September 26, 2011

3 or 4 things I learned while training to run the 5th Ave Mile

I love racing, but I generally have less to say about races than about workouts. Still, the Fifth Avenue Mile is a good excuse to talk about the things I learned while training for it. Because in fact they may have changed me forever.

I wanted to beat 5 minutes, as I did in 2010. I had a good running year in 2010, and a slow, injured 2011. Fifth Ave. was the first race this year where I felt I could get close to last year’s results. I was in it to beat 2010 Daniel, who ran 4:57.

After a good warmup with comrade Chris, we crammed into forward part of the corral and stood there immobilized for 20 minutes. I tried to focus on what would come next, whether to take the first quarter hard or not, what the hill would be like. Then the gun (a gun?) and I busted out of 20 minutes of stillness like I was trying to escape my own body.

A race goes by in a red-yellow smudge, indistinct at start and finish, like certain brushstrokes of later de Kooning. I remember very little, though I can piece it together from photos people took. I took the first quarter fast, and pounded hard up the hill that occupies the second quarter.

But as I crested the hill, my enthusiasm ebbed. Dispiriting thoughts settled in to my pace – easy Tiger, don’t hurt yourself. The photo evidence shows three guys passing me in front of the Frick, just before the halfway point. I let them go and ran alone for the rest of the race. I didn't use my watch, but Chris tells me I was ahead of 2:30 at the half. The guys who passed me there finished about 8 seconds ahead of me.

I sucked wind for the third quarter, but then I suddenly got hungry again. I caught a fabulous cheer from comrade Ani at just the right place, and decided no one would pass me again, not even 2010 Daniel. And this is where the lessons of my training cycle kicked in:

1 – Suffering is normal. Shut up and run.

And an old lesson, briefly forgotten:

Those lessons, which had first come to me as bright epiphanies during my last hard workouts, swelled up from my chest and held me like a life jacket. I was finally in the race, and relaxed into a steady kick.

As the clock came into focus my eyes were glued to it. In the finishing photos I appear to be praying to the sky. I counted down with it as 4:55, 4:56, and 4:57 slipped away forever. Then it passed out of sight, and I surrendered myself to the hope of a two-second net lag at the start.

The mile is a horrible distance, too long for a sprint, too short to get warmed up. But Fifth Avenue is one of my favorite races because you get to cheer the other heats and the pro races are a blast. I got to see some of my favorite runners, including Chris, Ani, Brenn, Robert, Jennifer, and Kip.

My official time, posted hours later, was 4:58. Yes, 2010 Daniel beat me, but not by much. That guy better watch out, because I have three or four things he didn’t.

September 14, 2011

How I Discovered America

Every morning after a track workout I wake as if I’d been on a bender. What the hell was I thinking? The cold floor squeezes the sole of my foot painfully. I limp to the bathroom mirror to see how much I’ve aged overnight. And there he is in the mirror - the Mad Scientist.

If running is an experiment of one, the track is a lab in which we rats are exposed to all manner of edifying maltreatment. Eight x 400m for example, is an isometric string of successively more choking rigors, designed to acquaint the subject with his limits, or else those of the next world.

Experimentation provides proof and reassurance: How fast can I run a Mile? The only way to find out, without a tune-up race (which Julie Threlkeld has convinced me would have been a good idea), is to drop the rat on the wheel and quantify his behavior at race pace.

So, 8 x 400. I execute the first four items with a heartfelt grimace. Even though I’m going fast, the tripwire of fatigue moves up earlier with each item, catching me first at the final straightaway, then the preceding curve, and by the fourth item well before the halfway mark. And the real experiment hasn’t even begun.

During the next two items my vision quickly fills with bright spots and my head lolls with heavy, dark thoughts. I let myself be passed. By the seventh item I’m slowing and depending on a kick to even out my time. Oddly, as I put together the kick in that final straight, I have a fleeting sensation of extra reserves I never felt before.

Halfway through the eighth and final item I’m prepared to surrender. I’m at my absolute limit, and I begin to slow down. But curiosity gets the better of exhaustion, and I push on. And here it is again: like a dream where you notice a little door in your bedroom for the first time, opening onto a greenish universe where the air is unbearably heavy, but completely normal. You just deal. I accelerate, and realize that in the dream world I can hold this pace well past the finish.

I ran 72’s and then 73’s for the workout. The numbers predict I could match last year’s Fifth Avenue Mile of just under 5 minutes. But what about that freaky little kick?

On our recovery jogs between items, Coach Tony was out there telling us stories. “I hate this workout,” he said. “It’s painful. Everyone always tells you, all you have to do to run a 4-minute mile is run four of these at :60. So I ran sixty-second quarters. But I never ran a 4-minute mile. My PR is 4:08. So I asked my coach, What’s up, how come I can't hit 4 minutes? He told me, Tony, you weren’t tough enough.”

For a few seconds last night I was tough. Can dreams outpace science? Per the Mad Scientist, further research is indicated.

September 9, 2011

Masters of Relaxation

My legs are fairly trashed, as I push hard at my limits to get ready for the upcoming Mile. During a six-mile team workout yesterday, the first three miles (at marathon pace) were a total mess. I was sure I would have to stop at the halfway point, where we were supposed to accelerate to half-mary pace. I felt a stubborn woodiness in my calves. Turbulent ideas about work and commutes and the president's jobs speech jostled the air around me. I was tensed and shambling like a cartoon zombie. My eyes nearly crossed and my shoulders pushed up towards my ears.

Then suddenly the air grew still over my right shoulder. Maybe a valkyrie, a dragonfly, or the eye of a storm; still, but moving faster than me. It was teammate Joe, hardly moving his body and already several strides ahead of me. What calm, what grace. Like he was daydreaming on a park bench. I latched on to him to escape my own shipwreck, and managed to hang on for a while. But he drifted off ahead, and instead of trying to match his velocity I felt my limbs imitating his stride: short cadence, shoulders low and back, hardly any motion in his upper body, but also no tension. No tension at all.

For the last three miles of the run, I kept reeling in that calm. The tension constantly tried to flow back up from my legs, but I just let it fall back. Every time I relaxed I sped up.

Jack Lovelock was a New Zealander and one of the fiercest milers of his time (1500m gold in the '36 Olympics). For Roger Bannister and his younger classmates at Oxford, he was "a master of relaxation, the cleverest, neatest miler they had ever seen." Just watch him - like a lot of fast runners, he looks like he's moving in slow motion next to the other runners.

WORLD RECORD SMASHED! (click through for the video)

Does that guy look like he's breaking a world record?

It is a lesson that keeps appearing in the little mantras that pop into my head during workouts. Run faster not harder. Thoughts are heavy. No effort.

So it was Joe and the ghost of Jack pulling me along those last few miles, even once both of them were far out of sight, and their merest images floated alongside, to preserve me from thoughts.

September 7, 2011

If you want the rainbow you must have the rain

A running buddy of mine, who is also a blogger, recently had a running-and-blogging slump. He claimed that a really good writer would have blogged right through it. That makes me a bad writer as well as a bad runner, as evidenced by my own long slump. A real writer, if he blogs at all, blogs his rainy days.

What I didn't write about was six months spent nursing and cursing the tendinitis in my heels. It was just enough time to completely de-train. No PRs since last year's Turkey Trot. I ran slow, ugly races this summer - slower even than my first few months of running. Fitness, like everything, is only ever borrowed. From a miser. On unfavorable terms.

While I'd just as soon forget all the missed workouts and bad moods, posts in the slow time could have had a human interest absent from something like, "Check out my improvement curve, it's like a rainbow!!" Happy runners make boring bloggers.

I'm building back up now, toeing that fine line between fitness and injury, remounting the rainbow's rising curve. I squeeze in regular speedwork and tempos, with medium runs on the weekend. With any luck I'll improve. With any luck I'll write some spectacularly dull blog posts.

But like the frog says, rainbows are visions and only illusions. I ain't an elite and there's no pot of gold. The fact is, I only run to make things hard for myself. I threw my back out during my weekend run, and I was on the fence all day yesterday about a planned track workout. Excuses were within easy reach. I mean, I was moping around with a pronounced stoop and it was raining, like, .33"/hr (i.e., damn hard).

I took my daughter for a walk around the block to look for puddles. She stomped like a giant into each one we found and squeaked "Hooray!" My back began to tingle. When we got home my wife cured me of my hunch by walking on it. In the end familial solicitude prevailed over fear of rain and re-injury. I went out.

The East River Track was flooded and had nearly merged with the East River itself. I found my teammates huddled in a shallow doorway at the side. We're training for the Fifth Avenue Mile in a couple of weeks, so we had planned for 600, 400, 200 x 2 @ mile pace or faster. The rain came down in stinging diagonals. The water was 3-4" deep on one of the straightaways, requiring a fair amount of aquajogging. We plunged in.


The workout was slow and won't be getting me any medals on race day. But, drenched with rain and awash in lactate, I imagined I saw the slump washing away down the flooded streets in the unrelenting rain.

March 21, 2011

NYC Half Marathon - something left

I've run the NYC Half three times now, and my most vivid memories of all three are not the race. What stays with me is the corral.

The lead time on this metastasized race (10,000+) is longer than most, and it has an early start. The logistics of starting are gnarlier than the effort to finish. After madly zigzagging to drop bags, find friends, and hit the facilities, you stand around in the corral for ages before they let you dance. 

Two years ago this race was in August - it was 77 degrees and felt hotter still. There was space to do strides in my corral, but I mostly sat and watched the the elites do their thing in the next corral up. It was great to see the superstars getting ready, and not a little intimidating. Then the announcements, anthem, exhortations, and what-have-you.

When the horn went off at last, I wilted like old arugula. It was my ugliest race ever.

Nowadays the Half is held in March and the corral experience is the same. The heavy heat is replaced by serious cold but the logistics are still insane. You've probably raced in colder conditions, but in March everyone wears shorts. I met up with Super-B and Dreamboat Ani before the race to drop off our bags full of our warm clothing. We waited there as long as we could for the Elf but we were shivering like mad and he was delayed. We gave up and ran to find the facilities before the corrals closed. After the frenetic hunt for distant toilets we made it into our corral just under the wire.

Ani and I hopped and huddled for warmth as we looked for the Elf in the crowd. Elf is tall, and normally quite visible even in a crowd of runners, but we couldn't find him in the quivering crush of people. It seemed like an hour before the start. And once the horn went off, since we were a couple of corrals back, there was another long wait before we saw the starting mat. But finally we were off.

I wasn't planning to race since I haven't trained since December. My plan was to pace with Ani for as long as I could keep up, and drop off when I needed to. Our first mile was slow and crowded, but relaxed and fun. I haven't often raced with friends, so this was a new pleasure. I didn't have to worry about any numbers, just keeping up with Ani. The times when I wanted to slow down she'd surge and I'd have to keep up. Or I'd surge and she'd reel me in. The 13.1 miles went by much quicker than the cold corral.

This was an experiment: how much fitness lingers after 3 months of inactivity? Result: something remains, as long as you just have a good time. I worked hard but didn't feel bad. Ani outkicked me in the last 100 meters, beating me by four seconds.

Right at the finish we finally found the Elf waiting for us, and soon after met up with Super-B, who had PR'd. Ani had PR'd by around 3 minutes. I came in more than 15 minutes slower than my PR last year. I couldn't have been happier.

I got about the same result as that miserable race two years ago on the same course, but this time I had a blast. Beating a goal may be better than not having one, but laughing at the clock is magic.

March 18, 2011

The waterfall can't be drowned

I'm building it all back up from scratch, which I think will take till fall. Meantime no PRs, just trying to do right by my legs. If lack of success is a failure, I plan to fail a lot this year. So why race?

In a Scratch Orchestra liner note, Cornelius Cardew once wrote about some buddhist monks who go to the waterfall to practice their chanting. "The waterfall can't be drowned, but it inspires the voice to high levels of power and purity."

On Sunday I'll run the NYC Half-Marathon, a drop in a torrent of 12,000 or so runners, including some of the fastest alive. I'm untrained and out of shape. I'm not even sure I'll finish. I registered long ago as a fitness test for Boston, but it turns out I'm scratching Boston. I know I'll fail by any personal standard, but it's time, I need it, I'm headed for the waterfall.

March 8, 2011

Winter Can Really Hang You Up

Remember the waist-deep snow? The scything winds? Maybe gumption has its own weather patterns, but whatever you call it, my running's been stuck in a ten-week deep freeze.

Just to pile on, my fancy watch died around the turn of the year. No point in running if you can't get credit for it. Did you know a Garmin battery lasts only two years, and you can't replace it? True story. That's a $200/year subscription to the fussiest device in the world.

Hang on: running is supposed to be simple. Remember?

Behold! A few bright days with air warmer than 20 degrees have lovingly forced themselves upon me, begging to be taken advantage of, with or without a watch. Wang dang doodle, I'm running regularly again, with a little cross-training in between. (Now the permanent ache in my hamstrings feels earned rather than imposed.)

Spring's like waking from amnesia. Two jolly runs and you remember things forgotten in hibernation. I'd even forgotten how much I like the gym.

But you wake to a changed world. Or the world's exactly the same, but your body's different. Your legs are pasted on backwards, and your training logs are senseless scribbles in someone else's writing.

Well, nothing can stay the same. For two years I've been hooked on training plans and GPS data. Who cared how I felt, as long as I nailed the plan? I was the guy shivering on the sidewalk while my device sniffed out a satellite. I winced at stoplights because they screwed up my stats.

New plan: no plan. Ditch the stupid watch. Get back that feel.

Like the newly blind who learn to feel space, a runner without a watch learns a lot about how time churns. I've never run with an iPod because for me, running is the music.

Now I remember what running was like back in the day, before I got so busy trying to impress my watch.

January 6, 2011

I'll have what the rat's having

It's notoriously difficult to create controlled scientific experiments on the effects of running. But this one reproduces the situation of the average adult road racer rather well:

First you find some "adult male rats with an inbred taste for alcohol". You train half of them very hard for 3 weeks. Then you take them all out to a bar.

“We had anticipated that exercise would reduce” the rats’ drive to drink, said J. Leigh Leasure, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Houston and senior author of the study. Instead, the exercising animals turned to alcohol with significantly more enthusiasm than the sedentary rats, mainly during the first week of the experiment. 
“It was a bit of surprise,” Dr. Leasure said.

Dr. Leasure. Heh heh.

I just signed up for this year's Prospect Park Cherry Tree 10-Miler. Better start my training tonight. After 5:00 of course.

January 5, 2011


New thresholds, new anatomies! 
- Hart Crane, White Buildings

The new year is a place to wander around in, get lost, find a new toy or a lost shoe. But still I fret over plans and goals. Everyone wants to go up, up, up, don't they? The runner in me is no exception. He wants two things: 1) to do more; 2) to do less.

I want to get faster, run longer, recover quicker. I want to run every day until the rhythm of it takes me over.

On the other hand, I want an easier training regimen, one that won't require the sacrifice of so many other parts of life. Marathon training, plus everything in the world, is obviously a lot.

Running is one of those things you do to keep growing, stay young, remain open. Getting faster is the easiest way to track it. The numbers never lie. But another way to get better would be to integrate running more completely in all the agendas, itineraries, and schedules. Also: it would be nice not to have achy legs all the time.

I haven't run much at all for about a month. Maybe once a week, for 6-10 miles. It isn't enough, but even a lazy rest does something for you. It could give me back a kind of platform to build a new fitness later in the year. A new fitness for some new threshold.

Last year I wanted to be faster and be consistently in the top 10 of my age group (did pretty well). I wanted to beat 5 minutes and 3 hours in the same season (check). With my second NYC Marathon I wanted to beat Lance Armstrong's second NYC Marathon (nope). All in all a pretty satisfying sophomore year.

Running goals for 2011? Oh, the usual, modest ones:

  • Absorb training slowly, completely.
  • Beat all my 2010 PRs.
  • Find new trails in the park.
  • Grow younger still.
  • Rethink all the goals.