Flirting with injury

Last May, actually this same week in May, I screwed myself. I’d had a crappy Boston, and I wanted some kind of redemption at Comrades. So 12 days after running Boston, I did a 35-miler on roads. My hip and hamstrings were in pain for the last six miles, but Comrades was worth that pain, I said. If I wanted to race 56 miles, I’d have to deal with some kind of pain, I reasoned. Training through that mileage could only make me stronger. The next few weeks of tapering to get to Comrades healthy did not go well. I raced a 10K and a three-miler in pain, and while I did set PRs in both, I kept pushing through that hip pain, training at speeds I had no business running. After Comrades, I was diagnosed with a labral tear, and I spent a month working my way past that.

So this year. This year was supposed to be different. I was done with ultra road races for a while. Instead, I would take on another challenge. I would run two marathons in six days. I’d done this two years before, and I knew I had trained to run strong. The training season went well! But Boston was hot, so while my training and racing indicated I should be able to run fast there, I bonked a bit in the heat. I got a little redemption in London and was able to run seven minutes faster than at Boston, with no taper and jet lag and even, amazingly, some vomit in the middle. Spring racing season: success. I should have been thrilled with two hard races, a string of PRs at shorter distances, no injuries, a stronger core, blah blah, blah, but was I happy? No.

At the end of four months of some intense training, I should have taken a break. Even a week of absolutely no running would have been understandable. But I had Grandma’s Marathon on my calendar in seven weeks. So on the Wednesday after London, I decided that maybe I had enough juice left to try for another sub-3. Now, why I continue to think I am superhuman and do not need much rest after hard races is a mystery. It’s endorphins and stubbornness and optimism and stupidity all at once, I think. Am I still able to run 6:20 miles right now? Yes. How do I know? Because I did that the week after the marathon. Like an idiot. That landed me at PT last week with the start of some hip pain. Surprise! It wasn’t terrible, but I’m at least smart enough to have a minor ache in that area checked out when it pops up. My therapist said I wasn’t injured, not even close. He said my hip felt better than it had when I’d run Cherry Blossom. So that’s good. But if I was going to put in 80 miles that week (my actual plan!), I certainly would injure myself. “Your engine is much stronger than your chassis right now.” Maybe I should cut that mileage in half. Take a few weeks easier than I’d like. But I had so many fun runs lined up — runs with people I like to chat with, runs that make me so happy. I had fun training to do, and I was able to run fast without pain. But my hip still kinda hurts, just enough to make me pause before I start my runs. It goes away after I warm up, but yes, it’s nagging, and it would turn in to something big if I don’t give it some time to heal. Also, for the last four months, I have been nearly wholly focused on a time goal. I have added 30 to 45 minutes of strength training and preventive PT exercises nearly every day, limited alcohol, been in bed by 9 and up again at 5 every day, added biking, canceled weekend plans, been boring. In pursuit of this goal, I’ve neglected my personal relationships. When I jumped right back in to training on Wednesday, I also hadn’t taken any time to reset personally. I need that.

So here we are. It’s the same week I got injured last year. I would have been heading that way if I’d run the hilly 18-miler I planned to run tomorrow. Instead, this time, I plan to not end up on the start line of the next race, wondering if I’m going to run myself in to the ground. I will not do what I did at Comrades. I will take more time to let my body catch up, and I’ll spend more time being not-just-a-runner. But making that decision is harder than going out for a fun run and feeling great for the rest of the day.

When I told my running buddies that I wouldn’t be able to run this weekend because I need to take care of myself for a bit, they were so, so supportive. That’s because they are amazing, and they know we need to look out for each other. Of course I should listen to my body and take a break, they said. They understood completely. Then I was worried that I’d get crap on Strava for not being amazing and not running my normally high mileage, so I’ve made my activities private until June. I already put enough pressure on myself, and I don’t need more criticism from people I barely know.

To sum up: No, I’m not injured, thankfully, not yet. Yes, I should have gone easier on myself after two marathons like a normal person. Yes, I’m still running and planning to race in May and June. I wanted to write down how I’m feeling now so just maybe after my next hard race I will take that break at the right time.

Race Review: Comrades Marathon

To understand why I was standing in the middle of a South African town at 5:30 in the morning surrounded by 20,000 mostly South African runners, we have to go back to April 2014. In our normal pre-Boston race week buildup, we tried to pass the time with running documentaries — trying to get ourselves keyed up to run fast on Marathon Monday. We came across Bart Yasso’s Runner’s World feature about the Comrades Marathon. Bart has run everything and been everywhere, and he had not run this one so he put it on his bucket list. We were in awe. On Monday, endorphins still raging and drunk from our Boston finishes and a few cocktails, Michael said, “Hey we should do that Comrades thing!” He’d heard about it before we watched the documentary. “Ha!” I said, “We aren’t ultramarathoners.” But Michael insisted we might be. “That’s more than two marathons. Think about how trashed our legs are right now! You want more of that?” I told him I would ask him in a few weeks when he wasn’t drunk.

Comrades is the world’s oldest ultramarathon. It is filled with badasses. Each person is a badass in their own way. South Africa television devotes an entire 12-hour block to covering it. Everyone knows whether it’s an “up” or a “down” run. When you tell an American that you’re running Comrades, though, they don’t understand. Rugby and running feel like South Africa’s national pastimes. The nation seems to rally around this event. It’s their Boston and New York and Super Bowl all in one. OK.

A few weeks later, I confirmed that yes, Michael was serious about wanting to run this thing. We’d need to wait for a “down” year, which would be an even year. The Comrades course changes directions every year, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban for the down years and vice versa for the up years. Downhill running seemed easier. Who doesn’t love running down a hill? But that meant having a goal for more than two years. And we aren’t ultramarathoners. I had two years to turn myself in to an ultramarathoner. OK. That was a long way away.

Buildup

I know I somehow ended up at this point, in May 2016, a point where I can reasonably imagine running 56 miles. My weekly mileage increased by about 15 percent, steadily and with the help of an amazing coach. But this also meant I needed to slow down some runs. This training was more about time on my feet and less about building speed. Except when it wasn’t and I was training for marathon PRs at the same time. Somehow, with a series of stepping stone endurance races and steady mileage buildup, the ultra seemed doable.

The first step I remember in the ultramarathoner plan was running a long way and practicing fueling. I ran Boston 2 Big Sur in 2015, which let me know that my legs could tolerate two marathons in a week at a pretty quick clip. But the first time I ran 50K on the roads, I hallucinated a dead bird. I had plenty of work to do. Aside from mental grit, fueling is a something you have to get right in ultras. Your body cannot run much farther than 26.2 miles without taking in some additional fuel — in my case, something solid. With some amount of fueling strategy figured out, I came in top female in my first trail ultra, The March, a non-technical fire road trail ultra in North Carolina. That was a building block for Stone Mill, a 50-mile trail run. I was mentally zapped after that race and I fell down in the first mile. But covering 50 miles is something my body can do.

In January, I ran the Goofy Challenge in Walt Disney World, which is a half marathon on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday. The U.S. doesn’t have a ton of ultra-distance road races, and I wanted to train in conditions close to Comrades. In February, I ran the Cowtown 50K and broke the course record. With a pacing strategy and fueling plan nearly locked down, I was quite confident I could run Comrades.

I haven’t written about my disappointing performance in Boston here, but gosh, I felt like my training was finally coming together for that race. A combination of a warm day and a migraine at mile 8 meant I wouldn’t be breaking 3:00 in the spring this year. But in 2016 I have set personal records in every other distance I’ve raced: 50K, half marathon, 10-mile, 10K and three-mile. And with as long as I’ve been pushing and racing, I am pleased to see my times continue to drop. But I digress.

Comrades was on the horizon. I took a deep breath after the Boston setback and was determined to build my mileage up again for the six weeks between races. Twelve days after Boston, I organized a 35-mile long run around Washington, Maryland and Virginia where I really settled in on my Comrades race fueling plan. Without that confidence-building run and the miles in my legs, I wouldn’t have arrived at the start line with much confidence. Thirty-five miles on roads is a long way to go.

35-mile training run through DMV
35-mile training run through DMV

After about two year of gradual buildup and confidence building, I was ready to glide in for a smooth landing and an easy taper for the race. But I had two of my favorite May races on the calendar, races I don’t miss — the Capitol Hill Classic 10K and the ACLI Capital Challenge Three-Miler. Plus before Boston, I’d been having a weird kind of hip pain across the front of my lower abdomen. It wasn’t exactly my groin — a little higher. It woke me up at night a few times. I shrugged it off as maybe my period or maybe running too many miles ahead of Boston. I did put in a few 100-mile weeks. Then some time around the second week of May, the pain started again. My training was slowing down in to taper mode. I thought the pain would go away with a bit of rest or easier days. It didn’t. Then I raced twice and PRed twice in four days. At the start line of both of those races, I was telling people around me I wasn’t sure if my hip would hold up. It was tender. I was walking a fine line for both of those races.

I went to the physical therapist on May 18. Comrades was on May 29. She said she thought it wasn’t a stress fracture or a hernia (those things don’t wake you up at night) and gave me some exercises to help with the pain. But the pain kept happening at night, even with the taper. It didn’t happen the nights after my races, but it would come back on random easy days. On Monday night before my Tuesday evening flight, my massage therapist worked on my psoas muscles, which helped with some of the tension and let me get back to some ab exercises. The 17-hour flight to Africa wasn’t terrible. I slept for about six hours, and I managed a quick mile when we landed on Wednesday night to keep my running streak alive. The streak is almost seven years long. You don’t just throw that away because you had a late flight. Right?

We woke up in Johannesburg on Thursday morning and went for an easy shakeout. Bad news: the groin pain was real, and it was happening during the run. It was on the right side, and it had moved a bit to the right butt cheek. My goal was to finish Comrades — all 56 miles of it. Period. It is not a race for which I had a firm time goal. I wanted to finish the race in the 12-hour allotted time window. So I decided I would take a rest day. A real rest day. Aside from the fact that I felt kind of “off” in the morning — kind of how you feel when you haven’t had enough coffee — I think my rest day went fine. We flew from Johannesburg to Durban. We ate dinner with international runners. I slept well and without hip pain that night!

On Saturday, Michael and I ran a shakeout — him guiding us so we wouldn’t get hit when I looked the wrong way for oncoming traffic and me babying my hip and listening to it for any signs of pain. Everything felt … fine?

Race Prep

The Comrades race expo is like Boston but a little smaller, far less crowded and full of strange African things. Comrades knows how to treat its international runners, too. There is a special line for bib number pickup, and the volunteers walk you through every piece of what you need to bring. Plus there is an international food tent at the finish. And international runners get special bibs. We picked up our numbers and tog bags (drawstring drop bags are “tog bags” there) at the expo and dropped off fuel for our three drop bags at the Hilton across the street. The two best choices I made in preparing for this trip were signing up for these drop bags and for the course tour. In my drop bags I had:

  • 13.1 mile: 3 GUs, one Stinger waffle, one sweet potato baby food pouch, three salt tabs
  • 26.2 mile: 3 GUs, one Stinger waffle, cashew Larabar, beet baby food pouch, three salt tabs, pair of socks
  • 39 mile: 4 GUs, three Clif block shots, three salt tabs

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I overdid it with the salt tabs. But I like to overpack those in case I lose one or my fingers don’t work. My fueling plan was to have one salt tab every 90 minutes.

On Saturday morning, we took a fantastic course tour with Bruce Fordyce. The goal, he said, of the tour is to scare us. Without the course tour, I would have been cursing myself for being in way over my head. With the course tour, I knew I was in over my head. But I knew when the going got tough (and it WOULD be tough), I would have lots of beautiful views.

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After thoroughly shitting our pants on the course tour, we panicked and thought our best course of action would be to hang out in our hotel for most of Saturday afternoon. We ordered an early dinner. We were both asleep (asleep!) by 8 p.m.

Race Day

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The alarm went off at 2:15. I made a French press cup of coffee for each of us, and we staggered around the hotel room until we kind of had our wits about us. Neither of us pooped. We were overseas and had no hope of anything happening at 2 a.m. anyway. We put on our race stuff we’d carefully laid out the night before when we were lucid. Then we took a quick photo where we look really awake and hopped up on something (life?), and we stumbled into the South African darkness to our cab. Wait, the third best idea I had on this trip was ordering a cab two days early. Otherwise I doubt we would have been able to easily get to the bus departure area at 3 a.m. on race morning.

The start of this race reminds me, oddly, of the start line to get to Big Sur. It is dark as hell. Everyone is kind of quiet. You’re waiting on a random street for cushy buses. All you want to do as you careen through the darkness is sleep. The trip to Pietermaritzburg doesn’t feel like 56 miles. When you get off the bus, because you’ve gone up 3,000 feet, it is 10 degrees colder than in Durban. I was still nervous about my hip, so I gingerly walked down the street toward the portapotties, halfway expecting my leg to buckle because maybe my hip realized what was ahead. But no, everything felt fine.

We stood in what appeared to be the only line for tog (drop) bags (?) and then went to our separate corrals. Until this point for the past few days, I’d been doing stream-of-consciousness with Michael about my hip. It was like my security blanket of someone to talk to, to assure me that I WOULD finish the race, was gone. We said bye to each other and he headed to the C corral. I was in B. I made my way through a little group of guys trying to get in to the B corral. Not sure what that was about. This was around 5:15 a.m. I took a seat next to a fence and sat there in a daze. I tried to remind myself that I should run by feel and not let emotion overtake me. I remembered my fueling. Oddly, I wasn’t nervous. Just sleepy, mostly. One of my Facebook friends Richard walked by and gave me a few Clif bars. He said something about needing to get to the front of the corral. More power to him.

You don’t remember the start of most races you run. It’s just people milling around. The anthem plays. The race director might say something that you can’t understand over a loud speaker. Here, you remember the start. I am not South African. In fact, this is the first race I’ve been at where another anthem played. Well maybe in Erie, Penn., they played the Canadian and United States anthems. In my corral, when the South African anthem played several groups of grown-ass men wrapped their arms around each other and swayed from side to side. And when the Shosholoza played, a woman in front of me grew more and more animated the longer it went on. These were runners, and they were great, great people. The cannon went off (not a gun, guys, a cannon), and we were on our way. It was 5:30 in the morning, and I was running in South Africa while everyone I know was asleep. In one of those surreal holy shit this is my life and it’s weird moments, that thought occurred to me when I looked around at the stream of runners darting in to the night. What was this?

I don’t recall a ton about the first 10 miles or so. A lot of dark. A lot of houses. It was cool. Hills were starting. We came tumbling down Polly Shorts, and I knew my quads were going to have a long day. My hips, though, were not in pain. Admittedly, I was taking the downhills quite easy because I had this nightmare of cracking my hip with one wrong step down the steep declines. I kept my long sleeve shirt on for the first seven or eight miles. In any other race, this would have felt like a long time. But my breathing was not labored. My heart rate seemed fine. I felt like I was out for a nice run in the cool morning air.

I ran next to a man from Lesotho for about 12 miles before we spoke to each other. He finally complemented me on my careful pacing. I don’t remember the names of anyone I talked to at this point. Knew about half of them yesterday. But this guy was wearing a yellow bib so he must have been going for his 10th Comrades and green number. There is a whole system to bib colors and numbers that is infinitely interesting and quite helpful. By the end of the race, I’d started to really enjoy looking at bibs.

The course doesn’t offer a ton of fueling options other than water, Coke (sometimes) and Energade, which is Gatorade but a little different. The liquids are all in plastic tubes. I enjoyed the tubes and wish America would switch to that system, though paper cups might be better for the environment. The tubes were really easy to bite in to once I got the hang of it. And if I took two tubes, I could use one for drinking water and squirt another one on top of my head to stay cool. But great news. If something isn’t supplied by the course, the spectators will certainly have it. I passed so many people handing out oranges, bananas, potato chips, salted potatoes, candy bars, you name it. And the spectators genuinely know how fast you’re going and what your predicted finishing time might be. Michael had one guy tell him how far ahead of the 9:00 cutoff he was when he was 10 miles away from the finish line. I mean, what the hell.

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Through mile 26, my pacing and fueling were pretty steady. We were approaching some bigger climbs and, worse, some legit downhills, that I was not excited about. At the drop bag checkpoint, I was talking to the volunteers telling them if they saw Michael to tell him I was doing well and looked good. But then damn it if Michael didn’t come charging up the hill. He looked great. He grabbed some stuff from his fuel bag, and we took off together. The next downhill was a little too graded for me, so he went ahead. I caught up to him a few miles later. Then he caught me again shortly after that. My hip still wasn’t bothering me, but I took the downhills easy.

Somewhere around the 40th mile, the course goes straight down. For about three miles. No rest. No slightly flat stretches. Nope. Just straight down at a 6 percent grade. These kinds of hills are lots of fun to run down when you have fresh legs or when there’s some variation in terrain like on a trail. Straight down in the blazing sun on pavement is no fun. Anyway, I walked some of this portion. At the bottom of the crappy downhill, I stopped to ask a spectator to tie my shoe because my laces kept hitting my ankle. I grabbed a handful of potato chips and some water from his table and told him he’d pretty much saved my race. He had.

Past mile 45, I started counting down miles. The markers at Comrades are kilometers and they count down, not up. So I was trying to do all kinds of mental math about how far I was from the finish in terms my exhausted brain could understand. So 20K is 12.5 miles, so like. Like 17K is how long? When I started doing that, I hit another uphill section that was too steep to run at that point. The hills in this course are not to be taken lightly. I tried to compare them to anything I know. Hurricane Point? Like 12 climbs like that. Or the hill on Harvard that I run up almost every day? It’s like that but five times as long and steeper. And hot. More hill training next time.

When I realized I was close to the finish, near the 3K mark I guess, I decided I could stand to accelerate a bit. My legs wouldn’t move that fast but they still had a bit of turnover in them. And once we entered downtown Durban the streets became streets, not mountains. I could finally see the Hilton, which I knew was next to the stadium finish line. I picked it up a bit. With 2K to go, I wondered whether I would get super emotional at the finish. Probably too exhausted to cry that much.

Comrades finishes with a lap around the inside of a stadium. It’s something you remember, almost like coming down Boylston. There also is a strict 12-hour cutoff. So you could have, say, entered the stadium but not made it quite to the finish line, and the finish line could just close. Think about that. You’ve been running since 5:30 in the morning. It is now dark. And you are within shouting distance of the finish line, and that thing closes. Bull shit. That’s the rule. The last stretch of the course is on grass in this stadium and damn, it feels great on your feet. I kept walking through the chute to find Michael, who’d finished in 8:52, and I grabbed my rose, my medal and my Comrades patch.

We hung out for about 30 minutes and then caught a cab back to the hotel. The hotel staff had tuned our television to marathon coverage for us. We looked at each other and had a “holy shit, we did that thing we said we’d do” moment. Then we drank some beer.

What’s Next

After what I calculate to be about three years of nearly non-stop training where I’ve pushed my body to PR at every distance, I am going to take some down time. This might mean easy miles. It might mean more rest days. On Monday, the day after I ran 56 miles through Africa, I took a two-mile walk through the city and another two-mile walk on the beach. And it was fine. This means not pushing myself before I am ready. It means listening to my body and hoping that the hip thing was a blip but being prepared to take more time than I want to for healing. Elite athletes take rest days. They take down time and come back stronger. Now, I’m not saying I am an elite. But they know what works.

So onward to fall marathons. Onward to more long-distance racing. And onward to being healthier, happier and in a better position by the time I get to Tahoe the third Sunday in August.

  • Distance run: 56.1 miles
  • Elevation: 3,876 feet
  • Time elapsed: 9:31:20 (9:16:19 moving time)
  • Blisters: one on the bottom of my heel, not bad
  • Toenails lost: none
  • Food and beverages consumed: 10 GUs, two Stinger waffles, sweet potato baby food pouch, beet baby food pouch, six Clif shot blocks, seven salt tabs, five orange slices, a banana, a handful of potato chips, Energade, water
  • Hallucinations: kept seeing South African people who looked like people I know, but nothing too crazy

Race Review: Cowtown Ultramarathon

I’ve been away a few months. Training takes time and energy, and writing takes time and brainpower, and working on caucuses and primary nights and through Super Tuesday as a project manager in a real live newsroom takes a lot of time. But here I am on the other side of a bunch of hard work with a shiny new 50K road PR, legitimately pleased with my training and racing so far this year.

I sat down to write a post about how oddly well my training was going in early February, but I scrapped it. First, I’m superstitious, and I didn’t want to jinx a good training season by acknowledging that I was making progress. I’d written virtually the same post about a year earlier. The paces that were amazing to me then seem like my normal fast runs now. The post I wrote about being ecstatic to work in one 90-mile week seems like it was ages ago, but it’s really only been 18 months since I hit that first peak. I’m now stacking up multiple 90+ weeks to train for ultramarathons. I’ve changed my training to take easy days absurdly easy, pace-wise. Instead, I started using a heart rate monitor to keep my training in the 130 to 140 bpm zone on easy days. And I continued my strengthening and stretching routine from my hamstring injury in the fall, so I’ve maintained glute, hamstring and core strength that I think has kept any new injuries away.

I consider most of 2016 so far to count as a gradual buildup toward the Boston Marathon where I’m hoping to break 3 hours. On the right day, I’ve got that. For now, I’m pushing Comrades to the back burner but maintaining a legitimate mileage base while I work on speed. I would like to run well at Comrades too, but that’s not this year’s “A” race. I know I’m physically capable of covering the distance but that it might mentally wreck me without some longer runs. But if I have to choose one thing to focus on, it has to be sub-3 in April.

To continue to build mileage and work on time on my feet, I ran the Goofy Challenge in Walt Disney World in January. The goal there was to have fun, relax and put in a bunch of miles. I ran my slowest marathon and half marathon times in years, in costume(!), in the heat at 5 a.m. Neither race was meant to be fast. I did nothing resembling a taper, and I walked around the Magic Kingdom until 10:30 the night before. But over the weekend I certainly got in a lot of time on my feet. After putting in 89 weeks the week of the Goofy Challenge, I dialed back the mileage the following week for a mini recovery. To build toward Cowtown and to build a base for Boston, I put in four more 90+-mile weeks. And in December I met a new running buddy who has helped push me to run faster earlier in the morning than I’m used to. She has helped me build that tired-leg speed as well, I’m sure!

Two weeks out I tried a legitimate taper leading up to Cowtown. The race was important to me, and I wanted it to go well. I didn’t want to run it on tired legs like I’d run Austin on much the same training schedule in 2015. So I ran a trail half marathon at a moderate pace, though not all out, eight days before Cowtown and put in one nice hilly workout the Tuesday before the race. Then I did several easy runs and one steady run over the last few days. I didn’t doubt my training or the taper, and I felt entirely ready leading up to the race.

The Race

Cowtown Ultramarathon tomorrow! My first road 50K, so it has to be a PR 💪

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My huge stretch goal going in to this race was to break the course record. With two elite athletes running ahead of me, I knew I wouldn’t win the thing. The course record was 3:54:20. On the right day in great conditions, I could break that. If I didn’t go out too fast, I at least had a shot. Plus there was a cash prize for breaking the record. I came up with a plan — decided to stick to 7:20 pace to leave room for tangent-running errors or late-race bonking. I would need 7:32 pace to break the record. Even if I didn’t break the record, I was sure to PR at the 50K because it was on a road. It would have to be faster than the 5:09 I ran in North Carolina last year.

On Sunday morning, I drove to the start from Mom’s house, did a quick jog to the line-free(!) portapotties, and then found a spot inside on the floor of the expo building to relax and stay out of the wind until the start. Conditions were not ideal. It was already in the low 60s with winds gusting to 20 mph.

Just chilling

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I relaxed inside and then jogged out to the first corral with about five minutes until the gun went off. I’d run the marathon here twice before, so I knew where I was going. The first corral was a bit crowded, but I edged my way toward the middle of the starting pack. The gun went off at 7 a.m. My first mile was a little fast on the downhill, and yes, it was hard to hold back all that taper energy. But damn it if I didn’t knock off consistent 7:20 miles. The miles seemed to come to me. There wasn’t a struggle to get there. The wind was pushing me along, and the pace felt remarkably easy. People were kind of passing me at the start. Everyone seemed to go out too fast. I stuck with my pace, even on the uphills, drawing from the fact that I could go much faster than 7:20.

About a mile before the half marathon turnoff, I started talking to a guy from Ireland who was going for a 1:35 half marathon time. He was right on pace. He was great company, but when I start talking, I run faster than I should. We pushed the pace to 6:40, which, yes, felt good, but, no, was not in my plan. He turned off to run the half course, and I kept going. I was alone here, but I knew if I kept the pace consistent, I could probably hold it for a while. The 3:10 pace pack was just ahead of me. At this point, what was a pleasant tailwind turned into an awful headwind. Still, I maintained my pace into the wind and up the hills. The temperature was climbing, and I started to take a Powerade (to drink) and a water (to dump on my head). Then some amazing angel from heaven handed me a damp blue towel around mile 14. This thing was like my security blanket. I dipped it in water. I sweated all over it. I might have waved it around a little bit. I’m carrying it in all my pictures.

Most of the middle miles of this race are blurry. I ran through neighborhoods where the roads were severely slanted. Maybe they weren’t that slanted in reality, but I had a hard time discerning where to put my feet. I didn’t specifically hallucinate anything, but I think the roads couldn’t have been that slanted there. Things were a little blurry as I continued to pass people and meander along between water stops. Still I held my pace. A woman on a bike kept hanging out near me. Then I realized HOLY SHIT she’s WITH ME. She had a sign on her back that said something about third place ultra woman. People started telling me I was in third in the ultra. Ran some more. Held my pace. Ate salt tabs and GU right on schedule. I ate a banana, so I know I’m at least still fine at taking in solid foods. I made a 20-second pitstop (I timed it) and tried to sing to myself to keep myself from freaking out too much or cramping. I finished the marathon portion in 3:11. That would be good enough for 11th female in the marathon if I’d stopped. It would have been faster than my stupid Hartford Marathon time from the fall. But I didn’t stop.

The last part of the race is quite clear. Once we made it to the Trinity Trail around 22 miles in, I knew where I was, basically, because Michael and I ran that part of the course in December. In December I didn’t know we were running the course, but when the race turned on to the path, it was instantly clear that some part of the course would be windy. In December, we had tailwinds and headwinds coming off the flat land and the water on a day that wasn’t specifically windy. On race day, there were gusts from all directions and some fun bugs and mosquitoes blowing in the gusty wind. The day was still heating up, and my pace started to fall off. In my head, I was trying to figure out how much longer until the turnaround and how much longer I needed to hold my pace. I went through two water stops where I had to come to a complete stop to pick up water because the volunteers weren’t paying attention. When I came back through after the turnaround, I yelled out, maybe in a slurred way, “Powwahryayyde!” and someone handed me Powerade. Honestly, that’s my only complaint about this race. The volunteers were great for the most part. The crowds were supportive in the right parts. I would have loved a day that was about 20 degrees cooler, but hey, what can you do?

finish line

Once the course joined back up with the full marathon course, I breathed a sign of relief. With a few miles to go, I always start counting down the portions left in Yasso 800s. You know how fast I can normally run an 800? Knowing that I can string just a few more of those together gives me some kind of mental trick to piece out the last part of the race. I rounded the last two corners to finally see the finish line. My pace had dropped with the wind and fatigue in the last few miles, but around mile 29, I knew if I could just keep a decent pace, I would beat the record. The finish line stretch was a little rough. My legs started talking to me, telling me they were starting to get tired and that maybe another GU or salt tab would have been a good idea. I powered through the last few hundred feet, which were cruelly a little bit uphill. I crossed the finish line in 3:53:40, beating the course record by 40 seconds. But hey, a course record is a course record, right?

A volunteer flagged me down and told me they were holding an awards ceremony. I’ve won recreational, small-scale races, but I’ve never been flagged down at a major event. The elites were hanging out and talking about the course. I felt out of place, but then when I started talking to such friendly people, I thought you know what? Maybe the fact that I’ve had a podium finish three weeks in a row says my training is going well. I should enjoy this. Here’s a writeup of the event. The woman who won is a complete bad ass who actually would have won the marathon if she’d stopped. This was her first 50K. She won the Cowtown 5K the day before.

Recovery this week so far has been a dream. I took Monday easy, but I was happy enough with a decent pace on Tuesday. I don’t want to jump back in to speedy stuff yet, and my legs are still not quite back, especially after not getting enough sleep this week with work duties. But I’m easing back in to the big miles and hard efforts that will position me for a strong marathon performance this spring. I have to think this race was one more building block to get me ready for longer road races. I stuck to a pace, I handled pain, and I hit the time I needed. Can’t ask for more than that.

On to Boston

What’s next?

I will most likely drop from the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA full marathon to the half. When I registered for the Rock ‘n’ Roll race, I don’t think I looked at a calendar. It’s just 10 days from now and way too close to Cowtown for me to run it well. Still I’ll get in lots of big miles next week to keep building up.

Because the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler is 15 days ahead of Boston, I’m planning to race it like I’ve always wanted to.

Finally, I have a trip to Tahoe planned for the week before Boston, so I’m hoping to relax and get in a few beautiful, easy runs before Marathon Monday.

More miles await!

Hamstring injury (or, why running 80 miles the week after a marathon is a poor life choice)

Well damn it. I went and ran myself ragged and injured my hamstring five days before a marathon.

I reread my post from about two years ago — last time I was injured before the Philadelphia Marathon — and I tried to spot some trends. Too many races? Yep. Too close together? Yep. Running like a bat out of hell because the weather is so beautiful and I’m so happy and it’s fall wheeee? Yep. So if I stack a bunch of races up and don’t adequately rest between them, you’re saying I might get hurt? Gosh. I’m an idiot.

Let’s pick up 10 days ago when I last posted about my revised Marine Corps goals. I was going to have fun and run smart and do all that feel-good stuff. In the next week, I proceeded to run 80 miles. They were 80 fast-ish, fun miles that I cranked out because I loved being able to put my taper rested legs to good use. For the weekend I cleared it with my coach to run a few more miles than we’d originally planned. On Saturday I kept the paces quick for a 16-miler, and I built a ton of confidence that I could still hold marathon pace. Felt like a million bucks. On Sunday instead of my planned 12-mile easy run, I did 15 at a decent pace and mixed in some trails. And I pushed the pace with a group running along Beach Drive. That felt great, but my hamstring was a little wonky by the end. Something was a little off. On Monday I stuck to my taper plan. Go me. On Tuesday, my plan was to run 10 miles (Ten-Mile Tuesday) with four super quick, 30-second pushes. The run started fine. Going fast. The first two pushes were OK. The third push was not OK. The fourth push wasn’t much of a push. Hmm. I kept running for about three more miles, my pace gradually slowing. I stopped to try to stretch. When I started running again, I felt an odd pain in my wonky hamstring. Nope. I ran/walked the two miles to get home and then started freaking the eff out.

My friend Sara is a saint and recommended an acupuncturist who might be able to patch me up for the race. He got me in at 8 a.m. this morning. When he was working on me, he told me he “could just tell” I was fast. That made me want to cry. I used to feel fast. Last week I was able to pound out bunches of marathon pace miles like a boss. Sigh. After the acupuncture session, both of my legs feel much better than yesterday or even Sunday when the hamstring started to feel a little off. Plus I feel like I’ve been run over by a train. I’m physically drained and cranky as hell. When I got home, there was an envelope in the mail. I got some gift certificate from the Georgetown Running Company for an 8K that I apparently won the age group award for back in June. I thought back to the race and how good I felt. Then I started to cry like a goddamn idiot.

So new plan. Lots of deep breaths between now and Sunday. This week was supposed to be a taper week, so my mileage isn’t too far off from where it would otherwise be. I’ve been on the verge of tears most of the day because I hate uncertainty and I hate not running. And I really hate not running in the fall. But if I can pull off a marathon on Sunday without injuring myself and without DNFing, I will have performed some kind of voodoo miracle comeback that I so far haven’t had to pull out in my short running career.

These posts are the ones I’ll look back on when I’m faster and stronger and I’ll say, “See, Amanda. See where this series of setbacks got you? You should be happy you are where you are today because without those little blips, you’d never know how good you have it.”

Three weeks to go

We’re coming up on that critical part of the training cycle when I just might screw up all the hard work and high mileage I’ve put in. I get antsy about a few big goal races every year. This year’s goal race is the Hartford Marathon, and I’m already wondering about my training. The good news is I start to get squirmy about my training every time, so this is nothing new. The bad news is it seems to be happening earlier with this race.

I have one more week of reasonably high mileage including a trail half marathon this weekend and a long run with some miles at marathon pace worked in next weekend. Then the taper begins, and I begin obsessively checking the weather and obsessing about what I eat and how much I sleep.

Because I don’t have any speed work planned until later in the week, I’m kicking around the idea of trying to make the easier runs in to group runs or organizing some kind of meetup with Strava or Twitter friends. Let me know if you are interested, and I will try to coordinate.

  • Sunday: 16 miles easy on roads somewhere in D.C. area (7:45 to 8:00 pace maybe)
  • Monday: 8 or 9 easy miles on roads or trails
  • Tuesday: 10 easy miles on trails
  • Tuesday evening: 7 miles steady effort on roads, not pushing too hard (7:30-7:40 pace)
  • Wednesday: 8 miles easy, probably on trails and maybe in the middle of the day if I stay home for Pope road closures
  • Thursday: 12 miles steady (7:30 pace, probably)

The worst runs only make you stronger

I’m training for my first 50-miler and two fall marathons right now. Those things don’t go together, really, but I’m trying to make speed and mileage play nice together in some kind of masochistic training plan. It’s been sickeningly rewarding to pound out marathon-pace miles and feel myself getting faster in summer’s most humid days. In practice, my plan has me trail running and long running and longtrailrunning and doing speed work over and over again. Add in lots of healthy eating and drinking and foam rolling and being tired like I haven’t been tired before — both mentally and physically — and then rebounding in time to put in more fast miles. The training plan was working great on vacation. Michael and I went to Portland and Tahoe. We got engaged ON A RUN in Forest Park. I had access to beautiful trails, loads of recovery time, eight hours of sleep every night. Perfection.

But coming home around midnight on Sunday last week was a doozy. The week started with jet lag and two consecutive nights of five hours of sleep. At work, we had the biggest product release I’ve been part of on Wednesday, and I had a 5K race on Thursday. Came in first female and fourth overall! But that meant my legs were less than fresh for any long-running.

Nice to see a progression of times. First female on the course this year. And a $20 gift card.

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By the time I made it to the start of what was supposed to be a 25-mile trail run on the Appalachian Trail on Saturday morning, I was already beat. When Dan proposed this route, I warned him I’d be slow. I’m a pretty cautious trail runner to start, but factoring in the planned 6,600 feet of climbing we’d be doing, I wouldn’t be going quick at all. This run was supposed to be about moving forward at a comfortable pace for 25 miles. I’ve done that, what, 50 times at least probably. Usually on roads and definitely without so much climbing. But sure.

The run started off in a fairly sane place. A gravel road dumped us out on to a trail that seemed not too steep or technical. I started to kind of get into a groove. The climbing started. I was fine. I was running/jogging/hiking. I kept climbing. Still fine, but I was behind my group. That was fine. They could wait. Then around mile 7, when the first downhill part started, I started to cruise downhill. Felt pretty good. But I lost my footing and ate it. I bruised my left leg pretty bad and, worse, reopened a gash on my elbow that I got trail-running in California that was just starting to heal. That fall really shook me up. My legs weren’t fresh, I felt terrible for dragging the group down to my hiking/jogging pace, and we ended up cutting the 25-miler down to 20. We did see a bear on the run. So there’s that?

Trail running aftermath. Or, an idea of how I'm going to look for the next three months at least.

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By mile 12, I was in tears for the second time, with my elbow wrapped in my tourniquet Buff, blubbering nonsense and feeling sorry for myself and wondering why I even run. I vowed to drop out of the 50-miler. I took that back. I vowed to never run trails again. Took that back. Definitely vowed to do a make-up run on Sunday if my legs would cooperate at all. I vowed to find better shoes with bigger lugs and come back to conquer this stupid thing some day. The trails became more runnable again, but I was cautious and mad. I fell down again but landed on my ass that time. I fell again and landed on my hand, not bad. I’m getting better at falling.

My trail-running group (of two) was fine with a shorter run, or they said they were. Writing about it now, I’m still pissed at myself for dragging us down. I feel the way I felt when I started running trails — like I should just give up because I will never be good at it. That feeling will pass, and I’ll get better at this part of it. Technical trails are simply my biggest weakness right now.

Ugh.
Ugh.

On Sunday, I dusted myself off, put bandages over my scrapes and bruises, put on my road-running clothes and headed out the front door. For the first three miles, I worked through Saturday and convinced myself I could actually run, damn it. By the time I crested the hill to Mount Pleasant at the end of 19 steady miles, everything had clicked back in to place. It felt normal and right and like home. I put in 101 total miles last week. That’s one of those hard-fought high-mileage weeks I’ll gladly take, even if it wasn’t pretty.

The beginning of long training runs

On Saturday I turned a corner in my running life. I ran a 50K training run. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I started. I thought about the long, long run off and on for most of the week. What would I eat? What would I wear? Should I carry water? A handheld or backpack? How many gels? Would I make it the whole way? Where would I run? Would I have to walk? Maybe it would be just five more miles than I’d ever run before — not a huge deal. It might just feel a little longer. I’ve been running between 85 and 95 miles weekly this spring and summer, including two marathon-distance training runs the first two weeks of June. My base is definitely strong enough to go longer.

I’m pleased with the effort, and I can say I finished with a giant, goofy smile on my face. Michael ran the first 20 or so miles with me, which kept my mind off the task at hand. My pace was consistent — between 8:49 for the first mile and 8:03 for the 28th mile for 8:23 per mile overall. This is slower than my normal long run pace, which is in the 7:45 range, but with a goal to just finish, I can’t complain. And I learned a few things about how I deal with longer distances.

First of all, I have to figure out why my toes aren’t happy and solve this blister situation. For the first 14 miles, we had a steady, light rain. My Adidas shoes that actually worked well for three hours in the pouring rain in Boston tended to create pockets of humidity around my feet for this run. They’re the most ventilated shoes I have, but I think I need to look in to alternatives. I’m wearing lightweight Balega socks that have never given me problems before, but I still end up with soggy toes.

Toenails are all, “We hate you.” 😕

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Another lesson I learned the hard way around mile 28? I need to start eating solid food. Even though solid food sounds completely unappetizing in the middle of a hot, stinky run, I could have used more in my stomach. The four GUs and two Clif shot blocks I had weren’t cutting it. I felt a little lightheaded past the marathon point. Maybe it was just a mental block. I also probably should have eaten more than a banana and a half cup of coffee before the run. Guess I need to wake up earlier so my stomach has time to settle if I’m going to eat more.

The most surprising thing from this first longer effort is how completely wiped out I felt for the rest of the day. I was home by 11 a.m., and I felt like I’d been running all damn day. By 3 p.m., I wanted to go to sleep, but I had this endorphin-fueled, wired thing going on, so I couldn’t nap very well. Physically, I felt like I’d run a kind of easy marathon — sore but I could still walk down steps without much wincing. The main difference for me between 26 and 31 is the mental drain. That’s what I need to train to push through.

Finally, another interesting quirk came in the form of some pretty vivid hallucinations. I haven’t had to run through this level of euphoric, fuzzy just-put-one-foot-in-front-of-another since the St. George Marathon last year, when I think I was probably dehydrated and I saw the road start to kind of melt. The two things I saw during this run were rainbows and a bird. The rainbows were flashing by my head on both sides as I ran down Beach Drive. Going by my head like really fast cars. But just by my head, not by my whole body. At the same time I felt like I was running with rocket shoes. Looking back at my Garmin data, this was my fastest mile. Then at mile 29, I looked down at the ground and saw a dead blackbird. “Hmm. That’s not a good sign,” I thought. Then I blinked, turned away, turned back, and the dead bird was gone. So. It probably wasn’t there? Then I got in my head and decided that seeing a dead bird and then having it disappear was also not a good sign. I drank some more water a quarter mile later and felt good through the end of the run. But man, that bird.

I have a 50K race in 10 days in North Carolina. There, the goal is to finish at an OK pace (maybe between 7:45 and 8:30?) and to work on my fueling and blister/soggy feet issues some more. Oh and not to see phantom dead animals because that’s a little weird.  I will have a trial and error period for a while before I get this long run thing right, but I’ll definitely figure out what works before Comrades.

A Few New Goals for Recovery Week

For the first time in years (years!), I had a week without a training plan. Aside from my traditional ten-mile Tuesday run, I had nothing on my calendar. I indulged in a few treats early this week: pizza, cookies, ice cream. But after a few indulgences, I decided I really wanted to go easy. After eating fairly well for a while, I have kind of lost any cravings for really fattening food. My coach said to just have fun this week and to take it easy. In the absence of a plan, I had time to think about my goals for the summer through to my next big marathon attempt. Here they are, in no order.

  1. Return to physical therapy: I came off Big Sur with a touch of knee soreness. That’s new. My quads and calves were pretty tight after two marathons in a week, so I’m guessing my knees are taking on extra work. Multiple flights and lots of sitting didn’t help. My running mechanics need a tune up if I’m going to put in high mileage through the summer. I’m sure I need to stretch more, and I certainly need more hip and core strength. My physical therapist an help with that.
  2. Try group runs: Shakeout runs before marathons are some of the most personally enriching experiences I have all year. The time seems to pass quickly, and I get to talk to new, interesting people while I run. D.C. has tons of running groups. One of them will probably be a good fit, right? I tried a Pacer’s group run on Saturday, which had the benefit of being slow enough to keep me from overdoing it this week. I don’t think I’ll return to run with this group because the pace was a little slower than I’d prefer, but I’ll find one that sticks.
  3. More trail running: I’ve resolved to put in more trail miles in the past, and I know more miles on softer surfaces will help reduce my risk of injury. I need to hold myself accountable this time. Maybe a trail run every other week to start. To get this started, I went for my first trail run in many months today.
  4. Learn to carry water: We have a 50K fire road/trail ultra coming up in July. It’s going to be hot. I need to figure out fueling and try out water bottles. Maybe backpacks too. I hate carrying things, so this is going to be tricky.

I know 80 miles is a lot for an easy week, but I had a lot of fun. I ran slower than normal. I went out for short, relaxing runs when I felt like it. I started chipping away at my goals. Got in some nice hill work, too. In a few weeks, I’ll be ready to start working toward the big October goal.

The Great Taper: How I Won’t Screw Up Before Boston and Big Sur

Somewhere around Potomac Park in the Cherry Blossom 10-miler-ish
Somewhere around Potomac Park in the Cherry Blossom 10-miler-ish

My mileage took a decent step down last week from 95 to 80 miles, and it will go down again for the next week. For the past week, I’ve had a nice feeling the past three months of training are starting to snap in to place. My legs are cooperating, and I’m hitting my pace for every workout. I’ve banked a bunch of hard miles and long runs. Now is the time to concentrate on not screwing up the seven days between now and Boston.

To build a little more confidence ahead of two big races, I set a few PRs in the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler yesterday. The course was shortened by a half mile because of an incident before the race, but I still set a few new PRs of my own for the 5K (19:33), 10K (39:30) and 15K (59:57). And I blew away my 6:36 pace goal with a 6:26 average per mile.

I’ve felt more energized over the past week than at any other time during the training cycle. Even after a rainy 15-miler through the cherry blossoms last Wednesday, my legs still felt like they could have kept going for at least 10 more miles. I also have concentrated on eating a little healthier this month. I’ve cut out most sweets and have tried to limit myself to one glass of wine a day or nothing at all. So it looks like I’ll start Boston at my goal weight and with many more miles and hard workouts than I’d ever thought I could run.

Here’s the plan for the next week that I’m going to try to not screw up.

  • Monday: 8 miles easy
  • Tuesday: 10 miles moderate pace
  • Wednesday: 10 miles: 6 miles easy, 2 miles at marathon pace, finish out easy
  • Thursday: 7 miles easy
  • Friday: maximum of 45 minutes
  • Saturday: 10K shakeout
  • Sunday: shakeout with Bart Yasso
  • Monday: Boston Marathon

Once I get through Boston, I’ll start to focus on recovery and time goals for Big Sur. Right now, given my training and the forecast, my best guess for time goals is:

Boston

  • A Goal: 3:00
  • B Goal: 3:05
  • Having Fun Goal: 3:15

Big Sur

  • A Goal: 3:15
  • B Goal: 3:25
  • Having Fun Goal: uhhh 3:40?

B2B Training Ramp Up: Three 90+-mile Weeks

The last three weeks of training have really kicked my ass. I can’t remember a time when I was ever so excited about running and exhausted at the same time. These three weeks aren’t the highest-mileage weeks I’ve ever put in (they’re close), but each one has included at least one hard workout. Those hard workouts make a huge difference. They’re the reason I can’t wait to head out the door most mornings, and they’re the reason I’ve started sleeping eight hours a night.

Now that most of the hard training is done, for the first time in my running life, I’m looking forward to a taper. Maybe I wasn’t running to my full potential before, so I wasn’t ever really tired enough to want a long taper. But after yesterday’s final long run and after a nice brunch, I came home, sat down on the couch, and felt that warm, completely drained, buzzy feeling. That’s what the training is supposed to do. My legs need some time to recover before three hard races. And I’m excited to let that happen.

Here are my top five runs from the last three weeks. This stretch has coincided with an intense time at work (multiple product releases, boss was gone for a week), and I’m even more psyched I’ve been able to train at this level with so much else going on.

5. 17 miles with Michael through Richmond

Michael and I were both tempted to stay home and work all weekend, but we decided to get away for a nice overnight trip to Richmond. I got great advice for a potential long run route, and Michael drew a makeshift map. Off we went down Monument Ave. and along some trails. This was my second long run for the weekend, and I was happy with the time on my feet.

Silly running map. We didn’t get lost!

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4. 16 miles with five miles at half marathon pace

The day before the Richmond run, I went out for 16 miles with five at half marathon pace. That ended up being 6:53, 6:56, 6:51, 6:37, 6:37. This run was a huge confidence builder because I’d just run a half marathon the week before and wasn’t sure if my legs were back yet.

3. Cardozo speedwork: three different sessions

  • Session 1: 6:37 and 6:28 miles as a second run
  • Session 2: 6:35 and 6:28 miles as a second run, though I felt like I was dragging
  • Session 3: 5K time trial with 6:29, 6:24, 6:26 miles. And on this particular Tuesday, I ended up running 22.5 miles total. That day was ridiculous.

2. 24 miles with last four pushing the pace

I ran my favorite loop around D.C., Virginia and Maryland, through some nasty wind. The last four miles were around 7:00 pace, despite some nasty gusts. This run lets me know I can push the pace after mile 20 in a few weeks.

1. 20 miles on the W&OD

This run legitimizes the idea that the I’ve improved my fitness in the past three months. With a head wind through the first half and a great tail wind pushing me in the last miles, I ended up running 20 miles at 7:21 pace. The week before Boston last year, I ran 14 miles at 7:35 pace and felt like I was really peaking out.

Last long run before Boston /Big Sur taper
Last long run before Boston /Big Sur taper: Strava