Off these feet (Part 5): Take-home prize

The eight weeks in Truckee were magic. The improbable occurred: I became a better runner by being less of a runner.

In four years of long distance running, I just assumed that to run better, one had to run. I ignored the occasional nuggets of wisdom from my trainer and triathlete friends that one should also spend time doing other things like strength and cross-training. The longer my distance goal, the more I ignored that advice. When I trained for marathons, literally all I did was run, because I simply had no time to do anything else. It was an unfortunate catch-22.

This summer proved without a doubt that you can’t be a solid runner without also being generally fit. After all, the body does not operate in isolation. There were also psychological benefits to scattering my focus a bit. It prevented me from getting bored and burning out.

My take-home prize from the summer up in the mountains was running superpowers. I could bang out an 8:30 pace anywhere, anytime without trying — a full minute per mile faster than 8 weeks prior. For anyone who is skeptical about the benefits of proper training, I tell you once again: training is a beautiful thing.

I was fully primed for Hood to Coast. I nailed my pace targets for all three of my legs, did not let my team down, did not bonk. I had never felt so comfortable in a race. I kept thinking, “Wow, this is how it feels to be perfectly trained!” but in truth I was probably overtrained. My track coach friend would have told me that if I felt that good in a race, then I wasn’t pushing a real race pace. I thought of that too on my first two legs, but having never done a relay before, I erred on the side of caution. I decided not to go guns ablazin’ at the beginning so I could avoid crashing and burning in the end. But in the end, I wasn’t fully tapped. I had held back too much. It was just too hard to believe that I could run in the 8’s repeatedly without coming close to sucking wind.

My superpowers lingered for a good month beyond Hood to Coast, but something strange happened. I lost my desire to run. Instead of capitalizing on my fitness and signing up for a slew of races to set new PRs, I ran one race (got a shiny new 10K PR) and otherwise felt very little motivation to run. I felt no hunger to achieve any goal. Ho hum.

What happened? Hood to Coast. I had reached the pinnacle of my running adventures. I had finally run the illustrious H2C and executed it to the best of my ability. And I guess the aftermath of all that is feeling the need to close the book on my running story. I guess when you finally get to the top of the mountain after a long journey, the last thing you want is to go back down and make the same trek back up. You put a notch on your belt and move on. You embark on a different trek, strive to reach a different summit.

In the past I’ve experienced how failure drives us to succeed. Now I’m learning that success is a short-lived thrill. Getting the prize is nice, but what makes me feel most alive is fighting for it.

Taking a minute to enjoy my improbable 50:50 12K PR...and then moving on

Taking a minute to enjoy my improbable 50:50 10K PR…and then moving on

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

#Maketherules

I recently had a revelation that I might actually be a fast-twitch runner, rather than a slow-twitch one. A very slow fast-twitch runner.

No scientific analysis here, just an online quiz and a hunch. These questions were posed by the training plan I’m following for Hood to Coast. It asked: “Which workout leaves you feeling more beat up the next day? a) Long tempo runs; b) Short sprints.” I paused, dug deep, and realized that while I dread and hate feeling the burn of speed workouts, I usually wake up the next day feeling normal. A hard tempo run, on the other hand, will leave me sore the day after.

It also asked: “What is your race style? a) You struggle in the middle but outkick others with a fast final quarter-mile sprint; b) You pass a lot people during the middle miles?” Hands down I consistently go to a very dark unhappy place in the middle — miles 8-9 in a half marathon, mile 4 in a 10K, mile 16-18 in a marathon — and then I get a second wind and pull out all stops at the finish.

All this time I thought I was more naturally suited to go the distance and lived happily in the comfort zone of long, easy-pace miles. But if I’m actually more geared to run shorter and faster, I need to a) stop dreading speed workouts and b) start appreciating how well I’ve done at 13.1 and 26.2, considering, instead of beating myself up for not having run them better.

I won’t start filling up my race calendar with 1-milers and 5Ks just yet though. I won’t stop running half marathons and beyond. I might have a 5K makeup, but I still love the feeling at the end of a 10, 15, or 20-mile run of having left everything out there. Of having been transformed in a day. All my troubles, worries, all the stress of the day — gone. Like a snake shedding its skin.

Besides, we are driven by the things we are not. Goal setting, by definition, involves striving for something we can’t do yet. And that’s why this fast-twitch gal will continue to run distance events. I’ll take what I’ve got, thank you, and shape my destiny.

It’s like the recent Nike ad in celebration of last week’s 40th anniversary of Title IX: “If someone thinks you can’t, then you have to.” I was never athletically inclined when I was younger so I really can’t speak to what Title IX meant to me when I was a kid in school. But I can appreciate the sentiment of not being limited by what people say you should be able to do. I say girls and women everywhere should follow their dreams. And if the rules stand in our way, we should dare to make new ones.

Hilarity and a wakeup call

Yesterday was the 101st running of the Bay to Breakers, San Francisco’s madcap running Mardi Gras. I signed up to do it long ago but didn’t start thinking about a costume until last minute. In trying to come up with something runnable and funny, but not laughable, I became transfixed on a cartoon character from a special edition t-shirt that celebrates the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which is this year. I tried to imagine what the racer girl on the t-shirt would look like if she were to jump out of that car and run. Et voila!

B2B101, overall, was fun. Cleaner, mellower, and better organized than previous iterations. Corral A had a handful of tortilla throwers, a few costumed runners, and some naked folks, but no rowdy behavior. Granted, this is the corral where you’re most likely to find the serious folks. But I got the overall feeling that the race sponsor was under a lot of pressure to tidy up this crazy footrace.

The kinder, gentler B2B had its pluses and minuses. I appreciated not having to dodge pools of vomit, bottlenecks of walkers, or groups of costumed frat boys pushing kegs uphill. And I really appreciated not seeing the haters (the Jesus fanatics holding big signs condemning sinners to purgatory) at the entrance to Golden Gate Park. But there were fewer bands than I recall, and the whole experience just felt…well, more ordinary.

Some of the old endearing traditions stayed intact. The nudies. The amazing crowd support on Hayes Street (all the people up and cheering before 8 am on a Sunday morning — God love ’em). The salmon running upstream (i.e., east, toward the start line). And the incredibly inventive costumes, fewer and farther between as they may be.

And I must say that running with a cape on was fun. You do feel faster. It also makes for great race photos. I highly recommend it, with one caveat: When running due west in the morning, the sun pretty much bakes your back, and meanwhile shiny synthetic fabric only makes things feel hotter. To maximize ventilation, you gotta run fast.

Super 9

That, unfortunately, did not come easily for me yesterday. I felt super fly as Super 9 Girl, but my performance was a lackluster. I finished the 12K in 1:05:45. I got smoked by my husband who had been an occasional runner then began triathlon training pretty much at the same time I began my off season. He finished 40 seconds ahead and probably could have left me in the dust long before the final mile, judging from the few times I saw him jog in place ahead of me. I also got bumped (literally) and passed by someone dressed as a giant green android. The costume was bulky and hard as a barrel and could not have been easy to run in. So yeah, lackluster. The off season has clearly taken its toll.

Interestingly, this answers the question of where the line lies between tapering and loss of fitness. For the past 4 weeks I had been running about 2-3 times a week. I mixed things up by tackling some big hills and dirt trails and attending weekly TRX and spin classes, but overall I worked out less, ran less. The result? I struggled to average an 8:50 pace for 7.5 miles when 4 weeks ago I comfortably averaged an 8:46 pace over 10 miles. Lesson learned: a drastic mileage cut over 7-10 days can translate into beneficial taper, but low mileage for a longer period causes cardiovascular regression. For me, anyway.

So thank you, Bay to Breakers, for rounding out the off season on an amusing note. And for providing the perfect wakeup call for my summer training. I’ve got 3 races on deck for the summer, concluding with my debut at Hood to Coast. I’ll be thinking of my new nemesis – the android – as I hit the track or push myself through tempo runs the next 3 months.

New is good

It’s official: I’m running the Hood to Coast Relay!

{HAPPY DANCE}

A friend in Portland had to back out of the event because of a persistent ankle injury. Knowing how much I’ve been wanting to do this relay, he tapped me on the shoulder. I submitted my registration on his team yesterday. I’m pinching myself, I’m so happy!

Rumor has it, Hood to Coast is the best running experience on the planet. Two hundred adventure-filled miles from a mountain top to the deep blue sea. Roughly twenty-four hours of running, eating, sleeping in a van, more running, more eating and apparently sleeping in a cow pasture. I’ll be the newbie on a team of Portlanders who have run this race together for years. Not only will I be new to this event, I’ll be new to relays, new to 99% of my teammates and new to running through day and night. Foolish? Perhaps. Nerve-wracking? I suppose. But at the moment I’m too excited to feel anything else.

I am psyched to have a new goal to work towards as a grand finale to the summer. The timing couldn’t be more ideal. One last month of running for fun, then I’ll begin the three months of trail running that I had planned. That should break my legs in nicely for Hood to Coast’s hilly course.

For now it’s time to sketch out a kooky costume for me, my husband and my friend for our bid at the infamous Mardi Gras of running known as the Bay to Breakers. Ideas welcome!

Season’s end

Idiot’s luck. Is there such a thing?

I ran the last race of a training season today. By that I mean, I ended a 7-month period of running for the purpose of doing well on successive goal races, interrupted only by one fluke injury that benched me for 2 weeks in December. Training is a double-edged sword. It gives me purpose and discipline and leads me to new achievements, but it is also mentally exhausting. Life happened while I was training. Holidays and birthdays and parties and vacations. I trained around life as much as possible, but the effort of fitting it all in was almost as hard and doing the training itself. After 7 months of this, I am glad to take a siesta.

The siesta actually began early, which was the cause of much consternation. I had today’s 10-miler on the books and meanwhile we decided to go on a 1700-mile family road trip through the Four Corners region for the 10 days leading up to the race. Determined to finish the last portion of my training program (minus the strength- and cross-training), I stuffed my running shoes, clothes and watch beneath the heap of outdoor paraphernalia called for by our plans to visit to 7 national parks and monuments across Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. But the God of Vacation triumphed over the God of Running. I sat for hours in a car while snacking with abandon, and outside the car I ate more greasy food than I can justify. Instead of 6 running days, I put in 2. I tried to appreciate the extraordinary scenery around me, but both runs felt staggeringly hard (I’m going to blame the altitude) and ended with me forgetting one of my belongings at the hotel in the haste of showering, packing out and heading off to our next destination. The God of Vacation was laughing heartily.

Yesterday when I returned home and dejectedly pinged my running pal Beth to strategize about the 10-miler, I warned her that I have slacked off big-time the past week and a half. To my relief, she said she hadn’t been running either. So we agreed to forego any sort of lofty goal and just enjoy the run.

Not only did I set a low bar, I showed up at the race more unprepared than ever. I did not eat a particularly good dinner, did not get my preferred 8 hours of shut-eye, did not pin my bib or fasten my D-tag the night before, and completely forgot to put on my Garmin, let alone my heart-rate monitor. I went into the race tech-naked. Beth did have her Garmin, so she was charged with monitoring how we were doing. She kindly refrained from reading off our time for the first two miles, in which we clawed our way up 3 monstrous back-to-back hills in the Presidio. Her first reading came midway across the Golden Gate Bridge at the 4-mile mark. Amazingly, we were on target for a 90-minute finish. On the way back across, having crested the high point of the bridge (the final incline of the race), we felt a new resolve and let gravity quicken our stride the next 2 miles. The final 3 miles were on flat ground, and the typical headwind on Crissy Field was unusually mild, so it was no trouble to hold on until we summoned a 5K pace for the final mile.

We beat our 90-minute goal by almost 3 minutes. I bettered my previous time on this course by 7 minutes. My lungs never screamed and my legs never felt heavy like they did when I suffered my way through the 6-mile tempo run in Durango 5 days ago, and yet I ran 15 seconds faster per mile today. We celebrated our unexpected accomplishment by scarfing down buttered pancakes and egg and cheese burritos. Beth had a Bloody Mary. I stuck to coconut water. Yes, I vacationed and ate junk food for 10 days and PR’d. Who would have thunk it? True idiot’s luck. Or maybe…just maybe…there’s something to be said for resting and letting go. For enjoying vacations. For trusting what we have built into our bodies through cumulative training. For just enjoying the run. I’m really looking forward to the next few months of kicking back and running just for running’s sake.

Enjoying vacation: yoga pose across 4 states

Don’t think, just go

Ten miles on deck for today. But I put in 8 miles yesterday plus 9 miles marathon pace the day before that, I only had 5 hours of sleep last night and it’s raining steadily. (“Wah,” as my second-grader would say.) Wish I had a full body suit made of space blanket material to wear on my run. Or that I could be instantaneously teleported to the end of that 10th mile. But alas, I only have coffee. Time to drink up and get crackin’.

Current running mantras

These are the things I’ve been chanting under my breath lately when I’m out on a run:

Butt butt butt butt butt butt… (to overcome gluteal amnesia, one of the culprits of my fluke injury last month)

Pace pace pace pace pace pace… (to achieve pace consistency versus running by sheer feel, which had trapped me in an unnecessary surge-and-recover pattern)

Pillar pillar pillar pillar pillar pillar… (to stand tall and stabilize through the hips)

Voila. Nothing elegant or profound here. In fact, it’s borderline schizophrenic. But it works, this strategy of talking to the body. On my last hilly 10-miler I sputtered “butt butt butt” to power up all the hills, and the next day my backside was distinctly sore. Don’t believe me? Try it. Seriously, just give it a try.

Peace out, 2011!

My last run of 2011 was a windsucking 10-miler on the paved trail from the River Ranch to Tahoe City.

I was supposed to run 15 miles.  One source on the internet said the route should amount to 14 miles and I figured I’d continue running another mile to the entrance to Squaw Valley then turn back.  But it was not to be…

I was sacked.  I can’t use the altitude as an excuse since I’ve been in Truckee 6 days.  I have no excuse.  I was plain vanilla tired from start to finish.  Knowing what Coach Craig used to say about the body having the capacity to press on even though the brain is sending mayday signals to stop, I probably could have pushed further.  But my husband and kids were waiting for a ride home after a morning at Alpine Meadows. My time was up.

But not all was lost on my final run this year.  It was a brilliant winter morning.  Sunny, comfortably nippy, barely a wind.  The crystal clear Truckee River escorted me until I reached the majestic shore of Lake Tahoe. I spent a few moments standing there pinching myself. If you have never been to Lake Tahoe, you must go. Run, bike, or walk there, if you can. It will take your breath away – this blue rock-lined watery expanse nestled within the jaws of tall mountains.  It will remind you of the smallness of humanity compared to monuments of nature that have existed long before us and would subsist better, really, without us.  And you will feel glad, at least, that your little body got there on its own terms…breathing steadily…dodging ice patches…moving forward all the way.

Tomorrow is another day.  Another year, in fact.  Many other chances to complete a run the way I intended.