Long runs and longer hunger

On Feb 4th I'll be running my next marathon… technically a winter marathon, but because it will be in Arizona, it won't feel like winter to me. Next week the weather in Calgary will be hovering around 15 below zero, while Arizona will be 15 above.

Today, however, the weather in Calgary was perfect. It was almost exactly zero degrees, which is the best I can hope for in January. So I took advantage of this beautiful, sunny day and did a 50km training run, with just 700mL of Gatorade as fuel, to get my body used to burning fat instead of carbs. The fat-to-carb burn ratio is key to marathon performance.

As with any really long run, I was successful in exhausting my body's carb supply. When this happens, a runner hits the proverbial "wall" but for myself (and I'm guessing it is the same for most people who have run a few marathons) the transition is gradual and not as shocking as the name suggests.

There is, however, a strong after-effect that I feel after running my body out of carbs: hunger! This afternoon, I ate like crazy. Lots of bread, a big bowl of chilli, a stack of peas, a couple big yams, a hunk of fish, and constant snacking throughout the afternoon and evening. But my body keeps telling me it wants more, and it will continue to do so until it has digested all this food and re-filled my liver with glycogen. In other words, this hunger will persist all day, but will be gone in the morning. I know because this has happened many times before, it is just one of the less-enjoyable parts of long-distance running.

Okanagan Marathon

I ran the Okanagan Marathon in Kelowna last weekend… with a time of 2:56:23 which finally puts me under the 3 hour mark. It was an interesting race, in that I was as strong as the the top runners, and actually had a chance of winning. But although I was in second place for most of it, I ended in seventh, and I can chalk that up to a lack of experience rather than a lack of training. In other words, I made a whole bunch of rookie mistakes (even though this was my third marathon!)

First mistake: not having a clear goal. My goal was to run better than 2:50, ideally somewhere around 2:40. While 2:50 was a reasonable goal, 2:40 was not.

Second mistake: starting too fast. I was eager to establish my position, so I grabbed the 2nd position and stayed well ahead of 3rd. It would have made more sense to run beside the 3rd place runner, especially since he had a GPS. Instead, I wore myself out in the first half. In particular I felt a nice little kick of adrenaline at the half and sped up for a bit, but suffered a slow-down soon afterwards.

Fourth mistake: not drinking enough. I missed two water stations that were overcrowded by people coming the other way, but it was a cool, rainy day and I should have had enough water in reserve… if I had been drinking enough before I missed those stations! Gotta grab two cups per station just in case, especially since the cups are often half-full.

In the end, it was the runner who was 6th at the halfway point who won the race. He had a very impressive negative split, running the 2nd half two minutes faster than the first half. The runner in first at the halfway point ended in 5th. So indeed, winning the race is all about having a strong second half.

Training for Kelowna

I've scheduled one more marathon before the winter hits: Kelowna on Oct 9. This will be a real test for me, since it is my last chance this year to finish in under 3hrs. It also marks a new phase in my training; my speedy recovery after the Edmonton marathon encouraged me to attempt 40km+ distances on my Sunday runs. Last weekend I ran the full 42km distance, and suffered nothing worse than sore calf muscles. This morning I ran 46km, next week I'm shooting for 50km. Amazingly, my joints haven't been complaining at all, so I'll knock on wood and hope that they don't start. The purpose of these runs is to avoid the slow-down that hit me at the 30km mark in my previous two marathons. I have to make my body understand that it is capable of sticking to my race pace for the full 42km.

Today was the Terry Fox Run, so I had plenty of company during the downtown portion of my run. It was nice to see all those smiling faces, and to be reminded that running is not just about competition. It's also about inspiration. Terry Fox is not a hero because he ran 40+km per day for months on end — and on just one leg — regardless of how amazing that feat was. He is a hero because he inspired hundreds of millions of people. He taught us that if we are audacious enough, and persistent enough, that anything is possible.

One other short addition to my post: I was saddened to read on Ellie Greenwood's blog that she DNF'd at the world 100km championships, due to an upset stomach. Her blog is a real inspiration to me, it amazes me that one of the best ultrarunners in the world is in my own backyard (Banff) — she won last year's 100km world championship and has also won many other races at 100km, 125km, and even 100 miles. Without people like Ellie, I wouldn't even consider attempting a 50km run.

First win!

Last weekend I returned to my home town of Prince George and participated in the 17-mile Labour Day Classic, a small local run that is as old as I am. Going into it I knew that there was a chance that I could win, and win I did! For the first half, I kept to a fast but comfortable pace of just under 4:00 min/km and took the lead early on. For the second half, my goal was just to keep my lead. I slowed down just a bit because my legs were getting tired, but just two miles before the finish I heard some rapid footfalls coming up behind me and had to build up my speed until they gradually faded away. I finished with a 17 second lead at 1:50:20.

The real winner, as far as I am concerned, was Brian Nemethy who ran the 8.5 mile race in 51:05. That time is impressive, yes, and even more so when you consider that 51 minutes means a speed of 10 miles per hour. He must have set that pace for himself, I'm sure that in his mind he wasn't racing against anyone else. I'm only able to keep that pace for half that distance, and he's my senior by more than a decade.

On my way back to Calgary, I stopped at Mt. Robson Provincial Park to do a trail run to the far end of Kinney Lake and back again. This was a necessary break to stretch my legs, which do not particularly like long drives after a hard run. Running through the forest is absolutely the best kind of running. I really should add trail races to my schedule, so far I haven't participated in any because it is necessary to register for them so far in advance (they always have strict caps, and they are insanely popular around here).

This particular trail run at Mt Robson had a huge payoff. I usually feel best running at my 4:00 pace, and on this day running slower than that aggravated my knee a bit (after all, I had just raced 17 miles the day before). So I wondered, what was the difference between running fast and running slow? I must be landing differently if my knee reacts differently. I tried a little experiment, and landed with my foot a little bit behind its usual landing position — suddenly the twinge in my knee disappeared. Now I know how to run at any pace, slow or fast, without straining my joints! The experts always say that a toe landing is ideal, but in truth that advice is such a gross simplification of running mechanics that, on its own, it is nearly useless. My advice is to run for a couple years, listen to your legs, and experiment a little bit. When you find your perfect footstrike, you will feel it. Then change your pace and find it again. Change the terrain and find it yet again. Try it again with an old, worn-out pair of shoes. Uphill and downhill. You see where I'm going with this? My heavens, thinking about it makes me want to go for a run right now…

Running without injury

So far I have been very lucky: I have been running for two and a half years, and have never suffered a serious injury. As a runner, a serious injury would be one that keeps me from running, anything that does not keep me from running is minor. In the "minor" category I have suffered from mild shin splints, a pulled calf muscle, and iliotibial band inflammation, all during my first year. Since then, the worst that I have had to suffer through are minor aches and pains, i.e. soreness in the muscles and joints that goes away on its own with a bit of ice to help it along.

Why have I been so lucky? Clearly my low weight (160lb) is a major factor (three years ago I was over 180lb, and in case you are wondering, running is not what caused me to lose weight, the not-so-big secret was eating less). Shoes are a help, my early bout of shin splints was undoubtedly because I started out running with an old pair of well-worn cross trainers that weren't up to the job. But still, there are lots of low-weight runners out there with decent shoes who injure themselves. Am I just lucky?

No, it isn't just luck. I think that I am a better runner than most. A lot of that has to do with the fact that while I am running, I am thinking about running. I prefer to run alone, it allows me to concentrate on what my legs are doing. How do they feel? If I lengthen my stride a bit, do they feel better? Am I still in the warmup stage? Am I ready to cut loose and push hard? Do I have any minor aches that I can reduce by adjusting my gait?

I believe that my biggest improvement in running came when I had iliotibial syndrome a year and a half ago. This syndrome results from an inflamed tendon at the side of the knee, it is not especially serious but it can be painful. Since it is the kind of problem that a person can generally run through (unlike, say, shin splints), that is what I did in addition to some stretching and strength exercises. I experimented a lot with adjusting my takeoff and landing, this was all with a very cheap pair of runners that didn't fit very well and provided poor support. Eventually I could run virtually pain-free, even though going up or down stairs, and even ordinary walking, were painful.

The three tools in my "recovery kit" are cold water/ice, short runs (2 to 4km) followed by stretching, and concentration while running. The first two are excellent ways to relieve soreness, the latter is to ensure that I do not aggravate any inflammation or overly strain my muscles and joints. Paradoxically, the thing that I have to concentrate on most is staying relaxed. My legs know what to do, and while I'm running my main job is to listen to them.

Edmonton Marathon: Three PBs in one day

It turns out that I can't attend the Mad Moose Marathon because of a conference that weekend. So I decided to run the Edmonton Derby Marathon instead. It's a lovely course, almost perfectly flat, and I definitely want to do it again.

At this point in the season, I have been training continuously for seven months. So I shouldn't be surprised that my times keep getting better. But my performance during this race was beyond my expectations: on my way to getting a personal marathon best (3hr 2min), I also ran a personal best in the first 10k (38 min) and the first 21.1k (1hr 22min). My average pace up to the 30k mark was 4:00 min per km, something that I had not known I was capable of. In the end, however, the mileage and the heat (25 degrees C) caught up to me and I had to slow down. Still, I managed to finish in just over 3 hrs!

Heat is definitely an issue for me. For the last 10k of the race, I was getting goosebumps and shivers, definitely not a good sign on a warm and sunny day. After the race I could only eat half of the free lunch, and ten minutes later, I tossed that half down the toilet. Like all my little bouts of heat sickness, I was feeling right as rain a couple hours later. The puking is new, though: I haven't done that in a long time!

So, I need to do more afternoon runs in my training. My usual morning runs do not exercise my cooling systems hard enough. If I can find a way to beat the heat, then it is altogether possible that I could knock another ten minutes off of my marathon time.

Today was a scorcher, glad I’m in Alberta

The high was 29C today, and even though I finished my run before it reached that high, it was still painful. Right now I'm working on marathon distances for my Sunday runs, and today's was 39km. After it was over I had to crawl into bed for an hour before my stomach settled enough for me to have lunch, similar to last year when I first started doing long runs in July and August. I can definitely say that I'm glad to live in a city that rarely sees temperatures like this. Or maybe it's the opposite: if I lived somewhere warmer, I might have a chance to adapt.

Stampede Road Race Number 2

My second time at the Stampede Road Race! I love this race, it is small enough to feel comfortable (just 1500 participants), but large enough to be competitive. And both years, the weather has been beautiful!

This year, I did the half-marathon. My time was 1:24:50, a personal best by just over a minute. As always, I was hoping for better, but I can't say that I'm dissatisfied, either. I managed to stick to a 4 min/km pace throughout, and still had enough in me to do a sprint at the finish line.

The next race will probably be the Mad Moose Marathon, which is a 42 km trail run. It's about time that I gave my legs a break by running on dirt instead of asphalt.

The Calgary Marathon – Not what I had hoped for

My dreams of a sub-3:00 run were dashed. I made the split at 1:29:44 but finished at 3:26:07. Somewhere after the 2hr mark I started getting spasms in my calf muscles. This came immediately after the long downhill, and was undoubtedly related to it somehow. The odd thing was that it was perfectly balanced… I'd have spasms in one leg, and a few km later, I'd have spasms in the other. Every single time that I tried to increase my pace, my muscles felt like they were trying to tear themselves apart, first I'd have twitching at the top and it would slowly dance around from one muscle fibre to another. Kind of like my muscles were having a little bout of arrhythmia… maybe I need a pacemaker for my legs!

Needless to say, my calf muscles were useless after that. I found that I could still run flat-foot, with my quads doing all of the work. Yeah. Now that the race is done, my quads feel like they ran 50km and my calf muscles, well, they feel peachy keen, ready to conquer the world. The bastards. They let me down!

So, what to do? I need strength training for my quads and calves, plus maybe more trail running to build stability. They say that cramps are related to sodium deficiency, but I had half a bag of potato chips last night in addition to a good dinner, and I drank Gatorade at every station in the race. Another thing I need to do is book a marathon for the fall… Kelowna is Oct 9th, the Mad Moose in Prince George is on Sept 25 (it's a trail run), Regina is Sept 11, and Edmonton is Aug 21.

Finally, a plea to the Calgary Marathon organizers: please rent a few more potties next year! The lineups were crazy and I couldn't empty my bladder before the race, I even had to toss half a bottle of water because I knew it would put me over my limit.

Keeping up the pace

The Calgary Marathon is only two weeks away! Today was my last long training run, I decided to play it by ear because my knee has been bothering me for a few days. It feels like it is bruised or something, though it has no discoloration. If it got bad, I was going to cut my run in half. Much to my surprise, it didn't bother me at all unless I overextended, e.g. by landing straight-legged while going downhill. In fact I bet that is how I injured it in the first place.

So, not only did I complete the 39 km that I had set out to do, but thanks to my slow, cautious running at the beginning I never ran out of steam. I kept up a pace of around 4:40 per km the whole way and finished in three hours. If I had run a marathon distance, I would have finished in 3:15. That is just… wow! Calgary Marathon, here I come! Hopefully my knee will still agree with me about this in the morning.