MCM Training Week 5: Tempo troubles and a Run for Gold (race report)

Week 5 is a wrap – since I’ll be sending this link in to be posted on the Run for Gold site, I may have a few new readers – so hello! The first part of this is a recap of my training week, but feel free to skip down to the race report section. I won’t be offended – much. đŸ˜‰

The week

The boy and I are still in the midst of unpacking, but as a result, I’ve been unearthing some treasured memorabilia, including relics of my early running life. Take, for instance, my very first training log – it was short-lived, and I clearly stopped using it then picked it back up (though I also stopped marking the year so I don’t know exactly when I picked it up back up – d’oh). I’m dubious about the distance/times since I lacked a GPS watch, but it’s still cool to see that I was indeed improving. And this was long before structured speed workouts.

After two weeks off of it, I tried pretty hard to get back on the cross-training bandwagon, but not really hard enough, avoiding the gym for most of the week. Monday NF and I hit up CMU’s track and did some stadiums after a one mile jog around the track to warm up. Problem is, I didn’t consider the fact that my – admittedly strange and totally neurotic – fear of falling down stairs would rather hinder this workout for me. It was still challenging, but more in the way of me trying not to trip, and less of pushing to the pain place and increasing strength and turnover. Oh well. I still felt it in my calves and those little connector muscles in my feet and ankles the next morning.

Tuesday morning we had an easy 3-miler on the docket, and we ran what is rapidly becoming our favorite 3ish mile loop (it’s actually a little over 3-and-a-quarter, but whatever). It’s a pretty, slightly rolling to flat route with one gnarly hill in the middle, and I’ve been reveling in the chance to really grind up it and not quit. The reward is a downhill on the other side through a picturesque Oakland street, populated by huge houses that probably are the homes of Pitt faculty. I’ll have to snap a picture on a run sometime soon.

That evening after work, I returned to Pilates after a few weeks hiatus. And man, did I pick the right day to go. For some reason no one was there except for myself, another regular, and Sabrina, the instructor. So Sabrina basically did none of the workout, and instead watched and coached us carefully. The thing about classes is that they’re a double-edged sword: you push because there are others around you whom you don’t want to see you quit, but on the other hand, sometimes you can disappear for a moment into the crowd and back off on a particularly tough pose or series. Not so this time. Sweat was dripping from my temples and my core was absolutely shaking. It hurt to cough, sneeze, and laugh for the next three days, and my triceps ached. It was amazing.

I apparently am a little foreshortened on my right side, so I’m going to try to work on squaring off the hip better and really extending through that side, which also means focusing on posture. I imagine at least part of it is the fact that my right side is my dominant one, so often bears more weight of me carrying things (such as my water bottle when I’m running), so I probably tend to slouch on that side.

Wednesday I totally wimped out. I actually got out of bed and get dressed to go to the gym, and not five minutes later, basically said eff it and went back to sleep. Fail.

Thursday we had another crack at a 7-mile tempo run, and we actually just slightly adapted our usual route from the new homestead, since it’s only a half mile away from my old place. It would be better, I thought, since it would actually break the hilly first tempo mile into the first two, and the second half of tempo mile two would be a nice downhill. That’s a good trade, right?

Wrong. We start uphill for part of the warm up, heading up Aiken, and while the first part of the first tempo mile is nice, it quickly becomes a slight, slow grind, and then tempo mile two starts on the gnarly hill alongside Highland Park. Thankfully for my mental state, someone was just turning onto the hill so I kept at it and didn’t quit in the sight of another runner, but it did take a 10-second heaving break on the down side of that hill to catch my breath and ease my sudden dizziness. I didn’t quit as much as a couple weeks ago, but it was still not my finest hour, even as I hit my splits. But tempos are supposed to suck, right?

Friday morning I finally got my butt to the gym, using the 25-minute walk as a warm-up for a kick-ass legs workout (which I wondered then if it would be a mistake to do squats two days out from a 16-miler). I did my usual squat series, as well as single-leg dead lifts and calf raises, lots of core work, and some stretching and foam rolling. I knew I needed to keep my whining IT band happy, since it was just starting to recovery from moving day .

On Saturday, though, I almost undid it all. I woke up at 5 a.m. and my friend Ellen picked me up and we headed to North Park to volunteer at the Kids Triathlon. She worked the pool and I worked the run course. I had an absolute blast, helping little tykes get water, find their way, and encouraging them up the hills, but I was literally walking around and standing for more than six hours. My IT band was PISSED. But it was absolutely worth it – the most inspiring moment of the day was when I found out that the kid the sweeper followed in the last age group, who was probably 14 years old, had wrecked on the bike, broken his wrist, then jumped out of the ambulance because he wanted to finish the race anyway. Tough kid! Makes you wonder why you would ever quit.

Alright, that’s enough of the week’s breakdown. On to the race report!

Run for Gold 26.2K

Saturday afternoon, the boy and I hit the road to Frostburg, MD, catching a hearty pancake dinner in Cumberland (and seeing some familiar sights from our Ragnar DC journey last September), carbing up like champs. We crashed nice and early at the Hampton Inn in Frostburg – exactly where we had stayed for Ragnar as well. I had all of my stuff lined up before bed and ready for the 4:55 a.m. alarm.

Oiselle Winona tank and bum wrap, Brooks Launch, Garmin, Gu, handheld water bottle, and fuel belt (for phone/camera) ready to go!

I had packed us some oatmeal but thought the cups provided by the hotel would have been enough – I really should have brought bowls, since they were far too small, and therefore I had barely any room to add water and the oatmeal was really thick as a result. We ate maybe half of what I had packed but oh well. We just had to cross our fingers it would be enough!

After last gear checks, bathroom trips, and lubing up, we hit the road for the five minute drive to the finish line (technically in Meyersdale, PA – who knew?) to get our bibs and scope out the finish. The race took place on the Great Allegheny Passage, but the finish headed up some switchbacks just off the trail, so we wanted to be able to recognize it when we were 16-miles-delirious later.

The boy being silly pre-dawn

We made one last bathroom trip before boarding one of the two school buses carrying us to the start – we got the bus with race director Kevin, who was organized, sharp, and funny, giving us some tips, making us laugh, and making sure we knew exactly where we needed to be. He let us know some helpful landmarks (the third tunnel was 2.2 miles away from the right turn off to and up the switchbacks, and there was a downed tree across the trail in between), and about the aid station at 7.5 miles, but otherwise this was an extremely low-key, no-frills race. This was a first for me, and it was a cool experience. But we’ll get to that.

As soon as we got off the bus we all had to high tail it the 0.6 mile walk to the start. It was actually pretty chilly at that point – the mist was making us all pretty cool, but the walk and conversation with our fellow racers warmed us up. We started chatting with a very cool woman and ultrarunner named Mary, who would become one of my favorite parts of this race.

1-no frills
The starting line: no chips, no mats, no flags, no frills. All fun. [PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]
After some last minute safety instructions, the airhorn sounded and we were off!

My new friend Mary dead center, with me just over her left shoulder. [PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]
They said DON’T run down the photographer. [PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]
[PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]

Going into this race, I wasn’t entirely sure how I wanted to run it. I was reassured by the elevation profile – essentially flat, but with a long, slow grade up for the first half, long slow grade down for the second before the brutal switchbacks at the end, kinda like our 20-milers on Montour last fall – but what could I really crank out? I decided to just run what felt good. I had my iPod armband on the whole time, but headphones tucked into the pocket of my bum wrap in case of motivation emergency. I didn’t use them once.

I wish I’d gotten some pictures of the trail but I also just didn’t want to stop, nor busy myself with my phone, since it would take away from it all. It was absolutely gorgeous. The sun got a little warm at times, but otherwise it was a beautiful, comfortable day, and we were mostly shaded by trees as we trotted down the crushed limestone path. My guy and I tucked in behind another couple of runners for a couple miles, chatting a bit about our training and goals, before we picked it up a bit and found a good rhythm (or at least I did – my poor man had a really rough day of it, but he toughed it out and still had an awesome race, as you can read here).

I took my first gel at about 3.7, and he picked it up around mile 4, while I settled in, stride-for-stride, with Mary! We started chatting immediately, and pretty much never stopped – talking about running, racing, work, family, relationships, her husband (who is retired Army), my brother (active duty USAF), and a million other thinks. The miles clicked by between our conversation and smiles.

There were only shots of the leaders here, but here’s the first tunnel and the only aid station. Pretty cool! [PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]
We paused a bit at 7.5 miles to refill our bottles at the aid station, crossing the continental divide (we also crossed the Mason-Dixon line back into Maryland, which was really neat). The volunteers were stellar – super friendly, and even helped me fill my bottle before sending me on my way. We only paused for maybe a minute, probably less, and fell right back into our pace and conversation.

A few miles later, we hit tunnel number 2, the one we’d been warned about: Big Savage Tunnel. It’s about half a mile long and dimly lit (though apparently it’s a miracle it was lit at all). We just kept our eyes up and focused on the light at the end – oh how fitting that cliche was here – but the disorienting affect it had was really strange. I didn’t get too freaked out, but I think if I hadn’t had such a good running buddy, I probably would have at least a little. We emerged on the other side to a gorgeous view, all smiles.

I need to work on that whole flippy right foot thing. It’s bad. [PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]
I kept an eye on my guy up head when I could – near where we had split up, it seemed like he was easing into his goal pace slowly. I lost sight of him on the curves a few times, but into the later miles, we seemed to be catching him.

We had one more tunnel – a short but pitch black one – about 2.5 miles from the finish, and that one was almost more dizzying than Big Savage. In both tunnels I focused on really picking up my feet, and managed not to trip up – a small miracle. A little after the tunnel, around mile 15 or so, I started to pick up a bit and Mary encouraged me to go catch NF. As I neared him, I could see he was struggling a little, and I prayed my catching up would have an encouraging effect on him.

It didn’t I called out “hey cutie!” and passed him but just as I was about to shore up my speed and match with him, he stopped to walk. It just wasn’t his day, especially since he was only a week and a half out from thesis proposal stress, something that doesn’t disappear all that quickly. He assured me that I should just take off, and with a little hesitation, I did. Mary caught up and we navigated the last bit together, including the downed tree. Near the turn off, I gapped her a bit and fortunately a troop of cyclists were near the trailhead so it was very easy to spot those gnarly switchbacks.

Ignoring my pace, I just tucked my head down and focused on staying strong and steady, strong and steady. My miles had been dead consistent in the 8:40s-8:50s, with at 9 minutes, but I didn’t care how slow I went, I just didn’t want to quit. There was a cruel moment when I thought I was on the final switchback, but there was one more. Finally I was reaching the flat straightaway and heard those who had already finished begin to cheer and clap as I tried to pick it up a little across the line and manage something like a smile.

[PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]
[PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]
[PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]

This may be my favorite running photo ever. [PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]
I hit STOP on my watch – which didn’t read nearly as much over the 16.28 mile distance as I thought it would, considering I lost satellite in both of the dark tunnels and had three funky splits a result – and felt absolutely elated. Mary finished shortly after me and we shook hands and thanked each other for the push. That’s the thing about finding a pacer buddy – you never really know who is doing the work of pushing and who is following the current; I think the answer is that it’s a team effort, and you both carry and help each other. It’s one of my favorite parts of this sport, and probably the highlight of this race in particular, with a couple other notable examples in recent races.

I don’t think even a minute later, I saw my guy  coming down the stretch. I let the timer know to ignore me as I crossed a second time, and jogged halfway down the straightaway to bring him in. He was suffering, but I was so, so proud – and I knew he loved those crazy switchbacks.

Smiling like a dork for us both. [PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]
After some time spent blowing off steam, downloading about the race, stretching, and walking around, it was time to enjoy the post-race grub and company. Our tummies are a little iffy, but we enjoyed the pretzels, bananas, and orange slices, not to mention the water and Gatorade, supplied at the finish. We also had to heartily thank our friend Mark for telling us about this race and bugging the heck out of us until we finally got off our asses and signed up. Thanks, Mark!

[yoinked from Mark’s Facebook]
We had paid up to get the extra food at the end, but only nibbled at the pizza and bagels provided. We were in a serious caloric hole but not really ready to eat, so we kept sipping on our fluids, cheering people in and listening to the awards ceremony. And speaking of awards…

[PHOTO CREDIT: Potomac Highlands Distance Club]

I managed to snag first in the 20-20 age group! Who knew? Pretty cool getting hardware for this great little race, especially since I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to perform.

We chatted with the other runners a bit longer before our legs were barking enough that we decided to pack it in – we still had a two hour drive back to Pittsburgh after all. We stopped for Starbucks goodies, the only thing that appealed to us, before getting on the turnpike for the remainder of the drive.

Just one of the ridiculously scenic views we enjoyed on our journey home.

At 4 p.m. sharp the hunger beast reared its head and I insisted we go eat immediately, and we headed to Union Grill for piergies, burgers, fries, and of course beer. Not a bad way to end a race day!

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I'm a 35-year-old writer and runner. This is my running blog.

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