25 April 2011

Boston Analyzed By An Engineer

[ Ed Note: The second of several planned bits on Boston. ]

It’s a week since Boston, and about three days since I intended to publish the second in the Boston story series. So it goes. But while writing schedule may have suffered, recovery and training have not. I looked at the log and realized I’d gone ten days straight – yes, I ran, albeit short, slow, and flat (did I say slow?) the days after Boston – and so today was to have been a designated rest. A real rest, as in no running, no nothing, not what I often convince myself is a rest when I’m just out slow with the gang, having fun, not working, virtual rest, but let’s face it, not real rest.

But love knows no bounds – in this case Darling Daughter the Younger’s love for her Marathon Hero Idol Ryan Hall – and she found herself inspired while reading his book late this afternoon ( the autographed copy from the expo) and announced she wanted to go for a run. My kid wants to run? How can I refuse that? Of course, a couple miles slowly with her is well and good, but then I’m warmed up, so why not tack on a couple of ‘homey eight-hundreds’? It’s a bit over half a mile around the block, with a good hill, and a couple of those at 5K pace made it into a workout. So much for the rest day.

But it’s all good. Other than a slightly noticeable hamstring – really nothing more than a ‘slightly aware that the ham exists’, not a worrisome issue – Boston recovery has been a breeze. The two-day burn came and went with relatively minor intensity. The blisters – more than usual to be sure, but none torn – shrank away, and I found myself on a twelve miler yesterday, trying to penetrate some roads in the city that had seemed impenetrable, but on a tip I’d heard might in fact be otherwise. Well, turned out they weren’t, but the adventure that ensued, which included a rock scramble, a treacherous canal crossing on a dam-like structure, and an escape through a construction zone and over a fence, made for an interesting outing.

And the point of this is? Feeling good, I’m going to Buffalo, using that comp entry from last year’s injury deferral, looking at Boston as a training run for the real race through the flatness of Western New York. The app went in the mail today. So it’s worth analyzing what really happened at Boston to assess where I stand for the next one, now slightly under five weeks away.

It’s tough to compare marathon A to marathon B. There are just too many variables, and any statistician will tell you that you don’t have enough data points. The old rule of thumb that says if good ol’ N is less than thirty then no meaningful analysis can be made, is really tough to overcome. Thirty marathons? By the time you reach that, you have changed. So just give it up. You get the idea. But Boston 2010 and Boston 2011, it turns out, are worth comparing. I did so almost accidentally, and a few good lessons seem to have emerged.

Gut feel goes a long way most of the time. Gut feel said that last year’s race was stupid fast at the start and degraded nearly continuously, whereas gut feel said that this year’s race was much steadier, a smarter race, one that even though a bit slower and not sub-three, I was more pleased with from an execution standpoint. Gut feel turned out to be somewhat wrong. This year’s race was a bit smarter, but more by accident, and more the same than different.

I’ve got a standard spreadsheet for marathon splits. (Those who know me well are either laughing or groaning at this comment, they know I’ve got a spreadsheet for pretty much everything. Yah, well, love me anyway and get over it!) Said standard spreadsheet charts out each mile’s pace, and also runs a five mile average to smooth out the bumps and lumps.

The perfect dream is a relatively flat line, holding pace, with strong (even if not negative) splits, all the way to the end of the rainbow. That rarely happens to begin with, and with the back-end-hill-loaded course, it’s pretty darn improbable at Boston. The best I typically hope for at Boston is a steady line through sixteen to where the hills start, then a slow, controlled rise in the average pace through Newton.

At Boston 2010, the chart was about as bad as I could imagine. The crucial pink 5-mile-average line resembled the Mount Washington Auto Road; uphill the entire way. Though the result was a pleasing 2:58:47, I never even considered it to be anything approaching a smart race.

Over a copy of 2010’s spreadsheet I began to punch in my 2011 splits. To my surprise, they weren’t only pretty darn close to identical, they were in many cases faster by a few seconds. But there were subtle differences (and amusing similarities):

  • Starting in corral 2 rather than last year’s corral 1 meant there was real traffic at the start. Rather than last year’s stupid-fast 6:15 / 6:17 first two miles, this year congestion held me to a leisurely 6:41 before settling in at 6:25. Thirty-five seconds lost, but in a fair trade, I settled into a sane, stable pace, with the pink line a bit flatter into Newton Lower Falls.
  • (Yes, that was a pit stop just before the mile 6 marker, same spot both years!)
  • Going into the Newton hills, my average pace was only about a second per mile slower in 2011. I actually won back some of the time lost in mile 1 traffic.
  • The real difference? The walk break just before Heartbreak this year, not needed last year. Worth the cost, as it sustained me until mile 25, where I took a break both years.

So, an extra walk break and a slower start, which at Boston is a smart move even if accidental, and the result was a minute and twenty seconds slower in 2011. Which begs the question, why the extra break?

Training logs answer that pretty easily. Last year, four months of solid base, versus three this year. Last year’s average training pace a bit quicker than this year’s. Last year, both twenty-miler training runs were at a strong sub-7:10 pace, versus this year, both were challenging for various reasons. The result is therefore not unexpected.

But after Boston last year, things went south. Injuries arose. Looking at my log, I can reel them off: Achilles, ankle, calf, hamstring. Things got ugly. Training suffered.

This year, knock on wood, Boston recovery has been easy. Things feel good. Average training pace is down in recent weeks. Should all hold up, I’ll have that fourth solid month of base on the books by Buffalo, along with the equivalent of four twenties leading into that next round.

Why not milk it? Let’s go to Buffalo.

More Boston to come – tales from the course and what not!

19 April 2011

Boston 5

[ Ed Note: The first of several planned bits on Boston. How many? No idea… ]

Boston Number Five is in the can. For the world, the results were spectacular. For me, they were not in that class by any means, but satisfying nonetheless.

The Exalted Governing Bodies of the World won’t call it a world record due to Boston being point-to-point course, which certainly was a factor with Monday’s tailwind, and net downhill as well. But nobody will deny the brilliance of the fastest marathon ever run – indeed, the two fastest marathons every run, as even second place blew away the world’s previous best, and the four fastest Bostons to boot.

The Exalted Governing Bodies of the World could care less about me, which is just fine as I’ve had more than my share of publicity this year. And while the tailwind undoubtedly made it just a little easier to maintain pace at times, I needn’t worry about whether that or the net downhill course will affect my record, since I set no records, world, Boston, personal, or even personal Boston. Nor did I even break three hours. Spectacular? Not by a long shot. Yet I am entirely satisfied with the race.

About that three hour thing though? Darn close. Amusingly close.

In a race of even numbers – the day pegged my month-to-date at exactly 125.0 miles and my trailing 7-day count at exactly 50.0 (trailing 7-day is a method I use to gauge training intensity, since defining a week as, say, Sunday to Saturday assumes a normal schedule which doesn’t exist in the real world), …on such a day of coincidentally even numbers it would been just plain poetic to nail three hours exactly. And I almost did. After the dust swirled, the official net time recorded three hours and seven seconds.

You know how you look at the results of a large race like this and see the guy who finished at 2:59:59, and say, “Look at him, he broke three!” and the poor bloke who ran 3:00:00, and say, “Ahh, pity, he must be kicking himself!” that is, in many cases, perhaps appropriate, but for me, it really didn’t ring up any disappointment. Would two-colon-anything have been nice? Sure. But I elected to take three-colon-something and survive with a smile.

Just prior to mile twenty-five, where Boston slaps you with the evil little hill to climb the bridge over the Mass Pike – the evil little hill that most Boston veterans will tell you is far more insidious than Heartbreak or even the climb out of Newton Lower Falls – my body said to take a walk break, my second of the race. Having taken sixty seconds prior to Heartbreak and having reaped the refreshing benefit it provided for the next five miles, I knew that one more break would allow me to finish relatively strong, rather than dangerously woozy. (One word: Wineglass.) I also knew that one more break would probably give away the day’s potential sub-three. Wineglass avoidance or sub-three? I’m completely comfortable with the rational decision, and my nose isn’t broken to prove it.

Not to say there wasn’t still a chance of cracking the barrier again. I cut the planned sixty-second walk break down to fifty and revved up the engines for the final push. For the last one-point-two I gave it what I had, and coming down Boylston, for a time thought I might pull it out. Not to be. But not to worry, either. I knew my fitness level wasn’t at last year’s level and I didn’t expect sub-three. I hoped for three-oh-anything. Three-oh-oh certainly fit the bill. Satisfaction.

Especially considering that I never hit the groove in this race. As an event, it was as fabulous and exciting as any – perhaps better, as the crowds seemed larger and louder than ever – but as a race, it was grueling. You’d like a marathon to be a cruise through as many miles as possible before the real hard work begins. Twenty would be great, more even better. Eighteen? Better than fourteen. You get the picture. Monday? I had that feeling for maybe three miles, if I exaggerate a bit. From that point on, I felt like I could have cut the engines at any point and join the ranks of the tourists. My senses said I’d have to back off, call it a day, joined the jog-fest. But mental inertia kept me clicking them off at pace, eight, ten, halfway, a dozen to go, ten left, shrinking it down.

When I passed my family at Newton Lower Falls at sixteen (photo), it was obvious to me at least, even if not to them, that a mighty struggle didn’t just loom ahead, it was already well down the path to miniseries status. But somehow, outside of the two common-sense walk breaks, my pace didn’t suffer too badly, and the death shuffle never materialized. Somehow that marathoning mind just kept telling the legs to keep the pace.

Adding all of that up and coming out at three flat? I’d be a fool to be anything other than happy.

More Boston to come – tales from the course, analysis, and what not!

17 April 2011

Can't Stop the Train

Nothing can stop the train now. It is what it is and it will be what it will be. I won’t go so far as quoting the Eagles and saying it’s a peaceful, easy feeling, but it’s a calm in knowing that tomorrow will come, all twenty-seven-thousand of us will go for a run, and that will be that. Granted, unlike other highly anticipated events of great magnitude like the arrival of our darling daughters, I could just turn tail and flee, but that’s highly unlikely.

Speaking of darling daughters, there’s nothing like a different perspective to turn what’s become a somewhat repetitive event into something much more fun. No dad looks forward to the day when his daughters start making goo-goo eyes at the boys, but that’s another train that can’t be stopped, and if goo-goo eyes must be made, all a dad can hope for is that they’re made in good directions.

Well, dad is happy. Darling Daughter the Younger took a bit of a fancy to the American King of Marathoners when he ran past her at Newton Lower Falls last year – and she snapped an awesome picture to boot:

That certainly livened up this year’s Boston Marathon Expo. Admittedly, while I wouldn’t miss it, there is a lot of sameness to the event after five years, and I wasn’t expecting much different as she and I headed into the city.

But not fifteen minutes after we’d snapped her... [ed note: Loud crash! …Neighbor’s patio table takes flight in wind squall! 20 minute broken glass clean-up later…]...

…um, where was I…right…we’d just snapped Darling Daughter’s picture with a larger-than-life yet fully cardboard Ryan Hall, and had just purchased his book – autographed copy, mind you – when over the PA came the announcement that the man himself would be appearing shortly.

C’mon, think about it, when you were a teen, you know you never got the chance to really meet your idol, right? So imagine how excited you would’ve been to get that shot?

Yes, this was fun. And really only about a twenty minute wait. And Ryan is probably about the best role model you could ever hope for: grounded in faith, dedicated to excellence, and yes, for my daughter, a decent looking guy even sporting this year’s cropped hairdo. If Darling Daughter were running the marathon on Monday, she wouldn’t’ need to worry about impact fatigue or injuries, she’d float the whole way.

And let’s face it, I didn’t mind meeting, and getting my mug, with a runner of Ryan’s caliber. Who, by the way, was considerate enough – in the midst of a thousand people bearing down to see him – to ask me how I thought my race would go.

And how will it go? As usual, I have no idea. On the plus side, my training has been pretty solid this time, and my average training pace has come down nicely in recent weeks, indicating a better level of fitness than I’ve enjoyed
in some time. On the minus side, none of my long runs were particularly strong, and a small health incident a few days ago has my head a bit worried, though I know I’m prone to that head thing. On the external factor side, the wind that just caused my writer’s interruption a few minutes back is forecast to be at our backs tomorrow, at least until we top the Newton hills where it’s always notoriously in your face.

All I can say is that the train pulls out tomorrow morning. No stopping it now.

13 April 2011

Gloss Over the Imperfections

It’s the usual time when I lament about how the last weeks prior to the marathon are not falling into the pattern I’d like. But this year I’ve got a convenient way to gloss over these imperfections: spin. Yes, the media engine seems to be in full gear, so I’ll just use that glow to ignore the less-than-perfect realities of life.

The week before is supposed to be quiet, restful, relaxed; a time not only to taper down the training, but ratchet down life. Extra sleep, no late nights, avoid the exhausting days. That’s why I’m writing on the train out of Manhattan, on the return trip of a marathon out-and-back-to-New-York day that won’t end till late tonight, after another late night last night, only to turn around for another day on the road tomorrow. Quiet. Restful. Relaxed. Yeah.

But isn’t this is what we train for in our daily life? (Train? No, really, that pun wasn’t intentional.) It’s all about trying to find the time slices to fit in the miles between all that beckons from the real world – dealing with less-than-perfect conditions. So having all of this come down in the week before Boston really isn’t that big a deal. All things considered, however, I’d rather get the extra sleep.

If sleep isn’t a reward this week, a little visibility may be a consolation prize. I’ll simply gloss over all the imperfections of the week with some good old fashioned PR. Spin. Buzz. Yes, Andy Warhol is spinning in his grave as I’ve clearly already exceeded my fifteen minute allotment of fame this month, and it’s not over yet.

A week back, the story of Chris and I running our city hit the local paper, a day later than expected, but masterfully crafted by Ace Reporter Paul. The fun started rolling. Just a few days after that, said same reporter called to get a few comments and quips on marathon training in general, not targeted at our strange city-wide coverage quest but on somewhat more normal people running the race, so a mere six days after Big Newspaper Exposure #1 came Big Newspaper Exposure #2, this time gracing the front page of the Sunday edition, with a near-life-size shot of yours truly running at you down page A9. You’d think they’d be calling in the subscription cancellations left and right by now. But it gets better (or worse, as your opinion may hold). The editor of the weekly local dropped me an email that she’s going to supply even more ink in tomorrow’s edition.

I really need to give my agent a bigger Christmas tip this year.

The gloss obscures the imperfections. Like the fact that somehow I forgot to start my pre-marathon taper last week. Instead, after the Tri-Valley 15K (speaking of which, nice picture the race organizers sent over to me, yes, there I am in tights when everyone else is in shorts – hey, I was comfortable, so who cares?…)
… I popped in a sixty-two mile week, which for me at least is a pretty significant number. There just seemed to be a lot of interesting places to go, so I went, and the ten-milers, quick ones at that, kept chalking up without really trying.

First came a “scrap sweep-up” run, adding a bunch of little roads to my coverage map (and to my chagrin, missing one, so I’ll have to go back), including a small road into a warehouse park where there stood an unoccupied building, lined on both sides with huge truck doors making it see-through, clearly vacant – even its concrete floor removed – just begging, begging, begging… well, there’s a first, running through a building. Hey, why not? Next up, a run up an abandoned country road at the corner of the city that I knew connected to another road on the grounds of a (private) farm, and I hoped connected via a nice obscure corner of that farm. Not to be. The connection went nearly over their front porch. Oops. Just smile and wave, boys, smile and wave. And finally, an utterly gorgeous run on an utterly gorgeous morning along a couple of lovely reservoirs with a few lung-buster climbs tossed in for good measure. We live for those kind of runs. But bang, bang, bang, the ten-milers kept coming, and suddenly it was a mere nine days till Boston without really starting to taper. (Oh, and for the record, along the way, I did return to Memory Lane it did indeed bring back memories; clearly I had done it before. This time I just remembered.)

So it’s not the kind of taper I’d like. But why stop there? If you’re going to overcome hurdles, bring ‘em on. Which is why, for reasons I’m still questioning, I’ve signed up for a medical study surrounding the marathon. Now, I know the real reason is because it’s interesting. The exercise physiology team at Hartford Hospital is looking into whether there is a link between statin (cholesterol medication) use and certain muscle enzymes which can be a marker of (or perhaps involved in) muscle damage, including damage to that one key muscle, the heart. Having once seen this particular enzyme flag high on a blood test a few years ago (though not anywhere near dangerous high), and having been told that it was probably because of significant exertion (read, running), I simply couldn’t resist the temptation to see this number jump off the chart in a ten-minute-after-crossing-the-Boston-finish-line measurement. Boring for many, wicked cool to me.

But the downside? The baseline. Yes, I need to give them some blood before the race. Not much. Perhaps half a percent of all I’ve got. They assure me it will be to no impact. And they even let me move it up a few days for more recovery time, though red cell replenishment doesn’t happen that fast. But in an endeavor where I know I will push to my roughly-fringed edge, I am still apprehensive about anything more than a hangnail.

All in the interest of science, though…

So, a badly executed taper, an overly busy week, and a bloodletting to boot, all obscured by a flurry of flashbulbs. What a way to roll into Boston! OK, so life isn’t perfect. Come Monday, the weather is forecast to be, well, whatever it decides to be. True to form, it crept onto the 10-day forecast as perfect, degraded to rain, returned to perfect, and has now again degraded to showers. Whatever. We’re going out for a little run, and we’ll just sit back, see what happens, and have a good time.

Track me on www.baa.org, bib number 1798. First wave start is 10 AM; from second corral I’ll be over the line within a minute.

02 April 2011

Coming Together?

In just a few hours I will be either tickled pink or embarrassed as all get up. I suspect the former, but one can never rule out the latter. It took two weeks, but I finally met my counterpart, and the easiest way I can describe our meeting was that it was, well, a scream. Two overcharged Type A personalities being queried by local reporter, frantically scribbling notes in an attempt to keep up with full-combat conversation while trying figure out what makes pure wackiness tick. But as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself.

At last posting I’d discovered there was another lady in town with the same twisted quest of running our entire city. What gnawed at me since discovering I had a map-blanketing alter ego was that I’d met one of her clan years ago, but couldn’t recall who, when, or under what circumstances. Her family name, Johansen, is well known to me, since the street on which I live is named after her grandfather.

So where had I met her? Had I met her? The “how” part came clear a week ago when I ran past the home of a friend from my church (in a furious snow squall, I note) who happened to be on his deck (yes, in the furious snow squall, I can’t explain this), who shouted to me that he knew I was doing this crazy quest. Being accustomed to explaining to people why I am running past their homes toward dead-ends on obscure spurs, this was an amusing first. He then added that his niece was doing the same. Light bulb! It was through him that I’d met a Johansen.

Well, turns out it wasn’t the same one, but as they say, everything is relative; Chris is indeed related to the one I met in some way, shape, or form that I can’t quite pin down. But more importantly, one thing led to another and we finally came together at the office of our local daily news on Friday. She unfolded her soon-to-be famous paper map (seen here) while I popped open the laptop to show off the results of my Google Maps arts & crafts sessions. And the goofy stories flowed. Now seriously, when is the last time you ever heard two people independently come to the conclusion that continuously spinning around at the ends of multitudes of cul-de-sacs starts to wear on your hip sockets? Or both harbor secret dreams of goading our local police chief into setting up an escorted “Run the Interstates” morning? Ms. Mayor, you listening? Could be some fund-raising going on for Our Fair City… Notably, I did forget to mention my other strange thought of running the runway (after all, it is called a RUNway) at our tiny local airport.

Close to an hour and a half passed in what seemed to be about ten minutes. Pity the fine reporter trying to tally the score on this verbal tennis match. The mystery of what he did or didn’t capture won’t take long to be revealed. His work will arrive on my front walkway in about six hours, and I’ll rejoice, cringe, laugh, weep or a little of bit of all of the above. And no matter the outcome, we’ve come together and opened a new friendship.

And while on the topic of coming together, with Boston a mere two weeks out, things do seem to be coming together. Not to sound like someone talking about a shutout in the third period of a hockey game, but I’m starting to feel pretty good about my overall condition for the first time in quite a while. The pesky injuries seem to have subsided, and my comfort zone training pace has quickened again over the last week.

A week and a half back saw my sixth anniversary running, ninety-two hundred miles later. Last Saturday was the last long one before Boston, a twenty-two miler with an unusually slow stretch in the fifteen to eighteen range as my training partner Rocket John struggled through a rare rough day, but after his retirement I felt good, cranked the volume for a few more miles, and for the first time all season felt fresh after being out that long. The next day, 800 meter repeats at the track – how else does a runner celebrate his birthday? The next day, the casual equivalent of a 5K race with our CMS pub friends in Worcester, with miles two and three at six flat and five-fifty. The next two days, quick jaunts at surprisingly pleasing paces, and the next day (if you’re counting, we’ve reached Thursday the 31st), closing the month at 231 miles, second highest total in these last six years.

It’s finally feeling good. I feel like it’s all coming together.

This morning pretty much sealed it. A few club-mates and I meandered down to the Tri-Valley Boston Tune-Up 15K in lovely Upton, Massachusetts. My 2nd time running it, their 31st time holding it. Did you get that? 2-31. And I was handed bib 231. After that 231 mile month. And I’ll add that one of my club-mates finished 231st. I swear, I can’t make this stuff up. It’s an omen.

With the ups and downs recently, I didn’t expect to be near last year’s time, but you just can’t allow those kinds of expectations to get in your way. A few miles in I found myself right on last year’s pace. But the race developed rather oddly, with the leader pack splitting off within a mile or so, leaving me strangely alone in the universe in the field of 300. From that point on, I was completely and uninterruptedly lonely. A long view to anyone ahead, and no footsteps behind, nobody to push me, which made holding a hard pace that much harder. At my 15th place finish there was about a minute gap on either side of me (nice picture of the start on the results page!). When, in the midst of this loneliness, much to my dismay, I had to stop for – of all things – a blown shoelace at mile six, the gap was so large that I lost no place, though it certainly cost momentum. The irony? I counted out twenty seconds lost for the lace, and came in nineteen seconds slower than last year. Coulda’ shoulda’ woulda’, tie yer’ foolish shoes better next time you fool. OK, so no personal best, but no complaints either. It’s all coming together.