Thursday, August 14, 2014

Breaking a Marathon into Pieces

Planning to run your first marathon, much like the marathon itself, is a large and intimidating undertaking.

Thousands of sources dictate how, when, and how much you should run every day, week, and month. Numbers begin to add together and pile up/ daily distances become weekly goals, single digits become double, and, if you pull back far enough, you see a total pre-marathon mileage that would not look out of place in the bottom corner of a GPS at the start of a long road trip.

But as a first-time marathoner currently signed up for the Chicago Marathon in October, I needed to deal with this large, intimidating planning problem. Marathons, as it turns out, need to be taken seriously.
And luckily, I found a way. Training for a marathon, like anything else, is best approached by breaking the process up into pieces. I imagine this method works quite well for all first-time marathoners like me, whom I have pictured in my head like tiny, frightened baby bunnies. 

No offense

You can't give a tiny bunny like that a whole carrot at once. They can't work with that. You have to chop the carrot up into pieces so they are able to deal with it. At least I think so. (Full disclosure: I've never fed a baby bunny.)

I don't start my days by telling myself, "I am now going to train for a marathon." I focus on how much I'm going to run that day, and I remind myself that the other hundreds of training sessions will be my problem on those other days, but not this one.

This method helps keep things in perspective by keeping that perspective tight and focused. And a similar focus applies well to those thousands of training plans for running a marathon. I pulled out the simple themes that resonate across all the plans, which are always going to be somewhat idiosyncratic to the runner writing them. Why else would there be thousands out there?

Here's an outline I've figured out to prep for a marathon:

  • Obviously, you have to run a lot. Make your runs consistent in increasing mileage each week, but not more than a 10 percent increase any week. Right before the marathon, I aim to be running around 50 miles or so a week.

  • Add speed work and interval training to your runs, and have one long run planned every week or every other week. For the long run, go more slowly than usual, and have water handy.

  • Listen to your body, and give yourself time to recover, especially after the long runs.

  • Don't make radical changes to your running routine for the race. Make sure your running shoes are well broken-in, and don't add a water-belt, or GPS watch, or new running shirt, or anything at all that you haven't gotten used to in your training.

There you have it. I can't break the marathon itself into pieces (unfortunately), but your training plan breaks down into one day at a time. Embrace that.

After all, sometimes it's nice to see the trees and forget the forest.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Things I'm Learning About Running Long Distances

Sometimes experiences throughout your life connect in strange ways.

When I was very young, three or four years old, my parents took me to the doctor and I got a series of shots that were probably just vaccinations important for a young child to get. I was as happy about this series of shots as any young child would be, but soon enough I was back home, and I went to bed that night happy, the incident forgotten.

When I woke up the next morning, my legs no longer worked.

As I threw my torso out of bed, landing in a tangled thump on the floor, I did so with a stoic resolve that surprises me even to this day. Well, I remember thinking calmly as I army-crawled to my bedroom doorway and then across the carpeted upstairs hallway, I guess I'm not a walker any more.

Maybe you have to be a child, new to the world and its experiences, to let go of something like walking so easily. Maybe part of me suspected the shots would wear off in a day or so. Or, maybe I'm just a weirdo. But as I threw myself down the stairs, landing in a crumpled heap at their base and interrupting my parents as they ate their breakfast, I could not have known that this incident would not be the last of its kind I would experience. 

I should have known that just calling for help was a better option.

I could not have known that the temporary loss of my legs would become a regular occurrence in my mid-20's, where luckily my bedroom is no longer on the upper floor of a house.

I could not have known, in short, that I would become a distance runner.

Each Saturday is my day for a long run, and each Saturday teaches me new lessons about what it is to run upwards of 10 and 15 miles at a time, starting with the fact that the rest of my day will be spent firmly on my ass. But aside from that one, I have a couple of other lessons I've learned the hard way about distance running. Starting with...

Bring Water

Sure, my other runs left me thirsty, but these really long runs don't just leave you thirsty--they leave you dry about three quarters of the way through. And its easy to tell when you're body is out of moisture: your heart beats faster, your muscles hurt more, and you begin to SERIOUSLY overheat. Your chest will start to feel like a furnace.

So obviously, bringing water is a must. Carry it, get a water belt, bring a bag; do something to ensure that you will have ready access to water throughout the run.

Now, starting out these long runs, I thought I had accounted for water. After all, there were a handful of water fountains along my route! Surely it will just tire me faster to carry a bottle, so I'll just grab some as I pass a fountain.

But I should not have counted on water fountains. As you run and get thirstier, an upcoming water fountain begins to look like a shimmering mirage in a harsh desert. You feel as if you've been saving up all your restraint until that moment, and you just might overdo it when you reach the fountain.

I might have overdone it.

Being able to sip when the mood strikes me is wonderful, and I highly recommend it. That, or you could look like you just insulted the dead parents of your magical nephew.

Apply Lubricant

So the other thing about distance running: it reveals all the parts of yourself that rub together when you run. If you didn't notice those parts before, you will after 12 miles when the skin on your inner thighs is red and chafing.

Sometimes it's even worse than that.
Waistband of your shorts too tight? Armband for your iPod shift as you run? Do your arms lightly brush your sides as they swing? All these features of your run and more will be revealed to you after you finish a long run and these sharp pains poke all over.

But the good news? Once you know, you can prepare. Get an anti-chafe deodorant stick thing, get Vaseline, get KY Jelly if that's all you have on hand, just get something to deal with it. 


So I have no doubt I'll learn more fun lessons as my runs get longer and longer, and I'll make sure to get back to you as I do.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Vicious Cycle

I've developed a habit in the last few months, ever since I got a 2014 wall calendar for Christmas. The calendar features a pretty picture of Scotland for each month, as well as the days of the month, numbered, arranged in a grid system just below that picture. They even label holidays and the phases of the moon. Just in case werewolves needed a reminder, I guess.

I'm describing the calendar it in such detail because I don't think many people have bought or used a wall calendar since the advent of computers. I mean, why would you use a wall calendar when we get calendars pre-loaded on every piece of hardware that we buy? Digital calendars aren't even limited by year; they can go on for as long as you want to keep planning things.


Anyway, the habit I mentioned. I put an "X" on the date of any day that I run. It's gratifying to put a new X up, and it's also quite satisfying, if I've run a lot any given month, to see all those "X's" lined up in neat rows and columns just below a pretty picture of Scotland. But just this morning, as my pen was poised to X another date, I thought about what was the most challenging run out of all those "X's."

You might predict the last run in a long, unbroken string of X's was the hardest. And while yes, after several days of running, the runs get a little harder, I don't remember any spectacular difficulty during the final runs before a break. Likewise, I could not remember difficulty based on any one day's conditions; the burning hot, frigid cold, cloyingly humid, or swan-infested runs get lost in time soon after they're completed.

But you know what runs I do remember? Those X's that come after a day or two without running. I remember them because I remember the days preceding that run. There's almost never a good, happy reason to miss a run. I was sick, I was lazy, I was mildly injured - it's never something dramatic, but it's always something I remember.

Okay, one time it was something dramatic.

Filling in those X's following a break is the most difficult because removing running from my daily activities removes a huge source of confidence and validation. I know running doesn't serve the same function for everyone, but for me it's a sign that I'm moving forward in my life.

Also, though less symbolic, no running means no boost of happy, active endorphins on a daily basis. After enough days running, you might become so used to that chemical boost that you don't notice the good it does, but remove it for a couple of days and it can hit you hard.

Really hard

I begin to feel down without exercise, and that, in turn, makes it harder to get back on the horse and run again. It's the second worst cycle I have to watch out for as a runner, the first being a literal cyclist who seems to be playing a game with me called, "look at how close I can pass this runner without actually making contact."

He doesn't always win.

There is a silver lining to this vicious cycle, however. For as difficult as it is to get back on that horse and run after an extended break, there is nothing sweeter than actually doing it. For me, the flood of self-validation, self esteem, and sweet, sweet endorphins is actually at its height when I struggle to make myself run. I don't know what I'd do without it.

Okay, I might know what I'd do without it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

How I Got Way Too High in Colorado

When I stepped out to run on Colorado 7, a long and lonely highway winding through the Rocky Mountains at an altitude of roughly 7,500 feet, I was confident. Gone was the low-altitude humidity that stifled my breath and slicked my skin with sweat at lower altitudes. Gone was the 90 degree heat that sapped my energy and slowed my pace.

Here, with Indian Paintbrushes gently swaying at my feet and green pines lining the highway, it was a cool 70 degrees. The air was crisp and clean. Sure, the road was a bit steeper than my routes in Illinois, but I could cope with that. And while I was aware of those things called “altitude sickness” and “oxygen deprivation,” neither ideas were really bothering me at that moment. I was brazenly confident, almost giddy, in expectation of having a great run.

Some of that giddy confidence, of course, was most likely the result of a lack of oxygen flow to my brain.

An oxygen-deprived world can be a magical, wonderful place.

As I found out at around the fifth step of my run that day, a drastic altitude change is something that really does affect exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, in a big way. While some might come to the realization using logic and prepare accordingly, I learned using a method some call “the hard way.”

Pictured: the hard way.

Running at high altitude limits your oxygen, which puts a lot of strain on your heart, lungs, and muscles. All three of which, as it turns out, were very important to my ability to run successfully that day. I’m not super aware of the science, so I’ll put it in more literal terms:

Running at high altitude LITERALLY makes you feel like you’re missing a lung. For those of you who are unfamiliar, I’ve made a handy chart:


So when I turned around to go home, barely a mile into my run, I adopted the form most runners are familiar with from when a run is going very, very badly. I shuffled forward, barely lifting my feet, at about the speed of an octogenarian heading to dinner in a nursing home when their least favorite meal is being served. My head was bowed and my shoulders were hunched in exhaustion, but I kept the last defiant stance of any runner who just won’t quit: my forearms remained bent at the elbows, despite the fact that I was moving between zero and one mile per hour.



Wild bears approached me, assumed I was playing dead, and politely retreated into the forest. Grass, long deprived of sunlight by my passing shadow, browned and died. My leg muscles atrophied and were revived with every step. And still I gasped for air, my heart thudding wildly in my chest.

Now I truly understand why the Olympic athletes train at higher altitudes. It is so much harder than running where there is oxygen aplenty. But running with low oxygen is like getting a sports car that usually takes premium gas to run on Mike’s Hard Lemonade. If you can modify the engine to get fuel from that, just imagine its performance when you give it the good stuff again.

I, however, am not an Olympic athlete. I was just on vacation in Colorado. So I did not run very frequently while I was there. If you ever want to run at high altitude and have not experienced it before, like me, do yourself a favor and SEVERELY limit your distance and pace. Any confidence you feel at the start is most likely the result of oxygen deprivation.

And remember: the least you can do, no matter how slowly you’re running, is keep those forearms up. Even if walkers are passing you while you do it, you’re still, somehow, more a runner than them. At least as far as I'm concerned.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Color Run Disaster

This past weekend, I participated in the Color in Motion 5k with my girlfriend, Kayla. It's a color run, and it was her first 5k. Our goal was to make good time and run the whole thing. Looking back, I have to laugh at our hopeless naivety.

I laugh, of course, to keep from crying. Crying multicolored tears.



I had never done a color run before, and the event was unbelievably busy. Thousands milled around the race area. Since attendance benefited the Special Olympics, this is of course very good. And, in general, I would recommend color runs to people who want to have fun and not worry about running. For runners who take races in any way seriously, however, I would caution you to stay away.

To clarify: a color run is where everyone gets bags of colored powder, wears white shirts, and throws the powder everywhere until everyone is a rainbow-smeared mess. But since not all the powder hits people, much of it stays hovering in the air, like an LGBTQ-friendly haze of mustard gas creeping through the barbed wire fences and over the muddy trenches of a WWI battlefield. When you run through these colored clouds, the powder gets in your eyes, your mouth, and, after a while, your very soul.

In fact, there are several moments before and during the race where you are specifically directed  to throw your powder in the air. But for a tall guy like me, this was not always ideal.



So after the first three groups of people were allowed to go, Kayla and I got started (this was half an hour after the official race start time).

So, here's why this color run was not good for people interested in, you know, running. First off, most people did not run. Those that did usually did not do so for long. Now, this would not be a problem if the race was at all organized to separate the running group, or had pacers set up. Of course, it did not. Because of this, half of our energy and time was spent dodging oblivious walkers who had apparently never heard of staying to one side. In fact, some of them seemed to have practiced getting in the way of people who needed to pass.



But the worst hell of all? The color gates. I don't know if that's what they're actually called, but there were four of them throughout the race, and each one was worse than the last, for two reasons.

The first reason has to do with what the color gate actually is. It's a ten or so foot stretch of path that is plastered in one particular color. A handful of people have thousands of bags of that color that they constantly beam people with as they pass. As a result, the color gate looks like a part of the world that didn't load in a video game, so instead of grass and path and trees and sky, there's just a blank patch, one solid cloud of color that swallows people up. If you ever read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, think of it like that nightmare-cloud thing that floats around the sea and is filled with unimaginable horrors. Think of it exactly like that.

The second reason is partly tied with the race's lack of organization I talked about earlier. There is not separate race or time for the kids; they run with everyone else, and, for some reason, being surrounded by rainbow colored clouds, free candy, and adults encouraging them to throw things has them all riled up. In the color gates, dozens of them sprint back and forth to get covered in the powder, forgetting momentarily that this is a race with hundreds of people needing to get through.

Near the end of the race, exhausted from the run and with our lungs probably looking like Easter eggs, we came upon the blue gate. I'm still not sure what exactly happened in the blue gate. Children were running, screaming. They flew through the air like mortar shells.



We barely made it out, listening to the faint giggles of the child predators that now hunted in the blue gate. We knew, then, that we had not made it out. We had been allowed to leave.

So yeah, our time wasn't great, and it was clear that the race was not designed for actual runners. It should be called a color mosey.

But of course, everything was for a good cause, and I'm hopeful that one day I'll be able to look at the color blue again without getting a panic attack. Small steps.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Runner's Roundup for June 25, 2014

The First (and Only) Disneyland Marathon. I heard they thawed Walt out to run it. (via +MousePlanet)

Check out Oregon's "prison run." Wait wait wait: they're helping prisoners run FASTER?! What's next, tunneling classes? (via +OPB - Oregon Public Broadcasting)

5 tips for running in the heat. #6: wait until September. (via +Men's Health magazine)

Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi will purposefully finish last in upcoming race. Ah yes, I also finish last on purpose, for charity. That's exactly what I do. (via +Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Infographic that puts a marathon's distance in perspective.  They didn't have burritos in the "Indulgent Foods" section, so I don't think any of this applies to me. (via +Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series)

Longest footrace on earth happening in New York right now. 3,100 miles. That distance still wouldn't get them to the front of the line at an Apple Store when the new iPhone comes out. (via +Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team Italia)

Barefoot running debate rages on. The nursery rhyme should be changed to, "And these little piggies caused a great deal of stress and arguing in the running industry. (via FiveThirtyEight)

Finally, below: does stretching/warming up actually help? I sure hope so, or I've looked silly many times for nothing. (via +AsapSCIENCE)


Friday, June 20, 2014

Running vs. Other Sports

Last week, I tweeted (twittered?) something that I have been thinking about ever since.

Many of my tweets blast popular American pastimes.

Is that a fair thing to say? Am I being a good judge of running and other sports? Was that an evenhanded hash tag to use? Questions like these plagued me after tweeting (twittering?) what I now view as a rash and immature tweet. Truly, I took my tweeting terribly too lightly.

So in my blog this week, I want to examine how distance running compares to some other popular sports in the category of coordination and grace. Keep in mind that I don't include most track and field running events as "distance running," since sprinting and hurdles obviously require an enormous amount of grace. Hypnotically beautiful grace. Grace out the ass, you could say.

I will be as fair and even handed as possible. Kind of.


BASEBALL

Baseball, or "Yankee Cricket," is a game with nine innings, four bases, a handful of players, and lots of steroids. Invented in 1776 as a way to hit apples at the British from a great distance away, it evolved during the 19th and 20th century into America's favorite national pastime. The apples went on to become apple pie, most famous for being as American as apple pie.

Today, baseball is played in order to sell $15 beers and $10 hot dogs to people watching the game from a great distance away in something called a "stadium."



Now, baseball requires a lot of grace and coordination. The pitcher has to throw the balls super fast. The batter has to hit those balls, even though they're moving super fast. But not only do they have to have hand-eye coordination, some of them have to run as well. The outfielders run to get the ball. The batters have to run to base. I have to run and find a bathroom without a huge line after drinking too many overpriced beers.

Running only involves running. You have to have a good form, but nothing that requires the kind of coordination a pitcher or outfielder has to have when throwing a ball. Granted, I have only played baseball a handful of times. I can't really remember much about it, though...

I wonder why.


FOOTBALL

I insulted football earlier when I implied, via tweeting, that it required the least grace and coordination of all non-running sports. On the surface, this appears to be true. Football was invented by adding padding, helmets, and more breaks for commercials to a game of rugby.

The objective, based on dozens of movies I half-remember, is to have two lines of men hug while the quarterback fades back and throws a "Hail Mary" to a receiver in the end zone to win in the final seconds of the championship game. If the movie is set before 1980, the team's success should also teach their community not to be so racist. Oh, also: a player whom no one thought would be good should be good at the last minute, and the best player from earlier in the season should be in the hospital watching the game and cheering.



But you know what? I have to hand it to football, I think it still requires more grace and coordination than running. Football involves only short bursts of running, but also throwing, catching, and dancing after you get a touchdown. So again, you need a certain level of coordination to play.

Not a HIGH level, mind you.


SOCCER

Soccer, or "British Football," is a gathering of dramatic actors who chase a ball around a big field to distract spectators from their true passion: faking injuries. Now, I've seen some footage of these faked injuries, and I'm a little surprised the Oscars haven't nominated a couple of these performances.

Pictured: true dedication

However, these players have gotten remarkably good at the whole "chasing the ball around" guise, and I have to say that it must take just as much dedication to perform like some of them do. Not only do they have to run, but they have to do so with a ball at their feet. Everything runners have to do and more.

Plus, I've always loved soccer. It was the one sport I was good at besides running.

See? This time, I was the goalie.

So, my highly scientific findings indicate that while running does require some grace and coordination, these three sports require more. Here, have a chart:



Have a good weekend!