Spring Marathon Training Phase 2: Hills and Leg Speed

NOTE: This post is part 3 in a series about my spring marathon training. Click here to see Post 1, and here for Post 2.

Lydiard Hill Springing

These guys look really cool “springing” up that hill, right?

This post will introduce Phase 2 of my Arthur-Lydiard-inspired spring marathon training plan, hill work and leg speed, and describe the first of three critical workouts to be performed during this phase: hill “springing.”

In my previous post, I discussed the first phase of my training plan: aerobic base training. That post condensed tons of information into approximately 2,200 words of dense and somewhat difficult reading. If I could rewrite that post, I would split the information into three separate posts. So, before proceeding, I am going to summarize Phase 1, and why it’s necessary before embarking on the other phases of the training plan.

A Quick Review of Phase 1: Aerobic Base Training

Aerobic base training is the most important part of any training plan because aerobic fitness (the body’s ability to use oxygen efficiently to convert fat and glycogen into energy) is the number one factor in determining how well a runner will race on any given day. A runner develops aerobic fitness by training at an “aerobic pace,” loosely defined as running at a pace that leaves the runner “pleasantly tired,” or, in more mathematical terms, at a pace at or below approximately 75% of the runner’s maximum heart rate. During this phase, the runner should also perform strides (hard 100 meter efforts at the end of runs followed by extended recovery jogs), tempo runs below lactate threshold, and some easy fartleks. The runner should do at least three long runs per week (two runs about 1.5 hours, one run of 2+ hours) at an aerobic pace. A plan that incorporates only these types of runs—and leaves the anaerobic training for later—will allow a runner to develop a large aerobic base, which will facilitate anaerobic training later in the training cycle.

Importantly, the aerobic base training phase should last as long as possible. Why? Anaerobic development is limited: that is, a runner can only develop his anaerobic capacity so much. On the other hand, a runner’s capacity for aerobic development is virtually unlimited, and the more developed the aerobic system, the larger the capacity for anaerobic development. So, the longer the aerobic base training phase can last, the better.

Great! So, you’ve completed Phase 1 and built an aerobic base. What next?

Phase 2: Hills and Leg Speed—Preparing the Body for Anaerobic Development

Lydiard suggests a four-week training period focused on developing leg strength and speed. We’ll call this Phase 2: Hills and Leg Speed. The purpose of Phase 2 is twofold: 1) to develop muscle fibers in the legs and to improve leg speed; and 2) to prepare the body for the hard anaerobic workouts that will follow in Phases 3 and 4. Here’s how it shakes out.

This phase contains three critical workouts: 1) the 1-hour hill “springing” workout; 2) the leg speed workout; and 3) the 2+ hour long run performed at an aerobic pace. I’ll start by discussing the hill “springing” workout.

The Hill “Springing” Workout

You should perform the hill “springing” workout on a hill that is between 200-300 meters long and approximately 3-4% grade, with a flat area at the top and approximately 200-400 meters of flat area at the bottom. For you New Yorkers, Cat Hill in Central Park is perfect for this workout.

Here’s the workout in eight easy steps, and the reasoning behind each step:

  • Warm up for about 15 minutes with some easy running (I jog about a mile and a half from my apartment to Cat Hill)
    • Why? You warm up to prevent injury. The warmup loosens the muscles and prepares them for a hard effort.
  • Begin the workout by “springing” up the hill. If you don’t know what “springing” is (I didn’t before developing this training plan), check out the first minute and then 1:30 to the end of this video:

When “springing,” keep the hips forward. Because looking down tends to thrust the hips backward, keep your eyes focused straight ahead. Your upper body should remain relaxed. The slower your forward momentum, the more resistance you create for your legs.

Why “springing?” Because it helps to develop speed. “Springing” builds and stretches the leg’s muscles and tendons similar to how they stretch during racing, which adds flexibility and speed. It also develops strong and flexible ankles, allowing a runner to increase his stride length and leading to greater speed. In addition, by training oneself to run with the hips comfortably forward, a runner can bring his knees higher while running, allowing the feet to follow through higher and, therefore, creating a faster leg action.

It’s possible that you won’t be able to “spring” all the way up the hill. That’s fine. If you can’t get to the top, just jog the rest of the way.

  • Once at the top of the hill, jog easily for 3 minutes.
    • Why? Two main reasons. First, “springing” is an intense exercise, so a short rest between each repetition keeps the body from getting overloaded. Second, too much at once could potentially convert the workout into a hard anaerobic effort, which we distinctly do not want to do. And, as a bonus third reason, easy jogging within the repetitions aids in aerobic development, which, as we’ve discussed, is always a good idea.
  • After jogging at the top of the hill for three minutes, run down the hill with a fast, relaxed striding motion.
    • Why? Two main reasons. First, strides allow us to develop speed and strength. Second, downhill running allows us to practice running with a naturally elongated stride. As mentioned above, a longer stride leads to greater speed.
  • Repeat the hill reps described in steps 2-4 (springing up the hill, jogging at the top, and striding down) for about 15 minutes. For me, this equals about 3 circuits.
    • Why? Think of it like weightlifting with a cardio element: you’re pushing your body to get stronger while simultaneously strengthening your muscles and increasing your leg speed. In other words, you are accomplishing three critical tasks with one workout. Pretty neat!
  • After  about 15 minutes, perform a few wind sprints (running hard followed by jogging) at the base of hill. You choose how many, and for how long (for example, I have been doing 2 x 100m with short recovery jogs)
    • Why? The other point of this exercise is to prepare the body for the anaerobic workouts in phases 3 and 4. By performing wind sprints every 15 minutes, and by only performing a limited number of them, we train our bodies to respond to faster movements, but keep the volume low enough so as not to create a hard anaerobic workout.
  • After completing the wind sprints, repeat the whole circuit described in steps 2-6 (hill reps plus wind sprints) until you have been working out for approximately an hour.
    • NOTE: If you cannot complete an hour-long workout, do however much of the hour that you can.
  • Cool down for 15 minutes.

Ideally, you would perform this workout three days a week, every other day, during Phase 2. On the days in between you would perform a leg speed workout. On the seventh day you would run a 2+ hour run at an aerobic pace.

In my next post, I will discuss the other two workouts critical to Phase 2: the leg speed workout, and the 2+ hour long run at an aerobic pace.

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!

 

Brooklyn Half Registration is Open!

BK Half Header

Registration for the Airbnb Brooklyn Half, set to take place on Saturday, May 21, 2016 at 7:00 a.m., opens today, January 28, 2016 at noon. In other words, registration just opened! Get over to nyrr.org and register quickly. Last year’s race sold out in about 7 hours. This year’s will likely sell out faster. I’m all registered and ready to rock!

I signed up for this race in 2014 and 2015, but was unable to run it either year. I’m hoping that this year will be different. I’ve heard only positive things about the course (a hilly run through Prospect Park followed by a net downhill run to Coney Island on Ocean Parkway), and the afterparty on the beach. Fingers crossed that life does not get in the way again!

Who else is running?

Happy running, everyone!

Returning to Blogging!

Hard to believe I last posted on December 8! I don’t have a good reason for the delay between posts. Essentially, after the NYRR NYC 60k, I began to reflect on what I want to accomplish with this blog. When I started it in August, I knew that I wanted to write about my running, but had not developed the idea much beyond that. I started by posting about particular training runs I was doing, workouts I attended, and then branched out into race previews and recaps. After a few months, though, I hit a writing wall: What to do next?

Jim NP Cold Running

Getting in some stair running with November Project NYC in December!

That wall, unsurprisingly, coincided with the end of the fall racing season, a season during which I pushed myself and ran my first 10-miler (1:00:20), set PRs in the half marathon (1:20:51) and marathon (2:57:56), and ran my first ultra, the 60k, in under 5 hours (4:55:55), all within less than two months. I knew that my body needed a break; I did not realize my brain did, too. Hence, only a handful of posts since the 60k and now.

All this to say, I’m back! Expect updates concerning my training, but with a more global twist. Expect some posts about nutrition and other fun things I’m up to, such as the Road Runners Club of America coaching certification course that I’m taking in May. And get excited for race previews and recaps for the races I’m planning to run this winter and spring. I might also write more about some of the running books I’ve read lately (more on those below). My goal is to make this blog a spot for people to pick up tips and tricks to achieve their own running goals.

Jim NYRR Virtual Trainer Run

Crushing 10+ miles with NYRR’s virtual training crew!

Thankfully, the time away from hard running and the blog has reenergized me. Regarding training, I began the base building phase of spring marathon training in earnest at the beginning of December, and will likely run the Inaugural Queens Marathon on April 30, 2016. I spent approximately two months running long runs at an aerobic pace, throwing in some strides at the end of the runs, as well as tempo runs (for example, a 5k at 6:00/mile) and progression runs below lactate threshold. I pushed my weekly mileage up from 30 miles to 50-55, and am hoping to increase to 60-65. I’ve also been riding my bike indoors on my bike rollers at least once a week, and hitting the pool (though not as frequently as I would like). In the middle of all that, I ran an unofficial 5k in 17:45 (5:43/mile), and PR’d on the tricky November Project NYC 3.4 mile PR course with a time of 20:36 (6:03/mile). As of yesterday, I ended the aerobic base training phase of my marathon training and began the hill/leg speed phase as per Arthur Lydiard’s basic training scheme. Not bad for two months.

As for the blog and writing about running, I’ve read a bunch of running-related books these past two months. My friend Katherine loaned me “A Race Like No Other” by Liz Robbins (about the 2007 NYC Marathon) and The Oatmeal’s “The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances.” I also read “2 Hours” by Ed Caesar, a book chronicling professional marathoners’ journey to break the elusive 120-minute marathon barrier (current world record is 2:02:57 run by Dennis Kimetto at the 2014 Berlin Marathon). I also read “Running Ransom Road” by Caleb Daniloff, a powerful story about a recovering alcoholic who sought closure on his past by running marathons and other road races in locations where he was active in his alcoholism.

Jim Liysa Laura Ann Raul

Getting in a solid 11.5 miles with Liysa, Laura Ann, and Raul during the blizzard this past weekend!

And finally, I’m almost done with “First You Run, Then You Walk” by Tom Hart, my friend Patrick’s father. “First You Run” is a collection of essays written by Hart, a former high school English teacher, who picked up running at age 31 after he quit smoking. He ran into his 60s, at which time he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had one of his lungs removed, rendering him unable to run continuously for more than a few minutes. His essays discuss a range of topics: running a sub-5 mile, running 37 miles on his 37th birthday, chasing age-group awards as a 60-year-old veteran, and eventually breaking 12 minutes for one mile while running with one lung. What makes the book so amazing, though, is Hart’s meditative writing style and honesty. Every other page I find myself thinking, “Yep, that’s exactly how I think about running.” He gets it.

And in other news, I had a nice Christmas with my family and my girlfriend’s family, was able to travel to Vermont for a few days over the holidays, and have been working and preparing for the spring racing season. Life is good.

Happy running, everyone!

Ultramarathons: Lessons Learned from the NYRR NYC 60k

I ran the NYRR NYC 60k, my first ultramarathon, last weekend. At 37.2 miles, the 60k is a shorter ultra (many ultras total 50-100 miles). Regardless, as most people define “ultramarathon” as any distance longer than a marathon, I can now call myself an “ultramarathoner.”

60k Buckle Photo

The 60k belt buckle bling (repost from nyrr.org)

While I was happy with my preparation and how I ran, I learned a lot about how to survive an ultra. Below are my ultramarathon “lessons learned:”

1) Respect the distance. The most important lesson. After the NYC Marathon, I thought that running a race only 11 miles longer would be simple. I ran strong throughout the 60k, but slowed toward the end and got passed by two runners I had outrun for 34 miles. If I reran this race, I would reduce my early race pace by about 5-10 seconds/mile, and run hard the last two loops.

2) Fuel early and often. Many ultrarunners eat about 240-340 calories/hour. I followed this plan, eating two GU gels (100 calories each) and either a banana (~100 calories) or a bag of pretzels (~120 calories) every hour. Further, I began my GU gel intake after the fifth mile, about 2-3 miles earlier than I had my first gel during the NYC Marathon. This likely helped me maintain an early steady state. I did not hit the wall.

3) Muscle endurance. I felt very confident about my aerobic fitness before the NYC Marathon and the 60k. I have consistently espoused my love of the Maffetone Method and its emphasis on developing the aerobic system. That said, prior to the 60k my long runs included a 20-miler, 22-miler, and the marathon. These runs provided a solid, but not ideal, base for running an ultra. To see how experienced ultrarunners recommend a rookie ultrarunner to train, check out the Ultra Ladies 50k (31 miles) training plan. The main differences between 50k/60k and marathon training are the long runs followed by a second long-ish run. This training allows the body to develop the muscle endurance necessary to run harder, longer. Without that type of training, aerobic fitness only takes you so far.

4) Pain is inevitable. I felt physical pain during every race this fall (the Bronx 10-Mile, the Staten Island Half, and the NYC Marathon), but nothing compared to the pain I felt during the 60k. During both the Bronx 10-Mile and Staten Island Half, I was able to tolerate the pain and negative-split. The pain during the NYC Marathon, while more intense, slowed me down, but not significantly. The 60k pain, mostly after mile 30, forced me to bear down harder than ever before, and slowed my pace.

5) Mental toughness trumps pain. I almost despaired around miles 34-35. After cruising along for 30+ miles, two runners passed me, and I thought I would never return to Engineer’s Gate. I had to dig really deep to put one foot in front of the other, telling myself that I was stronger than I felt, that the pain would be over soon, and that I could trust myself. I talked out loud. I screamed a lot of “woos!” I told myself that each step felt good. I told every spectator I recognized how close I was to the finish because saying it out loud made it feel more real. I envisioned myself sprinting down the straightaway near Engineer’s Gate, and anticipated the cheers at the finish line. These positive thoughts propelled me forward.

6) On-course support is awesome. Seeing friends on the course kept my spirits high. Seeing the same volunteers at different points helped me “shorten the horizon” of the race. I thought, “In one more mile you’ll see Alison, and you can say hi get a high five.” It helped break the race into more digestible chunks. I can’t run 37.2 miles, or 50 miles, or even 10 miles, but I can run a mile and reassess. Mile by mile. Step by step. You can’t run 37.2 miles all at once. You have to do it a step at a time.

7) Camaraderie with fellow runners. Talking to other runners helped tremendously. With around 400 runners attempting the 60k, it was easy to say encouraging things to people as we ran around Central Park nine times. It’s nice to know that we’re all attempting something difficult together, and not at each other’s throats in competition.

8) Stopping for fuel/food breaks might not be necessary. If I had a “crew” helping me out during the race, I might have been able to run continuously the whole time. This might have cut 2-3 minutes off my time, enough to move up about two finishing places. That said, I appreciated the mini breaks from the running, but felt like I could have run straight had I easier access to my in-race nutrition.

9) Hard work pays off. I’ve written about this before, but I worked really hard at my running this past year, asking for help, taking advice, and staying consistent with my training. The 60k further demonstrates that commitment to improvement.

10) You must have fun. Despite the physical and mental pain, you need to enjoy the run. Multiple friends told me I looked like the happiest runner on the course. I don’t doubt it. I always try to smile at friends and spectators because I genuinely appreciate their willingness to cheers us on. On a deeper level, though, I feel so much gratitude even to be able to participate in these events. I have family and friends who support me in my efforts, and allow me to push hard every day. When I think about that, it puts my running in context and makes every step special. Plus, endorphins.

Anyone else run the 60k and have some lessons learned? Lessons from other ultramarathons?

Happy running, everyone!

Race Recap: NYRR NYC 60k, November 14, 2015, 4:55:55 (7:57/Mile Pace)

Prologue: I’m finishing this recap approximately 72 hours after running 37.2 miles – farther than I’ve ever run. My legs feel great, with limited soreness in my right quad and left calf. My left knee, which felt like someone took a baseball to it yesterday, feels much better after two days of IT foam rolling (to alleviate any potential IT band syndrome), ice, and ibuprofen. My left ankle, which hurt for a week and a half after the NYC Marathon, feels 100%, in large part due to my constant ankle stretching these past three days. I’m ready to run again!

NYRR NYC 60k finish

Looking good! Feeling the burn in my legs!

But I won’t . . . at least, for a week, and possibly two. My body has taken a serious beating this past month and a half, running hard at the Bronx 10-Mile, NP_NYC PR Day, Staten Island Half, NYC Marathon, and NYRR NYC 60k, and it craves a break from the pounding impact. Time to hit the bike, the pool, and prepare for the next training cycle by maintaining my aerobic fitness.

Finally, I have felt slightly sick since the 60k ended. I’m not feverish or nauseous, but have had a low-grade headache and feel constantly dehydrated. I’m not sure if the nine GU gels I consumed during the race have anything to do with this, or just that I put my body through more stress than it’s ever handled before. Either way, I’m going to continue drinking water and taking it easy.

Now, the recap before the recap: I ran the NYRR NYC 60k (37.2 miles), my first ultra marathon, this past Saturday in a time of 4:55:55 (7:57/Mile), good enough to snag 16th place out of 353 finishers. I am very pumped about finishing my first ultra in one piece, maintaining a solid pace throughout, and learned a lot about self-inflicted pain and how to keep moving forward.

The recap: The morning before the 60k, I prepped my race clothes and food bag. My race outfit included shorts, my November Project NYC t-shirt, my NYC Marathon long-sleeved shirt, a wool hat, running gloves, and socks. For food, I prepped 10 GU gels, two bananas, two water bottles, and three bags of pretzels (each bag assembled by taking about a serving of pretzels from a larger bag and transferring them to a plastic sandwich bag). I also purchased and decarbonated a 20-ounce Coca Cola by opening the bottle and pouring the soda into a large plastic container, and then pouring it back and forth between plastic containers for about five minutes. I lost about 4 ounces of soda because I am uncoordinated. The morning of the race, I also made a peanut butter sandwich with sourdough bread, but never got around to eating it after the race.

For dinner the night before, Melissa and I got sushi with her college friend. I had chirashi, which is just sashimi with rice on the side. I also had some tiramisu after dinner, which tasted great and (Jim will now rationalize) added to my pre-race carb-loading. I was able to get to sleep around 11 p.m.

The morning of the race, I woke up at 6:15 a.m., ate my standard pre-race breakfast of non-fat Greek yogurt with agave, two bananas, and two pieces of sourdough toast, one covered in peanut butter. I drank some water, piled on my race outfit, threw on a coat, and headed out the door. The morning air was chilly but not frigid, and my body warmed up as I walked the mile from my apartment to the NYRR house at 9 East 89th Street to pick up my bib.

Unlike the NYC Marathon (with its 50,000+ runners and days of expos), between 300 and 400 runners attempt the 60k. Therefore, NYRR allows bib pickup only the morning of the race. I met up with Steve from NP_NYC at the NYRR house, and we loaded our food into the clear bags provided by NYRR, and our other extras into a separate clear bag. Steve has done numerous ultras, including winning a 100k on Long Island last month, so I like to think of him as my ultra spirit guide. His food bag contained Halloween candy and Gatorade. He chuckled at my bananas and pretzels, and we talked race strategy a bit. Like me, Steve wanted to run sub-5, so we both talked about maintaining around a 8:00/Mile pace.

Further distancing itself (pun intended) from the NYC Marathon, the 60k is about as stripped-down a race that NYRR offers. NYRR partitions off a starting line with electronic scoring mats, but that’s all it partitions: Central Park remains open, and runners and walkers can hop into the running lanes at will. The food bag drop was just the benches near the start line: While an NYRR volunteer watched over the bags, our bags didn’t even have our numbers on them. The only clock on the course was at the start line, and the course had no mile markers. Scoring was performed manually with no live tracking element. Whenever a runner crossed the start line, a volunteer would yell out the runner’s bib number, and the scorer’s tent (about 10 people) would input the data into their system. An electronic board would then update, indicating how many laps the runner had completed, and how many he had left. Unlike other NYRR events, there was no singing of the National Anthem, no public address announcer, no music, no real PA system to speak of, and a severely reduced crowd. This, my friends, is as close as I’ve been to running purism in NYC since I started running again in 2014. It was kinda great.

NYRR NYC 60k

NYRR flying the French flag at the starting line in solidarity with the recent terrorist attacks in Paris (repost from NYRR.org).

Before the race began, I hung out with my buddy Sam, Steve, and some other folks. All of us had done the NYC Marathon two weeks earlier. I ditched my gloves in my food bag, ate my first gel, put two additional gels in my shorts pocket, and lined up at the front of the non-existent corral. We had a moment of silence for Paris, abbreviated instructions, and then the air horn signaled the start of the race.

60K_Run02.jpg

The start of the 60k (repost from NYRR.org)

And we were . . . off . . . jogging . . . at a comfortable 8:00/Mile pace . . . and inexplicably close to the front of the pack. Ultras are a different beast!

I ran the first two miles with Steve and Sam, taking in the cool air and blue skies. Sam and I talked while Steve listened to music, and we watched the leaders form a pack and build some distance on us. Once mile 3 began, I started to pull away from Sam and Steve, and by the time I got to Mile 4 I was running with completely new people, all running at steady paces and seemingly enjoying the fact that we were out on a Saturday for an extended run. I made it up Cat Hill without any trouble, cruised through the straightaway to the starting line at Engineer’s Gate, grabbed a cup of water, took my second gel, and told myself, “This is lap 2 of 9. You got this.”

I began to formulate a race plan as I began lap 2. I figured that I would run at a 7:45/Mile pace until the beginning of lap 6, and then figure out whether to run harder, maintain my pace, or slow down. I enjoyed the solitude of the race, but also loved the unofficial cheer stations at the east side of the 102nd Street transverse, west and east sides of the 72nd Street transverse, the group from The Most Informal Running Club Ever on the grass near the Met, and Alison from Harlem Run hanging out near the west side water station, tossing out high fives every loop.

I stopped briefly after the second loop to grab a banana from my food bag, downed another gel and some water, and ran while eating my banana. Loops 3 and 4 passed without much thought: I maintained my 7:45/Mile pace, began to loop some of the slower runners, took off my long-sleeved shirt, and smiled as I high-fived the same folks at different points on the course. I grabbed two water cups at each aid station and chatted with fellow runners. I took a gel each time I crossed the starting line. I ate a second banana when crossing the starting line after loop 4. I threw my hands up and smiled when I saw Katherine from NP_NYC. I felt strong.

A quick note: At this point, the race becomes a blur. The constant looping and friends moving around the course and my own crazy fuel-depleted brain . . . I don’t remember where or when I saw people. What follows is an approximation of how the final five loops went down.

The leaders and eventual winner looped me about halfway through my fifth loop. These runners were the first to pass me since the beginning of the race. The group of two must have been running around 6:30/Mile pace, which was frustrating to watch because I knew that I could run that fast, but definitely not for 37.2 miles. I sighed and kept my pace steady, beginning to feel my hips, quads, and hamstrings getting slightly heavier. No worries, I thought. After 19 miles, whose leg muscles wouldn’t be tiring? At some point in this section of the race, I saw Ali from NP_NYC near the food bags. She asked if I needed anything. I felt slightly off balance and almost fell over, but said no, slapped a high five and pounded the pavement.

I picked up the pace slightly on loop 6 after grabbing a bag of pretzels and taking a gel. My legs slowly felt heavier, but I smiled and slapped high fives with Raul from NP_NYC, and then Myles, and then Chris Mosier. I started to focus more closely on the immediate tasks at hand: one foot in front of the other, breathe, keep the pace steady, easy on the uphills, harder on the downhills. My average pace accelerated to 7:43/Mile. My legs got heavier. I pounded onward.

When loop 7 began, I knew that I could not accelerate my pace and still finish under five hours. My legs, while still functioning, felt like the calm before the hurricane. I smiled less at the people cheering. I grimly acknowledged about halfway through the loop that I was now running farther than I’d ever run before. Every step now brought with it a question: Why was I doing this? I could stop and the pain would end. But I fought on, pushing on the uphills and finding the downhills much less satisfying and slower.

At random points I began talking to myself, saying, “You got this. You got this thing, Jim. Just keep going.” I used the high fives from Alison and her newly assembled NP_NYC cheering crew to push me a little farther. I focused on the backs of the slower runners and reeled them in, passing them one by one. I let out a few primal screams to remind myself that I could do this. I surged every couple of minutes, reinvigorating my legs.

By the end of the loop 7, I was in the zone. Melissa had come out to see me finish, and she spotted me as she and I were ascending Cat Hill at the same time. She said hi! All I could muster was, “I have one more loop. Woot!” No “Hello!” No “Thanks for coming!” In the zone. I was going to finish this thing, and I was sticking with my pace. George from NP_NYC offered me some juice and ran with me for a few seconds near the end of the loop. All I could muster with him was, “I feel terrible.” In the zone. I just kept going.

Before loop 8 I took a gel and grabbed my decarbonated Coke. I slammed some water and headed back onto the course, taking large sips of the Coke as I pushed through even more pain. Once I finished the Coke on the 102nd Street transverse, I felt my legs click into gear again. Woot! I pushed the pace slightly, only to feel the legs get heavy again. I kept moving forward. I grabbed high fives when I could, smiled as well as I could, grabbed my two waters on the west side, told myself that I only had to run Cat Hill two more times, and kept moving forward.

Boom! Last loop coming. I high-fived everyone I knew and said, “Last loop, baby! This is it!” I got a lot of surprised looks, either because people couldn’t believe I’d already run 33 miles, or because I looked like a madman possessed. I ate my final gel, pounded water, and pushed the pace as hard as I could. I slowed on the west side between miles 34 and 35, and a runner that I’d passed on loop 3 sped past me with a smile and an encouraging word. Another runner passed me looking strong and belting hip hop lyrics. I doubled down, pushed hard up Cat Hill, picked up some high fives on the straightaway near the Met, and did my version of a sprint (imagine me running with another person strapped to my back) and crossed the finish line, arms up and smile wide.

Steve from NP_NYC rolled through the finish line looking strong in a sub-5 time. He was ready to keep running. Based on his Strava, I think he ran 11 miles the next day. What a nut. I love this guy!

I literally could not walk home, so Melissa hailed a cab outside Engineer’s Gate. Once home we ordered a pizza, of which I ate six of the eight slices. We watched movies and I barely moved for the rest of the day. Thank you, Melissa, for being understanding!

I might do a separate “lesons learned” post about my ultra experience, but for now I will say this: Everyone who says that the biggest enemy in an ultra is you is absolutely correct. My brain wanted me to stop so many times, yet my body was capable of moving forward. Relentless forward motion. In the zone.

I will also say this: Muscle endurance (basically, the amount of time your muscles can function without getting tired) is huge for ultras. My aerobic fitness was solid for this distance; my muscle fitness was not quite up to par. And that’s fine! I didn’t do any specific ultra training. In the future, though, more time in the gym to work the glutes, hips, and hamstrings, plus time on my feet running longer distances will be key to improving finishing times.

All that aside, I was so happy to finish, to finish in the top 5% of runners in the race, and for all the support from Melissa, my NP_NYC buddies, and my family, who either think I’m awesome for my endurance running, or insane. There is no middle ground.

Here’s my Strava for the race. I accidentally paused it around mile 29, so I’m missing three miles. Either way, you can see that my pace slowed toward the end, but not by much! And that last .2? I forgot to stop the timer until a couple minutes after I finished.

Happy running, everyone!

NYC Marathon Race Recap Part 2: The Significance of the Marathon for Me

TCS NYC Marathon

Me, Terri, and Billy from NP_NYC celebrating with our medals the day after the marathon! My hair looks particularly gingery in this pic.

The NYC Marathon happened. Social media exploded with excited posts, likes, and comments from runners, their friends and family, and spectators’ pictures of runners and funny race signs. Everyone who completed the Marathon has a story. For some, finishing allowed them to cross an item off their bucket list. For others, this represented yet another NYC Marathon, special in its own way but certainly not a new experience. And for others, it represented a celebration of their personal growth. My story falls into that final group.

Before I get to that story, though, let’s break my race down by the numbers. My previous marathon PR was 3:55:17 on a flat course, run 11 years ago. My only other marathon time was 4:10ish, also run 11 years ago. On Sunday, my 2:57:56 bested my previous marathon PR by almost an hour and qualified me for the 2017 Boston Marathon. So, this race solidified not only my return to endurance running, but a complete transformation.

However, considering my personal growth, this race demonstrated how far I’ve come since the fall of 2012, when I was in my final year of law school. I had done well academically but not received the job offer I wanted. My relationship of almost five years had ended. After starting law school weighing 162 pounds with a 10k PR of 45:03 (7:15/Mile), I found myself weighing 198 pounds and unable run for more than a mile.

I had completely isolated myself from family and friends. I came to school for class only, spending the rest of my time in my apartment watching Netflix and drinking whiskey alone, or hanging at the Upper West Side’s diviest bars. I did the bare minimum of schoolwork, which somehow resulted in straight A’s (including an A+ . . . seriously, I cannot explain this), and people left me alone. I either refused to talk to my family, or erupted in anger during conversations. I blamed everyone else for my misery. I ruined family holidays and convinced new “friends” that I was the unluckiest man alive. This fueled my cycle of resentment, fear, anger, and drinking.

By February of 2013, I hit a complete mental, physical, and emotional bottom. My family, despite years of me pushing them away, helped me straighten out. I could no longer blame them or any other external circumstances for how I felt: The negativity came from within me, and the only way to change that feeling was to accept responsibility for my actions, clean up my past, and work hard to live a healthier life based on personal accountability. Slowly but surely, through the help of family and friends I came to accept the world around me and, more importantly, I came to accept myself: shortcomings AND positive qualities.

Simultaneously, as I got healthier I began to revisit old personal interests, including running. I signed up for the Scotland Run 10k and the Brooklyn Half Marathon, and planned to run both races in early 2014. The last race I had run was a 10k in June of 2010. However, as my personal issues continued to plague me, I skipped both races because I failed to train for them.

I did, however, sign up for the 2014 Staten Island Half, completed the training for that race, and ran it in 1:44:42. I wore a six-year-old pair of sneakers, gym shorts that I owned since high school, and a long-sleeved running shirt about two sizes too big during the race.

After the Staten Island Half, I knew I could run faster, so I began training hard. I analyzed training plans online, read articles about running and nutrition, and ran the Fred Lebow Half in January in 1:36. I joined New York Sports Club and began training once a month with a trainer who specializes in collegiate endurance athletes. I did interval training, speed work, and hill sessions. I ran a 5k in under 20 minutes. My race bibs now placed me in the first corral of NYRR races. I decided the 2015 Brooklyn Half would be the race at which I would show the world just how fast I’d gotten. I trained for a sub-1:25 time.

All of that intense training, combined with some ill-advised attempts after reading Born to Run to change my running stride from a heel strike to a forefoot strike, caused me to develop a stress fracture in my right sacral ala, an injury generally found in elderly women with osteoporosis (seriously! Google it). I despaired, somewhat comically, and thought I might never run again.

Nevertheless, I did something that I might not have done in the past: I asked for help. When the doctor recommended that I use crutches for five weeks, I did it even though he said that I could heal without them (albeit over a longer period). I followed his advice and swam, worked on strengthening my core, and lifted weights only while in the upright sitting position. Once off crutches, I waited three weeks to hit the treadmill, worked with a physical therapist, and learned about what exercises to perform to reduce the risk of future running injuries. I also learned that I should run how I run, and not worry about the latest trends in running form. My coworker introduced me to The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing by Dr. Phil Maffetone, which provided a method to increase speed without high intensity intervals and speed work. I also learned how to properly incorporate speed work into a training plan, and realized that I had been doing way too much, way too early on in my fledgling adult running career.

Most importantly, I finally understood that running for anyone besides yourself is a dangerous game. I reconnected with the joy I feel every time I get to hit the Central Park loop at 5:30 a.m. If I got faster, awesome. If not, who really cares? The point was that I could run and have fun with it and let that be its own reward. This freed up a ton of mental space.

The rest of my story? Well, it’s mostly contained in my past blog posts. I found November Project NYC through my sister. I ran the Percy Sutton 5k in a PR time of 18:24, my first race at a sub-6 minute pace. I stayed focused and ran the Bronx 10-Mile in 1:00:20 (6:02/Mile) and the Staten Island Half in 1:20:52 (6:10/Mile), which time-qualified me for the 2016 NYC Marathon. Throughout all of this I continued to hit the gym at least once a week to strengthen my legs, and multiple times per week to strengthen my core and to stretch. I listened to other people’s advice about the NYC Marathon, ate well, and stayed focused on the race despite all the hype during the week before. I woke up on race day weighing 162 pounds (36 pounds less than at my heaviest!) and ran that marathon in under three hours.

As I ran up West Drive in Central Park for the final .2 miles of the Marathon, I thought about all these things: the useless resentments that have given way for acceptance, the isolation that has evaporated into connection, and the paralyzing fear that has melted away into love. And I cried. Not only on the course, but later at my apartment. But the best part? My tears streamed down my face and across a smile.

Happy running, everyone!