Boston recap; on to Big Sur
It was a race with suspense that built horribly, like Deliverance or the British version of the Wicker Man, starring Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee. These 1970s movies were made before our collective attention spans turned to nil. Though Kara Goucher was in the lead, she never looked comfortable. I saw her at mile 11 of the New York City Marathon last fall, and she looked strong as she chased Paula Radcliffe, but in Boston on Monday, running alongside microscopic women with smooth strides, she appeared strangely out of place, which, of course, she wasn’t—she was entirely in the right place, for much of the race in first place.
Ryan Hall, by comparison, seemed driven not by a heart pumping blood through his veins but by a motor with a precise timing mechanism controlling the machinery that makes his stride at once so smooth and yet so stilted. He looks like a robot when racing, or like T-1000, the terminator in the cop outfit, from Terminator II. When Hall took the lead in Boston he appeared unbeatable, even with the entire continent of Africa seemingly on his shoulder.
Hall always looks strong. Dush, dush, dush. And he is undeniably fast, but perhaps what is lost in the mechanics is quickness. Deriba Merga, the Boston winner, runs with an eager impatience, as if he is obscenely late in getting to the doctor’s office, a sight oddened further by his striking resemblance to Sammy Davis Jr.
Merga, Wanjiru and Gebrselassie, arguably the world’s three best marathoners, are of a certain mold: Merga is 5’6’’, while Wanjiru and Geb are 5’4’’. All weigh between about 112 and 118 pounds. Hall is more of a Paul Tergat stature—both are approximately 5’10’ to six feet, and weigh between 137 and 142 pounds.
Hall and Goucher are gutsy runners. Both took the lead and got American running fans emotionally involved in the outcome of the race far more than they had been before. First place finishes would have brought a media blitz, but the hardcore running community is hardly discouraged—these runners will be back.
The Internet stream of the Boston marathon continued after the winners had been decided, and for fifteen minutes or so the camera showed runners who would finish in the 2:30s or 2:40s—great runners all—looking ordinary only because there were so many of them.
That’s a wrap for now from New York. It’s time, as Mamas & the Papas would say, for California dreaming to become a reality. I don’t know what the race will bring. I’m thankful that I’m still neither injured nor sick, knock on wood, and that for three hours or so on Sunday I’ll be running in what I’ve heard is a spectacularly scenic part of the world. I’m very thankful for the Central Park Running Club for helping me get in pretty good shape, and to the greater running community in general both here in New York and elsewhere on land and in cyberspace. I’m especially thankful to my wife, who despite having not been bitten by the running bug is understanding about my needs to lace up and further to podcast about it, and to my sister who also will be running in Big Sur.
Ryan Hall and Eric Liddell
The last time an American was the women’s winner at the Boston Marathon was 1985; the last time an American male won was 1983. Either of those 20-plus-year dry spells could end on Monday, as Kara Goucher and Ryan Hall are among the favorites.
In the film Chariots of Fire, the late Scottish actor Ian Charleson who plays the Scottish hero Eric Liddell, says “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” The line is echoed by Ryan Hall in a video of a recent training run. Hall says there are “moments when I feel God running in me.”
Whether or not he feels God running in him on Monday, Hall himself will be running in shoes made by Hitoshi Mimura, who for 42 years worked for Asics. Mimura recently retired from Asics and, according to a blog titled Japan Running News, plans to open his own line of running shoes, Mimura Shoes.
Kara Goucher will be wearing Nike’s.
Hall states that on the night before big races he watches the film The Passion of the Christ. During the London Marathon, as he struggled late in the race, he had flashbacks of the movie—he says that he could see the ribs of Christ bare for the lashes He took for him.
Whatever else Hall is doing on the night before Boston, and whatever Kara Goucher is doing, they certainly aren’t running. Conventional runner wisdom is that marathoners should cut back drastically in their mileage the week before a race, and run scant if any miles the day beforehand. This puts race day at odds with most deadlines, in which the workload increases in the days or hours leading up to the event. Imagine not being allowed to clean the day before a guest arrives. You can’t cram for a marathon.
The logic behind tapering is that heavy running shortly before the race will not add to aerobic fitness, or that any such gains would be far outweighed by muscle soreness and general fatigue on race day. While it is inarguably important to be fresh on race day, the trick with tapering is keeping the mental edge. It’s easy to feel like Tarzan during peak loads of training. If you doubt your fitness on race day, though, after cutting down on the mileage, you are already at a disadvantage. You need to trust your training.
This is one benefit of a training log. You see that you have run x-number of miles over a course of months, thus you must be in shape, even if you haven’t run much lately.
One wrinkle I’ve added to my approach this time is that as my mileage decreases, I’m increasing my sit-ups and pushups. Having more core strength, or at least thinking I do, could help over the last six or so miles when retaining one’s form becomes difficult.
Today I completed my last long run before next Sunday’s race in Big Sur. I ran two five-mile loops in Central Park, the first with my sister, and the second, in an attempt to simulate marathon race pace, on my own. I ran the second loop in 7:22 per mile, a bit slower than my hope for race day.
Shortly prior to each of my two previous marathons, I watched Chariots of Fire; this year, watching the Boston Marathon online could provide inspiration. That the event will even be streamed online bodes well for the sport in general. The newspaper USA Today ran a front-page article on Hall last week. If Hall or Goucher should win, the morning and late-night television circuit seems likely. Imagine Saturday Night Live scripted for a marathon runner.
Hare & Hounds club, beach at St. Andrews
A cold rain fell as runners braved a chaotic pre-race registration for the Scotland 10K in Central Park on Saturday. The grounds were muddy, the lines were long, and with chilly fingers, safety-pinning the bib to the singlet and threading the chip onto the shoelace were like tasks on a winter camping expedition. Being a Scotland themed race, there were bagpipers, and the Saint Andrew’s cross was visible on hats, giveaway blue ponchos and flags. There was even a haggis cart. Robert Burns was featured on the race’s tee-shirts and on promotional banners. With a blanched face, blackened eyes and the smear of color across his lips, the illustration made the Scottish poet look a bit like Heath Ledger’s Joker in Batman. Amid all the promos and giveaways, the one thing that harkened back Scotland for me was just beyond reach: across the fenced off registration area was an expanse of Sheep Meadow with grass that couldn’t have been greener.
After struggling in the bag drop area, I made haste for the starting line. I spotted a garbage can overflowing with the blue ponchos and added mine to the pile before wedging into an opening at the back of the first corral. Over the loudspeakers a Scottish representative told us that though the weather wasn’t as nice as it had been for the last year’s race, today’s harsh conditions were truly Scottish. “We could use a bit more wind,” said one runner.
One reason I wanted to try this race was that I spent my junior year abroad in Scotland. I studied at the University of Edinburgh and ran with the university’s Hare and Hounds club. In retrospect, the Hare and Hounds club was more like an adult running club than a college cross country team. Instead of practices every day, there were several loosely organized workouts per week. You paid for your own uniform, which they called a “kit,” and for access to the track. After races there were dances, or Celeidhs.
On the team I befriended an older Japanese linguist named Susumu who didn’t have great speed but whose forever-pace was faster than mine. During one of our long runs over the Braid Hills the topic of girls came up, and I confessed to him that I fancied one of the lasses on the team. As it turned out, he fancied that same one. “Great minds think alike,” I said. The next time we ran together he told me that he looked up that expression in a book of idioms. “Great minds think alike,” he said, “but small ones never differ.”
I was assured before the Scotland 10K that foregoing the orange Central Park Track Club singlet for this race wouldn’t be such a big deal—many runners, after all, wore kilts—so I donned my green University of Edinburgh top. When I wore it at the 2002 New York City marathon, I heard a hearty “Go Edinburrra” cheer from a Scot or two. This time nobody seemed to notice.
Despite the inclement conditions, the race was twice as crowded as usual. The first mile was an exercise in darting around runners, and once again I started slower than I had hoped—I was about twenty-five seconds off my 6:20 goal pace. My strategy for this race was to mimic the 10-10-10 strategy that my track club coach has been recommending for the marathon. Take the first 10 miles at 5-10 seconds slower per mile than the target pace, run the next 10 miles at target pace, and the final 10K a little faster than the target pace. The logic is that a slightly slower start will prevent the runner from blowing up and giving away much more time toward the end. Given that this was my last prep race before Big Sur, I took a 2-2-2 approach for this run.
My second mile was a little faster than my first, and at the two-mile mark I consciously picked it up. From mile three to the finish went something like this: Through the Harlem Hills I passed runners whose soaked kilts were slapping the backs of their legs as if in a carwash. I passed a cluster of Central Park Track Club members, none of whom I recognized. Shortly after the four mile mark there was a water station, and usually I grab a cup, but this time I skipped it. I focused on catching a Central Park track club runner with colored strands in her braided hair, then once I passed her with about a mile to go I focused on catching a small man who was wearing one of those blue ponchos. Shortly before Columbus Circle I started my finishing kick. I’m not sure whether I caught the blue poncho guy.
At the end of the race I knew I had finished in about 38:45—as it turned out, it was 38:42—but given the complexity of dividing 38:42 by 6.2 I initially thought that I had not met my goal, so it was a pleasant surprise to check the results later and see that I had run 6:14 per mile. It was faster per mile than my 8k a month prior, which itself was faster per mile than a 4-miler in December. To continue that trend over 26.2 miles next week would be asking a bit much, wouldn’t it?
As Central Park celebrated Scotland in miserable Scottish weather, those in Scotland enjoyed unseasonably blue skies and warm temperatures. ”It was hot,” reported my British correspondent. “The gingers didn't know what that yellow thing in the sky was.” In Edinburgh, the zoo was frequented by ten times the number of guests than had visited over Easter weekend last year.
Toward the end of my stay in Scotland back in college, Susumu and I ventured up to St. Andrews to run on the beach that is the setting to the opening of the film Chariots of Fire. Though the Old Course at St. Andrews is a mecca for golfers, the adjacent beach is no less glorious a place to run—it is just as magnificent as it appears in the film. The sand stretches for miles, the sky is limitless, and the sound and the sight of the waves heighten the emotions to such an extent as to render Vingelas’ soundtrack unnecessary, though upon returning to the bed-and-breakfast where Susumu and I were staying, our hostess made a point to play it for us.
The Bite and the Bonk
After months of pushing the envelope physically and seeing marked improvements, I had a sloppy week of training. The trouble began with last week’s Armory workout, a 4 X 1200, which I completed in splits of 4:03, 4:04, 4:03, and 4:10. I ran faster than I had over the same workout in January, but that 4:10 at the end ruined it. Panting like a dog and untethered from the pack I had run with during the first three, it was an ignoble way to finish. My Central Park Track Club coach said that I lacked “sting” because I had run too far the previous day.
Though I liked the coach’s use of the word “sting,” his comment kind of stung. It forced me to question my fixation on mileage above all else, specifically, my adherence to the sixty-mile week. Two nights after the 4 X 1200, I again lacked sting in a 6.8-mile sustained run in the park. And again over the weekend, when I ran three big loops around the park, my last loop was slower than the first two. It may seem natural that one slows down over the course of a run or a workout, but an evenly paced race, or a race with negative splits, is generally the best way to run. To run a good race in the marathon, I need to be stronger at the finish, not weaker. With the race now three weeks away, it is time to start descending from the high mileage and refocusing on race tactics and negative splits.
Sting, as a noun or verb, is useful for describing workouts and short races. To sting seems a preplanned strategy for 800-meter runners such as Russia’s Yuriy Borzakovskiy and the American Nick Symmonds. Borzakovskiy came from the back of the pack to win gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and Symmonds slingshot from the back to win the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. The most dramatic example of an 800-meter sting I’ve seen is the 1972 Olympics final, in which Dave Wottle comes from well off the pace—in a golf visor, no less—to claim the gold. During the first lap Wottle was so far back that the announcer speculated that he might be injured. Bernard Lagat annually stings his opponents at the Millrose Games Wannamaker Mile. Usually it is Australia’s Craig Mottram who he stings; this year it was New Zealand’s Nick Willis.
Marathoners sting too. At last weekend’s Rotterdam Marathon, Duncan Kibet came from behind over the last hundred meters to outkick James Kwambai. To say that Kwambai lacked sting would be unfair, though—both men ran negative splits and finished in 2:04:27. In 2005, Paul Tergat stung Hendrik Ramaala at the New York City Marathon in an equally dramatic finish. And Tergat has been stung repeatedly by Haile Gebrselassie in 10k races on the track.
Marathon victors are more often decided not by the ability to sprint the final few meters but by the ability to sustain a withering pace over the last several miles. Sting doesn’t quite describe this. It’s more like bite. In adhering to mileage goals, I have calculated that whatever sting has been lost in particular workouts or preparation races will be returned as bite during the latter stages of Big Sur. It would be a welcome breakthrough, as the opposite of the bite is the bonk, which I am all too familiar with from my two New York City marathons.
A friend of mine once described his concept of a “run forever” pace. It is the nice, easy pace at which it seems you could run forever. A run forever pace is a reward for being fit: it’s a wonderful addition to a runner’s arsenal, ideal for a long run in some scenic fresh-aired setting far from cars or buildings, at the beginning of a vacation, or at some moment in time removed from worry or responsibility. It is a dignified pace, the pace of the tortoise racing the hare.
A run forever pace is not a shuffle. A shuffle is what happens when you bonk. A race becomes a shuffle when the body breaks down and the goal becomes simply to finish upright rather than to beat this or that competitor or whatever time goal is set. The shuffle is a menace, adding several minutes per mile to the end of a marathon. I learned that nobody is immune to the shuffle, as I witnessed some years ago a world class runner shuffling in Central Park toward the end of the New York City Marathon, his reddened eyes glazed over. Most elite runners prefer to drop out than to shuffle.
There is solace afforded the shuffler late in a race, but it is grim: he or she is likely to pass a bit of roadkill. Roadkill consists of marathoners who have been beaten down even further —hobblers, who once were shufflers but then had to walk and then hobble—and wilted sunflowers, those runners forced to a complete standstill on the side of the road, their heads drooping and their arms clutching the backs of their cramped legs. Every marathon has its shufflers, hobblers, and wilted sunflowers, the percentages of which increase markedly after mile twenty.
My top priorities from now until the Big Sur marathon on April 26 are 1) not to get injured, and 2) not to get sick. I don’t have complete control over these variables, but the frequency with which I use the hand sanitizer as I exit the bathroom at work has skyrocketed, particularly as I’m using the bathroom multiple times a day given the many cups of water and bottles of Gatorade I’m drinking. I’ve got one tune-up race left on the schedule—the Scotland 10K in Central Park this upcoming Saturday.
At the Scotland 10k I’d like to quicken my per-mile pace from the last race, despite the longer distance. I averaged 6:21 per mile for a 4-miler in December and 6:20 per mile for an 8k last month. I’ll now try to run quicker over a 10k, which is a bit more than six miles. This time before the race I’ll ease off the mileage a bit. I want to get out at a respectable clip and to finish properly what I start.
22 mile run in D.C.
On page 42 of the March 30 issue of the New Yorker, there is a cartoon of a runner in a visor, glasses, a singlet with a racing bib, and running shorts. He is being offered water by several onlookers. One lady has four cups on a tray. It doesn’t look much like the water stations at most races, but that’s part of the humor, underscoring the ridiculousness of the situation. The caption under the cartoon is “Thanks, but what I really need is some bigger shorts.” A second look at the runner, and he indeed needs bigger shorts.
That cartoon came to mind as I held up a pair of racing shorts that I recently ordered online from a company called RaceReady. I was tipped off to this running gear by a fellow Central Park track club runner when we were discussing eating during the marathon. My plan is to eat shot blocks, and I was thinking of simply carrying a packet in each hand during the race. She recommended the RaceReady shorts and singlets, which she said came equipped with pockets that are unobtrusive.
If I had seen these shorts in a running store and not on a website, I never would have bought them. The fabric in the middle of the shorts that connects the front to the back drapes in a peculiar fashion, hanging quite a bit lower than the short’s legs, which are indeed short. I had imagined pockets on the hips, but they were in the back and off to the side on the front. And the singlet that I ordered as an add-on was completely useless, as its primary feature was buttons for your race bib. Pins are fine, thanks.
I did need, though, to pack some clean running shorts for a trip to my wife’s parents house in Washington, D.C., and given that most of my running shorts needed washing, I decided to use the RaceReady shorts for my weekend long run.
Travel can be disruptive to training, but there are perks: When training outside of New York City, the air is generally fresher, and every travel destination seems to have at least one good running route. A friend of my wife’s says that he always brings running shoes when he visits his in-laws. His wife has five sisters, and his best strategy while they get caught up with one another’s lives is simply to get out of the house.
There comes a time during visits when, after the initial high of the arrival, the guests, fatigued from their travel; and the hosts, fatigued from the hosting, turn into puddles on a couch. Sometimes the comfort of home cooking makes it so. The television is turned on and the laptops come out. This is a good time to go for a run. Running keeps you from becoming a puddle until the run is over.
We arrived in Washington on Friday night. I wanted to do a 22-miler on Saturday, and my father-in-law suggested a course that would take me from the Capital Crescent Trail to the C&O Canal towpath. I planned to do the first half of the run in 8:30 per mile, then to return at marathon pace, or about 7 minutes per mile, if I could. The Capital Crescent Trail conveniently has mile markers. The fourth mile of my run was at 7:53 pace, a little fast. Somehow I didn’t realize that I was running downhill.
Along the Capital Crescent Trail I noticed a cherry colored hat atop a fence. On the towpath keeners in eighteenth century garb were congregating on shore in front of an old wooden canal boat called The Georgetown. After the towpath terminated, I ran along the Potomac River to the Lincoln Memorial and then past the Washington Monument to the Capitol building. Intermittently I fished shot blocks out of the pockets of my RaceReady shorts and sipped from my water bottle.
It was a foggy day, temperatures in the low 50s. Yet around the Washington Monument, which is encircled by a tight formation of American flags, many people were flying kites. How bizarre and positive spirited it seemed.
Despite the scenery, the National Mall is not ideal for running. The crowds can be dodged, but there are many busy and unavoidable cross-streets. People don’t jaywalk in D.C. they way they do in New York. At one intersection I noticed a car with a Maryland license plate that said DR on one side and AS on the other, for “doctor as,” or, as most would read it, “doctor ass”. Why a person would choose that particular vanity plate is a mystery, but smart people sometimes overlook these things. The publication for the National Academy of Sciences in D.C. uses the unfortunate acronym P.N.A.S., or “peenas” which is emblazoned on gift items such as tee-shirts and water bottles.
It had taken me an hour thirty-three minutes to get to the capitol, at which point I turned back. The Monument had taken on a more dramatic appearance, partially shrouded in fog. On the towpath, the keeners were still congregating in their old fashioned garb, as if finishing the sentences they had started when I passed them an hour beforehand.
Like the Washington Monument, the towpath was more dramatic on the way back. Silver clouds and the deep browns of the trees were reflected in the C&O Canal which stretched before me; the entire vista seemed out of an oil painting.
Back on the bike path, I slogged the uphill, clocking a mile at 7:25. Not the seven minute pace I was hoping for, but given the gradient, it was fine. The cherry hat still sat atop the fence.
I finished the out-and-back run in 2 hours and 58 minutes, so the second half took an hour, twenty five. I later learned that one of the minor miracles on the run—the kites—could be explained despite the foul weather, as it was the 43rd Annual Smithsonian Kite Festival, part of the larger Cherry Blossom Festival. Sadly, all those kites weren’t quite as miraculous as I had thought. That the running shorts actually worked though—that they weren’t too short, that the Shot Blocks in the pockets didn’t interfere with my stride, and that the shorts don’t look to obscene, as long as one doesn’t do any butterfly stretches in them—this was a miracle in itself.