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

failed_run

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.

4 Reasons Why I Love Final Race Instructions

email

I’m a rule follower. If you have rules or instructions or directions for me, I will adhere to them as best I can. It’s a very exciting life I lead, I know.

So when I get an email from the organizers of a race with the subject line Confirmation Sheet & Final Information or Final Race Instructions, you can bet I’m all over it like a guy who loves instructions maybe more than is healthy for him.

Last week, I got THE EMAIL for my next race. (Along with spam-levels of correspondence pertaining to upgrades and special offers and a dozen other new ways I can spend my money. But that’s a post for another day.)

The much-anticipated email contained FOUR KEY ELEMENTS that are instrumental to my race experience. Continue reading “4 Reasons Why I Love Final Race Instructions”