Intervals

The next race I have coming down the pipeline is the Illinois Half Marathon, at the end of April. It won’t be a new state or a new race, but it’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s so well-organized, the course is flat yet interesting with the numerous changes of scenery, and the weather at that time of year is usually pretty decent. All in all, it’s a great course for PR attempts. I’ve PR’d there the last couple years, but this year, barring illness or outrageously hot weather, I’m going for a big one: I’m shooting for my first sub-2:00 half. As my friends and I joke, it’s my “breaking 2” attempt, in a nod to Kipchoge’s efforts to do the same (for twice the distance…).

For me, sub-2:00 is within the realm of possibility, but I knew from the outset it was going to take some work. To take my training to the next level, I began adding an interval day to my weekly routine about a month ago. Not going to lie, at first it sucked in every possible way. The fast stretches felt interminable, I struggled even to break 8:30 for some of the later repeats, and I ended up sounding like a wounded water buffalo by the time I “sprinted” down the final stretch.

I stuck with it, though, and lo and behold, as my more experienced runner friends have assured me, it has gotten better. I’m now up to 7×400-meter repeats, and I’m starting to hit most of them under 8:00, which is ideally where I’d like them to be. Next step: improving at holding it together on the penultimate interval, which is consistently my slowest!

Garmin app screencap showing interval times

Sunday Runday

I love long run days, which for me are almost always Sundays. The fact that it is winter in Chicago IMO makes it even more luxurious. First of all I get to wake up without an alarm, since there’s no rush to beat the nonexistent heat. Then there’s breakfast. Lately, I’m all about warming up from the inside out. I’ve gotten into plain oatmeal with peanut butter and a tiny bit of sugar, and bananas if I have them around. I can’t do coffee before running, but a large, steaming mug of green tea is perfection…just the right combination of hydration with a hit of caffeine.

Today, I followed breakfast with a quick dynamic warm-up of leg swings, squats, calf raises, side kicks, high knees, and butt kicks, then headed out for a blustery, slightly snowy seven-miler. My past few runs, I’ve consciously been trying to keep my pace in check. I am definitely guilty of not taking my easy runs and long runs as slowly as I should, so lately I’ve been making hefty use of the pace alerts on the Garmin watch my parents got me for Christmas (thanks Mom and Dad!).

I set today’s pace for 10:00-11:00. Still went out too fast on the first mile, but it was closer than some of them have been. I was also proud of myself for keeping my speed up even when I turned around and spent the second half of my run running directly into a 17-m.p.h. headwind. The most exciting part, though, was I felt good enough heading into the final mile that I decided to try and hit my projected half marathon race pace or better, just to see if I could do it. Ended up going well under pace, about 8:35, and didn’t feel totally trashed by the time I got home.

It was the first time I’d done anything like that in training, and I’m still riding the high from it. It’s like I’ve gotten a taste of what is possible, and I want to keep going just to see where my limits are. Can’t wait to get back out there this week and continue putting in the work, one step at a time.

“Relax! You Aren’t Going to Win the Race.”

I will own it: I am often a basket of neuroses before a race. Despite being late to just about everything else in my life, when it comes to race day, I want to get there AT LEAST half an hour early. That way I have plenty of time to use the bathroom (maybe even more than once!), make sure my shoes are double-knotted, fiddle with my race bib, have some water, do some dynamic warm-ups, and get lined up without feeling rushed. Though I’m not an elite runner, I have my pre-race rituals, and I feel way more relaxed and in the zone when I have enough time to do them.

Of course, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also tried to embrace flexibility and the ability to roll with the punches a bit more. One quip I have frequently used to calm my nerves before a race is, “Relax! You aren’t going to win the race.” It might sound pessimistic, but for me, it takes the pressure off. It reminds me that running is just something fun that I do for myself, and that’s it. The worst thing that happens is *gasp* I STOP RUNNING. I’m not going to lose a sponsorship/my livelihood, no one’s life is hanging in the balance, and my worth as a person in no way depends on my race results.

The only thing is, today the mantra broke down. I cannot believe that I, once the caboose of my middle school cross-country team, am writing these words, but: this morning, I actually did win the (women’s) race for the 5K I ran in.

Was it part luck? Absolutely. It was a small community race with only 40-50 entrants, and the really fast ladies obviously had other things to do this morning.

Even so, I want to take some credit. I PR’d by over 45 seconds, and am now tantalizingly close to my long-term goal of breaking 25 minutes in the 5K. Fingers crossed that I can keep up the consistent training I’ve been doing, because I think that will get me there.

In the meantime, though, I may need to tweak my pre-race mantra a bit. I may not be a likely contender in most races that I do, but as I learned today, it’s now possible that conditions could align just right, and I might, in fact, win the race!

New Jersey: Stone Harbor Hustle 5K

After an extended absence, I’m happy to report that I’m still here and still working through my 50 state challenge. My first new state in a long time was New Jersey, which I’ll tell you all about after filling you in on the 2018 season-that-really-wasn’t.

Where I’ve Been

Essentially, last year really got away from me, as did some of this year. Though I’d had my eye on several races, life and injuries kept getting in the way. Most notably, there was the situation with my cat. As you might remember, she had her first bout of major illness around the time I started this blog in 2017. Though she mostly bounced back from that, she had been touch-and-go since then. Trying to plan trips around flare-ups, though not impossible, definitely got tricky, especially while also taking her medical expenses into account. Then this year around April, she had a worse flare-up than usual. Long story short, it turned out she actually had a rare presentation of aggressive feline lymphoma, which ultimately took her to the Rainbow Bridge a few weeks ago.

For my own part, I spent most of the 2018 running season battling a frustrating case of IT band syndrome. Though it only flared up intermittently, usually at longer distances, I could not seem to shake it, no matter how much stretching or foam rolling I did. Finally, after feeling the familiar stabbing pain two miles into a treadmill run this past winter, I went back to see my awesome physical therapist.

Within five minutes, she determined the problem was actually that my hips were out of alignment, thanks to poor sitting habits (don’t cross your legs at the knee or sit on your feet, kids!). I’m happy to say that after improving how I sit at work, continuing with my glute-strengthening “pre-hab” exercises as I now call them, and upping my foam-rolling game to include substantial work on the glutes, I’ve mostly been free of the IT band beast.

With that, onto the New Jersey race report!

The Stone Harbor Hustle 5K

My adventures this summer included a short trip with the family to the Jersey Shore. Ocean City was a favorite vacation spot when my sister and I were kids, and we all still love visiting even though everyone is all grown up now. 

My grown-up way to have fun at the Jersey Shore, of course, involved morning runs on the boardwalk and a race. Lucky for me, the Sunday we were there overlapped with the annual Stone Harbor Hustle 5K, about 30 minutes from where we were staying.

My sister agreed to run it with me. We have a friendly rivalry going on after the last couple of Turkey Trots we’ve done together, in particular the one we did in 2018. That race was not my best ever by any stretch. For one, I failed to officially sign up before the race sold out, so I ended up banditing the race (shhh…) with my mom’s bib. Somewhere out in cyberspace, there is a relatively impressive 5K time recorded for my mom, who I should point out does not run. I still am being made fun of for that one and probably will be for the rest of my life. Worse, I caught a cold in the flying germ tube on my way to Ohio, so really the only thing I wanted to be doing on race morning was sleeping, not running. But I ran the race anyway. In the end, what felt to be a Herculean effort on my part barely got me to the finish line in under 30 minutes, and once I crossed it, I immediately began dry heaving into the bushes off to the side. Meanwhile, my sister who hadn’t even really trained for the race happily trotted over the finish line a couple minutes later. So not cool.

The gauntlet had been thrown, so Stone Harbor was going to be our “final showdown.” Who cared that race morning had dawned 76 degrees with about 80% humidity? It was ON. After a short drive down to Stone Harbor, of course with the family along for the adventure, we stripped into the legal minimum of clothing at the start line. I also took the extra step of pouring half a bottle of water over my head as a pre-cooling measure.

“Oh my god you are so dramatic!” My sister jabbed playfully in our final round of trash-talking.

“Um, you’re going to WISH you were so dramatic!” I teased back.

Despite the heat, once the race started, I took off and never looked back (or so my sister tells it). The course itself was almost completely flat, which helped make up for the feeling of running through atmospheric soup. Even so, I felt better about the heat than I did during my Swarthmore race two years ago. At the finish line, I ended up posting my second-best 5K time ever and still broke 9:00/mile pace. Most importantly, I scored a decisive victory in the sibling rivalry (though it should be said that my sister finished strong, even if feeling a bit warm).

“Yeah, you weren’t being dramatic,” my sister admitted at the finish line. 

I smiled to myself, however I will not be resting on my laurels. After all, the 2019 Turkey Trot is just around the corner!

My Cranky Ankle: Alabama Edition

Apparently trail races have become somewhat of a theme for me this year so far. In some ways, this is not a bad thing. What better way to break up the usual road race routine than to get out in nature and run through the woods for a little while? Plus, the ground is softer and is supposedly better for your joints. A win-win situation.

Though all of this is true, part of the issue for me when it comes to trail running, which became abundantly clear to me in Delaware back in March, is that my usual training routine is grossly inadequate. Add on top of that an ankle injury that still isn’t 100% healed, and trail racing becomes an exercise in mere survival. When it comes to training, though I try to throw in some hill sprints and stretches of beach running to break up the monotony of running through the flat, concrete jungle of Chicago (lovely as it is in its own way), the reality is that I’ve yet to find a good way to train for the particular set of challenges posed by trail racing. There just doesn’t seem to be a substitute for practicing the kind of footwork needed to navigate a rocky, root-littered wooded trail, or a substitute for steep uphill (and downhill!) stretches, at least that I’ve found.

For my Alabama race, the Trussville Trail Run 6K (that is not a typo, it was actually a 6K), it wasn’t really the distance or the hilliness of the trail that got to me, though. In that respect, despite the humidity and somewhat slippery trail conditions, the race was completely manageable, even despite the race director’s admonitions that the previous day’s rain had rendered the rockier sections of the trail “slick as a snot-covered doorknob.” I took the warning to heart, and ran a good 2 minutes per mile slower than I might have expected otherwise. At that pace, distance and hills hardly felt like an issue in and of themselves.

Unfortunately, slowing down and proceeding with caution still didn’t help me too much in terms of my ankle issues on the more uneven parts of the trail, and no matter what I did, I felt like I kept landing funny on it. Though it didn’t stop me from running (save for the final time it happened and I walked for a short stretch to avoid aggravating it any further), I felt as if landing on it wrong one more time would result in a nasty sprain, or worse. Mostly my ankle just didn’t feel stable, and I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as the race went on. I couldn’t really get into a groove, and though I finished more or less uninjured, I ended up taking two weeks off from running afterwards in the hopes of letting everything settle.

Long story short, that’s where I’ve been since checking Alabama off the list. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve continued walking (sometimes absurdly long distances, thanks to the encouragement and conversational abilities of a very good friend from work). I’ve also kept up with foam rolling, tennis ball massaging, and my PT exercises. I learned following the race that at least part of why I had so much trouble out on the trail was because (fun fact!) once a sprain or tendon injury heals, it messes with your proprioception, i.e., your perception of where your body is in space, making it extremely easy to re-injure yourself. So, I’ve added some moving balance exercises to help with that. As the cherry on top, my aforementioned work friend challenged me to a 30-day “Squat Challenge,” progressing from 20-150 squats per day, so I think I’ve covered all of my bases in terms of continuing to build my leg strength and balance back up.

The good news is that it all seems to be helping. Today I ran in the local YWCA Race Against Hate, and though I can’t say I’ve yet achieved painlessness, I definitely felt better after finishing today than I did after the Alabama race. I also managed to run under 30 minutes for the 5K despite the heat and humidity this morning, so a win all around! My hope is that by the end of the month, if I continue with my self-massage and PT exercise routine, my ankle will be significantly less cranky. Given the last few weeks, I may avoid trail races at least for the remainder of this year, but hopefully, given enough time, I will be back out there to give it another go!

On the Trail in Delaware

When I think “Delaware,” I’m not really sure what comes to mind most of the time. First state in the Union? Joe Biden? That time when I was nine or so and my grandfather took us flying in a Cessna out of a tiny airport somewhere in the state? Basically, it’s a state that I know exists, but despite its proximity to my birth city of Philadelphia, I’ve never spent a whole lot of time there, except the aforementioned time when I was nine and occasionally when I’ve passed through on I-95.

At any rate, I certainly don’t automatically associate Delaware with outdoorsy sports like trail running, so when I did a search for Delaware races on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, when my sister and I would be visiting family in Philadelphia, I was somewhat surprised to come across the Beau Biden Foundation Trail Run. Huh, that sounds fun. How bad could it be? I thought. Sure, it wouldn’t exactly be my usual fare of flat road running, but my philosophy is that you can survive just about anything for 3.1 miles, and this was only a 5K. Besides, it would be for a good cause and would be a good challenge to look forward to post-physical therapy. So, I signed us up.

Training required a bit of creativity, as Chicago is not exactly known for its rugged, mountainous terrain. Mostly just happy to be back out running again, I made do with my usual routine (intervals, tempo runs, and long runs, plus strength training on my off days) with some “hill” repeats thrown into my long runs. I use the term “hill” loosely, but Cricket Hill over by Montrose Beach does provide a slight elevation change and, at least strictly speaking, qualifies as a hill. It was going to have to get the job done; I really didn’t have much else to work with. Besides, the race was going to be in Delaware, not the Rockies, right? Again I thought to myself, How bad could it be?

Turns out, I underestimated the difficulty of this race a tad. I got my first inkling of what we were in for as my sister and I stood atop the hill by the starting line, taking in the beautiful panoramic view of fields, rolling hills, and woods. Scenic for sure, but whoo-ey, this was gonna be rougher than expected!

Blue sky, hills, woods, and fields.
View from the hilltop by the starting line.

Fortunately, I didn’t have much in the way of expectations going in. My main concern was finishing without rolling an ankle and ending up back in physical therapy. Besides, it had already become abundantly clear that any “hill” training I had done was woefully inadequate for the terrain at hand. So as we set off from the starting line, we had no real time goal or goals around if/when we might want to walk.

Runners milling around outside the barricades of the race starting area. A blue banner reading "Velo Amis" is stretched out above the starting line.
Starting line of the Beau Biden Foundation 5K/10K Trail Run.

The first mile or so of the race was about what I expected, mostly rolling fields, a couple of hills, nothing too wild. Where things got exciting though was around 1.5 miles in, where the trail entered a wooded area and narrowed to the point where we had to run single-file. I already hadn’t been running full-blast, but I really had to slow my pace here to avoid slipping in the mud as we scrambled downhill, and to avoid tripping over tree roots and rocks along the way.

As I uttered aloud after a particularly gnarly stretch, “Chicago did not prepare me for this.”

Little did I know, it would get EVEN GNARLIER. We emerged from the woods only to be faced with a massive, almost-literally-impossible-to-run-up hill. Well, probably the people who actually won the race could do it, but those of us bringing up the rear definitely ate a slice of humble pie, with most of us slowing to a walk on this portion and the subsequent steep downhill portion. Again, much more important not to break any body parts than to set speed records!

Following that portion, my legs felt like rubber. Though we hadn’t yet finished even the 5K distance, exertion-wise I felt more like I had already run at least a 10K, if not further. I willed myself back into a run for the last flat portion and for the last stretch of woods. Figuring that we had to be close to the finish line at this point, I more or less held pace on the hill as we emerged from the woods, turned the final bend, then headed up the last hill to the finish line. Despite having to slow down considerably for much of the race and even walk a fair bit, I finished in just under 39 minutes with my sister right there with me. Champs!

Though I am now back in Philadelphia and will sleep exceedingly well tonight, thanks to the combination of post-race exhaustion (and let’s be real, post-race cheesesteaks and hoagies), I had a great time checking off Delaware off my list today. Even better? My new associations with “Delaware” are “shockingly beautiful scenery,” and “a gnarlier-than-expected trail race.” Lesson learned: never underestimate unfamiliar terrain!

Return to Running

Greetings! I have emerged from my winter hibernation. Wish I could say I spent the time taking long, idyllic winter runs out by the lake, but alas, the day after my Wisconsin race, I actually ended up with a wicked case of peroneal tendonitis, a somewhat uncommon but not-totally-unheard-of injury.

How did this happen? You ask. Well, the short answer is that I overdid it (said every injured runner ever). Since the Wisconsin race had been so short, I figured I was good to go for a 10-mile long run the next day. This turned out to be an exceedingly poor decision on my part. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS AT HOME, KIDS.

About 7 miles in, my right ankle started feeling tight. Not thinking much of it, I shook it out while waiting for the next red light and continued on my way. Shortly after getting home, though, I went to stand up, and could barely put weight on my right foot. For the next week, I could hardly walk without screaming pain in my right ankle and the bottom of my foot any time I took a step. Just getting to the L and home from the L, normally a short, easy walk for me, turned into absolute agony.

I finally went to the doctor later that week. Ended up in an ankle brace for 3 weeks, no running at all…not that I could have even if I wanted to! To be honest, though, I didn’t mind taking my routine indoors to the stationary bike as the temperature dropped and the holidays approached. When I got out of the ankle brace after New Year’s, my doctor gave me the option of doing a home program of balance exercises and ankle strengthening, or going to physical therapy for 4-6 weeks. In this case, I decided to invest in my long-term running capabilities, and opted for physical therapy. I figured they would be able to help identify any underlying issues, and hopefully give me some ideas to avoid anything like this ever happening again.

It ended up being about 8 weeks total, but Erika Fisk and Lauren Parsons at Athletico North Andersonville worked wonders. Turns out my problem wasn’t ankle strength at all, but rather weakness in my hips and glutes, particularly on my right side. The two of them were awesome, and put me through all kinds of exercises to work on not just my hips and glutes, but also my core, calves, and single-leg balance (very important for runners!). Some of my favorites (in no particular order):*

  1. Clamshells: 3 sets of 10 on each leg, with or without a resistance band depending on the difficulty level needed. You should feel them in the glute of the top/working leg.
  2. Single-leg runner’s stance: 3 sets of 10 on each leg. Your standing leg should be slightly bent, your back leg behind you as though you are running. Keep your hips level as you lean slightly forward from the waist. Again, you should feel it in the glute of your standing leg. The link walks through some progressions you can do.
  3. Eccentric calf raises: 3 sets of 10 on each leg. As the linked article points out, they are also helpful for Achilles issues.
  4. Monster walks (forwards and backwards) with resistance band: 3 laps of 10-13 steps each direction (lap=one length forward, one length backwards). You’ll feel this one in both glutes.
  5. Side steps: 3 laps of 10-20 steps each direction. Again, you’ll feel this one in the glutes.

Once I was actually running again, we also worked on adjusting my cadence ever so slightly. Turns out a 5 percent increase (from ~168 steps per minute to ~176 steps per minute) was enough to get my glutes activating the way they needed to while I was running. Between the cadence adjustment and increased strength, I have noticed a HUGE difference. I’m much lighter on my feet, and my single-leg balance and stability have noticeably improved, especially on my right side.

Bringing it to the present, as of this past week, I have “graduated” from physical therapy. My long runs are now back up to 6 miles, pain-free. I’ve signed up for the Illinois Half Marathon next month, and tomorrow? It’s new state day! I’ll be running my first race of the 2018 season in Delaware: the Beau Biden Foundation Trail Run. Not only will it be a new state, but it will be my first-ever trail race.

In sum, it’s great to be back in it. Here’s to being injury-free, and here’s to the next round of new states!

*These exercises are what worked for me. Nothing in this list should be construed as medical/physical therapy advice. If you are currently injured, talk to your doctor or physical therapist.