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?


Supporting the habit

Getting injured was probably the best thing that happened to me as a runner last year. That and failing at my first bid to break 2 hours in a half marathon.

Both those events taught me that setbacks pave the way for comebacks, and the road to self-mastery is long. I have time. It’s okay if I don’t reach my goal today or on the day that I anticipated. If I keep working at it, I’ll get there. It’s like that Chinese proverb: “Be not afraid of growing slowly; be afraid only of standing still.” So seize the moment, yes, but seize it for the opportunity it presents you, which may not be the one you expected. The one you expected will come in time.

My injury (which I’ve learned was triggered by pulling wheeled luggage on a frenzied overseas trip, not running) led me to physical therapy, and physical therapy taught me oodles about the condition of my “running system” – the musculoskeletal network that enables me to run. I learned that my abductors, adductors and glutes are pathetically weak compared my quads, calves and hamstrings. I learned that the abdominal surgery in 1984 is no longer an excuse to tip-toe around my lower abdominals. Not unless I am willing to quit running in the near term, or end up hunchbacked in my 60’s from subjecting my lower back to a couple decades of unnecessary beating.

I was pretty cynical about physical therapy before I experienced it. I was ignorant. I had never been athletic until recently, so I was never in a position to be injured and rehabilitated. All physical therapists do is prescribe exercises, I thought to myself. I wanted a practitioner work her magic on me, not to send me home to do the work.

I recant. I am a PT convert. I adore my therapist, especially. She is smart as whip, stylish as a Mission District diva (how many therapists out there can churn out 15 step-ups wearing skinny jeans and zebra print ballet flats?), and a fellow runner. From our five sessions together came these two pearls of wisdom that will enlighten me forever:

1) An injury to one muscle results from another muscle’s failure to do its job.

2) Do what it takes to support your habit. She literally used those words and it made me chuckle, picturing myself as a crackhead selling all my possessions to “support my habit.” What she meant was: if you run, make the effort to strengthen and balance the muscles and ligaments needed to run safely and successfully. Football players lift weights to get stronger for the game and everyone expects that. Virtually every athlete hits the gym as part of their training. Yet apparently runners are notorious for skipping out on strength conditioning. As though running should come naturally, or the added undertaking would somehow taint the simplicity of the sport. I, however, can’t afford the fairy tale view any longer. My body is neither young nor historically fit.

It’s empowering, actually, to know that the fate of my running lies largely in my hands. I like knowing that I am taking care of my body, that I am getting stronger, that I can mold my body into what it needs to be to accomplish some feat that once seemed out of reach. It is DIY at its finest.  I’m proud to take ownership of me.