Thursday, October 29, 2015

New York City Marathon 2015 Week 11/11

Woohoo! I'm on a carbohydrate fueled high! I feel the whisky-like warmth of those carbs being burned. And I'm so happy that the shop at work has started to stock CLIF Bars which are my favourite cereal bars that have, up until now, been very difficult to find in Spain (I've already eaten two of them this morning!).
I weighed in at 76.9 kilos this morning - some 3 kilos less than I was at this point before the last NYC Marathon I ran in 2013. But I'll quickly put those 3 kilos (and some) on, as stored glycogen from the carbo loading and the water that gets stored alongside it. I'm used to feeling a bit "bloated" on the day, but I sweat it off quickly and it saves me from having to drink much along the course (only about 400 ml in isotonic gels).

On Monday evening we celebrated my youngest son's 11th birthday with cake, crisps, ceviche and sushi (surprisingly, the kids love sushi and Adrian even likes ceviche). Not the best diet for the week before a Marathon, especially on my day off from training. My uncle-in-law kept digging me in the ribs (figuratively) about how thin I was and how running Marathons couldn't be healthy - "The first person to ever run a Marathon died from it" (yawn). Even people at work have been commenting a lot on how thin I have got and my wife complains that I am all sharp bony edges. I was quite slim at the beginning of the year and I've lost about 8 kilos since then, so it's not really surprising that people make comments. Next week I am going to try to muscle up a bit, especially in my back which has been giving me problems lately (I have a stiff neck again as I write this). Talking of diets, I just discovered (late - don't know how I missed this) an extraordinary new wearable device: the Healbe GoBe.
It purports to calculate not only calories burned but also calorie intake. It does this by measuring pressure differences due to glucose being released into the bloodstream after eating. Sounds at best like science fiction or, at worst, like it will be disastrously inaccurate but the tests out in the field are very positive on its calorie counting ability. It even (semi-)automatically tracks how much water you imbibe (I'd be interested to know if it could measure sweat rates and take this into account in the calculation of how much you need to drink to keep hydrated). Then it has a lot of the more standard features of activity trackers, such as step counting, heart rate measurement, sleep quality measurement but it does claim to be able to measure your blood pressure and - perhaps more dubiously - your stress levels. The downside is that it is bulky, buggy and the battery lasts for only one day. I think I will let the early adopters finance this one until they are bought up by FitBit / Withings / Polar / Garmin and the device is a bit more polished. Even so, I am tempted by pure scientific curiosity to take the plunge. However, knowing how much "gadget-rage" I can suffer when my devices break, fail to synchronize or lose my data, I can do without that grief adding to the stress gauge. Anyway, one to watch (no pun intended)!

As usual, I am a bit nervous and excited. I'm worried about:

My weight. Will I balloon in these last few days now that I am relaxing?
Fitness. Am I running too hard during my taper?
Sleep. I am not sleeping as well because I am nervous about not sleeping well (amongst other things). Will I suffer from jet lag and not be able to manage my sleep well the nights before?
Energy. Will I still be tired on Sunday from the training and travelling?
Injury. Should I get yet another massage for my back? Will I get an even stiffer neck on the plane?
Health. Half of my colleagues are coughing and some have had 'flu. My kids are ambulatory incubators for germs. How long can I hold my breath?
Weather. Will it rain? Will it be too hot? Too windy?
Logistics. Will I miss the planes, trains and automobiles (and boats) I have to take to get to the start?

There, writing it all down helps because I can go through the worries one by one and dismiss them, either because they are easy to dismiss or because I can't do anything about them, so worrying is not going to do achieve anything other than wearing myself out mentally...

...and BREATHE...

The trick that I learned before the Ironman is to just rise up above all these worries and let them slide off me, like water off a duck's back. The worries still come into my head but I don't let myself react to them, as if I were listening to someone else recounting me their worries. I suppose this is a form of Mindfulness.

Checking back over my training log from two years ago, I saw that I did my tempo run of 3 km easy + 30 minutes at 3:45 (16 kph) + 3 km easy outside. That was the day that my treadmill broke. I must have been pretty furious about that, or maybe I managed to rise above it. This time my treadmill did not break, so I was able to do it inside. I agonized over whether I should run outside because it is undoubtedly more effective (as I will be running the Marathon outside) but, given the twinge in my left calf (excuses, excuses), I decided to run indoors while finishing off watching a film (The Harvest). To compensate, I decided I would at least do all the other runs outside, as I have been this time around.

Thinking back to when I started to prepare for this race, I was not very confident about my performance. People would ask me what time I was aiming for and I would cagily answer that it would depend on how my training went as to whether I went for a Personal Best (PB) or ran more for "fun" with a GoPro camera strapped to my head. I had had a couple of abortive attempts at racing earlier in the year, had been suffering on and off from Morton's Neuromas (Neuromae?) and had not obtained any PBs in over a year and a half. With hindsight, I think my experiment to do less but much more intense training and - crucially - almost entirely on the treadmill, was my undoing. Not the fact that I am 43 and a half years old. Especially armed now with all these fancy metrics such as stride length, cadence and vertical oscillation, it is blatantly obvious that I run quite differently on the treadmill to outside. Having said that, I think it is still an excellent surrogate workout and very highly correlated to my performance outside but if it forms the majority of the training, I think I start to run outside as if I were running on a treadmill. I definitely feel as though my running has improved significantly over the last 3 months and I believe it is down to this. I think that I have kept myself cardiovascularly fit which has meant that it has not been to much of a struggle, but my technique and muscles have had to adapt.

Looking back, I can say that the training has gone much better than I could have expected. The long runs (with a few minor exceptions) were very fast and consistent as have been the "junk miles" from a relative point of view. The interval sessions have been demanding but doable and the races - well, I was 20 seconds faster in the 10K compared to this time two years ago but 30 seconds slower in the Half Marathon. The aerobic tests I did were a little bit inconclusive but OK nonetheless. Injury-wise (touch wood), just the usual niggles that have not crystalized into anything more serious: left Achilles, left calf, lower back and neck.

As with any Marathon, anything can happen on the day, but I think I have every reason to go for a PB or at least to equal it. This is what I will call my "ambitious goal". My realistic goal would be to run sub 2:50. My minimum goal to be happy would be to get a qualifying time for next year: sub 2:58. So if I have a tough time out there but see that I can still scrape under 2:58 then I will pull out all the stops. Also, I am running this Marathon in honour and memory of my friend Nat, who suffered more than I can imagine and more than I hope I will every have to experience. So a bit of suffering out there on the course will be going to a good cause.

The advice my friend Andy gave me is probably the best: "Enjoy it!... but not too much...". This reminded me of how my coach - when I had a coach - used to say to enjoy the training runs in the weeks of the taper because, for once, you have enough energy to be able to run fast and effortlessly, as fruits of your hard work. That's exactly what I did on Wednesday night when I went for a 40 minute run after work along my usual trails. It was quite dark by the time I got to the turnaround point so I had to be careful not to step badly and twist my ankle (can you imagine?!) but exhilarating none the less. Today (Thursday) I did a shorter, 30 minute, version of the same run and set off thinking I should probably run it a little more calmly than the 4:06 pace from the night before. I ended up running it at a pace of 3:55, probably as a result of the two CLIF bars, the banana and the packet of M&Ms I had consumed beforehand!

If you are going to be out there on the course supporting (or indeed running), my bib number is 2634 and I will look something like this (but with more "normal" shoes):

I'm aiming as I say for a time of 2:47:42 ( :-) ) which, if I am on track, means that I will pass the following points along the course at approximately these times:

If you can't actually be there in New York but still are curious to see how I am doing, you can track me in the TCS NYC Marathon app on your iPhone / Android device or, indeed, on the web. I'm starting at 2:50 UK time (GMT) or 3:50 pm Spanish time (CET). Wish me luck and see you on the other side!

Monday: -
Tuesday: 3 km @ 4:27 + 30' @ 3:45 + 3 km @ 4;27
Wednesday: 40' @ 4:06
Thursday: 30' @ 3:55
Friday: -
Saturday: 20'
Sunday: THE RACE!

Total kilometres: 36 + 42.1

Monday, October 26, 2015

New York City Marathon 2015 Week 10/11

I was very much looking forward to my visit to the osteopath as my back felt as though it was blocked in several places - just under my scapulae and in my neck. I expected him to do one of those dramatic and slightly terrifying maneuvers where he grabs your head and whips it suddenly from one side to the other, eliciting a series of cracks that are so sudden, there is no time to feel any pain; only relief. But the manipulation was quite gentle by comparison and it turned out that most of the clicking I had already done on my own account the week before. I was initially a little disappointed but when I stood up, I realized that my back was much better and I felt a few centimetres taller for it. Having said that, it felt sore and tired for the next few days so it was probably just as well that the session had been "light". Unfortunately, while playing around with the dog, I managed to strain another muscle in my back! I'll have to do some strength training on the parts of my body I have been ignoring lately, and allowing to atrophy. I've lost so much weight that some of it is bound to be muscle - just looking at how thin my arms are is proof of that. All these back related problems spurred me to acquire a better chair at work and I am really noticing the difference (even if it is still far from perfect). I also investigated a gadget (of course) from a company called Lumo, called the Lumo Lift, which detects when you slouch and reminds you to sit or stand up straight with a gentle vibration.

Other than that, my calf muscles - particularly the left one - have been getting tighter and more sore, so I booked another session, this time with Mónica, the physiotherapist at the work gym to make sure my legs are nice and supple come race day.

I realized that I have gone from having no accelerometers to having one on my wrist (Fenix 2), my chest (Garmin Run HRM) and my foot (RunScribe). It reminds me of going from not having a DVD player to almost every device I own being able to play DVDs. Or from not having GPS in the car, to having it on my watch, my phone, my tablet, etc. So I can now track my vertical oscillation, my contact time, my cadence, as well as a whole host of other metrics. The RunScribe consistently estimates my contact time above that of the Garmin Run HRM (approximately 260 ms versus 230) but here the key is relative comparison from one run to another. In any case, I would tend to believe a foot sensor over a chest sensor when it comes to measuring contact time. In terms of vertical oscillation, I am averaging about 10.4 cm, which is on the high side - but then I am quite tall. Interestingly (at least, I think so), it is about a centimetre more (11.4) on the treadmill, as well as my cadence tending to be lower (171 versus 177). It makes sense that I get more out of the "flight" phase of running on the treadmill as there is no wind resistance and the board is more springy than the ground. All I need now to complete the sensory overload, is a pair of magic pants from Lumo - the Lumo Run - which also measure things like your pelvic tilt (which, all jokes aside, I think is quite important, actually).

Speaking of metrics, my watch has been telling me that my supposed VO2 Max has been increasing to 65 - the highest I have seen it get to - which I take as a sign that I am starting to recover from my hard training and reap the benefits - what is called in the jargon "supercompensation". Let's hope so. It could also be partly due to the temperatures falling recently, thereby improving my running efficiency... I still feel a little battered, I have to say, but I have just under a week to (relatively) rest my back and legs. If I were to believe my watch, it would have me running the Marathon in 2:32, which I think is not very realistic. Instead, I filled in a questionnaire on the TCS NYC Marathon app which promises to predict your race time based on a combination of factors such as your training volume & pace, as well as recent race results. In its opinion, my finish time will be in the range 2:47-2:52, with 2:47 being based on my training - which I have done almost all of at faster paces than 2 years ago - and 2:52 being based on my race times. Of course, this is assuming normal weather conditions: 12 degrees and not too much wind (i.e., no hurricanes please!). I ran the 10K faster than 2 years ago but the Half Marathon (admittedly with a stiff neck) a bit slower, as well as my "7k aerobic tests". So it seems quite a reasonable prediction. It's my job, now, to try to make it 2:47 (fantastic!) rather than 2:52 (good!) or even just under 3:00 (happy). I will be disappointed with any time starting with 3 or more...

I've put together a pace band based on my previous performance and a "theoretical pace" from Greg Maclin's impressively comprehensive spreadsheet.

Lastly and because I am a supernerd, I managed to pull off Garmin Connect the actual paces run by several other runners during the New York Marathon (of 2014). To do this, I set up what they call a "segment" of the Marathon course and I was then able to locate other peoples' "tracks" along that segment. For comparison, I chose somebody who ran a little faster and somebody who ran a little slower, although one needs to bear in mind that it was much more windy than usual in 2014. It looks like I am affected by the hills more than most (no surprise there) but that I perhaps slacked off a little in the middle only to finish very fast (see the grey line on the graph).

The long run on Sunday wasn't so long but it was still a Half Marathon distance. I ran along the very same route I did two years ago and was pleased to finish a minute and a half faster while still being at a conversational pace. Continuing to practice a bit of mindful running I noticed something that I often think when I am running. Whenever anyone (be they a pedestrian, a fellow runner, cyclist or motorist) gets too close to me or crosses my path, I feel threatened. And, for some reason, I often play out in my head a scenario of what would have happened had that car not stopped to let me cross (me thumping the bonnet and swearing at them, etc). It also made me remember how I used to get "running rage" on a fairly regular basis - somebody getting in my way, a dog lead nearly tripping me up, a cyclist on the pavement forcing me on to the road, a car beeping at me for running on the road, etc. I think the only thing that has changed is me. Having said that, in the closing kilometres of my 32 km run the other day, a little old dear (not deer) walked out right in front of me without looking (I was running along a cycle-cum-footpath frequented by skateboarders, runners, cyclists - almost anything on wheels). I shouted "CUIDADO!" and kept on running, listening to my music, so I wouldn't even have known had I scared the poor thing literally to death. Still, it could have been nasty - it's just that I could perhaps have shouted a little less loudly.

In other news, I was amused to see that AirBnB were sponsoring the Marathon and actively encouraging locals to "host a runner":

Why do I find that amusing? Well, because I booked an apartment via AirBnB months ago which was cancelled at the last minute with not so much as an apology from the owner. Now I can't really blame AirBnB for that and we have used them for brilliant holidays in Spain, Morocco, Singapore, Malaysia and Russia just to name a few - but I half expected it to happen as the local authorities have been clamping down on it as it competes with the hotel business. The exact same thing happened to a friend of mine staying in New York earlier in the year. so, in the end, I'll be staying with my friends Eli and David, as I did two years ago. It will be great to see them but I am conscious of being a bit anti-social and "edgy" (as my wife calls it) leading up to the race, so I would have preferred to be on my own.

Monday: -
Tuesday: 2 x 1'-2'-3'-2'-1'-2'-3' @ 3:25 w/ 4.5%-2.5%-1% incline
Wednesday: 60' @ 4:00
Thursday: 60' @ 4:09
Friday: 60' @ 4:07
Saturday: 2 x 30' @ 4:00
Sunday: 21.1 km @ 4:10 (1:27:58)

Total kilometres: 88

Monday, October 19, 2015

New York City Marathon 2015 Week 9/11

Monday was a bank holiday so we spent a leisurely day in Asturias, had a great lunch (as usual), a siesta and then the 5 hour car journey back home. Zero exercise.

Tuesday's intervals were easier than I had expected, especially as I found 2 sets challenging a couple of weeks ago and, this time, I had to do 3. I probably say this every time I do a "ladder" type workout but I think they are excellent from a psychological point of view: you can trick yourself into thinking that each interval is going to be easier than the one before it because it will either be slower (less incline) or shorter.

I was on the treadmill again on Wednesday evening because I didn't get an opportunity to do my run at lunchtime (I had to take my son for a checkup at the doctors). I'm pleased I've managed to largely kick the habit of running too much on the treadmill (and not enough outside) but it was nice, for a change, to do an easy treadmill run with a good TV series (Longmire) to keep me company.

I got up early the next morning to do my final 7 km aerobic test at a controlled heart rate of 172 bpm. It was nice and cold and it felt relatively easy to keep up a pace of around 3:45 per kilometre. But my watch let me down by (a) giving me a wacky HR readout which kinda made it hard to control and (b) giving me a wacky GPS readout. In the end, my average HR turned out to be quite a bit lower than the 172 level, so I could have run it a bit faster. Now, I'm not sure what that really means - whether I am fitter than the test would seem to indicate (26:13 versus 26:02 two years ago)  or that it was just quite cold, so my heart rate was lower than it would otherwise have been. I think I will go back to my Garmin 310 XT for the next aerobic test I do, as it has the useful feature of automatically detecting the laps based on the GPS position. This is subject to the same GPS error, of course, but it doesn't end up summing up quite so much as having the lap counter set to one kilometre by its reckoning, for example. I'm not sure whether the GPS of the Fenix 2 is less accurate or reliable than the 310 XT, or whether I am just more obsessed with comparing my performance to that of two years ago, and so I am much more attentive to those occasions when it loses accuracy.

I've been getting these "spiky" readouts from my heart rate monitor on a regular basis for thhe last few weeks now. I've tried replacing the batteries but I think that it is coming to the end of its useful life. The last thing I want to happen in NY is to be thrown off in the first few kilometres. At least, this is the excuse for me to buy myself what I had intended to ask Santa for: the new Garmin Run HRM. This not only measures your heart rate, but also your vertical oscillation, cadence and (supposedly) your ground contact time. More stats to geek out on.

Talking of which, my RunScribe finally arrived last week - the little gadget I help kickstart last year - just in time to use during my 7k test. I'll post a more comprehensive review once I have had time to play around with it some more and digest the vast amount of running metrics it generates, but I'll leave you with a taster below in the meantime.

My wife had wanted to do another Zombie Survival event, like the one we did last year, but I was worried about how it would effect my 32 km run the next day. I employed the tactic of not mentioning the subject and making non-committal noises such as "OK, if you want to... I don't mind" as well as reminding her that she wasn't currently able to run much due to an injury "so perhaps it would be better some other time?". Whatever the case, it worked and we ended up staying in Madrid for the first weekend in a while. Nevertheless, I was nervous about the run - as I have been approaching every long run - particularly because I suffered a lot in the last 7 kilometres of the long run the previous weekend. And this one entailed running a significant proportion - 24 km - at close to Marathon Pace. Furthermore, the same run two years ago turned into my own version of a personal hell and I remember being grouchy the rest of the day. I was also nervous that it would rain as it had done on Saturday evening and make the whole thing a miserable experience. I don't normally mind running in the rain, but 32 kilometres with sodden shoes could lead to serious blisters.

I needn't have worried. Not only did it not rain but the run went very well (apart from a false start where I got a bit lost and ended up running an extra kilometre which I decided would not count towards the 32). After the 5 "warm up" kilometres at an easy pace, I hit the sub-Marathon pace and started to count down the kilometres to the 29 km mark, where I promised myself a short rest to get my breath back before running the final "cool down" kilometres. I started to  suspect the GPS was again being generous but it was surprisingly consistent, so I decided to believe it. As I was running along Madrid Río, I was able to check it against the markers laid down every 50m and it seemed to be true. I got to the end very satisfied and lay down on the wall for a minute, being careful not to roll into the river. It was then that I realized that I had short changed myself out of a kilometre with all my mental maths to pass the time, and I still had one more at sub-MP to go. Not a problem. What was a problem, oddly enough, was the final stretch of 3 supposedly easy kilometres. I don't know whether it was because, mentally, I had switched off or whether I had used up all my glycogen stores, but these last 3 kilometres were horrible and I ran them with my eyes half closed, feeling nauseous and nearly fainting at one point. My wife always asks me how my runs have gone and I realized that I only have two answers: "good" or "hard". In other words, a run can't go "badly", it is just one of those hard runs that doesn't kill you but makes you stronger. The overall verdict was "good" but those last three kilometres were hard. I'm curious to know whether I would have been able to keep up the pace for longer had I not stopped or if I had planned to.

During the long run I did notice a very slight twinge in my left Achilles. My Achilles is my Achilles, if you see what I mean. It went away after a while but I remembered to "palpate" the area and it was a little tender, so I have decided to do the preventative exercises I did last time, over the final two weeks.

So now starts the taper!!! Yippee! I'm going to be a bit monkish and ingest no caffeine or alcohol for the next two weeks: on race day I'll stuff myself with caffeine before and alcohol after. I've been following a fairly strict diet of just drinking one glass of red wine a day. I think it is a much more reasonable (and possibly healthy) approach than total teetotal. My weight is better than ever (although this morning's reading is not really representative after the "paliza" yesterday).

So I promised to say something about my RunScribe. So far, I have been very impressed by it: it just works. I'm so used to having to faff about with Garmin watches to make sure that they sync properly and that the data doesn't get corrupted, I've become paranoid. I think the folks over at Garmin could learn a thing or two from RunScribe about Bluetooth synchronization as well as about how to display graphs. It always drives me nuts that you can't change the vertical scale on the pace graph on Garmin Connect, for example, so all you ever see is a practically straight line (when compared to a 16:00 /km pace). The only issue it might have is of battery life, but it is too early to say and I'm sure that they can find a way around this. The device turns on whenever it detects movement but allegedly has very low power consumption until it recognizes that the user has broken into a run (i.e., that the cadence is above 70). It turns off automatically after 250 seconds of inactivity. So it recorded my long run perfectly but it also included my false start and some of the walk back to the car.

Below you can see a segment taken from the sub-Marathon Pace section of the run. It agrees very closely with the GPS reading (and, by the way, it was in very good agreement with the treadmill - but more on that in a subsequent post). More than tracking pace, it is the other metrics that are interesting. You can see that, as I started to get tired, my contact time increased (from about 250 ms to about 275 ms). Also, my "braking Gs" - or the horizontal component of the ground reaction force - tends to increase over time, presumably because I am running more sloppily. Then there are the "advanced metrics" which are to do with things like pronation angle and pronation velocity, etc.

There are so many things to compare that the mind boggles. How does the terrain or my shoes affect my contact time, or the foot strike (forefoot or midfoot)? How does running on a treadmill compare with running outside? What differences are there between my left and right foot? When I get my Garmin Run HRM I will have so many metrics I won't know what to do with them!

Monday: -
Tuesday: 3 x 1'-2'-3'-2'-1'-2'-3' @ 3:25 w/ 4.5%-2.5%-1% gradient
Wednesday: 60' @ 4:17
Thursday: 7k aerobic test in 26:13 (average HR 167)
Friday: 60' @ 4:10
Saturday: 50' @ 4:00
Sunday: 32 km @ 4:14 (5k easy + 24 @ 4:04 + 3k easy)

Total kilometres: 92

Friday, October 16, 2015

What do we want to get out of today?

This is what a friend of mine used to ask to start the day. When he passed away on the 1st of September, he left behind his wife and two small boys, but he also left behind a legacy of companies he had helped to found, all with one thing in common: that they would each change the world for the better in some way.

Nat was someone who was fiercely intelligent and engaging. He would pick your brains rather like an archaeologist might turn over stones: always with the same curiosity and respect, no matter how large or small. I always remember him with that smile on his face which seemed to suggest that he could see something underneath those stones that we could not, but never in a superior way.

Most of us know someone who has been touched by cancer and it never makes sense, it’s never fair. But Nat was my friend.

I asked myself this morning “What do I want to get out of today?” and I thought that I could try to make the world a slightly less worse place as a result of Nat's passing away, by raising money for a charity he and his family have chosen.

As I am running the New York City Marathon on the 1st November, I have decided to run it in Nat’s honour and I am asking you to kindly support oncology research by sponsoring me.

In memory of Nathaniel Kevin Billington (1970-2015)

Donating through JustGiving is simple, fast and totally secure. Your details are safe with JustGiving – they’ll never sell them on or send unwanted emails. Once you donate, they’ll send your money directly to the charity. So it’s the most efficient way to donate – saving time and cutting costs for the charity.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I got my NY on!

New York City Marathon 2015 Week 8/11

This was the big week in terms of kilometres (over 100) but my so-called "peak week" actually starts now, as I write this, and is more intense.

My upper back and neck have continued to be painful the whole week. I now know why they invented the swivel chair for sedentary office workers. I made an appointment with my osteopath but I have to wait until next week. Having said that, in a meeting this morning, I got an incredibly satisfying series of "cracks" out of my neck (that must have been quite audible) and feel a lot better for it. Nevertheless, I think it will be a good idea to unlock some of the tightness that has been accumulating there.

Generally I have been re-reading my blog for the equivalent training week from 2 years ago but it was just as well that I didn't remember to do so before my workout on Monday which, back then I claimed was one of the hardest. It was still pretty tough - 45 minutes increasing the pace every 15 minutes from 4:00 /km (15 kph) to 3:40 /km (16.5 kph). More than anything it is psychologically challenging to know that you have to not only keep going, but be prepared to run even faster.

On Wednesday I went out for my usual hour long run and it turned out to be the day of the flying ants. At first I mistook them for floating bits of ash from a bonfire, but soon realized what they were. Luckily I was wearing my sun glasses so I only had to watch out for them flying into my mouth. One thing I did while preparing for NY two years ago was to do a number of "hill sprints": i.e., charging up a slope of around 10% as fast as possible. The idea then was that this was to be a form of strength training. This year, as I have gone for so long without doing weights and because I feel that I have lost a bit of muscle mass, I have been going back to the gym. This week I decided to switch over to the hill sprints - the last thing I felt like doing after running for an hour, I can tell you. What I hate about them is that there is no immediate relief when you get to the crest of the hill. In fact, it is almost the opposite: as you run up you feel fine most of the way but, when you stop, your heart and lungs feel like they are going to explode.

Here you can clearly see the lag between ascent (altura), pace (ritmo) and HR (frecuencia cardiaca)
This lag is quite disconcerting because it feels like there is nothing you can do to make it go away (except wait). It reminds me of when I drink the smoothies (made from ultra frozen fruit) at the gym too quickly and get a brain freeze that seems to last for ever. Just yesterday I was listening to a talk by Sam Harris in which he was arguing that how you frame pain can completely change it. For example, when you are lifting weights you might feel discomfort and muscle burn. This might be something that you would actively seek to feel, as a confirmation of the hard work you were putting in. But if you were to wake up with the very same pain for no apparent reason, it could prove to be intolerable.

At the weekend we set off for Asturias as Monday was a bank holiday. But so, it seemed, did half of Madrid. To give you some idea, in a bar we stopped at for a sandwich along the way, I bumped into two separate people I knew, also on their way to Asturias. The traffic was so bad that we decided to try to break our journey. Thanks to the advent of smartphones and a bit of luck, we were able to find a hotel with a room for the four of us and the dog at a reasonable price and very close to the motorway. The only downside was that it wasn't a very good location to go for an early run. The run I had programmed for Saturday was the typical run I would do on the treadmill as it consisted of 70 minutes continuous running, alternating between 2 minutes at 3:45 and 3 minutes at 4:27. I worked out that this corresponded roughly to 600 m at 3:45 followed by 600 m at 4:27 and found a simple loop of this length to run around in Villaviciosa. If anything this was slightly harder than the original workout as the hard loops were slightly longer and the recovery loops slightly shorter. Also, running 29 times around a park is not my idea of fun. I managed to hit all the paces on the hard loops and most of the paces on the recovery loops but, as I got towards the end, the recovery was not enough of a recovery and I started to slow down a little. Talking of recovery, my Garmin Fenix 2 watch advised me to take 67 hours to recover from my efforts.

Of course, that I didn't do. Instead I ran 35 kilometres. Asturias is particularly hilly but, with a bit of insider knowledge and ingenuity, I was able to design this flatish route with only about 350 metres of climbing. In fact, I started from Villaviciosa and ran the right hand branch first, as this was the more hilly of the two, before attacking the left hand branch. The curious thing about the route is that it very nearly joins up at the top but is separated by a stretch of about 100 m of water (depending on the tide). For a shorter (17 km) version, I could try swimming across the "ria".

There and back the long way round
To get down to the start, I took the quad bike - a capricho from my midlife crisis a few years ago. It is a lot of fun to ride but it uses up a fair amount of mental and physical energy to navigate the windy roads. I got my replacement waterproof iPod Shuffle in the post just in time to use it on the run (the previous one had a very short battery life for some reason). The guys at Underwater Audio have to be praised for their quibble free service and for putting the customer first, as they sent out the replacement via Amazon as soon as they had received the tracking number of the one I returned.

The run itself started off well and felt nice and easy, as is usually the case. The hills didn't present much of a problem and I enjoyed the scenery. It was psychologically hard to have to run past the quad after 20 kilometres, to complete the final 15 kilometres. At the turn around point, with 7 kilometres or so to go, I started to feel weak, tired and even a little sick. I had hit the wall. Not such a bad thing as I think it is important to suffer this in training every now and again (and better than in the Marathon itself, where motivation, proper rest and, above all, energy gels will help avoid this). On the other hand, it can have a demoralizing effect, which I tried to minimize. I stopped 3 times on the way back and lay down by the side of the road, hoping no-one would stop to ask if I was alright.

Eventually, of course, I made it back (otherwise I wouldn't be writing this blog, for one thing) and - after downing a couple of cans of Coke Zero - headed off on the quad to meet my family at the Espasa beach near Colunga, where I ate and drank myself back to normal.

"Wow, that guy looks knackered"
Monday: core
Tuesday: 45' (15' @ 4:00, 15' @ 3:45, 15' @ 3:40)
Wednesday: 60' @ 4:15 + 5x hill sprints
Thursday: 40' @ 4:00
Friday: 60' @ 4:08
Saturday: 70' (600 m @ 3:45, 600 m @ 4:27)
Sunday: 35 km @ 4:23

Total kilometres: 103

Monday, October 5, 2015

New York City Marathon 2015 Week 7/11

The main event this week was the XIX Mariano Rivas Rojano Memorial Half Marathon in Alcázar de San Juan. Someone asked me what time I was aiming for and I said that if I did 1:19 I'd be really happy but if I did 1:21 I'd be pissed off - this just shows how much pressure I was putting on myself.

The weekend didn't get off to a very good start because on Friday afternoon I did something to my upper back and neck which made it very painful to turn my head. I don't remember anything specific but I guess it is one of the occupational hazards of a sedentary job. There is a pilot to try "standing desks" at work - something that I think is a great idea - but it would just make me look too weird I think. A friend of mine who unfortunately seriously injured his back under the influence now finds its so painful to spend time sitting down that he has a standing desk. The difference is that he lives and works in Brooklyn where anything goes. Anyway, I did everything I could on Saturday to make it better - from a very hot bath to massages - even the 20' run helped a little, but it was uncomfortable to the point of putting me in a foul mood. I am not very good at dealing with pain unless I actually put my mind to it.

We arrived at Alcázar de San Juan in the early evening and went for a little walk, before heading to nearby Tomelloso to meet some of my wife's cousins for dinner. Bizarrely enough, the best pizza restaurant in Spain is in Tomelloso (which is where my wife was born) and boasts having won the prize for the best pizza in the world (in Rome, no less) an impressive 4 times! They also held the record for the longest pizza in the world at over a kilometre. In case you are interested, the restaurant is called Marquinetti. I had to try one of the world champion pizzas, but I mainly stuck to pasta. In any case, I had had a pretty substantial lunch in our local Asturian restaurant before heading south.

Last time I ran this race, we stayed with my in-laws and I had to drive 100 kms to the start (and back again). This time we stayed in a very reasonably priced and comfortable little hotel in the town centre so I only had to jog a kilometre down to the start, which served as a perfect warm up.

The start was a bit better organized that last time I ran it, when a lot of people who were still warming up minutes before the gun, squeezed in at the front at the last minute. I overheard one of them saying to his friend "Better not push in in front of these guys because they'll get pissed off; we'll just overtake them later". This piqued my competitive spirit.

The gun went off and I settled into a rhythm I hoped I'd be able to maintain for the following 21 kilometres. I checked my watch to see what pace I was putting down but noticed that I had failed to press the start button. At the first marker I heard somebody call out his split and calculated that I would have to add about 15 seconds to my watch time, Another of my pet irritations in races is when people around me are talking or joking around. I can't help thinking of those kids at my school who would say before an exam that they hadn't really studied that hard. I always saw it as an excuse, something to point to if you got a disappointing mark. For me, the whole point of a race (or an exam, for that matter) is to do the very best you can. Of course, it shouldn't bother me what other people do and, if I'm honest, what is probably most annoying is that these guys are fit enough to run as fast as me and talk easily.

Around about the 12th kilometre mark, after a slight incline, a couple of guys edged past me and I started to feel weak. Just as well that shortly after I saw my family and some friends there to support me and, almost immediately, I got my legs back again.

Partly in practice for the Marathon and partly because I think it helps, I carried about 4 and a half gels (High5 Isogel) in a little hip flask. I'd sip these every 5 kilometres or so and after any hills. The Fuelbelt and bottle was actually brand new as my previous one had worn out. They say never to use anything for the first time in race conditions and this proved to be no exception: on one occasion I pulled a little too enthusiastically at the "nipple" of the bottle and it came off in my mouth, covering me with sticky gel and causing me to cough and splutter! I'd previously taken my rings off my fingers so that my hands would be more relaxed, not having to curl my fingers to stop the rings flying off, and now I had to carry this nipple to the finish line.

The other nipple related problem was one from which I hadn't suffered for I don't know how many years: the classic runner's nipple. My wife had given me an outfit as a present and had my name and "Witness the Fitness" emblazoned on the back. I don't think she realized it at the time, but the phrase comes from one of my favourite tracks by Roots Manuva, so it was quite fitting. I would have liked for this to be my Marathon outfit but I'm afraid that it failed the test.

The last 8 kilometres were, as you might expect, hard work. I thought I might try my hand at "Mindfulness" or Mindful Running - something that I have yet to know much about but have had a curiosity about for some time, especially now it seems to be going viral. As this excellent article (which I read afterwards) explains, a common trick is to try to disassociate yourself from the pain by thinking of something else. Counter-intuitively, the idea of running with Mindfulness is to own and fully experience your pain but to stem the negative back chat that tends to follow (I can't keep up this pace, I want to stop, etc.) by focusing on the state of all the intervening systems in your body: listening to your breathing, monitoring muscle fatigue, etc. The definition that Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) uses is
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally"
It may seem a bit wordy at first glance, but every word in there is important. In particular "non-judgementally" is what stops the thoughts running away into dangerous territory. I cannot pretend to be an expert on Mindfulness or even meditation in general, but I remember using a trick in the New York Marathon which worked well for me, that of imagining that I was watching the race unfold on TV. Perhaps this was too much like the "disassociation" but, having that slight distance, I was able to be more analytical and non-judgemental. So, in the race yesterday, I tried to examine my pain and ask myself questions like, "Should I push the pace a bit?" or "Is there some way I can alleviate my fatigue like using my arms more, running more upright or increasing my cadence?". I also remember thinking very clearly, "It's taken a lot of work to get to this point, 13 kilometres into a Half Marathon and these last 8 kilometres are going to be the most important ones I run in the whole training cycle so let's make them count.". Even so, I had a bit of a fade but nothing out of the ordinary. The fact that my heart rate got up to 175 and that my watch awarded me with a "Training Effect" of 5.0 (the maximum possible) confirmed that I had, at least, done my best. The photos belie the fact that it was actually 20 degrees - not exactly hot but far from cold either.

So, as you can see, I crossed the line in 1:20:23 - 30 seconds slower than my time 2 years ago but within my range of 1:19 (happy) - 1:21 (pissed off). In some ways it was probably a good thing not to do too well as I might have approached the Marathon with too much complacency. As it is, as long as nothing goes wrong between now and then, I will go for a fast time, if not aim to beat my best time.

Not a pretty sight, I'm afraid
Woah, déjà vu or what
As usual, the goody bag did not disappoint. Included was this curious bottle of wine. I'd never actually stopped to think about the Mariano Rivas Rojano in memorial of whom the race (now in its 19th year) was established. I'd assumed he was just a popular runner from the area - in fact I saw his runner cross the line a few minutes after me. Seeing this photo on the wine label with the message from Helsinki, written in Spanish, to his son made me think for a minute that perhaps he had been an internationally acclaimed athlete but, of course, that photo is of Emil Zapotek and the message is from the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games where he won gold in the 5,000m, 10,000m and Marathon. Still, it left me curious about who the real Mariano Rivas Rojano was but searching for him on the internet only throws up references to the race in his name.

Back home I looked up how I had done in the overall rankings and was pleased to see that I had come in 30th place out of 880 runners, 7th in my age group. Two years ago I finished 30 seconds faster but in 35th place and 11th in my age group: it's true that the winner was the very same and he also finished in a slower time this year. Well, there's no point getting obsessed with the time - the real test is in just under a month's time and there is no way to be sure until I cross that line in Central Park. In the meantime, I can be pleased that I have put in a performance which is "up there" with my previous races. Most importantly, it erases the bad taste of my recent failed attempt at the distance (which ended up turning into a full Marathon)...

Monday: 4 x 8 x 70% weights + core
Tuesday: 2 x 1'-2'-3'-2'-1'-2'-3' @ 3:25 w/ 4.5%-2.5%-1% gradient
Wednesday: 60' @ 4:08
Thursday: 3 x 15' @ 3:45
Friday: 40' @ 4:04
Saturday: 20' @ 4:27
Sunday: Alcázar de San Juan Half Marathon in 1:20.23

Total kilometres: 68