I have become the person who forgets he’s running half marathons. The constellation of things going on in my life in the last few weeks certainly has taken priority over many things, evidenced by my lack of blogging but continuance of training. I’m busy doing life rather than documenting it. But by forgetting to document it, I stopped reflecting on it and as a result I forgot to note that I was going to run a half marathon on Sunday. And yet, even with the chaos of life around me I still managed to run it coming off two months of rest and maybe three or four running sessions since starting training again. While I have become the person who forgets he’s running a half marathon, concurrently I have become the person who can crank one out with a halfway decent time with little to no warning. This will be handy when I have to hunt a mastodon for dinner.
I began running several years ago with my friend Gavi. She was the one who, when she found out I was starting to plod along the Ballona, suggested we sign up for a 10K together. It would give us a goal, both in distance and in discipline. She introduced me to her friend Ezra, who had run many marathons and gave us helpful advice on running with intervals and rough schedules. He had run with the Pasadena Pacers, and had valuable insights on how to gradually increase distance and endurance. It was with Gavi and Ezra that I trained towards half marathon and full marathon distance. I worked from running 3/1 intervals (run 3 minutes, walk 1) to 5/1. I did 5/1 intervals through all 3 of my marathons, including my PR of 4:30:39 in March of this year. Sometime in 2007 I dropped intervals for mileage under 16 miles. For that first year I needed intervals because I was learning how to run and building my endurance. Eventually I discovered that it was more comfortable to hold a solid pace under threshold than running slightly over and then recovering. By this point I was training with Gavi and her friend, Alyssa, a lifelong athlete who had never used intervals but was working towards her first marathon using the 5/1 method. Evening out those peaks and valleys resulted in faster times, and Alyssa and I cracked the two hour barrier in the 2007 City of Angels race. (She was usually sub-2, but that was my first time.) Two months later I PR’d the 2008 Surf City half marathon with a 1:54:26.
A year ago Gavi became pregnant with her third child, and I dove headfirst into triathlon. Our training together dwindled as we pursued our own paths, but our friendship remained and we were still very much involved in each other’s lives. Even if we weren’t running together we would still talk frequently about running and our athletic pursuits. After the birth of her son, Gavi came back to running and found that her base fitness was still there. She and Alyssa ran together in the valley where they live, and have been recruiting other moms into running with them. But Gavi and I had always intended to run something again, and when she told me she had dropped intervals from her training I was very excited. She had signed up for the 3rd City of Angels 1/2 marathon and I went ahead and signed up as well. I would run with her and Alyssa for the fun of running with my friends.
That was several months ago. In between then and now I began being coached for triathlon, have been trying to incorporate the Core Performance routine into my calendar, I got hit by a car and have all the medical and pet tasks to deal with, and as some of you know the economy is in the toilet and work is harder to come by. The race kind of slipped my mind. Completely. Gavi came down several weeks ago for a long run together, and halfway through she developed the stomach flu her kids had given her. A week or two later I tried my own long run of 10 miles and my knee started screaming, likely as a result of poor ankle flexion. (I have really low inversion and eversion flexibility which, when combined with low flexibility in my quadriceps, causes a problem all the way through my leg.) Since coming back into training all of my runs had been disappointing. All told, I had run perhaps 25 miles in just over a month.
A week before the race I called Gavi to tell her that I very much wanted to run the race, but my injury may prevent it. She was sympathetic, having just gone through multiple rounds of stomach flu in her house and was just recovering herself. We agreed to feel it out as we got closer to the race itself at which point I forgot about the race again. It was Thursday or Friday when I remembered, it kept popping up in my head like a grocery item. “You’re running a half marathon on Sunday. And broccoli. Get broccoli.” In the past I would taper, reduce my workload and increase my carbohydrate stores. Not this time. I was scheduled for a long ride on Saturday by my coach (whom I had forgotten to inform about my half marathon until after he had put together my month’s training plan), I had just had my roof rack installed on the A3 and was looking forward to trying it out.
Saturday I strapped Le Boucher to the new Yakima Steelhead roof rack I had installed by Rack Solid on Lincoln. (~$500, installed, for everything: 4 Q-towers, rails, and the lockable bike sled.)
The rack worked great, and I drove out to Michael Landon park, across from Pepperdine. I was supposed to ride with friends, but one friend is still recovering from a lower back injury, and Ironman Julian got the flu. My “group ride, sit-in, no long pulls (don’t lead for extended periods), zone 1-3” day was going to be a solo ride on PCH.
I had been meaning to do this ride for some months since coach Brian told me about the course: Pepperdine to Las Posas, just past Pt. Mugu Naval base into Ventura County. 50 miles, round trip. Lots of false flats, some good, long and slow climbing, and excellent speed zones. He also threw down the gauntlet that his best time was 2 & 1/2 hours.
The day was gorgeous, and even though I got a later start because of potchkying around the house until 11, I still had a good ride. I chose to start Doctor Zhivago on audiobook for this ride, because listening to audiobooks allows me to focus on my energy output rather than a driving drum beat that pushes me harder than I should. I’d only put 200 miles on Le Boucher by this point and I was looking forward to discovering what 50 would feel like in the tri position.
I discovered a couple things:
1) I need a new seat. After 30 or so miles I was shifting around a lot, much more so than with my road bike and its anatomical cut-out. To be blunt, I couldn’t get my junk forward enough so I was just mashing my genitals for miles. On the road bike, the cutout makes it so there’s much less pressure on the nerve cluster. Even though it’s a harder saddle, it’s still much more comfortable than the stock Cervelo seat.
2) I need to strengthen my shoulders to support my body over long distances in the aero position. I was getting major shoulder pain at mile 40 from holding my neck up and being in a plank position for hours.
3) Doctor Zhivago is just not my thing.
The ride took just under 3 hours, which I will reduce once I get the seat upgraded and work on my shoulders. I ate three yam baggies and two water bottles on the ride. I didn’t have any food with me so I stopped at the Ralphs on the way home to get lunch. As is often the case, after I work out for more than 2 hours I’m just not hungry. I made a salad at the salad bar, picked up a roasted chicken, and a container of brown rice and veggies. I sat outside the grocery store and force-fed myself. It’s not a pleasant experience. My body didn’t want food, but I knew it needed it so I put in as much as I could without feeling nauseated.
I got home, uploaded my data to Training Peaks, and then started to wind down. I was going to run a what the next day? I called Gavi because, in forgetting about the race, I also had forgotten to go to an Expo for packet pickup, or figure out transportation to the start line. Gavi told me that packet pickup would be at the start line, and free shuttles would pick people up downtown at the Grand Avenue parking lot/finish line and go up to the start at Griffith Park. I got lucky!
Though I tried to go bed early I wound up turning in at 11. I set the alarm for 4 am, remembering that the one thing I hate about race day is getting up so friggin’ early.
When the alarm went off at 4 I was up and out, making coffee and oatmeal and trying to take care of business before leaving.
I met Gavi and Alyssa in the parking lot and we shuttled together to the race start. It was really nice to be with them again, my old training partners, and we have a natural joking, wisecracking baseline. Especially that early in the morning, sleepy, excited, and the feeling of being not quite ready for the race to come.
Packet pickup was easy and quick, with a new disposable timing chip to strap on. I used the porta-john before there was a line, and we were all relieved that the morning wasn’t as cold as years past. (Year one had one barely functional heatlamp and hundreds of runners huddled together wearing trash bags looking like March of the Penguins. It was freezing cold that morning. Year two had more heat lamps, better race logistics, and a chilly, misty weather. This year the weather was downright balmy. Lots of heatlamps, though!)
We saw Ezra at the start, and I hadn’t seen him in a long time. He had moved his kids to a new school and had done a big fundraiser for the Pasadena Marathon to benefit this new school. However, the marathon had been canceled due to the fires spewing toxic ash into the air all over L.A. Still, he was in race ready shape and was looking forward to the day’s race. We caught up with him, then Alyssa and I went back to the porta-potties because, well, because.
The race went off in three confused self-grouped waves. Wave 1 was 5:00 to 9:00 pace milers, wave 2 everyone else, wave 3, the Students Run L.A. kids. It didn’t go quite as smoothly as they hoped, mostly because it’s the dumbest thing in the world to try and organize 6,000 runners over a crappy PA using an unenforceable system. At least in triathlon everyone is wearing a colored swim cap to denote wave grouping. Even the truly idiotic (but not the color blind) can find their group.
We got underway 4 minutes offset from the race clock and settled into a 10:00 per mile pace, according to my Garmin.
I was still a little nervous about my leg, and had brought my iPhone with just in case I needed to drop out. I was mentally prepared to take a DNF for this race if at any point my leg started to hurt the way it did on my solo long run. I told Gavi and Alyssa that if necessary I’d just stop at a coffee shop and they could pick me up after the race. I wasn’t committed to the race, I hadn’t trained for it, and my primary reason for being there was in support of my friends. Technically I was scheduled for 1 hr 15 min of zone 1 running for the day, so anything over that was gravy.
The City of Angels course is quite nice, going through Griffith Park for 4 miles of loopbacks before hitting the LA River pedestrian path winding into Silver Lake, through Echo Park and finishing downtown. It’s not super hilly, but there are a few distinct climbs in Echo Park as well as some shin-slapping descents in unexpected places. The tunnels and pathways tend to be narrow, and runners can get jammed together in a few places. The Students Run LA is a motivated, fun group of kids but they’re jackasses when it comes to race etiquette. They vacillate their pace up and down so runners going a steady pace will pass the same kids over and over again as they blow themselves out in a sprint and then stand at the side of the road catching their breath. I’m glad the race directors tried to wave start the kids in the rear, but no one listened. As such, the SRLA kids were all over the course, tripping up runners and causing chaos in their wake.
It was great to run with Gavi and Alyssa again. This was Gavi’s first race where she dropped intervals and she held a steady, solid pace the entire time. Alyssa makes running look effortless, she is built for athletics, and the three of us talked and joked the whole race. There were a few moments when I thought my knee was acting up, but by slowing the pace slightly I was able to recover and keep going. Our pace held mostly around 10:15 (ten minutes fifteen seconds per mile), sometimes a little faster when the course was flat and we weren’t on concrete. On the course we ran into Gavi’s uncle in Silver Lake, and a friend of theirs from their kid’s school. Because I wasn’t running at race pace it felt like a great training run, and mostly reminded me of the joy of running with friends. We were able to maintain simple conversation, and just being with each other made the miles go faster. I intentionally did not look for the mile markers on this course, letting the miles happen on their own. My watch was set to show pace and heart rate zone, so I didn’t look at distance. My heart rate zone 1-3 was ideal for that pace, my “Goldilocks zone” to borrow a phrase. (In planetary science the Goldilocks Zone refers to the perfect conditions for sustaining life – not too hot, not too cold.) As we hit mile 10 I slowed a bit, Gavi and Alyssa pulled ahead by a few dozen feet and I stuck my iPhone headphones in to listen to music for a while. I took a mental break from the run as Khachaturian’s saber dance pushed me along. (I have a deep love of fast paced circus and carnival music, which should surprise no one.)
At mile 11 I picked up again and rejoined my friends, keeping one ear with music and the other in conversation. As we hit downtown I saw that my friends were doing great, and when Gavi asked if we really were at 2 hrs and 1 minute I looked at my watch and confirmed her timing. At mile 12 I was pretty much done. Not from fatigue, just from running. I saw that the girls were great, I still had plenty of fuel in the tank, and was going to finish. I got the wave from Gavi and I picked up the pace. I found I had much more room to go faster, even without blowing up. Unfortunately I found this juice while in the 2nd street tunnel so the GPS cut out and stopped registering pace. Mentally I think I moved up to an 8:30 pace. No land speed record by any means, but much more my race pace. I was able to continue accelerating through the tunnel, and up the final insulting hill to the finish line. I passed several dozen people in the home stretch. I find it a curious thing that so many people see the finish line and slow down. I think mentally they see the words FINISH and think it is over before they hit the mat. Not me. I see the words FINISH and I get a surge of power, the knowledge that it is over causes an adrenaline surge and I find I have even more gas in the tank to finish strong. That’s why I find the finish to this race “insulting”, because it is hidden around the corner after a half mile tunnel, and it’s a short uphill climb to cross the line. Show me the finish a mile away and I can hammer that final mile.
Around a minute later Gavi and Alyssa came in for their finish and I was there waiting for them, cheering and happy to see them cross. For Gavi, this was her first race since her pregnancy as well as her first without intervals. She PR’d the race by 8 minutes. Alyssa was really happy with her run and looked like she could crank out another 13 miles easy. I was happy to have finished, having really enjoyed the feeling of running with friends again. Triathlon is so often a solo pursuit it’s good to be reminded of the social aspects of training with nice people. We’ve all changed a lot in the last three years, but the way relationships are built and maintained is by creating events and experiences you choose to go through together. Picking some races that aren’t necessarily “goal races” can be part of that.
I would recommend, however, training for them.
I picked up a bag of ice on the way home and laid it across my quads. I spent the rest of the day on the couch putting ice on my legs and cuddling with my injured dog while my wife finished her grad school homework in the other room. I watched INTO THE WILD, the true story of a young man on a journey to find his own truth. It ends with him starving to death in the wilds of Alaska. His last words are scrawled into one of his books, “Happiness is only real if shared.” I sat with my dog, my ice, and my memories, crying with appreciation and understanding.