Category Archives: Fitness

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Havana, day 2

Day 1 of our trip was about getting settled in. Day 2 was all about race prep.

Lance and I got up early-ish and went for a short run along the Malécon. We started from our apartment (the little red pin on the map), so you can sort of see where we were situated compared to the rest of Old Havana. This was just a short shakeout run, so we made a couple of stops for picture-taking along the eastern leg. You can’t see it in the map, but there’s a really interesting old fort across the strait to the east.

Running along the Malécon

Running along the Malécon

Called Castillo de la Punta, its construction started in 1590. It offers a great landmark from anywhere along the shoreline to the west because its promontory is further to the north than the rest of Havana. It makes a great scenic backdrop, too.

Castillo de la Punta

Castillo de la Punta

Further to the south along our run route, we saw a couple of cruise ships jockeying for entrance into the port. Non-US-flagged cruise lines have been stopping at some other Cuban resorts for a few years now but having them come into, or just offshore, Havana is fairly new.

Paul and Lance on the run

Paul and Lance on the run

After our run, we met up with the rest of the posse and finished getting our gear and bikes together. This was quite a production, as Julio, the 6th member of our group, was staying one block away. We’d arranged for Eric to bring a friend with a truck, so we set out on the half-hour drive from our apartment to Marina Hemingway, named after Papa himself. The drive took us through a row of embassies (not including the US embassy; more on that later) and some scenic residential neighborhoods. The marina itself was pretty well representative of Cuba: dilapidated in spots but still functional. The marina has two hotels: Hotel Acuario and El Viejo y La Mar (“The Old Man and the Sea”), which is being renovated.

The Old Man and the Sea-themed fountain

The Old Man and the Sea-themed fountain

The registration events were all held at Acuario, more or less. We were told the workflow would go like this:

  1. Get a race number and athlete wristband
  2. Drop off our bikes and bike bags in T1
  3. Drop off our run bags at T2

In my race report, I alluded to a certain degree of disorganization at registration, so it may not surprise you to know that things didn’t exactly work this way. We stood in line for a solid two hours to get in and register– registration opened at 10 and we were in line about 1015. The registration process itself was a maelstrom of people milling around trying to do 4 simple things: sign a waiver, sign up for race photos, get a race packet with numbers and so on, and get the coveted wristband. The volunteers seemed overwhelmed, and the layout was such that the crowd was funneled to the photo station first.. where you couldn’t sign up without your race number, which you wouldn’t have at that point. You get the idea.

Eventually we survived that process and walked back over to where we’d parked to get our bikes and bags. Each of us had to take all of our stuff and pack it into the event-provided T1 and T2 bags, so that took a few minutes. Then it was back to standing in another line to drop off our bikes and bags. This process was more smoothly organized: each of us had to find our numbered slot in the bike racks, park our bike, and hang our bike bags on the corresponding numbered hook. Run bags? Oh, yeah, we had to leave those too. At various times we were told that we could set up normal transition areas near our bikes, that we must set them up, and that we could not set them up (also that we could and/or could not leave helmets and shoes with the bikes). Oh, and also that we would and/or would not have access to our run bags before the race. You get the idea here too.

After another hour or so of fumbling around in the heat, everyone had their gear staged and we wandered off to find lunch. This was a bit of a challenge; our drivers had left, and the marina only featured one restaurant. Lonely Planet characterizes by saying that you can eat there, if you have no better options, which you won’t if you’re at the marina. They were right. Nothing was bad but it was, at best, mediocre. I had shrimp pasta; the shrimp and pasta were perfectly all right but they were served in an odd not-Italian tomato sauce.

Cuban pizza

Cuban pizza; note the skeptical looks of Tony and Julio

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The Cuban national tourism agency had offered a tour package for triathletes that included airport transfers, rooms at the Hotel Naciónal, and some other goodies. We found a bus going to the hotel and got on it; no one asked if we were supposed to be there, so we enjoyed the air conditioning and ended up at one of Havana’s most venerable institutions.

The imposing Hotel Naciónal

The imposing Hotel Naciónal

The hotel is set on a hill, and it has a commanding view of the water from its back terrace. Naturally, we immediately went there, whereupon I met a new friend… because of course he’d be there.

No word on whether he supports Fidel

No word on whether he supports Fidel

We hung out at the hotel using their wifi for an hour or so, then Lance and I took a classic-car taxi back to the marina while the others went home.

Riding dirty

Riding dirty

The idea was that we didn’t need to all go to the race briefing, so Lance and I volunteered to go find out two important factoids: whether the swim would be wetsuit-legal and whether ITU rules allowed swimming bare-chested. The answers turned out to be “maybe” and “yes”, and we were able to avoid having to wait until 7pm or later to find that out. We left the marina on foot and walked around the area a bit, including crossing the small and sluggish Rio Jaimanitas, before we caught a taxi back– a late-model British MG sedan that had seat belts and air conditioning– the only vehicle I rode in the whole trip that had either, much less both. On the other hand, I’d just as soon have no seat belts and no AC if it means I could roll around in this beauty all day:

What a beauty

What a beauty

We got back to the apartment and back-briefed everyone on what we’d learned. They’d already had dinner, so Lance and I walked a block over to the Malécon to look for dinner, where we found Castropol. Named after the town in Spain, and not You Know Who, this was a lovely surprise. It was easily on a par with the best meals I’ve had anywhere else; I had a grilled chicken breast with arroz moro, some fried plantains with garlic and salt, and a no-kidding-really-delicious bottle of mineral water (usually that stuff tastes awful but this was great). Portions were generous, service was friendly and quick, there was great live music, and the sidewalk-level people watching opportunities were excellent. They also have a second level of the restaurant where they specialize in Italian food, but we never made it back there to try it.

Grilled chicken? Why, yes, thank you

Grilled chicken? Why, yes, thank you

Full and sleepy after the 10 or so miles I’d walked/run that day, I headed back to the apartment and was in bed by about 830p. Now might be a good time to mention that I’d been getting steadily more and more congested– going through a pack or so of Kleenex and 2 12-hour pseudoephedrines per day, yet still continually honking like a foghorn. I was feeling a bit run down but was optimistic that a good night’s sleep would set me right. If you’ve read my race report, you already know how that turned out.

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Training Tuesday: Havana Triathlon race report (25 Feb 2017)

(The Garmin Connect app doesn’t work on Cuban government wifi, so I can’t post course maps, etc. The final race results aren’t up, and since I didn’t have my phone I don’t have any pictures from the race itself, so this report is all you get for right now.)
Summary: great experience, awful performance. 8:12 for a 70.3 is nothing to get excited about. I guess I was not as well prepared as I thought, but there were a couple of other external factors. First is the fact I was sick. I didn’t realize how sick until today (Tuesday), 3 days post-race, when I’m feeling normal and comparing it to how I felt the day before and the day of the race. I had been sniffling and snuffling all week, since maybe 2 days before we left, and was regularly taking 12hr pseudoephedrine for a solid week before race day… not a great setup for the race. I was short on sleep ( people here don’t really get their nights started until midnight or so, so we’ve had significant traffic noise and street noise each night), averaging about 5hrs of real sleep each night for the 4 days pre-race day. I also ate poorly, out of necessity, the day and a half before the race. Those aren’t excuses, but they were definitely factors.

Prep

We spent the entire day before the race getting registered, dropping off our bikes and transition stuff, and so on. I logged about 10 miles of walking. This was not a good idea. Race registration was at the marina; it took about 2 hours to get through packet pickup, then we had to drop off our bikes. The best word to describe the race was “disorganized.” There was a lot of mis-information and non-information, and the whole experience really made me appreciate how hard RDs have to work to put on a smoothly running race. This is only the 3rd year for this race so I am confident that they will improve.

This was a point-to-point race: all our bike stuff went in 1 bag, and all our run stuff in another. We dropped the bike bag off with the bike and gave the run bag to the organizers, who staged it at T2 for us. This put a very high premium on making sure the right stuff was in the right bag, which for the most part I got right. However, that process adds some mental stress, even if you’re a heavy checklist user, as I am.

I had a small lunch (shrimp pasta in an interesting but odd not-tomato sauce) and a good but small dinner (grilled chicken, rice, black beans, a few slices of fried plantain) and got to bed about 830p, where I slept for maybe 5 hours total.

Pregame

I got up at 410a, had breakfast (small pack of honey roasted peanuts, a protein bar, plenty of water), and met the others downstairs for our van ride to the marina. The organizers had told us that we’d have access to our bikes so we could fill bottles, etc, and this turned out to be true. They had also said we’d have access to our run bags, which was not, so I started the run with no water… more on that later. There were nearly 800 participants in the race, for which the organizers thoughtfully provided two (2) portapotties. With no toilet paper. That was awesome. Luckily I had some Kleenex with me.

There was a great deal of confusion over where the swim was supposed to start. Nothing was marked, and none of the volunteers seemed to know what was what. Once the sprint swim started, the RD eventually herded everyone to the right area and collected our after-race bags. Before the swim, I put my glasses, street clothes, etc. into that bag for access later.

Weather and conditions

It was mid-70s at swim start, with a water temperature of about 76. The wind was calm until later in the day– it started to pick up about 11a and reached its peak when during the run leg on the Malécon. The forecast high temperature was 85. I don’t know how hot it got, except that the temperature sensor on my watch registered a max of 105. When it’s on my arm, it reads about 15 degrees higher than ambient FWIW.

Swim

The RD said wetsuits were optional, so I swam with my sim shorts. The plan was to jump in the water at the land side of one of the marina’s berthing lanes, swim down that lane, across the mouth of the adjacent lane, and back down the next lane, for a total of 2100 yards or so. I don’t have good data from the swim– my watch showed I swam 1375 yards in 48:08, but the other guys with me all had correct distances, and the race results aren’t posted online so I can’t cross-check. I felt pretty good on the swim overall, at least until last night when Lance told me he saw two of the yachts in the lane we were in pumping gray water overboard as we swam past. One interesting note: when I jumped in, I forgot to hold my nose and so pumped my sinuses full of marina water. My nose was fine for the rest of the race, go figure.

T1

T1 took 11:08. FAR TOO LONG. This consisted of a 1/4mi or so run from the swim exit to the bike area. Our bike bags were hung on numbered hooks, and volunteers were checking numbers so that by the time each athlete got to the hook, they’d pulled the correct bag. ITU rules don’t allow setting up transitions in advance, so I had to dig through my bag to get socks, shoes, chamois cream, a shirt, sunglasses, bike computer, and nutrition, then get it all put on or tucked in pockets, then run out to the bike and set it up the rest of the way.

Bike

The bike course started with a couple of short climbs that I wasn’t expecting. I’ll put the route map on my blog later when I have Internet again (or you can look it up if you follow me on Strava), but basically we rode around a residential district, then up Linea (one of the main drags) and through El Tunel Linea, then turned around and reversed the route and diverted onto the main east-west autopista. There were tons of volunteers and cops managing both vehicular and pedestrian traffic; they had shut down our side of Linea for racing, so all the traffic was squeezed into the opposite side of the boulevard. I give the race organizers full points for this.

Havana is not what I’d call a polluted city but there is much more vehicle exhaust than Americans are used to– lots of poorly tuned 2-stroke gas engines and big diesels. Riding through that was not my favorite. In addition, there are tons of road hazards. I would describe the overall road conditions as fair– the worst of the roads we rode are no worse than some of the hot spots on Redstone Arsenal or the area near my house (I’m looking at you, Burgreen Road). There are lots of potholes, sunken manhole covers, and so on, and none of them were marked, but they were easy to see.

On the autopista, the course was a series of very long 1-3%climbs and short, quick descents out to about 35mi, then a turn back into the city. As the day wore on it got hotter and windier, with a moderate cross headwind on the way back in.

There were 5 or 6 aid stations with bottled water on the bike course. I drank probably 6 bottles of water on the bike, had a Honey Stinger waffle each hour, and had a small banana (maybe 5″ long) at the turnaround rest area. At the first rest stop (maybe 20mi in) I stopped, put on my arm sleeves, and soaked them, my head, and my jersey with water. That helped a bit. At the turnaround rest stop I stopped again and drank an incredibly tasty can of the local equivalent of orange Gatorade– muchas gracias to the volunteers who thought to have that on hand.

After the highway the route took us back up Linea and through the tunnel again. (I did shout “TUNNELLLLLLLLL” each time I rode through it, like the kids and I used to do when driving through tunnels, so that was fun). There were several groups of uniformed schoolchildren along the route who went nuts whenever they saw a cyclist, so that was really fun.

I tried to stay in the prescribed power range but on the back half of the bike course was trying to make up time and started pushing harder. This was a critical mistake. 3:41 on the bike, when I was hoping for 3:15 or better, was rough.

T2

T2 was set up right near the US embassy and Monte de las Banderas, a local monument with some Fidel-era slogans. Racers biked in and handed their bikes to a handler, who racked it, then ran down the chute to get their run bags. I did that, found a changing tent, and started trying to change, but I was in a fog– I put my belt on backwards, couldn’t get my shoes on the right feet, and went the wrong way leaving the chute. There was no water in T2, so I started the run with empty bottles. 8:05 in T2, most of which was spent sitting trying to catch my breath. I was so hot I actually had goosebumps. I’m lucky it wasn’t longer.

Run

I ran for, maybe, half a mile and then my legs just gave out and I walked. Occasionally I burst into a dispirited sort of trot but I was having trouble moving my legs. Eventually I shuffled through the first aid station and got some water in my bottles, on my arm sleeves, over my head, and down my back. I wish I could say that I magically revived but no. I nearly quit about a dozen times but kept shuffling to a 3:20 finish. That is by far the worst half marathon I’ve ever run, both in terms of time and of quality. There is no way to dress it up or make it look better.

Oh, did I mention that there were no bathrooms on the bike or run courses? No? Because there weren’t. I barged into a restaurant on the Malécon for my run potty break. Twice. Hope they didn’t mind.

The finish

All my friends finished before me, so I had a great welcoming committee as I crossed the finish line and got my medal and finisher’s shirt. I plopped down and collected myself for a few minutes, then Craig and I took a cocotaxi back, which was like riding inside the Devil’s lawnmower, with lots of exhaust and swerving. Warren was kind enough to ride my bike back for me and put it away. 

Post game

Literally all I could do when I got back to the apartment was sit in a chair, stretched out. I couldn’t really turn my head because my shoulders and neck were so tight, and I didn’t even have the energy to banter. I have never felt so sick or tired after a race. I eventually straggled upstairs for a shower and a half-hour nap, which helped. The thought of food was absolutely repulsive, so when the posse went out for dinner I went to bed instead about 830p and slept for maybe 7 hours total. The next morning, I got up and picked my way listlessly through the excellent breakfast buffet at the Parque Central hotel and then shuffled through the Museum of the Revolution (more details on both of those in a later post), then went back to the apartment for a big long nap. I didn’t really start feeling normal until Monday afternoon but am now fully recovered. Lots to learn from the overall experience, including a) don’t race when you’re sick and b) make sure your race prep is strong. Onwards!

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Havana, day 0

I woke up at 0315, 45 minutes early. Why? Who knows. I was thoroughly packed so I had time for a leisurely shower and a last-minute gear check. Warren picked me up right on time and we headed for the airport, where we were soon joined by Lance, Warren, and Craig.

At checkin, Delta didn’t know how to handle us. First, they had to figure out how to sell us a Cuba travel card (CTC).. more on that in a minute. Once that was done, our agent discovered that the computer said “no bikes are allowed for transport to Cuba.” This directly contradicted what Warren had been told by Delta on the phone and what I’d been told both in email and via Twitter DM. The agents were patient and helpful but ultimately couldn’t override the computer without getting the local redcoat to come fix us up. 

Delta’s standard fee for bicycles is $150, and they cheerfully applied that on this flight to each of us. The agent apologetically pointed out that my suitcase was 6lbs overweight (because it has about 15lbs of donated clothing, a skillet, and some other stuff for our Cuban hosts) so I had some last-minute juggling to do to make weight. (Meanwhile, Julio was doing the same thing departing Louisville, except that they accepted his bike without question.)

Once that was finally done, we had an uneventful flight to Atlanta and a walking breakfast en route to the international terminal.

We stopped at the currency exchange booth and found that they didn’t carry Cuban currency– not a huge surprise. Tony had coordinated a bulk purchase of Euros, because it worked out slightly better for us to buy Euros in the US and then change Euros to Cuban pesos (CUC).

Now, back to the CTC. Cuba doesn’t issue visa per se for US citizens. Instead, you need a CTC. The airline can’t let you board a flight to Cuba without one, so you either have to buy in advance through a consolidator (which costs $85 or so) or from the airline, usually $50. Delta charged us the $50 fee at checkin, so all we had to do was fill out a form certifying that we had a legitimate reason to go to Cuba and show our receipt for the $50. The gate agents gave us the actual CTC and checked to make sure we’d filled it out properly– apparently lots of people get the date format backwards and end up having to buy another CTC. The form is in two parts: Cuban customs collects part 1 when you arrive, and you turn in the matching part 2 when you depart.


After checking all the documents, that’s when you get your boarding pass, which is stamped to indicate that you’ve passed the documentation checks and can legally board the flight. US citizens traveling to Cuba are required to have medical insurance, since they aren’t covered by Cuba’s government insurance system. The $25 fee for this insurance is included when you purchase a ticket on Delta, and your boarding pass is proof of purchase.. so you’re legally required to keep your boarding pass with you at all times in country.


Apart from the documentation procedures (which are really very similar to any other Delta international flight), the boarding process and aircraft are identical to what you’re used to. We flew a domestically configured A319 with wifi, although wifi only works in US airspace. To make sure that this gets posted, I’m going to actually post it while we’re still in the air over Florida; you’ll have to wait until the next installment to learn about our arrival in Havana, race packet pickup, and our (planned) dinner at Paladar Torreson.

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Training Tuesday: pre-Havana smorgasboard

In two days I’ll be headed to Havana for my first 70.3 of the season: La Habana Triatlón. Things here at la casa have been fairly chaotic as I’ve tried to clear my work backlog, learn and prepare for travel to a completely unique country, and get my normal training and race prep together. Here are a few highlights:

  • Alex handed me over to a new coach, Jon Fecik. Jon is a professional triathlete. I can’t summarize how excited I am to be working with him– even after only two weeks it’s clear that he is going to be a great match for my training needs. So far I’ve learned a ton from him and I think I have a solid race plan.
  • The weather in Havana this weekend: forecast high of 85 degrees and sunny. The water temperature will almost certainly not be wetsuit-legal, plus that’s kind of warm for a 70.3. Jon has given me a pretty solid hydration plan and we’ve talked extensively about my race pace strategy so I think I’ll be good to go.
  • Packing has been interesting because I assume that I will not be able to get anything locally except for bottled water and fresh food. Everything from bike parts and tools to race nutrition to clean underwear (and toilet paper!) has to go with me, or I have to do without it. This has raised my packing anxiety to a previously unknown level.
  • I’m traveling with a group of 5 other local triathletes, and we’ve got an Airbnb with a housekeeper. We’ve also been able to book a driver/guide. This is going to be important because none of us have been there before and we have a fairly complex set of logistical problems to solve– getting 6 people, plus their bikes and gear, from point A to point B, thence point C, then back to B, several times, then back to A is going to be non-trivial. Having local guidance will be extremely useful.
  • There’s a ton of stuff to see and do in Havana– it’s a city of over 2 million people. Anything I have time for will be a bonus.
  • Cuba has very, very limited Internet access. Simple tasks (like sending one of my fellow travelers a message to ask where we’re meeting for lunch) will be impractical at best. We’ve all got paper maps, as well as offline copies of city maps on our phones. I posted the other day about my proposed email/blogging rig, and I’m confident it will work, but you may not be hearing much from me over the next several days.

I’ll be posting a full race report sometime between the end of the race and the end of March. Stay tuned!

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Training Tuesday: What I learned from my gait analysis

Like most runners, I’ve gradually accumulated a catalog of minor aches and pains as I run. Distance, pace, and terrain all influence how you feel during and after a run, and so do accumulated injuries– once you sustain an injury, you’re generally going to be more susceptible to re-injuring the same part. One solution: quit running. HAHAHAHAHAHAH I know, right? Not gonna happen. Another solution: see a professional to figure out what’s causing my issues, then fix them. I liked that plan better, so I embarked on a two-pronged strategy.

First, I visited Andrew Walker at PhysioWorks HSV to address a problem I’ve been having with my left Achilles tendon. Andrew put me through a battery of static and range-of-motion tests and told me, in summary, that I am a hot mess: poor left ankle mobility (which explains the foot cramps I get on long swims), excessive external rotation of my right foot, and some muscular imbalances in my glutes and hamstrings. Now I’ve got a set of targeted exercises to address the muscle imbalance (more on that in a future post). He also said “you know, your running cadence is low”. He then explained that increasing your running cadence significantly decreases the dynamic load on the ankle and knee joints by reducing impact forces– I was sold.

The following week, I took advantage of my coaching team at CHP to have Nickademus Hollon do a video gait analysis. Matt shot video of me running towards and away from the camera as well as left- and right-facing lateral views. Nickademus sent me back a 20-minute annotated video pointing out several issues with my running:

  • Too much external rotation of my right foot. this is caused by the same issues Andrew spotted with my right hip and glutes.  The excess rotation is putting extra stress on my right knee and IT band, which explains the soreness I often have after long runs.
  • My cadence is low (but I knew that already). Apart from the impact-force increase caused by the slower cadence, this also causes me to “overstride”, or take steps that are too long. The longer your stride, the more you’re in the air, which means the harder you land and the more energy it requires for you to push off again. Because I’m pushing off so hard, I’m putting too much energy bouncing up instead of forward– so write down “excessive vertical oscillation” on my list.
  • I’m crossing my arms over the midline of my body. When my arms swing, my hands are crossing close to my bellybutton, which causes my torso to twist. This both wastes energy and imparts extra torque to my hips, which is contributing to the right-foot rotation.
  • I’m heel striking.

While this seems like a long list of problems… well, actually, it is. The good news is that there are really only two things I need to work on to improve my form. First, I need to raise my cadence. The standard value that most runners aim for is 180 steps/minute. I normally run at about 150, which explains the overstriding problem quite nicely. I’ve started running with the iSmoothRun app, which includes an audio metronome that will warn me when my cadence drops below my target of 160. After a week or two at 160, I’ll move to 170, thence 180. Second, I need to concentrate on keeping my arms from crossing over the midline. This just requires mindful attention; there’s no real technique involved other than “don’t do that.”

Once I start to ingrain those two changes in muscle memory, and after a few weeks of PT exercises to strengthen the underprivileged, I’ll do another gait analysis to see if anything’s changed. I am betting that these changes will pay off, though, and I look forward to seeing the results. Ne

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2016 in review: athletics

It was a busy year: two 70.3 (or “half-Iron distance”) races, a marathon, a bunch of shorter road races, and some PRs. Highlights:

  • completed my first marathon. My left Achilles tendon is still a little sore, but now that I’m not scared of the distance, maybe I’ll try another one next year.
  • Ran a really tough 70.3 in New Orleans, then improved my 70.3 time by 46 minutes in North Carolina.
  • Set course PRs at Rocketman and Renaissance Man (which was also my Olympic-distance PR).
  • Went 1:58 in a half marathon.
  • Completed my Knighthood quest, earning the title Knight of Sufferlandria.
  • Got my first age-group win in a 10K (52:35) and placed in a couple of other local races.
  • Outran the International Space Station at the Racin’ the Station duathlon.
  • Ran intervals on the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Bought a used triathlon bike, a sweet Cervelo P2. I am not fast enough to take full advantage of it but I’m getting there.

I finished the year with a few new weightlifting PRs too; my max squat moved to 325, max bench to 220, and max deadlift to 395. This was all incidental, since I didn’t plan for or compete in any meets this year.

Distance-wise, as I write this post I’m at 990 cycling miles and 440 running miles for the year. These are ridiculously low numbers for avid cyclists or runners, but not a bad combined total. I don’t believe in setting mileage goals for their own sake. Every mile I run or ride is for a specific reason, not just to increase my mileage count. (Disclaimer: the reason for some of those miles is “to enjoy being around people I like,” not for training reasons.) Based on my workout calendar for the rest of the year, I’ll go over 1000 cycling miles and maybe hit 455 or so on the run.

(I didn’t say anything about swimming because I have nothing to say. I didn’t get any faster, but I didn’t drown or get any slower either).

It’s pretty amazing that I was able to get faster and stronger and gain endurance over the course of a year.

What about next year? I’m still working through my goals for next year with my coach, but I plan to insist on setting 3 goals: go over 1000lbs on my 3-lift total, go sub-6:30 on a 70.3, and go sub-3 on an Olympic. I also have some distance-specific running goals but those are definitely subordinate to those 3. Once I nail things down with Alex, I’ll post a specific goals post so the two or three people who read these things will be able to help hold me accountable.

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Training Tuesday: that one time I ran a marathon

[n.b. edited to add “pros and cons” section at the end…]
Summary
I’m a triathlete, and I’ve never run more than a half-marathon distance, even in training. So of course I ran my first marathon this weekend, three days after deciding to do it. Finish time was 5:09:53, well under my goal time of 5:30: https://www.strava.com/activities/798790580
The marathon course in all its glory

The marathon course in all its glory

“See, what happened was…”
The annual Rocket City Marathon is a big deal in Huntsville. 2016 marks its 40th year, and I knew a ton of people who were running. It has a reputation as a well-organized, well-supported race, and the RD is co-owner of the local Fleet Feet, so it is well sponsored too. After seeing a couple of “who’s running the race?” posts in various Facebook groups, I started thinking (always a dangerous endeavor). “If I can run a 70.3, that’s about 6-7 hours of steady effort– so I bet I could handle the workload of a marathon.” When I suggested this in the Complete Human Performance discussion group, my fellow complete humans all said “that’s a terrible idea and you should absolutely do it.”
Then I made the mistake of mentioning to a few of my local friends that I was thinking of running it. A few were horrified, a couple were supportive but skeptical, but the majority were positively gleeful at the thought of having a new victim join their ranks.
Prerace
I went to the pre-race expo on Friday, paid my $100 registration fee, and got a clear plastic bag containing a race shirt (a nice Brooks tech shirt, with their coarse-looking mesh weave), a course map, a race bib, and a few other local information sheets. The expo had several assorted vendors selling stuff– shoes, clothes, and so on– but nothing that I wanted or needed. Critically, they were selling race finisher shirts, but I didn’t buy one because why would you want a finisher shirt until you’d finished? (Hold that thought…)
Friday night’s dinner was Chick-Fil-A, always a good pre-race choice. The boys and I hit Fleet Feet, where I bought a Nike jacket of some description because I was assured it would be warmer than what I had.  I got about 7 hours of sleep and woke up to see that the outside temperature in my backyard was a balmy 23 degrees. I dressed accordingly: a merino wool base layer (top and bottom) from good old Costco, with CW-X tights and a pair of running shorts on the bottom and a local race tech shirt plus the Nike jacket. An old wool hat, a pair of Costco gloves, and my trusty ballistic sunglasses rounded out my kit. (Oh, and my ancient but much loved Fitletic belt, which I’d loaded with BASE Salt, lip balm, and snacks.) I drank a cup of coffee, ate 2/3 of a Tri-O-Plex protein bar, and headed to the Von Braun Center. I got there a good 45 minutes beforehand and had plenty of time to find a bathroom and say hello to various local folks who were running.
The plan and the start
My plan was to hold a steady 11-12:00/mi pace and to do a 3-minute run / 1-minute walk interval.  I figured that would put me around 5:30 or so, depending on my walk pace. For nutrition, I’d brought a bunch of Bonk Breakers and Gu chews; I knew the course would have water and Powerade but wasn’t expecting any on-course nutrition. I figured that I wouldn’t need to eat a ton on the go, though.
Right before the race started, I found Dana and her kids for a pre-race hug and, hooray, some hand warmers for my gloves. All suited up, I found the 5:15 pace group, put in my headphones, and waited for the start gun. My neighbor-friend Ashley was also running the race and we decided to stick together since, like me, she hadn’t trained for this race. (Unlike me, she had run RCM twice before, so she had that going for her.)
I was able to stay with the pace plan with no problem for the first 13, with occasional misfires when I didn’t hear my Garmin beep to tell me to switch intervals. Even without headphones, and even on quiet residential streets, it just isn’t loud enough to consistently get my attention. I was really worried that I’d go out too fast in the first few miles, as is my habit, but the combination of running with someone at the same pace and my nervousness about being able to finish the distance kept me in check. About mile 9, we caught up with the 5:00 pace group and stuck with them for a while.
Along the way, I saw this delightful sign and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to capture it for posterity. WAKE UP SHEEPLE!
Chemtrails: not just for breakfast any more

Chemtrails: not just for breakfast any more

Mile 13.2 and beyond: terra incognita
At the halfway mark, the Panera Pounders, my local running tribe, had a spirit station set up, with everyone dressed up as Santa Claus. Seeing my friends was a terrific morale boost, especially because my neighbor-friends Erica and Rese had brought me an ice-cold bottle of Coke. Normally regular Coke is too sweet for me, but on long runs and bike rides I love the stuff. I drank the Coke, had some SportsLegs and Advil, ditched my jacket, hat, and gloves, pulled up my pants again, and headed out for the second half. It was a little weird realizing that every yard I ran past this point was contributing to a distance PR for me. However, I felt good and was sure that I’d be able to continue holding my target pace.
Interlude: mental race management
Coaches hate this one weird trick! Not really; I learned this from a coach. One effective strategy for managing long endurance events is to break them up into chunks. Instead of saying “oh lord, I have a marathon to run,” you say “I have a half marathon, and then another one.” When you finish the first half, you say “oh, I only have 2 10Ks to run now,” and so on. This sounds stupid, but it’s a remarkably effective way to focus on what you need to be doing for the next little while instead of the immensity of the whole task.
The first half of the back half
The back half of the race course is very different than the front half. First, it’s arguably more scenic, since it runs through some projects, past Lowe Mill, then on to Huntsville Botanical Garden and the Space and Rocket Center, whereas the front half is mostly through residential areas. Second, to the extent that there are any hills, they’re on this part of the course. There’s about a 2.5mi stretch on 9th Avenue westbound that turns into a long-ish hill; it’s not very steep but there’s a lot of it. I was able to hold a decent pace through this section. It was motivating seeing the Saturn V off in the distance and watching it get closer, and closer, and closer, silhouetted against the stunning blue of the sky. Mile 19 was even more motivating, as I ran through the SRC parking lot and back through the “Rocket Garden,” one of my favorite places to visit in Huntsville.
Who doesn't love a good rocket?

Who doesn’t love a good rocket?

 It’s hard to say exactly where I became sure that I was going to finish the race. I’d guess it was somewhere around this portion of the course– I felt good, I was holding the pace I wanted, and barring an injury or mishap, I knew I’d be both physically and mentally able to cross the line.
Interlude: pants
The two-handed pants yank

The two-handed pants yank, with bonus levitation

I spent a distressing amount of time hiking up my compression tights during this race. I was wearing them over a thin and smooth merino wool base layer, and the drawstring in the tights had come out of one eyelet so they weren’t really tied. As a result, the motion of my legs would pull the damn things down and every mile or so I’d have to hike them back up where they belonged. I’m sure glad the photographer caught me in the act.
The second half of the back half
I thought I felt myself slowing down about mile 20, and the evidence bears that out– from mile 20 onwards, I only had two-sub-12:00 miles. I wouldn’t say it was the famous wall we’ve all heard about– I wasn’t in any danger of falling out, just a progressive dragginess, coupled with increasing discomfort in my hip flexors and my left Achilles tendon. About mile 23, I also started feeling some pain in my right instep, just forward of my heel. I walked a good bit of miles 25 and 26; I didn’t think the few minutes I might gain by running through the pain would be worth the possible downside of a lingering injury. One thing I liked about the race course: they had mile flags every mile, with an extra “25.2” flag one mile from the finish line.
The finish
The RCM course has you run into the Von Braun Center and finish on the arena floor. This is a neat idea, and it’s probably a lot of fun when there’s a big crowd… but by the time I got there the crowd had largely dissipated. Luckily Dana and a few other stalwarts were still there cheering. Through the chute, a volunteer handed me my finishers’ hat and medal, plus one of those nifty Mylar blankets (a space spinoff, so definitely appropriate for the venue).
The best thing about the picture below is also the worst thing: the official picture timing clock broke, so everyone who finished after 3:57:28 got the wrong time in their finish line picture. I wish I could run a marathon that fast; perhaps someday…
The time is a lie

The time is a lie

Not all heroes wear capes. But most marathoners do

Not all heroes wear capes. But most marathoners do

I hung out in the arena to cheer on more finishers with Dana, the kids, and a few other finishers for half an hour or so, munching contentedly on a really excellent PB&J. When it was time to go, I hobbled over to the Fleet Feet booth to buy a finishers’ shirt, only to find that they’d sold out of my size the day before. This really, really pissed me off. I am still angry about it, in fact. I’d much rather have the cost of the shirt included in the registration fee, but, failing that, the race organizers at least should have bought enough shirts to ensure that all finishers would be able to buy them. Making them a scarce commodity is a terrible idea.
Post-race
After the race, I went home and relaxed for a while. I was pretty sore, but not debilitatingly so. I purposefully hadn’t planned anything for the rest of the day. Sunday morning I woke up with moderate stiffness in my quads and some tenderness in my left Achilles; by Monday those were both pretty much gone. I still get pain in my right instep when I put my running shoes on, so the short shakeout run I planned for after squats and deadlifts last night didn’t happen, but overall I am much less sore than I was after running my first half-marathon. In fairness, I was racing that one, while this time I was just running to finish.
Pros and cons
  • Pros: great race course, with excellent markings and signage. Free professional race photos. Superb volunteer support. Heavy police presence for traffic management. Clear and effective communications from RD team. Lots of aid stations and plenty of port-a-potties. Great support from the spirit teams.
  • Cons: poor shirt inventory management; very limited food at aid stations.
Overall, it was a great experience and I’m glad I did it. I’m happy to have RCM, my hometown event, be my first, and I am grateful for all the support, encouragement, and love from friends and family. I’m not in any real hurry to do another one though.

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