Report from the Trenches: NJ Marathon

Carb-loading with a sundae and a side of fries for lunch!

Carb-loading with a sundae and a side of fries for lunch!

Over the weekend of April 26-27th, I packed my bags and hopped the train to Long Branch, NJ. I was en route to this cute beach town to pace one of my athletes during his marathon debut. The NJ Marathon and Half Marathon runs through residential neighborhoods with many twists and turns, with the marathon heading on an out-and-back to Asbury Park, ending with a mile or so run along the beach and what would have been the boardwalk if Hurricane Sandy hadn’t destroyed it, finishing with the ocean on your right and screaming crowds and hotels and condos on your left.

If you are looking for a springtime race, this might be one to add to your calendar. The weather turned out to be practically perfect. Cool and sunny, low humidity thanks to rain showers the night before, and minimal gusty winds as beach marathons go. The Half Marathon started 75 minutes before the Marathon, giving way to a race course that never felt crowded after the first mile. The race is small by city marathon standards, and so logistics were easy. Instead of navigating race morning around 20,000+ runners, only 2113 runners completed the marathon.

Wearing a trash bag pre-race to keep warm. Yes, its ghetto. But it works.

Wearing a trash bag pre-race to keep warm. Yes, its ghetto. But it works.

The race course was very flat, with only a few very tiny elevation changes in the first 10K. Bag check, parking, and porta potty lines were never very crowded. The race expo was also never very crowded, and easy and free parking made the process a breeze. The race organization also sent emails (I think I received 10 emails?!?) with race-day information as things changed, and in an effort to guarantee a great race weekend for everyone.

There are a few restaurants in Long Branch serving the needs of carb-loading marathoners, but the Italian restaurant we chose filled up quickly after 6pm. Luckily we sat down right before the restaurant got slammed, so consider this when strategizing meals. I find its often best to eat an early dinner the night before a race, as this gives you the opportunity to rest, sleep and digest without feeling rushed or full when trying to sleep.

The volunteers were great, but if you are looking for a race with lots of energetic spectators, this isn’t a big city race and doesn’t have those big city crowds. There were many quiet miles, though the folks who were out and cheering were much appreciated by the runners. Both the Marathon and the Half offered pacers, a tool many runners take advantage of, especially when they have a specific time goal. If a small, flat, no-nonsense and fanfare race is what you crave, I highly recommend NJ Marathon.

Starting line. A thin crowd 40 minutes before the start.

Starting line. A thin crowd 40 minutes before the start.

How to transition from injured to racing again

Harrisburg Marathon 2012. En route to a PR until I injured a few miles later. After this race I was forced to stop running for 8 weeks.

Harrisburg Marathon 2012. En route to a PR until I injured a few miles later. After this race I was forced to stop running for 8 weeks.

I was recently requested to write a blog about coming back to training for a goal race after some time off due to injury. I am happy to oblige Miss. Gallagher (girl, you are going to come back stronger than ever!), and think this topic is one that’s all too familiar for runners but also something we often struggle with.

Taking time off from running is rarely a choice runners want to make, but often forced to make at some point in their running careers. A troublesome IT band, tendonitis, stress fractures, torn ligaments – these are the unhappy and always frustrating part of this sport we love. Sadly, there is no magic pill or shoe or weird food we can eat to fix the problem. At the end of the day, the doctor may tell you what none of us want to hear: “REST.” The worst is when we are told “Rest for ________ months.” That’s like a knife to the gut. Being forced to rest many a runner insane. Personally, I become a monster to deal with. I am unhappy, restless, convince myself everyday that I am going to lose all fitness, and will never be as fast or strong as I once was, that my life is over, so on and so forth. The pity party can last for a few days or a few months, depending on the person and how many races or beautiful running days pass them by.

Then, like a child on Christmas morning, you will finally be given the green light – you are clear to run again! YESSSSSS!!!!!!! This is perhaps the best mood you’ll be in since your injury, and rightly so! You can finally take the first steps towards being a runner again. Best. Day. Ever. That is until you are told you need to build your mileage slowly and safely. No jumping into a fast 10K run around Central Park. Nope. Instead you may be told you can start with 10-15 mile WEEKS. Physically, 10-15 mile weeks may shockingly feel tough. Mentally, you’ll be happy to be out running, but feel ridiculous running so little if you were perviously a mileage junky. The struggle most of us have is being patient and smart after we are given the green light. Mentally, we see ourselves at our peak performance and don’t understand or easily accept that no, you are not there right now – though with time and smart training you can be again.

Last year, I was in this very boat and it sucked. I went from 60-80 mile weeks down to 10-15 mile weeks after an 8-week hiatus. Coming back was awful. Mentally, I was frustrated on almost every post-hiatus run. I would go on team runs, and struggle and turn blue at a pace that months earlier was my conversational pace, while everyone else flew by with ease. They were incredibly encouraging, but in my own head I was really hard on myself. Still, those 10-mile weeks turned into 50-mile weeks over time. I reminded myself over and over that I was not going to be injured that year, and that was the ultimate goal. After all, running poorly was far better than not being allowed to run at all. So yes, if you are coming back from an injury, I can totally relate. I can sympathize, and I can be the voice of reason for how and while coming back slowly is the only shot you’ll have of a healthy season.

The important thing is to not compare yourself and your current fitness to the people around you. Hopefully they are not also coming back from injury, so why compare yourself to a healthy runner? In fact, why compare yourself at all? Instead, look back over your past training history, because the evidence for what went wrong and lead you to being injured may be there. Mistakes are welcomed lessons to runners as long as we learn from them. Figure out what perhaps you did wrong. The hard part is being objective. What may be right for your training buddy could be wrong for you. Did you take rest days? Were they really rest days, or were you “not running” but still training in some way? Did you get much sleep? Did you never stretch? Did you wear awful shoes when not running? Did you take on too much mileage or intensity too soon? Did you race every weekend? Do you have physical limitations you pushed too hard? I promise you that your training past has some clues for what went wrong.

Its easy to be mentally restless when coming back to training, especially if you have a goal race looming in the future. I get it, you want to play catchup. Don’t. Instead, come up with a sensible plan. Lay it out in front of you, so you can visualize your time and how to wisely use it. This will reduce any anxiety over a race goal and give you time to focus on base mileage and building back to where you need to be before pushing pace and distance.

Last year, I was given the green light for my first 10-15 mile week on January 8th. I had the Boston Marathon on my calendar for April 15th. Three months to train for a marathon isn’t a lot of time if you are starting with great base mileage. I was starting at zero. Literally. I made it to the Boston Marathon, but I was forced to make adjustments. My race goal had to be to finish, and to run it easy. I was not allowed to run hard. My doctor also didn’t let me run anything fast until mid-March. I ran one 20-miler in my training, while I usually run 3-5 long runs of 20+ miles leading up to a marathon. It was a hard pill to swallow, especially because my original plan was to race Boston and go for a big PR. However, I felt incredibly lucky on April 15th to feel strong and to cover 26.2 miles a few short months after being side-lined. It may happen to you, that your goals get crushed. It’s hard, but remind yourself that once you get healthy and back to racing, there are always future marathons or races. Maybe this won’t be “your year,” but there is always next year – as long as you take care of yourself. As for me, my big PR happened six months after Boston, at the Philly Marathon. Again, you can always adjust and when the timing is right it will happen for you. Be kind to yourself.

When coming back to racing, use support from runners around you. The odds are that many of them have experience with injuries. Lean on them for support. Just be careful to not let them tempt you with running too far or fast too soon. Join them for mileage, but hop in or out of the run as you need to. This will make you part of your running community without doing too much. Communicate with your running pals about your limited mileage or speed. They will be supportive. Again, they have probably been there before.

Lastly, remind yourself that these struggles will make you are stronger and smarter runner in the big picture. Force yourself to learn from your mistakes and your running career can last decades. And if you think the speedy lady in the park who can clock 80+ mile weeks year after year won’t get injured at some point, guess again. Odds are she will. Its part of our sport. At some point we are all that runner starting at zero. The trick is the lessen the odds of being that runner time and time again.

Cherry Blossom Trip

View from the Lincoln Memorial.

View from the Lincoln Memorial.

This past weekend I hopped a train down to DC to run the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler. I had made the decision weeks beforehand that I would not be racing, but rather running for fun. Between a cold Winter and months of being sick off and on, my training simply wasn’t in a place to run hard.

Unfortunately, on Thursday I was full-on sick again. My doctor put me back on antibiotics for bronchitis and a sinus infection. Obviously the timing wasn’t awesome, but I was surprised to feel pretty darn decent on Friday and Saturday. I focused on rest, and was optimistic that I could run on Sunday.

On race morning, I woke up after a night of coughing off and on feeling not so awesome. That deep chest cough I had been battling for the last five weeks had magically decided to return. I am still on antibiotics, so I was surprised to suddenly not feel good. I shook it off, and changed into my race gear and ate a bagel.

With Honest Abe

With Honest Abe

I then made a decision I had never made before – I decided not to run. Battling sickness over and over again has put me in the position where I need to make smart choices. I should also mention that at the start of the race, temperature was locked in at a cold 34 degrees. I hadn’t brought Winter running gear, as the weekend forecast when I had packed was calling for mid-40s to 50s for race morning. Running in my non-Winter race gear, while sucking in icy air sounded like a stupid move for someone sick.

While part of me was bummed to miss out on a race I’d not only gotten in through the lottery on the first try, I had qualified for a seeded spot, I was also excited to run through the Nation’s Capital. However, a lesson I have learned, that perhaps is a lesson all runners must learn – its silly and often stupid to risk health for one race. Cherry Blossom will be there in future years. Risking my health for the next few weeks simply wasn’t worth it.

Race wall of porta potties!

Race wall of porta potties!

This is a lesson all of us runners must learn at some point. There will be those races where lacing up and heading to the starting line just isn’t smart. Perhaps its a nagging injury, being under trained, or being sick. It’s in our nature as runners to tough it out, push through discomfort and take that gamble. However, if you run for fun – are you going to have fun while running ill, injured, or under prepared? The answer is “no.” If you are running to better your race time, the odds you’ll achieve that while ill, injured or under prepared are slim – so why tough it out when in the big picture its one race.

If you end up in a position like I did this past weekend, remind yourself that not racing won’t disappoint or let down your friends, family or team mates. You aren’t a wimp or a weakling, you are smart. It’s hard to remember that, especially as toughing it out is often part of running culture.

Washington Monument

Washington Monument

As I leave DC and write this blog on the train, I am disappointed that the weekend turned out the way it did. I love this sport, and I love being a part of it. But a few weeks from now I’ll be focused on other goals, and prepping to pace a runner on his 26.2 mile journey at the New Jersey Marathon. I am hoping my decision today will help kick this sickness roller coaster for good. And if it doesn’t, at least I know I am doing the best I can and making choices that are proactive towards getting healthy.

Remember, if you are smart and lucky, you will have years of being healthy and running many miles in your future.

New Website and New Offerings

img_6984-editGreetings runners and fitness enthusiasts! As you can see, “Coach Corky Runs” got something of a face-lift over the weekend. I hope you like the new website. A few more things will be added and changed in the next week or so. Feel free to bop around it and give me some feedback. Something you want me to add? Something that’s hard to find? Something you love? I welcome your comments!

I’m planning to add more to my “resources” tab, with links to sports doctors, massage therapists, local running stores, etc. So if YOU offer a service geared toward athletes, send me an email and we can talk about adding your link to my “resources” page!

A tab with links to all of my publications will be added.

I’ll be adding more “news” about my own upcoming goals and training, fitness modeling work, and my clients’ recent achievements!

As Spring is finally starting to slowly show her face here in NYC, Coach Corky is offering group classes! For more info, see the tab at the bottom of the page. I don’t know about you, but I am REALLY excited about that one!

You can also anticipate a few guest blog entries from one of my runners, as she’s preparing for her first marathon! I know she has a lot to share, and unlike many of my athletes, she lives 1500 miles away! She also happens to be my little sister. I think her perspective on running, things she’s learned and tips she can share will be especially beneficial for newbies and folks thinking about their first marathon! I am incredibly proud of how far she’s come in the last year of running, and she hasn’t even hit the marathon starting line yet.

I am *hoping* to start working on a book – but don’t hold me to it. I’m so busy running around that it might not be finished for a few years. I am also thinking about working on a podcast or weekly/biweekly vlogs. I’d love to share more info with all of you, and have on some amazing guest speakers!

Happy running!

Coach Corky

Back on My Feet: Road to 100

After my 68 miles and out of the medical tent, with Chris.

After my 68 miles and out of the medical tent, with Chris.

After a whole lot of thought and consideration, this coach has decided to attempt a second go at the Back On My Feet 24-Hour Ultra. There are a bunch of reasons why I am taking a second go at it, and why I’ve decided this is the right year to do it.

Here’s a little back-story, in case you have no idea what I’m taking about: In July 2012, I attempted the 24-hour Ultra with the goal of achieving 100 miles. Yes, that’s pretty darn insane. Yes, it requires a lot of training. And yes, even under the best conditions, 100 miles is a LONG day at the office. If you’d like more details about my first experience with the Back On My Feet race, here is the blog I wrote about that. The abridged version is this: I made it 68 miles and was pulled off the course by the medical team and not allowed to continue do to extreme dehydration and compromised kidney function. With 10 hours left of the race, and currently the 3rd place female, I was not allowed to continue. Yes, this was for my own good and yes I was physically very beat up. It was a long day and I learned a lot about myself mentally, physically, and what I did right and what I could have done better to have achieved my goal.

For a while I swore I would never go back. First off, I’m not a crazy person and so I can totally relate to what you are thinking. Why the hell would you put yourself through something like that – on a humid July weekend, no less? The answer is simple: to prove to myself I can. As a person, I thrive on challenge and when someone tells me I’m not capable of something or not good enough, it lights this fire in my gut and this drive to prove them wrong. As a coach, I want to do it to prove to every single person who reads my blog or coach that if I can do this, you can achieve your goals. I am just a human being. I’m not a super human. I want to be a living example that with enough training, determination, and a smart plan – you can do anything. Friends and family who witnessed what happened back in 2012 will no doubt have their concerns. I have concerns too. However, I learned a whole lot about what I need to do different, and am confident I can set out to do what I failed to achieve in 2012.

A few things I have learned:

– I sweat a LOT when I run in summer. Like, a whole lot. Even though I remember dumping bottles of water, gatorade, mango smoothies and salt pills into my system in 2012, it was NOT ENOUGH. This time around, I need hydration to be my priority over everything else.

– I cannot run the race like a race. It sounds silly, but I didn’t pace myself mentally for an Ultra. I was still thinking like a competitor out there, and barely took any breaks. Stopping to dump in calories, stretch and take note of any danger signs could have really helped me. I also need to ignore the announcer who would announce which “place” I was in every time I ran through base camp. For the entire 14 hours out there, I was the 2nd or 3rd place female. That messed with my head.

– When you try your best, that has to be enough. Yes, I was disappointed that I didn’t make it to my goal, but I achieved more that race day than ever before.

– I need to reduce the amount of “goals” for this year. In 2012, not only did I set my 100-mile goal, but I also set the goal of PRs in the 5K, 10-Miler, Half Marathon, and Marathon. I achieved all but the 100-miler and the Marathon, where I injured halfway through and was forced to take 8 weeks off from running. Avoiding injury is my greatest priority.

– I need to limit my amount of speed work in the months leading up to race day, when mileage will be at its highest.

– Having pacers and support was extremely helpful the first time around, and I certainly would not have gotten as far or have had so much fun without them. Asking for support again needs to happen.

– If I want to see the sun rise on the second morning, I need to be smart on race day and adjust plans for the weather and my body.

I had originally thought this idea of redemption would fit into my life in a few years – perhaps 2015 or 2016. However, with all of the easy miles I now clock as a coach pacing my runners, I feel like my training for the Ultra is already halfway there. So, why not take it a step farther and have this be the year? Yes, training for an Ultra is time-consuming. Its also hard on the body. I also remember spending so much time when I wasn’t running focusing on refueling. Pouring water, electrolytes and calories into my depleted body was almost a full time job. But I don’t know what my life will be life in a few years. Perhaps I’ll be running tons of Ultras by then (I doubt that!), or maybe I won’t be living on the east coast, or I’ll have a family, or I’ll be too focused on my clients, or on speed work. I just don’t know, so I figure if I can keep myself healthy, then this is the year.

Part of me is super excited for a second go at this race. What I am most excited about was the sense of support and love from my support team, pacers, and friends and family near and far. The experience made running bigger than one person. My goal in 2012 turned out to be an impossible feat, but the determination and fight to try came from my support team as much as from me. While I don’t see my future years of running to include many Ultras (perhaps how you may feel about marathons!), crossing the finish line of this race is something I need to do.

Post-Ultra swollen feet, days later.

Post-Ultra swollen feet, days later.

Disney Goofy Challenge

Exiting Cinderella’s Castle.

Exiting Cinderella’s Castle.

This past weekend I ran the Disney Goofy Challenge – a half marathon on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday for the grand total of 39.3 miles. I tackled the same feat two years ago, in 2012. This time the Goofy Challenge seemed like the perfect way to celebrate my milestone 30th birthday. What better way to turn 30 than by running in my Mickey ears, stopping for photos with Disney characters along the course? Time was never a factor. Fun was all that mattered.

Due to a few circumstances, I ended up going the Goofy alone. While it was disappointing and sad to not have Chris by my side, he was out there cheering. With the races starting at 5:30am, I greatly appreciated his enthusiasm for waking up at 3am to cheer me on! Folks, that’s love.The morning of the Half Marathon started with 100% humidity and 70 degrees at 5:30am. By the time I hit the 5K mark, I was drenched in sweat and felt like I was running through soup. I was thankful that my journey that day was “only” 13.1 miles. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I knew hydration was key for getting my body ready for the marathon the next morning.After I got cleaned up at our resort, we went to Animal Kingdom for the day. Keeping my legs moving has bode well for me in the past with back-to-back races, and so we took advantage of the park. An early dinner at Tusker House, and we were back at the resort and in bed around 6pm. Nothing like being awake since 3am and a humid 13.1 mile journey to wipe you out.

The morning of the Marathon, I woke up with a chest cough and a scratchy throat. I was surprised by my change in health, as I had gone to bed feeling totally healthy. For a brief moment I debated going back to bed, but quickly put that thought to rest. As long as I could go out there and have fun, I was going to finish the marathon. Thankfully, the weather was a bit better – 80% humidity and in the low 60s.

I told myself to settle into an easy pace, which was alarmingly slow. Breathing was an issue, as my chest felt heavy and seemed to rattle, and the humidity didn’t help. I felt so bad that I decided if Chris made to the mile 4 marker to cheer as planned, I’d DNF there. When I got to mile 4, I was hoping to see Chris. I was ready to be done and climb back in bed. However, Chris wasn’t there, so I decided I’d truck on for another 22 miles – a long way to go when your body and brain are asking you to stop. I decided to just take it a mile at a time and to look forward to photos with characters. Thankfully, around mile 8, a runner named Andrew pulled up beside me and struck up conversation. For the next 14 miles, this Masters runner and I kept each other company. We stopped at every character, helped each other refuel, and exchanged life stories. Around mile 22 Andrew dropped back to run with his wife, and I pulled ahead and finished my journey solo through Hollywood Studios and the finish at EPCOT.

Outside the Castle on Marathon Day.

Outside the Castle on Marathon Day.

Obviously at the end of my 39.3 mile weekend I was tired. Hours after the marathon I felt far more ill, and was even worse the next day. I am just thankful I didn’t completely get sick until the demands of the race weekend were over. A marathon, even on the best day and at an easy pace is a difficult journey. Throw in humid weather and illness, and it takes all you’ve got to put one foot in front of the other.

There are some things I really like about the Disney Marathon weekend: The focus is on fun. Combining a vacation and a physical challenge is something I enjoy. The support from the volunteers and amount of fuel and medical stations is fantastic. After putting so much energy into racing and a big PR in Philly, it was really nice to toe the line for a race with absolutely no care in the world regarding the time on the clock.

There are also some things I didn’t like: There didn’t seem to be as many characters out on the course as in previous years. There were many repeat characters from Saturday there on Sunday, which was disappointing. The lines were LONG for some of the characters. I timed over 3 minutes to wait for a photo with Pirates of the Caribbean – which two years ago never happened. My major complaint, and something that may keep me from considering Disney races in the future was the corral assignments. Disney asks for registrants to give proof of previous race times, but apparently pacing has NOTHING to do with your corral assignment. I was place in corral F, while thousands of walkers and joggers were placed in front of me. In the dark (the race starts before sunrise!) and with some narrow parts of the course, weaving around runners was not only frustrating, but dangerous. RunDisney has a policy where you cannot change your corral. For a race that’s all about fun, I did NOT have fun during the first 10 miles of the Half Marathon because I was constantly fighting the crowds. Two years ago I was in corral B, and only felt crowded for the first two miles. In 2012 I stopped at every character and STILL ran a BQ. If had been feeling healthy and going for a BQ, there is no chance it would have happened this past weekend.

Safari Minnie and Donald in Animal Kingdom.

Safari Minnie and Donald in Animal Kingdom.

So there you have it, my Goofy Challenge as I jump into my 30th year. If you do decide to run a Disney race, I highly recommend staying at a Disney Resort. It makes the getting to/from the race and the parks incredibly smooth and stress-free. I also recommend keeping your legs moving and avoiding the temptation to crawl into bed or into a hot tub post-race. I also recommend running with a camera in your hand, as Disney staff members will happily take your photos with characters. Oh, and have some fun and wear some Mickey ears! Ladies, a few bobby pins will keep those ears locked down for a marathon with no problems. If you are looking for some fun, and not worried about pace, Disney can be great – assuming you aren’t weaving around runners. I do NOT recommend it as a PR course, as the whole corral system could screw you over.

If you are wondering what this Coach has her eye on next, I’ll tell you: bettering my time at the 10-mile distance. I have the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in April, and hopefully the Broad Street Run 10-Miler in May – assuming I get in via the lottery system. Long runs will take a back seat, and track work and temp runs will be front and center. And lots of recovery miles will happen as I run with my clients and pace them on their runs – long and short alike.

Pushing Past Ourselves

635204713309974156Most runners have the same post-goal race process. While we recover, we analyze and go over moments that seem like a blur from the recent race. It’s our time to mentally process what we achieved, failed to achieve, and how to move forward.

In the days following the Philly Marathon, I was in something of a fog. Perhaps that was due to my immune system finally collapsing, and therefore battling a cold. My lead-like legs certainly were due to the beating I put them through over 26.2 miles, and my left IT Band made sure I was aware that it wasn’t happy. As my body slowly recovered from race day, and then took on a cold, my head had some time to wrap around just what happened during those 3 hours and 5 minutes I spent on the race course.

One of my team mates, when she saw my crazy negative split, asked me if that was a half marathon PR, achieved during the second half of my marathon. Her question got me thinking. No, it was not a PR for the Half Marathon, but it certainly was a fast second half. Her question got me thinking about myself as a runner, a human, and other PRs.

After some analyzing past race stats, I was reminded that some of my PRs were contained in larger race distances. For example, my 10K PR was the first 10K of the 10 MILE Broad Street Run in 2012. Yes folks, apparently I can run a 10K FASTER when I still have 4 miles to go than I can when towing the line for a 10K.

My question: why?!?

Sure, the elevation and weather are factors, but why is it that my PR for a 10K hasn’t happened at a 10K race? Clearly it’s mostly not solely physical. So, what’s going on in my head? And if something goes on in my head, does the same thing go on in YOUR head? This made me think about my clients and their goals. Why is it we sometimes struggle and other times we blow ourselves out of the water?

Perhaps mentally, it’s easy to put up a mental block against certain numbers and distances. Perhaps for me, when I wasn’t thinking about the possibility or option of a 10K PR in 2012(my mind was focused on the 10 MILE PR), my body and mind didn’t even register that a 10K PR would have to happen in order for the 10 mile PR to occur. Maybe we get in our way more than we are aware.

Another example of mental madness: As previously mentioned in past blogs, I struggled with speed this Spring. Getting my speed back after injury and rest was tough. Before the 2013 Broad Street Run in May, I struggled HARD to hit 7:00 miles during tempo runs. I remember feeling completely unprepared as I stepped up to the starting line. You know what I ran for 10 miles? 6:33s. No, it wasn’t my best 10 mile race, but I was so shocked and confused as to how I pulled that out of myself when I had struggled to clock 7:00 miles for a few miles at a time. Once again, how and where did that come from?

Unfortunately, I don’t know. I wish I had the answer.

I clearly remember my first marathon, where I went into it determined to set a BQ. Failure was not an option in my mind, and I didn’t have anything to compare my first marathon to. I didn’t doubt it, or even really think about how hard a BQ was for most people. I just went out and did it. Sure, it turned out I had above average running abilities, but I am also going to argue that sometimes ignorance is bliss. Knowledge is power, but sometimes being a know-it-all or a veteran means we can psych ourselves out, or “decide” before the gun goes off what we are capable of, instead of just going for it.

As I ponder over my most recent marathon, I am left wondering how I can knock down any preconceived limitations I have put on myself. And as a coach, how can I help other runners see past their perceptions of who they are as runners. Is there a way to combine the bliss of ignorance and the power of knowledge to create a mentally stronger athlete? Of course we all of our own limitations. I, for one, will most likely never win a marathon. However, who am I to say what “time” I am capable of? The future is unwritten. And that goes for you, too.

Report from the Trenches: Philadelphia Marathon

Saying I was nervous about the Philadelphia Marathon would be an understatement. I am sure Chris, friends and family were beyond tired of hearing about it by the time we got to race weekend. Yes, I always have nerves before a goal-race, but I had made Philly 2013 into this epic come-back chance for myself. After being plagued by four bad marathon experiences in a row (Boston 2012, fighting a stomach bug and the heat was a combination I couldn’t push through, causing me to DNF. NYC 2012 was canceled. Harrisburg Marathon 2012 was a nightmare where I injured at mile 12, and SHOULD have DNF’ed, but was too stubborn. Boston 2013, for the obvious reasons.) – THIS was my chance to get that PR I so badly wanted, and I craved a GOOD marathon morning.

I knew that the original goal I had set of a 3:00 marathon at Philly just wasn’t in the cards. My training and mental state just weren’t ready. So I reassessed and set new, smarter goals.

The new goal time: sub-3:10, seemed possible. I had been on track for it a year before in Harrisburg before my foot and ankle ruined that race. I knew stepping up to the Philly Marathon starting line that I had to keep my head, and let my body do it’s job.

Race morning was a cool 51 degrees at the start, but also a suffocating 93% humidity. I do not race well in humidity, but knew my only choice was to give it my all. As the sun slowly rose over my home town, I found myself in a packed corral with other nervous runners. I wondered how many of them would be an intimate part of my 3+ hour journey. I gathered myself for a few quiet moments in my head while announcements were made, and before I knew it, we were off!

I had two plans for this race: Run smart, and negative split. I had NEVER run a negative split in a marathon before. That was my weakness. I decided I was going to see if I could change that, so I started out conservatively. As runners flew past me, I settled into a 7:14 minute mile groove, and told myself to settle. I also decided it was smart to hydrate early and often, especially with the humidity.

I remember being annoyed in the early miles because my damn sunglasses were fogging up. It was distracting, until I told myself to not let it be distracting. I had a long day ahead of me, and I was going to need my energy later. I relaxed, enjoyed the music that streamed through my ipod, and smiled at corny signs the spectators held. I had a few very emotional moments in the first few miles, but told myself to get it together. Crying and running, especially in humidity, don’t work so well.

As I merrily trotted down Chestnut Street, I cheered on a few wheelchair athletes as I passed them. I kept my eye out for Chris as I approached the 10K mark at 18th street, as he planned to cheer me on from the corner. Not only did I see Chris, but our good buddy Alex was with him! A big surprise! I squealed, smiled, and was so thrilled. That energy carried me the next few miles.

Coming up Chestnut Street and spotting my cheering section!

Coming up Chestnut Street and spotting my cheering section!

Right around the turn onto 35th street, my trusty Garmin decided it was done for the day. This could have really thrown me. I almost never run without it, and I ALWAYS race with it. I quickly had to accept that the rest of the race would be without my watch.

I should note here that I did indeed run the Queens Half Marathon a few years ago without my Garmin (not by choice!), and ended up with a big PR – even in the hot and humid July weather. Perhaps that experience kept me from panicking.

As I approached the two biggest climbs of the marathon, I relaxed my pace a bit. I reminded myself that I wanted to go out conservatively, and that this technical part of the course was where I needed to pull back. I still had a long way to go, and I was finding it hard to breathe in the heavy air. I felt as though a weight were sitting on my chest and I couldn’t get a full breath. Relaxing the pace helped. A brief stop to fix a shoe lace that had started to loosen chewed up a few minutes, but I kept my head.

The few miles before the Half Marathon mark were mentally hard. I began doubting my ability to run a smart race without my Garmin. The clock on the watch still worked, so with some simple math I had rough estimates of what pace I was on. Still, I mentally struggled here. I looked for Chris at the next spot he was supposed to be, but I had missed him. Slightly defeated, I trotted on.

Then something happened that made me shift to a second gear. I don’t know if it were seeing some friends along the course, or if I just told myself I had come too damn far to not give this race my all. I shifted into a slightly fast turnover, telling myself to relax and that this was easy. Miles quietly went by, as the field had thinned out significantly after the Half Marathoners split ways to finish.

It was along this out-and-back second half that my ipod decided that it was done too. I couldn’t believe my luck with electronics. This was unreal. Too much sweat had made it unhappy clipped to my sports bra, and I was left to run with no Garmin and no music. Not the race day plan I had in mind, but I’ve raced without music many times before. Ironically, I settled into an even faster pace with ease, sans music.

The energy near in Manayunk, at the turn-around mark and a long 10K to the finish, always gets me going. Mentally, its a blur of energy and I can barely remember specific signs or costumes at this point, but there were the frat boys handing out beer, like they do every year. I recall thinking that beer at the finish line would be good, but there was no way I was grabbing a cup mid-marathon!

I dug deep and kept pushing forward. I took whatever energy I could from the spectators around me. I focused on a mile at a time, slowly chipping away at that long out-and-back. I somehow missed a few friends and team mates out there running, but I did get words on encouragement and a high five from Cip – my lovely friend and team mate with whom I’d run Boston. She told me I looked good, which was clearly a lie. I was around the 24 mile mark, and I was hurting. My strides felt labored, my mind felt fuzzy, and it was all I could do to keep my eye on the prize. Cip’s lie was enough to help me finish what I started.

Based on the clock on my watch, I knew if I just kept one food in front of the other, no matter how hard it felt, that PR was mine. What the time would be, I didn’t want to guess. Those last few miles were hard. At the 25 mile mark, a photographer yelled that I only had a mile to go. I told it would be the longest mile of my day. Plus .2, of course.

Thankfully, I knew Chris would be standing at the 1/2 mile-to-go mark, near Lloyd Hall. What surprised me was the crowd of support that was with him! My parents, his parents, and some friends from NYC were all there, yelling for me. Being the work-horse that I am, I surged up that final incline, using anything I could to finish strong. I noticed that I was running with my arms like a mad-woman at this point, but I don’t think I was capable of correcting my form.

The slight down-hill finish, through a chute of screaming people, it was amazing. I wanted to kick, but I had nothing left. There was no kick. And to my shock, the clock time was reading a time I never thought was in the cards today: I finished in 3:05:27. I could not believe it. I still cannot believe it.

This marathon reminded me a bit of my most recent Broad Street Run. Back in May, I didn’t PR, but I somehow pulled off a time that physically I NEVER would have thought was in the cards. It’s not that I always doubt my training, but back in May I had barely done any speed training (thanks, heel injury!), but I still pulled off a 6:33 mile pace for 10 miles. At that race, I remember mentally being so fired up over Boston, that something mentally snapped and I refused to do anything less than my best. At this Philly Marathon, that same grit and refusal to accept defeat had kicked in again. Man, I wish I could summon that mental state all the time!

As I slowly walked away from the finish line, my mind never went to Boston bombing flashbacks. Perhaps my shocking finish time was so much for me to handle that it pushed out the possibility of any other thoughts. I couldn’t believe it. I had achieved a finish time I didn’t think I’d had in me, on a day when few things went right. I suppose the lesson here is that through your training for a marathon, your body adjusts to a natural rhythm and internal clock that we can’t always see on our Garmin’s face. Sometimes we are stronger than we think we are, but we rely on tools to dictate our potential. And support, support from folks on the course can greatly change the game. My new Philadelphia Marathon PR is proof of that.635204711723558107

Taper Tantrum

Philly Marathon 2011, and my current marathon PR of 3:15:46. Time to step it up and crush it.

Philly Marathon 2011, and my current marathon PR of 3:15:46. Time to step it up and crush it.

With less than a week to go before my goal race, I am deep into tapering. For those of you who don’t know what tapering is, it’s the few weeks leading up to a marathon where mileage and intensity is cut down in order to give the athlete time to rest, recover, heal, focus, and be ready to hit the pavement hard on race day. While tapering can sound delightful while in the middle of marathon training, actually doing it is rough. As an athlete, I despise it.

Realizing that perhaps many of you have dealt with tapering, I decided I would share my own experience this time round – in case it helps you. The truth is that tapering never gets easier.

If you are like me, you handle stress one of two ways: eating and exercising. Well, since my mileage has gone down, and I am no longer allowed to strength train until after the marathon, all of that pre-race stress goes into eating. My dreams have also been flooded with race-day visions. My mind is going wild.

During your taper, it s a good time to go back over previous races, how paces fluctuated, how training went up until that last big race, how you handled race day, etc. It’s also a good time to reaffirm your goals. I always advise my athletes to have three goals for a marathon: the goal that is the reach (everything may need to go perfectly to achieve it), the goal that seems tangible as long as they keep their focus and don’t do anything stupid, and the goal that is the totally achievable unless something goes terribly wrong. After all, it is easy to lose your head out there if things fall apart or don’t go according to plan. Having different goals gives you the opportunity to salvage the day and refocus quickly.

Here are my three goals:

The safety net goal: BQ. Unless I get injured out there, my training indicates that a sub-3:35 will be easy to achieve.

The possible with hard work goal: PR, ideally with a sub-3:10 (7:13 minute miles)

The reach: As close to 3:05 as possible. (7:03-7:05 minute miles)

My original hope for Philly was the 3:05 area and faster, but my training and mental game simply don’t show any sign that I’m there. That’s okay, and I’ve abandoned that goal. It can be saved for another time.

That’s not to say I am cutting my expectations short. My top two goals are ambitious, and I need to play it smart.

The positives: I am healthy. No plantar issues (that’s rare for me!), and no posterior tibial tendon issues, like I had last year. Last year I also battled the norovirus for a week, three weeks before Harrisburg Marathon. Plus, I know the Philly race course like the back of my hand. Knowledge is power. And it looks like I may have some crowd support from friends and family. These are all good things.

The one thing I may do this year is run with music. I generally prefer not to, but since Boston, I have had a hard time keeping my head in the game on long runs without it. Negative thoughts kick in, and I need to avoid that from happening on those quiet miles on Kelly Drive. It doesn’t look like I’ll have any pacers hop in, so I am going to be alone with my own thoughts – which I know is my weakness right now.

I am excited for Philly. I am ready to race again, healthy, and ready to leave it all out on the course. I am not going to Philly to have fun. I am going back to my home town to leave my blood, sweat and tears on the course, and to do my best.

Until then, I’ll keep eating my nerves. Mmm. Carbs.

Feel Good, Get Inspired, Cheer!

Start of the Harrisburg Marathon. Yes, those are my arms!

Start of the Harrisburg Marathon. Yes, those are my arms!

I remember the first time I watched a marathon in person. It was two weeks before my first marathon, and an extremely moving, exciting, inspirational, and somewhat scary experience. Standing near the “1/2 mile to go” mark, one witnesses humanity at its most raw, human state.

I had goosebumps as the wheelchair athletes and elites flew by, somehow making it look so easy to work so hard. I yelled words of encouragement as runners dug deep, some bowing their heads, as they pushed toward the finish. Some athletes stumbled, fell, or held onto the fence or NYPD officers as their legs cramped and buckled underneath them. Other athletes ran in costume, carrying their country’s flag, or wore pictures of family members on their backs, running in their memory.

There was also an indescribable energy coming from the crowd. It’s perhaps the one sporting event where everyone is cheering for everyone else to succeed. No one is cheering for a team to win or lose, we all want to see everyone do their best. [Read more…]