Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Race report: Cabot Trail Relay Leg 9, North Mountain

The fear was real.

It started sometime after noon, a full 8 hours before I was to run my leg at the Cabot Trail Relay in Cape Breton. I was griping a rock found beneath a road barrier, and alongside my teammates, we pounded them against the railing, creating a rhythmic clanging sound. We watched my coach Rejean storm up Smokey Mountain for two kilometres, running full out at 5:15 kilometres.

We later watched him win leg 4 and as we were buzzing about that amazing performance, I was starting to dread my decision to sign up for leg 9. Nine was a killer. Nine was the hardest leg, apparently, of the 276 km Cabot Trail Relay.

Leg 9. How did I get into this?

***
Our Pace and Mind mixed team was lucky enough to get picked to be one of 70 teams to run this annual event, now in its 29th year. None of us had done the race before, but we all knew about this legendary road race. Starting at 7 am and ending more than 24 hours later, the relay departs Baddeck and loops the Cabot Trail. The course is jaw dropping, and the relay is organized as 17 separate races. We watched at one of the legs how the race organizers set up and tear down a finish/start line in no more than a few hours, only to head down 12-20 km down the road.

As first timers, just getting 15 runners and two support crew to Baddeck and then organized for the 24-hour event meant that running and strategy fell to the wayside. Our team was made up of distance runners, most of us marathoners, and most of us were past our goal races, ranging from Boston in late April to Mississauga in early May.


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Photo: Pace and Mind


As the day went on, I couldn't helped but be awed at the scope of the distance we'd be travelling. As we went down the course, little bumps on the course maps were genuine hills. The big climbs, like in Rejean leg and later Ivy's leg 7, showed that there was a monster lurking. That monster had a number on it.

***
I first heard of leg 9 when I started hearing about Cabot. My friend Jules had raced leg 9 a few years ago. I remember that because she described the uphill and the quad-thrashing downhill. She had said she'd never seen faster splits ever appear on her Garmin. She described running nearly uncontrollably down that mountain.

I  mean, just look at it.


The winding road climbs 6.2km from around 40 metres in elevation up to 446 metres, followed by a few more climbs. Then it pretty much plunges all the way down for 6 kilometres, followed by a final 5km of rollers.

In sheer height, the 464 total metres of climbing North Mountain in leg 9 is higher than the Empire State Building or the top of the observation deck of the CN Tower (where Drake is famously perched).

Holy cow.

Sounds like fun.

Sign me up, coach.

***

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Photo: Aaron Barter

 I arrived at the start of my leg about an hour before the race. We had a three-car convoy with one car as support (picking up runners) and the other two on the way to the next leg or just supporting and cheering on the course. The beauty of it is we could see all the legs before ours and get a sense of the course.

Leg 9 starts off at the base of North Mountain, which means you can see it looming in front of you. It also means that you start to immediately climb it for 6.2km. Because the leg was the first 'night leg', I was to wear a safety vest and also have a headlight. It was likely that I would finish the race as darkness was falling but the light would make me visible.

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The temperatures during the relay varied from warm to misty and straight-out cold as we faced ocean breezes. As it was misting when I arrived, I opted for a double singlet, the vest, shorts and arm warmers/gloves. There were three water stops during this 17.8km leg.

I watched Caroline finish the leg on a thrilling steep downhill, followed by an 8 metre finishing chute. By 7:55 pm, we were beckoned to block the road, given quick instructions, and promptly told to start

The mountain

Thing is, I'm still never sure if I'm actually good at climbing hills, but not for the effort or training. In my leadup to Boston, I had trained for hills but even that 42.2km course is not nearly as hilly as leg 9 (150 m vs. 464 m). In the weeks leading up to Cabot, I was only doing maintenance mileage and throwing in my weekly spin classes, where I would do most of the 'hill climbs' out of the saddle with no rest. I knew it would be nothing in comparison to 32-34 minutes of continuous climbing

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Video: Andrew Young


 The first two kilometres were done a bit faster (4:25 and 4:58) but represented not as steep climbs (35 metres and 47 metres). The field quickly separated and I was a little bit surprised to see about 16 runners spread out ahead of me, some in the far distance. Cabot has a huge spread of really fast runners and I knew i'd be mid-front pack but some runners were just hammering the hills.

My strategy was to acknowledge that I would have to run by feel -- that 32 minutes of climbing could see me red line. As I hit the third kilometre and saw the seemingly neverending hill, I knew I had a long ways to go. By then, I dipped to a 5:26 kilometre with a climb of 80 metres. I could feel the redline coming, so I slowed so a runner behind me could go ahead. My thought at that point was this was a three part race -- climb, drop, rolling. Little did I know there was a fourth I hadn't quite anticipated.

The fourth kilometre shook me, not only for the 62 metres I climbed and seeing the pace drop to 6:26 km, but I could see the winding road ahead of me. My breathing didn't feel right so I did a few walk breaks, thinking I could make up that time on the downhill. Number five, at a whopping 142 metres, was a doozy -- 7:22 kilometre. It pretty much felt like I was climbing stairs at this point.

Things improved as I started to crest. I knew I wasn't overdressed and was ready to get the legs moving. The hill, which I'll never soon forget, was completed with a 5:35 km.

Splits: 4:25 (+35m), 4:58 (+47m), 5:26 (+79m), 6:26 (+62m), 7:33 (+142m), 5:35 (+29m)

The flat, second hill

So I got my legs underneath me, and I focus was to use the flats to get some pace back. I wanted to get the wheels turning, to turn up the cardio effort back to a comfortably hard notion. It helped that there were some cheer stations at this point so I was able to do a kilometre in 4:08, even with a slow rise.

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Photo: Pace and Mind


But, of course, there really is no big flat sections on this leg as I could see the cars ahead of me fall, then rise. Another hill, which I was able to navigate at 4:38. I knew this next section was coming fast, and I would have to figure out how my legs would deal with that plunge.

Splits: 4:08 (+7m), 4:38 (+25m/-15m)

The downhill

A friend of mine who navigated leg 9 told me to expect to run almost uncontrollably. You were literally thrown down a hill, and with every step, you had built momentum. Downhill running works well if you know how to run them. Get your legs underneath you, lean as much into the hill, and leg the gravity and momentum do the trick.

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I'm a high-cadence runner, which is to say that my wheels turn over very fast. I can go 200 steps per minute without real effort. As for downhill running, this helps get my legs down on the ground even as it continues to come up at you. All runners, though, are going to get the quads thrashed in this manner and even so, it will pound. For 3,600 steps, I would be hurtling down.

With the winding road, I just let the course dictate the next step. I knew there were spectacular views, but my eyes were firmly focused on where I though the next two to three steps would lay.

My teammates caught up to me at this point and you can see me running down that hill, high cadence, focus on the road.

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Down the mountain

 I ran a 3:55 km, then as I started to plunge, I hit a 3:32, 3:30, 3:35 for three straight kilometres.  

It didn't feel like a massive cardio effort, but I was spending a lot of time pounding down that hill, my legs absorbing all that shock. I finished off the hill with a 3:58 as the course flattened out.

As I finished the, I glanced at my watch and I could see that I had just ticked by the 13 km mark.

Oh great, more than four more kilometres, and it was anything but flat.

Splits:  3:55 (+6m/-41m), 3:32 (-136m), 3:30 (-88m), 3:35 (-90m), 3:58 (-38m)

The rollers

So yeah. Rollers. That.

I sometimes rerun a race in my head and this is probably the portion that I would ask myself for a do-over. I hit the first kilometre in 4:19, which is somewhere between half and full marathon pace. I willed my legs to have better turnover but I could already feel the pounding of my quads were not helping my running at all.

I wish I remembered I had a gel with me, because I probably could have used some sort of a boost. And by the way, since I passed one runner on my way down the hill, there was NO ONE I could see ahead of me. It was pretty stunning how the field could spread. I had no one to chase down, no one to measure my effort against.

It was a ghostly view of a sunset against a horizon of mountain peaks. It was a little spooky, so much so that a puddle of water ahead 50 metres prior was some sort of small animal. Was my lack of sleep the past few days catching up? Had I lost the race pace I usually know well?

In any case, a 4:26, 4:30 and 4:37 were not the types of splits I wanted to see at the end of a 17.8 km race. I know at peak fitness that I could have been 15-20 seconds faster.

In the distance, I could see another big hill in front of me, and the glow of neon sicks that served as directional lights. I climbed the hill towards the finish, which is a fast right hand turn directly into a parking lot of a restaurant.

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Splits: 4:19 (-13m), 4:26 (+9m), 4:30 (-22m), 4:37 (+13m/-8m), 4:34 pace

I was finished. 1:22:56, good for 18th place out of 70.

I feel funny writing a race report because for me, leg 9 was just one of the small pieces of an epic weekend. By the end of the relay, we had raced 276 km and came in sixth overall, second in the mixed division. I'm so proud of that, moreso from the fact that everyone gave their all, everyone helped one another. My team, which I already think has an amazing bond as I've run hundreds, even thousands of kilometres with these folks, bonded as a unit even more so in the ramp up to the race and in the afternoon and evenings after where we talked about the amazing weekend where we ran a dream race.



From all indications, the organizers liked our energy, spirit, teamwork. We hope that means we'll be back sooner rather than later.

Cabot is so much more about one race, but a weekend spent doing the best sport in the best way -- with other people passionate about it. I'll be living off the highs of this event for a while yet.

Heck, I'll even run that mountain again.


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Sunday, May 01, 2016

Race Report: Toronto Marathon 2016, Project Audacity and the crazy idea

Nine days ago, a day after I got back from Boston, my quads still stinging, my hamstrings sore and my spirit undiminished, I sent my coach Rejean an email with the subject line: "Update and an audacious plan?"

A few days later, my friend Lee, sent me an email titled "My latest crazy idea."

The night after the Boston Marathon, Lee and I commiserated about the day that was not ours. It was too hot, too sunny and just not ideal after a winter of training. Lee was thinking that he'd love to make it back to Boston next year. I was lamenting a strong season of training that resulted in only two races. Over three dollar drafts of PBR, we drowned our sorrows, quietly hatching plans.

I suppose there's something in the water in Boston.

***
Goodlife was 13 days after Boston. And as I saw the forecast shape up, it looked like an ideal forecast. Cool. Like good cool. So I asked Rejean whether he thought I should go for it. I reasoned my Boston, run in 3:23, didn't see me entirely empty the tank. Running 42.2K 13 days out isn't common, but it can be done. We worked on a workout plan to see how my legs were bouncing back.

So over the past week, I threw in a medium run, a few quicker workouts. I was tired, I was sore, but I knew I was still fit. My goal, I presented to Rejean, was to get to 3:10 or faster, which I thought was well within my aerobic capability. And also a good shot at a BQ, which for my age is 3:15. Rej hatched a sensible plan and Lee was on board to run with me as long as we could.

By the time I was making my way to the race start, only five people knew I was racing.

Codenamed Project Audacity.

***
1K-5K
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Of course, this seems to be the year where weather throws some challenges at you. It was a light rain, lots of wind and it was cool. Lee and I started together and just ran by feel, mainly. The course takes a north turn where we were able to get a sense of the wind (North East) but we were able to plunge down Yonge Street. We've both run Goodlife on numerous times so we knew what to expect. A big downhill before Hogg's Hollow. We did that split in 4:30 km.

Splits: (4:22, 4:29, 4:28, 4:11, 4:30)

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I took a kilometre or two to settle down from Hogg's and I was paying close attention to how my body was responding. To me, the effort felt slightly harder than it should -- i'll take it as fatigue following Boston but when I compare it to my course feel at Boston, this run was way better. I was wearing a double singlet, a visor, arm warmers, gloves and shorts. All were great ideas. I felt I was cool enough, but not risking of hypothermic. I wouldn't sweat too much which would have been my major worry. As well, the stride I was running felt efficient. I was taking careful notice of my left calf which was what seized at Boston and hoped that taking in Gatorade and gels would delay any issues.

The course has a bunch of rollers, then turns around Davisville where you wind your way around UCC. We felt the tailwind for the first time and it was glorious, so we kind of let the feel dictate the pace. By the time we hit 14K I knew we were banking big time with the faster downhill splits.

Splits: (4:31, 4:21, 4:25, 4:21, 4:16, 4:30, 4:28, 4:23)

13K-21K
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The Casa Loma to the bottom of Rosedale Valley is what makes Goodlife a fast marathon. You can run it and bank time but also save your cardio. We hammered it where we could but while running down Rosedale Valley Road you could feel the headwind running east. It was noticable, even with the trees as cover.

We ran down Bayview extension and the pace still felt good. Saw my teammate Bart who took this picture and we just kept on chugging.

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Lee and I hauling ass.
We hit the half mark at 1:33:22, which was a 3:06:44 pace. We both kinda knew that we'd probably be giving up some of that time so I told Lee I would regulate the pace a bit.

Splits: (4:14, 4:15, 4:28, 4:18, 4:22, 4:22, 4:30, 4:25)

22K - 35K
This section is what I call the 'home course' all the way from Corktown past to Humber Bridge, along the MGT. This year, we had a nice tail wind, sometimes a crosswind, and if we had buildings ahead the wind would bounce off and push us. In all, I was able to bank effort while using the aid to save some energy. As I was hitting the 24K mark, I felt that today, barring wind, I would be able to power through the 30-35K mark with strength.

We entered Ontario Place and out on the trail and Lee then went ahead. I decided not to give chase. In retrospect, maybe I should have taken advantage of the wind and done a stronger run up to 35K but I just was content zeroing in on runners around me. My gloves were soaked, my glasses were fogging up and covered with droplets but at least I was cool. Today I felt I would go for it.


Splits: (4:24, 4:31, Garmin wonky for 2K, 4:22, 4:22, 4:24, 4:31, 4:25, 4:27, 4:24, 4:29, 4:32, 4:26)

35K to 42.2K
Yeah.

The wind.

The 3:10 pacer caught me at 35K tearing around me with a big group. I thought they were going fast so I didn't give chase but I wish I had -- they would have been a good wind block in future miles.

So as we turned back, we were hit with a wall of wind. I can't even describe it but it felt you had a parachute attached to you. I run on the waterfront often and this I would call an exceptionally windy day. I felt my pace suddenly drop. Breathing was hard. And lo and behold, the left calf was strarting to show signs of cramping.

Once we got past a particularly windy section and hit the bridge the wind wasn't as bad -- though horrible, and I forced myself to pick up the pace.

Each kilometre became a negotiation. I was frustrated that my effort was not turning into turnover and speed. I fought impulses to slow down to walk. As each kilometre came (38, 39) I was looking at my watch thinking of all the banked time that was now coming back to me. I knew that if I hit the 40K mark in 3:00 that I could probably hit the 3:10 target.

If only two kilometres could be so easy.

I asked myself if I could run two kilometres. I thought about the marathon and how I committed myself not to run one this fall. This was it. This was my chance to put it in. Taking walk breaks would slow me down, but just keeping my movement on would push me closer to the end. I found a second wind in the final two. It was hard, I won't lie. Running two marathons at effort in two weeks is something I haven't done in awhile. But I saw friends, the crowd and realized that if I just pushed for a few minutes, it would be a difference between hitting 3:10 and a 3:13. It would be the difference of qualifying for Boston with 1 minute of buffer and a lot more than that.

So I pushed. And hit the final corner with a great crowd cheering.

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The final stretch. Photo: NightTerrors

I looked down at my watch and laughed. 3:11:00 by my hand. 3:10:59 chip. A 4:01 under my Boston Qualifying time.

Splits: (4:30, 4:46, 4:39, 4:52, 5:07, 4:54, 4:55)

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I quickly caught Lee at the end. He hit 3:10:15, and also a big BQ for him as well.

I've run faster and I've closed races much stronger, but of my 33 marathons, this was one I'm proud to have run.  Would I suggest runners try a 'revenge' or 'redemption' race so close to after the one they went wrong. It's probably not for everyone. And it's probably why I've been keeping this under wraps.

But for sheer audaciousness? Absolutely, sometimes, it has to be done.

Lee and I post race. 

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Race Report: Boston Marathon 2016

There are moments in your life you want to freeze frame. I've had them, far fewer than I would have thought in my 40-plus years on this Earth. Full awareness when you are living in the moment. Seeing a beautiful landscape that your camera can't capture. Watching your favourite band or sports team. Seeing your Dad content at the end of the meal.

I've had quite a few moments in my life on that 26.2 mile stretch of road between Hopkinton, Massachusetts and Boston's downtown. I savour those memories.

In 2011, the second time I ran Boston, I stood in my corral and amidst the chaos of the pre-race start. It was the anthem, runners hurrying to their corrals with moments to spare, a helicopter overhead, and the slowly advancing mass of some of the finest marathoners on this Earth. I remember smiling to myself and thinking that was a lifetime moment. Appreciate this, I told myself back then, you may never be back.

Yesterday I put in the effort and while the result isn't what I wanted, I've got another memory for a lifetime.

***

I flew into Boston knowing that I had a solid season of training behind me, with little racing to prove much. Last fall's cycle wasn't the greatest for me -- work was busy, and my quality and long training suffered, which I saw in a sub-par half marathon and a disappointing Philly.

By January, I was hungry again for Boston and added back spin to my weekly routine. Each week had me doing four quality workouts, from tempos to longs and I was able to hit plus 100 km weeks often, with four 35 km runs in the bank. Around the Bay as a training run two weeks out was a confidence booster. I was fit, I dropped some pounds to a good racing weight and aside from some niggles, I was feeling good.

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 The Thursday before Boston, I was not liking the weather forecast. It was calling for 22C of a high for Monday. By the time I was in Boston on Saturday, the weather was cooling somewhat but it looked like not to be ideal.

I took the trip up Hopkinton on race morning with my friend Lee. And an hour later while waiting in the village we knew it would be a warm day.
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Facebook Live video walking to the start


The race
5k (0:22:25)
I decided to start with the race plan and adjust as I felt the air temperature. With my corral, it was easy to maintain a fluid pace, hitting 4:22s to 4:30s in that first bit with the mostly downhill portions. I was running in shorts and singlet for the first time in six months and though that felt freeing, the sunlight on my bare arms was instantly heating me. I run the best in around the 8C to 13C range -- my best races in fact have been colder than 8C. Hopkinton at 10 am was 18C and quickly warming.

The overall race plan if the weather was ideal was to look at 4:25s to get me to a sub 3:07 finish. Even after a few kilometres, that looked not to be in the plan as even the downhill I held back. I was trying to feel the air temp and try to regulate my effort so I could slowly warm up. I did the first 5K pretty much dead on 4:29km pace which I was 100% fine with at that point

10k (0:44:49)
I'll note that the day was amazing for spectating. The crowds were out in full force and it was so great to see the state come out for this race as it does year after year. When you're racing Boston, you don't have as much of a chance to enjoy this as you're working toward your pace. We worked into Ashland and into Framingham. I distinctly remember passing the train station at Framingham reflecting on the amount of effort my pace was taking on me compared with last year's effort. It felt a lot more forced to run at pace and that was not a good sign. I was seeking the very little shade there was on the course on the right, when it was there.

15k (1:07:16)
Past Framingham and into Natick, my pace was still right on 4:29 km pace. Around that time, the air temperature for Natick was at 23C. It was at this point where I knew that the 'easy, easy, easy' rule of the first half of the marathon was not coming to light. I was working harder than I should, and I knew it was not going to be a good second half. By then, I knew that after Wellesley and into the Newton hills, I'd have to negotiate them and not redline too early. I'd let the next 5km dictate the second half of the race.

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20k (1:30:34)
Running into Wellesley marks an important part of the marathon course. You should be finding your cruise pace, a pace you'd have to recall 15K later when you crest Heartbreak Hill. It also marks the Wellesley Scream Tunnel, that ear-piercing line of college students with hilarious signs, a sure-fire way to get your pace going. I hit that portion not mentally there as I have in the past three Bostons. The pace was hard work enough.

Half (1:35:36)
I hit the half with an overall pace of 4:31 km. Coach asked me on a warmer day to adjust my pace by 5 seconds and it looked like I was going with that rule. Last year I hit this point in 1:32 on my way to a 3:07 Boston. Nope. Not this year.

25k (1:53:57)
I switched to my new pacing plan: Settle down to 4:40s or so for a while and see how I would navigate the Newton hills. In a weird sort of way, settling down the pace felt like I was gearing down big way. My cardio engine wasn't firing as high and I think that's what probably saved me down the stretch from overheating. I averaged those splits down to 4:40s (some faster, some slower) and it looked like a lot of other runners were doing the same around me. At some point, I jammed my left foot against another runner's heels when he slowed down at a water stop. In a kilometre or so, I could feel it throbbing and I knew I just developed a blister. Great.

30k (2:18)
Oh Newton, how fantastic are you. I'll save all the drama as to say that I ran all of the hills. Not powerfully as I could of. By then, my left calf was showing some tinges and the toe that I struck earlier was forming a blister. I couldn't get a proper toe off. But I took the measure of each hill and just put my head down and did them. Heartbreak really isn't the steepest hill there is -- it's long, though, and at the point of the race where you'd rather not have one.


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35k (2:43:38)
Cresting Heartbreak is an energy boost as you get to enter Boston College where the spectators are usually loud as hell. You're also treated to a nice downhill. I tried to turn it on but it wasn't happening. The cooler headwind wasn't working its magic. By then, I figured my goal was down the tubes and the legs were on the verge of seizing. At that point, I knew I didn't have the race in me. The crowds were growing and I was appreciating the moment, in whatever state I was in at the time. Tired. A little overheated. Cramping. I wanted to enjoy it more but I also wanted to put some effort into it.

40k  (3:10:05)
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The last two kilometres the leg cramps were coming often and with greater strength. I would have to stop and stretch lest have them seize on me. And so that's how I finished the final stretch of the Boston Marathon. Slowly, with forcing myself to jog it in. It was an odd feeling, almost as if I were outside myself, watching myself slow down. But it was fine. I had survived a hot marathon intact, with only sore quads, aching calves and a blistering toe with a developing sun tan. I smiled a lot in that final mile.

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I hit the finish line as slowly as I could, eventually hitting it in 3:23:03. I knew it would not be a finish line I'd see next year. And, given where life priorities go, maybe not the year after that. I thought back to the day, and of all the days that led to the last four Bostons. I fought to get here. When I said goodbye in Hopkinton in 2011, never would I imagine I would be toeing the line five years later a stronger runner.


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And so I left satisfied. Happy. And fully aware of the moment. I got to do my dream marathon yet again. Four times to Boston, four medals, and four lifetime experiences I will always cherish.


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Will I be back? I hope so, but I know that famous route from Hopkinton to Boston is a course of dreams for thousands, including many of my friends. I want them to run it so we can talk about finding your dreams. That's what I take away from Boston. A full appreciation. Thank you, Boston, its volunteers and the fellow runners who bring their passion to these streets. No matter if I'm back or not, I have a chock full of moments to remember for a lifetime.

Facebook Live video after the race






Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Intervals

They are moments of quiet, those resting seconds before the next lap, when your body is settling down from a near-heaving state that breathing almost feels normal. Instead of panic, you feel calmness and as your stride cadence picks up, you hit the lap button, and then it begins. The work is ahead of you. Time or distance, there is something you're counting down to or running up towards before your next round, before the next rest.

The resting period between intense efforts is how we actually define intervals. We aim for consistency as we hit each one, even generating more power as we hit the final sets.

The rest period is a body reset. It shields you from red lining, while helping you create bulwarks, those fortifications against fatigue.

Sometimes, the rest period lasts for a minute or two. This pause I've taken here has been necessary. But, as with all running, you have to start again.

UntitledLast year, after running Boston, I felt that I needed a reset. I had just put two of the most intense years of training behind me and was a stronger runner at 41 than I was at 30 when I took up long distance running. The summer, I went through the motions, but nothing was firing properly. That interval of time taught me a lot of lessons. By end of the year, after a dismal Philadelphia Marathon, I felt like I took enough of a pause. I was ready to hit restart.

In the interim months, I've rebuilt myself. I took up spin again, I hit the track, didn't miss a quality workout, reconciled what my schedule and work and life priorities could make room for my running. I battled through two colds, showed up to practice and trusted that I could peak at the right time.

Running is not as simple as you think it is, and a lifetime spent running only presents you with unexpected turns. We talk about the rush of improvement, the attainment of goals or lowering times, the serenity that you look to return to. We relish the alone time in this never pausing world, yet flock to the groups that give us community.

The laps we run and the intervals we take -- measured in kilometres or time -- slowly start to become much longer markers. Weekly mileage, monthly buildups, seasonal cycles and race calendars. In between the laps come moments of exhaustion and exhilaration, a neat combination that you may feel on the couch after that penultimate marathon training long run.

The most euphoric moments of running -- often happening at the end of a gut-busting workout or moments after you let the newly acquired hardware dangle from your neck -- can lead to the next natural yet opposing thought. What's next?

It's not lost on me that 10 years ago, I was training for my first marathon and in a little more than two weeks, I'm running by 32nd. What gave you motivation for the next run in your first 1,000 miles is a world of difference 10,000 miles later.

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And when those intervals drag out, it give us pause for reflection. When us runners deal with aging, with hitting training plateaus, or just finding ourselves with life and or other passions demanding attention, just as the run does, it's easy to put that interval between laps in the rearview mirror.

The period of rest gives me perspective and as my run streak approaches 850 days, I've come to the conclusion that I want to run long, and for a long time. I want to run fast, but within the limitations of what a reasonable mid-pack runner can achieve when life beckons. What I love most about running is that it gives back what you put back in, and right now I'm good putting in the work.

Friday, November 27, 2015

First steps

The fire, I felt it in those final miles of the Philadelphia Marathon this past weekend. It was burning in my legs, that tinge to signal effort. It was present in my lungs and I could feel it in my veins.

This morning, five days into my off season, I woke up before my 5 a.m. alarm. I balanced a mug on my lap as I warmed to the thought of the outside. In another half hour, I was outside to confront November, running as darkness reluctantly relinquishes control. On a similar morning, four months ago, I'd be on my front stoop, stretching lightly, babying a niggle on my left hamstring, watching the mid-summer dawn take over the sky. Eight months ago, I was watching the late winter give way to spring.

Today felt like spring. Today was like first day, only that it wasn't.

Run, every day.


The first few steps of every run reignites everything. It may draw out your pains, may expose your lack of sleep or express how fit you truly are. For the past 730 days, I've taken those first steps and it's led me here to this moment.

I'm writing this as I "lap" the second year mark of my run streak. Last year, I wrote a post about the things I've learned about running 365 days, and although not much has changed, my perspective is evolving.

The life of a runner begins with enthusiasm, sparked by fitness gains and early PBs. They're bolstered by bucket list goals, by friends we meet on the trails and the goals we dangle in front of us. Over the years, that early love affair with running changes, not as obvious as a fork in the trail, but there is a point in the path where we decide what running is to us. Is it something we did before life and work and responsibility edges out running.

I've lost count of the number of kilometres or runs I've accumulated in the past 11 years as a long distance runner. Two years ago, in starting this run streak, I had rekindled my love of performance running. Simply, I wanted to get fit again, get as fast as I could, and get to Boston. Within those two years, I achieved that and more, but the unintended outcome -- in its 730th day -- was the unexpected surprise.

Heat map of the last two years of running
That fire I felt in Philly was another rekindling. I was reminded that running in the long term is not unlike every stride you take. Your next step follows the first. You bound through trails, on top of concrete on asphalt on a forward motion -- jumping, really -- that would not have been possible if you hadn't taken the step before that.

We bound, one foot in front of the other, on our daily runs. Over the course of the days and miles and trials, we get stronger. That strength is like a shockwave that travels from your heel right up to your heart. A runner's body changes over the course of the years. Our bones solidify, our muscles extend and tighten, our bodies can get lean, our stride efficiency increases.

There are moments during every run when everything feels fluid. Easy even. But that belies the pain -- forcing legs to move faster than they are capable, pushing the heart to pump out enough oxygen to fuel your needs.

In the middle or end of any hard workout there is a point when you say no more. You think you can't go forward. But you push. And at the end, lungs busting, heart leaping, knee leaning, you are crafting a harder version of yourself.

So I enter into a part of my running life not thinking that the road has run out, but rather that I've taken that brief pause, and now I'm ready to see where the next cycle will take me.

Run streaks are really not about peering from the top of the mountain to appreciate the view, as there is no summit. You're in perpetual motion. Every day resets itself. You get on your shoes and, like any other runner tackling that day, you're taking your first steps. Something fuels that. Ritual, repetition, for sure, and maybe even habit, but I think somewhere in there you need the fire.

They say you don't want to run another marathon until you've forgotten the last one you've run. The pain you experience during those challenging miles, the wall, the cramps, the feeling of exhaustion meted out, drawn out. Why do we do it again?

In those final miles of Philly, a race that didn't go according to plan, I told myself to fight through. I shut any impulse to shut down. For once in the past few months, I embraced the suck.

And when I passed that finish line, I felt a different type of fire. It continues to burn.

The past year has been amazing. What's next?