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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.

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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

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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: Reykjavik Midnight Sun 10K race report

I just came back from presenting at Office 365 Engage, where I had a terrific time. More on the conference in another post. As a new conference, the organizers’ budget was somewhat limited, so they gave me a 1500 EUR limit on airfare, which meant I could only afford a convoluted itinerary on JetBlue and Icelandair. However, Icelandair offers free stopovers, so I decided to take a couple of days after my trip to sightsee.

As is my habit, I spent some time looking for interesting places to run before my trip. The folks in /r/visitingIceland were very helpful, and I found https://runninginiceland.com, which led me to the Suzuki Midnight Sun run: 5K, 10K, and half-marathon distances, all starting at or just after 9pm. I immediately signed up online for the half.

Logistics

The race website was clear and easy to follow, and I got multiple mails in the days leading up to the race recapping the race routes, where to park, and so on. The race organizers sell race medals and shirts separately, so you don’t have to pay for them if you don’t want them. Packet pickup was on race day only, from 4p-845p, at the Laugardalshöll sports hall; it was well organized and smooth. I got in, grabbed my race number, bought a race shirt, and was out again all within 10 minutes. I made a game-day decision to move down from the half distance to the 10K because of a lingering hamstring problem, aggravated by the 9.5 miles I had already walked while sightseeing Friday; the race staff easily handled the changeover. In addition to the booth selling race shirts, the expo had a small table selling various Adidas goodies. One thing I particularly appreciated is that Laugardalshöll has plenty of bathrooms.

Men’s room? Right this way

The Airbnb I stayed in also hosted two Americans who were running the race, although I didn’t meet them until maybe 2 hours before the race start. We drove over 45min or so before start time, easily found a place to park, and joined the large crowd avoiding the wind inside the hall.

The hall before the race

 

Weather

Friday’s weather was pretty good for running: it was about 10ºC and mostly overcast, but a bit windy: a steady 30km/h wind from the north, with occasional higher gusts. I was sightseeing all day and got rained on and fairly wind-blasted during the day, but the rain had thankfully stopped by 9pm. I wore shorts, a long-sleeve tech shirt, and a light rain shell, which I took off about halfway through the race.

Race start

The RD started with a brief announcement that there were nearly 3000 registered runners, 1200 from outside Iceland, from a total of 52 countries, making this by far the most international event I’ve run in. The half marathon and 10K groups started together. As you can see from the race maps, the two courses follow a common path for the first few km, then the longer distance runners split off. The corral had pace signs and runners were encouraged to group according to their projected pace but there were no pacers.

The race start. Big crowd!

The course

Scenic, mostly on paved paths and some on residential streets. The course runs through a pretty valley and along a stream with a couple of waterfalls, like this one.

Oh, just an Icelandic waterfall

I saw two mother geese with goslings and a few rabbits along the stream, which was cool.

Not shown: large quantities of goose poop on trail

The first 3km has a few small rollers, with a larger and longer climb (maybe 30m elevation change?) from 4km-6km. There was one water stop, which had water, Powerade (a race sponsor), and 2 portajohns. The course was well-marked, with each km indicated and plenty of volunteers to keep runners from going off course. I didn’t see any split timers on the course and there were no on-course timing mats.

My performance

Because my hamstring had been hurting, and my right IT band had joined the party after my warmup run in Haarlem, I planned to take it easy and treat this like a training run. My 10K PR is 54:37 and I didn’t have any ambition of setting a new one on this run. The first 5km or so were fine; the hamstring was quiet and I held a good pace (modulo the time I spent in the portapotty at the rest stop– that cost me 2min or so). About 7km in, my left calf started to tighten, and this progressed into a numbness in my left forefoot. This has happened occasionally around the same distance in both my right and left feet since I switched to my current Brooks Adrenalines, which means pretty clearly I need different shoes. Anyway, it’s damn hard to maintain a good pace when you can’t feel one of your feet, so I slowed down and even walked a few stretches. About 9km it had loosened a bit and I was able to run more normally.

I ended up running a 1:02, well off my PR for the 10K distance. Strava data.

The finish

The finish line featured a traditional chute, right after which volunteers handed out race medals for those who’d bought them in advance. The recovery area had free water, Powerade, and half-bananas. There were a couple of booths set up where you could buy (delicious) Icelandic hotdogs and other snacks. The race also includes admission to the pool complex nearby at Laugardalslaug, so we headed over there. The logistics of using Icelandic public pools are worth a separate post. Suffice to say that you must be fully comfortable with locker-room nudity, large crowds, and crowding in the hot tub… but it was lovely to be able to have a good thermal soak after a long run.

Wrapup

My race experience was a 9/10: a high-energy fun crowd, beautiful course, and the unique aspect of running a race at a time when it would normally be pitch dark all combined to make a great memory. I’d love to go back and run the half, or (better yet), the Reykjavik marathon. Highly recommended.

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Training Tuesday: running with Stryd PowerRace

Engines are generally most efficient when they run at a constant speed within their design range. That’s why you get better mileage on the highway than in town; it’s why gasoline-powered generators don’t typically have multiple power settings, and and it’s why airplane engines are designed to run for very long periods of time at a steady constant power output. It turns out the fact holds for endurance athletes.

It’s well documented that one of the most effective ways to train for cycling events is to monitor your power output using a power meter. The idea is simple: when you’re riding outdoors, your speed and heart rate will vary widely due to factors you can’t control. On a flat road with no wind and cool weather, you might go 25mh at a certain heart rate. Into a headwind, or uphill, or in an Alabama summer, you might be working just as hard but only going 10mph. So trying to control your workout by pace or heart rate is needlessly difficult and may not give you the results you want. A power meter measures how hard you work, not how fast you’re going or how hard your heart alone is working. Without going too deeply into the complexities of training with power (see this free e-book if you want to know more), the basic idea is that you build your training plan so that you try to put out a certain amount of power, no matter what the road and weather conditions are. I started doing this a little while ago and it’s really useful– my coach will say “make X watts” or “your race target for the 70.3 distance is Y watts” and I just pedal hard enough to hit that number. My speed may go up or down depending on wind and hills, but my effort stays constant so I don’t accidentally work too hard trying to go fast into the wind (for instance) and leave myself unable to sustain my pace later in the race.

That’s the theory, anyway.

The folks at Stryd have built a similar tool for runners: the Stryd power meter is a little pod that clips on to your shoe and measures the amount of force you produce when you run. Since running uphill or into a headwind is harder than running on level ground, or in still air, they intend their product to be used by people who want to control their pace through power management. The problem is that the cycling world is much further along in embracing power, so it’s hard to actually see what your running power is, much less pace to it. Garmin watches can display power data from Stryd pods, and Stryd has a nifty web app called PowerCenter that gives you a bunch of analytics.. but what I wanted was a real-time, on-the-wrist alert that would tell me when I was making too much power, or not enough. Garmin (and many other manufacturers) allow you to set alerts that will buzz or beep when you go outside the predefined pace, speed, heart rate, or distance targets. I wanted one for power… and now I’ve got one.

Stryd recently started beta testing a new app called PowerRace. It’s very simple: you plug in your race distance and your power target, then start the app. It will beep and turn red if you go outside that range. It purposely doesn’t show your pace or elapsed time.. the whole idea is that you only look at your run power and adjust your pace to keep it where it’s supposed to be. Here’s what it looks like in action (“AP” stands for average power, and “HR” is heart rate):

PowerRace in action

I played around with the app a bit and couldn’t get it to work reliably but Gus Nelson of Stryd was kind enough to do some live troubleshooting with me via Google Hangouts and we got the problem sorted out, so I used it for this week’s Cotton Row 10K.

Executive summary: it worked flawlessly and gave me useful cues when I was going too fast, or too slow. I got a 45-second PR, which would have been more if I’d set my power target higher. I hadn’t done the recommended power test, so I was guesstimating what my power level should be; I could have gone a bit harder.

Cotton Row is a tricky course: it’s got a big hill about mile 3 and many a runner has come to grief by blasting across the start line and burning up too much energy.

The Cotton Row course

You may also want to check out the live version, where you can see more clearly the ridge that we run along between miles 3 and 4.

When I compare last year to this year, here’s what my mile times looked like:

2016: 8:55, 8:53, 9:35, 10:20, 9:23, 9:19, 7:18

2017: 9:00, 9:21, 9:55, 10:04 8:42, 8:37, 7:08

So I went out 53 seconds slower this year on the first 3 miles but then finished 46 seconds faster, with an average power of 289W. I targeted 285W, so I did a good job of holding my average. The times aren’t what I would have expected. My perceived effort was about the same, but it was more consistent. For proof, check out the power curve:

Cotton Row data

The red line is my heart rate; the purple line is power. You can clearly see where I walked aid stations or where I took a break to regulate my power output; you can also see my finishing kick.

So what’s the bottom line? I really like the idea of training and running with power. It’s a proven technique for the bike. I did a good job of holding in my power target range, and did get a (small) PR, but I probably could have done just as well by running by feel alone. I think the missing ingredient is that I don’t really know what my target run power is. Once I have that dialed in I will be better able to fine-tune my pacing. I’ll keep using PowerRace and see how it goes.

 

 

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Training Tuesday: 2017 35.1 Challenge

The second weekend in April here in Huntsville features two marquee races: the Heel & Crank duathlon (run by Team Rocket, our local triathlon club) and the Bridge Street Half Marathon, sponsored by our local Fleet Feet. Two years ago, the sponsors joined forces to offer a “35.1 challenge”– do both races back-to-back and you get some kind of swag, plus bragging rights.

In 2015, I completed the challenge,  barely: the duathlon was fine but the 13.1 was a bit of a grind, and I was super sore for the following week. Last year, I signed up for the duathlon and the challenge, but stupidly forgot to register for Bridge Street. One thing you should know: Suzanne Taylor, the RD for Bridge Street, absolutely does not allow transfers, deferrals, or late registrations. Period, full stop. So I didn’t complete the challenge.

This year I made sure to register for all 3 events. Dana had planned to return to the 13.1 world after a long layoff by running with our friend Teri… who managed to catch a stress fracture to her femur (how do you even do that?) just in time to be sidelined for the race. I told Dana I’d run with her instead, at whatever pace she wanted– like a really slow and not especially scenic date. Therefore, my plan ended up being to treat Heel & Crank as a legitimate race, then run the 13.1 more like an LSR. I ran that plan past my coach, who gave me a big thumbs up, so I was all set.

I also planned to volunteer for both races– for Heel & Crank, it was race-morning packet pickup, and for Bridge Street it was day-before packet pickup.

Prerace

Duathlons are easy to prepare for– it’s basically a bike ride (so you need bike gear) plus running shoes, with none of that pesky swimming stuff. I packed everything up Friday afternoon, made sure the ELEMNT was charged, and so on. I didn’t eat anything special for dinner; in the morning, I had a protein shake and a poptart, plus a dose of BeetElite, and headed out to the race. This was the first year for a new RD, and he did such a good job lining up volunteers that they didn’t need me; that gave me a chance to enjoy visiting with friends instead of working. I got transition set up, walked around chatting with people, and waited for the race to start– it was really nice to have plenty of extra chill time, instead of my usual MO of screeching into the parking lot at the last minute and then being harried. My friend Coop was kind enough to buy me a hot chocolate at JaVa.Mooresville, a really good coffee shop that coincidentally happens to be the only one anywhere nearby. It was about 55 degrees and clear just before race start.

Run 1

The run course at Heel & Crank starts on a paved street, which after 0.3mi or so turns into a hard-packed dirt trail. It’s an out-and-back; some of the trail is shaded, some isn’t. It’s almost completely flat. As you can see from the map below, a good portion of the course runs alongside farm fields, which add a lovely pastoral feel– you can literally see the grass (or whatever) waving in the breeze, when there is one, which there was. I settled in early on and tried to hold a steady pace, finishing with an 8:41/mi average in 24:37.

Heel and Crank run course

T1
Transition was completely unexceptional– I dropped my headphones, swapped my hat for a helmet, changed shoes, powered up the bike computer, and choked down a pack of Gu chews. Out the gate in under 2min, which for me is lightning-quick.
The bike
The course overlaps some of the familiar Jetplex course, so my plan was to ride it at a steady pace, in aero as much as possible. This doesn’t sound like a terribly complex plan, but I am still getting used to my tri bike, so I figured anything more complex would be pointless. I made a weighted average of 177W, certainly nothing to write home about, but overall good enough for a 6-minute CR and a PR on one Strava segment.
T2
T2 was even faster– helmet-to-hat, headphones in, shoes on, and out the gate.
Run 2
I was really leery of blowing up by going out too hard on the first half of the run, so I tried to keep my HR caged around 150. I actually ended up averaging 151 for the run; I possibly could have pushed a little harder on the outbound leg, but I was feeling good on the return and was able to hold right around 7:05/mi for the last half mile or so. For reference, my mile PR time is 7:11, so I was well pleased with this. Run 2 was done in 27:26.

Wraup and post-race
Overall, my times were good enough for a 1:52 finish, a 15-minute PR for this race. To say I was pleased would have been a massive understatement. I celebrated with a big plate of the post-race pancakes for which this race is famous, plus a glass of Rocket Republic Scotch Rocket served by my fellow cubano Warren. It was a pretty successful day for the Cubans, in fact: the relay team of Tony, Craig, and Warren placed second, and Lance won the Clydesdale division. I’m sure if Julio had been there he would have won something too. Hats off to first-time race director Paul Erickson and his staff of volunteers for putting on a fun, safe race with excellent post-race food and drink.

I headed home, showered, and went over to Dana’s. Dinner was a giant bowl of Nothing but Noodles‘ finest mac-and-cheese, always a solid pre-race choice.

Race day
We woke up about 530a, with a goal of getting to the race site about 630a. This turned out to be easy. One of the nice things about Bridge Street is that it’s held at an outdoor mall. There is plenty of parking and tons of porta-potties, as well as some nice indoor bathrooms. We wandered around to chat with people for a while, then queued up near the 2:30 pace group for the gun start.

Pre-race

After a rousing rendition of the National Anthem, the cannon went off and so did we.

I wish I had kept better notes on the race itself. The Bridge Street course winds through Research Park, which is pretty flat and not all that scenic for the most part. The course starts in front of Barnes and Noble, runs west for a bit along Old Madison Pike, runs north on Jan Davis and then on Explorer, loops around West Park, and then turns south again. Perhaps the most interesting part is the Double Helix path near HudsonAlpha, which is marked with educational signs about the human genome. It’s also interesting to note the incredible funk we smelled while running past one of Adtran’s buildings; it smelled like someone had bred a skunk the size of a VW Beetle, wrapped it in shrink wrap, and then boiled it in 10W40 motor oil. Truly a scent I will remember for a long time.

The Bridge Street course

It was cool at the start, and we made good time through the course. Dana had planned to do 4/1 run/walk intervals, running for 4 minutes and then walking for 1, but she pretty much ignored these intervals and ran most of it, holding right around a 10:44 pace. I just stuck with her (well, except for once when I let her go ahead while I hit the porta-potty, but let’s not get into that). We crossed the finish line in 2:23:50, quite a respectable performance for Dana’s return to the 13.1 world. We collected our medals and breakfast coupons, then found our friends to hang out and visit a bit.

race posse unite!

The race organizers had thoughtfully arranged for a free breakfast sandwich (which was about the size of a Clementine) at Bar Louie, which we supplemented with a genuine brunch (and, in my case, a couple of ice cream sandwiches). I also grabbed my 35.1 award, which now occupies a prize position on my dining room table until I can figure out what wall to hang it on. Kudos to Suzanne Taylor, the folks at Fleet Feet Huntsville, and the zillions of volunteers who chipped in to put on the race– Bridge Street is one of my favorite races because it’s so well organized, supplied, and staffed.

swag life

All in all, it was a weekend well spent, and I felt fine the next day, at least until I started doing squats… but that’s a story for another time.

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Setting up run intervals on Garmin watches

(Disclaimer: I am not a coach or even especially knowledgeable; in fact everything I say in this post could be completely wrong. Don’t blame me if you create an interval that causes you to inadvertently run an ultramarathon.)

If you want to be a faster runner, you have to run faster. Unlike many other areas of endeavor, though, the best way to get faster is to train in intervals. Instead of going out every day and knocking out the same distance on the road, almost every runner can benefit from mixing those steady-state runs in with shorter-distance, higher-intensity work. For example, my coach might give me this: “2 mi WU, 6 x (2:00 @ 10K, 2:00 slow), 1mi CD.” Translated, that means “2 mile warmup at an easy pace, 6 intervals where each interval starts with 2 minutes at your 10K pace and then a 2 minute slow run, followed by a 1 mile cooldown.”  Tracking intervals is a pain in the butt, though, which is why many runners use a track– then they know to run 440, or 880, or whatever. Distance-based intervals are OK but I find track running to be even more boring than treadmill runs; I’d much rather do my intervals outside. Luckily, Garmin has my back: you can build a structured workout, then send it to your watch. When you’re running, the watch will tell you what to do. It’s magic! Because I am a nerd, I was excited when I found this feature a couple of years ago, but I find that lots of my running friends don’t know that it exists.

Garmin lets you build structured bike, run, or swim workouts that include an optional warmup, zero or more individual steps, zero or more repeats (which is the actual interval– you do X, then you do Y, repeated Z times), and an optional cooldown. Once you create the workout, you can send it to your device and it will guide you through the workout. Note that there are a lot of differences between run, bike, and swim intervals and how they are presented on various devices; for now I want to focus on the simplest case, setting up a simple run interval.

Let’s say that you want to do a simple interval workout: a 10-minute warmup, then 6 intervals at 5K race pace, then a 10-minute cooldown. I’ll pretend that you want 2 minutes at race pace and a 2 minute cooldown in each interval. Here’s how you’d set that up.

Start by logging into the Garmin Connect website. Once you’re there, click on the hamburger menu (3 parallel lines in the upper left corner), then and scroll down until you see “Workouts,” then click it. That will bring up the workouts page.

the workouts list in Garmin Connect

Click the “Select a workout type…” menu and choose “Run,” then click “Create a Workout.” You’ll see the workout creation page. Garmin helpfully assumes that you’ll have a warmup, a single run step, and a cooldown. Each of these items is color-coded.

A new blank workout for you to customize

Delete the single run step by clicking the “X” at its right edge, then edit the warmup and cooldown to include the times you want. You can also specify distance– wherever you see “select a duration”, you can choose to base the length of that item on distance, time, speed, pace, or just pressing the lap button. Use the pull-down menus in each section to fill out the workout you want.

Start with the warmup and cooldown

Now for the magic: click the “Add a Repeat” button and a new section will appear.

Oh noes, this is all jacked up

There are several things wrong with this, though: the repeat is in the wrong place, it’s for the wrong number of reps, and the intervals we want aren’t there. Luckily, this is easy to fix:

  1. Use the + and – icons at the top of the repeat block to set the correct number of reps.
  2. Use the “Select a duration…” pulldowns in the “run” and “recover” sections to set the right durations.
  3. Use “Add More…” in the “run” section to add the correct pace:
    1. Click “Add More…”
    2. The “Select an intensity target” pulldown will appear.
    3. Click it and select “Pace”, then fill in the target pace range you want. (Note that you can also set intervals based on heart rate zone and a bunch of other metrics).
  4. Repeat step 3, but this time for the “recover” section.
  5. Click and drag the little grabby thing (next to where you see “Repeat N Times” in the repeat block) to drag it into the correct position.

When you’re finished, here’s what your workout will look like:

All done! (Bonus points if you notice the one other change I made)

Now you can save the workout.. but before you do, use the pencil icon next to the “Run Workout” title to change the name of the workout so you’ll be able to identify it. Once that’s done, click “Save Workout.” At this point, absolutely nothing useful will happen when you look at your watch, because there’s another required step: you have to transfer the workout to the watch. The easiest way to do this is with the Garmin Connect mobile app, although you can plug your watch in with a cable if you prefer. As I write this, you can’t create interval workouts in the app, which is too bad. Here’s how to perform the sync: (These instructions are for the app on iOS; I don’t have an Android device so I have no idea if the UI is the same or not.)

Start the app, then click on the “More” icon (the three little dots) in the bottom navigation bar and tap “Workouts”. You should see the new workout you just created in the list:

The new workout is available to sync

Tap the new workout, and you should see the workout itself. In the upper-right corner of the screen, there’s a little icon showing an arrow pointing into a phone. That means “sync,” although why it shows a phone and not a watch is a mystery. Click it, then you’ll see a page showing all the devices your app knows about.

Here’s your workout, nearly ready to go

Select the device you want and tap “Send”.

Select the target device

Wait a minute, then check to see if the workout’s on your watch. On the Fenix3 HR, you do this from Training > My Workouts > Running. Scroll through the list until you see your workout, then hit the “start” button and you’re all set.. happy running!

Ta da

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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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