining this pristine vision. I imagined Louis XIV’s hounds tearing down these paths for exercise, his minions calling after them. My autumn reverie was interrupted during the final stretch at 5K pace, which felt excruciatingly hard. I couldn’t understand why at the time, but got my answer the next morning: I had picked up some sort of flu. My take home prize from an extraordinary, soul-soothing trip. I say it was still worth it.

For New York

The recent hurricane devastation in New York has brought forth myriad concerns. Mostly I have worried for the safety and well being of many friends and families of friends who live there. But as a runner I also lamented the unfortunate timing of this natural disaster vis a vis one of the greatest running events in the country: the New York City Marathon. The race is slated to occur a mere six days after Hurricane Sandy’s battering.

Quietly, as not to show disrespect to the residents of New York who have suffered far greater hardships than having a marathon get canceled, runners like me all across the country have been pondering: will the race go on?

There are many obvious reasons to cancel. In short, the city has bigger problems to solve than how to make the five boroughs accessible to 47,000 people who want to cover 26.2 miles on foot this Sunday. So it came as a surprise when Mayor Bloomberg boldly (perhaps even brazenly) announced yesterday that the race will go on.

The mayor said: “It is a great event for New York, and I think for those who were lost, you know, you’ve got to believe they would want to have an economy and have the city go on for those who were left behind.” He wanted the race to be a symbol of the city’s resilience.

Runners are not newcomers to symbolic acts. We often dedicate our efforts to some greater good beyond ourselves. Think of all the races that funnel their proceeds toward a charitable cause. And all the organizations that hold road races as fundraisers. In running, we push ourselves (to cross the finish line) to inspire others to do the same (overcome a challenge). As a fundamentally solitary endeavor, there is something personal and spiritual about running, and this makes it conducive to expressing values and beliefs.

A good handful of this year’s NYCM entrants are charity runners — those who aspire to cross the finish line in support of a charitable cause. Now comes an opportunity for all NYCM participants to run the race for a cause. That cause is to lift the spirit of folks who call New York their home.

I cannot say whether the mayor’s decision was the right one. (It seems on one level bullheaded and insensitive, as well as needlessly taxing on public resources.) But if the show will go on, let the race participants and their supporters come to New York nobly. Let them rally behind the battered city instead of expecting to be catered to by it. This is a time to check one’s sense of entitlement at the door — to be at peace with travel delays, to accept screwups with bag checks, fuel stops, shuttle rides and what-not, and to not complain about lack of crowd support.

So run strong for the New Yorkers, racers. Do it for them this time. When you put one foot in front of the other at mile 25, do it in honor of those struggling to put their lives back together. Share your strength with them. Make our tribe of long-distance runners proud.