Tips on what can make/break a runner

This week’s blog is about the best and the worst. As an athlete and a coach I have experienced and witnessed countless smart and poor choices in both training and racing. We often learn from expert advice or from our own experience, and so in hopes this blog helps you avoid bad choices and make many good ones, here are some of my favorite good/bad decisions a runner can make.

The Good:

  • Track your training. If you use a GPS device, this is quite easy. Track the miles, effort, and pace. This information is incredibly valuable. Many runners I know have data from the last 5-10 years!
  • If you are seriously training for a goal race, you need to keep a watchful eye on the forecast. Adjust training days or expectations for weather. There’s absolutely no excuse for missing a long run because it rained on Saturday. Plan to move your long run to Sunday or get creative.
  • Train with purpose. This sometimes means running or training LESS. If you don’t know the reason for your training that day, you should question why you are doing it.
  • Treat yourself like an athlete. This means eating, sleeping, and drinking like one. Set yourself up for success.
  • Be cautious. If something feels injured, DO NOT continue to run through it. Overtraining and injuries can usually be avoided. You are not brave, tough, or dedicated if you train through injuries. You are stupid.
  • Show up early to races. My athletes who achieve their race day goals usually get there early, and give themselves ample time to warmup, relax, hydrate, and prepare in every way necessary. Showing up frazzled and last-minute is usually the recipe for disaster. Respect your goals.
  • Learn how to fuel your body. Our bodies are pretty smart, and usually give us clue, cues and advice as to what works and what doesn’t. Like your training, make note of your fueling needs, schedule, etc.
  • Communicate with your coach! Though your coach can’t be a mindreader or do the work for you, they are there to support you. It’s impossible to be supportive when the coach doesn’t know how to help you. If you don’t have a coach, rely on your team or running buddies for support. The running community can be extremely knowledgable and supportive!

The Bad:

  • Skipping the taper or recovery. Elite athletes know to respect these important steps to training, so why are any of us the exception to this step? Respecting the taper doesn’t mean pausing all training, either. I’ve had plenty a runner “not run” during the taper, which is almost as bad as blowing through the taper at high speed. Training cycles exist for a reason. If you don’t understand them, do some research or ask a coach.
  • I have never heard a runner say “I shouldn’t have listened to my coach,” but I hear “I should have listened to my coach” all the time. If you hired a coach, there’s probably good reason for it. Trust that person you are paying good money to guide you!
  • Eating something new the night before or morning of a race or long run. This rarely ends well.
  • Trying new socks, shoes, or a new outfit for a marathon. Your long runs are dress rehearsals for everything – including wardrobe. Trying something new risks blisters, chafing, bloody nipples, and general discomfort – none of which are supportive of a successful race.
  • Winging it on race day. While plans don’t always pan out, having no plan at all is like dancing with the devil. Study the race course, and have a plan on pacing, fueling, and how you are mentally breaking up the race distance.
  • Giving up before you begin. It’s impossible to have a good run or race if you doom it before you start. Yes, speed workouts, long runs and races usually hurt. But dooming yourself sets you up for failure.
  • Just as one good race or workout doesn’t define you as an athlete or human being, neither does one bad one. The athletes who learn to really care about their goals but also keep a healthy perspective are usually the ones who succeed and enjoy running for life.

Pacing in the NYC Marathon

On a very humid training run with Shira in July as she prepared for NYC Marathon.

On a very humid training run with Shira in July as she prepared for NYC Marathon.

One of the greatest joys of my job is watching my athletes succeed. I get to watch them from the first day of training all the way through to their goals, witnessing the transformation that the months of hard work, dedication, and drive always deliver. On Sunday, November 2nd, between private clients, the City Harvest Charity Team, and runners who have been sweating it out at Mile High Run Club, I had over 100 runners stepping up to the starting line of the NYC Marathon. Many times, my work is done come race morning. I am left to frantically track my runners via numerous laptops and phones, or on the course cheering as my runners pass by. This year my work was a little different – I had the responsibility of pacing one of my private clients for her 26.2 mile journey.

As one might imagine, pacing a runner to their goals is a huge responsibility. It is also an honor. And it’s a completely different game to pace a pace group – simply locking in and holding a pace. When with one runner, you are with them through good and bad, needing to make modifications, judgement calls, and offer a ton of emotional support. Sometimes you need to talk them through the wall, force them to a medical tent, give them a shoulder to literally lean on, take walking breaks, try to make them laugh and think of happy thoughts, share their tears of pain and frustration. It’s always a journey of highs and lows, and you hope the highs outweigh the lows.

On Sunday, I had the job of pacing a first-time marathoner. She is only be 20 years old. I don’t know about you, but I know very few 20-year olds who run marathons. She also earned her way into the marathon via NYRR’s 9+1. She also happens to have a cognitive disability. She is incredible, and trained incredibly hard to get to Sunday’s starting line.

When I arrived at her door, I was greeted with the biggest hug and lots of excitement. Imagine a child on Christmas morning or at Disney World, and that’s perhaps close to the enthusiasm Shira had for race morning. I wish every runner was as excited to run 26.2 miles as this young lady!

Unfortunately, the day faced us with some really tough challenges: a delay on the Staten Island Ferry, a HUGE delay with the shuttle from the ferry to Athlete’s Village – so much so that we barely had time to get to our corral before it closed. Because of the delays, we both missed our opportunities to grab bagels, or even find the special tent we had been granted access to. Our very long and delayed trip to the starting line was overwhelming, and that caused the wheels to come off during the race. However, some fantastic support out there from Shira’s parents, relatives, teachers and friends were exactly what we needed to continue moving forward. At times we ran. At times we walked. We stopped for bananas twice, because Shira was starving. We stopped at a medical tent so that a medic could massage Shira’s tight quad. We stopped when we saw her family, so that she could facetime with her sister who was in Israel on Sunday. Through highs and lows, the miles ticked by.

What struck me the most was the support of the other runners out there. They were so supportive of her, often cheering her on, echoing my encouraging words, and giving her high-fives. While the crowded course for the first few miles was very overwhelming (I do not recommend someone with special needs to be in the last wave – it was too much for her), the runners around us were sometimes what got her through to the next mile.

Despite the difficulties, the minute we crossed the finish line after 5 hours and 38 minutes of being on our feet, Shira was elated. She was so proud of herself – and rightly so! Her strength is an inspiration to me and everyone who knows her.

Here are a few of my observations from the 2015 NYC Marathon:

  • In wave 4 (cannot speak for the other waves), many runners stop with their phones and selfie sticks for photos along the course – especially within the first mile as we go up and over the bridge. This was not only extremely frustrating, but also dangerous. In my humble opinion, cell phones have negatively impacted the race experience. Make memories and let the race photographers handle the photos.
  • Runners with special needs should not take the ferry – our morning included: a subway, a shuttle (subway had construction), a ferry, a shuttle, a walk. That’s a LOT of logistics/stress to handle. That wasn’t fair for Shira.
  • The race starts with cannons. If you were at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013 and happened to forget that NYC marathon begins with cannons, you might jump out of your skin. You can guess how hard it was for me to keep my cool when that happened. I almost threw up.
  • There were hardly any porta-potty lines in our corral. That was pretty amazing.
  • Bagels/refreshments were nowhere near our village/corral. This was pretty awful.
  • The volunteers along the course were supportive and energetic.
  • At the finish line, we had a wrist band and permission to exit where the elite runners and Achilles athletes exit at west 72nd street. The NYRR staff would not allow us to exit, which was unfortunate considering all the extra work we had put into making Shira’s day as comfortable as possible – which had included months of correspondence with the folks at NYRR.
  • New Yorker’s are the nicest, most considerate people on marathon day. Suddenly everyone is supportive, smiling, and ready to help a runner any way possible. I wish that humanity would carry through the rest of the year.

Kathrine Switzer once was quoted saying “If you ever lose sight in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.” I agree. You see people at their most raw. You see blood, sweat and tears, and the will to push forward. You see human beings at their best and their worst – sometimes all at the same moment. If you ever feel dull and have the desire to feel “alive,” train and run a marathon.

After I left Shira’s apartment and headed towards an after party with my charity team, I was slowly able to start the process of checking results for all my other runners. My phone was flooded with emails, texts, missed calls, instagram photos, twitter updates – all from my athletes. It was amazing. The marathon is bigger than any one person, and perhaps that’s part of what makes it so epic.

Mile 18 of the 2015 NYC Marathon, pacing Shira.

Mile 18 of the 2015 NYC Marathon, pacing Shira.

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.

Know Thy Course

997725_10101358484902303_210800078_oI recently paced my sister in a Half Marathon (her first race ever!), and you experience a race very differently when pacing than you do when racing.

One thing that I noticed: many runners on the course didn’t know the race course! They listened carefully to my advice I was spewing out to my sister, to keep her prepared for what was next. Many, when faced when an unexpected hill, would completely crumble.

Yes, ignorance can sometimes be bliss, but as a runner, ignorance is just plain dumb and poor planning. If you have a goal race, regardless of distance, STUDY that race course!!!!! There are NO EXCUSES for not knowing the course (race websites will have it posted, and you can always look up info), and it is for your benefit. The only time you won’t know the elevation may be on a new race course, though a map and mile markers will still be available to study.

As my sister and I turned the corner around the 12.5 mile mark, and were faced with a long, hard hill (longer than Heartbreak Hill, for example), runners around us stopped, walked, sighed, doubled-over, and gave in to the race course. If they had done their research, they may have still struggled physically, but mentally they would have been prepared.