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Giving it 110%, or “Have some gravy with them biscuits!”

Long runs can be tough.

Starting out might be the easiest part – you’re fresh and enthusiastic and (hopefully) feeling healthy and fit, but if you’re really going long – whatever that is for you, on any given day – there’s probably also some apprehension about all that time/distance ahead of you. Or downright dread maybe.

The middle part, is definitely tough, when it seems you’ve been running forever and still have forever to go.  Calorie reserves dwindling, pressure points announcing themselves, any lingering weak points of the physiology becoming more and more prominent, this is where runners build character, whether we want it or not.

But then there’s the last portion, when you can smell the barn and see the light… Despite fatigue, aches and pains, this may just be the best part of a long run – cruising to the finish.  Unless…

Unless you’re ramping-up to some long goal or event, following one of those training plans where every week or two (or three for those of us who need a lot of recovery time) you make that weekly long run a little bit longer (10% more than the last one is the oft-spoken rule, so that’s what we’ll refer to).    Adding distance means that just as you are getting to what last time around was the payoff, you have to “go the extra mile,” and that is no small deal, since by definition the lead-up you’re now staggering to complete is 100% of the max you’ve run before in this training cycle.   Aching, sticky with sweat or frozen with cold, stomach grumbling (at best), bowels raising the alarm (definitely not the best scenario) the prospect of going even farther can be pretty daunting, especially if the earlier miles haven’t gone particularly well.  Some thoughts that have helped this follower-dog “keep on keepin’ on”:

One:  A lagging pace in that final extra distance doesn’t affect your average pace nearly as much as it might seem.  The reason is basic math – proportions.  Let’s say your pace in the added 10% drops by one minute per mile.  Since you’ve already run 10 times as far, the impact on average pace will be 60 seconds divided by 11, or less than 6 seconds – a rounding error for those of us in the middle of the pack.  Even if the pace lags more than that, if you’ve given it your best for the bulk of the  distance, that added 10% is all about the doing, you don’t need to ace it.

Two: When temptation rears its ugly head, suggesting you call it a day and do that long-run-plus in a couple of days, or next week, (or any other time but right now, which is what I’m really thinking, right about then), it may help to remind yourself what it took to get to where you even have the choice whether or not to do that 10%.  If you bag it today, you’ll have to run the whole 100% again, just to be where you can make this decision.  That’s right folks, you can end the pain and suffering here and now, but then you’ll have to go through it all again just to get back where you are today.

And Three: if you can just make it through that extra 10%, what a sense of satisfaction you’ll have!  Whereas,if not, you’ll have done somewhere up to 90.9% of the work (that’s 100% out of 110%) for none of the payoff.  Talk about a rip-off!

Biscuits-and-gravy comes to mind – that 100% you’ve already run is like the biscuits – hearty and nutritious, but by themselves more than a little dry and grainy.  The added 10% is the gravy, the part your mouth has been watering for, and that will make all the rest go down smooth and easy.  If you’ve gotten anywhere near it, push on through and make the miles.

 

In most areas of life, “giving it 110%” is a cliché – and worse, one that flies in the face of logic and mathematics.  In running though, it can be very real, and all the literature seems to agree it has big benefits. So make a training plan and ratchet up the distance, and when you find yourself on the cusp of calling it off, remember: that extra 10% is what makes the meal worth savoring.

Long runs?  Yummie!

(Easy enough to say when I’m sitting at this keyboard…)

 

Out and Back and Out and Back

Most runs fall (though usually not literally) into one of a few categories – out and back, loop, point to point, or laps. A recent pace run has given me reason to appreciate a variation I’d never considered – the repeated out and back.

Back-story: I set out this past Saturday on a mid-length run, aiming to sustain a particular pace (faster than any of my recent long runs, but not as fast as shorter ones), but quickly began to fear the packed snow and ice on local streets was a recipe for injury.  Deciding to stop and consider my options, I actually did fall  down – thanks to a hidden patch of glare ice,  and so packed it in right there and headed to a Rec. Center treadmill to finish an abbreviated workout.

On Sunday, still hungry for real miles, I drove some distance to where the lower elevation meant a paved trail would be clear and safe. I planned to run 5 miles out before turning around, but nearing 2 1/2, began to suspect the treadmill intervals might have taken too much out of my legs to keep the targeted pace that long.  Plus I had no idea how far downhill I’d go on the rest of the out bound leg and have to climb back up later. The prospect of finding myself five miles downhill from my car, with worn out legs, did not seem fun, or even very wise.

It was then that Plan B occurred to me: how about turning back at 2 1/2 miles, and pushing hard back to the car at 5?   That’d give a better shot at maintaining goal-pace, limit downhill to what I’d already seen (not much to that point), and still leave the option of heading back out for more. Done deal!

The first discovery was the added optimism I felt turning around at 2.5, as if I’d already achieved something.  Next was the realization that since I’d just covered them in the other direction, I had a clear idea what each of the next 2.5 would bring, and the confidence to attack them more aggressively.  Approaching the 5 mile mark, it was surprisingly comfortable to push the pedal down and hit my goal pace with a ten-second margin, the satisfaction of which was more than enough incentive to head back out again (after a short breather).

Not surprisingly, the next 2.5 began a bit tough, but well-before the turn-around the ol’ legs had cleared themselves of exhaust gases and seemed eager to revisit the same stretches they had just ‘conquered.’   Plus I could tell myself I’d already succeeded for 5 miles, so had a lot more reason to believe I could do the same distance again.

End of story: after initially wondering if my intended run was possible, it turned out to be very much do-able and fun; not only able to beat goal pace for the first half, I managed to come within just a few seconds of it over the entire distance.  Plus I can now compare splits on the two halves and see clearly what role fatigue played on identical terrain, something you don’t get ever get on a loop, point-to-point or single out-and-back (where covering grades in reverse prevents any direct comparison).

Out and back, out and back – it’s really another way of saying you can run laps on any route, it doesn’t have to be a track or even a loop.  That turns out to be a great way to break up a long effort (see Divide and Conquer, 10/22/17) and also to hedge your bets if the weather is iffy, the terrain unknown or your own readiness in question.

Who would’a thunk?  Not this mid-packer, at least.

 

The Long and the Short of It

Most runners start out relatively short – with short distances, that is.  Whether as track athletes steered by coaches to an event which best suits them (100m, 200, 400, 800, 1600…), or recreational/fitness runners who choose a mile, 5K or at most a 10k for their first official  target.  Only after substantial experience with those more modest distances do they build up to hours-long efforts in half-marathons, marathons, or ultras – if ever.

As it happens, my first-ever organized running event was a half-marathon (or ‘hemithon’, if you’ve read an earlier post on giving this distance its due) which I entered with an over-ambitious buddy who’d started training and wanted company in his challenge.  It also doesn’t hurt that I live in a small town many miles from larger communities – it’s difficult to justify driving several hundred miles and spending one or two nights in a motel for any event that will last less than a couple of hours.  Whatever the factors, I tend to focus on events of 13.2 miles or more, and maybe not to fully value their more compact alternatives.

This year’s though, a local Turkey Trot 5K provided a good reminder of something to love about shorter events: the high ratio of Start/Finish time to cruising time.

It’s no secret, after all, that the start of a race is very exciting. The crush of bodies before the tape, the inspiring music, the cocky buddy-chatter with whoever winds up at your elbows.  The possibility of a new experience, a new PR, or just another notch in the old shoes…  Enough excitement and joy that many of us have to consciously avoid going out too fast and hurting later performance.

And the finish has an appeal all its own: that competitive burst as the line approaches (if there’s still that much gas in the old tank…), the imminent relief of ceasing to run (without guilt!), the after-race beverages – whether water, electrolyte or brewed…  The celebratory connecting with friends and co-runners.

In contrast, the mid-part of any event tends to be considerably less intense.  Unless you suffer a cramp or collision, or make a wrong turn and have to find your way back to the course, it’s mostly steady-state pacing and self-control (and how many people find self-control exciting?  not a lot of hands shooting up there…).  No wonder so many distance runners strike up conversations with strangers, or plug-in to music, podcasts or talk radio (well, maybe not that last one, we want to spend our energy running, not raging).

What struck me this turkey day is that the start line time and energy of a 5K can be just as great as that of a marathon.  In fact, it’s actually more related the size of the field than the length of the course.  The Bolder Boulder is a 10K,  for example, but with a field of nearly 50,000 it boasts remote parking, city-wide shuttle buses and a plethora of waves and corrals, meaning one may leave the house three or more hours before toing the line – plenty of fantasy time for any of us feel like an athlete in the Olympic Village.

And the emotional weight of a finish is really determined by one’s strategy and approach.  Sure, if you start accelerating at mile 23 of a marathon, that’s 3 miles of buildup and anticipation: hopefully enough foreplay for a satisfying release after the line is crossed.  But heck, you can get the same duration in a 5K; just start anticipating the finish at .1 mile in – right after you’ve forced your pace down from that initial foolish start-sprint.

The point is, these precious moments are just as accessible and meaningful no matter the length of the event!  We can have as many minutes of juicy start and finish experience in a 5K as in an Ultra, if we just remember to focus and enjoy them.

Long, short or in between, every organized event is a chance to experience excitement, anticipation and release.  What’s not to love about that!

 

The Measure of a Run

In 2014, Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon, the first American man to do so in 31 years.  Millions watched intently, thrilled and awed by his victory. His winning time? in 2:08:37.

In 2011, Ryan Hall ran the same course in 2:04:58, the fastest marathon ever run by an American, anywhere.  But Ryan Hall didn’t win; he didn’t even get to stand on the podium, because three men ran even faster that year. So his run, nearly four minutes faster than Meb’s, didn’t bring anything like the acclaim – or rewards – of that performance.

Is beating every other runner who shows up for a particular event on a particular day the best measure of a runner’s performance – or is hitting a particular time the more absolute and lasting achievement?

On one hand, winning seems dubious when the time required to do so can vary so much from year to year…

On the other, there was reportedly a tailwind in 2011, which may have boosted the entire field’s times – though how much that affected them is undetermined; and undeterminable. Swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction, 2015’s winning time was 2:09:17, widely thought to be attributable, at least in part, to headwinds; but again, how much so is impossible to determine.  Consider that Robert Kiprono Cherulyot had won – and set a new course record – in 2010, but if his 2:05:52 had occurred one year later, it would only have been good for – fifth!

Clearly, actual time isn’t the absolute objective criterion it seems to be, either.

And is an individual’s performance really due solely to their efforts, or do drafting, switching leads and the emotions of the chase contribute – how much did the pacing of others play into those astounding 2011 times?   Speaking of intangibles, seven of the 2014 men’s field had previously run a 2:05:30 or better somewhere.  How readily do we conclude that it was only Meb’s personal commitment to making a statement after the tragedy of 2013 which set him at the head of such a phenomenal group – or were their efforts moderated, as some have claimed, by Hall himself, lulling them into a relaxed pace until Keflezghi had opened a gap which was to prove unbridgeable? (Apparently the same factors that can skew finishing time can affect placement as well – and make my brain start to hurt…)

When confusion reigns supreme, seek refuge in the simple: and one simply indisputable truth – especially for an MPR – is that both Meb’s and Ryan’s performances are spectacular, inspiring, and borderline incredible.  When your own marathon times hover around 4 hrs. (or five, or…), it is almost beyond belief that someone out there can do it in just over two – and those who can do so seem so superhuman, it makes little sense to differentiate between one or the other.

Another thing we can be sure of, is that neither of these runners –  among the very best in the world – really knows before a given event what they will achieve.  They may run a new PR and win – or run an even greater PR, and not win. Someone else may not run their fastest race – and still win. Or not.  All they or any of us can really count on is the satisfaction that comes from knowing you did your best; for that day, for those conditions, for all the factors that play into what seems like the simplest of sports (run from here to there, as fast as you can) but is in reality, fraught with complexities.

Doing your best is the most reliable measure of achievement, whether you’re an MPR or an elite champion: another way in which there’s not as much difference between us as one might first suppose!

 

(By the way, why is the US running conversation so focused on ‘American’ runners.  Lelisa Desisa won the event in 2013 and 2015;, where were the magazine covers, cable TV profiles, and full-page sponsor-ads for him?  Or for Geoffrey Mutai, leader of that blistering pack in 2011, with a 2:03:02 that still stands today as the course record? And we cannot go without mentioning Dennis Kimetto, whose 2:02:57 in Berlin 2014 is the fastest marathon to date; anywhere, in any field.

And why is this post only about the men?

More to come.)

Mind Over Body?

Canadian author Margaret Atwood, in her novel Surfacing, has a great riff on the mind-body dilemma, with her character concluding that she’s “…not against the body or the head… only the neck, which creates the illusion that they are separate.”

Scientists and philosophers have debated this illusion for generations, and while for some folks it may seem an esoteric issue, for runners it can be downright personal.

Particularly as we begin running, we are likely to experience times when our bodies cannot do what our minds are asking of them, and it feels as if the two are incompatible; counter-dependent siblings who make it a matter of principle never to agree on anything. Experience and supportive resources that help us adjust expectations are one way reduce this gap, while longer-term training and conditioning narrow it from the other side, bringing each of us closer to understanding and achieving our individual potential.

A healthy and well-prepared running body is a powerful creation, and once the mind has learned reasonable expectations, it can feel as if the dichotomy has been bridged, which is a very fine thing: knowing what you want to do, what you can do and how to make it happen. A wisely-planned and competently-executed run, where you maintain your goal pace, finish without having hit any walls, and feel you’ve left very little or nothing ‘in the tank’, is immensely satisfying, regardless of where in the pack you finish.

And sometimes, if we are really lucky, we may reach an even higher state, where the mind seems to be riding along on top of something for which it is only marginally responsible. Like borrowing a friend’s hot new car, the brain observes the body’s performance with awe and a bit of suspense, grateful to be trusted with such a powerful machine even while wondering if he or she is up to the responsibility of driving it.

That fabled ‘runner’s high’ we hear about comes in a variety of forms, particular to particular individuals, but for this MPR that sense of mastery and optimization – of being almost-accidentally entrusted with a borrowed miracle of nature – is a treasured version of it.

Salomon XT Wings Pack

When I started doing longer training runs I worked my way thru a couple of different hydration belts. Still use them sometimes too, but when the going keeps on coming, I find my insides seem to swell up, and a belt that’s tight enough not to bounce around or fall down can be more than uncomfortable – it can be downright nauseating.

For long unsupported runs (especially on trails, or remote country roads), nothing beats a running-specific backpack.   Just large enough for hydration, fuel and an emergency layer; cut to allow full motion; a good pack can extend your comfortable range, all by itself.

Salomon XT Wings crop

Most that I see in stores or catalogs use an internal bladder, but I love this model from Salomon because it carries two separate bottles right outside, where you can conveniently grab and replace them without breaking stride (it also accommodates a bladder, but I’ve never bothered). I prefer the bottles because I can fill one with electrolyte drink, and the other with plain water (especially necessary to wash down gooey jells and snacks, and much better for pouring over the old scalp than energy drinks…).

On trail runs, one of those bottles is a Katadyn, (see separate ‘Things That Work’ posting) that filters water from any source, another reason I prefer bottles over a bladder. And on a recent ‘minimally-supported’ event (aid stations three to seven miles apart; too far for me to go dry in between) it was a lot quicker to refill my bottles from their jugs than a bladder would have been.

My only gripes (and they’re small ones):  this pack does not quite adjust down to my torso (I’m just shy of  5’-4” on a good day) and there are supposed to be snap-in holders available to carry a gel flask on the front of each shoulder strap, but I’ve never been able to find them for purchase.  As you can see, I ended up jury-rigging two Amphipod Velcro pockets to do the job (sort of), but I’d still love to get the proper accessories (any Salomon reps. out there reading this?).

Other than that though, I’m sold on this pack which has a couple hundred miles on it  by now, and I expect will have a lot more before I bother looking at any other.