Why This Runner Sets the Alarm for 4:30 in the Morning

430am

Ding ding dong dong. The bell tower alarm goes off, like it does almost every morning. Only it’s 4:30, not my usual wake-up time of 5 or 5:30. That half-hour makes a lot of difference, and at least right now, I’m really missing it.

Eyes half closed and brain still half struggling to comprehend what’s up, I fumble to press “snooze.” But there will be no more snoozing. When I have my wits about me, I focus on the phone, swipe a couple of times to shut off the alarm, and roll out of bed.

For runners like me, these are moments of truth.

Three days a week, I wake up and lace up and head out the door. What started years ago as a means to an end—I ran primarily to perform well in an upcoming race but didn’t really enjoy any of it—morphed to become an indelible part of me. I identify myself as a runner now as much as a husband, a father, a churchgoer, a creative director.

Even with my love of running, I need a goal to maintain motivation. Usually, it’s a race. These days it’s to finish the New York City Marathon on Nov. 5. No—not just finish it. Set a personal record. And like my shoes won’t put themselves on my feet, this goal won’t happen by itself. You can either do the work when it needs to be done, or you can continue snoozing.

My training plan calls for 8.5 fast miles on this particular weekday, as it did the previous two weeks. Those last two efforts, however, did not go well. They weren’t total failures, but they weren’t successes, either. Started out too fast? Didn’t eat well enough beforehand? Or was it that I didn’t eat well enough the night before? Did I not hydrate properly? These questions rattle through my mind as I allow my body to ease up, about halfway into the run. This happened two straight weeks. Ugh.

The plan has this fast 8.5-miler for six of seven weeks, so if I want to hit my goal for the workout—heck, if I want to hit my goal for the marathon—I’d better figure it out. I can either deal with this demon or give in. And I’m not getting up at 4:30 to give in.

The day before the third, pivotal session, I hydrated well and ate a carb-tastic dinner (chicken and ziti). When I got up, I scarfed more carbs and good fats (whole-wheat bread with peanut butter) in addition to my usual banana. Perhaps as important as these food and drink tweaks, I prepped my head to be in the right state to wrestle a run I’d repeatedly struggled with.

After a check of essentials—headlamp, watch, water, gel—I venture out.

These fast paces seem easy for the first few miles. That’s nice, I tell myself, but stick to the program. Rein in the pace. Keep the breathing steady and relaxed. The hard stuff is coming, and you’ll need those feel-good reserves. I often visualize my body as a steam engine, with the carbohydrates in my system serving as coal in the fire, and like a shovel-wielding train engineer, I’m continually assessing the fuel situation and ready to react: How’s the power right now? Need anything to keep it up? No? OK, then, let’s push on!

Some days, the stars align and I have a fantastic run. Other days, even when conditions seem to be the same, things can go well and then very suddenly fall apart. I might have an inkling why, or I might not. Experience has taught me to appreciate the good days and not agonize (too much) over the bad ones.

This particular day, at oh dark hundred, the stars aligned. The first few easy miles gave way to a gut check in the middle stages, and then a push past halfway—over the hump!—until I could sense the downward momentum and practically feel myself finishing strong, well within my time goal.

With the sun only starting to peek through the trees in the neighborhood, I cross the imaginary finish line at the end of my street, and I stop my watch. Resting my sweaty hands on my fatigued, sweaty knees, I exhale forcefully a few times to slow my heart rate, then I straighten up. Endorphins flood my system. As I turn to walk home, I reflect on what this success feels like. I savor it.

People ask me why I do this. Why I run crazy distances at crazy paces at crazy hours. Why I run at all. This is why. I’ve hit a high point for the day, and for all intents and purposes, the day hasn’t even begun. It’s worth setting the alarm for 4:30 a.m. now and then, knowing you’ll be missing a precious half-hour of sleep, and getting up in the black of night, to test your limits in pursuit of something you want. You should try it.

How 14 Failed Runs Got Me to the Chicago Marathon

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I was still running high after a successful winter of training and a mammoth marathon PR in April. But an unusually cold spring quickly gave way to an unusually humid summer, and by the second week of July I knew something was wrong.

July 5 was a buildup run: Hold pace for a couple of miles, speed up and hold pace for a couple of miles, speed up again and hold pace again. I burned out after the first section. I just didn’t have it. The next week was the same run and the same result. That weekend, another failure.

Weeks of this turned into months. I stopped enjoying my training. I started hated it.

I was discouraged. I’d never struggled like this in all my years of running. But I was not defeated.

Every running morning, I got up, laced up and headed out. I slogged through many a workout, alternating walking and running after the running part failed. I forgot about my pace. At worst, I could manage only a tenth of a mile of continuous running. I take that back: At worst, I stopped my watch and walked home.

It was the slogging—continuing past the point of needing to walk, of feeling like a failure—that prepared me for where I am now, oddly confident on the eve of the Chicago Marathon. Every run since my 20-mile disaster (it was supposed to be 22) has been good to great. My stride has returned along with the cooler weather, and just in time.

Despite all my failed runs—14 of them, I counted—over the last four months, I am finally (FINALLY!) ready to take on this iconic race, just not how I imagined it. I may not have it in me to achieve my original goal (cut the gap to my Boston qualifying time in half), but I’m feeling good about my fallback plan (PR).

If a new PR isn’t in the cards, that’s OK, too. I’ll forget about my pace like I did in all those failed training runs and simply enjoy racing through one of the country’s greatest cities. Win-win.

I’m Not Very Fast (So Say ‘Serious’ Runners)

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This month I finished my second 5K summer series. In the last race, I missed a PR by 36 seconds! So you could say I was feeling pretty good about myself. Oh, but not today.

No, today, because I was feeling so good about myself, I searched for what people consider a “serious” 5K time. I had in my head 25 minutes, which I can do (I hesitate to say easily) just about every time I toe the starting line these days. Boy, was I wrong, according to “serious” runners on the internets.

The “serious” runners think that any 5K over 20 minutes is not serious. That serious runners could cover 5,000 meters in 20 minutes as a warm-up nursing an injury on an off month. Never mind that I may never get to that easiest of thresholdshealthy, in the best shape of my lifeno matter how much I train.

I’m sure these “serious” runners would prefer that I join the Clydesdales.

See, there is talk among these “serious” runners that seriousness is a result of effort. Because I haven’t broken 20 minutes, naturally I’m just not trying hard enough. Maybe that’s it, “serious” runners. Or maybe it’s genetics.

At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds on a good day, I’m not built like a runner. I’m more like Jimmy Graham than Galen Rupp. I would venture to say the Saints tight end can’t run a 5K in 20 minutes, either.

Look, guy, let’s not be so negative.

Deep breath. After grinding my teeth a bit, I turned my frown upside down by thinking about how far I’ve come in 5K Land. In 2004 I finished my first one in 28:20, after kinda-sorta training on the treadmill for all of eight days. I remember feeling this monumental sense of accomplishmentand also rewarding myself with utter laziness for the rest of the weekend. I ran another race in 2007 (29:26) and another in 2008 (33:49) before finally cracking the 25-minute mark in 2010, when I caught the running bug.

Continue reading “I’m Not Very Fast (So Say ‘Serious’ Runners)”

The Best Yet: Breaking Down a Near-Perfect Race

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It took two years and two months. Finally, I reached my goal of a sub-2:00 half-marathon. If I’d done it on my first half or my second or my third, I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much.

And I didn’t just squeak under 2, either. I blew it out of the water. Official time: 1:55:20.

All my training was based on 9:00 miles. I think 9:02 would have gotten me in just under the wire, so I wanted some breathing room. My plan was to start out around 9:15 and gradually pick up the pace. But by the first 5K, I was already closing in on 9:00. Too fast too soon? History says yes.

Continue reading “The Best Yet: Breaking Down a Near-Perfect Race”

2011 Rock ’n’ Roll Race Results

The headline of this post could be “Area Man Fails to Achieve Goal in Race.”

I completed the P.F. Chang’s Rock ’n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon in a respectable time: 2:08:15. For my first half-marathon—or, really, for any amateur runner’s half-marathon—it’s quite an accomplishment. That will be my lasting memory.

Still, I can’t shake this twinge of disappointment. Fact is, I didn’t do what I set out to do, what I told you and everybody else I was going to do. Considering my goal was to break 2 hours, I was quite a bit off. I’m looking at two main reasons why.

1. Ready… set… oh wait! I have to pee!
I read a column that said I should drink one to two cups of water right before the starting gun goes off. I had a 16 oz. bottle with me that I drank right before the gun went off. I assume the idea was to put water in my stomach that I’d need for the race. So I drank the water. Problem is, because I was in the 16th starting group, I didn’t actually cross the start line until about 30 minutes later, which was more than enough time for the water to go through my system.

As we approached the start, group by group, I kept looking over at the portable toilets. Would I have enough time to get there and back? A quick glance at the lines and I knew my answer was no. I held it. But I was distracted. I wasn’t even a mile into the race and I dashed for the first set of porta-potties, killing probably 2 minutes. Then I spent the next couple of miles making up for the lost time, which was a mistake. I probably burned too much energy too early. Oops.

What I can do next time: Drink that water, but make sure it’s right before I start.

2. Crash at mile 10
Right after mile 10, when I should have had the finish line in my mind’s eye, I was trying to will my body to take the next step. Finally, I slowed to a walk. I made sure the walk was brief, like 15 seconds, and then started running again. Then another stop. And another, etc., etc.

My body had given up and there was nothing I could do about it. A 15-second walk here and a 30-second walk there, and I could feel my 2-hour goal quickly slipping away. I had lots of time toward the end of the race—the final 2.5 miles took FOREVER—to wonder why I hit a wall. This had never happened in 10 weeks of training that included runs of 8, 10 and 12 miles. Best I can tell, I didn’t eat well enough the day before; it doesn’t take a master’s degree in nutrition to make the connection.

The week leading up to race day I focused on modest portions of carbs and protein and turned up my nose to most sweets and anything else I thought my body wouldn’t need. Result: I lost 2.5 pounds in the six days leading up to the race.

Did trying to eat better actually cost me?

In all of my training, I never paid much attention to what I ate. Why I chose to throw out that thinking at the last minute, I’ll never know. By concentrating so hard on eating well, I’m sure I didn’t eat enough.

What I can do next time: Don’t change what’s been working during training. Or, consult a nutritionist for a prerace prescription.

So … what’s next?
My half-marathon finish has definitely got me thinking about the full marathon. Not in a “I can totally do it” way but in a “There’s no way” way. Like an aging pro athlete contemplating his retirement, I’m going to spend a few weeks talking with my family and friends and then decide what next. The Rock ’n’ Roll franchise includes some 10 races around the country. One upcoming race is in San Diego in early June, but that’s too close to my wife’s due date for comfort. I can’t possibly go gallivanting off to Southern California while she’s about to pop.

But there is a race in Los Angeles in October and in Las Vegas in December—maybe I can do the half again then. And maybe, depending on how I’m feeling and how my training is going, I can stretch for the full in Phoenix. I have until early registration closes in summer to think about it.

My wife drops me off at oh-dark-hundred. The quadriceps say “I’m ready” but the face says “I dunno.”
That’s a sunrise, folks. Yes, it’s early.
All these people get to start before me.
These people still have to wait a long time.
The face of confidence?
Getting ready to go!
13.1 miles later … euphoria or delirium?

Approaching My First Half-Marathon

I had an elaborate dream the other night.

I showed up for the P.F. Chang’s Rock ’n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon super early, then proceeded to wait in various cafeteria lines, for food I think. (Not sure why we’re all eating cafeteria food right before a big race. Someone analyze that.) I used the time to run through things I might have forgotten at home. I remembered forgetting something crucial, although now I don’t remember what.

Now that the training is done for my first half-marathon this Sunday—I have more than 175 miles under my belt—all there is to do is wait. And worry, apparently.

My trek to this race began about six years ago, when my now brother-in-law flew in from the Seattle area to run. I remember waiting for him at the finish line in the shadow of Sun Devil Stadium and feeling so inspired to run the race. I’d talk a big game year after year, then promptly forget about it until it was too late to train properly.

This year was different. Thanks in part to my more organized calendar keeping, I was sure to plug in the key dates with reminders. Early registration deadline. Training. Race day.

If I was going to do this, I was going to do it to the best of my ability. No get-up-off-the-couch-and-run for me. I hooked up with a 10-week, three-day-a-week training program by Furman University (updated link and source).  It was fantastic—and went a little something like this:

Tuesday: A set of 400-meter (1/4-mile), 800-meter (1/2-mile) or 1,600-meter (1-mile) runs.
Wednesday: A run (ranging 2 to 8 miles) faster than my goal pace.
Saturday or Sunday: A run (ranging 6 to 12 miles) slower than my goal pace.

After running a couple weeks prior to my official training start, I decided I could do around 9-minute miles. Since a 9:02 pace puts me right at 2 hours for a half-marathon, I figured that was a good goal. And, based on my training, that’s totally doable, which I’m stoked about. I need to be careful, however, not to get greedy and push myself too hard and potentially burn out.

One thing I haven’t prepared for is the sea of humanity that will be racing with me. All my training has been in the quiet solitude of the streets and fields near my house. A friend told me he added a half-mile in distance at a recent half-marathon simply by “slaloming”—weaving around slower runners. I need to remind myself to be patient. Uh-oh. That may be a bigger challenge than running 13.1 miles.