Sunday, October 28, 2018

The monkey is finally off my back

It's just noon but it feels like most of the day has passed. I'm sitting back on the couch drinking my Earl Grey (with some celebratory sugar added) reflecting on a very busy morning. As I sit, it's only my feet that are still mildly disgruntled with my choice of hobby. One toe in particular would be entitled to issue a grievance. But generally the body is feeling quite good - not like one that has necessarily run 26.2 miles. And it has, and the word "run" is key: While this is my third marathon, the previous two had moments of either intense exhaustion or discomfort that forced me to walk for some time. My discontented feet ran the full distance (excluding drink stops).

It all started as it always does at 3:30am with an early wake-up and breakfast. Then it was off to the CBD to catch the ferry over. As I walked towards the ferry building, I bumped into one other competitor and chatted all the way from the ferry building to the venue. He was a young Brit who has now settled in NZ. He was preparing for his first marathon and thought he'd do his first marathon in preparation. Then it was off to do one of the most important things before a big run: get to the portaloo early before there are queues and get yourself at ease. One new event on this particular marathon was a wheelchair division. They went first because none of the runners would have a show at matching those chairs - they're fast!

And then five minutes later we were off too. The forecast had been a bit iffy and it started to drizzle just before the start gun and that went on for about half an hour. This was a bother to me - my glasses become useless once it is persistent drizzle and I took them off and held them in my hand. One little regret was that though I had a carry pouch, it was pretty full so I chose to hold my glasses. Not long after I felt a "pop" and noticed one of the lenses had come out and was in my palm (luckily). This meant that I'd have to run the rest of the race without glasses. In the end it didn't affect the race but was annoying because I often didn't spot friends as they ran around.

Before any event I have anxiety about how different parts of my body will hold up. My chief running concerns of the last three weeks were my left arch and my right heel. I'd kept my running comparatively light last week and the lead-in to the race but I could still feel the sensation in my heel even before I left home this morning. Though both "woke up" at various points in the race, they disappeared after some time. I felt my toes tingle a little though and thought I might develop blisters.

But it was a race and that was something I always enjoy about running. I actually started from the wrong area. Generally they try to get people to stand with people of similar pace so that there is less dodging and weaving. When I went in there was no direction about pace groups so I just stood doing some warm-ups while more and more people came in. When I finally noticed the pace signs come out and realised I was in the wrong place, there were too many people to move back. That meant that I was surrounded by rather fast runners. After the gun I went at my own pace and let all the runners flow around me. (This is almost the opposite to what happened in the Devonport Half where I was was at the back and had to negotiate through crowds to get to my pace group.) It's funny to be passed and passed. I always wanted to stay with them, which I could, but then I'd be going to fun and would run out of gas. It was so tempting. As it was I was already going faster than intended but it didn't feel unnatural. I felt like I was running easily.

By the time we got to the Bridge I'd gotten with the people who'd be regular companions. There was Red, a young woman, and Benny Buttcrack, a gent with loose pants. Red was a swift runner and at times surged quite far ahead but always tended to drift back to the group after about 15km I passed her and didn't see her again. Benny Buttcrack was never going to be a great person to follow. Does this man not know that running shorts have drawstrings? Either way, his shirt was too short and his pants invariably went with gravity as it was weighed down by sweat. I was with him for most of the last 20km of the race. He looked ungainly but was also a fast mover. He did disappear ahead for sometime before he started to go slower returning from St Helliers and I passed him twice before not seeing him again. I believe he had the last laugh though. I think he was among a bunch of runners that passed me in the last 5km.

It was strange running this route that dismantled me last year. I remember the stages leading to disaster and event the sensations at different locations on the route. St Helliers in particular has left a mark as that was when I massively decelerated and could no longer deny that I was stuffed. This year was eerie as I did the turn at St Helliers (31km mark) tired but still on pace (under 5min/km). I was waiting for "The Wall" to hit but though the next five kilometres after St Helliers I was on track. It was only at Okahu Bay that the fatigue started to show in my split time, 5:22min/km, which ended up being my slowest km in the race. Now was a battle against the clock. My stated goal was "under 3:30" and while I was "ahead" any splits above 4:59min/km would eat into the buffer of time. The next four kilometre splits were all over 5:00. Fortunately, after those I was at the 41km mark and also was studying my time and knew that with just a little more pace, I'd probably scrape in. My calves were crying in fatigue but I pushed and produced a 4:52min/km for the last full kilometre. By the time I was in the finishing shoot I could see the official time hadn't yet got to 3:30 and I jogged through with seconds to spare.

While the body has found some degree of peace on the couch, I'm glad to say my mind has found some peace as well. My target for all three of my marathons has been 3:30 or better. And I went from the start gate to the finishing arch in three hours, twenty nine minutes and forty seven seconds. That might only be thirteen seconds within target, but it's also fourteen minutes faster than my previous best marathon eight weeks ago and finally getting the 3:30 monkey off my back. Why 3:30? Well, technically I should be aiming a little lower. Based on the speed that I can do a 10km race and half marathon, I should be able to do it much faster, 3:11 apparently. But my training runs have shown that I struggle to maintain the pace required for such a time. Whereas 3:30, when I first aimed to run a marathon, worked out at just under 5 minutes per kilometre which is, on the face of it with my fitness, a manageable pace. But the two previous marathons have shown that even with a seemingly conservative target, I struggled.

Why? I had my own theories, including having gone too fast, which might have been the case but hydration was something that with time had been a particular realisation. This run I drank at every stop. I also used "gels" which are high sugar squeezy packs that can charge you up. Perhaps as a result, I didn't have the same "crashes" in the last third of the marathon.

It's time to celebrate. I've been virtually teetotal for the last two weeks so I'm looking forward to imbibing a little this evening. The coming week I can gladly sleep in and just do a couple of very light runs on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. I still have work to do with two other goals: My 5km time at Cornwall Park is 20:20 and I would like to get that under 20 minutes. I have just one formal race to attend, the Omaha Half and ideally there I can replicate this success and get under 1:30, strictly speaking not a strong goal of mine, but one that is quite possible considering recent results. But this week is not a time to think about that. 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Packing them in

It truly is perverse the number of running events that are happening on any given week, disturbing traffic, startling blue penguins and increasing the production of medals and technical t-shirts. Every weekend there is something on somewhere attracting hundreds of people, well trained and bristling ready for action. Although there are probably those freak-of-nature amateur athletes who compete every week, it's not healthy to push your body to its competitive limit on such a regular basis. And even if you did, the general thought is that you wouldn't improve much because you wouldn't give your body the appropriate variety of runs to stimulate the body to respond adaptively. 

After I had finished the North Shore Marathon on 3 September, all I had in store for myself competitively was the half marathon series, five events around the greater Auckland area, each a couple of months apart. I liked the idea of a series so I could see my progress, and especially whether I could eventually challenge the 1:30 threshold (i.e. doing a half marathon in under 90 minutes). When I entered it in May it still seemed like there was a wall at 1:35 that I wouldn't be able to get passed, but back on 12 August I surprised myself with getting 1:31 at Millwater. I knew if my fitness continued I'd be able to challenge 1:30 sooner than I thought. Then of course the marathon rolled round and I had to recover. Initially I opted against entering the Auckland Marathon (28 October) just so I wouldn't have too many events but then some bait was thrown into the water. Asics offered a chance to "join Team Asics" and  get 20% off the entry fee as well as an Asics pack if I was one of the 20 people chosen on 30 September. I put my name down with some trepidation. I was leaving it up to others to decide if I were running. But I liked trying something different and left fate to intervene.

In the meantime, I picked up my training again and got into a good rhythm. One great thing about having just run a marathon is that your body doesn't know if there is another one coming up and prepares just in case you are stupid enough to run again. So you get a fitness boost in the aftermath, even though other parts of your body might be still recovering. Three weeks after the marathon I ran my usual Parkrun at Cornwall Park and immediately smashed my previous record by 50 seconds (this is quite a lot). Parkrun, for the unacquainted, is a free, timed 5km run every Saturday morning all over the world. Auckland has five different ones attracting hundreds every weekend. Previously in the peak of my fitness I'd always struggled to get under 21 minutes at Cornwall Park. After the marathon last year I did 21:22; then in May this year I got 21:14, a month later while feeling unstoppably fit and fast, I regressed to 21:36, then in July I made slight progress to 21:10 in August. Considering one of my stated goals for the year was breaking 20:00 at Cornwall Park, I was clearly "doing it wrong" or just underestimated the challenge of it. And then I ran the marathon and 20 days later ran the Cornwall Park parkrun in 20:20. That's how significant a marathon is in pushing you to a new level. (I ran a parkrun this morning and registered 20:26 to show it wasn't a flash in the pan.) I still have to find a way to clip off another 4 seconds from each kilometre and then it's mission accomplished! 

30 September was quick approaching and the decision of whether to run Auckland Marathon was about to come clear, but 30 September was significant for another reason. It was the day of the first event of the half marathon series, the Devonport Half. I'd never run this before and naively thought I'd be able to match my Millwater time. It was considerably hillier and had more people than I'd ever imagined. With the hills, it has a "smack in the face" called Huia Street in the first kilometre which is a short, steep hill, and in the 18th kilometre has a "winding smack to the guts" in climbing Northhead. It's not a simple course. But a bigger factor for me was that because I delayed going to the start area, I began stuck in a huge mass of runners with very little space to move, nowhere near my usual pace group. It took about half the race of first dodging and weaving and then moving up to each cluster of runners and passing them to get to runners I could pace with. It was at the 11th kilometre I bumped into Jonathan, a regular run club runner who is also in the series. I knew his pace (he's second fastest and a great pacer for me). So I kept with him for about a kilometre before pushing onwards and caught another fast bunch. In the end, I finished 1:33:44, which though slower than my expectation I was pretty pleased with. It wasn't the improvement but more of a consolidation. It was my second time under 1:35 but on a difficult course. 

The next day was my birthday and so was the news that everyone who wanted to join had been accepted for Team Asics. I gave myself the gift of a marathon and now I'm running in the marathon in just 8 days. With that, and bearing in mind what I said about not competing all the time, in the six months until the end of October, I would have run 2 marathons, 3 half marathons, two 10km races and five 5km races, twelve events, which works out at almost one every two weeks, which can only be regarded as overdoing it. The body has held up remarkably well and I've enjoyed racing. Racing is quite enlivening for the mind and soul. 

One side issue is the birthday gift from my wife, a smartwatch, the Fitbit Ionic. Now that I've had it for almost two months, I've observed some interesting things, especially about resting heart rate. When I started using my it my resting heart rate was in the middle of a lower period, as low as 46 beats a minute. But with a lack of sleep and a busy week, it rose. After the marathon, it rose still. When I drank alcohol, it'd rise. When I fell and had wounds, it was higher until they healed. The peak of all these factors coincided with my highest resting heart rate of 58 beats a minute. I've had a good week limiting these factors and now it's back down to 50. I'd like to get it back well into the 40s by the time of my marathon. 

Another interesting thing is observing my heart rate during exercise. It is rather random. When I'm exerting myself it can be high or low. When I'm taking it easy it can be high or low. In fact, it sometimes has this "flicking the switch" moment, where my heart rate mid-run increases or decreases by as much as 40 beats a minute. And I don't feel a thing. I haven't had any symptom on the run apart from increasing fatigue which is the same sign any runner should get as they run more. Because my family does have something of a curse in the cardiac department, it might have to be something I get a doctor to look at. It could be just a gremlin in the device but is probably not coincidental. 

8 days to this whimsical marathon, I'm going to be watching my heart!