A Little Racing, A Lot of Luck

It’s been said that comparison is the thief of joy.

Except when you win.  Then comparison is awesome.

Well, sort of.

When you put your toe on the starting line and then you cross the finish line before the rest of those in your field, it’s a wonderful feeling.  Sure, there are always people out there that are faster, but you showed up.  And to be faster than everyone that showed up is worth celebrating.

But like they teach in kindergarten, winning isn’t everything.  It’s how you played the game.  With running, it’s how you ran the race.

And even though I’m certainly very happy to have been the first female at this weekend’s Valentine’s Day 5K, it also happened to be the slowest I’ve ever raced a 5K.

I won with my personal worst.

I don’t want this to come across as being ungrateful or in any way insulting to those who raced on Saturday.  I’m not trying to compare myself to those that raced with me, I’m comparing myself to myself.

Which still steals a little joy.

Now, I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me for running a lackluster race that I ended up winning. I realize that many recreational runners would love to be in my position. I am simply telling my story so that I can improve and maybe inspire someone else to get better.

There are lots of reasons I didn’t run faster.  The course is hilly and there is a steep incline in the first half mile and rolls a bit before looping back.  It’s not a PR course and everyone’s times are a little slower than they would be on a flatter course.

Chasing the leaders up the first hill

Coming off marathon training, I haven’t pushed myself into the red zone in a long time.  My body and my brain have forgotten the pain of such an intense race.  So even though I’m pretty fit, I’m not well-prepared for the 5K right now.

Here’s why:

A big part of good training is specificity or workouts that mimic the duration and intensity of what you’d go through in that particular race.  Which means the long simmer of marathon training feels nothing like the fiery burn of 5K training.

Another thing that caught up with me was a flawed race plan.  I have always gone out too fast in the 5K, so I really wanted to be sure I didn’t do that this time.  The big hill is right at the beginning so I figured that would keep me slow for the first mile and I could really make up time after that.

But that didn’t happen.

I crested the hill and headed on to the flatter greenway section and my first mile was 6:23.  I thought that was about perfect for my fitness and was pretty happy with that.

But after telling myself over and over to stay even, stay slow, stay controlled for over six minutes, I stayed slow for the rest of the race.  I never increased my effort level, which is essential for simply maintaining pace, let alone speeding up.

I coasted between pack groups and never felt the adrenaline rush of trying to reel someone in.  By the end of the first mile, there was so much space around me that I just settled in and didn’t feel any drive to push harder.

Downhill with no one in sight

I ran the last two miles just a touch faster than my marathon pace.

I have built up a big aerobic base from marathon training, but my anaerobic development obviously needs a lot of work.  Aerobic capacity is the ability to use oxygen to move your muscles.  You build a big aerobic engine from lots of easy running.  Anaerobic capacity is the ability to run beyond the point where you are consuming oxygen at the highest rate you can.  In other words, sprinting.

While the 5K is mostly an aerobic race, anaerobic capacity still matters.  According to a study done at Georgia State University, “anaerobic capacity explained 31 percent of the individual differences in 5K times. Aerobic capacity and ventilatory threshold (the point at which you begin breathing hard) combined explained another 50 percent of 5K performance.”

I really had no expectations for this race, so of course it’s nice to be lucky enough to win.  Every race is a lesson and I know where I need to improve.

While I can’t control who stands next to me on the starting line, I can control how hard I work to get better for the next race.

And if I truly run my best for the day, that will give me a sense of joy that can’t be compared.

Stop Chasing the Marathon If You Want to Run It Fast

We runners are a unique breed.  How long after finishing a grueling race are you thinking about signing up for your next one?

For me, it’s usually a few minutes.

While I’m still taking my time recovering from the marathon, setting new goals is something I like to do right away.  I’m going to take a break from long distances for a while and for the first time in three years, I will not sign up for a spring marathon (please, somebody stop me if I do!).

I’m planning on sharpening my speed and racing shorter distances only.  A lot of them.

So while I’m got my feet up for now, this spring will be quite different from what I’m used to.

Aren’t my runners’ toes lovely?

My coach at Runners Connect is in favor of switching focus.  “If you want to run a fast marathon,” Coach Danny says, “you have to stop chasing the marathon each spring and fall, year after year. Be a better well-rounded runner.”

The idea is to view the 5K to 10K races as a third workout in a week.  If you are racing, you don’t need a long run every single week to maintain endurance.  “I like to race or get a third tempo/hills/speed workout in one weekend and then a long run the next. Alternate between the two,” he told me.

So starting next month, I’ll line up for a 5K and try to race about every other weekend.  To keep me motivated, I finally joined the Asheville Track Club so I can compete in their Grand Prix Series.  To qualify for a monetary prize at the end of the year, I’ll need to run at least 10 of their approved races and the higher I place, the more points I’ll get.  Hopefully, I’ll do well enough that the majority (if not all) of my race fees are paid for!  There’s some pretty tough competition on the women’s side this year, so we’ll see how it goes.

The other goal I have is to get back to more serious strength training.  As I wrote last summer, I had to give up my favorite tough ST class because it was making me too tired and sore for running well.  Now that I will be decreasing my mileage, I’m hoping that I can add more strength back in.

The speed work and the strength training should also help with my body composition.  As any marathoner knows, logging tons of miles does not always lead to weight loss.  I had the highest volume I’ve ever had last fall and I still could not get down to race weight.  In fact, I was 8 pounds heavier at the start of Charleston than I was at Boston, despite keeping my diet the same, if not a little better.

Obviously, I was faster even though I was heavier, but that is most certainly due to the training.  Weight is not everything, but is does make a big difference as I wrote about last year, so I’m hoping I can get in top shape this spring so I can race faster in the fall.

Most importantly, I’m looking forward to the change in focus this spring.  I’m the type of person who loves the process of marathon training, just putting my head down and doing the work.  Maybe I’m a masochist who enjoys the punishment or maybe I’m a martyr who likes to be seen suffering for a goal.

But I don’t think that’s really it.  I love that in running hard work equals accomplishment, which is not always true in the rest of my life.  Actually, that’s not always true in running either, but most of the time it feels that way.

I have not chosen a fall marathon yet and I’ll take my time to decide.  But whatever it ends up being, I’m hoping that by skipping a marathon this spring I’ll be ready to crush some big goals this fall.


What do you think?  Do you race marathons every spring and fall?  Or more?  How do you fit shorter races into your schedule?

Making Strides with Strides

My 5K training plan calls for most of my easy runs to finish with four 20 second strides.  The idea behind strides is that you are not too fatigued from your easy run to run fast with good form.  It’s a dose of speed work on your light days that is short enough that you don’t need recovery like a true speed session yet it wakes up your fast-twitch muscle fibers on days when they are normally dozing off.

During marathon training, I had some easy days with strides and some without so I pretty much forgot about them by the time I was done with my run.  I was also a lot more tired in general from the heavier running workload than I am now, so I am itching to do a little extra these days.

So in the last mile of my run home, I focused on my form.  First, I thought about my ankles.  Maybe that seems like a strange place to start, but I find that when I concentrate on getting a full range of motion in my ankle by pointing my toe almost to an exaggerated degree right before I pull the leg forward, my entire leg flexes while in the air and acts like a tighter spring when it reaches the ground again.  If you watch videos of elite sprinters (or little kids), the back heel rises almost up to the glutes before the knee comes forward.  That would require too much energy from me to sustain very long, but I’ve read that the hang time gives the leg a split second of rest before it pounds down to the ground again.  I don’t attempt to butt kick when I run, but I do think about letting the heel rise a touch longer before I bring it forward.

Then I mentally move up to my knees.  Raising the knee too high spends a lot of energy, but some knee lift is essential for good speed.  The key for me is to think about driving the knee in a forward motion, rather than up and down.  All motion forward creates quickness so I also think about my knees moving straight and not inward as they tend to do when I’m tired.

At my hips, I think about my forward lean.  It’s true that you really need to run leaning from the ankles instead of the hips, basically using gravity as you fall forward, but my hips and glutes are where the power comes from.  So my hips are more like the fulcrum of a seesaw, with my straight leg and pointed toe trailing behind and my straight chest leaning forward over the opposite bent knee. If you’ve ever seen me run in person, you’ll notice that I’m not a natural forward-leaner.  Maybe it’s because I’m short that I’m used to standing up tall, with my shoulders back.  That works great to save energy in a marathon, but it’s not great for speed.  So I’m working on it.

Best shot at Chicago (2)
Good example of my lack of forward lean at the 2015 Chicago Marathon

Once my easy run was done today, I stopped for a couple minutes to let my heart rate slow down. I made sure my watch was set to time my intervals and then hit the start.  The cool thing about strides this short is that you really don’t start breathing hard until halfway through and then in ten breaths, you’re done.  All of the form focus on the last mile really seemed to help today because I just felt fluid.  I missed hitting the button on the first one, so I don’t know how fast that one was, but my next three were 5:34/mile, 4:47/mile, 4:54/mile.  Obviously, there’s no way I could run those last two paces for a whole mile…or could I?