Thursday, December 11, 2014

Race Report: California International Marathon 2014

The footing was precarious as I gave pursuit around that second lap of our interval workout. It was four days before I was to tackle the rolling hills in Folsom, two days till I boarded a plane for Sacramento, California. But tonight, as the asphalt that was 10 minutes ago wet was now frozen, I gave chase as we curved the down and ups of High Park. I was nursing a sore hamstring but found an extra half gear to power down and up the hill. Chasing a teammate, eventually coming alongside stride for stride, even as we were nearly slipping with every stride. Chasing so we would reach the finish faster.

"Sorry about the weather," the hotel employee said as I checked into the hotel on Friday, my leather jacket draped over my backpack. I was your typical happy Canadian who was escaping the beginnings of winter, where 16C with cloud cover might as well be a heat wave.

The California International Marathon has been on my radar for years and about 12 weeks ago, it became a backup marathon when I pulled my calf and started to look for a later marathon. It features rolling hills, a net downhill course and likens itself as the fastest course in the West. Not that I'd know, as I've never raced any marathons in the west or in December.

My teammate and training partner Julia had pegged the race as her goal marathon - I remember her telling me during a winter training run 11 months ago about this race in Sacramento. One of her friends, and fellow teammate, Naomi was also running it as her first marathon. So when I pulled the calf and started to look at options, CIM became the best choice. Running vacation with friends and enough time to ramp back up if I raced Scotiabank. So on Oct 1, I signed up under their guaranteed entry program.

I ended up racing Scotia in late October, my calf healing enough for me, and I decided to say, screw it, lets go for it. The race was a PB, 3:07:20. Looking back at the summer and year of training, I always felt that I had 3:05 fitness in me. Seven weeks ago as I started to ramp back up to CIM, I had no clue how I would treat that race. I was able to get my mileage back right up to peak form after a recovery week. Julia and I nailed our long runs, doing a 38k and about 35k four weeks out. My calf was getting better and about three weeks ago, I was finally able to pull off faster than 5k pace for the first time since late September. I was, crazy enough, still fit, aside from an upper left hamstring and groin soreness. More important, I was still training to run fast.

On Wednesday I did a quality workout where I was testing 4:05 and 3:55 pace. Some of the runners I was running with were gearing up for a 10k. I worried slightly that I was pushing it right before the final taper but I wanted to see what it felt to run fast. I concluded that I could push, but the next day I felt the pull of my hamstring, the soreness associated with running hard. I took it slow the last three days but still, it felt good to chase.

Waiting for the bus in Sacramento race morning.

Twenty minutes before meeting my coach a few days before the race, an email landed in my inbox from her with my prescribed pace. It called for a faster than Scotia, or a 4:25k for a 3:06:30 finish. We spoke over coffee and after assessing my fitness and condition, she threw in the first of many mild suggestions. "This is a good course to go for a fast time," she said. I told her I was so proud of the work i'd done this year but her point was well taken even if this was a no-pressure race.  Later, a friend at BlackToe who had run CIM before also said the same thing - that CIM was a fast, but beware too fast a start and trust the pacers. I left convinced that I had three choices. Run a controlled marathon at 3:10 to 3:15. Think about running with Julia who in the end needed to run her own race. Or chase a personal best on that course. Chasing was, by Friday morning, a small and gentle voice.

On race morning, the three of us stood in line for the bus that would take us out to the start line in Folsom, as CIM is a point to point course. We sat in the back of the bus and chatted up a Calgarian, and the Canadian contingent was talking about the weather (perfect, 8C climbing to 12C, no wind), the course (downhill but rolling, emphasis on rolling,with a flat final 5 miles), the occasion (it was Jules's birthday) and the portapotties (there were many). Later, someone asked us to push up the window as it was chilly, but for us, it was near perfect for racing.

Exiting the buses we only had around 40 minutes to do a washroom break, a group selfie and then we dropped off Naomi with her pace sign while Jules and I headed to the 3:10 sign. We stood there, hugged, pumped up for a morning of racing. I knew she was situating herself behind the 3:10. I looked at the 3:05 bunny, wondered what if.

Me, Julia and Naomi. 

The sun was rising and I could feel the perfect chill against my shoulder. I was wearing my favourite singlet, tattered and worn in by age and races. I clapped my gloved hands more to pump myself up than warmth. Then it was time to race.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Where belief can take you. And how far and fast it can get you there.

I can't explain yesterday's race other than I believed I could. 

I'm still trying to process what happened yesterday on the course of the California International Marathon. All I know is that I do have a race report to write that will come with time and reflection. 

So first, about barriers. How we put them up. How we stare at them with fear. How we think they'll always be unbreakable. And how we take the steps to reconcile what barriers are -- by tactically scaling them, avoiding them altogether, by taking them with a head and heart full of steam. 

When I relate barriers to my running life, I think about how far I can run, how fast I can run far and whatever limitations I have, whether it's an imperfect stride or a straying diet, gets in the way of the barrier, let alone any goals. I've written of the notion of fear, and how it can motivate you to greatness. 

Belief is a strong thing. Yesterday, I could feel it envelope me. By the time I had made it to the start line, I had heard from my coach who said she believed, from friends who thought I had it in me. Even as I was at the start, blissfully unaware of the three plus hours ahead of me, I was happy, confident, purposeful. I believed. 

On the course, I would draw upon it step after step. I asked myself so many questions. Can I run this fast this late? Can my hamstring hold? Can I catch up to that pace bunny that I could only see with my minds eye and a glance at my watch. Can I break that barrier?

Boston's ultimate qualifier is a 3:05. When the bar was moved higher and higher, years back, I got so intimidated that I would only wait for myself to age, which would move that bar just a little lower. My comeback this year, I thought about how I want to take that down that I would look past 3:15. I removed the barrier. I just wanted to go as fast as I could aspire to. I wanted to train up to my potential, not to a barrier one race put in front of me. 

So yesterday, when I passed the 3:05 bunny with 5k to go, I thought nothing of how comfortable it would be to settle in for the ride. The barrier was no longer a number, but a measure of effort, a test of will and a expression of fitness and of belief. 

Belief is a tricky thing. Some blindly believe, just trusting that great things will happen. My version of belief is spiritual yet grounded in reality. Yesterday I thought of the miles I put in, the run streak, the fast times I've closed in workouts and races. 

Belief was manifested yesterday in the reflection of the work put in, in mantras I uttered on the course and of the experience I bought to my 29th marathon. Belief was spurred on by the emotional and logical sides of my makeup, expended with each stride that at one point was happy go lucky and on the next step purposeful.  At the end of it all I couldn't believe I had crossed the finish in 3:02:55 but I had been present in every second that preceded the finish and it was belief that fueled the run. Only this morning I have come to that conclusion and it's the most happy-amazing-gratifying-emotional feeling you can think of. I ran my fastest yesterday simply because I believed I could. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I ran every day for 365 days. Here's what I learned.

I ran today.

Running streaks have to start somewhere and it was a year ago tomorrow, U.S. Thanksgiving Day, I went on a run.

This morning, I ran for the 365th straight day.

This is a post that in theory I've been thinking about writing for hundreds of days. If I had my way, I would write the entire piece while on the run, as opposed to on the couch long after I've put away my running shoes. In front of my laptop, I can't ever match the emotions, sensations, thoughts that I'm having each day while I am out on a run.

I ran today.

Today, I felt speed, as I accelerated while weary of the lights threatening to turn red. Even typing the word "speed" doesn't begin the describe it. How does one feel speed? My head says go fast and my legs respond, firing off those commands to move arm, muscle, bone, leg, feet -- while my lungs suck in extra air that will be parcelled out to areas that need it most. In the span of a few seconds, speed is not just movement that is done rapidly, but speed is expressed as motion executed by a series of strides, only to be spurred on by a series of decisions -- one decision overrode them all. The decision to run. And today I decided to run.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Race Report: Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon 2014

Three words. That's all I needed. That's all, really, I could muster in my mind that late in the game.

I had 36 kilometres before I wanted to start using the three words, my motivational running mantra. But through the race, I had also been anticipating that moment when the healing left calf would rebel, when the waves -- bursts -- would strike deeper into the muscle. My legs were spinning, maintaining the pace I had taken to heart, but I could feel it building.

When the 36th kilometre struck, the cramps hit, threatening to tighten completely. I pointed my left foot forward so the balls of my feet would absorb more of the impact, shielding my calf. I had been running for two hours, 40 minutes, and the three words I had planned to use on repeat were hastily replaced. I'd need that mantra later. I wasn't going to waste it now.

"Push, push, push," I muttered between breaths. "Push, push, push," I said, wishing, willing the cramps away.

The leg throbbed. I thought about stopping.

I said for the third time as the spasms hit, "push, push, push."

A FEW DAYS AGO, I sat down with my coach to talk about our plans for the marathon. I was four weeks out from a calf pull, and four days until my next marathon. I had healed enough so I could start attempting faster paces. We had agreed on a 3:07 marathon plan, which was the goal time I set back in June. In my mind, my fitness had me with the potential to go faster, but we ended up agreeing on the plan. I promised to go out on pace. "You'll see, once I get on pace, I'll stick to it," I assured her.

My build this season went almost flawlessly until I pulled the calf. I was getting stronger, working on my stride and running technique. I was paying attention to the details -- strength work and healthy diet. I was listening to the body. Races were solid this summer, including a new 5K and 30K PB and I had run long enough runs to be confident in the distance -- even with the injury and the reduced mileage in the past few weeks.

Calf aside, I was fit, and ready to race.

By the time I woke up on race morning, a weather system with gusting winds had swept through the city, leaving us with a gorgeous cold race morning. There was a wind but it was a mere 15km/h and the temperature was calling for 3C at the start, rising to 6-8C by noon. Perfect weather conditions. I had opted for light armwarmers, double singlet, gloves, shorts and a headband. It ended up being the perfect gear as I was never too warm or cold.

I arrived at the start line pumped, confident, focused. But something was different this time around that I had at no other Scotiabank. I was surrounded by so many friends -- teammates who I've run hundreds of miles with; friends I've known for years on the running scene; social media runners from this city and far off places. Everywhere I looked at the start corral, I could trade a hug, a handshake and wish good luck. I was going to run this race solo, but I wasn't alone.

Yes, I got it autographed by Reid and Lanni. Good luck charm?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

First-time marathon tips 48 hours before the race (VIDEO)

Ever wondered what are the routines other marathoners get into before the big race? What do you eat, how much sleep do you get? Awesome video put together with members of my running team (myself included) and my coaches and Reid Coolsaet among the guests.