Choosing the difficult path

The trail rarely taken

Today’s run (Stillwell Woods): 3.5 miles

I went to Stillwell Woods this morning for a change of pace and the opportunity to run in shade. The clouds have moved out and the humidity (and dew point!) is higher than yesterday. Even though Stillwell offers a nice break from my neighborhood streets, I don’t feel like I’ve taken full advantage of its breadth of choices. Nowadays, I tend to follow the same few trails, but I decided to change that today.

When I arrived at Stillwell Park, I saw an open tent with mountain bikes set up by Santa Cruz, a bike manufacturer. A few months ago Scott bikes did the same thing, offering people the opportunity to test their bikes on Stillwell’s trails. Due to that, I was a little concerned that I’d get over-run by mountain bikers on the trails. It turned out that I only encountered a few groups of riders who shared the path nicely.

Unlike the route I normally follow, I turned left on a path marked “most difficult.” In the past, I would take on Stillwell’s hardest technical trails. Over time, I’ve found myself running the same, less challenging loop. The trees were doing a nice job of blocking the sun as I made my way through the ups, downs and root covered paths. After a couple of miles, I started to feel fatigued and I needed to take a minute to rest before continuing.

It turned out to be a more difficult run than I’d intended. The upside was getting through a good workout with scenery far more interesting than my neighborhood streets.

Friends don’t let friends push the pace

Today’s run (treadmill): 25 minutes

“Easy” is relative

Yesterday I ran into a colleague whom I hadn’t seen in a while. She told me she was running again after taking a long break. About a year ago she’d gone from walker to runner and, by April, she was running about 15 miles a week. We last touched base in early summer when she planned to run in her first 5K. My friend said that, since that time, her discipline had really slipped. By September, she’d stopped running altogether. The New Year prompted her to restart her running routine, beginning with a three mile run on New Year’s Day.

I asked her why she had stopped after making so much progress and she told me she had felt too much pressure to run fast. Part of her interest in running came from the social interaction with her friends who also ran. Their easy pace required her to run a lot harder. She struggled to keep up and couldn’t really participate in their conversations. She ran her 5K and decided that running was no longer enjoyable, so she went back to walking for fitness.

This experience did not surprise me. My early-’90’s attempt to become a runner was thwarted by similar conditions. My only running partner at the time had run track and cross country in school and I found it difficult to keep up with her when we ran. I figured that was what running was all about – you push yourself hard and eventually you’ll like it. Or you’ll quit.

After many years, I returned to running on my own terms and set realistic performance expectations. I was amazed to see that running can actually be fun if you find a pace that works for you. My friend says she learned her lesson and will not sacrifice her running experience for the sake of social inclusion. I told her that this doesn’t mean she has to give up running with friends. If she suggests it, I’m sure they will be happy to run with her at a relaxed pace that works for everyone.

Not exactly a recovery run

This year’s Cow Harbor’s race tee

Today’s run (street): 3.7 miles

I looked forward to today’s “recovery workout” as a way of enjoying a run without thinking about performance. After Saturday’s hard running up, down and over the Cow Harbor course, I thought an easy four miles would be, well, easy. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.

My run started out fine as I settled into slow but steady pace. My heart rate stayed below 70% of max through the first two miles as I enjoyed the quiet of my neighborhood streets. Soon after that I began to tire, and I felt the effort even though my pace was slow. I was puzzled why I seemed to be hitting a wall on such an easy run, especially since my heart rate remained low.

I abandoned my original plan to run 4 and a half to 5 miles and instead changed course towards home. The final mile was difficult and my stamina was shot. I wondered if the work I did during the race had taken more out of me than I’d realized.

As I reached the last few streets heading back to my house, I increased my speed to see how my body would react. I’ve previously experienced fatigue when running slow and I found that increasing my effort sometimes helps. This seemed to be the case today, my energy level improved and by the time I finished I was running a high-8:00 pace.

I’m not going to over-think today’s run. I’ll assume that my experience was directly related to yesterday’s hard running. I’m off from work tomorrow and I’ll decide in the morning whether to run or rest. I’m curious to know how my next run goes, but I recognize that a rest day may be the best way to ensure a better experience.

Stillwell Woods fun: toughest trail run this year

Finally found my way across the full preserve

Today’s run (Stillwell Woods): 4.5 miles

Now that the Barclays is over and Bethpage is open once again, I considered heading over to run the bike trail. But I changed my mind on venue and opted for Stillwell Woods instead. A few miles on the wooded trails is a great way to free your mind, body and soul. That is, if they don’t beat you to a pulp.

I usually run the same route at Stillwell that starts on the main trail and follows north, and then east, before looping back around to the trail head. I usually run it twice, for a distance of about 4 miles. I like this course because it’s primarily hard packed single-track, with a few rocky and hilly sections thrown in. The challenge of getting through this loop is moderate at best, but it’s a great experience running among the trees, plants and animals.

This morning’s Stillwell run started like usual, and I followed my standard loop until I turned left instead of right, just before the one mile point. This little change quickly turned the dial from easy to difficult. Instead of my familiar paths, I soon encountered the first of many sharp inclines up rock, scree and sand, followed by numerous steep, carved out, drops.

Technical trail running can be fun provided you’re wearing the right shoes and have an understanding of your course. I had neither, but I did my best. Thinking I’d run my usual route, I wore a pair of road shoes that performed remarkably well in most circumstances, but barely had enough bite for some particularly steep inclines.

I’d brought a compass and that was very helpful for navigating across the entire preserve. Still, I didn’t know what to expect from minute to minute. The route I’d taken brought me up and down, with almost no level sections between the one and three mile points. I began to get frustrated by this pattern because I didn’t know what lay ahead. I only knew it would be tough running.

Just when I started to think about taking a break or even walking some of the difficult sections, I found myself on a familiar trail that’s part of my normal route. Knowing the worst was over, I happily followed my way around to the trail head and ran the paved drive almost to the street and back. 

Ups and downs through the first three miles

What started as a routine Stillwell run turned out to be an exhausting hill workout with lots of technical terrain and obstacles. I needed to duck under or leap over a lot of stuff and all that sand was irritating. I was proud of myself for meeting every hill challenge head on. But I did need a mid-day recovery nap to get my energy back, so I could play soccer with my daughter.

Tomorrow I’ll go back on the road again. Perhaps I’ll head to Bethpage for six miles or so on the bike trail. After today’s run, that might feel easier than usual.

Grinding it out on Day One

Today’s run (street): 3.8 miles

Day one of vacation is usually an invitation to go out for a long run without thinking about schedules or other restrictions. There’s a certain energy that seems to come with a clear mind and deferred business pressure. Today is my first day of vacation, but that energy has thus far eluded me.

As I’d said in prior posts, last week was busy, with lots of meetings and presentations. I looked forward to getting a good night’s sleep last night so I’d be fresh today, but I had some trouble getting going this morning. It wasn’t until my wife had started her treadmill run and advised me that I needed to be back by a certain time that I put myself in gear and went outside to start today’s workout.

Last Saturday I preloaded on carbs, first with a gel, and then some dark chocolate. Subsequently, I ran a pretty good race. I figured what worked then would work today, so I tried the same thing before I went out. But instead of feeling a boost, I just felt draggy.

My first half mile was a struggle, what I’d call a grind, where the purpose of the workout is simply to get through it. I wore a pair of Saucony’s (Grid Tangents) that I’d shelved last year in favor of my Hattoris and Mirages, but last Saturday’s freezing toes inspired me to make a change. The shoes were fine, but the laces were not. Twice during today’s run they came untied.

I followed a route similar to my daily 4:00 AM run but added another mile because I had a little more time. After a while the run became less arduous, but it never felt fun. I was glad to finally finish, pleased that I did my run, but not particularly happy with the experience. My performance wasn’t bad, a solid mid-9:00 pace. However, I wouldn’t call it great.

Some runs surprise you. You go out expecting trouble and end up experiencing your best run of the week. Other times it’s the opposite and you return feeling disappointed. Today was a grind but tomorrow it may be better. I’m hoping that’s the case. After all, it is vacation, and the running should be fun.

Stacking the deck the wrong way

Karhu Fast 2 – a contributing factor

Today’s run (street): 3.4 miles

This morning’s temperature was a mild 44°, but the winds from the west made it feel much colder. I decided to run with my new Alpine Design half-zip that I hoped would block wind. I was pleased that it did, although I would have been better off had I just worn a couple of shirt layers. I was sweating profusely by the end of my run.

I’d inadvertently stacked the deck against having a good run by choosing the Karhu Fast 2 running shoes that I’d relegated to elliptical duty a while back. When I did a quick run in the Karhu’s the other day they’d felt okay, so I thought I’d give them another try.

Other factors in play were a depleted blood supply (from my doctor’s visit yesterday) and a very large, calorie-laden meal at our friends last night. This included a Guinness stout and my system isn’t used to alcohol. I’ve only had the equivalent of five beers in all of 2011.

My route was through the neighborhood and I didn’t plan to run it fast. I figured 3+ miles would be an easy workout. By mile I realized it would be difficult to get through the entire run but I was determined to do it. The wind didn’t help and I felt hot and very tired. The Karhu’s high platform made it difficult to maintain a fluid stride.

By the time I’d finished, I was surprised by my level of exhaustion. I guess if I’d thought about it I would have chosen different gear and charted an even shorter route. But good runs usually follow bad ones, so I’ll hope for better experiences throughout the week.

Exhausting run at Belmont Lake

Today’s run (Belmont Lake State Park): 6 miles

I decided to finish my Thanksgiving break with a trail run at Belmont Lake, home of the Dirty Sock race course. I’d decided that a competitive run at Stillwell (the Rob’s Run 5K) would have been too much to do without the proper rest. I have in my mind that the Dirty Sock route is an easy run if you aren’t trying to beat other runners. That’s wasn’t quite the case today.

The weather was in the high 30’s when I started my run and I’d overdressed with two upper layers, running pants and a wicking cap. By my first mile I felt very warm and by the two mile mark I was feeling overheated. Unlike previous times running these trails, I sensed more inclined sections. Halfway through the run I was feeling fatigued, possibly due to over training.

Once at the lake, I knew there was nothing I could do to reduce the amount of required effort since the route was out-and-back and I was already halfway through it. The course seemed extra long and the trail seemed extra steep as I slogged my way past mile four. I was tired and my pace was slow, but I was determined not to stop or walk.

I saw a few other runners on the trail who had made better decisions about their gear. They were moving along nicely in contrast to my slow motion stride. After I cleared the passage under the Montauk Highway at mile 5, I decided to return on the same trail where I’d started, rather than adding the extra distance passing by Southards Pond.

I was very ready to finish my run by then and caught a glimpse of the trail opening as I ran by a couple of equestrians out with their horses for a Sunday morning ride. I was glad to have finished the week with a decent length run and especially glad that I didn’t race today. I need a break from running and I’m glad that tomorrow is my regular rest day. It was a good couple of weeks of intense running, but enough is enough.

My course is harder than your course

Today’s run (street): 2.5 miles

I gave myself an extra day to recover this week and rested on both Sunday and Monday. The James Street hill played havoc on my calves and they have remained tight and sore over the past two days. I’ve noticed that I’ve done better walking upstairs than downstairs, so I planned a route this morning that began with an uphill section. That didn’t work out the way I’d expected and my calves and quads were unhappy. When I leveled off, I noticed that my gait felt more natural.

My first mile was sedate but I picked up the pace after that, and ended up with a credible time overall. I wore the Hattori’s, which I used for Cow Harbor, and wondered if I should have chosen the GTS-10’s or the Mirages, to provide a little more cushioning. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll go that way.

On my way into the office this morning I ran into a couple of friends, one of whom had recently run a 6.5 mile adventure race that included obstacles like water crossings and wall climbs. She said the race was intense and there were many Navy SEALS competing on that difficult course. I said, “Well, I ran up a big hill on Saturday.” Somehow James Street didn’t seem quite so impressive.

Running difficulty? It’s mostly in your head

I reached a point in both my runs this weekend where I thought “Gee, this is hard.” But when I thought about it I couldn’t really identify the thing that was making my run feel difficult. I wasn’t having trouble with my breathing or my knee. My legs were beginning to lose energy but they weren’t painful. I realized that the run felt hard because I had covered a certain distance and assumed that’s how I should be feeling.

The mild discomfort I felt after four miles of steady pacing was nothing compared to the “I just want it to stop!!” feeling I’d experienced during last Sunday’s half marathon. I tried to think about how I’d felt four miles into that 13.1 mile race. Four miles represented only 30% of the distance I’d prepared to cover, while on Sunday it represented my full distance. Had I previously decided to run five miles instead of four would my discomfort have started later? It’s clear to me that the hardest part of running (until you reach your physical limits) is preventing a perception of difficulty from undermining a good run.

2011 LI Half Marathon race report

Minutes before the start

Today’s run (LI Half Marathon): 13.1 miles (10:50/mile)

Today’s race was a new experience for me in two ways. It was my first half marathon and the longest distance I’ve ever run. My performance was nowhere as good as I’d hoped it would be, with an overall pace of 10:50, but I don’t really care about that. I expected to do better because I thought I’d done all the right things to prepare. I didn’t run for the seven days prior to the event, followed my hydration and fueling plan to the letter, started slowly to reserve energy and worked to maintain good running form. But the results speak for themselves.

My greatest concern for today’s race was whether my knee had recovered from my last long base run. I’d definitely hurt something on that 8.25 mile run and, even this morning, it was still a little sore.  My knee became a problem about a third of the way in. I’ll get to that later.

I arrived early (6:30 AM) but Lot 6 in Eisenhower Park was already halfway filled up. I wore some layers over my race shirt to stay comfortable prior to the race which I stowed in a backpack at the starting point. UPS nicely provided bag transport to the finish line. I brought electrolyte drink in my hand bottle and added some extra salt. I didn’t want to use that before the start but I couldn’t find any water and I felt dry. Rather than keep searching for water, I got into the very long line for the Port-a-potty’s. This is often an issue at races. It seems like everyone queues up behind a group of them but a few never seem to be used. It wouldn’t be a popular job but race organizers could do better by managing the bathroom lines and resources. As a result, there were dozens of runners who took it upon themselves to use the fields that paralleled the starting area for relief (below).

Open sourced bathrooms

The race started on time. I brought my iPhone with me and used MotionX GPS because it has a feature that sends emails every 5 mins with a map and your current position. My wife and kids couldn’t join me today but they were able to follow my progress this way. I also had my Garmin and I hit “start” as I stepped on the mat at the starting line. The Garmin’s distance calibration was really off but the stopwatch feature was accurate. I followed the crowd, taking the first three miles in just over 30 minutes (actual). The crowd kept things tight but it was close to where I wanted to be at that point. I felt good.

I hadn’t realized that the course wound back around Nassau Coliseum so I was puzzled to find us going opposite to the direction I’d expected. Before long we spilled out to Merrick Ave. which borders Eisenhower Park to the west. All was going well until I reached Old Country Road and turned right. My knee, which had felt perfect from the start, began to protest. The pains were sharp and I worried that, with nine miles left to go, I could be doing real damage to my knee. I considered dropping out but I slowed down and the pain was reduced to the point where I felt I could continue. I continued to moderate my pace to ensure that I wasn’t doing damage.

We ran through downtown Westbury and it was fun to to see it by foot since I’m usually driving it. They’ve done a nice job revitalizing the storefronts. I had taken a GU Roctane 30 mins before the start and planned to take another gel at 5 miles so I consumed a GU Expresso Love just before we reached Jericho Turnpike. Along the way I’d been taking sips of the electrolyte mix and grabbing water at every station. I think this combination of fuel and liquids helped me most of the way.

I wasn’t running fast but I never stopped throughout the entire race. My heart rate was where it should have been and that’s another reason why I’m puzzled by my slow pace. I think I did fairly well for the first 10 miles but the last three were very difficult. The segment that we ran on Jericho went well enough and I was glad to turn onto Brush Hollow Rd. because I had fooled myself into thinking the hard part was over by then. We made our way up the on-ramp to Wantagh Parkway which was a tough hill at that point. We followed that highway for about a mile and a quarter and hit another hill before breaking off Old Country Road where the full marathoner’s split off to follow their route.

We quickly turned on Carmen Avenue which represented the 10 mile point but less than a mile later I saw the 24 mile marker for the full marathoners and (in my race fog) deduced we were suddenly at mile 12. In fact it was mile 11. At this point I was fading and all the gels, electrolyte fluid and water stops were not helping me the way they had previously. We entered Eisenhower Park 1/4 mile before the real mile 12 and my calves started cramping painfully. I thought for a moment about stopping and decided “not now, not ever.” There’s nothing wrong with walking in sections but I didn’t want to do that because I feared it would drop my heart rate and make it all the harder to resume.

My friend Brian had warned me that the 2+ mile run through Eisenhower Park would seem long and he was right. OMG it took forever to get to the finish line and the last mile felt like running in peanut butter. I kept telling myself “just go, just keep going” and eventually I reached the winding safety cone path that led to the finish line. My heart sank when I saw my finish time. I was hoping to beat 2:06 but I was nowhere near that time.

Oh, this? It’s nothing really.

But I finished! I was fairly disoriented as I walked along the post-chute pathway, following those who had finished right before me. I must have looked bad because a race volunteer came over and said “are you alright?” I said yes but I wish she had given me some water. Our line wound past volunteers handing out finisher medals (my first ever BTW)  and into a tent where they handed out string backpack race bags containing fruit and a bagel. I explored the Finish Line Festival but was anxious to return home to see my family. I called my wife and she and the kids were hooting it up, congratulating me. They had just seen me cross the line minutes before on the latest MotionX update. Seconds later the iPhone died due to the GPS drain. Perfect timing.

I got home and was greeted with excitement by my wife and kids. The kids made me great cards commemorating the achievement. I noticed that on my pre-race “To Do” and checklist that my wife had added “Run 13.1 miles” and it was checked off. It was an amazing morning and a new and exciting experience. Will I run another half marathon? Possibly, some day. I have to forget how hard this one was before I do that. Will I ever run a full 26.2? I just can’t imagine it!