Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Let Me Say, "ThAnKs"----2014 edition


It's Thanksgiving! I love this holiday, and not just for the abundance of tasty food. It's a special time of year, a time for looking outside of myself. A time for reflecting on all the blessings around me. A time to give thanks.

Where do I start? There are far too many things for which I'm grateful, but I will name the big ones:

* My family.  I am so absolutely in love with my husband and three amazing kids.  They don't usually run with me, but they let me run.  And, they don't complain too much about the running shoes scattered throughout the house or the ickiness of my toes. We don't always get that perfect family photo on the first attempt, either.

*My faith.  I'm not gonna get all high and almighty on you, but my faith is my cornerstone. My humbleness, and my strength. It's my everything.

*My friends. I have an abundance of awesome people in my life.  I appreciate all their kind words, messages and hugs. They make me smile and feel warm & fuzzy.

*My Virtual Running Buddies.  There are so many wonderful people who have become dear friends, and all of them came to me via my running page, Running On The Fly.  There have been countless messages, well wishes, (virtual) high-5's, and many laughs shared through our computer screens.  I have met some of you in person, and look forward to meeting many more.

*The racing community.  I don't consider myself a racer, but I love the atmosphere on race day.  There's something about an entire bunch of strangers all running towards the same finish line that invigorates me. Nothing is better than the final 100 feet of a race...the finish line fanfare is intoxicating.

*The gift of running.  Having spent most of my life believing I was not an athlete, I am so humbled (and proud) to call myself not just a runner, but a marathoner! It's not my intention to impress others. Instead, I hope to inspire them to violate their comfort zones. If I can be an "athlete" (with my less-than-athletic body), anyone else can be one, too.

Happy Thanksgiving, FrIeNdS!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

...about last night...

Have you ever been in a (runner's) slump? At a crossroads? Satisfied with your achievements and ready for a rest....but still wanting to do more?

Welcome to my life!

I have had a busy run-filled year. Destination races. PR's. Age-group placings. Highest monthly mileage totals (twice!). Another 26.2 completed. And, I will end 2014 with my highest-ever total miles for a calendar year.

And I'd be deceiving everyone (especially myself) if I didn't admit that my body is exhausted. How do I know? Recently, following my last half marathon, I took an entire week off from running....and felt no shame, guilt or remorse in doing so.

I have battled intermittent issues with my glute muscles and recurring piriformis pain. I hesitate to call any of these aches and pains anything more than simple strains from over-worked muscles. They have been there for awhile and did not just suddenly appear. 

Although I don't think they are actual "injuries," I am treating them as such. As much as I'm eager to keep on running as if I'm training for another event, I'm allowing myself an off-season instead. A time to regroup and refocus. A perfect opportunity to fire up my cross-training and recharge my energy.

I will still be running throughout the next few months, just in moderation. I have witnessed too many others who train like maniacs through the winter only to burnout. Maybe not right away, but they do burnout, often not by choice.
So what happened last night that was so significant? For the first time (in a very long time), I got to enjoy a simple run with no agenda. It also was my first official run of the winter season, complete with snow, cold temps and a double layer of running tights.

I ran it under the halo of street lights, at the end of my work day. It was only two miles, but very much worth my time and effort (as cold weather runners know, it often times takes longer getting dressed for the run than the actual time spent running itself).

Professional athletes have an off-season after all, why can't I?

What are your thoughts?  Do you take an off-season? Or ease up on your training periodically?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Hillbilly Hike Half....Can you say, "Wind?"

I have been on a quest to run 14 distance events in 2014.  Keep in mind, I live in Iowa. There's not a lot of metropolitan options, so there aren't many long distance race options either. Sure, there are plenty of 5K races, and there's an increasing number of 10K events.....but when it comers to anything longer, the availability of races is very limited.

With the racing season winding down, and 13 distance events completed, I was at odds with finishing this 14 in '14 Challenge.  I knew I could find a virtual race without a problem, but preferred a "real" event to finish the season.  Hello, Hillbilly Hike Half Marathon!

Having just completed the IMT Des Moines Marathon three weeks prior, the timing of this event was perfect.  Although I did not need any further training, my body did need some recovery time. The three weeks between races was enough time to recover from the demands of the 26.2 miles of the marathon, but also enough time to taper for 13.1 miles.

The Hillbilly Hike was a fundraiser, benefiting the Indianola Christian Union Church (and its fundraising efforts towards a 2015 mission trip to Belize). This was the inaugural year of the event, and also featured a 10K option.  The course was a point-to-point race along the Summerset Trail, connecting the towns of Carlisle and Indianola.  The packet pick-up was in Carlisle. The half marathoners were shuttled (via school buses) to  Indianola, and the 10K racers were dropped off at Summerset State Park (near the south side of the lake), and all of the runners would finish back in Carlisle.

We have had cold weather the past week in Iowa, though it showed signs of warming up somewhat by race day.  The predicted temps were to be in the 40's, and there were some nasty NW winds also in the forecast.  The course map showed the trail going straight north to the meet-up with the 10K racers , then a gradual northeast path to the finish line.  Although I was not looking forward to seven-plus miles with a head wind, I figured the "cross wind" for the remaining 6.2 miles would be less menacing.

I woke several times in the night to the sound of the wind howling outside.  It sounded like a blizzard was brewing outside my bedroom window. When I got up around 4:45AM, the wind was still blowing like crazy. We (myself, the husband, and my friend, Barb) left town around 5:45 to make the hour-long trek to the event site.  Thankfully the sky was clear, and as the sun came up (despite the wind) it looked to be a beautiful, sunny morning.

Selfie on the bus, enroute to the start line

We arrived in Carlisle, got our race packets, and boarded one of the shuttle buses. The first stop was at the lake, and the 10K racers got out.  Those poor souls had nowhere to huddle (other than in the porta pots) prior to the race start. A short while later, the rest of us were dropped off at the Indianola High School.  There were a few porta pots set up by the start line, but most of us headed into the school. We weren't stupid!

 It was hard deciding what to wear.  I knew the wind would make it feel colder than the already chilly 40 degrees.  Not being familiar with the trail, I didn't know if we'd be out in the open air, or if we'd have some trees or brush for shelter from the wind. Should I wear my puffer vest?  Or would the tank top and two long-sleeved tech fabric tops (one of which was flannel-lined) be enough?

Barb convinced me to leave my puffer vest in my drop bag.  I was worried about being cold without it, but I wouldn't have the option to tie it around my waist if I needed to shed it. We headed outside to line up, and had to wait an extra 15 minutes or so for the last shuttle bus to arrive. The wind was bitterly cold, but the sunshine felt great.

This course had been promoted as being flat and downhill (therefore, fast as well).  Prior to race day, we'd fantasized about ending the season with a great (fast) finish time, possibly a sub-2 hour or (even better) a PR! Well, the weather conditions completely shattered those aspirations. We decided to just run it as best we could, and not expect a super fast finish time. The wind would be a major obstacle to battle, and would require a more concerted effort than normal.

The race started, and we were soon headed out of town towards the trail.  Imagine my surprise to see my husband along the road!  He'd dropped us off and was headed to an appointment with a client (and was planning to meet us at the finish line).

With the sun at my back and gloves on my I am at the first mile

Barb and I ran together for the first few miles. Surprisingly, the wind didn't feel too bad. There was some shelter from the trees along the trail, thank goodness! I glanced at my watch at each of the mile markers. The first mile seemed difficult, I had a hard time getting my breathing to even out and it felt like my feet were dragging...then I noticed my watch said I'd run that first mile in eight minutes! OK, that was not going to happen for the next 12 miles. I had to make a conscious effort to slow down because everyone else seemed to be going so fast.

It didn't take long for all the runners to spread out, and we had ample room on the trail. I was able to progressively slow down my pace, but still ran the second mile faster than desired. My watch showed 17 minutes had elapsed since the start. For me, that's pretty fast, especially at the beginning of a race (when my body hasn't had those first few miles to get in a groove). Also, I needed to conserve some energy to battle the wind for the remaining 11 miles.

photo from Michael C. Riggs Photography

It didn't take long for me to be glad I had left my vest in the drop bag.  I wasn't warm, but I would have been uncomfortable if I'd kept the vest.  I took off one of my gloves to grab a water cup, and promptly put it back on as soon as I pitched the empty cup.

By the third mile, Barb had moved a little ways ahead of me.  I found myself keeping pace with another gal, though.  We chatted briefly, but mainly just ran alongside each other. One of the things I absolutely love about running is that "bond" you have with other runners, without needing to speak at all.

I kept checking my watch at the mile marks, which confirmed that I was keeping it steady (just under a 9-minute pace).  And it felt almost effortless, even with the wind and cold air.

Still feeling fine! Photo from Michael C. Riggs Photography

As we approached the lake (just after the 6-mile mark), I started to have second thoughts on that sub-2-hour finish time, and the possibility of a PR was looking like a potential probability. If I was able to run this kind of a pace against the wind, it would be smooth sailing once the trail changed directions.

The course had an out-and-back segment around the lake, which was where the 10K racers had started. As we looped our way towards the turn-around, I had a great time cheering on all the returning racers, as well as encouraging all the others as I passed them on my way back from the lake path.  I won't apologize for being the cheerful weirdo (sorry, not sorry). It probably looks like I don't take the race seriously, but I know how good it feels to receive a cheer, a smile or a high-5 from a fellow runner...and I believe in paying it forward. Besides, it's not like I'm in contention to win the race. Why not have fun along the way?

Something I strive to live my life doing....

I was so busy people watching and cheering, though, that I didn't notice the mile markers along the lake. Whoops. My bad.  I guesstimated that it was about two miles before we were back on the trail. I also kind of forgot about my glute issues (which I've been battling for the past several months). My glutes were feeling better, but still were kind of tight.  My left hip was feeling a little iffy, though, and there was that recurring strain on the inside (towards the back) of my left knee.  I was really looking forward to the change of direction to get out of the wind....except we passed the 9-mile marker and the trail still didn't appear to have switched direction, and I still had the wind in my face.  My watch said 1:21, still a solid 9-minute pace, but I could tell my body was starting to feel fatigued. I did some quick math in my head ..... if I could maintain the same pace for the remaining four miles, the PR would be in the bag, and the sub-2 hour would be a guarantee!

Now, I am not a competitive person, and I am definitely not a competitive runner. I enjoy the sport of running too much to obsess over splits, pace or speed. But this was my final big race of the season, and now that I could see the PR and sub-2-hour off in the distance, I really wanted to make it happen. The weather wasn't ideal, but so far the wind really hadn't been much of an obstacle.

So, onward! With joyful thoughts of the possible PR (and sub-2) dancing in my head, I forged on towards Mile Marker 10.

 And so did the wind.  Seriously?  Wasn't this path supposed to be veering northeast pretty soon? And shouldn't that head wind feel more like a cross wind by now? Or did the path already change directions and the wind changed with it? And where did all those trees and bushes go? As I approached the 10-mile mark, I suddenly realized this race had gotten difficult. The wind was feeling stronger, my body was hurting more, and my co-pacer friend had fallen behind. My watch now showed 1:31 had elapsed since the the race start. My sub-9-minute pace had slowed to a 10-minute pace during this last mile. UGH. More quick math in my head....even if I maintained a 10-minute pace (which at that point of the race was my best option), I'd really need to gun it to attempt to get under 2 hours, and the PR would not be happening after all. Maybe I had some unknown hidden strength (on reserve?) that I could tap into that could get me back to that easy 9-minute pace....the pace that had been so effortless for the first nine miles. Maybe?

At a loss as to what to do, I did all I could do.....I just kept running.  I made it to mile 11, still at a 10-minute pace.  This was so defeating. Not only was the PR out of the picture, the sub-2 was probably not going to happen either. And I was starting to feel like the kind of runner I do not want to who obsesses over the stats on the watch and doesn't really enjoy the race itself.  I realize some runners thrive on the competitive aspect of races, and I respect them. I'm just not one of them.
This says it all!

Mile 12 came and went, still pushing a 10-minute pace, but now with even more effort than before.  The wind really was a beast, I felt like there was a gigantic piece of plastic wrap holding me back. My left hip and left knee were feeling so strained, and the wind just kept pushing against me.  I was tempted to walk, but decided against it.  I have let myself walk (more times than I care to acknowledge) at moments such as this when I have felt like there's been absolutely nothing left in me. I have never cried on a race course, but at that moment I was ready to let the tears spill.

I don't know what kept me moving forward, or how I managed to keep running when I wanted so badly to just walk and give up.  I had almost caught back up with Barb, and she wasn't stopping either. I hadn't noticed, but the sun had disappeared during these final miles. What had been a beautiful, clear sky was now  covered with clouds. And the wind had definitely picked up, making the temps feel even colder than before the start of the race.

Finally, I spotted the finish line. I crossed it with an official time of 2:02:14. Although it was very disappointing to not get my PR or sub-2 hour, I am satisfied with how I did.  Up until the final miles, I was on pace to finish around 1:55. I have run a sub-2-hour half marathon before (several times, actually). I have done it before, and I know I could have done it that day if the weather conditions would have been better. Besides, if I ran a sub-2 for every half marathon, it wouldn't mean as much.  I have said it before, but anyone can run a great race given the ideal race day conditions...but it takes true grit to run a difficult race. The finish line definitely means more if I have to fight to cross it.

Whew!  We have never been so glad to have the finish line behind us
 So, how was this event?  I thought it was very well organized, especially since it was the first year of it.  The registration was $40, which is a great deal for a half marathon. We received short-sleeve cotton shirts and a finisher's medal for swag. Nothing grand, but given the fact this was a fundraiser for a worthwhile cause, I am totally OK with that. They need the funds more than I need another fancy shirt or decorative medal.  The trail was beautiful!  Most of the trees had lost their leaves, but there seemed to be pretty good wind shelter until the final 3-4 miles.  There were water stations (some of which also had Gatorade) every two miles, great traffic control at the few roads that intersected the trail, and an on-course photographer. The food at the finish line was awesome...biscuits & gravy, pie, chocolate milk, water and the usual bananas and bagels.

It turns out there were 135 runners who ran the half marathon.  I actually placed 4th (out of 11) in my age group, and finished 30th out of the 79 women runners.  The gal who got first in my age group finished only seven minutes (1:55:25) ahead of me, the 2nd place gal (1:56:49) was not far behind her and the 3rd place gal (2:01:10) was one minute ahead of me. So, I am happy with my finish time.

This race was tough, no doubt.  As much as I wanted to walk, I was able to keep running.  It was another great reminder that no matter how much you  train, there are only so many things you can control on race day...the weather not being one of them. Although there's a great deal of frustration while running a difficult race, it's a pretty great victory knowing you finished it. Easy races in perfect conditions are ideal, but there's not much to be learned from them.