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)

5K-12K
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?

Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Interlude

There comes that point in a run where you get to the stop light. You linger, waiting for the seconds to count down before you have to start up again. Your heart rate comes down, you can almost reset your systems before continuing.

Sometimes, I run toward the stop light, hoping for a pause. 

This post is about interludes, about training and a little about what I've been up to these last six months.

I found myself at the end of my last marathon with the prospect of yet another summer of training, ramping up, getting the miles in, the quality work building a better me. Yet at the same time, I felt the tiredness that had started to set in with a busy work schedule, other priorities and found my time crunched.

How do we rebalance a life of a runner when priorities change? I've thought a lot about the quality of my training, the amount of time I put into it and even how much I spent time writing in this space.

This year marks the 10th year I've trained for the marathon. After running my 30th at Boston, I felt that I'd come full circle -- I was faster than I've ever been and it was an amazing accomplishment but not without the toll. I had niggles that persist to this day, was losing out on sleep and started to see training as work, not play. 

Signing up for a November marathon pushed out my training well into the summer, yet I was still doing long runs in June and July. And as the early fall race season hit and my friends started their off season, I felt I had prolonged things too much. So I enter November and my prep for Philly wishing I was in the off season. My fitness tells me I can do this marathon, even at a reasonable pace, but not where I was earlier this year. I welcome the off season and am hungry to get back at it next season.

The pause, or interlude, is something that I desperately need. One can not keep the pace season after season, I've learned, and if I'm going to look at having more years of strong running, I'll have to learn how to reassess, rebuild and capture that feeling of performance running. That, and refocus back on strength, diet and training consistency. 

One thing that is consistent is The Streak: I'm now 711 days into the running streak and it has transformed my running life. As I look forward to finishing the second year of the streak, a few things that have come apparent. I'm a morning runner, able to wake up at 5 am with little fuss. I'm an early sleeper as the body has naturally adjusted to the wakeup calls. My easy runs are truly easy and I listen to the body with every run. I feel connected to the process to the point that running every day is not something planned, but just done. 

So what's coming up next is another race in two weeks, another off season and the healing and ramping up that will happen with my 2016 marathon, which will be the Boston Marathon. I'm not sure if I'll do a marathon next fall but there are different races, reasons to train. I look forward to getting my body and mind into that process. I'll find more to write about running in that journey. I'm back, but in essence, never really went away. If you want to follow my runs and pictures I share, I'm on Strava and on Instagram.


Water fountains still running, still running long. #runto

A photo posted by Kenny (@yumkerun) on