Wye Island NRMA

Wye Island NRMA

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Season's End: A Time for Decisions and Revisions

"There will be time...time for decisions and revisions." - John L. Parker, Once A Runner

Competitive runners divide the year into distinct seasons, often treating races like holidays and anniversaries that, over time, come to define specific months and provide focus during a repetitive or mundane schedule.  I concluded my spring season on Sunday at the Pike's Peek 10K in Rockville, Maryland (30:59, 12th place).  Such races can be cathartic - the culmination of more than a thousand miles over a period of months. Like many runners, I am a  planner, and, in order to plan analytically for the next cycle, it is necessary to assess the accomplishments and missteps of the last: a time for "decisions and revisions."

I began my "spring" cycle at the dawn of winter, after my body healed from the bruising it endured at the Philadelphia Marathon.  I was single-minded in my approach: vigorously pursue a 5K personal record and hopefully inch under 15:00. After consulting with my trusted training partners, I altered my mileage-heavy regimen of past cycles, in which the target races were at least 13.1 miles, and developed a program that emphasized speed endurance. To attain my goal, I'd have to composedly run 72-second 400s for three miles and blitz the remainder of the distance.

Tentatively and skeptically, I introduced new stimuli and emphasized components of my training that I had previously neglected or sacrificed for higher mileage and long tempo workouts.  
  • Core:  For several years, I've floundered in attempting to establish a core routine. This cycle, I began executing a 20 to 30-minute core routine at least twice each week. I hoped it would improve my running form and thus my economy, or efficiency. 
  • Speed/Form Drills:  In January, I began completing a series of drills before each intense workout, usually twice per week.  Rather than 3 or 4 miles for a warm up, I would run 2 or 2.5 miles and then complete 2K of drills and strides.  In doing so, I sought to regain and preserve speed and improve my form.  
  • Short, Fast Fartlek: Early in the training cycle, I implemented a weekly fartlek session of 8 to 12 short, fast intervals, ranging from 40 to 75 seconds with full recovery after each. A typical workout consisted of 45-second intervals at mile race effort followed by 75 seconds of brisk recovery.  The purpose was to build and maintain speed and more easily transition to the longer and more demanding interval works at goal 5K and 3K paces. By March, I replaced most fartlek workouts with weekly track sessions.  
  • Shorter, Faster Threshold Workouts: I eliminated longer, steady-state tempo runs and alternated weekly between 4-mile lactate threshold runs (half-marathon to ten-mile race pace) and sets of 1K intervals, or a fartlek equivalent, at about 10K effort or  critical velocity pace.  With the 10K-paced workouts, I sought to attain the same physiological benefits of a longer threshold workout while running at a quicker pace and thus also deriving VO2max gains.
  • Reduced Mileage: After much cajoling and constructive criticism from my running cadre, I  reduced my mileage significantly from past cycles by virtually eliminating double sessions and long runs over 17 miles. We reasoned that the extra mileage was overkill, and I could invest my energy reserves into the aforementioned stimuli. 
As noted in earlier posts, the winter posed obstacles and precluded me from running many of my early season strength workouts.  After two mediocre races in February, I had a breakthrough in March at the Shamrock 5K, running a PR of 15:05.  I then spent four weeks focused entirely on training. During this period, I ran some of the best interval sessions and short threshold runs of my life.  The work was fruitful.  A week before the BAA 5K, I raced to a post-collegiate best at the 1500 in 4:07.55.  

These indicators projected a personal record at the BAA 5K. However, as I began tapering in the two weeks before the race, my legs remained flat - a term I use for a state of muscular malaise. Instead of feeling fluid, fast, and wispy, I was sluggish, heavy, even clumsy.  Consequently, my last two races, while solid performances for me historically, were slower than anticipated.

It's difficult to identify the specific variables, or combination thereof, that inhibited me from peaking.  I have theories.  Straying too far from the essential elements of past cycles may have reduced my overall strength and fitness, even while I increased my speed. I sensed this acutely during the 10K on Sunday, explaining afterward that I simply didn't feel as fit as last year. Additionally, I have a mixed history with hard (5K pace or quicker) interval workouts. In my early twenties, when I completed such workouts weekly, I was chronically fatigued and rarely snappy. An increased emphasis on speed was essential for improving at the 5K, but my body may not have been able to handle so much and, consequently, couldn't recover from the cumulative effects.  

It's been a good year, whether measured by experiences or race results. And there are valuable lessons and takeaways. Looking forward, I want to continue including core and speed/form drills in my regimen. These components benefit both the miler and marathoner.  The speed sessions, usually in the form of mile-effort fartlek, also paid dividends, and I will sprinkle these workouts into my upcoming marathon cycle to retain speed.  Never neglect anything is good mantra for distance runners.  I've yet to strike the balance, but I'm learning. Onward. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Church of the Sunday Long Run: A Morning at Walden

"Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body....We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones." - Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

Last weekend I returned to Boston to pay homage to the city and its marathon.  In 2013, I competed in the BAA 5K, and, thanks to a stellar field, attained a then personal record of 15:17. I again targeted the BAA 5K, making it the focus of my season with the intent of running a second faster than 15:00. Staleness in my legs, perhaps the result of a poorly executed tamper, prevented me from bringing my season’s work to fruition. I finished in a lackluster 15:25, far from my personal record and even farther from my goal.

I resolved to not let this shortcoming hamper my trip. I am grateful to have witnessed inspiring performances of friends and two of the greatest exhibitions of patriotism in the history of American distance running from the top U.S. finishers. Furthermore, I celebrated the sport in a fashion appropriate for an environmentalist runner with a Sunday long run at Walden Pond in the company of like-minded runners.

"I think that each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest...
- common possession forever, for instruction and recreation."

Students of literature and history will recognize Walden as the temporary home of Henry David Thoreau, where he resided alone in the woods to “live deliberately.” During his tenure there, Thoreau explored the world within himself and the world around him. His experiences and writing there became the basis for Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, which, after his death, established his place in the canon of American literature and profoundly influenced environmental thought. Thoreau’s philosophy of the human person and of nature have shaped my worldview more so than any other philosopher. In regard to my training, his writing resonates as strongly as theories of Lydiard, Bowerman, Daniels, and the pantheon of distance coaches. 

The week before the marathon, Shalane Flanagan, the race's top American finisher, reintroduced the phrase "Church of the Sunday Long Run" into the distance runner vernacular. On Sunday, Walden was a cathedral for my companions and me, as we ran 11 miles across the park and adjacent lands, exploring the patchwork New England landscape of meadow, farmland, forest, and wetland. Soft, manicured trails wind through these varied landscapes, while the pond's clear, aquifer-fed waters is inviting even on a brisk spring morning. Walden has changed dramatically since Thoreau's day, but, thanks to mindful conservation, it continues to offer recreation, solitude, and interaction with the nonhuman world - a gaggle of wild turkeys, not a park ranger, greeted us as we entered the park. 

Like Thoreau, I attempted to "live deep and suck the marrow of life" during my brief time at Walden. Foremost, last weekend was a moment for runners to exhibit resilience, practice forgiveness and celebrate life, love, sport, and solidarity - actions that Thoreau would exalt. While exploring his one-time home and reflecting on his words, I was grateful for the life-affirming adventures I've had as a runner. Our moment is finite, and few of us ever enjoy the privileges of exploration, recreation, and competition. Thus, I strive not to measure my success as a runner solely in the currency of personal records and races won or lost, but also in the enriching experiences I share with others, like a long run in the woods of a sacred site, Walden Pond. 

“I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after
my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

Monday, April 14, 2014

Maybe We Ain't that Young Anymore

I awoke early last Saturday morning, rising with the sun as I typically do. As I bounded about my apartment, I knew that the muscular fatigue and staleness that had nettled me earlier in the week had subsided. The skies were clear. The temperature was warm. I was competing in a collegiate track, and it would be a great day, regardless of the race's outcome.

After a morning of lounging, I gathered my gear, negligently leaving behind my track spikes, and walked to the car. Driving north to the Johns Hopkins University track, I inserted Springsteen's greatest hits and instinctively skipped to Thunder Road. While I favored Born to Run, a rebellious anthem, when I was in my twenties, I now prefer its thematic companion, a song that champions redemption and hope.

In Thunder Road, Springsteen meditates on social conceptions of youth, as the song's narrator confronts his lover, Mary, about the limitations she imposes on herself: "So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore."  Springteen's message resonates with me because, like Mary, I have at times restricted my aspirations and doubted my potential for fear that my youthfulness had dwindled. As competitive runners, like athletes in most sports, we are hyper-aware of the deleterious effects of aging: once fluid joints become frictional; muscles degenerate, reducing our strength and speed; recovery after workouts, and especially from injuries, is prolonged. We attained great fitness, and with it much joy and fulfillment, because we are so keenly attuned to our bodies. However, our physical self-awareness also can be detrimental when it generates negative thoughts. Someday, we will no longer improve at our beloved craft, and we will begin a digressive process that culminates in the inevitable - the day when we can no longer run.  Haunting indeed.

Since graduating from college over a decade ago, I've raced intermittently at collegiate track meets. I usually return to the track only when it serves a utilitarian purpose and fits within a seasonal build-up to a peak road race. And for these reasons, I chose to race the 1500 at JHU. As noted in my previous posts, my target race for this season is the BAA 5K on April 19. To sharpen, I needed to a race, or at least simulate a race, of a shorter distance. JHU's 1500 seemed ideal, exactly one week before the 5K.

I experienced trepidation in the weeks before the track meet.  Racing the 1500 against college runners was intimidating, considering that I have spent many years focusing principally on distances between 10K and the marathon. Furthermore, most middle-distance runners - specialists at distances between the 800 and 5K - peak in their mid-twenties. At 32, I was probably one of the oldest, and perhaps the oldest, runner competing at the meet.

My fears proved unfounded after the race began. Racing in the third of seven heats, I was not among the fastest thinclads at entered in the 1500. Still, I immediately was off the back of the pack, running in last place for approximately 500 meters.  This did not perturb me in the least. Once a headstrong "youth", I knew that many of my competitors would squander their precious capital in the first 800 meters. I also was content to watch from a safe distance as the race unfolded violently, rife with collisions and contact. My miler's instincts, honed long ago, led me through even splits of approximately 66-seconds per lap.  I eased my way through the field and surged hard the final 200, ultimately crossing in 4:07.55. While the time is much slower than my personal best of 4:02 (2003), the race served its purpose, and I exceeded the goal I had set in advance.

Most importantly, the race corroborated what I have long believed, or at least tried to believe, about aging and decline in distance runners.  Compulsively dwelling upon perceived physical capabilities and the personal histories we've recorded in race results and running logs, we often prematurely pen our own obituaries.  When we impose an arbitrary shelf life on our abilities to excel, we limit both our aspirations and capabilities.  More damaging still, we fulfill our dire prophecies, misinterpreting correctable problems as the inevitable result of an aging. We misdiagnose injuries, burnout, and chronic fatigue, attributing these issues to a body that experienced too much wear and tear. I, too, am a perpetrator, and thus a victim, of this mentally. Like all forms of negative thought, it is a hard pattern to break.

I am not advocating that we gleefully neglect the aging process. To progress, we must be ever cognizant of the many changes our bodies undergo during the course of our careers. Physically, we are very different people than we were a year or decade ago. Our needs change. Our training preferences change; workouts that once elevated us to the pinnacle of fitness may leave us flat.  However, lamenting the loss of days gone by only limits what we can achieve and who we will become. At its best, the social construct of youth inspires us to live fully and utilize our talents and resources. And we should do so prudently by conserving our bodies, adapting to change, and eschewing self-imposed limitations. The end will come. But we shouldn't hasten it. 

I've devoted this racing season to celebrating my youthfulness and testing limits. In doing so, I challenge myself physically and psychological - to make fitness breakthroughs and to break through stifling paradigms. This track meet was incredibly fun, and it has prepared me to compete well on April 19. Had I passively accepted that I was too old to still compete and excel at the middle distances, I would have missed this opportunity and resigned myself to more modest endeavors.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Spring on the Jones Falls

Shortly after I posted my last entry at the end of last week, the daylong deluge of cold rain became a mix of snow and ice. Undoubtedly, it was one of the worst days for running in 2014, a year that thus far is marked by harsh weather. On Monday, however, I encountered a positive indicator that winter is relenting. As I ran with my training partner, Nate, westward along the Wyman Park Drive bridge toward Druid Hill Park, I spotted a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron perched in a tree far above the Jones Falls. While Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are common denizens of the Jones Falls watershed, I had never seen one of these shorebirds so high in a tree.

We quickly discovered that this was not a solitary bird; its partner was roosted nearby. As we focused our vision closely on the many layers of branches in the canopy beneath the bridge and above the stream, we noticed other pairs of herons and at least two nests, carefully constructed safe havens far from the reaches of the predators who prowl the shoreline - a rookery of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons! These beautiful wading birds are characterized by their distinct yellow crests, or crowns, which, as I discovered in my recent observations, they flare when interacting with others of their species.

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons

Such seasonal occurrences are easily missed in twenty-first-century urban America.  Few of us engage the non-human world with the frequency that our ancestors did. The developed world's conveniences allow us to continue the rhythms of our lifeways largely unaltered by seasonal changes. We may bemoan temperature extremes, but our diets, work, and sleep patterns change little, if at all, over the course of a year. Running, however, has helped me become far more attuned to the seasonal cycles of flora and fauna. When one's days and ways entail traversing familiar landscapes in all weather conditions, it is much easier to perceive even minute environmental changes. With heightened senses, I especially delight in running during the transitional phases of the year, as one season blends into the next.

Wetlands and wooded waterways are fascinating environments to explore during times of seasonal change for their abundance of biodiversity, particularly migratory birds. During my six-years in Baltimore, I have been fortune to live along the southern-half of the Jones Falls, a stream that played a significant role in the city's growth and prosperity. This wooded stream snakes for nearly 18 miles from central Baltimore County to the city's heart, where it meets the harbor near the National Aquarium. Compelled by warm temperatures and blues skies, I set about this past weekend to look closer, listen carefully, and absorb the Jones Falls' environments during my runs. 

The Jones Falls was one of the city's principal arteries for agricultural and industrial production. To follow the stream's course from the Inner Harbor northward to its source is to trek backwards through time, passing antiquities from various stages of the city's economic and cultural development. Mills that are composed of local field stone and chunky bricks baked from Maryland's ubiquitous red clay line the falls between Mt. Vernon, where the stream disappears into subterranean tunnels, to Woodberry. In the early to middle decades of the nineteenth century, these mill complexes housed the production of textiles, including fabric used for the sails of Baltimore's merchant fleet that enriched the city through global trade. As sails gave way to steam power in the later half of the nineteenth century, the textile mills converted their production but continued to hum, manufacturing a variety of cloth and yarn products. In recent years, developers, with the aid of government funding and support of community groups, have revitalized these remarkable but once derelict structures. The restored mills now house a diverse array of new businesses, reflecting Baltimore's vibrant cultural and economic life. The preservation and restoration of these landmarks - a process called adaptive reuse - has accelerated during my short tenure in Baltimore, significantly transforming and redefining the landscapes of the lower Jones Falls.

Looking north upon Mt. Vernon Mill

The ecology of the watershed also has undergone improvements in recent decades, though it is still recovering from two centuries of industrial use and degradation. The Yellow-crowned Night-Herons' rookery and the multitudes of bird species that populate the stream's shoreline and canopy, however, are signs of progress and the potential for a richer future. The presence of these birds, who sustain themselves on crustaceans and other aquatic life, are evidence of a complex ecosystem and improving water quality. These natural and historic resources, unique to Baltimore, are best enjoyed and explored on foot along the Jones Falls Trails, where I run a considerable portion of my mileage.  After a bleak winter of short days and inclement weather, now is the ideal moment to seek out these spaces and gaze upon them with fresh, perceptive eyes. As runners, we benefit greatly from the conservation and restoration projects that are revitalizing the Jones Falls' built and natural landscapes. Take advantage of these resources and participate in the remaking of our city.  


I emphasized the places where I run in this entry, with scant mention of my actual training. I am happy to report that I am progressing well. I will post again midweek after my next interval work and devote the entire entry of the last phase of my training cycle, which culminates at the end of this month.