Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Pre- Post-season Rant Blog

yep, my finish photo, I'm way over on the right
I try not to use my blog as a place to rant about the stupid petty things or policies that bother me before, during and after my races. Instead, I try to focus on how I train and how I race and the things I have control over. But recently, a couple things really got under my skin, and I just feel like getting them out. And people reading: feel free to disagree with me on these matters because I actually do see both sides of the story, even when I'm angry.

The first of the two things was the prize money (or my lack thereof) at the Detroit Marathon. The cash awards were determined based on "clock time," not chip time. This normally wouldn't upset me if everyone in the race started at the same time. But in Detroit, that wasn't the case.

Upon registration, I filled out a form that requested my fastest marathon time in the last two years and my predicted finish time. I typed 3:09 and 3:10, respectively. I was being conservative: if I had a bad race, it would be 3:15 and if I had a great race, it might be closer to 3:00. Upon picking up my bib number, I noticed my start was in the second wave -- it was my fault for assuming wave meant "corral." I had never run a marathon with a wave start until Detroit. Like in triathlons, wave start means: "groups will start two minutes apart."

Ok, that's cool. They have their reasons. (And they're good reasons. The wave start is expected to alleviate congestion on the Detroit-Windsor Bridge.) And besides, they have electronic timing, right? You know, the thing that registers when you cross the starting line and when you cross the finish line. That thing that tells them exactly how long it took you to complete 26.2 miles.

What they don't tell you at registration, unless you read the awards page, is that cash awards (top three, top three masters, etc.) are based on "clock time" not "chip time." So, in effect, the wave start gives first wave runners a two minute head start on us "second wave"-ers. Had I known this before the race, I might have asked race officials to put me in the first wave (if it were even possible for them to make that change).

At least two runners were adversely affected by the wave start: the woman who finished the course in the third-fastest time and the woman who finished the course in the third fastest masters time (me) lost out on prize money because we started in the second wave -- those two minutes actually gave us fourth place "clock times" in our respective categories. Why even have electronic timing? Or better, how hard is it to subtract the wave start times? Oh well. I could have put that $200 to good use. But it doesn't change the fact that I had a good race.

Detroit Marathon awards rant over.

My new wetsuit, direct from Quintana Roo
The second rant also has to do with an award. You may remember my race report from the FIRMMan half-ironman in Narragansett, Rhode Island. The FIRMMan awards include a big table of grab-bag prizes donated by sponsors. As one of the overall winners, I had an early choice and went for one of the more expensive prizes -- a Quintana Roo wetsuit. While making my choice, I noticed the wetsuit gift certificate required that I pick up my "prize" at V3 Multisport in Arlington, Massachusetts. Residing in Cleveland, this would be next-to-impossible, so I put the award back down on the table, only to be told by one of the race directors that she would have them mail it to me (it was a thoughtful favor, since I was the overall women's winner).

She was not in a position to grant that favor, unfortunately. And although I did not witness the interchange that took place, I know that when she asked V3 Multisport to take care of it, they refused. After about three weeks of very little communication, I received an email from a Quintana Roo representative explaining what had happened. Then, she made me a very generous offer from Quintana Roo: because they were out of stock of the prescribed wetsuit (their low end model), they would upgrade me to the next model for 75% of the difference that it sold in retail. In effect, she offered me a $400 wetsuit for $130. This was a no brainer and thanks to Quintana Roo, I now have an awesome new wetsuit.

A week later, I got an email from V3 Multisport with the following text:

"Jeanne, I would like to accommodate your request to mail you the wetsuit that you won. Unfortunately, it is not our policy to send out the prizes. Each winner must come to our store to claim their prize. I understand that you live in Ohio but it still does not change our policy. Rules apply to everyone the same across the board. If I make an exception for you, shouldn't everyone else be afforded the same? The idea is to get people into the store to claim their prize and hopefully spend some additional money. What I can do is if you want to upgrade your wetsuit and apply our cost of the suit you won to the cost of the upgraded suit, I can do that. Let me know."

Now, as a "marketing" person, I totally understand this. I "get" the idea of having people come into the store and spend spend spend. And, I would have, as they have cool stuff -- I had already bought merchandise from them at the race expo. The point was that I would have chosen something completely different off that prize table had the offer not been made. AND, I'm not the one who asked for the favor, so why make me feel bad with your condescending email? AND why, then, offer to upgrade me? (in effect, saying you WILL change the rules if I spend more money)

What happened is this: I will now never shop at V3 Multisport and will say negative things about them any chance I get. And, had they made this generous offer in the first place, they wouldn't have lost the deal to Quintana Roo. I'll laugh about it every time I wear my new wetsuit.

V3 Multisport rant over.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Angels and Demons in the Motor City: Detroit Marathon Race Report

Yesterday, October 17, I finished my second marathon of 2010. The first one was in Pittsburgh in May, a warm-up for Ironman Lake Placid, and it would not be an all-out race. This one was in Detroit, an alternative plan for not making it to Ironman Hawaii, and it WOULD be a race. They were both supposed to be "fun." But Pittsburgh didn't hurt. Detroit would.

I entered the Detroit Marathon because Columbus, my choice race, was sold out. A friend convinced me it was the equal of Columbus without the stress (in his words, it wasn't a local race "where the streets know my name"). He was absolutely right -- the Detroit Marathon is a mostly flat and fast course. And the weather was near perfect -- in the low 60s by the finish.

The other reason I decided to run the Detroit Marathon was a reunion with my former student and good friend Jess (her blog). After being sidelined by injury and taking time off to have her first child, Jess was finally ready to tackle her goal of running a marathon this year. Knowing how badly she wanted to run a marathon and how excited she was to be healthy and at the starting line, I would enjoy seeing her finish as much as having a good race myself.

In the two weeks leading up to the marathon, I tapered my running mileage while keeping my swimming and biking volume up. Although I wanted to have a good marathon, my goal race of the season was still Ironman 70.3 Clearwater in November. It may not have been the best way to approach it, but I had already worked too hard to sacrifice my ultimate goal. Throughout last week, I never felt fully rested and my running legs continued to feel fatigued even with low easy mileage. I constantly complained to my husband Jim about "how crappy I felt." His answer? He wished he had recorded it every time in the past that I complained during my taper. That way he could play it back to remind me that I sounded like "a broken record." So I tried not to worry. Even when my legs felt wasted on my jog the day before.

Cold and dark, I dreaded taking off my sweats
Sunday, race day, began in the upper 40s. We met Jess and her husband Chris (who was running the half-marathon) at 5:30 a.m. in the hotel lobby to take Detroit's People Mover to the starting line. I was bundled in sweats, a beanie, a long sleeve shirt and a t-shirt over my race shorts and top and was still cold. But somehow they got by with only short sleeves and shorts. We hung out on the street as a record-crowd showed up -- over 19,000 runners in four events: the marathon, marathon relay, half-marathon, and 5K.

Runners at the start were divided into corrals which would be started as waves -- waves would be separated by two-minute intervals. Based on my predicted finish (an optimistic 3:10), I was designated to start in the second wave. I had never seen waves in a running race. The wave start was expected to alleviate congestion on the Detroit-Windsor bridge.

This brings me to my next point. The Detroit Marathon is mostly in Detroit, Michigan, but features a few miles in Windsor, Canada. At registration, all runners are required to provide their passports or international ID's, and runners and bib numbers are scrutinized as they cross the border(s). And on the way back into the U.S., every runner does an "underwater mile" -- complete with certificate and mile split -- through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. How cool is that?

The race began at 7 a.m., just before the crack of dawn. Before I started, I made one race vow to Jim: I would not do anything to jeopardize my race in Clearwater, even if it meant dropping out. This is NOT the best attitude with which to approach a marathon. Within the first mile, I was already feeling heaviness in my legs. As I approached the 5K marker near the apex of the bridge to Canada (and the only real hill on the course), I was very concerned that I would have to end my race when I got back into the U.S.

By mile 6, I had settled into an uncomfortable seven-minute mile pace as a new problem arose. I needed a porta-john. And I needed one soon. This could not be taken care of, as they say, "on the run." The first opportunity was a line of porta-johns at the first relay exchange. I passed it up because of the wait lines, remembering there were porta-johns at every water stop. And... there was a water stop just ahead. Did I say "just ahead"? I meant "right now"! The water stop and the relay exchange were one and the same, and yes, you guessed it, those WERE the only toilets. As I continued on, I prayed that I wouldn't have to ask someone in Canada where their nearest toilet was.

As we headed into the tunnel at mile 7, conditions changed from the 40s and cold (outside) to near-stifling (underwater). The short climb out was a great relief, as was mile marker 8 and the expectation of another "bathroom break" opportunity. At the water stop, I grabbed a cup of water and carried it until I saw the great plastic answer to my prayers. I was at such a point of desperation, I didn't know if I'd even get the door open in time. And at that particular moment in time, I can say, without a doubt, that I didn't care how much time I lost. However, upon regaining my composure, I did manage to maximize my "down time" by multitasking -- consuming a Gu Roctane and the aforementioned cup of water.

I estimated I lost about two minutes for the stop, but once I was back on my feet, I felt much better. And lighter. I knew from experience that trying to make up the time I lost was a bad idea, so I settled back into my "uncomfortable" seven-minute-mile pace. Feeling so fatigued so early, I didn't think I could hold that pace for the entire marathon. In fact, it was around mile 10 that I started to have thoughts of dropping out. My mind started asking those tough questions: "Can I live with myself if I don't finish?" and "Is it better to DNF than to embarrass myself with a really slow time?" Yes, my legs were tired. But not once did I consider dropping out because I would hurt myself and/or ruin my race in Clearwater.

And, in a nutshell, that was it. I made one vow. I would only drop out to save my race in Clearwater. A slow marathon would NOT sacrifice my race in Clearwater, it would only hurt my mental state. Time to suck it up. I began the wrestling match with my demons.

I look like I'm going faster than I am
I went through the half at 1:35. To finish in my predicted (read: acceptable) time, I would have to negative split this marathon, something I've only ever done once (without a bathroom break). At mile 13, I consumed  another Gu, and, to my surprise, by mile 16 I felt like I was gaining stamina even though I still seemed to be running on the edge of anaerobic. I knew that around mile 19 or 20, the race headed out to Belle Isle and would almost certainly lose crowd support until we were back on the mainland at mile 23. The demons fought back. I wrestled them down.

And at mile 17, along came my race savior, an angel by the name of Laura. For two miles, I chased her down, only to find that she wasn't IN the race at all. She was one of a group of high school runners who were running seven miles of the marathon course as a workout. Her coach told her not to take any aid or hinder runners. And Laura did quite the opposite. She ran my pace and she made me laugh. She told me she "loved to run" and wanted to be an ultra-marathoner someday. I don't know who was pushing who, but by the time we hit mile 23 and her workout ended, I was mentally energized and ready to tear up my final 5K. The only thing threatening to stop me was the onset of a sharp pain in my left hip at mile 20 that was steadily increasing in intensity.

The last thing Laura said to me was "Do it for me, Jeanne!" and I took off. I don't know how many people I chased down in that final 5K, but I do remember the ones who had passed me earlier in the race. My pace was slowing, but to my surprise, I managed to get through mile 24 in seven minutes.

From Belle Isle back to downtown, the Detroit Marathon is one of the prettiest urban courses I've run. It travels along the waterfront on something called the "Detroit Riverwalk" (I think) while heading to the finish line. And you can tell how close you are by spotting the towers of the Renaissance Center just up ahead. For me, the last mile and a half was agony as my hip decayed further. I just tried to maintain my stride and hoped it wouldn't give out. The only thing worth fighting for was to close the gap on two women in front of me, but I ran out of road. When I saw the finish chute, I finally looked at the total time on my watch. I would, indeed, finish in under 3:10 - in 3:06 - 87th overall, ninth woman, third master and first in my age group (45-49). And I wrestled the demons into submission -- for now.

But Detroit wasn't a disaster-free race. I met Jim shortly after the race and we found Chris after he finished the half-marathon. While we were deciding what to do next, Chris got a phone call. It was Jess. She developed a severe I-T band problem and had to drop out at mile 16, unable to take another step. My heart sank. I knew what she was going through. I know what she will GO through in getting to the next marathon start line. But Jess has one thing going for her. She's a bona fide angel. I knew it the moment I met her -- she was an angel in my devil's classroom. And, therefore, she has the one thing she needs -- the ability to fight those demons. All the way to the finish line.

Here's a 17-second video of my start if anyone is interested:

Saturday, October 9, 2010

You Can Never Take the Track out of the Runner

It may get yellower, but not mellower, with age
It doesn't matter how many years separate me from my high school track-running roots, when I step foot on one of those quarter-mile ovals, I become the complete antithesis of an endurance athlete. It's like a wild animal, a kind of repressed urge for speed that I shove down into the depths of my soul and keep leashed up. Oh, it gets unleashed every now and then, like when I desperately want to chase down the leaders in an Olympic-distance triathlon. But for the most part, the speed demon stays locked up so I can embrace my marathon training and racing distances.

But yesterday, there was no controlled unleashing. Yesterday, it FOUND the key: the 400-meter track oval. I have always avoided track workouts for this very reason -- because I have absolutely NO control of the demon. My quarter-miler mentality turns every inch of a track into an all-out sprint.

What was I doing on a track, you ask? I was completing the Cleveland Metroparks' (my employer's) "Physical Fitness Standards Test" to get reimbursed for the cost of my health club membership. You may have heard of this -- organizations give their employees incentives to get healthier by paying for their gyms if they complete some kind of fitness assessment. The first time I heard about such a thing was at Ironman Mooseman 70.3 when a finisher was trying to retrieve concrete evidence of his time to take back to his employer to get reimbursed. I remember listening to his plea and saying to my husband Jim: "I wish Cleveland Metroparks did that!"

Be careful what you wish for. This year, Cleveland Metroparks Human Resources department has created a voluntary program for employees to meet physical fitness standards, the same standards required for the park rangers. The standards consist of sit-ups, push-ups and a 1.5-mile run, and requirements are age and gender based. Each standard yields a $100 health club reimbursement (up to $300 total for all three). And they're making it easier this year - participants only have to meet the requirements for the next-older age-group.

It's a no-brainer for someone like me, right? The phone calls and questions started: "are you doing the fitness test?" and "how fast do you think you can run a mile-and-a-half in?" Then came the first batch of results: "I ran mine in 9:30," and "I was running pretty fast and then this other guy went blowing by me and finished in 8:20." No one seemed to care about the sit-ups and push-ups. It was the run that mattered.

I wasn't worried about the run. I was worried about the push-ups. I never do push-ups or bench presses or anything resembling that motion (for the record, swimming doesn't resemble that motion).

I showed up for my fitness evaluation yesterday morning at Ranger Headquarters. This fitness test was an official gig. They made us sign forms. They lined us up. They looked at us sternly and showed us what was expected. No one smiled. I felt like I was about to enter boot camp.

Sit-ups were first and were no problem. I did 49 in a minute (the requirement was 17). Then came push-ups. For my age group, the requirement was 11 push-ups in a minute. But I only had to pass for the next-older age group, which was 13 modified (note: "girly") push-ups. I had to make a decision -- go for the sure thing and be a pansy or just go for it? The rangers egged me on: "GO FOR IT, JEANNE!" ... well maybe YOU can say no to that, but I'm a sucker. They even egged me on AFTER I reached 11, and to my utter surprise, I managed to get off 20 push-ups in about 35 seconds before collapsing. The other guy in the room did about 50. Today, my upper body is paying for my overzealousness.

Then came the run. We congregated in the hall beforehand. And that's when it happened. You KNEW it would. Someone HAD to go and make the statement: "the fastest time so far in the 1.5-mile run is 8:47 (note: not 8:20)." The animal stirred.

I got in my car and called Jim before I drove up to the track. "The fastest time is 8:47! Do you think I can beat that? what mile pace do I have to do?" I always ask Jim the math questions because my brain can't do calculations under pressure. We decided a 5:50 pace would do it. If it were 10 years ago, or I had been adequately "tapered," I would have said that was no problem. But at age 45 and many years of long slow Ironman training including running eight miles the day before... let's just say it was "not likely."

But something else happened to fire up the animal. When we got to the track, several of my female work cohorts asked me the question: "do you think you can beat that?" and followed it with "wouldn't it be great if a woman had the fastest time?" All of a sudden, I was part of a team again. I would give it my best shot. For us.

There were timers at each half lap (I told you it was "official-like"). We lined up... and we were off. Two guys took the first corner like bats out of hell. I could no longer hold back the animal. It was out of its cage and it chased them down. When I went through the first lap in 1:27, I felt like I had already blown this "race." My lungs were on fire and I was not sure I could hold the pace. It seemed slow, but I was obviously in no shape to be running this fast. I counted down..."can I do five (four, three) more laps at this pace?" At mile one, the timer shouted "5:53!" -- not fast enough. The "race" was over. I was maxed out, about to lose bladder control, and there was no way I would finish any faster than I had already gone. Until I got to the backstretch and thought: "hey, I only have a lap and a half to go.." The animal got angry. It went into "do or die" mode. I've been there before -- in October 2002, I spent 26.2 miles in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii in "do or die" mode.

With one half-lap to go, I heard the news: "8:05." To get that record, I had to run a 200 meters in about 40 seconds. Was that even possible? The animal saw the finish line.

I don't know exactly how I did it, and I still wonder if the timer pulled a George Hooper (George Hooper was my college swim coach we used to call the "wish timer" because he always hit the stop button before you hit the wall), but the results were in: "8:46." I don't even know the guy who previously held it, but I managed to get his "record" by one second. And I won't downplay how much it hurt or the role my fellow women played in making me want it. This was for "us."

The animal sleeps. For now.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Marathon Decision-Making and Running Underwater

Detroit's "Underwater Mile" is International
After the Columbus Marathon registration disaster, I thought long and hard on two questions:
  1. Which marathon should I run on October 17, Detroit or Toronto?
  2. Was the Columbus Marathon rejection a message from God that I should not run a marathon this fall?
The answers to these questions were more questions:
  1. Which marathon is better, Detroit or Toronto?
  2. Why would God have any power over my OCD running behavior?
I had to come up with answers:
  1. Detroit was better for four reasons: it's closer than Toronto, one of my good friends is running her first marathon there, a well-respected running friend (Tim Budic) convinced me it was just as good as Columbus without the stress, and the kicker: it's got an "underwater mile" (surely, that's reason in and of itself to do it).
  2. I am the Disaster Magnet and I'm running a marathon whether God wants me to or not.
Now comes the biggest question: with a marathon less than two weeks away and my goal race, the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, less than six weeks away, how should I taper? Will the taper screw up my half-ironman plans? I gave it some long hard thought.

I looked in my past for evidence of good race performances without much recovery between races. In 2008, I raced two half-ironman triathlons separated by eight days. The second one was not only harder, but I did it faster. And, not just faster, but five minutes faster on the run. In 2000, I ran two marathons five weeks apart. The second one was faster. Only a minute faster, but they were the third (2:50) and second (2:49) fastest marathons of my life.

Knowing that I only have to run 13.1 miles in the half-ironman, I've convinced myself that doing a hard marathon four weeks before will not sacrifice that, my most important race of the year. In fact, I hope that all the marathon training will do just the opposite and give me the boost I need to tear up the run course in Clearwater.

Because of my late decision to race, my taper won't be a full three-week affair that I usually afford my marathons. But then again, my running mileage is hardly where it was when I was just a marathoner. I guess it's an experiment, really. I've been running hard and long mileage but in only three or four sessions per week. Therefore, if I think about it, my "running" recovery is done in the water and on the bike, even though I put in up to ten hours weekly in those sports, including hard training.

Thus, my marathon taper will only be this week and next week and will mostly involve dropping my running mileage, but not intensity. I plan to continue to swim hard throughout the taper and probably drop my bike mileage around the middle of next week just to rest my legs. Three or four days of good rest will probably be all I can mentally handle anyway. I suspect I'll be bouncing off the walls by the end of next week.

Then I'll work on race strategy and pacing next week with all that extra time and energy. But I may still have to cut down on my daily Starbucks.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

To Be or Not to Run: a Pre-marathon Disaster

Yep, I'm in there, the only person looking at the camera
For ten years, all I did was run. And all I wanted to do was run marathons. I ran myself into five stress fractures because I didn't know when to STOP running. But when I realized that no matter how much I ran, I wasn't going to get any faster, I reached a turning point. I needed a new challenge and I became a triathlete.

But the truth is, I never stopped being a "runner." I still act like a runner. When I'm at my wits end about work and life stresses, I go running. Not biking. Not swimming. I've needed to run ever since my high school track coach, John Klarman, taught me that it clears my mind better than any drug out there. And today, I'm in need of a good mind clearing -- to erase the disappointments of this year -- the stupid mistakes, the missed opportunities, the betrayals, the ridiculous bad luck, and most of all, the almost-perfect-race-turned-utter-failure in Lake Placid. It hurts especially bad today as I read about others' preparations for Ironman Hawaii only a week away.

So I've decided to focus on a marathon. Yes, I still have Ironman 70.3 Clearwater in November, but I need a marathon. It keeps me sane. In fact, the most fun I've had in a race this year was in the Pittsburgh Marathon in May. And it had nothing to do with the post-race meal at Piper's Pub.

I didn't originally want to run a big scary marathon. I had settled on running the low-key, small-town Towpath Marathon in Peninsula, Ohio (where?). Heck, it's right down the road. I could sleep in my own bed. And it's one of my regular training routes -- the crushed-limestone surface of the Erie Canal tow-path. There would be no expectations. It would just be a "run." Then, through a friend's suggestion, I considered the Columbus Marathon. Columbus would definitely be a "race." It's a flat, paved course. It would require an overnight stay. In a big city. I would know a LOT of people in it. And there would be.. um.. spectators! Watching! And I would probably know a LOT of them. Talk about stress.

But I'll never be ready for Clearwater if I don't reach outside my comfort zone. And my comfort zone since Lake Placid has been to avoid further disappointment by not taking any race completely seriously. Despite this attitude, I've had several race wins, but I can't go to the Ironman 70.3 World Championship without mental engagement. I need to remember how to go into a big race with a competitive attitude AND have fun.

And like clockwork, once I had made up my mind, disaster struck. I started the registration process, filled out the entire form and what happens? Upon hitting the submit button, the page came back with the following message: "registration limit reached" and that was that. I went back to the registration page and indeed, it said "Marathon FULL."  My exact thoughts were: you MUST be kidding! How could I miss getting in by a matter of minutes?!?!? This could ONLY happen to me. I wrote to the race director. The race was, indeed, sold out. He was sorry.

I can't say I wasn't angry. Angry at myself for waiting. Angry at my bad luck. Angry at the Columbus Marathon for capping race entries (when did Columbus get so popular anyway?) Today I started looking for a different race. Because, now that my brain is switched over to race mentality, I can't go back to "just run the Towpath Marathon" mentality. From what I can tell, my best choices are Detroit Free Press and Toronto. One is close. One is far. But both are driveable. Maybe I'll flip a coin. Heck, my luck has to turn sooner or later, right?