How to Train for a Marathon Fueled By Plants

One of my favorite parts of my job coaching at Runners Connect is stepping behind the mic to host a week of the Extra Kick Podcast each month.

We answer just one running or training questions per day in a short daily podcast. 

Normally, I don’t post what I talk about there on The Planted Runner, but today’s question was just too perfect not to.

And my answer might just surprise you!

Below is the full transcript.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read, click here and go to Episode 143.  Better yet, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and you can get the latest episodes daily!

Mary Kate sent in her question for the podcast by email:

 I’ve been considering trying out a vegan diet for a long time but hesitate as I’m afraid it will affect my running. Any tips on plant-based diets for runners? Should I make the transition during my marathon buildup or wait until I’m taking a break? Thanks!

Great question, Mary Kate, and this is something that is very near and dear to my heart as a 100% plant-based marathon runner myself.  Or maybe I should say it’s near and dear to my stomach!

Yes, you absolutely can become vegan during marathon training and it very well could affect your running–for the better.  But let’s be sure we are talking about the same thing here.

Vegan simply means that you choose not to consume or use any animal products.  This lifestyle can have health benefits, but animal welfare and/or environmental issues are the primary reasons behind the choice.

Being a vegan is defined by what you don’t eat, not what you do eat.

Which means that you can be entirely vegan and subsist on potato chips, margarine, and white bread.  Not exactly rocket fuel for a marathoner.

Now if you are talking about a 100% whole foods plant based diet, that also just so happens to be better for the planet and certainly better for the animals, then you are creating an eating pattern that focuses on what you do eat and has very little to do with what you don’t eat.  Big difference!

And despite whatever the most militant vegan, plant-based, whole foods advocate out there says, there is simply ZERO evidence that a 90% plant diet is healthier than a 100% plant diet.

Eating more plants is good for everyone and most certainly for your running, so focus on the rich variety of foods that you include on your plate (like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds), and less on the foods that you are trying to eliminate.

Most athletes are afraid of plant diets because they think that they won’t have enough fuel to run well.  This can happen to you as you transition to eating just plants, but it is very unlikely to be coming from the food you are eating.  It’s far more likely to happen because most people naturally eat fewer calories when they fill up on salad, black beans, and sweet potatoes and instead of cheese and bacon.

So the key to avoid under fueling is to eat more!  Sounds awesome, right?  For me, this is a huge benefit to eating this way.  I have a big appetite and I am much happier with a full belly than constantly trying to eat less.  Plants naturally are micro-nutrient dense, full of fiber, and with the exception of nuts, seeds, and oils, have fewer calories by volume than meat and dairy.  So you can eat a larger volume of food for fewer calories.

The flip side to that if you are someone who struggles to eat enough while training, you’ll need to be sure that your meals are filling and you eat often.  Liquids are great for cramming in a lot of nutrition and calories without your brain realizing it, so a veggie and fruit packed smoothie can be very helpful meeting your recovery needs quickly after a long run.

Once you tell the world that you are no longer eating meat and dairy, be prepared to answer the number one question you’ll face: where do you get your protein?

All whole, unprocessed plants have protein.  We eat food, not macronutrients.  Nuts, seeds, legumes and grains have lots of protein as well as soy products like tofu and tempeh.

And you don’t need to specifically combine proteins like rice and beans in the same meal to get all your amino acids as long as you are eating a variety throughout the day.

Without much thinking about it, you will naturally consume anywhere for 50-60% unprocessed carbohydrate, 10-20% healthy fats, and 10-20% protein a day, which is well within the US recommended daily allowances as well as what most sports nutritionists recommend for endurance athletes.

For reference, elite Kenyan athletes typically eat a mainly vegetarian diet with only meat a couple times a week and it’s reported that their diets are about 75% carbohydrate, so there’s something to be said for that!

Some examples of a typical whole plants breakfast is a bowl of steel cut or rolled oats mixed with non-dairy milk, fresh fruit, some chia or flax seeds.

A good snack would be fresh or dried fruit with a small handful of cashews or almonds.

Lunch could be a big salad with lots of veggies, avocado, chickpeas, tahini, and quinoa.

A banana with peanut butter on toast makes a good snack or breakfast and of course the standard veggies and hummus is a classic vegetarian snack for a good reason.

Dinner might be a veggie burrito or chili and cornbread, way too many choices to list here!

The point is when you fill your plate with plants, you are doing more for your body and your running, regardless of whether you choose to go 100% plant based or not.

I personally find it simpler to be a 100% herbivore because it helps me continually make better choices without as much temptation.  I’m definitely a black and white person, so going 100% makes the most sense for me.

One thing all vegans need is to supplement with is vitamin B12.  In fact, many meat eaters are short on this nutrient as well, but the sources in a plant-only diet are limited to a few fortified foods, so taking a chewable sublingual B12 pill once a day or once a week depending on dosage is essential.  But other than that, if you are eating your greens every day as well as all of the rest of the colors, you are most likely doing a great job getting everything your body needs.

Most people find that they recover better and have more energy when they eat this way.  I know I do.

I could go on all day on this subject, and I appreciate you sending in the question, Mary Kate.  And if you are interested in learning how you can improve your nutrition and your running and you have a question for one of the coaches, go to runnersconnect.net/daily and record your question there.  We’d love to hear from you.

 

The Wind Strengthens the Tree Only After It Stops Blowing

I’ve just finished one of the heaviest training weeks I’ve had so far this marathon cycle:  just over 80 miles.  I’ve reached this barrier before while preparing for other marathons, so I’m not celebrating too much, but it’s time to take a step back.

Yes, instead of continuing to build the quality and quantity of my runs each and every week, I’m purposely cutting back for a week.

Research shows that intentionally dropping mileage for a week during the 10-12 week marathon specific period not only does not hurt your progress, but it leads to growth.

It seems so counterintuitive to build, step back, build, step back.  Our minds want progress to be linear.  We should simply build and grow in a nice smooth arching line upwards.

The logical way to build endurance should be like building a house out of Legos.  You start with the foundation, add some walls, then a roof, and you’re done.  One step after another.  Relentless forward progress until the house is built.

But that’s not how growth in living things work.

We are more like a tree in a windstorm.  As our tree sways back and forth in the wind of hard training, intense cellular damage is taking place in the trunk and in the branches.  The tree is being pushed farther than it is used to going so it stretches and bends and tears a little.

After the storm passes and the winds become calm, the tree repairs itself, builds stronger cell walls, and becomes even more resilient to withstand the next storm.

Yet, if the wind is unrelenting, blowing day in and day out, the tree has no chance to repair the damage and get stronger.

It will break.

So tomorrow I’ll skip my run and rest.  I don’t feel especially tired or worn out, but my long run today was not the quality run it should have been.

Missing splits is often a sign that you need to rest, instead of continuing to push and train harder.

How much should you drop down for an easy week?  Well, that’s a bit subjective.  Many experienced athletes many only need 10-20%, while those venturing into new territory of distance and/or intensity should probably aim closer to 30%.

I’m planning for about 20%.  Maybe I’ll take a bit more than that if I need it.

I admit that dropping that much when I know I can handle another 80 mile week hurts my ego a little.  It plays on my fears that I’m not doing absolutely everything I can to get better.

But ironically, there is a freedom in restraint.  I know that resting and cutting back on mileage is a training strategy for improvement, not a sign that I’m not fit enough or not working hard enough.

I’m simply taking some time to prepare for a hurricane.

So the Washington Post Called…

I was more than a little excited.

After listening to an episode of the Run to the Top Extra Kick Podcast about running after menopause (episode 116), a reporter called up for an interview!

Now, let’s be clear that I still have a loooong way to go (I hope!) before I reach that time in my life, but the majority of my athletes are in that age range and so many of them are simply rocking their health and fitness.  I’ve had to learn a lot on their different needs and perspectives and was happy to share what I’ve learned.

Click here to read the article!

 

Might As Well Jump

What if I told you there was a way to improve your speed, agility, power, endurance, balance and coordination in just five to ten minutes a day, three times a week?

And not only that, it would be fun?

Most runners are always looking for a way to get stronger and faster.  More running usually is the best way to do it, but there’s a limit to how much running you can do with your body and your lifestyle.

This is where plyometrics come in.  Plyos are high-velocity movements that generate power which translates to more speed and stamina on your runs.

In other words, jumping.

Studies have shown that adding plyos into your weekly routine improves muscle strength and running economy.  One study of highly trained athletes showed that after 9 weeks of plyo training 3 times a week, elite runners increased their running economy by 4.1%!

Yes, please!

Does that mean that you have to do a million burpees and box jumps to increase your power?  Those are great, but there’s a more fun way.

Jumping rope.

Jumping rope works all the major running muscles (calves, quads, glutes) as well as your stabilizer muscles (core, shoulders, back and chest) used to turn the rope.

It also increases the elasticity of your Achilles tendon, making it a great choice for runners prone to this common injury.  When you jump rope, you strengthen your feet, ankles, and calves, which all support the tendon.  You are training your feet to land properly, avoiding some of the alignment issues that can cause Achilles tendon pain.

As far as calorie burning, jumping rope is roughly equivalent to running, but there’s no way you can keep it up as long!

The first thing you need, obviously, is a jump rope.  But don’t get one of those old-school ones that are actually made of rope or covered in plastic rigatoni noodles.

You need a speed rope. They cost less than $10.  The thin cable is easy to turn fast so you can spin the rope quickly.

Here are a few pointers to getting the hang of it if you haven’t jumped rope since the fourth grade.

Keep your arms low on your sides and turn the rope with your wrists only, not your whole arms.  You want to jump exactly once per rotation and avoid that “double bounce” thing that a lot of people do when they start.  In order to do that, it means you need to spin the rope quickly so that it passes under your feet in time.

You’ll need to have great posture with your core tight and your shoulders down and back in order to jump rope smoothly.  Just like running!

Be sure that you are landing and taking off on your forefeet.  Don’t crash down flatfooted or with your heels.

A great routine to start off with is one I borrowed from pro athlete Sarah Brown.  Often sidelined with Achilles injuries, Brown and her coach had to come up with ways for her to get her explosive speedwork in without so many risky sprint sessions on the track.

Her routine is 10 jumps with both feet, 10 with only the left, 10 with only the right, and then 20 jumps alternating feet.  Aim for 3 to 5 sets of these allowing for short rests in between sets if you need it.  The entire thing takes less than 10 minutes and is perfect right after an easy run.

When you get bored with that, add in some high knees, jacks, front-to-backs, and side to side moves. Have fun and play with it!

There are tons of jump roping videos on YouTube and here’s one that talks about all the benefits from a super fit dude that can do all the tricks! (Or mute it if you just want to watch a buff guy jumping on the beach!)

I keep my jump rope right next to the front door and after I get back from a run, I’ll grab a drink of water, and then jump for a few minutes.

Of course, just like with running, you can get carried away with too much of a good thing.  If you go too hard too soon with your new toy, you’re going to end up hurt, so go easy on it at first.

The routine I’ve described is fairly low impact since you are only jumping a few inches off the ground, typically much less than you would running, so you can jump rope several times a week without adding much more stress to your training.  But add a heavier rope, throw in some double unders, and you are changing this into a high-impact exercise that requires recovery time, so be sure to factor that in.

For now, I’m just keeping it simple as the marathon miles are starting to add up.  But if a few minutes a few times a week are all it takes to make me a stronger, more powerful runner, then I’ll take Van Halen’s advice and jump!

 

My Favorite Vegan Pancakes and Waffles

At any given moment, our freezer has no less than three different varieties of pancakes and an assortment of waffles.  If I’m going to go to the effort of making pancakes (not really that much effort, but still), I want lots of extras for quick breakfasts on busy mornings.

I have so many favorite recipes for no-egg, no-dairy waffles, that to share just one wouldn’t be fair.

And to be honest, I’ve found so many recipes that work so well, that I haven’t bothered to even change them up much.  So here’s a roundup of my favorites:

Hannah Kirshner’s Best Ever (Vegan) Waffles:

Hanna’s Kirshner’s Best Ever Waffles. Accidentally vegan, delicious on purpose.  From Food52.

When Food52 calls something the “Best Ever (Vegan) Waffles,” you’ve gotta try it.  Crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, they are exactly what you want in a waffle, vegan or not.  And they are full of protein (if you’re into that sort of thing!).  I half the oil called for and they still turn out great.

Pineapple Upside Down Pancakes:

Fluffy, tropical pancakes with grilled pineapple rings in the center.

Chocolate Covered Katie is the girl to follow if you have a sweet tooth, but are still trying to (pretend) that you are eating healthy.  Our kids love these pancakes and I love how the sugar in the pineapples caramelizes into a deep brown color.  Pretty sure that Katie is still single because her recipes are typically only enough for one normal person or two people who’ve already eaten something else.  I quadruple her recipe.

Apple Cinnamon Waffles:

Can’t you almost smell how good these are?

My notes next to this one in my recipe book say, “*AMAZING! NO SUBS!” so suffice it to say, it’s a hit in our house.  (Almost everything that I’ve made from Minimalist Baker turns out this well, so I’m not surprised. ) Soft, buttery, sauteed apples drench crispy cinnamon waffles.  Don’t wait until fall to make these!

Vegan Coconut Milk Waffles:

Vegan Waffle

These coconut milk waffles remind me of funnel cake from the county fair.  And it’s oil-free!  The original recipe is deliciously sweet (the recipe is from The Art of Dessert, after all!), so I typically half the sugar.  Even my traditional-waffle-loving husband likes this simple recipe!

Brownie Batter Pancakes:

I promise it’s healthier than it looks, but you don’t have to tell anyone!

Chocolate Covered Katie does it again with a decadent but healthy, teeny tiny single-girl recipe.  To say my kids love this one would be an understatement.  We sprinkle these with a touch of powdered sugar and then hose off their chocolatey faces in the back yard.

These are just some of my favorites, but I’m always adding to my collection!

What about you?  Do you have a favorite breakfast recipe?

 

Aquafaba Mango Ice Cream

Aquafaba is a miraculous ingredient.  The liquid from a can of chickpeas that you normally dump down the drain can be whipped into meringues, baked into cookies, and frozen into ice cream.

What’s normally thought of a waste product is actually one of the greatest egg substitutes that’s ever been discovered and it seems that there is almost no limit to what it can do. (Well, don’t try to make an angel food cake with it, but that’s another story.)

Aquafaba whipped into stiff peaks

At only 5 calories per teaspoon, with a touch of carbs and protein and almost no fat, it makes the lightest, creamiest, and impossibly delicious ice cream!  And, no, it does not taste like chickpeas at all.

Each enormous serving has less than 100 calories!

Even if you are not vegan, you’ll want to try this just for the sheer magic of it.   It really is that amazing.

And no ice cream maker required!

I love mangos and when they are on sale, I like to grab a big box of them.  And they make perfect ice cream.

But you can substitute any fruit you like with this recipe.  It really is that simple.

Scoops easily even without using an ice cream maker!

Just 5 ingredients (or fewer if you omit the lime and salt) and four hours in the freezer and you’ll have your own delicious treat that hits the spot after a hot summer run!

I swear, this recipe is so good, even my non-vegan husband loves it.

Yields Makes 4 HUGE servings

Aquafaba Mango Ice Cream

Light, creamy, low-fat mango ice cream with less than 100 calories per each enormous serving!

15 minPrep Time

4 hr, 15 Total Time

Save RecipeSave Recipe

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup (180g) aquafaba, or about the amount from a standard can of unsalted chickpeas
  • 1/2 cup (about 50g) powdered sugar (more or less to your taste)
  • 1 cup (about 165g) sliced fresh or thawed frozen mango
  • 1 teaspoon (about 5g) lime juice
  • dash table salt

Instructions

  1. Beat aquafaba on high in a stand mixer until stiff peaks form. This can take up to 12-15 minutes, so be patient!
  2. Meanwhile, blend the rest of the ingredients in a blender on high until liquified.
  3. Add mango sauce to whipped aquafaba and mix slowly until just incorporated.
  4. Pour into a freezer-safe container and let freeze for 4 hours or more.
  5. Scoop and enjoy!
Cuisine: Dessert |

Notes

Each serving has 93 calories, 23.3g of carbs, 0g fat, 0.9g protein.

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http://theplantedrunner.com/aquafaba-mango-ice-cream/

Make Your Own PB Chocolate Protein UCAN

As much as I would love to believe that people come to my site to read my sage training advice and chuckle at my endless witticisms, I (sadly) know that’s not the main draw.

People want the recipes!

By far the most popular thing I have ever posted is my recipe for DIY Generation UCAN, a sugar-free race fuel made with slow-release carbohydrates that you can mix up in you kitchen for pennies.

So when a reader recently asked if I had a version of the Chocolate Protein UCAN, I decided to rise to the challenge.  I’ve already posted my chocolate version, but it’s naturally low in protein by design.

Of course, my version will not contain whey powder (obviously not vegan, but even if I weren’t plant-based, I wouldn’t recommend it, and here’s a few reasons why) xanthan gum (I’m okay with this ingredient, but I don’t like thick drinks), or sucralose (an artificial sweetener that definitely should be avoided) like the original contains.

The protein of choice instead is PB Fit Peanut Butter Powder, which makes this a rich peanut butter chocolate flavor.

PB Fit does contain a little sugar, so if you are looking to make this sugar-free, use a defatted peanut butter powder or flour that is sugar-free.

One scoop of UCAN’s protein version contains 110 calories for a 30 gram scoop, 18 grams of carbohydrate, 7 grams of protein, and 1 gram of fat.

My version is 122 calories, 19.6 grams of carbs, 7.3 grams of protein, and 1.9 grams of fat.  Mine also includes 354mg sodium, 87.5mg potassium, 4.7% of the RDA of calcium, 5.3% RDA of iron, and a touch of magnesium.

Now I’m not going to lie and tell you this tastes like drinking a luscious chocolate peanut butter milkshake.  But it’s still pretty good.

And let’s be real:  not even the pricey commercial version can claim that that people are ending their meals with UCAN milkshakes for dessert simply for the scrumptious flavor.

This is performance fuel, not dessert, and it works!

For me, this is far superior to any gel or other race fuel that I have ever tried and keeps me going without the crash!

Let me know what you think!

Make Your Own PB Chocolate Protein UCAN

Liquid starch-based fuel that is an alternative to gels or chews.

My version is 122 calories, 19.6 grams of carbs, 7.3 grams of protein, and 1.9 grams of fat.  Also includes 354mg sodium, 87.5mg potassium, 4.7% of the RDA of calcium, 5.3% RDA of iron, and a touch of magnesium.

5 minPrep Time

5 minTotal Time

Save RecipeSave Recipe

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons (16g) cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons plus one teaspoon (14g) PB Fit
  • 1 teaspoon (2g) cocoa powder
  • 1/16 teaspoon salt
  • 1/16 teaspoon Morton's Lite Salt
  • 10 drops stevia extract or other sweetener of your choice
  • 2 to 4 ounces of water or more, depending on preferred thickness

Instructions

  1. Mix all dry ingredients except water in a small measuring cup with a spout.
  2. Slowly add enough water to your desired thickness.
  3. Stir thoroughly and pour into a small running bottle.
  4. Shake before drinking.
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http://theplantedrunner.com/make-your-own-pb-chocolate-protein-ucan/

When RICE is Wrong: A Better Way to Treat Overuse Injuries

It might start as a little twinge.  Or a dull ache that grows little by little.  Maybe even a stabbing pain surges through the back of your heel forcing you to stop mid run.

Oh no.  You are injured.

If you run, there’s a good chance that you’ll get injured sooner or later.  Up to 79% of us per year are smacked with some kind of running injury, making the odds of making it through a single year on two healthy feet almost a rarity.

So you suck it up, pop an anti-inflammatory, prop your foot up on a bag of frozen peas and settle in for a week-long Netflix binge session.

But you might not be doing yourself any good.

In fact, ice, NSAIDs and rest could actually make your injury heal slower.

Wait, what?

The common response to any soft tissue injury is the classic RICE treatment that we all learned in basic First Aid.  RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation and, along with taking an anti-inflammatory pill for pain and swelling, it’s prescribed for every common ailment that running can throw at us from acute ankle sprains to achilles tendonitis to hamstring pulls.

Except in many cases it’s the opposite of what you want to do.

The first step is to determine what type of injury you have before grabbing the Advil and the remote control.

There are two types of running injuries: acute and overuse.  When you trip and twist your ankle, that’s an acute injury and the RICE protocol works.  Immediate icing has been shown in research to dramatically improve sudden inflammatory response so go ahead and ice your swollen ankle, elevate it, and rest.

But that same treatment is not going to help your aching achilles and will probably end up slowing your healing.

So as backwards as it sounds, overuse injuries can heal when you continue to run and can be completely cured when you micro-damage the tendons and muscles even more.

Sounds crazy, right?

Not only should you run and strength train through this type of injury, but ice and NSAIDs should be avoided.

This sounds completely backwards, but the research backs it up.

What’s going on here?

Let’s continue to look at the achilles to explain.  For overuse injuries of the achilles tendon, most people commonly refer to it as achilles tendonitis.  The “itis” suffix refers to inflammation.

But that’s actually a misnomer.

“Inflammation of the achilles tendon or its surrounding tissues is not a common finding in athletes with overuse injuries to the achilles,” says John Davis, biomechanics researcher for Runners Connect.  “Rather, their pain is caused by real, physical damage to and degradation of the small fibers that make up the achilles tendon.  Because of this, some doctors and researchers advocate renaming the injury “achilles tendonosis” or “achilles tendinopathy” to make it clear that degeneration of the tendon fibers is the root of the problem.”

Ice and NSAIDs like Advil work to limit inflammation.  If that’s not happening, they won’t help much.  In fact, there is evidence that they might make your problem worse by slowing healing.

What has been proven to heal your heel (hee hee!) is eccentric heel drops, an exercise where you slowly lower one heel off a step, then use both feet to raise back up.  Eccentrically loading the the calves ends up strengthening the tendon and actually curing the degeneration.  Ten to fifteen repetitions twice a day for 12 weeks has been shown to be effective.

Once you get good at that, throw a bowling ball in a backpack and try them!  Eccentric heel drops while wearing a weighted backpack can further strengthen the tendon so much that the pain disappears completely.

Eccentric Heel Drops

But what about running through pain?  As a coach for Runners Connect, I’m always careful about cautioning our athletes to not run through pain.

Is that always the best advice?

Turns out that running through a little pain is okay.  In fact, continuing to train might not make the injury worse, and you may be able heal your injury without sacrificing your fitness.

Sounds too good to be true, right?

Well, it is a little.  Running through an acute injury or a stress fracture is not a good idea and that could most certainly make the injury worse.

But a fascinating study on the achilles showed that a group of runners who continued to through moderate pain (rated as no higher than a 5/10 on a scale of 1 to 10), had the same positive outcomes as the control group who were only allowed “active recovery” activities such as swimming and walking.  The running group was not allowed to continue to run if the pain worsened or remained throughout the next day, but as long as their pain stayed moderate and improved instead of regressed, they were allowed to run and healed just as well as the non-runners.

The key words here are moderate and improving, so I’m not saying that it’s a good idea just to push through pain until your tendon ruptures.  That’s just silly.  But you may not have to be perfectly pain-free to still be able to go out for a run.

Of course, I want to make it clear that I am not a doctor or a physical therapist.  If you are in pain and running just hurts, please be smart and go see one of them for advice.  Preferably, find a professional that is a runner and understands the obsessed runner’s brain to give you the best diagnosis and treatment plan that will help you get healthy and back to running happy.

What makes sense for you is highly individual, but it’s refreshing to know that every minor niggle doesn’t have to banish you to the couch.

And you can save that bag of frozen peas for dinner.

 

Breaking 19:00 with a Mental Breakthrough

Runners love two things:  running and round numbers.

We don’t like to run 7.98 miles.  We like to run 8, so we’ll take an extra few steps past our destination to get that 8 to appear on our watches and our Strava logs.

And just like a sale for $1.99 seems like a way better deal than $2, getting just under that round number you’ve chosen for your race goal is so much more satisfying.

Last year my goal was to break 20 minutes in the 5K and I did that in all three races I entered.

Of course, that meant the new goal became breaking 19.

But so far this year, I hadn’t been able to even break 20 again even though I had been focusing my training on speed. Each race felt harder than the last and I was wondering if I was moving backwards.

Doubts about my ability and progress started to cloud my normal optimism.  Had I reached my peak already?  Have I set my sights too high for my ability?  Am I just kidding myself here?

So I stopped racing for 6 weeks.  You can’t fail if you don’t try, right?

All this because of a number on a clock.

I wasn’t having fun and I didn’t want to keep putting myself out there just to disappoint myself.  The marathon is where I want to focus my training and the red-hot speed necessary for a great 5K is barely relevant to the marathon.

But I still had this last 5K race on the calendar.  It was technically my “goal race” for the spring.  I wondered if I should even do it.

Then my friend Veena who ran it with me last year said she might go, so that was enough incentive for me to hit the register button.

The Downhill at Dusk 5K, as the name implies, is downhill, but not the entire time.  The first mile has a short but steep descent, the second mile is flat, and the finish is an annoying uphill.  My watch calculated it as 45% downhill, 45% flat, and 10% up.

Last year I got a nice 21-second PR in 19:33 (6:17/mile pace).

It is not an automatically fast course for everyone since downhill running can beat up your legs more than you think if you are not prepared for it.  It’s also very easy to go out too fast on the first downhill without realizing what you are doing to yourself, coming back to haunt you later as you crawl up the final inclines.

Which is what I did last year.

In 2016, I certainly went out too fast and remember feeling the struggle start in mile two.  By mile 3, my pace had slowed by an entire minute per mile and the last tenth of a mile was a painful stagger, nearly two minutes per mile slower than the start.

Pretty much the opposite of what you want to do in a 5k.

But this year, I had no goal.  After flatlining on my progress this spring, I decided the time goal simply didn’t matter.  All I wanted to do was race hard and get it over with as soon as possible.

Getting below 19 minutes never entered my mind.

But here’s what did:  calmness.  Clarity.  Relaxed focus.  And even a little fun.

Call it the elusive “runner’s flow.”

I was even relaxed enough to say a few words mid race to the guys running around me, which is usually impossible when you are in the red zone.

I have been practicing getting into the right frame of mind while racing and running hard and it certainly paid off on Saturday.

I only glanced at my watch at the first and second mile splits and instead focused on how I felt.

Mile 1 felt easy and light.  I ran it 3 seconds faster than last year at 5:44, but my breathing was calm and smooth so I wasn’t worried about it being too fast.

I was expecting to start hurting in Mile 2 at about the same spot as last year, but that point never came.  There were no other women ahead of me to chase this year so I focused on the men, pretending they were women and making myself smile at the idea.  The water station at the end of Mile 2 seemed to arrive much earlier than I anticipated and again, I was three seconds faster than last year at 6:08.

I was actually feeling good and repeated that fact to myself over and over again.

But Mile 3 is where this race really starts. I knew what to expect this year and just focused on staying strong.  I wasn’t doing the math and didn’t bother looking at my watch anymore because it didn’t matter at that point.  I remember thinking as I turned the corner to start the uphills, this is the last 5K you have to do for a while.  It’s almost done. Just get there, just get there, just get there.

I later found out the Mile 3 split came in at 6:24 vs 6:43 in 2016.  The hills slowed me somewhat, but they were not a struggle this time.

The finish line is in a parking lot and the course makes a sharp right turn off the road with about 50-75 meters left to the finish.  As soon as I turned, I saw the race clock ticking at 18:45.

Huh?

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!! 

I had no idea that I was so close to my dream goal and just pumped my arms and legs as fast as they would go in a desperate attempt to beat that clock.  I ran at full speed across the timing mats not stopping until I was well past them to be sure that I gave it my very best shot.

I made it by a literal split second: 18:59.2.

I closed the final tenth of a mile at a 6:16 pace compared to my exhausted 7:36 last year.

Veena also did awesome, knocking out a PR for herself after a long break recovering from injury, earning her a second place finish!

I plan to go more in depth about the mental work that I have been doing in future posts.   I credit staying calm and focused as equally important, or perhaps even more important, as the physical training.

This race felt better and less intense but yet was faster than last year.  Sure I’ve logged a lot of miles in the past year, but the breakthrough was more in my mind than in my legs or lungs.

Naturally, this begs the question, am I now reconsidering 5ks and going for an even faster goal?  18:45 or 18:30 perhaps?

As enticing at that sounds, I think the lesson I’ve learned here is to hold those time goals a lot less tightly.

Training with a goal in the back of your mind is probably a good thing.  But maybe racing without one is better.

Can I Start Marathon Training Yet?

After taking the spring off of racing marathons, I am so ready to get back to it.

I feel like I’ve been wearing someone else’s wardrobe for the past few months by racing 5 and 10Ks and nothing ever fit right.  I just want to put my jeans and t-shirt back on and get back to my passion.

So I have chosen my fall race, the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon on October 1.

The course is a lovely, point-to-point race along Lake Michigan.  With only a couple hundred feet of elevation drop over the entire course, it is about as flat as you can get.

Here’s the course profile for the first half:

Course elevation profiles always look a little more dramatic than they actually are.  The little rises and falls will feel almost imperceptible over this distance.

And the last 5K has a nice little descent which will be welcome at that point!

Besides the favorable course and the likelihood of good racing weather, the other reason for choosing Milwaukee is because I went to college there at Marquette University.  It’s always nice to go back and visit and hopefully catch up with some of my dearest friends from back in the day.

My sister also lives in Wisconsin, so hopefully she’ll be able to come out and be ready with a steaming bag of french fries for me at the finish line!

Milwaukee is a beautiful, fun city and while I didn’t run in college, I’m really looking forward to running there this fall.

Besides the race itself, I am mainly looking forward to getting back into the long grind of marathon training.  I know that sounds crazy to anyone who doesn’t run them, but I like the sense of accomplishment I feel when I train for a marathon.  I haven’t really fallen in love with the shorter races as I had hoped, and I have been a bit disappointed that I haven’t seen my times improve this spring.

Well, actually, I’m not sure if that’s true or not.  My racing times certainly haven’t improved, but there have been a few bright spots in workouts that have given me hope.

Nothing dramatic or clear cut, but a few track laps here and there that I know that I wouldn’t have been able to hit a year ago.

Little moments that show me that I’ve got it in me, I just need to coax it out at times.

For now, I’ve got one last 5K to race tomorrow and that’s the Downhill at Dusk 5K that I raced last year.  (Just rereading my race report is making me wonder why I’m doing this to myself again.)  It’s a very steep downhill the first mile, cruising to flat the second, with a nasty little crest at the end.

I’ve got no goal this year, except just to race it hard with an open mind and see what happens.

Because as soon as I cross that finish line, marathon training begins.