It Keeps Me Running

As I crossed the finish line of the Marine Corps Marathon 10K a few months ago, I officially wrapped up my running season for 2014. There were a few races going on in November and December that I’ve done in the past, but with Noah on the way I didn’t want to take any chances, or the time commitment to train, either. But as the world has gotten darker and the temperatures have plummeted, I’ve still been running, just not officially – and a lot more on the treadmill.

Late last year, I finally put together a file that documents my own personal race results. While I was tooling around Excel to do this, I stumbled across Athlinks.com, a site that does a lot of the same things for me, as long as the race results are posted online. I do like the Athlinks statistics, but I’m going to keep my own log as well, since I end up running some races that aren’t officially timed or don’t have any results posted online.

anchorman

Since this jogging thing seems like it’s going to stick around, I also like having a ready reference to help keep me motivated to improve my times. When I have a race coming up of a certain distance, I can just use the handy-dandy Excel file to see what my average pace was on the last go-round for that distance, or all the races I’ve run in that distance, and instantly know what pace I need to try to beat. And of course, this will help me keep track of my personal bests and such. Having all of this info in one place also allows me to make… CHARTS! Joy!

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This chart shows the average pace over all the races I’ve run as of the end of 2014 – all 181.33 miles worth. The vertical axis is my pace in minutes per mile, and the horizontal axis is the date of each race. There are a couple of interesting things that jump out at me; first, aside from the spike that represents the Marine Corps Marathon in late 2013, I seem to have a natural pace that hovers around the eight-minute mile mark. In fact, the blue line represents my average overall pace of about 7:45/mile. This makes sense to me; when I’m out on a normal, everyday run and not trying to push myself, that seems to be the pace I gravitate toward.

The second thing I notice is that I’ve ever-so-slightly gotten faster as time has gone on. The dashed black line represents the trendline of my overall pace, and it’s got a tiny downward slope as I’ve improved my times over the last couple of years. I’m fine with that, but I guess if having a goal keeps you motivated, I can try to get that trend pointed even more downward over the next few years.

Finally, if I wanted to commit a great statistical sin, I could show the trendline equation to extrapolate how fast I will be this time next year, only to discover that that’s pretty ridiculous and numbers can only take you so far.

I think I’ve said it before: I love a good chart. When you can summarize volumes of data in one graph, you’ve pulled off the mathematical equivalent of a Hemingway-style six-word short story. The one above is a dirt-simple pre-packaged Excel number, but I’m always on the lookout for new ways to display data. I guess I could next look into the wild world of infographics – wait, no. No, I’m not ready yet.

Maybe one of these days.

Winn Tier Oh Limp Icks

Gina and I watched the Opening Ceremonies of the Sochi Games last night. Well, she watched most of them, and I fell asleep sometime during the parade of nations, somewhere between Iceland and Canada. (I also didn’t take Meredith Viera’s advice to Google the Cyrillic alphabet to understand the order of nations in the parade.) Gina did wake me up so I could see the inexplicably ugly grandpa sweaters the U.S. team was wearing, though, so I at least have that memory to cherish forever.

It seems like everybody is just waiting for something bad to happen at these Games. Russia’s certainly not done a lot to endear itself to the international community lately, so I guess it’s human nature to wait for the country to slip on a banana peel so we can all collectively point and laugh.

Ha ha, indeed.
Ha ha, indeed.

Not to get too political about it, but I suspect President Putin doesn’t really care what other nations think about the mind-blowing amount of money spent in preparation for these games, or the Russian citizens who were displaced to make way for stadiums and whatnot, or the stray dog roundup and euthanizations across Sochi, all stories that made the news at some point or another in the last few weeks. Instead, I get the feeling this spectacle is as much about showing Russians what he – and they – are capable of and exerting more Putin-esque influence than anything else. And I’m sure other countries’ Olympic preparations had their share of unsavory stories, but because this is Russia, the media’s paying more attention. Anyway, keeping a project of this scale absolutely flawless would be impossible for any country, but it seems fitting that Russia’s the one that is going to try anyway, and they will try on the grandest scale in Winter Olympics history. Whether they succeed or not will be determined over the next two weeks. But I digress.

The first Winter Olympics I can remember was twenty years ago in Lillehammer, Norway, and it featured two figure skaters named Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Like most of America, I ended up watching the figure skating finals anxiously to see if Nancy would take the gold, only to watch her lose out to Oksana Baiul. This was also the last time I really cared about one, barring my discovery and subsequent brief love affair with the chess-on-ice game of curling in 2006 and 2010. What I remember most about those games, though, was that they were on CBS and David Letterman sent his mom over there to report on what was going on every night. I guess I was staying up late enough every night back then to catch her reports, which were hilarious in an innocent, grandmotherly way as she interacted with famous Olympians. Here’s a few clips:

Anyway, that’s pretty much the extent of my Winter Olympic memories. Aside from the odd curling match, I’m not going to go out of my way to watch much of Sochi, either, unless there’s a gold medal U.S. vs. Russia hockey match, at which point I hope to see Kurt Russell in a wig on the sidelines.

“Great moments are born of great opportunity!” (image source: www.fanpop.com)

From The Finish Line

It’s hard to believe that the Marine Corps Marathon was three weeks ago. Now that the pain in my legs has long ago subsided, I no longer fear stairs, I can walk normally again and have even gone on a few runs with no incident, I think I can safely share my marathon experiences with everyone. I won’t go into excruciating detail on a mile by mile basis, because that would be both gross and boring. What I will do is relay some of the disjointed thoughts and feelings I had before, during, and after the race and in the weeks since the race day.

Making the trek out to the starting line in the pre-dawn hours was an adventure all on its own. It wasn’t hard to find, since 29,999 other people were also heading in that direction, it just took a while to get from the Pentagon Metro out to the middle of Route 110. But I was prepared with my cheap Wal-Mart-issue sweatsuit that I gradually shed and piled up with the other donations as we all got lined up. The shared body heat kept me warm enough in the ten minutes it took from the firing of the Howitzer for me to cross the starting line. And even though it was still in the 50’s for most of the morning, after the first few miles I didn’t notice, so I feel good about my wardrobe choice.

The first 18 miles were relatively great and smooth sailing with no issues. The weather was beautiful. The crowds were also amazing. I guess I was even surprised at both the number of spectators and the positive effect all the cheering had on my performance. Even better, I successfully dodged all the major (and weird) physical calamities that can hit men during a long race: no nipple chafing, no lost toenails, no shin splints or planar fasciitis or other lasting leg injury. But I did fall victim to one thing I didn’t count on. In my eagerness to not get too hungry and to avoid feeling faint towards the end of the race, I ate a lot of sports gels, more frequently than I had during training. It turns out this was too many sports gels for my stomach, which led to some nausea and trips to the first couple of Port-a-Johns I could find around mile 18 or 19. That wasn’t pleasant. I wonder if “overgelling” is a thing, and if I’m one of the dumb schmucks to do it on their first marathon.

Aside from the digestive issues, I was fine with running until about mile 22. I think I could have continued running (well, ok, shuffling a bit faster than walking) the last four miles as well if I wasn’t preoccupied with having stomach problems again. As it was, I shifted into a “walk a couple of minutes, run a couple of minutes” mode, which served me well. That strategy left me with enough juice to power through the last half mile or so, including the infamous hill on the last .2 miles heading up to the Marine Corps Memorial. So I at least did finish strong! The last gauntlet of Marines lining the street to the finish line was a real treat and inspired me to set my jaw and just finish the thing, 4 hours, 43 minutes, and 14 seconds after I began.

The hardware that you get is pretty okay, too.
The hardware that you get is pretty okay, too.

It’s neat to be able to say that I ran a marathon, but in many ways it doesn’t seem real to me, even now. Maybe that’s because I was in such a delirious state after crossing the finish line. Nobody could have adequately warned me about that. When I crossed the line, there was none of the Olympic-level celebration you see in the movies or on TV for me. Time didn’t slow down, and there was no triumphant music in the background. No Hallmark moments, just me trying to walk in a straight line and largely failing, my hands clasped above my head for a few seconds. I would say the prevailing emotion was relief, though certainly there was some satisfaction and accomplishment swirling around my disoriented head too. I was also extremely proud of Gina, who finished the 10K hours earlier and was waiting on me as close as she could to the finish line.

Another thing I wasn’t prepared for was the crush of people at the finish festival in Rosslyn after the race. I guess after you pile together 30,000 marathon runners plus another few thousand 10K runners and spectators, it’s going to be crowded. This wouldn’t have been so bad if there had been enough places for runners to sit. I’m forever thankful to Gina that she was there to basically lead me through the confusion. Luckily, we snagged a table at Panera, where I heartily ate lunch once I felt like I could keep food down. Getting back home was another odyssey, since the lines for both the Metro and taxicabs were backed up several blocks by the time we were ready to leave. Gina ingeniously suggested going to the Key Bridge Marriott nearby, which had a much smaller line. Even so, we had to direct our poor cab driver past many a closed exit and around several blocked roads before finally finding a route home.

All of my earlier kidding and mild grumbling aside, I count myself fortunate that I was able to finish, which meant that my months of training had not been wasted. During the stretches when the running didn’t feel like work, before I hit the infamous Wall, it truly was a beautiful experience. The camaraderie of all the runners, the energy from the crowds of spectators, the funny signs that for a few seconds at a time took our minds off of the punishment we were giving our bodies – all of these were highlights. It was a beautiful day for a run. And when the young Marine who called me “sir” placed the medal around my neck, it was the best kind of weight.

Family and friends asked me later that day if I planned to run another marathon. According to Frank Shorter, winner of the 1972 Olympic marathon, “You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming,” which sounds about right to me. I know I can’t wait to get back to running just for fun again at a sensible amount of miles per week.

But at this point in my life, I also know enough to never say never.

My History of Running

When I first moved to the DC area and began working a desk job that dealt with numbers and statistics, I quickly developed my own formula:

(Unadjusted food intake level from college + Sitting at a computer for eight or nine hours a day) * Age in years^Slowing metabolism = Exponential weight gain

Since the second term was pretty much a constant, I set out to do what I could to control the rest; namely, to invent an anti-aging serum. Failing that, due to a desire not to go back to school for a degree in biochemistry, I defaulted back to diet and exercise. I also had an even more serious health-related motivation: since my family has a history of diabetes, I wanted to do all I could to avoid getting that disease for as long as possible. I began packing my lunch when I could and tried to increase my daily servings of vegetables – you know, the basic things. And then I started hitting the gym.

“The gym,” as we say, still does not come naturally to me. I was never an athlete, and nobody ever taught me how to use all the funky machines and weights. So became largely self-taught, adding bits and pieces to my routines after watching huge muscle-bound guys grunt and drop unimaginably heavy weights to the floor, combined with some strategic Internet research. I never set out to be Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1984. As long as I basically maintained my weight and had some sort of muscle tone, I was going to be happy.

That took care of weight training. But what about this mysterious thing the experts called “cardio?” I remember getting on a treadmill for the first time and hoping my lungs would hold out long enough to cover a mile and a half over the course of 30 minutes, which of course brought to mind running up the hill near Washington Street in Blacksburg on my way to McComas Hall the three or four times I actually worked out in college. I had to stop to catch my breath at the top. It wasn’t really a steep hill, and the run might have been three-quarters of a mile total. Flash-forward a few years to my life as a working man, I kept at it despite the burning in my lungs. I gradually increased my times on the equipment and learned the seductive ways of the elliptical machine. Gradually, it did get easier.

Looking back, I don’t really remember what the catalyst was that got me to try running more seriously. I suppose it was just a quiet sort of gradual determination that I barely noticed at the time. When I moved in with Matt and Josh, I would gradually start covering 1.5 to two mile stretches on the trails around a pond near our place. I bought my first real pair of running shoes around this time. By 2008, I was still mainly sticking to treadmills, but I had started working in Crystal City with cheap access to a gym, so I was trying to make running and exercising part of a lunchtime routine to break up the day. Before long, I even ventured out to the Mount Vernon Trail running parallel to the GW Parkway, and all of a sudden I was an interloper among serious runners and cyclists. You haven’t lived until you naively turn around, without signaling, in the middle of a shared bikepath and come within inches of getting taken out by a commuter on a mountain bike.

By 2010, even though I had officially been “running” for maybe two years, the concept of organized official races still daunted me; I would deflect any recommendations of that sort by saying I wasn’t trying to compete at anything, I just wanted to be able to eat whatever I wanted. I finally took the advice of some co-workers that spring and signed up for the Crystal City Twilighter, a 5K race taking place just blocks from my office building. Maybe the fact that it was in familiar running territory made it seem less scary. I did all kinds of Internet research on how best to train for a 5K and formalized a regular jogging route among the surrounding neighborhoods of my and Gina’s apartment. As my distances lengthened to two and three miles on the hard pavement and murderous hills, it was eye-opening. No, let me be clear: it felt like a freaking achievement! The fact that the human body could withstand such gut-wrenching punishment made me feel alive!

5K Bret
No grimace, no gain.

And then came my first real race, the aforementioned Twilighter. As luck would have it, that balmy July day topped out at a record-setting 101 degrees, and it didn’t really cool off much by the time the race began in the evening. I was drenched in sweat after the first half-mile, but I finished the dang thing. And it felt good! By then, I guess you could say I was hooked, but I never deluded myself into thinking I was one day going to be an elite runner with a 5:30 per mile pace. Even as I gradually tried my hand at progressively longer races – the odd 10K there, another 5K here, a 5-miler over there – I still never considered myself a “runner.”

By 2012, I took a deep breath and signed up for the Wilson Bridge Half Marathon, mainly because I had wanted to do a ten-miler but all the local ones had sold out before I could commit. Running 13.1 miles was another daunting idea, but by that point I had ingrained in myself the long view of running: each race is a milestone, and in training for it you gradually build yourself up to be a person that can finish that race. Ideally, this takes months, because as the old adages go, “the journey is the reward,” and running is “95% mental,” and so on. But those are all true, because without consciously flipping a mental switch on, it was during the weeks of training for the half marathon that when someone casually asked me, “Oh, are you a runner?” I could actually reply “yes” and keep a straight face.

The half marathon was not my greatest race. It was rainy and cold that day and I misjudged how much effort it would really take to push through the final three miles or so. But, again, I finished it and remember thinking that was the longest distance I ever needed to go to prove anything to myself. A full marathon was this distant, mystical thing that only ultra-serious runners did, and though I finally thought of myself as a member of the running club, I did not think I was that serious.

All it took to break that mental barrier was Gerritt completing the Marine Corps Marathon in 2012 and encouraging me to run it. The seed of the idea was planted, and over time a marathon seemed less mystical and more… well, doable.

And so, here I am, some kind of midway-serious runner in the final weeks of training for that marathon. I’ve set and broken personal distance records six or seven times over the last couple of months. I’ve gone through two and a half pairs of running shoes. Some days have felt great, while others have been painful. I now have boring running “war stories” to tell. While I’m only trying to finish the marathon without getting injured, I now see it as something that I’ve been building to for years. Slowly. Almost subconsciously, until I had enough experience behind me to climb over the mental barriers and just say, “why not?”

With every day, the race gets closer. With every mile, my legs get stronger. Every time I go out, my mind gets sharper. Right now, I can’t imagine ever training for a marathon again.

But I’ve been wrong before, and by now I know not to question this running thing.

Olympic Fever

The Olympics are here! Now everyone around the world can develop their latent interests in / pretend to care about sports like archery, horse dressage, rowing, race walking, and handball. While none of these relatively obscure events can really match up to the glory of curling in the Winter Games, it’s still nice to think that there’s a place out there, every four years at least, for all those raging badminton fans.

The Olympics will also always have a special meaning for me, since Gina and I got married and went on honeymoon during almost the entire Beijing games (John Williams’ theme for the 1984 Los Angeles games will also always hold special meaning since it was our wedding recessional). It goes without saying that I don’t really remember much about the 2008 Games at all – I ended up reading about it later, so I at least knew who Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt were.

I’ve written briefly before about my Winter Olympics memories, but looking back, most of my summer Olympic memories are pretty sporadic. I may have vague memories of something going on in Seoul, but the first Games I actually can recall were in ’92. I definitely remember catching most of Barcelona through the little 6″ TV in our old Chevy Van while ferrying my grandmother to and from various doctors’ offices. Getting hotcakes at McDonald’s and watching the U.S. beat up on the world in track and field? It doesn’t get much better. I remember the bomb scare during the Atlanta games and John Williams’ new theme song that debuted then, as well as Kerri Strug’s injured ankle and that whole gymnastics team being crazy good. I think I was too preoccupied with getting ready for college to really appreciate Sydney in 2000, but I at least watched a couple of track and field events and remember athletes like Michael Johnson. As for Athens, you could tell me anything about what happened there and I’d believe you. What the heck was going on in 2004?

So now that I think about it, this is my chance to pay more attention to the Olympics than I have in, say, 16 years. Bring on the handball!