Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Marine Corps Marathon sold out: Entering is a sport

A few days ago, an email from the Marine Corps Marathon landed in my inbox and I knew that today there would be a stampede to sign up for this race. I did a quick check of Twitter and yup, it was pretty much like Chicago: was getting slammed as runners were rushing to sign up.

Two hours and 27 minutes later, the raced had filled up.
Chicago, as we remember, had to suspend its registration on the first day because it got hit by so  many registrations -- then moved to a lottery system. I was able to register for Chicago on that first day and in the case of MCM, I'm taking my sweet old time. Since I've run more than five MCMs, I'm part of the race's Runner's Club, getting a sweet lifetime guaranteed entry.

Other commentators may look at this filling race and come to the conclusion that road races are flush with participants, but I take the view that only certain races built up and overhyped over the years are now the bucket list of all marathons.

I know it wasn't in the too recent past when runners would qualify for Boston then wait for the winter to actually register to run. And back when I was running my first marathon in 2006, it was months and months after the window had open that they filled up. That race was Chicago, the same one that would have probably sold out in one day if the sites didn't crash.

I knew it would come to this, however. When I was waiting for the Boston 2011 entries in the fall of 2010, I booked off work that morning -- just had a feeling that something would happen. That day, it was a harrowing few tries before I got in. Boston organizers added to the frenzy when it emailed past runners that registration was filing up fast. Then, within a day, the race had filled, and a lot of runners felt cheated.

So yes, it's a race to enter the race.

Sky high popularity for our sport? Kinda, but we've got plenty of room. Consider this. For every major marathon (Chicago, New York, Boston) there are hundreds of other options. In North America, there are 384 marathons spanning the calendar year. The weekend that MCM is running, there are at least four other marathons on that same weekend.

It's easy for me to say that, given I've signed up for a marathon major (Chicago) while mulling my seventh MCM. But I also know there are other marathons on my list: many in Canada including Victoria, Montreal, Vancouver. And in the States there are plenty of medium sized ones. The few i've done south of the border other than MCM (which I've considered a home course) were pretty awesome, like the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati. I support all the local races in Toronto -- and the three marathons here never fill up for months.

But for those looking to make their first -- and sometimes only -- marathon, the big leagues are where they go. Great, and maybe they'll get bitten by the bug and try one of the other ones.

My 2012 MCM.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Around the Bay train delay

So I started hearing about a train that went through the Around the Bay 30K course today, causing a whole backlog of runners as it roared through Hamilton. I probably missed it by a bit, but looks like a whole lot of people had a little break from their race.

By looking at my run, it looks like it may have happened at the 5.5 mile mark or almost 9K in at Woodward and Walmer.

Anyways, it's interesting that a train would cause this because the reason why the race is held in March is because shipping by water begins in April and the race avoids conflict with the lift bridge. Apparently no one can really control when those trains come rumbling by. Some people say the delay took at least four minutes. A friend of mine who finished ATB in 2:49 was caught up in the delay. Were you there?

Take a look at some of the comments and pictures that moved during the race. Crazy!

I love this one.

Around the Bay results, race report 2013

I'm a big believer that the longer you run, the more races you do, there's something about that race day magic that will make you do things you don't think your body is capable of. In truth, there are a lot of factors: a rested runner, given the proper buildup training, and put in the right stimulus -- maybe a carrot or two or a competitor at your heels -- could presumably push himself to a faster finish.

(Here are the Around the Bay 2013 race results if you're looking for them.)

To progress as runners, we often have to go out there and run a smart, purposeful but daring race. Even among recreational athletes, this is done all the time. Ask anyone who ever set a personal best. At some point, they threw all the strategy out the door and just went for it, hoping that past experience and miles logged can turn into something you can draw from on the course.

I sign up for Around the Bay every year to keep myself honest in the dead of winter. You can't just show up for a 30k undertrained. The past 11 weeks of winter didn't so much as test my ability to train through winter, but rather built back the base I'd lost much of 2012.

About a month ago, on the trails of the Martin Goodman, I used a group of runners as my carrot. About 13 miles later, I'd done a sub 1:45 half (5 minute kilometre pace), a good sign I could in theory start thinking about a 3:30 marathon. That also meant that a 2:30 30k should be a marker I should hit with no problems. Too bad, I didn't follow up my training with speed, tempo, faster paced runs or even striders. No, I was relying on a cardio base and just going for a running streak. What my body could give on race day would have to be supplemented by my head and muscle memory, even if my last race was in October.

Around the Bay start line a few hours before the start.

I stayed over in Hamilton and took a stroll to the start line at 7:30 am. Two days before, I made the decision to dress light: a singlet as a base, and covered it with a light breathable long T that could roll up at the sleeves. The thinnest of gloves and tights. And, unlike every other run in 2013, I traded my touque for my MCM race hat.

At the start line, I checked out other runners and I had clearly been among the more underdressed. Thing is, I wasn't even shivering. A few years ago, at ATB, I had a moment of panic a minute before the start gun when I was trying to unzip the sleeves off my windbreaker without taking it off. Another runner thankfully assisted me and it made the difference between comfort and overheating.

This year's shirt.
The first kilometer was congested but I found myself working comfortably at a sub 5 minute kilometer. The pace band was set for 2:30 but I had ambitions of something faster. The thing about road racing, especially if you're in a bigger event, is that you can quickly lose yourself in the crowd. I was thinking particular about flocks or schools as they dart and dive in some sort of synchronicity. When you're matching stride among stride, each step somehow becomes more efficient. Maybe it's a wind tunnel effect but I do feel like races bring out the best runner in me. My stride is efficient my form is good in those early miles.

Kilometers 1-5

Yep, the splits for the first five kilometers show a bit of restraint. I remember my own advice about this race to be consistent and conservative in the first 10k. There was quite a bit of congestion and soon I realized it was because the 2:30 pacer was ahead of me. Yup, I wasn't going to be content with 2:30 so I passed the group and focused on getting my stride on.

The gloves came off quickly, then I rolled up my sleeves. Another runner took two glances at me and said "Sleeveless! Now that's a Canadian!" "It's almost warm out," I replied.

One slight advantage to my winter training is the fact that I don't fuel. (I do in the spring and summer as thirst requires it.) Today I planned to hit all the water stops with Gatorade and I carried three gels for the 8k, 16k and 23k marks so my usually depleted body would get an injection of carbs. I never leave bonking to chance on race day. You can see my next five kilometers how I'm starting to increase the pace -- when we turned north towards Burlington, I thought "it's time to race."

Kilometers 6-10

I'm a little floored by these splits because in my base winter training I was doing nothing near this in the past 10 weeks of daily runs, long or short. Yes, I've shown in my running career this is nothing out of the ordinary but it was one of those moments that race experience and stubbornness turns into results

My running turned into 'metronome' style where I was looking to parse out even and moderate effort. If that pace meant I was passing people, so be it. After the 10k mark, toward Burlington, we start to get some risers and drops.

Kilometers 11-15

Yep, the splits show how I know how to click off consistent splits when I'm on.

When you turn enter North Shore, you have a few kilometers of slow rises and flats that lead to the massive hills. When you turn the corner the race turns into a third dimension. I call it survival while trying not to bonk. Even before you hit the 20k mark you've hit quite a few hills. I took them okay, always using my breathing as the test on whether I've put on too much effort.

Kilometers 16-20

So I hit the half marathon mark at 1:40 or so. That was the first time I started to think whether I was testing my own fitness. I had another 5-6 kilometers of hills to take. So the next six kilometers, I took the tactic of gauging the hills, asking my body what it wanted to do, and just go with what felt right.

The first major hill up to LaSalle Park I ran it with good effort. It's followed by a drop that I took restrained, regaining my breath. The second hill after LaSalle I ran, but took a 15 second walk break at the top to settle my heart rate. I find whenever I take a break like that it can help me maintain a steady cardio state instead of red lining -- if I had done tempo or speed work I would have been able to handle that but alas, not this year. At a water station at 23K, I took a gel while walking (I usually do it on the run) to regain my breath. In almost every case, I soon caught up to runners who were with me.

Finally, Spring Garden and Valley Inn Road, I decided to take it easy so I ran up half the hill, then power walked the rest. My heart rate maintained steady. It was an odd, on the ground decision, but I think it helped me rescue the rest of the race. As you can see in the splits for Burlington's hills I didn't lose too much pace. I'd never done this much walking but I knew where my potential red line was. Again, most runners who passed me on the hills I overtook later.

Kilometres 21-27

On the way back to Copps and Hamilton, I was feeling pretty tired. I knew I had a sub 2:30 but was flirting with 2:25, not sure which end I'd land on. Funnily enough, I was thinking of the fact that my hotel wouldn't give me late checkout which meant I'd have to try to finish before noon (2:30 finish) and any minutes I could go sub that would buy me time. Stupid, I know.

Somewhere with about two kilometers to go, I said screw it, lets hammer. And it was good timing because as I passed a runner, she said to me "great, someone I can latch on to." And the two of us proceeded to hammer it home. I ran faster, and so did she. We powered down the stretch.

Which itself is a funny story, but only until after the race did I realize that it was my running buddy Sam on my heels! See the following Twitter exchange post-race.

Cause Sam on my heels caused me to kick it into an even higher gear. Thanks Sam! My last kilometer was the fastest. Small world this running scene, eh?

The meeting also continues a funny streak as Sam and I see each other at random races we run: At the end of a marathon, in the middle of one (in Ottawa), before or after a race.

Kilometres 27-30
Rest. 0:47

So there's my sixth Around the Bay, a good opener for the year and amazing what a solid base of running can get you on race day. Now the job is to take the gains and see how I can stretch this to my two marathons in May.

Final time: 2:24:29
Average pace 4:4

Other posts on Around the Bay:

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cool running heat maps

Really neat that Garmin has taken all those trillions of miles filed into Garmin Connect and created something really useful -- heat maps of most often used running routes.

I pulled up quite a few of them last night and put them into HuffPost, pretty amazing to see where runners go in these major cities. For the U.S. cities I've been too -- among them Boston, NYC, DC (of course) and San Francisco, I can see why the routes are so popular. DC, for instance, gets a tonne of runners who do loops of the two-mile long Mall.

Hope they add Canadian cities in the near future. Here are a bunch of the screenshots, but see the rest here.

NYC: Central Park the running zone

DC: Mall and Rock Creek Park/Potomac Trail

Chicago waterfront rules!

Boston: Along the Charles.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Around the Bay elevation and hills

I took a look at the elevation profiles for the last four Around the Bay races and for anyone asking if its a net uphill or downhill course the answer is you gain some and you lose some. The definitive answer seems to be it's an uphill course, but not by a lot.

The Around the Bay elevation for three out of four races showed that I gained around 670 feet in uphill with anywhere ranging from 600-to-650-feet drop. Last year's elevation info, from my Garmin, showed only about 650 feet of uphill and 613 downhill. Why the spread every year? Well, for one thing, we know that GPS watches aren't close to perfect when it comes to elevation (though they are pretty close when it comes to distance).

Here's how my Garmin recorded the last four Around the Bay hills.

  • 2012: 647 feet gain / 613 feet loss (see splits/map)
  • 2011: 689 feet gain / 662 feet loss (see splits/map)
  • 2010: 634 feet gain / 593 feet loss (see splits/map)
  • 2009: 743 feet gain / 763 feet loss (see splits/map)

I'm inclined to agree by looking at my multiple runs that it looks like the 700 feet climb (and fall) seem about accurate. Though most of the first 20k is flat, there are subtle rises and falls throughout the first 13 miles.

The Around the Bay elevation chart does show the hills from 20k to 27k take their toll. The screenshots from the past few years show the general breakdown of kilometers and the uphill/downhill.

There are basically three 'steeper' drops as well, the first is a series of rolling hills you get when you're into North Shore, right before one of the first steep rises.

Here's one of the major hills, one that leads up to Lasalle Park. My Garmin shows around a 90 feet rise over the course of this hill.

One of the big hills on North Shore. This one continues for about 500 metres. Google Street View

This is followed by a 50 feet drop, followed by another 50 feet rise.
Yay downhill. Google Street View

Here's an elevation chart of the hills of Burlington. It begins shortly before the half marathon mark, where you see two 'V' shapes. The rise/fall/rise referenced in the two pictures above is reflected around the 13 to 14 mile mark.

You're all probably looking at the big 'V' that begins its plunge around the 15.5 mile mark. That's the most discernable drop before Valley Inn Road. That last (and for most of us the soul sucking part of the race) shows a rise of about 110 to 120 feet. What you probably notice that from the cemetery to the bottom of the valley, the drop is greater than the uphill. Technically that means that any speed you may get from the downhill could in theory be negated by the uphill section (see video of the uphill)

Other posts on Around the Bay:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Around the Bay 30K race -- hills, strategy and is it hard? Yes

There's a good chance that if you're going long in these winter months in Southern Ontario, Around the Bay is probably on your race schedule. Mine as well as I'm running my sixth Around the Bay in a few weeks. Posts I've written in the past on the Around the Bay 30K Race gets a lot of search interest this time of year. You want to know how hard Around the Bay hills;  Strategies to race it; What the elevation profile looks like

Before I tackle some of the frequent questions, you may want to read a few posts I've written, including last year's strategy guide.

Other posts on Around the Bay:

On to the questions:

Is the Around the Bay hard? How difficult is Around the Bay?
Well, yes, I guess, cause it's 30K. Which is a pretty long distance for those used to doing half marathons. Seriously, the distance is actually perfect, the hard part the last third of the race that is made up of a series of major hills (both up and down). Those unprepared to tackle such elevations can find themselves out of gas. (More on the hills and course.) I suppose if you're 'running' the race that it's totally doable in a comfortable pace. Racing, however, is another thing.

What's with the Around the Bay bronze, silver and gold medals?
The graduated medal system is pretty neat and strict. All racers will earn at least a bronze, but men can earn silvers (2 hours to 2:15) or golds (under 2 hours) while women who do 2:15 to 2:30 can get a silver and under 2:15 with a gold. They go by the clock (not chip) so if you're aiming for one of these medals, you should line up properly and start your watch when the gun goes off.

Around the Bay finish.

Are there Around the Bay pacers?
Yes, and they have enough of them targetting the various levels (for medals). Do pay attention to them, I once followed a 2:20 pacer who was going way too fast one year. I let him go by the 3K mark and caught him 22 kilometres later. I've been a pacer at a few half marathons and I know that a few years ago the organizers were looking for pacers for these time slots: 2:00, 2:15, 2:30 continuous, 2:45, 2:45 continuous, 3:00, 3:15

How hilly is Around the Bay?
In truth, it's as hilly only as the kilometres 21 to 27, so really not that hilly overall. I like to think of Around the Bay as essentially three big uphills, a few medium sized rises, and it has it share of downhill as well. You are deep in hill territory (North Shore Blvd) 21K in. Read my strategy guide from last year on the race for more details.

What's with the Around the Bay last hill?
Yep, it's a killer. Spring Garden Road. BIG downhill. Big uphill. My advice is to coast down the hill and regain your breath, then attack the upside purposefully. There are several rises so you just have to concentrate, don't use up all your energy, bump up your stride at the top, and get ready to hammer it home at the end..

View Larger Map

Reader Paul sent a link to a video he took of the hill. Illustrates quite nicely the three-stage rise.

Does Around the Bay do pace bands? 
No they don't make 30K pace bands but you have a few options. I use a pace calculator to figure out my splits. Once you know the pace you're going for (say, 5 minute kilometres for a 30K), just find the closest equivalent marathon pace band. The Running Room guys usually stock them at the expo. Of course you can just print out your own pace, or memorize the milestones you want to hit.

Around the bay is older than Boston?
Yep, it's the oldest running road race in North America.

What's with the Around the Bay shirts and what colour is it in 2013?
First, I have no clue what colour it is, so if you know, let me know. And yes, they're pretty awesome shirts. Read here for why

First time running tips for the Around the Bay (food, rest and don't change anything!)

Overview of the 2012 race

You have any questions or any answers to share, by all means leave them here. Happy racing!

Monday, March 11, 2013

63 days of winter

I love watching the seasons turn. The beginning of spring is made so much more sweeter if not for the cruel months that preceded them. Those spring races are earned in those winter months -- we know that -- I know that. In just two weeks, I'll be racing 30K and in five short weeks, I'll be tapering for my next marathon.

The last time I took a rest day... well, how do I put it..  I faintly remember not the rest day but the first of many days spent embracing the cold. I'm not much for going on running streaks. In all my years of marathon training, I've cherished the rest days, loved kicking it back for one day out of seven. That is, until Jan. 7 happened, nine weeks ago. I haven't stopped running outside.

Since that January Monday, I've charged ahead. Skipped one rest day, then another. A two week running streak somehow became 21 days. An intended rest day on a Friday was also accompanied by a big snow storm, so what did I do other than stomp around in the newly laid powder? Heaven.

Marathon training has a certain cadence to it. It requires a certain amount of ramp up, when you build up your fitness and miles, until you reach the point where you give in to rest. Rest, they say, helps rebuild your body into a stronger version of itself. Even the more advanced of the training programs throw in much repetition into the mix, whether it calls for speedwork once a week, or an ever increasing long run. Inevitably, it calls for rest.

But by 28 days, something had kicked in. A slow 5K run was as good as a day off. The warmth of my living room? Bah. A measily -8C? Childs play. I plotted every week so I could hit my long runs, rearranging my schedule to hit a 17 miler in "perfect" -10C as opposed to the snowy, windy -5 the next day.

I tend to forget, but I first fell in love with distance running one winter almost a decade ago. Something badass about running in the frosty weather. Something "fun" in trudging through snow. Something hardcore in making it through a blizzard. And although this winter has had some rough days, in the 63 straight days of winter that I went out there -- from Jan. 7 in sub-zero conditions, through two 'so-called' snowstorms, countless mid-week melts that turned the trails to skating rinks -- I survived intact, grateful to breathe in the air, earning every post-run coffee, stacking my fitness in my favour.

Forty two days became forty nine until the math got too hard to rely on my memories of x times 7. By the time I reached this morning, I knew that nine weeks of straight running revived the runner in me. Just in February, on a 28-day month, I managed somehow to do more miles than I'd done in the monthly totals I tallied between last April and October, my supposed real running months.

So yes, I'm glad spring is almost here, I'm happy I ran the other day in short sleeves, I'm looking forward to running in daylight after work and I'm eager to race again with some regained mojo.

Today, I pulled myself out of bed, and out for a few miles. Didn't have much in me, my heel sore, my legs not into it. Maybe it's time to take a day off. Rest? It'll come. I'll need those fresh legs. Spring racing is here.

The streak: 9 weeks; 63 days; 54 hours on the roads; 378 miles/608 km travelled