Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Quad Cities Times Bix7 2014...Hills, Humidity & Heat!

One of my favorite races is a pretty famous event, the Quad Cities Times Bix7.  I have run this race twice before (2009 & 2010), and was eager to return to Davenport, IA to conquer the seven miles of hills that make this event so popular.

I was in pretty good shape the last time I ran the Bix7 (in 2010) and I had never heard of a piriformis muscle or was aware that I even had one (actually, the human body has two, one on each side of the buttocks).  That all changed the past couple years. I now am aware of what a pain in the buttocks it is, literally. It has limited my range of motion, plateaued my speed, and often times has made a simple 5K feel like an Ironman. 

That said, in recent months I have finally started to feel like I'm rallying back. I have had some decent races, great finish times and even a few PR's. It had been four years since I run the Bix7, and I was ready to do it again. I am not afraid of hills (nor the Iowa heat or humidity). I still had some apprehension for this race, though.  My piriformis doesn't like hills as much as I do, so I was hoping for the good but prepared for the not-so-good.

I was especially excited to run the Bix7 this year because Meb Keflezighi would be running it also. If you own running shoes, you probably know who Meb is; he recently won the Boston Marathon in April. On a more local level, though, he also is a two-time Bix7 champion.
I got to meet Meb!
Joan Benoit Samuelson, Meb Keflezighi and Bill Rodgers
Meb was one of the featured celebrities at the expo, along with Joan Benoit Samuelson (not only a Bix champion, but the first female Olympic marathon gold medalist) and Bill Rodgers (Bix champion and famous marathoner). I had the privilege of meeting all three of these running greats, and got their autographs.
There is a statue near the finish line honoring Joan Benoit Samuelson and Bill Rodgers

There were 10,782 runners who crossed the finish line this year!  It's incredible to think that many people are crazy enough (myself included) to show up for a 7-mile hilly race in the heat (and humidity) of July in Iowa.
Caffeine in hand, ready to run!  (with Amy and Barb, we did not plan the matching color scheme)
Photo opp with some co-workers: Kristin, Alan and Eugene (we did not plan the color scheme, either)
There were different corrals, based on projected finish times) that the runners are assigned to. The course officials do a great job to ensure most runners get to their respective places. The streets are blocked off with fencing (real fencing, not just the plastic stuff) and temporary wooden tunnels along the sidewalks, making it difficult for runners to sneak into a faster corral (but it still happens).
Awaiting the start
It's breath-taking lining up, and seeing the mass of runners for several city blocks ahead of you.....anticipating that first hill. We heard a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem (which always gets me teary-eyed), followed by a flyover, and the gun fired.
The fly-over was so cool
The Bix7, now in its 40th year, is a challenging out-and-back course. The start line is at the bottom of the Brady Street hill, a climb that encompasses most of the first mile. The route then turns onto Kirkwood, and winds through a scenic neighborhood along a boulevard with a grass median.

This race is a great challenge. Whether you are a new runner, an accomplished marathoner, or just needing to see what you're made of, the Bix7 has something for everyone. The 7-mile distance provides it own unique nuance....it's not a "short" 5K, but not a long marathon either. You start out on a big hill, making it difficult to sprint (especially with the mass of runners who have not had a chance to spread out). The distance is short enough to run some-what fast, but long enough that you need to conserve your energy. Throw in the constant hills and you have the added challenge of gravity slowing you down or speeding you up, depending on which side of the hill(s) you are running. Either way, your legs take a beating from the two extremes.

This race course has tremendous crowd support throughout the entire seven miles. There are local bands, loud speakers, and plenty of cow bell (and an occasional sprinkler or garden hose).

As mentioned, the seven miles of the Bix7 involve constant hills. With the exception of a few city blocks right before the finish line, most of the route is on an incline. Also, the first half of the route has a gradual downward slope. Even though they are the same hills, the return trip presents a little more of a challenge than the first half because you are gradually working your way more sky-ward.

In general, I was very happy with my performance. I had a lot of frustration during the first mile, though. There seemed to be a lot of walkers in the middle of the crowded street rather than off to the side. There is a designated corral for walkers (towards the back of the line-up), so these were probably runners who were walking due to the difficulty of the hill, but they should have known better. Like any big race, though, it's very crowded at the start, and you have to do a lot of zig-zagging around each other. 

Once I made the turn off of Brady Street and was on the boulevard, I was able to run on the grass median. Problem solved. I lost quite a bit of time on that first hill, but was able to make up some of it during the second mile since it was downhill and there were fewer runners to dodge.
My favorite part is the out-and-back aspect. This race attracts several elites, with an enticing payout for the top finishers. It is really exciting getting to see them as they make their way back from the turn-around, on their way to the finish line. I had my camera at the ready, and was able to capture Meb and the lead runners as they were approaching the 5-mile mark.

The water stations were great, several tables (with ample volunteers) on both sides of the street. Although I never felt thirsty or fatigued, I grabbed a water at each opportunity and walked briefly while I gulped a few sips (so as to not take a virtual shower with it).  The temps were in the mid-80's, with plenty of that good 'ole Iowa humidity. Although we had cloud cover for most of the race, I wanted to ensure I'd be well hydrated in case the sun broke through.

I made it to the turn-around with a steady 9-minute pace, gradually making up some of the lost time from the first mile. My legs felt great, my energy level never plummeted, even my piriformis was behaving. 

The final hill, right before the Mile 6 mark, I believe is the most difficult of the entire race. This is the hill that gets you back to the top of Brady Street (which was the first hill of the race; rather lengthy and fairly steep). At this point of the race, my body was starting to feel a bit weary. I had just battled six miles of hills on a hot/humid July morning after all. Reaching that mile mark was euphoric, not only because there was just a mile between myself and the finish line, but it was all downhill from there!

I am not a natural-born sprinter, but I felt like one for that final mile (it's great what a little bit of gravity can do!). My long legs felt a surge of power as they carried me down that final hill. As I turned the corner and saw the finish line a few blocks in the distance, I glanced at my watch. I had a very good chance of PR'ing! 

I kept on, probably with that silly "I'm loving this" smile on my face. I needed to finish faster than 1:05 (and some odd change) to claim a PR. I knew it was going to be close, so I gave it all I had to get to the finish line. My official finish time was 1:05:26! Without remembering my exact time from 2010, I didn't know if I'd beat it or come up short, but I felt great. Having run a strong race despite the heat, humidity, hills and the slow start, I was more than satisfied with my finish and with myself. 

Yes, there's a little bit of sweat on my brow
I later learned I missed my PR by 12 seconds. I was disappointed for a mere fleeting second, before remembering all the strife I've run through the past couple years with all the aches, pains, and setbacks from my piriformis issues. Finishing within 12 seconds of a PR (from a time when I was injury-free) is a pretty substantial victory, I'll take it. 

Post race, in front of the famous statue
My stats were decent: I placed 50th out of the 421 women in my age group, and was the 3,577th runner to cross the finish line out of the 10,782 who ran those seven miles of hills. After running the first mile at a 10:27 pace, I was happy to see my average pace wound up being 9:40....a reflection of how much time I was able to make up in the other six miles. All said, it was a great race and a great day! Meb told me to "run to win," and I believe I did.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Chicago - Rock'n and Rollin' in the WIndy City

Celebrating a fun, run-filled weekend in the Windy City

Whew! The Rock'n Roll Festival in Chicago was a rockin' fun time.

This past weekend, I journeyed to the Windy City, to reunite with Penny (a friend I met through Facebook, via our running pages). Penny and I became friends last year while training for our first marathons. We had similar training plans because our races were within a few weeks of each other.  We met each other in person back in March, and decided we should do a race together.

I live in Iowa, and Penny is in the Chicago area. Not exactly within close proximity, but all things are possible. #havecarwilltravel

I arrived at Penny's house around 2:00 on Friday, a couple hours later than expected (I got almost 20 miles from home when I realized I'd forgotten my purse). After a quick lunch, we headed to the expo. As most runners know, there are no friends quite like runner friends. Being runners gives you an instant bond, and you feel like long-lost grade school friends reunited. This was the case for Penny and myself.....nonstop chatter and lots of laughter.

The expo was big, numerous vendors and lots of excitement. Although there is much to see (and buy), I tend to not drop a lot of cash at event expos. Usually, I don't have luck finding great deals, but this expo was an exception. I scored a great deal on a race registration, bought a fuel belt (with a water bottle attachment), and Penny and I found matching compression socks (on sale) that came with a free headband. Penny also landed a great price on a watch. #happydance

When we registered for the Rock'n Roll Half Marathon, it was going to be just the 13.1 race. The clever people at Rock'n Roll Marathon Series, though, added an additional 5K race, to be held the day prior.  They also dangled a 5K medal in front of us, and tempted us with the Festival ReMix Challenge....we'd not only get a medal for running the 5K, we'd get an additional medal for completing the challenge of doing both the 5K and half marathon. Well, that was a no-brainer! The registration for the 5K was an additional $35, which I thought was reasonable for an event such as this in Chicago (that came with an additional tech shirt and medal).

With two races on the agenda, we had to figure out our racing wardrobe options. I brought along several tops and bottoms, and we had a mix & match planning session after  a delicious carb-heavy dinner of deep dish pizza (When in Chicago, one needs to eat Chicago-style food).

Shameless self promotion.....admiring the 5K shirt
Showing the Half Marathon shirt (also self-promoting)

Saturday arrived with a 5:45 wake-up and a 6:30 departure to get downtown and parked in time for the 8:00 race start for the 5K. We got a great space in the Millennium Park parking garage, and we were on the Lake Shore path shortly after 7:00. We had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the view of Lake Michigan and admire all the boats in the harbor.
Hands at  "10 and 2," eyes on the road....navigating our way towards downtown Chicago

It was a beautiful summer morning, with lots of scenic photo opps

We were surprised we didn't see more runners. We'd heard they were expecting 1500 for this race, but there didn't seem to be but a few hundred walking around with race bibs. We did see all the R'nR signs, so we knew we were at the right place.

Enjoying the harbor, awaiting the start of the 5K
An exciting thing about this R'nR event was the appearance of Shalane Flanagan! She was running both races; pacing the 8:00-minute runners for the 5K on Saturday and racing the half marathon on Sunday. They introduced her, and she said a few encouraging words before the start of the race.

Our goal for both of these races was to enjoy the city, the route(s), and each other's company. We had no intention, whatsoever, to run towards a PR. That said, we ran the 5K faster than we'd planned. The route was flat, and the weather was perfect. It didn't really feel like we were pushing ourselves, and we were chatting most of the way. We finished in 25:54, not a PR for either of us, but a decent finish time none-the-less.
I totally LOVE Chicago, the architecture is unbelievably beautiful & it's everywhere

Showing off the first of the hardware

There was a meet and greet with Shalane, so we headed to the post-race party after grabbing our 5K medals. I have to say, it did seem a little disorganized in finding out where we needed to go. Fortunately, there was a band rocking the stage, so we had plenty of entertainment as we searched for Shalane.  After asking around, we found the tent, and scored a place near the front of the line.

I have followed Shalane's progress as a runner. I saw her represent Team USA at the Olympics, and I have read about her success. It was an honor getting to meet her; she's a genuine, friendly, down-to-earth gal.

My brush with fame, meeting Shalane Flanagan!
 Following our 5K experience, we headed back and grabbed some real post-race food: pancakes (bananas and bagels just don't do it for me). Penny and I had a busy afternoon of pool lounging and discussing marathon training strategies, followed by a much-needed carb-loading dinner of pasta and bread.

We thought it necessary to have a race day wardrobe dress rehearsal, and Penny hooked me up with some side walk chalk to get my art fix
 We mapped our strategy for the next morning, and planned to leave around 5:00 to allow plenty of time  for traffic and parking. The half marathon start time wasn't until 6:30, but we were hoping to meet up with the Half Fanatics (a world-wide membership of runners who celebrate their love of running the 13.1 distance) for a 6:00 group pic at the famous Bean sculpture.

There's a saying about the "best laid plans" not working out.....and that came true for us on R'nR Half Marathon race day. We'd been told (via R'nR info) that the City of Chicago would be closing off the downtown streets at 6:00 for the race. We figured if we arrived there by 5:30, we'd be in the clear. Wrong. Instead, we got trapped on Lake Shore Drive with no open streets to lead us off towards any of the parking garages. We were hoping to park at Millennium Park (since we'd parked there for the 5K, a mere 24 hours prior), but there was no "open" way in. Finally, we were directed to turn around and "maybe try Soldier Field" (which was a few miles in the opposite direction. UGH.

We made our way back (the direction from which we'd just come), and found a spot in the Soldier Field garage. We spotted a couple getting out of a car (decorated with 26.2 and 13.1 stickers) wearing race bibs, so we followed them. It was a lengthy walk to the start line (at least a mile), so we counted that as our warm-up.

Despite the slight hassle in getting to the start line, it was fun just being there. The Bean pic didn't happen for us. I spotted several Fanatics throughout the race (in their Fanatics race shirts) and the pic didn't happen for some of them either for the same reasons (early road closures & parking).

In corral 11, ready and waiting....
As we waited for our corral to be called, I tried to assess the race conditions. It was going to be crowded. The temps were comfortable (mid-70's), but I could already feel the humidity. It was overcast, so the lack of sunshine would help. I felt well-rested, but had that feeling that I should have eaten more for breakfast. I know I should have had more water, but I knew there would be water along the route.

Our corral was called and we were off and running! Within the first few blocks, we heard our names being shouted. Our friend, Michelle, had spotted us! She even got our picture! How exciting to see a familiar face in the mass of runners and spectators!

We were spotted! (and we spotted the friend with the camera)
As we approached the first mile mark, Penny expressed her frustration with her watch (the one she'd bought at the expo). She had been having difficulty getting a signal, and she didn't think the pacing stats were accurate. It said we'd finished the first mile a few blocks before we saw the Mile 1 sign. My watch showed about a 9:00 minute pace, but my watch is a very basic "stop-watch" type, it doesn't give mile-by-mile information.

As we continued on, I could already tell this race was going to be a sweaty one. It wasn't too hot, but it was very humid. Running through the streets, surrounded by tall buildings, doesn't allow for much air circulation so the air was pretty heavy.

There were several groups of cheer teams throughout that first mile. Also, as with most big races, the first mile was pretty crowded. Even with the assigned corrals (based on estimated finish times), there are always those who either lie about their finish time or simply jump ahead to a faster corral. 

It wasn't until we were well into the second mile that I realized there hadn't been much for music since we crossed the start line. There were a few circus performers on stilts, but they weren't singing or playing guitars.

Typically, I need a few miles to get into my running groove. It takes that long for my muscles to get loosened up and for my mind and body to enter the robotic state of distance running. It didn't seem to be happening for me. Penny also was having some difficulty getting into a comfortable pace, and her watch (along with the distance/pacing stats) was an endless source of frustration.

It wasn't until mile 5 that we could hear a band in the distance. Finally! There was plenty of crowd support, but this was a Rock'n Roll event, and we were expecting some tunes.

There were water stands about every mile or mile and a half, and all the volunteers were cheerful and eager to assist us. I stopped for water (or Gatorade) at every opportunity, and walked quickly as I drank, otherwise I'd be wearing it (yes, I am that ungraceful and no, I have not yet mastered the running & drinking technique).
See camera, will pose (the race atmosphere brings out the diva in me)

Penny and I managed to keep a steady pace (averaging around 9-minute miles), but the humidity was slowly wearing us down.Thankfully, the temps were fairly mild, and we didn't have much sunshine or it would have been even more difficult.

So we pressed on. As mentioned, the lack of music was a bit of a disappointment. This also was a different route than from previous years, and I heard that there is a noise ordinance restricting loud music in the early hours. That being said, this is Chicago, one of the biggest cities in the world. What a privilege to have the downtown mainly to ourselves, with endless architecture to admire and no traffic interfering with the enjoyment of not only running, but running with one of my favorite VRB's (virtual running buddies).

There was music along the route for most of the second half of the race, but the humidity also seemed to be increasing with each mile.  Humidity is no stranger to me, but coupled with my less-than-adequate breakfast (and forgotten water bottle on the kitchen counter), this race was tough.

I think it was around mile 9.5 or so that we decided to walk briefly. It is  frustrating to walk, but we had nothing to lose in doing so. After all, we weren't attempting to PR, and with the confusion of the mile marks not matching Penny's watch, we really weren't certain just how far we had gone (or how far we had yet to run).

We did a few more walk breaks during the final 3 miles, being careful to immediately break into a run if we spotted a photographer (one guy did manage to bust us on one of our walk intervals, though). An especially nice feature was a misting station towards mile 12, and a stand where volunteers were handing out wet sponges. 

We were able to run most of the  final mile, and grabbed hands as we crossed the finish line.  The volunteers handed the finisher medals to us, and we were outta there. We grabbed water and a few snack items and headed to the post-run celebration, desperately in search of a place to sit.
Approaching the finish line
 We spotted the stand where the Remix Challenge medals were, so we stopped and got the last piece of our hardware for the R'nR Festival. And then we promptly sat ourselves down on the grass. 

Whew!  A weary display of the final two medals, the half marathon medal and the Challenge ReMix medal
We finished the half marathon in 2:16:43, not bad considering we made a couple potty stops and walked intemittently towards the end. We were happy to have finished the race vertical since we saw several runners down, receiving medical attention, in the final miles. Humidity is not something to mess with; the air is heavier, it's more difficult to breathe and your lungs have to work much harder than usual. I have no shame in walking if it's going to keep me from fainting (or worse).

So, how was the Chicago R'nR? Overall, I give it a thumbs-up. I have only done one other R'nR event (St. Louis, October 2013), so I don't have much to compare this to (other than the 20+ non-R'nR half marathons I have run). I think the registration is on the high end (I think I paid $85 for this, and that was the early bird special. They do offer Lucky-13 discounts, though, on the 13th of each month, saving you $13). The race shirts are nice (tech material, colorful, neat graphics), and seem to be unique to each of the cities where the races are held. The expo was huge with a good variety of vendors and a great atmosphere. Hands down, though, the best feature (in my opinion) are the medals. The four R'nR medals I  own (three from this weekend, one from St. Louis), are top quality...heavy, great design, with unique ribbons exclusive to the event (the city name and date).
Aren't they pretty?
 As mentioned, the parking was an issue. Whether it was a lack of communication from the City of Chicago or the Rock'n Roll Marathon Series (or between them), I don't know. It would have been beneficial to have correct information regarding street closures/times or shuttles from designated parking lots or garages. I would guess the vast majority of race-goers do not live with walking distance, so this is an issue that affects most of us.

There were also a lot of complaints regarding the accuracy of the course, many people  had issues with their tracking devices showing much longer distance than 13.1 miles (Penny's watch showed 14 miles!).  Apparently,  the tall buildings
and numerous tunnels affect satellite signals (or so we've been told).  The lack of music was disappointing during the first several miles, but that improved after Mile 5. 

Although there were some race day frustrations (parking, weather, fatigue, etc.), this still was a great experience. The atmosphere was festive, the volunteers were plentiful and post-race celebration seemed to have ample food, drink and entertainment.  And, best of all, I got to experience all of this with Penny.  Despite our struggles in the final miles, we still managed to find humor in the situation and keep each other smiling.

Now, onward!  Both of us have 26.2 races on our agendas this fall. Yikes!  

Have you done a Rock'n Roll event?  What was your experience like?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

PR Paradox:Was It Me or the Shoes?

The bib, the 2nd place AG medal, and the "winning" shoes that helped make it possible

Sure, anyone can claim a PR on race day with the ultimate conditions, training and a little bit of luck. But this time it was finally mine.

There was a time, early in my running experience, when a 5K was a major distance. As my training evolved, so has my endurance....and the 5K is no longer a distance challenge, but a speed challenge instead.

Which is why I don't run many 5K's these days.  It's not that I am afraid of the distance (I run a 3-4 mile run at least once a week anyways), but I detest racing that distance. I'm kind of a mildly-moderate-somewhat-fast-paced "average" runner. I can usually finish in the top 25 percent, but within that top 25 percent the competition is pretty fierce. I'm not real competitive by nature, and I'm not naturally gifted with exceptional speed, so it's way out of my comfort zone to attempt to finish towards the front of the pack.

This was not an issue when my goal was to simply run the 3.1 miles and cross the finish line. That was the easy part. Now I have the (self-imposed) pressure to run those 3.1 miles faster each time I lace up my shoes. Some runners thrive on that, but I'm not one of them (my mojo comes from running far, not necessarily running fast).

That dreaded comfort zone has kept me from registering for several 5K's in recent years.  I heard of a local race, though, the Sully Freedom Fun Run, and decided to give it a chance. Maybe it would help reignite a competitive spirit within me, or give me a chance to gauge my recovery from the piriformis issues that have plagued me (for almost two years). Either way, this race supported a good cause (the local school's cross country team).

The Sully Freedom Fun Run is an annual event on the 4th of July, so it would be fun to dress in patriotic colors to honor my country. I had heard great things about this race...that it was small but well organized, the course was mostly flat, and it attracted a lot of nearby high school runners. And, let's be honest, small races give you the best edge for (possibly) placing within your age group.

We have had some extreme heat and humidity in Iowa this summer, and have had a lot of rain recently. Fortunately, the temps were perfect....in the 60's, low (if any) humidity, and a mild breeze. 

Prior to race day, I had been having a lot of discomfort, mainly in both of my upper hamstrings but also in the piriformis area (deep inside the buttocks), limiting my range of motion. I did some stretching and a few lunges and squats to get things loosened up, but still had some stiffness at the start of the race.

The race was a two-loop course around town, ending with a lap around the town square.  As I made my way through the first several blocks, I could feel my stiffness releasing. Usually, I need a couple miles to get in a rhythm, so I was pleasantly surprised to feel so good so early (another reason I shy away from 5K's is because I seem to need most of the race itself just to "warm up").

I checked my watch at the first mile mark and almost gasped to see it showed I was just under an 8-minute pace. I felt good, so I continued on, preparing to slow down if I got winded from going too fast so soon.  

As I approached the water station at the halfway point, my watch showed I was still at an 8-minute pace. I grabbed a water cup, walked a few steps as I gulped it down, and continued on.

On a whim, I elected to wear different shoes for this event. Typically, I have a few different pairs of shoes I rotate through, depending on the distance. My "newest" shoes are used mainly for long runs (10 miles or longer), and I use the "older" shoes for anything shorter. The shoes I was wearing were bought awhile ago at a Nikey outlet store, but I only use these "inexpensive"  ones for short runs or walking.  I have been wearing my "new" shoes more than usual  recently because I've had a lot of discomfort (and stiffness) and have been doing a lot more distance runs and races.

As I was making my way around the second loop, I continued to feel better with each step.  I wasn't sprinting, but I wasn't easing up either. I was really surprised how effortless this race was feeling, and really surprised how good my legs were feeling . I couldn't help but wonder if it was because of the shoes (?).

I passed the 2-mile mark and noticed my pace had slowed slightly (but was still faster than normal) and I was still feeling great.  It had been a long time since a 5K had seemed so effortless!

The crowd support was great, and it was fun circling around the town square to the finish line with the sound of so much cheering. My official finish time was 25:27, a definite PR and a second place finish in my age group.

Rocking the hardware and root beer (won as a door prize)
So, how did this happen? Why was this 5K so much easier than most of the others I have run?

Several factors, I believe, were at play. This was the final day of a 40-day run streak, so my body (though weary from 40 continuous days of running) had been conditioned to run regardless. I had run four half marathons over the course of seven weeks (late April through mid-June), so other than the daily streak runs, I have had minimal mileage in the past couple weeks. This meant my body was pretty well-rested, I was kind of in a "post-taper-fresh-legs" state of being. The weather was optimal. The course was flat. Maybe the sun, moon, and stars were perfectly aligned as well. And I wore different shoes than I normally would have chosen. Hmmmm...

As I mentioned, this was a fairly small race. According to the published results, there was a total of 227 5K runners, 119 of them were women and 11 were in my age group. The gal (in my age group) who got first place was almost two minutes ahead of me, and the gal who got third was a minute and a half behind me, so my competition wasn't too intense. My ego is in check, and I know every subsequent 5K (or any race of any distance) will not necessarily be as easy.

A lot of Grinnell townsfolk were at this race, and several of us placed in our age divisions
 This 5K PR and second place AG finish came at an opportune time. My confidence in my speed has been at an all-time low, and the ongoing piriformis issues have had me at a plateau for almost two years.  I have had a few PR's with longer races recently, so it was great to finally claim a PR a short distance. Maybe the plateau has ended and I am rallying back. I'm ready!

What is your least favorite distance to race?  Have you ever hit a plateau? I'd love to hear your story!