Saturday, June 16, 2012

USA Half Marathon Championships

I raced the USA half marathon championships, held in conjunction with Grandma's marathon and half marathon, in Duluth, MN this morning. This was my first time running in an elite national championship. Realizing that I was racing against runners who are much younger and eons faster, I had no expectations, other than to run the best I could on the day. There was no pressure of trying to achieve a time standard as when I was aiming to qualify for the trials, and my finish place was irrelevant as I clearly was not going to make it into the top 10. I gave myself a range of 1:18 to 1:23; I truly had no idea what to expect after a terrible Bolder Boulder, a 10k last weekend in which I was vomiting from a stomach bug, and being exiled from Boulder on Tuesday due to heavy smoke from a raging fire just north.

My thoughts on the race:

  • The race started at 6:25 am which necessitated a 3:45 wake-up call so I could get to the bus that transported us to the start line. My scatological friends were quite concerned that the extra early start would impede my ability to, you know, go. Rest assured, dear friends, this was not a problem, as I am able to go on command race morning and is thusly listed as a special skill on my resume.
  • I am a morning person. An extreme lark by the standards of a quiz I recently took on the New York Times website. But, even for me, waking up at 3:45 is too early. I went to sleep around 8:30, which was no easy task given that it was still very light outside, and who goes to bed at 8:30, anyway? I was concerned about my alarm going off, so I slept terribly. I jolted awake every few hours thinking it was surely time to get out of bed. Nope, it was only 12:45 then 1:30 then 2 and then finally I fell into a deep, deep blissful sleep right before my alarm startled me out of a dream that I can no longer remember.
The sun rises very early, 4:45 am!
  •  Confidence is everything during a race, and normally I bring a lot of it to the start line. Today I lacked confidence and this affected my performance. My confidence was in the gutter for the reasons mentioned above and a few others: I had not raced a half marathon since last August, my ribs are still a bother and they flare up from time to time, and I just did not feel that I had the training in my legs. I started out well and hit the 5k mark in 18:24. Even though I felt good and my ribs seemed fine, I panicked and backed off and hit the next 5k in 19:00. I picked up my pace again over the next several miles and was able to finish the last 5k in 18:24 (ironic that I hit the same time as the first 5k). While I am pleased to have negative split and finish the race feeling strong, it is a reminder that I need to always believe in myself and my ability to perform.
  • The Grandma’s marathon course rocks! The point to point course is scenic and well paved. The mile markers are easily visible. The aid stations are well stocked. The volunteers that I met throughout the week and encountered on the race course were enthusiastic; it is obvious that the people of Duluth embrace this race.
  • I am a sucker for bridges. Duluth is a port city on Lake Superior. There are draw bridges everywhere. Awesome.
  • This is a big race was a small race feel. The finish area, in Canal Park, was the location of the expo and lots of hotels. The days before the race, people were milling around, the roads were closed off, huge tents were set up and there was a palpable excitement in the air. 
The group that came in this bus are fully invested in the race!
  •  There were special needs tables for the elites, highly unusual for a half marathon, but much appreciated due to the high humidity. That meant I got to practice my water bottle arts and crafts. The bottles were placed on the tables in alphabetical order, so, of course, mine were last in line. I did, however, fully appreciate the extra effort I put into decorating my bottles, because I was able to get a visual on the bottles well before I was at the table making them much easier to grab.

  • The pasta dinner the day before the race lasted from 11am-9pm. Yes, you read that correctly. It must be the longest pre-race carbo loading meal in the history of racing! What a brilliant idea. When I walked by prior to the technical meeting at 1, there were actually people already there. The extended hours ensured that the seating area was never overly crowded and the lines for food were non-existent.
  • The women’s race had its own start. That kept the start line congestion to a minimum. When the gun went off, the top women were away immediately. It is remarkable, when running against people who are so much faster, how quickly they pull away. They are just gone. I needed binoculars at the one mile marker to see them.
  • I am pumped up and itching to run another race soon. The local coffee shop had a chalk board with one simple question scribbled on it, “Why do you run?” People wrote their responses: “For my dog” “To lose my ass” “To stay in shape” “To get skinny”. I wrote: “To run fast”. Yes, I love to run for running’s sake. But, ultimately, I want to test my limits in training and racing and reach my goal of running fast.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Functionality vs. Fitness

From time to time, I hear this complaint from my athletes, “I am just not that fit right now.” Indeed, I, myself, have uttered those very words, especially since dealing with this rib injury over the last few years.  I have come to realize that there is a difference between fitness and functionality and lack of functionality will mask itself as lack of fitness.

What do I mean by functionality? I believe functionality encompasses a breadth of factors that can affect performance: general health, sleep, muscle balance, injury status, strength, flexibility, bike fit, stress, technique. These are just some examples as I realize that the concept of functionality is a complex network of elements. A body can handle a few chinks in the network, but start combining several of these items and suddenly the system breaks down.

Certainly, there can be an obvious collapse to the system. Illness or traumatic injury present themselves quickly, are usually self limiting, and resolve themselves in due time usually not affecting the overall balance between the athlete and training or racing.

Often, though, the breakdown begins with subtle changes, not even obvious to the athlete. It could be a traumatic injury that lingers. Muscle imbalances that an athlete can no longer overcome but has not presented yet as an injury. An athlete may have a chronic illness that has wandered out of control or the early stages of chronic fatigue. All of these will start to manifest themselves with slowly diminishing performances.

The first signs will be inconsistencies in training. Whereas an athlete may have been able to hit 90% of the target workouts, now it is only 70%. Racing performances will suffer. Recovery will become slower. But, it doesn’t happen overnight, conflating the issue of functionality and fitness. It is much easier to blame training as the culprit to worsening performances than to understand the truth of the matter, that the body is failing.

In the mind of an athlete, it is simple to fix a training problem. Do more. Go harder. Smash oneself day after day. Train with reckless abandon. All of these things should reverse the problem of diminished performances, right? Not if the issue is one of functionality. Dysfunction coupled with increased training load will only exacerbate the problem of poor performance. If muscle imbalance is the issue, for example, then training harder will only amplify the imbalances.

Here is my own experience with functionality vs. fitness. My rib injury has caused periodic problems with breathing. I often have run workouts or races in which my times are slower than normal. I start doubting my ability to run and question whether I have the proper fitness to accomplish the given tasks. When a cycle of “slower” times ends and I start to run faster, I realize that the problem was never fitness; my breathing was compromised by the rib injury (I have been working extremely hard to improve functionality, but more on that in another post).  The brute force method of trying to run through it has proven unsuccessful, and I have learned to cut my losses when it just isn’t my day in an effort to increase the chance of having a good workout on the next attempt.

The point is this: sometimes it is hard to look at oneself objectively and determine the root cause of lackluster performances, whether in training or racing. A one off crappy workout or race can often be attributed to situational factors. But, if the one off miserable performance turns into a string of them, take a step back and be honest with yourself, is it really fitness, or is it functionality?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Diesel the Dog: Violet comes to visit

The people in the house next door got a little dog named Violet. She is a Goldendoodle, like my buddy Bogart. Apparently she is very cute, because Crazy Blonde starts talking in a high pitched voice and stops to pet her whenever we see her. I’m not sure I like her; she likes to jump all over me and she takes attention away from me.
Ugh, she is so cute it makes me gag.
One day last week, Violet appeared in my house and she hasn’t left yet and it has been a whole week. I sure hope she isn’t moving in. I don’t think she is, because sometimes Bogart comes and stays for a few days and then leaves. I hope Violet goes away soon. I need a rest from her.

Violet seems to think I am some kind of chew toy. She likes to suck on my ears and bite my tail and put my collar in her mouth.
Help! Someone, anyone, please save me.
Crazy Blonde has to take my collar off or else Violet will ruin it. In fact, I haven’t heard the word “no” so much since I was little!

You know what bothers me? When Violet wakes me up from a perfectly good nap and wrestles with me. She never seems to get tired. Crazy Blonde always says I have a lot of energy, but Violet has worn me out. Not only do I have to entertain Violet, but Crazy Blonde is keeping me on a rigorous running schedule.

The other day Violet would not go to sleep at all then finally she just conked out.We took a nap together.
Finally, some rest.
Not only is Violet a terrible napper, she is also a restless sleeper at night. She goes to bed in the metal box that I used to have to go in. She is still small and can have accidents in the house and she likes to chew on the rugs and chairs so she also goes in the box when Crazy Blonde and Deep Voice are not around. I walked into the box to see if I like it any better than when I used to have stay in there. I don’t; it sucks.
I thought maybe I would get a nice treat if I went into the box. I didn't.
We have done some really fun things since Violet has been here. We went to Coot Lake, my favorite place to go swimming. Since she is still a baby, she didn’t go really far out into the middle of the lake like me.
Look how far I out I am! I am a really good swimmer.
Violet spent most of the time chasing after another little dog near the edge of the water. She got very dirty. That did not make Crazy Blonde happy because she is a neat freak.
I'm glad I didn't get that dirty. I had a bath last week and did not want another one.
The other day I finally figured out how to get revenge on Violet for biting my ears. I can run circles around her. We went to the park and I just ran and ran. She tried to catch me but she couldn’t. I think I heard her whimper. It was very hot so we had to take a rest in the shade.
It was nice and cool under here.
Violet likes to follow me around and copy what I do. When I bark, she barks. Her bark is sharp and piercing, not like my manly bark. When I jump on Crazy Blonde, she jumps on Crazy Blonde. Crazy Blonde is not amused by all the jumping. When I go exploring at the park and go into the weeds, Violet follows me right in. When I eat, she tries to steal my food. That makes me mad since I love my kibble.

I am happy to see Violet in the morning. When Crazy Blonde opens the box and Violet comes out we lick each others face. You know what? I am actually going to miss her when she goes home. I am glad she lives next door so I will be able to see her soon.

P.S. Don’t worry, Bogart, you are still my BFF.