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.

Why I Spent $24.95 on This Awful Race Photo

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I received the email with my official marathon photos. You know the one. I clicked the link to access the proofs, knowing full well I wouldn’t like what I saw.

In this case, it was proof that I was indeed suffering during the race. This was January 2013.

One particular image so finely epitomized my experience that I grabbed a screen shot of it—though I couldn’t bring myself to pay for the download. The screen grab stayed where I saved it, on my computer desktop, for over three years. Occasionally I’d call it up and look at it, and I’d recall the misery of that moment.

It was past mile 20, after I’d hit the wall. I’d given up on my plan to walk only through the water stations and was instead willing my body to keep moving at all. I’d also given up on my time goal, cursing my failure to achieve what I worked so hard for. I hated the taste of my gels. I hated a lot of things. I was past the point of exhaustion—physical and psychological—and I had an eternity to go before I could be done with it all (and, not surprisingly, go directly to the medical tent).

I look at the picture now, and the pain is as real as it was then.

This week, I finally paid for the digital download. $24.95 on my credit card. Three years after the fact.

Why in the world would I keep the screen shot on my desktop for so long—or maybe more curious, why would I ever spend hard-earned cash on such a forgettable photo?

Because I don’t want to forget what happened. I don’t want to forget how I failed, or how I felt. Ever.

Two weeks ago, I ran the marathon of my life, and I have all the happy pictures to prove it. (I bought them right away.) I’ll cherish these photos, along with the memories they evoke, for as long as I have room for them in my brain and on my hard drive. But I’d better not forget that awful 26.2 in 2013, either. And now I’ll always have that picture to look back on—in unsightly 300 dots per inch. I want to zoom in and see the anguish in my face and remember the wall and the water stations and the wayward goals. I want to remember what went so terribly wrong on the racecourse that day.

It’s by reflecting on our failures—and learning from them—that we lay the groundwork for improvement. I’ve elevated every aspect of my running since 2013, I’m pleased to say, and with this awful picture now in my possession, I’ll know by exactly how much.

 

Race Recap: 2016 Big Sur Marathon

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The 2016 Big Sur Marathon is over. Cross this race off the bucket list. But let’s not move on to the next thing yet. Let’s savor this one for a while.

I close my eyes and breath in, taking it all in. My senses are full. In this quiet moment I’ve made for myself, I recall THE POUNDING.

THE NERVOUS POUNDING of my heart in my chest as our bus approaches the start line.
We’d ridden the entire 26.2 miles of the marathon route in reverse to get there. It’s an interesting backward preview, knowing on foot you’ll be covering all the ups as downs and the downs as ups. What I remember for sure is there were a lot of each. (When the day was done, I gained more than 2,000 total feet of elevation.) I look out the window. It’s dark at 5:30 a.m., and with no visible scenery to occupy my mind, I reflect on my training. That was a big downhill we drove just now, which means a big uphill later. At what mile will that be for me? Did I do enough hill training for it? Will I push too hard in those early stages and not leave enough for the rest of the race?

THE FUTILE POUNDING of my fist on my iPhone, because the battery has conked out AGAIN.
I pull the phone out of my belt to take a picture, and I’m greeted with a frustratingly familiar black screen. Ack! I know there is juice, even though the phone has been searching for a signal for hours. No, this is because it’s too cold outside. My phone would frequently do this during training runs in Chicago. I usually joke and tell people it’s because my phone was purchased in Phoenix and it’s not acclimated to the weather. Only I’m not laughing now. There will be no more midrun selfies, at a time when I wanted them most. I’m really glad I got some shots early on, because I’ll need to rely on my memory and the official race photographers to preserve my effort for the rest of the morning. I make a last-ditch attempt to power up right before the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge—no luck—and holster my phone for good. Well, this is fate telling you to get your mind off the technology and make memories with your brain. Focus on the moment.

THE RHYTHMIC POUNDING of the taiko drums at mile 10, a traditional signal to begin the 520-foot ascent over the next 2 miles to the highest point of the course.
The drum line is strategically placed there at the base, at the Little Sur River bridge, I’ve read, for just such an effect, to plant the rhythm in the mind, the body and the soul. So much is written about that couple of muscle-busting miles to Hurricane Point. What they don’t tell you about, or at least what I missed if they did, is the wind. Gusts had been buffeting me and the other runners for miles, and nearing Hurricane Point, when we were at our weakest from the climb, the wind was a double slap in the face. I’d already cinched my visor down on my head earlier, and the bursts here were enough to blow it clean off. Thankfully, it stuck when it hit the pavement and didn’t continue skittering off the road and down into the Pacific below. Why am I even wearing the visor, I wondered, except to have something to aggravate me? The sun had barely broken through, and it wasn’t raining, which are my two main reasons for the headwear in the first place. I took it off to carry for a minute, realized I didn’t like having it in my hands, and then wriggled it back where it belongs. Don’t let the killer hill or the assailing wind or the floppy visor get you off your game plan, man. There’s too much race left.

THE UNRELENTING POUNDING of my feet on the pavement, especially around mile 20, when I can finally allow my mind to comprehend the finish.
A few days earlier, I watched the Boston Marathon on TV. We followed the lead pack in the men’s and women’s races, including some of the best distance runners in the world, and one of the commentators said that by mile 20, marathoners—yes, even these elite athletes—get fatigued and must rely on mental toughness to finish well. Mile 20 has significance for me, too. Not only is it near the limit of any of my training runs (22.5 is my longest, and that didn’t go so great), but it’s also the spot where I hit a wall in two of my three previous marathons. So how was I doing now? After a mental check head to toe, I realized my right ankle was sore, and my quads, especially my right one, were screaming. Most of the course, the southbound lane of Highway 1, is steeply sloped toward the ocean, which takes a toll on the body’s frame even if you make a point to find the flatter spots. Could that explain why my right side hurt? At any rate, I’m feeling like I have enough left. Only 10K to go. Which is what, 45 minutes? You can take 45 minutes of pain. Let’s call it discomfort. You can take it. You can make it.

THE SWEET, SWEET POUNDING of the massage therapist on my right quad, and my left one, and my adductors, and my calves, not long after the race.
I hobble through the finishers chute to the VIP tent, having just enjoyed a decent kick to the end and also having totally shattered my PR from three years ago. (“No one PRs at this race!” people would tell me later, in amazement. But I did, by 50 minutes.) I grab the first thing I see, a berry smoothie, and the thing I see after that, a big ol’ chocolate chip cookie, and make as much small talk as I have breath for. The party organizers point me toward the free massage area. I’m thinking it was an excellent idea to spring for the VIP treatment. I’ve never gotten a massage after a race before, but don’t mind if I do. I take off my space blanket and my medal, which isn’t actually metal and has already become my most coveted running memorabile, and manage to hoist myself up on the table. I lie on my back and as my muscles cramp up, I’m surprisingly relaxed.

I close my eyes and breathe in, taking it all in, and reflect on the Big Sur Marathon. My senses are full. In this quiet moment I’ve made for myself, I smile.

This Is Big (Sur)

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Bixby Creek Bridge

“If we were told we could only run one marathon in our lifetime, Big Sur would have to be it.” —Bart Yasso, chief running officer, Runner’s World

I don’t recall exactly when the Big Sur Marathon first entered my head. But I know that when I read Bart Yasso’s quote about it last year, Big Sur burrowed there.

The marathon, with its breathtaking California coastal views and epic climbs (perhaps as payment for those views), is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. It’s on mine. And I’m fortunate enough to not wait long to cross it off.

Search for “Big Sur Marathon” online, and you’ll find no shortage of amazing photos of the ragged edge of the Western world, most notably of Bixby Creek Bridge, complete with ant-size people running across for a humbling juxtaposition.

Oh, what an experience it will be! But if it were only about photo ops, my family and I could have purchased plane tickets and booked a hotel room for a few nights on the Monterey Peninsula. (Although we’re doing that, too.)

No, this is about the Big Sur Marathon, 26.2 miles of exhilaration and pain along northbound Highway 1. This is about 16 weeks of training—starting in January, in Chicago, in subzero wind chill—logging up to 35 miles each week (yes, only 35 miles, but that’s another blog post), subjecting my glutes and quads and calves and lungs to grueling hill work. This is about eating well (OK, eating like a horse), nursing nagging injuries, and avoiding illness or shaking them quickly. About keeping an eye on the prize. This is about being on the cusp of shattering my marathon PR in the grandest way I can think of.

There are a lot of superlatives in this post. The risk in building up something so much in your mind is having the experience not go as you envisioned or things not play out as planned. When you’ve worked so hard for something, and when every account you hear about it only boosts your already high expectations, it’s hard not to make more out of than you should.

I need to try to keep those feelings in check, but also allow myself to be moved in the moment.

As I write this, with less than 24 hours to go before the race, my nerves are good. Butterflies are minimal. Taper madness, even that’s not so bad! All that’s about to change, I know, when I head to the expo this morning to check in, and when I board the bus (at OMG-early) to the start line.

This is Big.

Running for a Good ‘PAWS’

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Please support me as I race to save the lives of homeless pets.

As part of Team PAWS Chicago, I’m raising funds for the Midwest’s largest no-kill shelter, and in exchange I gain entry into one of the world’s most renowned races: the Chicago Marathon. It might sound self-serving, and in some ways it is.

But I’m also serving thousands of homeless pets in Chicago. And you can help by making a tax-deductible donation of any amount to my cause. Do good, feel good.

—> Please click here to make a donation.

 

Why Am I Doing This?

Unless you’re super-fast, you must rely on a lottery to get into the Chicago Marathon. I could throw my hat in the ring and leave it up to chance. Maybe I’d get in. Maybe I wouldn’t. (Better luck next year!) The thing about chance is there’s nothing to say I’d ever have my name picked.

I’ve been eyeing the Chicago Marathon for a while now, and when I moved from the Valley of the Sun to the Land of Lincoln, I figured this is an ideal opportunity to run the city’s marquee marathon.

By committing to raising funds for a charity, I can make the Chicago Marathon happen. And through Team PAWS, with the help of people like you, I can also be a powerful force for homeless pets.

 

Why This Charity?

Rescue groups are near and dear to my wife and me. We adopted our two dogs, Shanna and Luke, from a shelter in Arizona, and we would not hesitate to adopt again (when the time comes).

PAWS Chicago is doing some amazing work …

  • Saving thousands of homeless pets each year. (My charity team, Team PAWS, aims to save 3,000.)
  • Treating and rehabilitating sick and injured animals and uniting them with loving families.
  • Providing low-cost/free spay or neuter surgeries in low-income communities where most stray and unwanted animals originate.

PAWS Chicago does all this without federal funding. The group is dependent on donors to do its lifesaving work.

—> Will you help with a donation? Please click here.

 

Why Now?

Why not?! A tax-deductible donation of any amount to my donation page directly supports PAWS Chicago’s efforts to save homeless pets—and gets me one step closer to running the Chicago Marathon.

Thank you.

 

Is There Any Cure for My Half-Maranoia?

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Maranoia (n.): Fear of something going wrong (illness, injury, etc.) in the weeks before a marathon.

I came across this fabulous “new-to-me” word this week. Best I can tell, credit goes to tweeters Runner’s World (@runnersworld) and Will Britt (@WillOnTheRun). (Good stuff, RW and WB!)

Maranoia—or more specifically, half-maranoia—perfectly sums up my last week or so, and the last week or so before all my races running up to this one.

The week before a half or a full, I am certain I’ll come down with a chest cold or turn my ankle stepping off a curb, thereby wrecking all my hard work over the previous 10 to 14 weeks. Every cough, every sniffle, every hitch in my hip is a sure sign of doom.

None of these things has happened yet, of course (please, please, please give me a pass, oh running gods). But it hasn’t stopped me from being, well, maranoid.

Is there any cure for my maranoia? So far, not yet. I do take extra precautions to avoid sickness (read: I become a hand-washing freak) and otherwise try not to do anything stupid (like not pulling my hamstring playing softball). But, overall, I live my life as close as I can to normal and try not to go too much out of my mind about the race.

No, not that maranoia

It should be said that “maranoia” has a second meaning, referring to reefer-induced delusions, and there is a book about the same abject subject. Instead of getting you to NOT think about it, I’m going to leave you with something that lodges it firmly in your brain. You’re welcome.

In the tune of “Smoke Two Joints” by Sublime
I run two miles in the morning,
I run two miles at night.
I run two miles in the afternoon.
It makes me feel all right.
I run two miles in time of peace,
And two in time of war.
I run two miles before I run two miles,
And then I run two more.

9 Numbers That Defined My Year in Running

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This is my 2013 retrospective. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

Oh, 2013, you were a beauty. My family and I were tremendously blessed with health, stability and security. I loved watching my toddler start to turn into a little man. My wife and I found out that our family would grow again, by one, in 2014.

2013, you were also one for the record books. I ran hundreds of miles training for races in five different distances, and I was surprised to realize I bested my time in all of them in the last 12 months!

To see my number of PRs, and other stats, check out my list below.

627

  • Total miles run

98

  • Miles run in January (most)

17

  • Miles run in September (least)

8:58

  • Average pace per mile (Nike+ calls it “fast & furious”)

7

  • Medals earned

5

2

1

  • Marathon run
  • 15k race run
  • 4.2m race run (third consecutive Pat’s Run)
  • 4m race run

0

  • Injuries

With 2013 in the books, I hope you have a happy new (running) year!

» What About You?
Do you have any 2013 numbers you’re particularly proud of? Do you have any running goals for 2014?