2017 Boston Marathon Race Report: Part 1

Hey! It’s been a long time since I updated my blog, but here we go.

On Monday, April 17, 2017, I ran the Boston Marathon in a time of 2:55:56, 6:43/mile pace, 976 overall out of 26,411 finishers. My time gave me a 58-second marathon PR from my time at the 2016 New York City Marathon. It was a hot day, but I could not have executed my race plan any better. My 15-second negative split tells me that I ran about as well as I could have.

Because I haven’t written for so long, I wrote a lot! Therefore, I’ve decided to break it down into three separate blog entries: 1) a summary of my training throughout 2016 and my Boston-specific training; 2) a race recap; and 3) an analysis of my race, and what’s in store as I train for the Marine Corps Marathon on October 22, 2017.

Without further ado, Part 1: A Yearlong Training Review (2016-April 2017)

Honestly, 2016 was a difficult year in terms of training. An injury to my right hip flexor muscles and adductor kept me sidelined from approximately February through mid-April. In May, I ran the 2016 Brooklyn Half only 7 seconds off my half marathon PR. That race reassured me that I had not lost too much fitness, but showed just how much work I would have to put in if I wanted to improve. I also hated every step of it, and entered the “pain cave” for the first time in my running career. I then participated in the New York City Triathlon in July, which was an awesome experience but definitely took time away from running.

Brooklyn Half Pain

Brooklyn Half: not a good look, especially for a non-PR time!

NYC Tri 1

NYC Triathlon: Swim Time 2000ish/3300; Bike Time 700ish/3300; Run Time 58/3300. Guess we learned my strongest discipline.

Then, in August, just as I was building my mileage, I got a once-in-a-lifetime last-minute opportunity to attend Burning Man and play guitar in a Phish tribute band. Although this story deserves a post of its own, I ended up running the Burning Man 50k on approximately 25-30 miles per week of training, with one long run of 18 miles. Not my best race, and definitely not the best way to build up the miles leading into fall marathon training.

Burning Man 3

When you run an ultramarathon in the desert, you get water refills from this guy.

Burning Man Music

Bringing the music of Phish to the desert!

Upon return to New York, I ended up with bursitis in my right hip, which sidelined me for another two weeks. More importantly, I missed at least one 20-miler because of it before I went to the doctor. When I was finally able to run again, I squeezed in two 20-milers before the Marathon and ran a small half marathon PR in a tiny race in Brattleboro, VT, all the while nursing an ever-tightening left ankle. Despite mentioning said ankle to my doctor throughout the year, he told me to keep stretching it, but not to worry.

Catamount Half 1

Catamount Half Marathon: 1:19:56, 2nd overall to this guy, Jason, whose parents lived along the race route. Super nice guy!

That said, on November 6, 2016, I toed the line at the New York City Marathon having averaged 35 miles per week from June through November, with a peak week of 50 miles. Not terrible, but definitely not the volume necessary to build the aerobic capacity to make a big leap in my marathon abilities. Also, as you can probably guess, the lack of consistency across the year made it difficult to predict what would happen after the gun at 9:50 AM that morning. Suffice to say, I could not have asked for anything more when I crossed the finish line in Central Park with a 62-second marathon PR.

NYC Marathon 1

Chris, Jamil, Me, Myles, and Ryan: all sub-3, all within 2 minutes of each other!

When I analyzed my race, however, I was able to identify a pretty obvious issue. I ran the first half of the race in 1:26, approximately 6:33/mile. The second half clocked in at 1:30, or 6:52 mile. While New York is generally a positive split course, most strategies would favor a one- to two-minute positive split to account for the Queensborough Bridge and the Fifth Avenue hill. Such a strategy would require one to run an even effort throughout the marathon.

So, why did I finish with a four-minute positive split? In my opinion, there were two main reasons. First, I set way too ambitious a goal of running 2:50, so I went out faster than I should have. That led to me slowing down in the final eight miles of the race. Second, my training, which lacked both volume and consistency, failed to let me develop the muscle endurance required to keep turning over the legs in the late stages of the marathon. Based upon that, I decided that for Boston, I would increase my weekly training volume, and try to run at least six days per week, even if some of those runs were short. For the first time I ordered a custom training plan from NYRR’s Virtual Trainer program. The plan was set to start on December 27, which meant that I would use the time between mid-November and late December to build up a good mileage base.

However, after taking a week off after the NYC Marathon and running for two weeks, the tightness in my left ankle sidelined me for two more weeks. Then, once I regained my range of motion in my ankle, I got a bad cold, which sidelined me for another week. Then, on Christmas Eve I got the flu, which sidelined me for yet another two weeks. Boom boom boom! Once I finally recovered, December 27 had passed, and I had barely run since the end of November. Although I had tried to maintain fitness by cycling, I had not hit the pavement in over a month.

So, I officially kicked off my Boston 2017 training on January 3, running an easy 4 miles on the treadmill, with four strides at a 5:00/mile pace. Not particularly inspiring, but a start. From there I ran 11 miles my first, week, followed by 28, then 32, 39, 37, 42, and, finally, 52 miles in a single week, with a long run of 17. I followed that up with five more weeks at 50 plus miles, with a peak of 56 in my last week. I got in three 20-milers, with the last two containing some marathon pace miles. I ran 6-7 days per week, and noticed that I was recovering from runs much faster than in previous cycles. I used my “The Stick” to roll out my muscles every night, which really helped any lingering muscle soreness. Instead of incorporating numerous hard race efforts into my training, I treated races as my tempo runs. I really tried to stick to the 80/20 method of training, wherein you run approximately 80 percent of your miles at an easy to moderate pace, and 20 percent of your miles at a hard effort. I experienced no new injuries or discomfort, and felt myself getting stronger each day. I made sure to do my own core exercises at least two days per week, and noticed a difference in my overall strength.

So, when I toed the line on April 1 at the Boomer’s 4 miler in Central Park, the one true tune-up race I scheduled, I felt confident that I would be able to throw down a strong effort. My finish time of 22:54, which was good enough that day for 10th overall and first in my age group, had me executing a solid race plan and running a final mile of 5:19, faster than I’d run in a good while. A few days later, I equaled my PR on the 3.3-mile November Project NYC PR Day course.

Boomer 4M

Boomer 4-Miler: I swear I’m not angry at Mikey Branigan, the winner of the race! I’m just bad at pictures (and race bibs).

Those two races gave me one critical piece of information: My fitness was strong, but had not improved so much that I was going to run a massive PR in Boston. If anything, I might be able to run 2:53 or slightly under with the right weather conditions. Any attempt to push for faster than that, however, and I’d be back in positive split city.

Part 2, the actual race recap, to follow soon!

Running Tips: Check Your Laces!

Taking a break from my spring marathon training posts, I wanted to share a quick insight I recently had about the importance of paying attention to how the lacing of your running shoes can hinder your ability to run well.

The background, part 1: Over a year ago I watched a video posted to social media that indicated the “correct” way to lace running shoes. The video indicated that a runner should lace his shoes by using the “heel lock” method: essentially, you use the top hole on the shoe (i.e., the hole that no one ever uses) to create an additional loop through which you then thread and tie the laces. Check out the video below or click here to see how this works:

According to the video, lacing one’s shoes in this manner would keep the shoelaces tighter, for longer, thus allowing the runner the freedom to run without worrying about his shoelaces coming untied.

Sounds great, right? I adopted the heel lock method immediately, without thinking much about it. My shoes often came untied when I simply double-knotted them, but no longer came untied when heel-locked.

The background, part 2: In April of 2015, I developed a stress fracture in my right sacral ala. After physical therapy and a slow return to running, I found that my right leg and hip would feel more sore both during and after a run, but never felt like an injury was developing or re-developing. My doctor and physical therapist both suggested that the tightness in my piriformis, quads, IT band, and hip flexors—which developed during the time off my feet—were to blame, and advised me to focus on mobility exercises and stretching. This generally alleviated the soreness throughout the fall, and I raced successfully.

sacral ala

I didn’t know I had a sacral ala until I got injured. Did you?

The issue: Upon returning to running in December after a two-week break following the NYRR NYC 60k, I found that the soreness in my right hip both during and after a run had increased two or three times what it was before the break. While that soreness subsided after a few weeks of running, it remained, in some form, until about two weeks ago. It affected my ability to recover after long runs, and generally made me uncomfortable about running hard.

The discovery: Every time I laced up my shoes using the heel lock method, the laces pinched on the top of the inside of my right ankle. I would loosen the laces, move the tongue of my shoe to cover the pinched area, and pull up my sock, but the pinching continued. A few miles into any run, I would feel the burn of the lace on that area of my ankle, and at the end of the run my right hip would feel as if I’d just run a marathon, while my left side would feel completely fine.

To treat this soreness, I would stretch almost every day. I would foam roll and roll out my piriformis with a lacrosse ball. Despite all of these mobility exercises, the soreness continued.

Then, about two weeks ago, I had a thought: Why not try a run without lacing my shoes using the heel lock method? Yeah, why not? So, I tied my left shoe with the heel lock method, but tied my right shoe with a simple double knot. I went out for a run and BOOM! While I experienced some additional soreness in my right hip, the feeling was much less pronounced than it had been. A few more runs with my shoes laced up in this new pattern, and the soreness in my left and right legs has essentially equalized. That is, the soreness had declined so as to feel like I usually feel after a run.

As I cannot remember whether I started tying my shoes with a heel lock before I got injured, I do not know whether wearing my shoes this way contributed to the injury. Ultimately, though, I’m glad I figured out what the problem is, and am happy to be running smoothly.

An additional note: While out running this morning, I caught up with my buddy, Mary Arnold, National Marketing Manager for Running Specialty Group, ultramarathoner, and all-around badass, and explained my issues and solution. She asked exactly where my soreness had been and, when I indicated my right hip, she nodded and explained that sometimes when a runner ties his shoes too tight, he inhibits the movement of the navicular bone—the bone located on the top inside of the ankle and, coincidentally, the area on which my laces were pinching—throwing off the leg’s running motion and resulting in extra pressure on the hip.

navicular bone

Figure of the foot showing the location of the navicular bone

She also provided this gem of running wisdom: “If you’re having soreness or pain that’s a 3-5 on the 10 scale, and it’s nagging and not going away, first check your equipment.” Thank you, Mary!

Thus, my tip for anyone else experiencing low-grade, nagging pain or uneven muscle soreness after a run: check your laces!

Happy running, everyone!

 

Spring Marathon Training Phase 1: Aerobic Base Training

This post is part 2 in a series concerning my spring marathon training plan. To read part 1, click here.

Previously, I wrote about why I decided to follow an Arthur Lydiard-style training plan influenced by the Maffetone Method while training for my spring marathon, the Inaugural Queens Marathon. Today, I will describe the first phase of that training plan—aerobic base training—and how it fits into the overall training scheme. As I’m not an exercise scientist or running coach, this post represents knowledge I’ve gained from reading various books, Internet articles, conversations with running coaches, and personal experience. I would strongly encourage you to read further on this subject if it interests you.

Aerobic Base Training

When coaches discuss a runner’s training for an endurance event, they often mention the runner’s “fitness.” For example, before heading out on a 10-mile group training run for the NYC Half Marathon a couple weeks ago, a well-known local running coach told the group, “Don’t worry if you can only run 5 miles today. You’ve got 12 weeks to get fit for the NYC Half.” Why would he emphasize the concept of “being fit?”

For runners, “being fit” means having a well-developed aerobic system (i.e., well-developed endurance capabilities). A runner’s aerobic fitness is the number one factor in determining how well that runner will race on any given day. So, what exactly is aerobic fitness, and how does a runner develop it?

Defining “Aerobic Fitness”

By way of background, the body produces energy through two different but linked systems: the aerobic system, and the anaerobic system. The aerobic system utilizes oxygen to break down fats and glycogen (stored sugars) in order to fuel our cells during exercise. It is the dominant energy system for efforts at or below about 85% of an athlete’s maximum heart rate (NOTE: Maximum heart rate can be roughly calculated by subtracting your age from 220). It utilizes a greater percentage of fat than glycogen and, generally, the less intense the effort, the larger percentage of fat the body will burn during a workout.

The anaerobic system gets activated when a person has become oxygen-deficient—that is, when the amount of oxygen he is consuming can no longer produce enough energy to sustain his effort. Oxygen deficiency typically arises when a person is training or racing at about 90% of his maximum heart rate. The anaerobic system operates without oxygen, and utilizes almost exclusively glycogen. As a result, the body cannot sustain anaerobic efforts for extended periods of time. Why? Because the body is capable of storing only 2,000-2,500 calories of glycogen at any given time, compared to over 40,000 calories of fat. As such, sustained hard efforts burn up glycogen quickly, and a runner will “hit the wall” or “bonk” once he has used up all of his glycogen stores. Further, because the ratio of sugar to fat utilized in energy production decreases as a runner’s heart rate increases (that is, the runner’s body utilizes more sugar), a runner will also deplete his glycogen stores after a hard, sustained aerobic effort. For example, first-time marathoners often “hit the wall” around miles 18-20 after around three hours of sustained aerobic effort.

Based upon the foregoing, we can conclude the following two things: First, “aerobic fitness” is the body’s ability to utilize oxygen to produce energy. And second, in any given endurance event (defined as any event 800 meters or longer), a runner’s aerobic fitness determines how long he can sustain a hard effort over a given distance. Therefore, training one’s body to utilize oxygen efficiently and to run faster at lower efforts (that is, lower heart rates) is critical to developing speed over long distances.

In other words, one’s aerobic fitness is the most important factor in determining one’s speed in any given event.

(NOTE: This does not mean that anaerobic development is unimportant or unnecessary: quite the contrary. In fact, anaerobic development is the second most important factor in determining how well a runner will perform in a given race. Further, a runner who fails to develop his anaerobic capacity will not perform his best (I will cover this in my post about Phase 3: Anaerobic Training). But for now, remember that aerobic fitness is the key to getting faster in any endurance sport, and learning how to properly train the aerobic system will help any runner improve his racing times.)

Why An Aerobic Base Period?

If you’ve ever researched marathon training plans, you’ve probably found plans spanning 12-20 weeks that look like this: for beginners, 3-4 runs per week at shorter distances, plus an ever-increasing long run on the weekend; for intermediate runners, 3-4 runs per week at slightly longer distances, some hills and speedwork, and a weekly long run; and for advanced runners, multiple days containing hills and speedwork, some easy workouts, some workouts at marathon or half marathon pace, plus a weekly long run with some miles at marathon pace. While these plans cater to runners of different abilities (and likely help people achieve their goals), they lack context: Why do runners of different abilities engage in different types of training?

The answer is simple: Advanced runners have built an aerobic base. By building an aerobic base—that is, developing the ability to utilize oxygen more efficiently to break down fat and glycogen to produce energy and, therefore, to sustain harder efforts at lower heart rates for a longer period of time—these advanced runners have greater access to anaerobic development. In other words, a runner’s anaerobic development is dependent on how well-developed his aerobic system is. Therefore, in order to maximize anaerobic development, one must have a well-developed aerobic system.

(NOTE: Another benefit of an aerobic base period is that a runner can increase speed while running at relatively slow paces with a low risk of injury. Harder running such as intervals and racing increases the runner’s risk of injury, so a long base period has the added benefit of developing speed and strength with a lower risk of injury. In other words, it prepares the musculature for harder efforts later in the training cycle).

How to Develop the Aerobic System

To train the aerobic system—that is (once again), to develop one’s ability to utilize oxygen more efficiently to break down fat and glycogen to produce energy and, therefore, to sustain harder efforts at lower heart rates for a longer period of time—a runner needs to train at an “aerobic pace,” which essentially means a pace below or well below “lactate threshold.” “Lactate threshold” is the pace at which the runner’s body begins to accumulate lactic acid—the byproduct of anaerobic energy production—at a rate faster than the body can break it down and expel it from its cells. The body can break down and use small amounts of lactic acid to produce additional energy. Unfortunately, once lactic acid builds up faster than the body can break it down, it disrupts the PH levels of the body’s cells, which causes destruction of the cells and, in turn, muscle fatigue and the feeling of hitting the wall.

What this means, then, is that hard efforts early on in the training cycle lead to the breakdown of the runner’s body, and can disrupt aerobic development. As such, an almost paradoxical relationship exists between fitness and racing: A runner must develop his aerobic fitness—the number one factor in determining how well he can race—only to destroy that fitness through anaerobic development (a necessary step in proper training) and racing.

An example from my own life: At my peak during my NYC Marathon training, I could run a mile at my Maffetone maximum aerobic heart rate (described below) of 1444 beats per minute in 6:55/Mile. After racing the Bronx 10-Mile, Staten Island Half, NYC Marathon, and NYRR NYC 60k in a seven-week period, my maximum aerobic pace dropped to 7:23/Mile as measured by the MAF test, a method for measuring one’s aerobic fitness. Only after two months of rest and near-exclusive aerobic training have I gotten my pace back to 7:00/Mile.

What this means, long-term, is that a runner who trains hard for a goal race will use up many of his aerobic gains in the lead-up to, and the actual, goal race. Thus, once the goal race is completed and the next goal is set, it will be necessary for the runner, if he wishes to continue his development, to start aerobic base training anew for the next race.

Aerobic Pace, as Defined by Lydiard and Maffetone

So, if a runner is supposed to train his aerobic system by running at an “aerobic pace,” how do we define that pace? Every coach seems to have his own definition.

Lydiard

Lydiard, for example, suggests that in order to develop a runner’s aerobic system, he should run at a pace that leaves him feeling “pleasantly tired” at the end of the run. While Lydiard never quantifies “pleasantly tired,” he indicates that a runner can determine that pace through trial and error by running on out-and-back courses and timing the run. If the second half takes longer than the first, then the runner’s initial pace was too fast. Ideally, then, an appropriate Lydiard-based aerobic pace is one at which a runner could run both halves of any particular run in the same amount of time, and end that run feeling “pleasantly tired.”

Based upon this, Lydiard recommends at least 3 long runs per week: 2 runs of about 1.5 hours each, and 1 run of 2+ hours, at the one’s “pleasantly tired” pace. He also recommends performing some tempo runs below lactate threshold, adding strides at the end of runs (for example, 4 x 100 meters of hard effort followed by extended recovery periods at the end of an otherwise steady state aerobic run), and adding as many additional miles at or below “pleasantly tired” pace.

So, an ideal Lydiard base-training week might look something like this:

  • Monday: 1.5 hour run at PT pace
  • Tuesday: Easy run with 4 x100 strides
  • Wednesday: 5-10k tempo run at harder-than-PT pace but below lactate threshold
  • Thursday: 1.5 hour run at PT pace
  • Friday: Easy run with 4 x 100 strides
  • Saturday: 2+ hour run at PT pace
  • Sunday: Easy run with 4 x 100 strides
  • Plus: As many other other runs as possible at or below the “pleasantly tired” aerobic pace

In his experience, Lydiard found that he and his athletes performed best when running approximately 100 miles per week at “pleasantly tired” pace plus as many miles at or below “pleasantly tired” pace as time would allow. He indicates that extra miles accumulated even with 15 minutes of jogging are beneficial. Of course, he instructs runners to run within their capacity, so a week of 20, 30, however many miles is acceptable as long as the runner does not push too hard.

Maffetone

According to Maffetone, one’s maximum aerobic pace is determined through his “180 Formula.” Take the number 180 and subtract your age from it. Then, adjust that number based upon a number of factors, including whether you’ve recently been injured, whether you get sick more than twice throughout the year, whether you’re new to running or a veteran, and whether you’ve seen improvement through using Maffetone’s formula. Then, when performing an aerobic run, keep your pace at or below your maximum heart rate, preferably in a range of your maximum aerobic heart and ten beats below (that is, your “maximum aerobic heart rate range”).

So, an ideal Maffetone week would look something like this: As many runs as possible within one’s maximum aerobic heart rate range.

Ultimately, both Lydiard and Maffetone indicate that running as close to one’s “pleasantly tired” pace or maximum aerobic heart rate most efficiently develops one’s aerobic system. While slower running will aid in development, such development will take more time. Further, both advocate for aerobic base periods that last as long as possible. Thus, if a runner has six months (26 weeks) to train for a particular race, the first 12 of those weeks should be dedicated to aerobic base training, and the following weeks dedicated to the additional phases of training (Hills/Leg Speed 4 weeks, Anaerobic Development 4 weeks, Sharpening 4 weeks, Freshening Up/Tapering 2 weeks).

Putting it All Together

Phew. That’s a lot, right? Here’s what I took from all this information, and how I applied it to my training.

First, while I trained for the NYC Marathon almost exclusively with the Maffetone Method, I felt that I might have outgrown it. I had built a solid aerobic base through the marathon training, and wanted to see if I could push harder. Second, almost every article I read and every coach I consulted indicated that incorporating more intense runs (below lactate threshold, of course) into a base-building phase would augment a runner’s aerobic development. As such, I decided to develop my base-building phase as described below:

First, I calculated my maximum aerobic heart rate and range as determined by Maffetone’s 180 Formula (144: 180 – 31 = 149, minus 5 because of my injury last year = 144 beats per minute, maximum aerobic heart rate range of 134-144 beats per minute). I also calculated my maximum heart rate using the popular 220 – age formula (220 – 31 = 189 beats per minute).

Second, I took the Lydiard skeleton and attempted to do at least three long runs a week, a tempo run, and as many other runs, bike sessions, and pool sessions as possible. When the schedule called for a run at an aerobic pace, I tried to keep my heart rate in my Maffetone range, in large part because Lydiard’s “pleasantly tired” metric mirrored how I felt after most Maffetone-style runs. When a run called for a harder effort below lactate threshold, I tried to keep my heart rate below 160 beats per minute, which equals about 85% of my roughly-calculated maximum heart rate. I also added strides at the end of many runs. You can see how I executed this plan from November 16, 2015 to January 24 here.

I did not follow the training advice perfectly. On two occasions I gave all-out efforts: first, in an unofficial 3.15-mile race (slightly longer than a 5k), and at November Project NYC PR day, a difficult 3.4-mile course. Outside of these 6.55 miles, the only hard efforts I did during this period were during strides at the end of runs, and the occasional tempo run. Thus, I feel good about this phase of my training. And, as I indicated above, I improved my maximum aerobic pace to 7:00/Mile from 7:23/Mile, which is a demonstrable gain in aerobic fitness.

In my next post, I will discuss Phase 2: Hills and Leg Speed.

Happy running, everyone!