Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Well I never...

I was in a fairly routine meeting just now when I saw someone - or, more precisely, the feet of someone (as the rest of them was obscured) - pass by, wearing Vibram Five Fingers! In the office! I've seen it all now. This isn't New York you know...

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The tragic "curse" of the 2012 London Olympic Games

Recently there has been a slew of sensationalist articles about the now 16 Olympic athletes that have died since 2012. It seems like a lot - 16 people - but is it really? Based on the mortality rates of people aged between 25 and 44 in 1995 here, 192 people would be expected to die for every 100,000 per year. So, in fact, 16 people in 3 years is below the average.

Misuse of statistics may not seem like a terribly important thing to rally against but, when you think how many political decisions are taken backed by skewed information (WMD anyone?), you realize that lives could literally be saved if the general level of understanding of statistics were higher.

To take a example, the declaration by the WHO on the carcinogenic nature of processed meats has caused quite a lot of media attention recently, particularly in Spain, the home of jamón y chorizo. I was a bit surprised about how much attention it got as it seems we are always being told that such and such is bad for you (I'm pretty sure that bacon has always been on that list) even if, like in the case of margarine, we were once told with equal conviction that it was actually supposed to be good for us. So I thought I would try to see what recent research has caused the WHO to be so concerned.

Digging a little, it turns out that the IARC (International Agency for Research of Cancer) has recently confirmed the findings of the WHO publication Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases. from 2002. Unfortunately, no other references were cited explicitly in the IARC's Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. In particular, the WHO document contains the following sentence:
Factors which probably increase risk include high dietary intake of preserved meats, salt-preserved foods and salt, and very hot (thermally) drinks and food
Notice the word "probably" which I read in the linguistic sense, as opposed to the mathematical sense. Digging a little further, it appears that the academic paper on behind the "probably" is
Norat T et al. Meat consumption and colorectal cancer risk: a dose--response meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. International Journal of Cancer, 2002, 98:241--256.
I can't download the full paper for free (and I'm certainly not interested enough to spend my own money on it) but the abstract explains
The hypothesis that consumption of red and processed meat increases colorectal cancer risk is reassessed in a meta-analysis of articles published during 1973-99. The mean relative risk (RR) for the highest quantile of intake vs. the lowest was calculated and the RR per gram of intake was computed through log-linear models. Attributable fractions and preventable fractions for hypothetical reductions in red meat consumption in different geographical areas were derived using the RR log-linear estimates and prevalence of red meat consumption from FAO data and national dietary surveys. High intake of red meat, and particularly of processed meat, was associated with a moderate but significant increase in colorectal cancer risk. Average RRs and 95% confidence intervals (CI) for the highest quantile of consumption of red meat were 1.35 (CI: 1.21-1.51) and of processed meat, 1.31 (CI: 1.13-1.51). The RRs estimated by log-linear dose-response analysis were 1.24 (CI: 1.08-1.41) for an increase of 120 g/day of red meat and 1.36 (CI: 1.15-1.61) for 30 g/day of processed meat. Total meat consumption was not significantly associated with colorectal cancer risk. The risk fraction attributable to current levels of red meat intake was in the range of 10-25% in regions where red meat intake is high. If average red meat intake is reduced to 70 g/week in these regions, colorectal cancer risk would hypothetically decrease by 7-24%.
So the recent furore is based on a the press picking up the IARC's confirmation of a publication by the WHO from 2002 which cites an academic paper, also from 2002, which is based on a collection of articles published between 1973 and 1999. I cannot claim to be an expert in Statistics but I do at least have a degree in Mathematics, albeit from more than half a lifetime ago. The numbers do appear to indicate a significant (in the mathematical sense) increase in colorectal cancer risk. What I find troubling, however, is that no single study in the period of 1973-1999 seems to have been "significant" enough for us to have reached this conclusion on its strengths alone; instead we have to rely on a so-called "meta analysis" which has to somehow homogenize, aggregate and summarize all the other results. Details about how the experiments were conducted, on what populations and with which controls etc, get lost in the wash. To be clear, I'm not saying that the conclusion is wrong, just pointing out how the information is collated and processed. Maybe processed information is just as bad for us as processed meat.

Let's suppose for a minute that there genuinely is a positive correlation between red meat consumption and risk of cancer. This is the classic case of causality not being the same as correlation. Maybe smokers tend to eat more red meat and also have a higher risk of developing cancer (although, admittedly, not colorectal cancer). What if we suspected that cancer sufferers were more likely to develop a craving for read meat? Then this study would appear to confirm our suspicion. These are perhaps facetious examples, but hardly a week goes by without some questionable claim on the BBC News website "based on scientific evidence". I particularly like this website, which goes out of its way to find spurious correlations, such as

The cause against Bad Science is not without its champions though, Ben Goldacre being the first to spring to mind with his book on the subject. It strikes me that kids today need to be much more equipped than we were to cut through the crap on the internet: there is just too much information available nowadays. Once something has been "re-tweeted" enough times it almost becomes fact by democracy. In my opinion there should be courses at school on how to determine the quality and validity of information - it's no longer a case of going to your local library and copying out the sentences from the only book you find. David Thorne says in his latest book

Excerpt from "Look Evelyn, Duck Dynasty Wiper Blades. We Should Get Them"

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Running Mindfully

The idea of meditation has always been something I have tended to reject for several reasons. First and foremost, I don't think stress is necessarily a bad thing, so why try to eliminate it? I have this mental image of a Buddha shaped guy lying on the sofa watching TV, completely unstressed by life. I don't even believe that the pursuit of "happiness" is something that we should be subscribing to - is not my Buddha figure happy, at least in this moment? To be satisfied, maybe I could except that as a reasonable goal. I can appreciate the importance of here and now, but is it really so important to stop and smell the flowers? Shouldn't we have more pressing concerns? The fact that meditation is often part of a mystical or religious package has also made it much harder for me to embrace. But my main misconception of meditation was that it was a question of emptying the mind. As the term mindfulness indicates, it is quite the opposite: it is about focusing the mind, not emptying it.

I can accept meditation as a form of mental training, however, but a mental training for what? My understanding of Mindfulness is that it is the art of focusing on the space between the various stimuli that we receive, and our reaction to those stimuli, allowing us to consciously choose how to react. After all, we can only take decisions here and now as it is the only point in space-time in which we are actually living. This idea is not new: Zen Buddhists have practiced meditation for thousands of years. In the field of psychotherapy, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy shares a lot of the same ideas with Mindfulness. And in sports, the holy grail of being "in the zone" or in a state of "flow" is
"the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does."
Compare this to the definition of Mindfulness according to the creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme, Jon Kabat-Zinn:
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally"
So it is not about avoiding stress, but by being conscious we can decide whether stress is the right response or not. The alternative to being conscious is being on automatic pilot, where we are under the illusion that we are taking decisions but really we are just going with the flow, as opposed to being in a state of flow. A metaphor which I find quite helpful is to think of our consciousness as the sky across which clouds (our thoughts) are drifting. As thoughts occur to us, we make note without engaging with them and return to concentrating on what we have decided to focus on.
Caligraphy by Nonin Chawaney
In my case, the key is the word "non-judgementally". I understand that the point of not attaching any judgement - be it positive or negative - is to avoid the typical vicious circle of a thought leading to an emotion, which then leads to another thought and, before you realize it, you have forgotten what you were trying to focus on. In fact, the judgement often arises in the form of a self-criticism of how bad you are at concentrating. I can still remember a maths exam I did when I was about 13 years old, in which I started to worry about how much time I had left to finish the questions: "the time is ticking and I am sitting here just thinking about how the time is ticking and meanwhile...". One interesting and perhaps slightly counter-intuitive consequence is that, if we are too goal orientated when practicing Mindfulness, we will inevitably fall into the judgement trap.

A certain amount of sales pitch is necessary to convince anyone to make the effort of incorporating a new routine into their lives, especially if this involves paying for a book or a course along the way. But the most prominent webpage I have found on the subject of running with Mindfulness promises all kinds of benefits and, unfortunately, speaks to that goal orientated part of our brain.

I'm certainly no expert on Mindfulness having just done a two day course at work last week. We went through the concepts and practiced some of the classic Mindfulness meditations in a group. I have started to (formally) meditate just 5 minutes every morning, with the intention of extending this to 15-20 minutes over time. The act of running without tripping over is now sufficiently automatic that it shouldn't be too difficult to combine with meditation. So far I have only tried this on the treadmill but the kinds of (informal) meditation that seem natural while running are
- Breathing. Without modifying or forcing the rhythm, try to breathe with the abdomen as opposed to the chest and, if possible, through the nose (I find that I have to breathe through my mouth above a certain pace). Think about how the abdomen rises and falls, the air going in and out of the nose / mouth and the number of steps take during each inhalation / exhalation.
- Sounds. Tune into all the sounds you hear without thinking about any one of them or what is causing them in particular. Try to distinguish as many different sounds as possible.
- Being. Similar to the above, but concentrating on all the senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling and - why not - tasting. 
- Body scan. As you run slowly work your way through every part of your body, paying attention to the sensations of movement, tension, discomfort or even pain. Try not to classify these sensations as good or bad, just make note of them without avoiding unpleasant ones or, equally, clinging to pleasant ones.
Thoughts. This time thoughts are invited but, as usual, it is important not to engage with any of them. Instead, the idea is to classify them as thoughts about the future (worries, plans, etc.), thoughts about the past (memories) and thoughts about the present.
When I think back to the two Marathons I have run in New York, unsurprisingly, I can remember a lot more about the one that went "well" and very little about the one that went "badly". I don't believe that this is because I have wanted to wipe the less good experience from my memory: I actually think that it was less good because I wasn't as present during it. I remember trying to be present but somehow failing. Perhaps I just need to practice more by not just training the body, but the mind as well.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Best sweat proof Bluetooth headphones for running

If anyone needs a runner to put headphones through their paces, then I am your guy. I used to get through them at a pace of one pair every month or so, until I happened on some that were more resistant: they were the Senheiser PMX80, which lasted for several years, but when it finally came to the time to replace them, I found the more recent models to have awful sound quality and not be as durable.
I invested in some Jaybird Freedom Sprints, which came with a sweat proof guarantee. Although you can't tell from the photo above, they come with little ear hooks which I found absolutely necessary if I wanted these things to stay in my ear while running. In fact, this requirement whittled down the candidates for a pair of Bluetooth running headphones to a very select few. After 3 months, though, I had to send them back, but they were replaced with no quibbles. They lasted for over two years before I lost them, bought some more, had to send these back a couple of months after and now the replacement buds have conked out as well. So, not counting the ones I lost which lasted for a miraculously long period of time, that's three pairs that have all failed within months. Even with a no questions asked full replacement service, it is annoying to have to send them back. Actually, the last time I had a problem with them, it was enough just to send a photo with the cord cut to prove that I wasn't cheating, but I still had to wait for the new ones to arrive. Now I just can't be bothered to send them back again because I know they will fail, again. Maybe I will sometime, and instead give the replacement ones as a present to a less sweaty friend.
I decided to go back to wired phones and bought some Yurbuds Inspire 100, albeit a little skeptically. They also claimed to be sweat proof and, having no in-built Bluetooth electronics, I thought they were more likely to be so. I was more skeptical about the way they affixed themselves to the ear, using the patented "twist lock" technology. I've noticed that the Ironman brand is fairly selective about which products they put their name to, so I thought I would give them a try. I'm very glad I did, because they are very comfortable, have very good sound quality and have never so much as slipped in my ears, no matter how sweaty they have got. They were also reasonably priced in my opinion. My only gripe is that when I store them they always tend to get into a tangle, if I am not looking, but that is something quite easy to resolve.

I don't mind running with wired phones when I am running outside to music. In fact, my ideal solution is to plug them into my Underwater Audio waterproof iPod Shuffle. Being waterproof doesn't necessarily mean that it is sweat proof, as acidic sweat vapour can be much more pernicious. It is too soon to tell whether this iPod will outlast the one I "killed" over the summer, but you'll be the first to know if it does.

Running on the treadmill is another matter, however. I like to watch films and TV series, and having a wire running from my ears to my tablet makes me nervous because I sometimes catch it inadvertently with my hands and it tends to make me lean forward at the waist, compromising my running technique. What I really want are some truly sweat proof Bluetooth headphones that stay in my ear. While Yurbuds offers a wireless solution that may well be perfect, I am not of the mind to lay out that amount of cash to test it. I think that the best approach is to keep any electronics as far away from my sweaty ears as possible. So the solution I have come up with is to buy a relatively cheap Bluetooth receiver into which I can plug my headphones. The only issue was how to attach said Bluetooth receiver to my clothing without it getting too exposed to sweat. One option is to put it inside an armband, but I don't like running with armbands; another was attaching it to my heart rate monitor but that required running shirtless, which is only an option in the privacy of my own home treadmill. Instead, I have made a kind of makeshift clip out of a rubber band (from a defunct cycling computer) and a safety pin like so:

I then clip this to the outside of my shorts as if it were an iPod Shuffle. It may well die a death in the next few months, but costing a tenth of the price of the supposedly sweat proof Bluetooth headphones, I'm not too worried.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Garmin Vivosmart HR review

You could be forgiven for wondering why someone who takes training as seriously as I do "needs" an activity tracker. Of course I don't need one any more than I need a GPS watch, Heart Rate Monitor, etc. But I don't need one much less, either.

I was so excited to get one - and it appeared to be fate as I happened to be in the States on the day when the exclusive sales period started at Best Buy - that I went to buy one as soon as I had showered after the Marathon. I remember standing around in the store, still feeling quite queasy, until someone finally came to attend to me. I had been worried I wouldn't make it before they sold out but, for being an exclusive, it was hidden out of sight and nobody seemed to know anything about it! It was going to be my Christmas present to me from my wife but, in the end, I only managed to wait an hour before opening it and giving it to myself (all unbeknownst to my wife).

The reasonably sensible reasons for wanting one were to be able to track my sleep quality and resting heart rate to help me to better plan my training, and also to remind me to get up out of my chair and move about. This second reason sounds a bit silly perhaps, because I could just as easily have set an alarm in Outlook, for example, but the daily goal of X steps or Y flights of stairs changes your relationship with moving around. The problems I have been having with my back lately have made me realize that no amount of intense aerobic exercise will help; the real remedy is not to be slouching around in my chair for extended periods of time. After every hour of inactivity it vibrates, telling you to "Move!", until the so-called move bar has been cleared. I also very much like having notifications á la smart watch. Rather counterintuitively, you end up reaching into your pocket to fiddle around with your phone less if you know you are going to receive an alert for anything interesting, which you can vet on the little screen. Lastly, a feature which would be great for my wife is being able to "find your phone" (assuming it is within Bluetooth range).

The less sensible reason for getting one is to have more graphs and metrics to geek out on. For example, I can plot a graph of how my resting heart rate has recovered in the days after the Marathon. It may be a coincidence (time will tell) but it looks as though my resting heart rate is a good indication of how rested I am (duh!). Another reason I am interested in my resting heart rate is because a recent heart study found another anomaly whose name initially worried me - sinusoidal bradycardia - but turns out just to mean very low resting heart rate, and can be common in trained athletes.

There has been a lot of speculation over how accurate the optical Heart Rate sensor is. I have chosen to wear the band so that the face is on the inside of my right wrist. That way it looks a little more discreet, which it can do with being (also, I'm not sure I want other people being able to see how fast my heart is beating!). My pulse rate seems pretty consistent but there are times when I notice it up in the 90s and yet don't feel as though I am making any particular effort. I think that this is because it monitors your heart rate more frequently when it detects activity, so that the higher reading is from the last time I moved around; if I am just sitting still (like I am while writing this), it hovers around a fairly constant number. One thing that I have tried to figure out is what the "average resting rate" on the screen refers to. It is different to the one recorded on the website and seems to be very constant, as if it were being averaged since the beginning of time (as far as it is concerned).

You can use the Vivosmart in the same way as you would use a Garmin sports watch by pressing the little button and putting it into running mode. It then records an activity with graphs for pace and heart rate. Here's one I prepared earlier:

12 kph run on the treadmill
As you can see, the heart rate graph looks fairly convincing (although I had to tighten the strap one notch to get a reliable reading while running). The step counter was bang on when walking for 30 minutes at a brisk pace on the treadmill the other day, but slightly generous when running at 12 kph. Both of these activities were enough to merit counting as "intense minutes" which are tracked separately (weekly goal: 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity). If my Fenix 2 watch tends to underestimate my pace by about 20 seconds (slower), the Vivosmart seems to overestimate it by about the same amount in the opposite direction. I have yet to see what happens if I simultaneously record my activity on my GPS watch, but I expect the calories will be double counted by default. I'm not too bothered about this because I am not really worrying about counting them, but some people will be. I imagine that Garmin will address this at some point, if they haven't already. When I get a chance I will compare the same activity with the two, in particular to see how well the heart rate measurement holds up. One nice feature is that it can rebroadcast the heart rate to another (Garmin / ANT+ compatible) watch which can potentially save the need for a chest strap. I would say that anyone training to heart rate will probably require the greater accuracy of the strap but, for those times when you forget it or can't be bothered with it, it's much better than nothing. The only issue would be the extra battery drain.

The display is pretty clear, especially when the backlight comes on any time you touch it. Normally it is inverted (i.e., white text on black background) which, like the Fenix 2, looks cooler but is slightly harder to read. The guys at Garmin appear to have found the perfect compromise by switching to a clearer black on white display whenever you put it into running mode.

So far it has been a little hit and miss in detecting my sleep times because I like to lie in bed for a while either reading or watching a film. I'm not sure how it could tell the difference between me lying still while watching a movie or lying still while sleeping. You have to indicate a range of hours when you are normally asleep and it does the rest; you can always edit it afterwards. I've also tried to correlate the times when I have woken up in the night with the periods it classifies as light sleep and it more or less makes sense.
Movemennt during sleep
Sleep quality
Compared to its little brother, the Vivosmart, apart from its relatively bulky size, the only extra features it offers are the heart rate monitoring (putting it head to head with the Fitbit Charge HR) and the ability to count floors climbed, using an inbuilt barometric altimeter. Again, it sounds stupid, but you'll find you end up taking the stairs more often as a result. Being properly waterproof gives it the edge over the Fitbit in my opinion. On the downside, the already limited battery life is further reduced to a claimed 5 days (which is even less if you are more active). Still, it doesn't take very long to charge (about an hour) and it's not a bad idea to let your wrist breathe now and again.

It syncs much more smoothly via Bluetooth to my (Android) phone than the Fenix 2, which often needs a bit of coaxing to spill the beans on the latest workout. But I have noticed an occasional glitch when the Vivosmart seems to fall out with the phone and stops talking to it. When this happens, the easiest solution I have found (on the Garmin website - so they are aware of it) is to disable and re-enable Bluetooth on the phone. To be fair, this might be an issue with my phone (Samsung Grand 2) rather than with the Vivosmart. One day we will look back at these kind of issues with the same fondness we have for spooling cassette tapes with a pencil that have been ingested by tape recorders.

I think that the device has several target audiences. First, those who want to get fit and need some extra motivation. Possibly for them the heart rate feature is a bit overkill, but it bridges the gap between an activity monitor / smart phone and a sports watch. I expect that Garmin's idea is to hook people into their ecosystem (Garmin Connect) via the Vivosmart and hope that people upgrade to the more fancy sports watches and heart rate monitors as they become fitter and more motivated. Another type of customer is the more serious athlete who already has a GPS watch to accurately monitor their training, but wants more information on their general state of wellness in order to be able to optimize that training. Lastly, for those of us that don't yet have a smart watch, it is nice to have those complementary features on a less than watch sized device.

UPDATE: Heart rate comparison between Vivosmart HR and Run HRM

I just did a 40 minute run at 14 kph (4:17 kilometre pace) on the treadmill and recorded the activity on both the Fenix 2 with Garmin HRM Run and the Vivosmart HR. This time the Fenix got the pace bang on the nail (and was very consistent - the first time I have seen this and I have been using it for months now, so perhaps it was because I made sure to tighten the strap - but the Vivosmart estimated a pace of 4:42. This was the opposite from what I expected as the Vivosmart tended to overstate my speed when I was running at 12 kph - maybe my running mechanics change as 14 kph is much closer to running than 12 kph, which is almost jogging. Not a big deal, in my opinion, the point about an activity tracker is to get a ballpark figure for the number of kilometres you walk or run in a day, and not to be a substitute for a GPS watch. I was more impressed by the heart rate comparison:

Vivosmart HR
Fenix 2 with HRM Run
Both get the heart rate right but the Vivosmart graph is much more noisy, as you might expect. Still, it is accurate enough to pick up heart rate drift over time and, as long as you ignore the odd anomaly (like the one towards the end of the run), then it looks to be adequate for training purposes. However, a few beats per minute up or down can make a big difference (as I learned not for the first time in the New York Marathon last week) so, personally, I would still only use a chest strap for anything serious. Having said that, the dropout with the HRM Run towards the beginning of the run is something that I have seen happen from time to time, but it is so clearly an anomaly that there is no chance of being confused by it if you happen to look at your watch at the precise instant it is telling you that you are flat-lining. Bear in mind that when you run "in real life" with hills and uneven terrain, your heart rate is never as smooth as on the treadmill. If you want to try to draw any conclusions about training when hills are involved, then it is important not to have any extra noise in the signal.

UPDATE 2: Heart rate while swimming

It's taken me a while to get around to this as I find swimming boring at the best of times and, given that I haven't been in the pool for ages, just swimming 20 minutes as I did today seems like an eternity. But the good news is that the Vivosmart HR tracked my heart rate as well underwater as it does on land, which makes it a rather attractive alternative to the Garmin HRM Swim.

The only small niggle with using the Vivosmart HR as a Heart Rate Monitor while swimming was that the contact with the water was enough to "swipe" the screen from the heart rate readout to another screen. One solution would be to configure it to only have one screen showing the heart rate, and another would be to pair it with another watch - in my case the Fenix 2 - and to read the heart rate on that screen. I haven't tried pairing them yet but, for this to work well in the swimming pool, the two devices would have to be worn on the same wrist as ANT doesn't travel underwater and, at any one time, one of the devices would be underwater.

UPDATE 3: Heart rate while running outdoors

Lately, the heart rate data while running has been very poor. As my treadmill broke on pretty much the same day as Garmin released a new firmware I don't know whether this is due to running outside where there is more light (obviously) than in my basement or because Garmin screwed something up. DC Rainmaker seems to think that cold weather effects optical heart rate measurements - I'm not quite sure why - so this might also be a factor. As a result, I've not been getting anything like as many "intensity minutes" as I deserve although I should say that I haven't bothered to use the activity mode, instead trusting that the device will notice my vigorous arm movements.

I've also noticed more inaccuracies in the step counting as time goes on. I usually get about 250 metres - enough to clear the message telling me to "Move!" first thing in the morning - by cleaning my teeth. The floors climbed reading is usually fairly accurate but today I reached my goal without climbing any stairs or indeed going up more than one floor in the lift: I think it must have been fooled by a combination of my movement and a simultaneous drop in atmospheric pressure (which would have been interpreted as a gain in altitude). I think all activity trackers suffer from these kind of anomalies and, as long as you are consistent (in how many times you clean your teeth, for example), they are pretty good at telling the difference between a busy day and a lazy one. When I see people complaining about their accuracy I think that they are expecting too much and should buy a GPS watch instead.

DC Rainmaker has now published his in depth review in which he is quite scathing about its ability to track resting heart rate, which is really the only thing I use it for. My experience has been that it has been quite consistent and correlated well with my general state of fitness. Hopefully, if there are wrinkles here, Garmin will iron them out in the inevitable firmware updates to come.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Last damn bridge!

When I said that I didn't remember any of the signs, I lied. I did remember seeing this one

I just wasn't sure of the expletive. It was definitely one of my favourites and I remember the bearer of the sign being particularly enthusiastic. A fellow runner shouted out "Great sign!" and I remember opening my mouth to say something but I was so tired that nothing came out. I was amused to see on Facebook that many other runners also loved this sign when I had assumed that it was a classic.

The aftermath

For being a Marathon in which I suffered a lot, I have had much less aches and pains afterwards than I am accustomed to. Maybe after 10 Marathons my body has finally got used to the distance. If anything is holding me back from going for another run just yet, it's that my lungs still feel worse for wear.

I thought about going to the gym today but then I realized I wouldn't know what to do and would end up standing around like a first timer. I'll probably do a little rowing (I need to strengthen my back) and a bit of treadmill walking tonight.

If knowing what to do fitness-wise tonight is a dilemma, then what about setting my next goals? The only thing I feel fairly sure about is doing the Madrid Marathon on the 24th of April, probably "en plan tranqui" (easy). Eli asked me today whether I would be running the New York Marathon next year - I'd love to of course (perhaps a little less focused on the time) but in spite of running the first half of the NYC Marathon in less than the Half Marathon qualifying time for my Age Group of 1:25, only a proper Half Marathon counts (or indeed full Marathon in 2:57). I already have a qualifying time of 1:20:23 this year, but it is not as much of a sure thing as it was a non-NYRR (New York Road Runners) race.

Otherwise, I'd like to get back on the bike a bit more. We're off to Asturias this weekend so maybe I'll take the road bike along for a ride. We'll see...

Check out the salt stains on my compression socks
Several people who know me well (including my mum and my wife) have pointed out that I am not getting any younger and that maybe I should just accept that PBs are a thing of the past. The thing is I was fully prepared to accept this before the summer but the training ended up going very well, and everything indicated that I could run it in a fast time, if not a best time. This is not the first time that the Marathon has put me in my place. I think that is exactly why it continues to hold so much fascination for me. But yes, I am getting older, just not 15 minutes older!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

TCS New York City Marathon 2015 - Race Report

Marathons can be one of two things: they can be good or they can be hard. If 2013 was a good one, this year it was the turn of a hard one.

I continued to be bothered by my back, shoulder and neck pain so I was overjoyed to find that Barajas airport now has a place that offers massages (as well as delicious smoothies). Luckily enough, my wife had had to drop me off on the early side as she had a conference call to make, so I had just enough time. I indicated on a form where the masseur should focus his attention, as well as specifying that I wanted a deep massage. It was very good, much better than I would have expected in an airport. It left me a little sore the next day, as was to be expected, but it definitely loosened me up as well as making the flight much more bearable. With the flight you know more or less what to expect but, depending on the number of planes that happen to land at JFK at the same time, the wait in customs can be quite heavy. I decided to be as "zen" about everything as possible so, after two hours of waiting in line, I didn't bat an eyelid when the customs official rudely told us to "Get out of my line" because he happened to be knocking off work at that moment. Just one more hour on the train to my final destination.

This time my friends Eli & David with whom I was staying spent the weekend in the flat, but they left me to my own devices on Saturday and were very considerate about not making any noise when they came back in the evening, long after I had gone off to sleep. After running down first thing to the Expo to pick up my number (20 minutes at a pace of 3:56 - I was too excited!) I spent the day lazing around. I stocked up on cereal bars and bananas, cooked and ate spaghetti (for 6 people, according to the packet), had a hot bath and lounged in bed. Between the flights and vegging out, I got through about 8 films in total. I watched one about a budding 4-minute miler and another about a bunch of people taking on the 4 Deserts to try to get myself in the right frame of mind. I was asleep by about 7:30 pm.

If I have one gripe about the Upper West Side, it's the number of bloody dogs there are everywhere. My sleep was only interrupted by a yappy dog that was locked up in a cage outside one of the flats in the block. And then, on my short run to the Expo a large dog jumped up and snapped at me, something that has never happened before. I would have expected Upper West Side dogs to be better behaved. Even just navigating all the dogs on outstretched leads is a tripping hazard.

In spite of the incessant yapping, I slept surprisingly well the night before, waking up at 4 am - 10 hours sleep counting the extra hour from the clocks going back. I had a light breakfast, vaselined up, put my kit on and headed out of the door towards the subway. I saw someone else similarly dressed leave their flat and head in the opposite direction. Hmmm, not a good sign. Down in the subway there was no-one around but I knew I had plenty of time and that the journey was pretty straightforward - take the "1" all the way down to the ferry - at least, that is what I thought.

Luckily I bumped into Matt at that point, who had bothered to check the status of the trains. Just as last time I spent the next 4-5 hours leading up to the race with the first person I bumped into, so it was to be this time. Matt wasn't from New York but was a Chicagoan and so at least knew the basics of public transportation in the States. Just then we were joined by Dan who was from New York and seemed to know exactly what he was doing. Rather like the pied piper of Hamlyn, the number of people following Dan grew and grew until it was quite a responsibility he was bearing. The journey was made quite a bit more complicated by some poorly timed maintenance works, but we made it to the South Ferry Terminal by 6:15. By this time the queue for the 6:30 ferry I had notionally said I would be boarding when I registered was so large that the doors closed in our faces before we could get on. No worries, we would be in a good position to get the next one. But where are all those people rushing off to? Damn, the next ferry leaves from the other gate. I managed to stem the thoughts of the injustice of missing another ferry before they crystallized into panic, and our little group made it on even getting seats without any problems. While we were swapping Marathon stories, Dan astounded us by saying that he had lost over 100 pounds (45 kilos!!) in the last few years from running - he was so lean that it was hard to imagine what he would have looked like with that much excess baggage.

In 2013 I started in the blue wave on the lower levels of the bridge; this time around I had drawn orange as had Matt. I basically followed the routine I did two years ago to the letter with the exception of not being able to do a very convincing "lucky number 2" beforehand. In spite of all the pasta and cereal bars I had been stuffing myself with over the previous days, I didn't feel bloated before this Marathon for some reason. Two years ago we had passed the time looking for the Dunkin' Donuts hats which this year were in plentiful supply; instead Matt tried to find his friend Sasha amongst the other 50,000 runners. We found him, finally, in the last waiting area before being ushered on to the upper deck of the bridge. There I bumped into a friend from Spain - Antonio - who was running his Xth Marathon (where X was a big number I can't remember), together with his son. Spike Lee was the Master of Ceremonies giving way to a slightly grating (sorry) Opera version of the USA National Anthem. I almost forgot to give a thought to the race ahead.

I had printed out my splits from 2 years ago on a wristband to give me some idea about the relative ease or difficulty of each mile, as well as an indication of how I was doing compared to my Personal Best time. I found myself fairly naturally nailing each mile split almost to the second but, during the 3rd mile (after the distracting up and down of the Verrazano Bridge), I already knew something was not right. I can't honestly say whether it was a self fulfilling prophecy, but I noticed my heart rate was significantly higher than I would have expected it to be at that pace. I imagined it was due to the unusually warm temperature and - more importantly - the 70% humidity. This was the bane of my very first Marathon in Amsterdam: in spite of it being quite cool, the humidity was as detrimental as it would have been in hot weather - after all, the body gets hot running irrespective of the ambient temperature. I had a choice to make. Do I slow down and wave goodbye to a chance at my PB but save myself a lot of unpleasantness later, or do I just go for it and ignore the Heart Rate Monitor? I decided to go for it.

I pretty much nailed the splits up until halfway (mile 12)...

...but look how much higher my pulse rate was compared to last time...

...or even just compared to a recent run at the same pace with a similar(ish) profile
I spotted negative thoughts creeping into my consciousness and instead tried to enjoy the atmosphere and to conserve mental energy for later. But, if truth be told, I was finding it increasingly difficult to enjoy and increasingly difficult not to worry. In general, the sensations were not good and it felt just a little bit too much like hard work. Also, I think as a result, I can't say that I remember as much of the race as last time. I remember finding some of the signs amusing but not what was written on them. I do remember one sign, though - "Have you ever been victimized by the Marathon" - because I saw it at least three times along the course and couldn't figure out whether the bearer was the same person or whether there were several identical copies of the same sign.

When I had been geeking around in the weeks leading up to the event, comparing my splits to other runners, I had noticed that my 11th mile seemed to be a bit slower relatively speaking, while my finish was much stronger. With this in mind it dawned on me that the reason was because this was the orthodox Jewish quarter where I suppose it was against their religion to support us. I don't remember the First Testament diverging from the Second Testament as far as Marathons were concerned... It was almost worse to have people ignoring you than running in a vacuum and, coupled with a sustained "annoying hill", it made for one of the slowest miles of the course.

I managed to spot my mate Rich in Greenpoint, just before the Pulaski Bridge at the Half Marathon mark, which I reached in 1:23:48, only 23 seconds behind last time. The live tracking was vastly superior to two years ago when the automatic tweets (that I wasted $3 on) failed to materialize. Thanks to the app, Eli & David were able to anticipate fairly accurately the time I would be passing by which was just as well, because they chose to spectate along the very densely packed 1st Avenue.

Knowing that I would probably see them around this point, I passed the time scanning the faces of the crowd and tried to look as happy and relaxed as I could. Unfortunately, my legs were feeling very heavy by this point and I was conscious of running ever more slowly. I saw them thanks to Eli's exuberant shout (which she later worried might have put me off my stride).

The second half of the race was very tough. As usual, when the Marathon doesn't go to plan, my heart rate actually slows down and my breathing speeds up. As you can see, my gadgets reported that my cadence started to decrease, my contact time increased as did my vertical oscillation and my braking force.

Red = pace, orange = braking Gs, yellow = contact time
Towards the end, my foot strike moved more to the midfoot from the forefoot, but this was due to a conscious effort to avoid my calf muscles knotting up in a ball. I thought of my friend Nat and his stoicism and I practically ran through Central park with my eyes closed.

I had got a little irritated with my mum when she had said before the Marathon "Don't be disappointed if you get cramps and are not able to do a good time". "I don't want to think like that," I had retorted. With 1.2 miles to go my legs finally locked up completely, rooting me to the spot. The crowd cheered like crazy for me to keep going, which I did after a few seconds, but I wasn't convinced that it wouldn't happen again and again until the finish line. Thank goodness for small mercies: this was the only time I was forced to stop. It was also probably the most exhilarating moment in the whole race for me.

Can you guess which part of my body hurt the most after the race? My left arm - go figure. I think I was pumping my arms so much to make up for my uncooperative legs that I wore them out completely. I couldn't seem to find a position that would ease the sense of fatigue. Bizarrely, my back and neck felt better than they had before the Marathon, so that was one thing I needn't have worried about.

Just then I saw Matt. I had wondered how it had been for him and it turned out that he had had a very similar experience to me. He had set off with the same goal time, reached the halfway point more or less at the same time as me and then started to slow down, finally cramping up in almost exactly the same spot as I had, before crossing the line a number of seconds ahead of me.

I finished shy of all three of my goals in a time of 3:02:52 in place 970 out of 50,530 and 191 in my age group. I made my way back to the flat, showered (which stung like hell) and then headed off in search of a beer. The whole of New York seems to breathe the Marathon, so many people congratulated me and asked me how I had done. I hadn't yet figured out how to tell the story but ended up practicing several versions from "there was a great atmosphere" to "it didn't go as I had planned". It's a bit of delicate situation to be disappointed with a time that for many people would be a dream time. And to non-Marathoners, a 15 minute delay seems like a trivial miscalculation - akin to missing a bus - rather than a disaster. But if you stop to think that behind those 15 minutes of difference between the first half and second half is a world of personal suffering imposed by a mind / body that just resort to various forms of torture to prevent you from going any faster, it is perhaps easier to understand. In hindsight, I think I am more disappointed about not having truly enjoyed it than about the time per se.

This was rectified to a great extent by seeing how much Eli & David had enjoyed supporting the Marathon and getting caught up in other people's stories. After some sushi, we met up with my Ultra running friend Elaine and her fiancé, Tom, in a bar Downtown. Elaine had been pacing the 4:30 group.

The girl who took this photo had paced a blind lady who took 8.5 hours to finish
While in town, I also took advantage to pop into Best Buy, which starting that very day had an exclusive on the Garmin Vivosmart HR - an activity tracker with continuous heart rate monitoring. I convinced myself that I needed / deserved one of these.

This time around I had allowed myself an extra day to enjoy New York and it was just as well, otherwise I would have felt a tremendous anti-climax. David and I went for a fantastic Dim Sum in Chinatown, in a restaurant that I had been to with my wife the previous year, where we were the only non-Chinese in the place. We had to share a table with a Chinese couple and could only order by pointing our chopsticks and nodding. It was very good quality and I felt stuffed afterwards and it was only $18 for the two of us.

One of my favourite pastimes in New York is just randomly wandering the streets and trying to find a different route every time. Hidden out of the way was what looked to be a record shop but in fact turned out to be a non-profit music archive.

Just peeking through the window I could see a whole bunch of rare Roy Ayers records. We knocked on the door but were not allowed in. In spite of being quite friendly, they seemed puzzled as to why we would want to look inside. For a company that includes "passion" in its mission statement, it strikes me as an even more puzzling thing to ask.

Note to self for next Marathon: don't tie my shorts too tight. They left an almost perfect outline in blood.