Category Archives: Fitness

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Running in Bratislava

One of the joys I find in travel is running or cycling in new places. Since starting my current job, I’ve been able to run or cycle in the UK, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, the Balearics, Switzerland, and France, mostly along routes that were either intrinsically scenic or interesting because of their novelty. I was recently in Slovakia for meetings and was able to knock out a couple of runs in Zilina, but I also had the opportunity to run in Bratislava. 

Let me start with a few simple facts:

  1. One does not simply fly into Žilina. There are basically two ways to get there: fly into Vienna and drive, or fly into Krakow and drive. Both routes have their charms, but the Vienna route is a little shorter and much flatter, meaning it’s better when there is ice, snow, or rain. You wouldn’t think that’s a concern in May, but it snowed the day I arrived in country; I just routinely go through Vienna. The drive takes about 3 hours.
  2. Bratislava is only about 30mi from Vienna, and you drive right through it on the way to Žilina. 
  3. If you’re going back to the US from Vienna, all the flights leave in the early morning.

That means that I will normally have a full day of meetings, drive back to Vienna in the evening, stay at the airport, and then fly home the next morning. On this particular trip, I’d planned to get my last day’s workout in by running around the Žilina dam, but then it occurred to me that I could run in Vienna instead, as even with the drive I’d still arrive well before daylight. Then it hit me: I could run in Bratislava instead. 

A little research led me to this route, the “Bratislava Promenádna”. This is a simple loop that starts on the north bank of the Danube and runs to the west, then crosses the Lafranconi bridge to the west, which takes you to the south bank. You then run to the Apollo Bridge and cross back to the north bank. This looked like a good route to try, so I threw on my running clothes, jumped in my rental car, and drove to Bratislava with a vague idea of where I needed to go— none of the running route maps I had said anything about where to park or exactly where the route started.

A bit of driving around led me to a big shopping complex called the Eurovea that has ample parking, restrooms, and beer (more on that later). I parked there, then walked around the outside a bit until I found the river and the path adjoining it. I started running east, towards the Apollo, where I found this handy sign showing the actual route. Turns out I was running the “wrong” way, so I turned around and headed west again.

Promenádna sign

I only wanted to run about 5 miles, so I decided not to go all the way to the Lafranconi bridge. Instead, I ran to the bridge with the Bratislava UFO:

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Crossing that bridge put me out right near the Sad Janka park; the whole south bank is wooded and features some very pleasant and green trails. I could have detoured through the park, but I like running alongside the water whenever possible, so that’s what I did instead. (In retrospect I wish I’d gone through the park; it’s actually the oldest public park in central Europe!) There are lots of river barges moored along both banks; some are fancy cruise ship or dinner boats, while others aren’t. 

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As I approached the Apollo bridge, I very quickly figured out that I was going to be way short of 5 miles. Luckily there’s a cycling trail that continues further to the east, although it diverges from the river. Slovakia is plentifully supplied with all sorts of riding paths; this one was nicely paved and quite busy with runners, cyclists, and even a few rollerbladers. The area at the foot of the bridge is 1.3Km from the starting point of the loop, so with a little mental math I was able to figure out how long I needed to stay on the cycle path. Along the route I saw this cool painting on a bridge abutment.

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Coming back westbound, I climbed the footpath onto the Apollo Bridge, which is the newest and fanciest (and busiest!) of the four Bratislava bridges. 

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I had a fantastic view of the setting sun off to the west as I ran across, and I stopped to get a closeup of the Bratislava plaque on the bridge arch. I’m not sure if it’s officially a landmark or not, but it should be.

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From the north end of the bridge, it was an easy path back to the Eurovea, where I had a delicious dinner at the Kolkovna. This is a Czech chain of restaurants serving traditional central European food; I had a delicious goulash and a bowl of “bean soup” that was indistinguishable in ingredients from what Cajuns would call “red beans and rice” (except for not having any rice in it). Although there were many excellent beers on tap, I didn’t have any, as Slovakia has a very strict 0.0% blood-alcohol limit for driving. (Sorry if you read this far hoping to find out what delicious beer I sampled!) 

I thoroughly enjoyed the route; next time I’ll try to arrange things so I can run the full loop and maybe detour through the park. I’d also love to explore the bike paths around Bratislava more, although that will require an actual, y’know, bike,

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Training Tuesday: Magic City Showdown powerlifting meet

(For basics on how meets work, see my two previous meet reports here and here.)

The last time I was on the platform at a meet was in June 2016. Since then, I’ve run a few marathons, done various other athletic stuff, and generally spent very little time lifting weights… and I missed it. So earlier this year, I told my coach that I wanted to do a meet in April or May, before triathlon season really kicked in. Coincidentally, there was a USPA meet scheduled for 20 April in Birmingham, so as soon as registration opened up, I signed up. What I didn’t tell my coach: I really wanted to nail my 1000lb (454kg) total for all 3 lifts, a total I narrowly missed in my 2016 competition.

Training and meet prep

Prep couldn’t have been simpler: I just did what my coach told me. I was lifting 3 days a week: one day of chest and shoulders (mostly bench, with some accessory work of shoulder presses, some tricep work, etc), one leg day (squats and deadlifts), and one full body day (squats and deadlifts plus some upper-body accessory work). This is in addition to running 30-40 miles a week. During the training phase, I improved my 13.1 PR time by more than 5 minutes and my 10K PR time by just under 3 minutes, so the lifting certainly didn’t hurt my running, but I wasn’t entirely sure the reverse was true until the first time I pulled a 405lb deadlift in my garage, a few weeks before the meet. There were a few changes from my prior powerlifting training regimen for this time. At the start of this training block, I was doing all double-overhand grip for deadlifts, but I just don’t have the grip strength to make that work for heavier weights, so over about 300lb I switched back to mixed grip. I also found that I started having problems benching after I got a Texas Power Bar.  I’m still not sure why, but my wrists developed a worrisome tendency to roll when lifting above about 80% of my one-rep maximum (1RM). This culminated in me dropping a 205lb barbell on my chest a couple of weeks ago. Thankfully it didn’t do any major damage; the safety rails on the rack caught most of the impact, but I’ve had a painfully sore spot on my intercostal muscle ever since (which my chiropractor suggested treating with swimming, as if. Has he even met me before?)

Another change to this training block: I’ve been traveling a ton. I’ve squeezed lifting workouts in at ratty hotel gyms in London, skipped them altogether in Seattle and Spain, and used really fancy facilities in Zürich. That’s a polite way of saying my training consistency has been worse than usual.

The final change was that, because of my travel and general laziness, I decided I wasn’t going to try to cut weight to make the 90kg (198lb) weight class this time. I did that successfully with my last meet, but I would’ve needed to start a week in advance, whilst traveling, and that just didn’t seem like a great idea.

The meet

As is typical, the meet director (Charlie Lyons, who exemplifies exactly what’s good about competitive strength sports) had planned two weigh-ins, both on the day before the meet. At the weigh-in, you record your official weight, pick your opening attempts, and have your gear checked. Unfortunately this required me to drive down to Birmingham in the pouring rain, then drive home again Friday night, then drive down again for the meet. Oh well. I got to bed at a reasonable time, woke up at 515a, pounded down some coffee, and headed back to Birmingham, easily making the lifter meeting. Here’s Charlie going over the meet rules with an attentive crowd.

One very interesting thing about this meet: out of the 60 lifters, maybe 20 were women. This is an unusually high number and percentage. In part that’s because there’s a great team of female lifters here in Huntsville at Core Strength and Performance, and in part because Charlie recruited pretty heavily to get women on the platform. Many of the women lifting at this meet set state records, and there were a couple of national records too– and the crowd ate it up. But I digress. Anyway: the room pictured above is the lifting part of the Diamond K facility, which is where the lifters could hang out and warm up; the meet itself was on the other side, where CrossFit classes are normally held.  Charlie gave demos of the commands that the judges would give and explained the criteria for a lift to be judged as successful. I appreciate that he started the lifter meeting on time, finished it on time, and started the meet on time: just like the dentist’s office, a little delay early in the day can build into a long delay as the day goes on.

The meet was organized into 4 flights with a single platform. I was midway through the B flight for all lifts.

The squat

I’d been feeling OK with my squats lately, so I decided to open at 145kg, which I got easily. My second attempt at 157.5kg was just as easy, so I reached a little and attempted 170kg for my third attempt– and got it. That left me with a solid 25lb PR on the first left, which felt great. Later in flight D, “The Tank” squatted 385kg, or 849lbs, which sort of put my lift into perspective. (However, I would bet money that The Tank couldn’t run a marathon, so I have that going for me, which is nice.) 3/3 with a 25lb PR was a great way to start though, so I rewarded myself with a diet Coke and some snacks.

The bench

This is where I expected a little trouble. In my last meet, I went 100kg, 105kg, and 110kg for my attempts, failing the third one. This time I wanted to start a little easier, so I opened with 95kg… and blew it by putting the bar back into the rack maybe 0.2sec before the judge gave the “rack” command. On one hand, this was a stupid mistake. On the other hand, it wasn’t a technique or strength problem, so I shrugged it off and gave the expediter 100kg as my second attempt… then nailed it. This led me to get a little cocky, just like I did in 2016. I attempted 110kg and couldn’t push it to full lockout. I was philosophical about it; the total of my two lifts so far was 275kg, and I needed 454kg to hit my goal, so I figured I could make that up on the deadlift.

The deadlift

With the squat and the bench, each time a new lifter takes the platform, the spotters have to adjust the height of the equipment and load the correct amount of weight. In the deadlift, they only have to load the weight, so it moves faster than the other events. Because I was in the B flight for bench, I had plenty of time to chit chat with other lifters and take my time warming up. The only other lifter in my age/weight class was Jeff Ray, whose openers were all higher than my final lifts– really nice guy who also happens to be strong as hell. Since we’re of a similar age, we warmed up at the same time, then before I knew it, I was on deck to lift.

First attempt was at 170kg, or 385lb. This is close to the normal top end of my training lifts but I was confident I could get it, and I did. Here’s where the math got tough. I needed 179kg on the deadlift to hit my 1000lb-goal. I picked 180kg for my second. Why so conservative? I wanted to make absolutely sure that I’d have another shot at the weight if for some reason I screwed up the lift. It turns out that my caution was unnecessary, as I blasted 180kg off the floor and locked it out with a quickness. Three white lights and bang! I’d hit my goal.

For my finishing attempt, with my goal in the bag, I selected 192.5kg, or 424lb. This was a roughly 19lb PR over my previous best garage lift. It was a little tougher than 180kg, but it came off the floor nicely. I maybe could’ve put another 5kg or so on there without a problem, but I remembered what happened when I got greedy on the bench.

The summary

At this point, I confess: I was d-o-n-e and ready to go home. At my other meets, I’ve stuck around to watch the big guys lift; it can be very competitive and the crowd gets loud when people are starting to pull 700lb or more off the ground. I figured that, on balance, I’d rather just head home given that I didn’t know any of the lifters well and didn’t have any friends or family with me. So I did, stopping en route for a well-earned Chick-Fil-A key lime shake and some fries. I was pretty wiped out when I got home, so I took a brief recliner catnap and enjoyed a quiet evening of reading.

 

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Training Tuesday: NYC United Half Marathon + MCM 17.75K race reports

IMG 0821What an adventure!

Over the past 10 days I had the opportunity to run two signature races: the New York City United Airlines Half Marathon, and the Marine Corps Marathon 17.75K. Herewith my race report.

NYC 13.1

I registered for this lottery not realizing exactly when it was; as it turns out, it was the same day my youngest son’s high-school choir was performing at Carnegie Hall and it fell on St. Patrick’s Day. The annual Microsoft MVP Summit started the next day in Seattle, so the logistics were a bit challenging— normally I would’ve flown myself but that wouldn’t work since I had to go straight to Seattle the morning after the race.

Minimal tourism note: New York City is amazing, the Dream Hotel Midtown makes a great base of operations for exploring Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I super loved running Central Park. Everything I ate was superb. The choir concert was a once-in-a-lifetime memory, and a huge highlight was getting to see my cousin Jeff, whom I hadn’t seen in 13 years, not once but twice. Sometime when I have more time I’ll write up all the fun touristy stuff, but for now, let’s talk about the race.

The course begins in Prospect Park, which is in Brooklyn (which of course I didn’t know), then snakes through Brooklyn, over the Manhattan Bridge, then up FDR Drive, which is closed for the race. Runners turn left near the UN, run through Times Square, and finish in Central Park right near the famous Tavern on the Green. There was a lot of online discussion in the NYC 13.1 Facebook group about how hilly the course was— most of the elevation looked like it would be in the first 4-5 miles. With that in mind, and knowing how crowded the race would be, I didn’t plan this to be a PR race. I figured I would give myself permission to enjoy the day and take plenty of pictures, especially since two weeks beforehand I had PR’d the Carnival Frolic 13.1 in Decatur. I planned to plug in 305W into the Stryd PowerRace app and just run to that power target instead of worrying about my pace or HR; that’s what I’d done at Carnival and it seemed like it would work well again. First there were two problems to deal with…

Problem #1: how the hell was I going to get to Prospect Park? This was neatly solved by Cesar Trelles, lead instigator of the FB group, who organized four buses that picked up on Madison Avenue and went to the race start. Once corral assignments were handed out, he staged the bus passengers by their corral, which was assigned on the basis of predicted finish time. All I had to do was show up about 0515 and get on the bus, which delivered me right to the correct side of the park. I had elected not to check a race bag, so after a brisk half-mile walk I was able to get in line for the porta-potties and then make my way to the corral. Breakfast was a protein bar and a packet of BeetElite juice, which is pretty close to my normal pre-13.1 feeding.

Problem #2: the weather. Race day was predicted to be cold and windy, and it was— 34° at the start with a steady 6-10mph wind. I decided to run with a beanie and gloves, shorts over tights, and a long-sleeve tech shirt. This was not nearly enough to keep me comfortable pre-race, but oh well. Thankfully the original forecast, which called for rain, was wrong, because running when it’s cold and wet is not even a little bit fun.

Problem-wise, that was it. The race organizers did a great job with the pre-race logistics and it was easy for me to get through the area and into my corral. I decided to tag along with the 1:55 pacers and see how long I could hang with them, so I met them (though I can’t remember their names, boooo) and waited for my corral start. At about 0755 it was our turn, and I crossed the line at 0759.

The first three miles flew by as we went through Prospect Park. It was cold, but the sun was coming up and I was too busy dodging other runners to worry about how I felt. I held a nice steady rhythm and felt like I was keeping up with the pacers just fine— with my first 3 mile splits at 9:00, 8:38, and 8:11, I was good to go.

Mile 4 was mostly downhill, heading towards the water. My watch says I ran it in 7:41, which is smoking fast for me. I’ll take it.

The real surprises came at miles 5-6. That’s the segment that includes the Manhattan Bridge. I’d heard a lot of pregame anxiety about the climb but it didn’t look that bad, and it didn’t feel that bad either. The run up to, over, and down the bridge went by at 8:44 and 8:26, better than my previous PR 13.1 average pace. This segment had a terrific view of the Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge. The pacers kept telling us to save our energy because “the race begins in Manhattan”… and they were right.

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Mile 7: I don’t know, man. 7:56 on the flat terrain of the FDR Drive. I had been yo-yoing the pacers a bit from mile 5 onwards, but I was also taking time to hit each Gatorade stop to ensure that I didn’t get dehydrated— that tends to happen to me when it’s cold outside because I don’t realize how much I’m sweating. Mile 8 was a 9:18 special, since i stopped for a pee break— which proved that I was getting enough water in, yay.

All the while, I felt great. Plenty of energy from the crowd; my legs felt strong; I was in a delightful flow balanced between working hard and feeling like I was just trucking along steadily. So I can’t explain what happened for the rest of the race: 8:01, 7:54, 7:44, 6:44, and 8:29. That’s right. I ran 5 miles all under my previous best PR pace, with one of them the fastest mile I’ve ever run in my life… and it was not all downhill, as you can see from the Strava data.

I crossed the finish line somewhat disbelieving my watch time, but the official result time confirmed it: 1:53:09, or about a 2min30sec improvement over my two-week-old PR, which itself was about a 2min30sec PR. I guess I was in a New York state of mind, or something.

Summary: great race, one which I will forever remember. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

The next morning, I woke up at 4ish, took an Uber to JFK, and spent Monday-Wednesday deeply immersed in the highly technical (and completely-covered-by-non-disclosure-agreement) MVP Summit. I had a short shakeout run Monday but nothing for the rest of the week; I didn’t have time for my scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday workouts, then Thursday I flew to DC for the MCM 17.75K.

The MCM 17.75K

This race is special for two reasons. One is that it gets its name from the year of the USMC’s founding, 1775. The other is that finishers get an automatic entry to the Marine Corps Marathon. I registered for the 17.75 last year but couldn’t run it because of a family funeral. My original plan was to run it so I’d have an MCM entry, but then I unexpectedly was able to register for the MCM 50K (about which, more in another post), but I figured I might as well run it anyway because I didn’t have any other weekend plans. So off to DC I went, where I found a cheap Airbnb right near the Nationals’ ballpark. My plan was to work Friday, then drive down to the Quantico area for packet pickup and the Marriott room I’d reserved using points, so that’s what I did. Meanwhile, I had an amazing lunch of bison huevos rancheros at the Silver Diner, and they were thoroughly amazing; I also found the local Goodwill and bought some clothes to wear at the start line, then donate.

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Dinner was the “carbo motivation dinner” offered by the MCM Organization— it was at the Marine Corps Base Quantico officers’ club and featured the Quantico band and a speech by the base CO. For $20, I figured it might be fun, and it was; I was at a table with 7 other runners and supporters (all but 1 older than me, go figure) from various parts of the country. The band was fun and the food was decent.IMG 0824

My Stryd pod had died midweek sometime, and I didn’t have the charger, so my original plan to run with power went out the window. I decided just to run based on feel, since I wasn’t trying for a PR or anything. Breakfast was a MetRx protein bar and a pre-race Gu with 35mg caffeine, plus most of a 20oz diet coke. Weather at the start was chilly as hell, with a knifing wind. At Goodwill I’d picked up a big fleece (when I say “big” I think it was 3XL—it went down damn near to my knees) and had that on over my MCM mock and a short-sleeve tech shirt, shorts over tights, and a beanie with gloves. The start/finish area is at a medium-sized church, which you access via either walking or a shuttle bus from several nearby parking areas. I headed into the (nice, warm) church and met some new Facebook friends from the MCM running group (hi, Monique, Joe, and Susan!) We stayed toasty inside until it was time to head to the start line— a bit of a tactical mistake, to be honest.

The starting gun fired and I was off. The first 4-5 miles of the course are mostly on packed gravel trails through the forest. It had rained a bunch the week before but for the most part the trails were fine; there were a few muddy patches but not too bad. The big problem for the first 2 miles was just the volume of runners—3300 people, not sorted into corrals or waves, all hammering up and down the little rollers. I was weaving a good bit but managed to get into a more open space around mile 3ish. Until mile 4 I picked up some free downhill speed, then the real fun started about 4.3 with a pretty steady climb until about mile 7.5. Thankfully the race organizers had added some motivational signs to power us up and down the hills.

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Normally this is where I would have run a steady power but since I couldn’t do that I tried to hold a steady RPE and my pace reflected that nicely.

More free speed on mile 8, and then just before mile 9 I took a badly needed portapotty break—I couldn’t get into one before the race and figured I’d just hold out, but my colon had a different opinion. You can see that at one point my pace shows as 44:04/mile, which is pretty funny since a normal walking pace for me is about 15:30/mile.

Miles 9+ were back on the trail but much less crowded, as the field had thinned out. Steady run to the finish, got my medal, and boom: bison huevos rancheros for lunch, a quick dip in the hotel hot tub, and then home. I arrived just in time to join friends for dinner and show off my new bling collection.

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Overall the whole trip was superb. While extended road trips like this are often a pain in the butt, and there were definitely times when I would rather have been chilling with Pancake at home, the opportunity to run two iconic races in two completely different places— with the MVP Summit sandwiched in the middle— was a marvel. This is just one of the many ways in which running has changed my life for the better.

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Race report: 2018 Rocket City Marathon (December 8, 2018)

Normally I’d write a long race report here, with lots of pictures. This time, I decided to write the race report at Reddit, then just post the pictures here– RCM isn’t a very scenic course so I don’t have a lot of pictures from the course: just the obligatory rocket selfie.

 

 

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Race report: 2018 Marine Corps Marathon

I had an idea earlier this year: “I should think about trying to run the Marine Corps Marathon.”

Like many of the ideas I have, this one was of questionable value, but it happened this past weekend so I thought I’d write about how it came to fruition.

In truth, I’d always thought that, in the unlikely event I ever ran a marathon, I’d like it to be the MCM. The “unlikely event” part went away back in 2016 when I ran Rocket City, but I didn’t have any burning ambition to do another one. Then I saw that the Marine Corps had added a new race: the Marine Corps 17.75K (1775 was the Corps’ founding year). Finishing it granted automatic entry to MCM. I entered the lottery for the 17.75K and, to my surprise, got in… but the race itself fell on the same day as the funeral of my beloved Aunt Norma, so I didn’t get to run it. I begrudgingly entered the lottery for MCM, not expecting to get in… and then I did.

Training

I strained a hamstring 2 weeks before the Chattanooga 70.3— so since late April, I have been intermittently unable to run more than a couple of miles. My coach has kept me on the bike to continue to keep my cardio base, along with some weight work, and the hammy seemed to be getting steadily better. Two weeks before MCM, I’d planned to run the London Royal Parks 13.1, which went swimmingly. I was encouraged that my hamstring didn’t hurt, and that I felt good during and after that race… to a point.

(skip the below if you’re not a runner or don’t care about running shoes)

See, last year I had a persistent, nagging problem with my right knee’s IT band. Skipping the boring details, let’s just say I eventually figured out that it was caused by my shoes, so I switched shoes but then started having a different problem with my calves. Welcome to distance running! I finally found a pair of Nike Structure 21s that seemed to work really well for me… until I started doing runs of longer than about 8 miles. Then I started having soreness in the outside of my left foot… so back to the shoe store I went, returning this time with a pair of On Cloudflow shoes. They seemed to work really well, except that after the London race I felt the calf pain returning. I waffled for a solid week before my coach finally suggested I run the marathon in them anyway, since they worked fine during the race. This seemed reasonable… after all, who cares if they’re sore after the race? That’s what I planned to do.

(ok, it’s safe to start reading again)

Coach Jon didn’t follow the usual gospel of having increasingly long runs as marathon prep— my longest scheduled run was 15mi, the week after London. I made it through 10 before my hamstring was bothering me too much to continue. For the 4 or 5 weeks preceding the race, I kept seeing people in the MCM group on Facebook talk about their 18, 20, 22, etc. mile runs and so I was a little nervous about being undertrained. However, I knew that, barring a serious injury, I’d be able to complete the race and cross the finish line, even if it wasn’t in the time that I had wanted, so I wasn’t unduly nervous (or so I thought at the time!)

Travel and arrival

My friend Ashley had deferred her MCM entry last year and decided that this would be her year to run it as well. Our mutual friend Erica came along as cheerleader and sherpa, so we loaded up the airplane on a cloudy Friday morning and set out from Decatur. 

 

In the plane

taken while the weather was still nice

We flew into Potomac Friendly (so named because it’s in Friendly, MD). I’ll do a separate Flying Friday post on the flight itself, which was the most difficult flight I’ve ever flown. The weather was, shall we say, not awesome, but I got plenty of solid time in IMC, all hand-flown because our autopilot is down for maintenance. I picked Potomac because it’s one of the so-called “MD3” airports that are closest in to downtown DC (the others being Hyde Field and College Park). Potomac is a small airport with a short runway, but it has inexpensive fuel and is a short drive from downtown (by DC standards). We parked the plane and then Ashley’s BFF Candice picked us up and drove us to the runners’ expo at the Gaylord convention center. 

The expo was fun. Packet pickup was quick and efficient. Each runner got a clear plastic bag (to be used later for gear drop-off) with a mock turtleneck race shirt, a race patch, and a very nice printed race guide. All the major vendors and sponsors were at the expo, including Brooks (the main running-gear sponsor), Carb Boom (the nutrition sponsor), USAA, and so on. I managed to limit my expo spending to one T-shirt, one Christmas tree ornament, and one coffee mug, mostly because I’d already bought a race jacket directly from Brooks. There was a lot of other stuff I could happily have bought, though!

at the logo wall

proud to say I had the only Waffle House shirt in the place— thanks, Anna

Candice suggested Succotash for dinner, and it was superb. The chicken and waffles were the best I’ve ever had. Portions were generous, which is good because it was fairly expensive. (Drink prices are ridiculous, a trend I noted throughout DC, but what are you gonna do.) 

On the advice of my friend Ingrid, I’d booked a room at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City, because it’s easy walking distance to the start line. Thankfully I had stashed away enough Marriott points to get it for free. My expectations of the “Ritz-Carlton” brand name were sky high, so I was a little disappointed that the hotel is basically a nicer-than-usual Marriott property, not the oasis of luxury I’d pictured. The staff were extremely friendly and pleasant, and it was marvelous being right next to the Fashion City mall, which has both a DC Metro stop and a Starbucks. 

The day before

There’s a tremendously active (and welcoming!) Facebook group for MCM participants, and they’d scheduled a shakeout run on Saturday morning. I took a Lyft over (funny story for another time about when Lyft thinks you’ve been in an accident in one of their vehicles) and met the group near the Smithsonian metro station. The weather was windy, rainy, and cool— low 50s— but it was a fun run anyway. I hadn’t brought any rain gear, so I was pretty drenched by the time we got done, but in a good way.

IMG 0263

After another Lyft ride back to the hotel and a quick cleanup (and a giant coffee), we met up for a little sightseeing. First (because hello, have you met me?) we went to Port City Brewing to give them a try; after all, their motto is “We put the ‘ale’ in ‘Alexandria.’” Good beer and a nice atmosphere, but they didn’t have any food, which was a bit of a problem. Then it was off to Georgetown for lunch. Candice had suggested an Italian restaurant called Filomena. Let me just be clear and say that this was, unequivocally, the best-decorated restaurant I’ve ever been to and had the best Italian food I’ve ever had.

When you walk in the door, the first thing you see is the room where the pasta is made. In our case, that included an Italian grandma giving us malocchio

IMG 0281

Don’t mess with grandma

Besides the food, Filomena is famous for their elaborate holiday decorations. There’s a discreet little sign at the entrance cautioning parents that they may want to consider their kids’ maturity levels before entering the restaurant proper. Here’s a small sample…

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at this point I was so hungry that no amount of demon decoration would spoil my appetite

The food! I ate a large plate of cannelloni with Italian sausage, plus what seemed like a loaf and a half of table bread, then the remaining half of Candice’s lasagna. I only stopped because I was in literal fear of bursting. This wasn’t just ordinary gluttony, of course; I’d had a very light breakfast and a late lunch, with the intention of having a big lunch and a very light dinner, all with a goal of not having to rush to the porta-potties on race morning. (Look up “ileal brake” if you want to know why this strategy works.)

Neither Ashley nor I wanted to do a lot of walking pre-race, so we drove over to the Navy Yard and explored a bit, then I made an early night of it— I watched maybe the first 15 minutes of the Saints game and then was out like a light, but not before doing one last gear layout to make sure Flat Paul was good to go:

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Race day

Normally I don’t have race nerves. This time, I did, but not for any good reason; I woke up about 4a and tossed and turned for a bit, mostly just because I was excited. Then it was time to get up and get my race prep on. I’d already mixed up 4 bottles of Gatorade Endurance and stashed them in the room fridge, and I’d loaded up my belt with 7 Gu packets. I didn’t do a good job of prepping for breakfast though; I ended up eating a Payday bar, a protein bar, some applesauce from the runners’ expo, and a Gu. The DC Metro opened at 6, so promptly at 6 I was lined up for the turnstile and then took the train to the Pentagon station.

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the first of many lines for the morning

The layout of the race is such that the start is on highway 110 between the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery. When I got off the train, I followed the giant herd of runners to the runners’ village, where I checked in the provided clear plastic bag of post-race gear. One neat thing about this process is that each race bib has a UPS sticker on the back with a truck number (mine was 19). To check your gear, you take your bag to the matching truck, then the trucks move to the finish area. Simple and quick. I had plenty of time to mill around the runners’ village, which was pointless since there was nothing there— so instead, I headed out to the start line area, another 10min walk away. It was a scenic walk, though.

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For the first time this year, MCM was using a corral start, but they only had 3 corrals. I wanted to try to grab on to the 4:30 pace group and see how long I could hang on, but they were in the next corral up. Even though I got to the front of my corral, the polite yet firm young second lieutenants stationed there weren’t letting anyone move up a corral. (Somehow Ashley managed to sneak through though.)

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my people at the head of the green corral

This positioning turned out to be pretty much perfect— to my left was a small tower. The event announcer kept up a continual patter leading up to the 745a start for the wheelchair and handcart division, which was immediately preceded by an MV-22 flyover. After their start, we had a few more minutes before the 755a main start, which was filled by another MV-22 flyover and two parachute jumps: one mass jump and one pair carrying a large American flag. Both were aiming for a blue smoke grenade, which was at the small tower near my position, so I had a great view.

Promptly at 755a, the starter fired the howitzer and it was race time.

The race

Some race reports tediously go over every single mile. I won’t do that here (but you can see all the race data, my mile splits, and so on here if you’re interested.) Instead, I want to capture some impressions.

First, the crowd. As in London, I was running with and near people at all times, and it was amazingly energizing. The spectators were a spectacle in themselves. The variety and quality of supportive race signs, and the volume of cheering, far exceeded my expectations. Any time the course ran through a city area, the sidewalks were packed— the only time we didn’t have large crowds were when we were on the open road or a bridge. Take a look at the picture below, taken on Rock Creek Parkway, and you’ll see what I mean.

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Second, the course itself. What a gorgeous tour of our nation’s capital.

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Third, the wear blue Mile. Words can’t capture the emotions of running this part of the course. I took my headphones off and silently read the name of each fallen American to myself as I ran by, not in any particular hurry. It was a tremendously moving part of the course and I’m getting a little teary just thinking about it as I type this.

Overall, I felt really good for the first 14 or so, then started to flag a little coming out of Hains Point. My average pace got a bit slower, and in Crystal City (starting about mile 23) I took a couple of walk and stretch breaks.

And, of course, because this is the Marine Corps Marathon, it ends on a hill. Seriously.

A note on race gear and strategy

I have been really frustrated lately by my Stryd pod. When I use it with my Garmin Fenix3 HR, I get power dropouts just like I did with my Stages power meter on the bike. When I use the Stryd app on my Apple Watch, the pod often disconnects, and when it’s disconnected the app thinks you’re not running— so in London, the app recorded my run as 10ish miles. So I did what any reasonable person would do: I ran with both the Garmin and the Apple Watch. (And my phone, although that was for music and cheers.) This turned out to be a good strategy, because the Stryd app on the Apple Watch just flat-out stopped recording my run when I rebooted my phone, which I didn’t think it was supposed to do.

My original plan was to try and hold a steady power with the PowerRace app on the Garmin. This was torpedoed when I discovered the dropout issue. My backup plan was to set the Garmin to give me an alert if my heart rate went over 150 and then run based on that. I’d also set a 5:00 run/1:00 walk interval timer, just in case I needed it late in the race… but I didn’t, so that was awesome.

My original goal was ‘beat my previous marathon PR.’ My A goal was to go 4:30 or better. I didn’t quite accomplish that, mostly because I ran an extra mile. That’s right. I managed to turn a 26.2 mile race into a 27.2 mile race. At my average pace of 10:49/mile, that cost me just under 11 minutes. However, I also took lots of pictures on the course, stopped for a few stretches, and even drank some whisky, so I am not at all dissatisfied with how things turned out.

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The finish line experience

After running up the aforementioned hill and through the finishers’ corral, each finisher is presented the coveted race medal by a Marine. I got a fresh-cheeked second lieutenant newly sprung from Quantico; he hung the medal around my neck, shook my hand, and called me “sir.” The corral dumps runners out at the base of the Iwo Jima monument, a perfect photo spot.

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Ashley had finished the race before me (of course), but she found me for some photo opportunities.

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Post-race

Surprisingly, I had very few mobility or soreness problems immediately post-race. None of us wanted to walk around a whole lot, so after a badly needed hot shower and some coffee, we met fellow complete human Zach at Farmers Fishers Bakers, another excellent Candice selection, for a celebratory dinner. Once again, I was in bed by 8 and asleep shortly thereafter.

In the following days, I’m delighted to say that I’ve had zero hamstring pain, zero side-foot pain (except some mechanical wear on my toes—no lost toenails etc), and felt great in my recovery work this week.

Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I am eager to run this race again next year.

Oh, right— I didn’t mention my finish time yet. 4:55:20, so a solid 14 minute PR. If I’d cut a few more tangents and taken a few less pictures, I could easily have gone sub-4:45, and with a bit more training 4:30 is within striking distance. That’s my goal for the Rocket City Marathon in December. See you there!

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Training Tuesday: Royal Parks Half Marathon race report

I very much enjoy running in new places, and I love destination races. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that I was excited to find out that there’s a giant half-marathon in London, the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon. It’s a fundraiser for the foundation that maintains London’s 8 Royal Parks (including Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, and so on); in the 10 years of its existence, it raised more than £36 million for the upkeep of the parks and for other charities. Because the race is run by a nonprofit, seemingly every charity in the UK (and many global ones as well) have fundraising efforts and charity teams for the race. The race course cuts through four of the eight parks, and is almost completely flat. Runners start in Hyde Park, run east through St James’s Park (and past Buckingham Palace!), up the Strand and then back again, with detours through Trafalgar Square and down to Downing Street, then through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The photos on the race web site show an abundance of fall colors and sunshine… which is not exactly what happened.

I’d registered for the race lottery and didn’t get in, so the Royal Parks folks kept my entry fee and sent me a nice hoodie to cushion my disappointment. It didn’t, given that the hoodie arrived in July, which is not usually hoodie weather in Alabama. Quadrotech decided to sponsor a corporate team, so I got in through that route. I later learned that most runners get into the race through charity registrations, and in future my plan is to raise funds for London’s Air Ambulance (which is a charity!) so I can get one of these exceptionally cool running shirts:

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I got to London Thursday morning before the race and worked in our London office Thursday and Friday, running 5 miles Thursday. Both days were cool and gloomy, and there was lots of discussion about Sunday’s forecast of temperatures in the low 50s and rain. Saturday turned out glorious— I ran 8 miles along the Regents’ Canal in lovely sunshine, with temperatures in the high 60s. The scenery was pretty grand…

The Regents Canal

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After my run, I went out for pizza and watched First Man (pretty good; maybe wait for Netflix though.) A good night’s sleep and I awoke to… exactly the promised weather. Lot 50s, steady wind, and rain. I donned the rain gear I’d brought and headed out to the Moorgate Tube station. Once I hit Piccadilly, the Tube was completely jammed with runners and spectators making their way to Hyde Park. That’s one thing I hadn’t considered: even in a city the size of London, a race with 16,000 runners means that there are a ton of people packed into a relatively small area.

Now, a brief sidebar on race organization. The race organizers will mail race packets ahead of time, for free, if you ask them to, which I did; however, because we’d re-registered me as a team member, my packet went to our office instead, so when I got to the race site, I had to meet my teammates to get my bib so I would know what corral I was in, then drop off my post-race clothes at the baggage drop, then make my traditional pre-race pilgrimage to the portapotties, then go to the start.

f you’ve never run a large race, you may not realize this, but most large endurance races group runners by pace and then send them into corrals so runners of similar speed start together. This race had… 3 corrals total. That’s not a lot for 16,000 runners. There were long lines at baggage drop and for the toilets, and I got increasingly nervous as we got closer and closer to the 9am race start time. I needn’t have worried though— it turns out that even with those two long waits, I got into the line for my corral at 915am and actually crossed the start line at 927am. This was fine because the race is chip timed, so the time doesn’t start until you actually cross the timing mat. Here’s what the corral looked like before I started:

The corral

Once I crossed the start line, I was in a crowd until I finished. That’s a major difference from the races I normally run, especially triathlons— since you’re running after swimming and biking, differences in individual speed means people tend to be pretty spread out on the race course. Here’s an example from the leg through Hyde Park late in the race:

IMG 0167One of the best things about the race was the spectator presence. There were people pretty much lining the course whenever it was along a road, and for maybe 80% of the course length through parks. Lots of signs, and at least three or four bands (three drum corps I can recall). Several of the corporate and charity sponsors had big cheering stations set up, which was fun. Overall the race had a remarkable energy to it, the more so considering that the weather wasn’t great.

And then there was the race course scenery…

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Did not see any members of the Royal Family

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This cracked me up. I’m quite surprised it was deemed necessary

A word about race gear: I ran in a pair of On Cloudflows that I bought a week or so before the race, a pair of generic shorts, and my Rocket City Marathon race shirt. I started the race with a light rain jacket and a hat, but shed both of those mid-race— but I was glad to have them when it started raining just after I crossed the finish. The Cloudflows really felt good during the race, but I have since discovered that as I build volume, they aren’t cushioned enough so they’ve gone back to the store. I also bought a pair of Trekz Titanium bone-conduction earphones using some accumulated Amazon gift cards, figuring they might be worth a try. They sound good but feel a bit odd, and I’m not convinced that they’re better than the Plantronics BackBeat Fits I had been using. The Trekz would be great for cycling though, so I may keep them just for that.

I also ran with my Apple Watch paired to my Stryd footpod. This has been my normal daily running setup since April or so, and it’s worked very well, but for some reason on this race, the pod kept disconnecting— my final run showed up as only 10.2 miles. Best guess is that the pod doesn’t gracefully handle the case where my phone and watch are both connected to it. I only take my phone running when I want to take pictures… and I’ll absolutely want to take pictures at the Marine Corps Marathon. In many ways, this race was a dry run for MCM: I tried to use the same gear, nutrition, etc that I plan to use there, thus the test of the new shoes. This particular race prides itself on sustainability, so the race medals are made of reclaimed wood; the shirts are ring-spun bamboo; and so on. there’s nothing available on the course except water (no bananas, gels, sports drink, etc). I ran with a Fitletic bottle belt with 2 extra bottles; the one problem with this belt is that with all 4 bottles on it, the weight of the bottles stretches the belt enough for it to gradually work its way down towards my knees. The solution is to drink from the back bottles first (or just fill them halfway); I’ve already got the length adjusted to its shortest extent. That’s really good to know, since I don’t want to spend 26.2 miles in DC hitching my belt back up where it belongs.

I haven’t said anything really about the run itself so far. It was great. I held a much faster pace than I expected to be able to and ran my second-fastest half marathon time ever: 2:03:14. I took time to take pictures on the course, so that might have shaved another 2 min off my time, but I wasn’t running this for a PR, and I wasn’t wrecked after the race. In fact, I had a great run the next morning before leaving to go to the airport.

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See, I even look happy here despite standing in the rain for an inordinate amount of time.

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The Quadrofam!

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My reward for a good run: a Sunday roast (not shown: the incredible dessert brownie they brought after I cleaned my plate)

Overall, it was a fantastic experience— I loved the crowd energy and can’t wait to carry forward what I learned to the Marine Corps Marathon! I will absolutely be entering the lottery for the 2019 Royal Parks event, too.

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Training Tuesday: riding the Cote d’Azur

Recently I had the opportunity to do something remarkable: go for a bike ride in Provence! I had to be in the UK for business one week and in Nice the following week, so I was debating what I should do with a free weekend in Europe. Once I learned that there were bike-tour operators near Nice, I quickly decided to find one that could get me out on the road for some portion of the weekend.

Thanks to a recommendation from my local triathlete friend Kate, I found Azur Cycle Tours,  whose guided-rides option sounded perfect. There are a fair number of other tour operators that do longer multi-day tours, too, but Azur was the first I found that could set me up for a one-day ride, including use of a rental bike. I made all the arrangements via email with Justin, the owner, who was prompt and communicative in our exchanges.

I planned to arrive at the Nice airport Friday evening, spend Saturday poking around the area, and then ride on Sunday. Justin agreed to supply a road bike, and I planned to bring my PowerTap pedal power meter, a bike computer, and clothes and shoes. I booked a room at the Azur Cycle Tours apartment for two nights, packed my bags, and arrived there shortly after midnight– a good four hours later than originally planned. Justin was kind enough not to snap at me and gave me a quick tour of the apartment, which was exactly as promised on the web site: modern, comfortable, and well situated near shopping, restaurants, the beach, and the Beaulieu-sur-mer train station.

The next morning I woke up to this glorious view…

Balcony view from the apartment

Justin, as promised, had prepared a hearty breakfast of oatmeal, fresh berries, and bread from the boulangerie up the road. We had a pleasant chat about the local area, then he left to go lead rides and I donned a 10kg weight vest and went for a walk around town. I strolled down along the beach (named “La Petite Afrique” for some reason) and then walked along the Basse Corniche up over a hill for a ways. This treated me to some splendid views of the water and the dozens of large seagoing yachts anchored at various spots.

After I walked back to the apartment and dropped off my weight vest, I decided to walk into Beaulieu and find lunch. As I passed the train station, I had a better idea: why not go have lunch in Monaco? I bought a train ticket and headed off, and in 20 minutes or so I was disembarking at the Monaco station. It became clear pretty quickly where I was when I saw this:

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I walked down to the Casino, where I was surprised and delighted to find a classic-car rally in progress. For a “modest” donation to the Prince’s favorite charity (something to do with heart disease, as I recall), you could rent any of a number of privately owned classic cars and drive them around. Here are a few of the stunners on display.

My favorite was the Aventador, though; without a doubt it is the most beautiful manufactured object I’ve ever seen in person. Sadly this photo doesn’t do it justice.

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The casino itself isn’t too shabby either.

I walked around the casino area for a while, taking pictures as the mood struck me. It’s a delightful area for people-watching, of course, and there was plenty of that on offer. I saw and heard tourists from all over the place. Then I took the train back to Beaulieu, where Justin suggested to me that I try dinner at Les Vents des Anges in town. The highlight was this salad, consisting of warmed rounds of goat cheese on toasted local bread with fresh greens and peppers. It was, hands down, the best salad I’ve ever eaten, and the wine and entree (saltimbocca, in this case) were equally good. A short walk back home, and then it was bedtime.

The next morning dawned sunny and clear. Justin and I had planned to meet for breakfast at 730 then roll out shortly thereafter. It took 20 min or so to mount my pedals, bike computer, and camera on the bike, get it adjusted, and so on, then we rolled out. Check out this route….

Relive ‘Do Epic Shit: Beaulieu to Tourrette and back’

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We were able to leave Beaulieu and head west into Nice, starting with a short climb into Villefranche and then riding along Nice’s excellent cycle path that parallels the famous Promenade des Anglais. Then the ride started in earnest. Our first stop was in La Colle-sur-Loup for a snack, which in this case was a marvelous berry tart and a cup of poisonously strong coffee. The whole town square, and most of the surrounding streets, were filled with… a PTA fundraiser for the village school. Yep. You read that right. Change the language on the signs, bring in some box-mix cupcakes, and turn all the volunteering moms into non-smokers and the whole event could have been plucked right from suburban America.

Best. dessert. ever,

Then back on the road! The toughest part of the ride was just ahead: the long climb into Tourrette-sur-Loup, which interestingly enough is part of the Ironman Nice course. This offered remarkable scenery in all directions, including up and down.

We stopped in Tourrette-sur-Loup for a splendid lunch: another great salad and a marvelous lasagna. (Italian food is pretty common in this part of France, perhaps unsurprising given how close Italy is). We also filled our bike bottles at the municipal fountain. Nearly every village has one, and the water at each of the ones we sampled was clear, cold, and delightfully fresh.

After lunch, we rolled back into Nice along a slightly different route– no steep descents, but a very pleasant series of switchbacks and hairpins. It took me nearly this long to understand why the bike Justin rented me seemed so smooth and quiet compared to my Cervelo P2: I have race wheels with a racheting freehub, so when I coast, they make that super-cool clicking noise. This bike didn’t have that, plus the drivetrain was adjusted to approximately the precision level of the Space Shuttle, so it was a delightfully smooth and quiet ride.

Along the way, I was able to pause to take a couple of photos of scenic spots. Also along the way, we made one final stop for ice cream, which I sadly forgot to take a picture of.

A note about the roads: even in this rural area, the roads we rode on were marvelously smooth and well-maintained, with good markings and signage. About 99% of the drivers we encountered gave us a wide passing margin, and I never felt unsafe or threatened. We saw a few dozen other cyclists along the route and everyone was friendly.

Back at the apartment post-ride, I used the provided laundry machines to wash my kit while I drank a beer and looked out at the water, then, reluctantly, I packed my stuff and departed for my next leg of the trip.

Overall, I could not be more pleased with the Azur Cycle Tours experience. Justin was an excellent host, with encyclopedic knowledge of the local area and route. He kept up an informative and interesting commentary about what we were seeing as we rode; he chose a route that was appropriate for my skill level but still challenging, and he made me feel like a welcome guest instead of the tour du jour. I am looking forward to returning and riding a more challenging route in the future!

[ed. note: I wrote this using a Windows machine and I refuse to deal with its stupidity when it comes to entering accented characters– please be reassured that my French spelling is better than shown here.] 

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