It was there that my coaching journey began, although I didn’t know it at the time.
It’s hard to believe that a year later, I returned to ZAP this time as a coach for Runners Connect.
Many of the attendees from last year were able to return again this year, which made it seem even more like the summer camp I remember.
Camp friends become forever friends.
I feel incredibly lucky that I get to run and geek out about running as a job. Over the four-day weekend, in addition to lots of beautiful miles with some amazing people, I led exercises on goal setting and strength training and had several one-on-one personal coaching sessions.
I’m learning that it’s not always the technical running training advice that matters the most. More often than not, the athlete already has many of the answers she is looking for and it is a joy to discover how to tease those answers out together.
As the weekend came to a close, there were hugs and exchanges of email addresses.
And just like the last day of summer camp as a kid, it was a bit sad for it all to end, but we knew we’d made memories and friends that are much bigger than a single weekend.
Just one day later, most of us are already looking forward to next year.
Taper week can do some crazy things to runners. Some people feel nervous and anxious about the big day. Without as much running scheduled to ease the mind, nerves can get a bit frazzled. We worry about losing fitness and gaining weight, we obsessively stalk the weather forecast, and we stress about making sure every last detail is taken care of.
We get the taper tantrums.
As a running coach for Runners Connect, I get a lot of questions about taper week. Every individual responds to taper a little differently, but there are some basic rules that may help the time go by a little easier, without losing your mind.
What should you eat? How do you carbo load?
This is one of the questions I get the most. As a general rule, you do not want to change things up too much in the week before your race because it is not enough time for your body to adjust. Taper week is not the time to experiment with a radical new diet or stuff yourself with pasta. You should eat a normal, healthful diet of whole foods, especially plants, just like you should all year round.
Because you are running less during this week, you are not exhausting your muscles’ glycogen stores so they will stay full from a plant-rich diet.
Every morning, I eat the exact same thing: 2 slices of my homemade whole wheat sourdough bread, lightly slathered with almond butter and jam. Making homemade bread is something that I just love to do and it’s a great way to fill some restless time during taper that I normally would have spent running.
But I’m careful not to go overboard with the bread. The main sources of my carbs this week are starches (potatoes, sweet potatoes, and bananas), fruits and veggies, legumes, and whole, unprocessed grains. The day before the race, I’ll choose those with a little less fiber for easy digestion, making sure that my biggest meal is lunch and not dinner.
When do I back off strength training?
Again, you should not be trying to change things up too much from normal during taper, just back off the length and intensity. So if you normally strength train twice a week, you should still do that, but your routine should be shorter, with fewer reps and lighter weights (if any). You should never lift to fatigue during taper. Remember, you will not gain any fitness taper week. You are simply going through the motions so that your body is tricked into thinking everything’s normal.
Should I be this tired? I thought taper was supposed to make me feel better!
Some of us just don’t feel good during taper. Some people even start to get sick because the immune system lets its guard down after months of hard training.
Be careful with this one. If you normally get weekly massages (lucky you!), then staying with your routine is probably the best plan, as long as you let your therapist know to take it easy on you this week.
But if you do not have a regular massage routine, this is not the time to start. Massages are wonderful, but they can also leave you sore, which is the opposite of what you want.
What should my goal pace be?
You should already have determined your goal pace at least a couple weeks before your race so that you get a chance to practice and perfect it.
As much as we runners love round numbers and big goals, that’s not the best way to choose your goal pace. For anything but your very first marathon where you are simply trying to finish, goal marathon pace should feel a step harder than easy. The more experienced you are at the marathon, the more you can push the effort level. If you’ve had a good 12-16 week build-up, the goal pace should be something that felt pretty hard the first few weeks, more manageable in the middle, and good (but still a little scary) toward the end.
If you’ve had a less-than great build up, you’ll want to be a bit more conservative.
This is my seventh marathon taper and I’m feeling surprisingly calm and relaxed this time. It’s as if I have nothing more than a long run on the books for this weekend. It’s not that I don’t care about the race this weekend–I most certainly do–but this time, my perspective has changed. For the better.
Part of this comes from experience. I’ve been through this before and I know that allowing myself to stress about the race for an entire week does nothing but harm. I am determined to run this race to the best of my ability which includes sticking to conservative speed limits in the first half and then just seeing where my legs will take me.
Tomorrow begins the last full week before the Richmond Marathon. After two months of dry, warm weather, the forecast for November 12 calls for a 55% chance of rain with a high of 57 degrees during the race. If I had to be picky, I could do without the rain, but the temperature and cloud cover is pretty close to perfect for racing.
The taper cycle for this marathon is different than any I’ve had so far because I’m racing twice in the last three weeks. The first was the French Broad Half Marathon and tomorrow is the inaugural Zero 5K happening in flat Carrier Park where I train most days. I had originally planned to race the Vance Rocket Run 5K tomorrow, but after jogging the course and its SEVEN hills, my coach and I came to the decision that it was not going to be beneficial for Richmond and pounding out those downhills could actually contribute to a little more muscle damage that I’m not willing to risk at this point.
Flat and fast it is.
So why am I racing a 5K a week before my marathon? Shouldn’t I be tapering and resting and only doing a little marathon-specific work?
Yes and no. The point of a fast 5K right now is to open up some speed in my legs that I haven’t felt in a while. The faster speed of a 5K also pushes me into the racing red zone for just a little while, practicing one more time what I will feel like when I am pushing myself harder than I ever have before in the last few miles of the marathon. Yet the 5K is short enough that I will be fully recovered by race day.
In other words, this is mental strength training.
I do not expect to PR at this 5K since I have not been putting in the kind of speed training specific to the 5K. But you never know.
My PR is 19:33 (6:17 pace) from the Downhill at Dusk 5K back in June and as the name implies, it was mostly downhill, so I have gravity to partially thank for that time. I know that I’m am much fitter now, but I have a lot of marathon miles in my legs.
Another nice benefit to racing during taper is that I have something to distract me rather than just getting bogged down by the taper tantrums. Most marathoners struggle with taper because it is such a shift from our normal running routine. We feel nervous and cranky and heavy and we miss our runners’ high. We doubt our training, worry about eating too much and gaining weight.
Having this shorter goal has helped shift my focus to what is right in front of me.
Another nice distraction from taper anxiety has been this week of coaching at Runners Connect. I truly love the community of athletes we are growing and I’m enjoying being a part of so many runners’ journeys.
But I have never sat in front of a computer so much in my life! I’m still working in real estate and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future, but I typically do not spend hours upon hours staring at a screen. My eyes are tired at the end of a coaching shift and by butt feels suction cupped to my chair.
As many of you know, I’ve been coached by an online coaching program called Runners Connect for the past year. Developed by former Hansons-Brooks member and 2:22 marathoner Jeff Gaudette, Runners Connect is an online coaching service and community. A team of coaches create a running schedule based on your goals and fitness level, you log your workouts and you can share them to the RC community.
The great thing about that is not only do you get expert advice from professional coaches, many of whom were or are elite athletes, you get a community of athletes that are all going through the same thing and cheering you on.
Because let’s face it, no one but other runners care about your run, what your splits were, or how many miles you ran. Your non-running friends and family are sick of hearing about your running, okay?
The Runners Connect philosophy is mainly based on the 80/20 principle or polarized training. You run 80% of the time very easy, and 20% hard. As counter intuitive as it may seem, running slow will really make you fast.
And I’m proof.
I started running in 2013 to get in shape for my reunion. I didn’t follow any particular training advice and just winged it on my own. The reunion came and went and I kept running.
I decided to sign up for a half marathon. I began to learn a little bit more about the process and ran the Asheville half marathon in September of 2013 in 1:55.
The next step was to sign up for a marathon, right? And not just finish a marathon, but qualify for Boston on the first try. I started researching online, trying to figure out the best strategy. There are so many articles and advice out there that it’s a bit overwhelming, so I found a free basic plan outline and stuck to it.
I didn’t understand the reasoning behind each workout and felt that the generic plan didn’t fit me at all. Even so, I finished my first marathon in the Spring of 2014 in 4:02. I was happy to finish, but it was not a Boston Qualifier.
I needed to do more research. Whenever I searched a particular topic online, Jeff Gaudette’s name kept popping up. He’s written for Competitor, Running Times, and many other running sites and I always found his articles to be well-researched and backed by science.
I wanted to know the reason why I was doing a particular workout and Jeff always had the answer.
I found that as I was getting fitter, the one-size-fits-all plans weren’t fitting me anymore. I’d been reading everything I could get my hands on, studying the science of the marathon.
But it wasn’t enough. I needed help to reach my potential.
So I signed up for Runner’s Connect. And with their guidance, I am in the best shape of my life.
So what’s the big announcement? I’ve been asked to join the team at Runners Connect as a coach!
Me, a running coach?!? I’ll be backed up by the “real” running experts, of course, but I am so excited to share my experience with others going through the process.
I will also continue to be coached by Runners Connect and member athletes can still follow my training and progress. I will be the first student to become a coach on their team and I couldn’t be happier about it! For now, it’s just part-time, but we will see how it progresses.
I have to admit, it is intimidating to join forces as a coach with such talented and accomplished runners and coaches, but my story of becoming a runner later in life is one of the attributes that they liked about me: I am relatable to so many of their athletes. I am just a regular person who fell head over heels for running and have accomplished so much in such a short period of time.
My hope is to encourage and inspire all of the athletes in the Runners Connect community to reach their running goals, no matter how big they dream.
If you are curious about the Runners Connect program, please comment below or direct message me. I’d be happy to help you become the best runner you can be too!
With just over two months to go until Richmond, my Tuesday workouts are getting much more marathon specific. Gone are most of the short sprint intervals on the track, replaced by long alternating-pace miles on the road. This Tuesday was the Michigan. And it’s a beast.
The Michigan is a Runners Connect staple, usually done once per cycle, so I’ve done this one before (attempted is more accurate). There are lots of variations of this workout invented by a track coach in the mid-1970s at Michigan University. Our version is like a double-decker Dagwood with 2-mile slices of marathon pace as the bread: after a two-mile slow warm up, sandwich two 2-mile segments of marathon pace around a faster mile at 10K pace, then speed up even more and add a schmear of 800 meters at 5K pace, topping it off with another 2 miles at still-fast marathon pace, with a two mile cool down, NO REST (that was in all caps on the schedule).
It’s a lot to chew on.
The point of the no rest mandate is that this workout is teaching you how to race. Hopefully you will not be varying your pace this dramatically during a real race, but this simulates the increased effort necessary at the tough last few miles when your body just wants to slow down or stop. When you speed up at the end of a workout, the following set becomes exponentially harder, making the effort required to run the same pace much higher than at the beginning. In other words, you are getting the stress of racing a marathon, without actually having to run one.
The paces for me this time didn’t seem all that scary since I’ve been feeling pretty good lately: 6:50 for marathon pace, 6:35 for the mile, and 6:25 for the 800. I’ve only run one hilly 10K and my 5K PR is a little faster than 6:25/per mile so the paces given to me were more based on my marathon goal rather than based off shorter races. But I knew that this would be a tough one to get through.
If you just look at my GPS data, I ran this workout almost perfectly. After the warm up, miles 1 and 2 were medium effort and right on at 6:50 and 6:53. I sped up for mile 3 and while it was harder, it still felt okay and I clocked a 6:33. When my shoe came untied at mile 4, I happily stopped my watch, took an 5 extra seconds than necessary to tie it and breathe deeply (6:45). One of the water fountains is out of order at the park, so I stopped for water at mile 5 convincing myself that I should because I wouldn’t see one again later (6:57, slowing a bit).
Then I prepped myself mentally for the 800 (did I stop then, too?). I took off in a panicked, hyperventilated state, pumping my arms as hard as I could. I was so shocked to see that I had actually beat my goal time (6:20 pace) that I just stopped, panted and regrouped. During the last two fast miles, my brain was getting tired and I forgot that the 800 threw off my even mile splits so I stopped at 1.5 miles instead of 2. Then I realized my mistake and finished it off (7:05 and 6:48). After catching my breath, I added a half mile to the cool down because runners are weird like that and can’t stand uneven numbers.
What this tells me is that physically, I am in shape to handle this workout, but something is holding me back from executing it perfectly. I know that I am much better at steady paces than alternating ones, so I have to figure out how to transition better between paces without stressing out about it.
After I logged my workout, many of my fellow Runners Connect members commented that they have been there and just stopped as well. I wasn’t feeling any pain, just a general sense that the effort was hard. There was no conscious thought telling me “go ahead and stop now;” I just stopped. While I am happy that I made it through on pace, I have room for improvement.
Michael Hammond, one of my coaches, zeroed in on my real issue, and it’s one that I never would have come up with on my own. “The Michigan is a tough workout for even the most well-trained athlete, so you honestly cannot read into it too much,” he said. “Shifting speeds that much throughout one workout is just plain difficult.” Then he added: “To me it sounds like your main focus on these workouts is to relax. Changing paces shouldn’t be a stressful event – try to think of it instead as a fun game. Personally I always liked alternating pace stuff better – varies it up, makes it more fun and interesting.”
Wait, what? Running is supposed to be fun?!? I mean, I’ve heard that somewhere before, but really? Even the hard stuff? I’ve always joked about running not being fun and in the beginning, like an entire year, it honestly wasn’t. My husband would say, “have fun!” as I went out the door and I would always grumble, “I don’t run for fun.” I definitely enjoy myself now, but I never think of it as a game, except perhaps during a race when I’m trying to pass someone. Could something as simple as “go have fun” be serious training advice?
I know that when I relax I run better, but actively trying to have fun? I’m hoping that having fun is easier than the Michigan. I’ll let you know.
It’s written on the back of all their coffee mugs: the mind is the athlete. And right now, my mind is racing trying to absorb everything that I learned this weekend at ZAP Running camp. Strangely, I think most of what inspired me this weekend has very little to do with actual running.
ZAP is an elite training center near Blowing Rock, NC, less than a two-hour drive up the Blue Ridge mountains from where I live in Asheville. The coaching program I follow, Runners Connect, offers a 3-day running retreat twice a year and I signed up this spring along with a couple dozen other runners I had never met. We lived dormitory-style, sharing meals, runs, coaching sessions, and pieces of our lives.
I arrived Thursday afternoon and met the coaches and my roommate, Laurie. We unpacked and got ready for our first run in Moses Cone Park, a beautiful trail system that includes a flat mile loop around Bass Lake. We were told to run whatever pace and distance we wanted to and then meet up for a ride back to camp. I fell into step with a group of three other women going the same length as I was and we circled the lake and headed up the trail called The Maze.
Now when I say “trail,” I actually mean smooth packed gravel road wide and gentle enough for a car to drive with ease and closed to cyclists. These are not the rocky and rooty single-track trails that I am used to back home. We could run 4 wide and the only obstacles we had to avoid were those left by the horses that share the paths.
Dinner each night was created by Chef Michael who clearly knows how to fuel elite runners. Choices like roasted beets, homegrown tomatoes, veggie paella, roasted parsnips and carrots, beans and rice, and enormous salads filled my plate every night. Bowls of fresh fruit were always available and there was always something sweet for dessert.
After dinner, we introduced ourselves around the campfire and got to know each other a bit. There were runners from all over the country as well as two Canadians. Everyone there had different training goals and backgrounds but we were all there because we are passionate about running.
The next morning we headed back to Moses Cone for our run of the day. I had a ten miler on the schedule with the middle 6 being close to marathon pace, so after a warm up on some of the hills, I stuck to lake laps on my own with my headphones on. I was surprised at the effort I needed to give in order to crank out those fast miles. Granted, we were at 1000 feet higher elevation than I’m used to, but still, I was expecting it to be easier. I’m happy that I hit my splits, but I knew that the 18-mile fast-finish on the books for the next day was going to be challenging. But that was the whole point.
After our runs, the afternoons were filled with strength and stretch classes, visualization techniques, video gait analyses, nutrition for runners talks, individual coaching sessions, and mental strength training classes. I could write a separate post on each one of these topics and I probably will. There were moments of inspiration in every single one of these sessions. I was not expecting to learn so many real, tangible techniques that I can use in my running every day, especially on race day.
Saturday’s long run was back at Moses Cone and I joined the group that headed up to the fire tower. I knew that the climbing would make the three fast finish miles harder, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the 360 degree view at the top. I ran mainly with a woman named Andrea and we talked non-stop for two hours about our lives.
This is one of the magic moments in running. It is not very often that you can have a deep conversation with someone for that length of time. Even though we had just met, we shared personal details of our lives with each other and by the time we had reached the top of the fire tower, we were friends.
Back at the lake for my fast miles, I struggled to hit my times and didn’t, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
On our last evening, with our classes done and runs completed, we piled in the vans after dinner for ice cream and beer in downtown Blowing Rock. Jeff Gaudette, the owner of Runners Connect, said that this was the first time everyone in the group had come into town together. Our group had really connected in a way that not every one does.
In the morning, we hugged and went our separate ways, wishing each other well on our upcoming races. I have no doubt that many of us will see each other again.
Over the next days and weeks I will unpack some of the truly meaningful experiences I had at ZAP. I am inspired and motivated in a way that I haven’t felt since I got my first PR. Lately, I have been hitting a mental point where I’m struggling to get to the next level in my training. Now a have a few more tools that will help get me there.