Book Report: Born to Run

Today I’m sharing one of my all-time favorite running books with you.  This book is one that I have read several times, most recently over the past week, and I continue to love it just as much each time I read it – Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.  The subheading for this book is “A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” which is a pretty succinct summary of what you’ll find inside.  McDougall introduces the world to the Tarahumara Indians, a tribe that lives in Mexico’s Copper Canyons and is known for their incredible endurance.  Throughout the book, readers also have the opportunity to follow McDougall’s own personal running evolution, to explore some of the exercise physiology behind humans and our history with running, and to meet a great cast of characters.

Reading this book several years ago was my first glimpse into the world of ultrarunning.  It also inspired me to change the way that I run, and over the course of 4 months, I converted to a minimalist style of running.  I know that barefoot, or minimal running, is a trend that was once hot and is now on its way out, and I would never presume to imply that it is right for everyone.  For me personally, however, I found that going minimalist forced me to change my stride into a much more efficient forefoot-striking approach.  This greatly reduced the amount of pounding that I put on my body, and essentially eliminated the knee and back pain that used to nag me after longer runs.  I also believe it has helped me to become a faster and more efficient runner as well.

Whether or not a minimalist-style appeals to you, I still think that all runners can find something to love in this book.  McDougall’s account of the culminating race in the Copper Canyons, along with his recaps from other races prior to that event, provide enough intrigue to keep the pages turning.  I highly recommend that you pick this one up!

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Running Roundup: May 2015

My apologies for dropping off the map for the past few weeks.  I’d like to pretend that I had a great excuse, but it’s really just been that age old excuse – life is busy.  Between the kids wrapping up spring sports, end-of-the-year events at school, and the daily grind, it’s been all I can do to keep up.  Fortunately, this weekend provided some nice downtime which allowed both some relaxation, and a chance to catch up a bit here on the blog.

Here’s the brief running recap: I took it easy recovering from Delaware, re-read a favorite running book, fought through some more humidity, blew a ton of money on another family running adventure, and then fully launched back into my running schedule.

My adventure in the heat and humidity at Delaware hit me a bit harder than I had anticipated.  While my legs felt okay running during the following week, I just couldn’t shake the sense of utter exhaustion that I felt.  By Thursday, it was so bad that I felt half-drunk as I stumbled my way through the school day.  I managed to get the kids home and fed, tucked them into bed, and then curled up in my own room, where I promptly passed out at 6:45 pm.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I managed to fall asleep before 7 o’clock at night.  Fortunately, the 10+ hours of sleep that I got seemed to do the trick, and by Friday I was back to feeling human again.

After a lack of running partners and a lack of motivation hit on Sunday morning, I decided to simply take myself out for a run around my neighborhood.  I often run anywhere from 3-7 miles near my house, but usually like to drive to a trail if I’m going further, as I don’t live in a very scenic area.  Fortunately, I had my carefully crafted playlist that I never got to use in Delaware, so I turned that on and used it to motivate me through 12 miles.  The humidity was once again brutal, but the kindness of a Starbucks employee allowed me to refill my water bottle partway through, and my cheerful music managed to help me push the pace until I made it back home.

This past week, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from my running, as I was diving back into higher mileage for the first time in several weeks.  Apparently my body enjoyed the rest from the past few weeks, because I had a great week of running.  I got in all of my shorter runs this week, had a great final session with my after-school running club, and enjoyed one of my best ever long runs on Saturday, when I was able to complete 20 miles and still finish feeling strong.  Here’s hoping that things continue to go well, as I have several more high mileage weeks ahead of me in the next month.

In other news, I signed myself and the family up for another running adventure.  This October, we will all be taking on The Color Run Night in Camden, NJ.  As I recently shared, we had a blast when we ran The Color Run earlier this month, so even though the entry fees set me back more than I would have liked, I went ahead and signed us up for the fall race.  While I know that running makes me a better wife and mother, I sometimes feel selfish spending so much time and money on something that I usually do apart from my family.  Running a couple of fun, shorter races with them each year allows us all to share in the running fun together.

I also reread one of my all-time favorite books, “Born to Run.”  In case you haven’t yet picked it up, keep an eye out for a book report later this week.  That brings us up-to-date.  Keep checking back to see how the training is going, and to hear whether I end up adding yet another race to my fall schedule.  Happy running!

Delaware Half Marathon Race Report

Please forgive the length of this post.  Writing it is a form of therapy for me in coping with a disappointing day.  I also apologize for the lack of photos.  I failed in every form of technology usage today, including forgetting my camera behind at home.

Let me start by talking about the Delaware Half Marathon in general.  I’m hoping it will give you a bit more perspective leading into the race, and will also provide more of an unbiased view of the event than my own personal experience can share.  This was my first time running Delaware.  Every time I spoke with veterans of the race, they stated how much they loved the event, which was quickly followed by a comment about the hilliness of the course.  I found that these two sentiments were exactly in line with my own experience.

The Delaware Marathon Running Festival is a small race with a big-race feel, which is pretty close to perfect in my mind.  Packet pick-up was simple.  I drove down to Wilmington, parked in a lot right next to the park where the race starts, walked into the tent, and was immediately asked for my race number.  After collecting my bib, I swung by to get my gear bag, t-shirt, pint glass, and hat.  I was back in my car in less than ten minutes.  On race morning, the pre-race routine was also a walk in the park.  I drove down with my family, found a free parking spot on the street without a problem, and enjoying a short 5-10 minute walk to the race start.  There were a lot of runners and families milling around, but once again, there was a very relaxed feeling to the event.  As someone who tries to plan for every scenario, I am usually at the race start a minimum of 90 minutes before the starting time.  Today, I wandered in with about 40 minutes to go and felt completely okay with that.  I waited a couple of minutes in the bathroom lines, then met up with a friend, kissed my family goodbye, and chatted casually as we approached the race start.  With about 8 minutes to go, we sauntered over to the start, walked into the chute, and lined ourselves up according to our predicted pace.  I said goodbye to my speedier friend, found myself a spot, and checked to make sure that my technology was ready to go.  That’s when everything started to fall apart.

I usually like to race without music, preferring to take in my surroundings and the feel of the event.  I have found, however, that music can really help me through tough spots in a race, especially when I am running on my own, as I planned to do today.  Since I knew that I was going to be pushing hard in hopes of a possible PR, I decided that music might give me the boost I needed.  Yesterday I spent close to an hour crafting the perfect playlist, even timing it to finish at my goal time.  I charged my iPod, and even checked last night to make sure that the playlist had downloaded correctly.  With five minutes till the race start, I turned on my iPod to adjust the volume to a nice background level, insuring that I could still hear any runners or course marshals around me.  Imagine my dismay when the iPod turned on, began to play the first song, and then informed me that it was shutting off due to a low battery.  In the past, I have had this inexplicably happen, even when the device appeared charged, but I never considered that possibility today.  Happily, I allowed myself to feel a few moments of disappointment, and was then able to put this setback aside and refocus on the race.  I decided that I would drop the iPod with my family when I saw them at mile 1, and just enjoy the course.

One of the benefits of a small race is that you don’t waste a lot of time hanging out in the corrals.  The race started at 7am on the nose, and I crossed the starting line less than 30 seconds later.  I hit the start button on my GPS, looked down to check that the time had started correctly, and was greeted by a message that informed me that the memory was full and needed to be cleared before any further recordings could take place.  I stared in disbelief at the watch.  I’ve used it for a year and never received that message before.  Which means that I probably shouldn’t be surprised that the memory was full, but really, what are the odds that this would happen in a race when I really needed to know my pace?  One of the downsides to the smaller size of the race was that I knew to only expect clocks on the course at miles 1, 5, and 10, which makes it hard to track your pace.  I stubbornly pushed the start button several more times, but after repeatedly being greeted with the same message, I gave up and resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be running this race completely technology-free.  Fortunately I met up with my family just a few minutes into the race, and was able to chuck my useless devices at them before continuing on my way.

The weather at the start of the race was cloudy and close to 70 degrees.  Warmer than ideal conditions, but as someone who actually prefers to run in hotter conditions, I wasn’t too worried.  What I didn’t factor on, however, was the humidity, which was over 90% at the start of the race.  As a result, I found it hard to settle into an easy pace.  When I passed the 1-mile marker, the clock read 9:30, which told me I had run the first mile in a nearly straight 9-minute mile pace.  A bit faster than I had planned, but I took it as a sign that I might be on track to PR today.  I only needed to average 9:20 or better to beat my previous personal best and since I have been training at longer distances, I was hopeful that the later miles would feel easier than usual.  Back to that humidity, however.

By mile 2, I realized that the weather was going to play a bigger role than I had anticipated.  I passed my family again and told my husband to expect me closer to 2:10 than the 2:00 I was hoping for.  I just couldn’t get comfortable in the conditions.  The pace already felt hard just a few miles in.  I should have registered that and slowed down, but my stubborn streak thought that if I could just keep pushing, I might be able to settle in to a comfortable rhythm.  I often find that 3-4 miles is the magic spot in my training runs, so I pushed on with optimism.

The first few miles took us along the Wilmington waterfront, back past the race start, and then out to the Brandywine Park.  We ran along the water, and crossed over a swinging bridge, which was oddly bouncy.  I couldn’t decide if I found the spring to be helpful or unsettling.  The elevation map made it seem as though there were only 4 uphill sections of the course, but I quickly realized that the map was deceptive.  In reality, it felt as though there was very little of the course that was actually flat.  We enjoyed many gentle downhill sections, but an equal number of gradual uphills, which sapped the life out of you when combined with the heat and humidity.

When we crossed the 5-mile mark, I knew I was in trouble.  The clock time read 45:35, which meant that I had maintained those 9-minute miles throughout the early part of the course.  With a long hill anticipated at mile 6, however, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to hold that pace much longer.  I also began to feel the effects of the humidity, experiencing repeated stomach cramps that would come and go randomly.  They seemed to be worse shortly after water stops, but I knew that taking water was nonnegotiable, so I resolved to handle them as best I could and slog on.

The hill at mile 6 was as challenging as I had expected.  I think that the total elevation climb was only about 200 feet, but it was a very gradual rise that went on for almost a mile straight.  It took all of my energy to make it up that hill without stopping.  I kept my sights set on a runner just in front of me and resolved to just keep following her.  Fortunately for me, she didn’t stop.  About halfway up, we passed the marathon leader sprinting down in the other direction, looking way too comfortable for the conditions.  There wasn’t another single runner anywhere near him.  At the top of the hill we traveled into a beautiful neighborhood section that provided lovely views, much-appreciated shade, and some gentle downhill slopes.  At that point, I knew that my PR goal was basically gone, but I kept hoping that if I could just soldier on, I might still be able to come in under 2:05, which would feel like a successful day.  I was still fighting the side stitches, along with a few brief waves of nausea and dizziness, but I tried to put that all aside and just soldier on.  We left the neighborhoods, swung out to Little Italy, and then thankfully made the turn back towards the race start.  I approached the 10-mile mark with a burning curiosity to see where I was.  I even had a moment of hoping that perhaps I was feeling so lousy because I was running so fast.  Of course, since you all are not in the state of a disillusioned runner, you know where this is heading.  The clock at 10 miles read 1:36.  Not bad, but a considerable drop in pace over the past five miles.  I immediately felt my spirits drop, so much so that I slowed to a walk for the next uphill section.  I had been pushing so hard, and to know that I wasn’t going to come closer to my goal time was just a crushing blow.

Fortunately my pity party was short-lived.  I briefly considered walking the rest of the way in before deciding that I would be immensely angry with myself if I allowed that to happen.  I couldn’t run a great time, but I still had the chance to salvage a decent one.  I settled on a new goal of 2:10, and began to once again chug forward.  Fate was finally on my side, and I was soon met with the long hill that I had struggled up at mile 6.  I let my legs fly as much as possible, relishing the feeling of moving forward with relatively little effort.  Of course, in a race this punishing, it wasn’t quite that easy.  After the long downhill, we turned the corner at mile 12 onto King Street and were met with one more uphill climb before the finish.  Once again, a gradual ascent, but one that lasted almost half a mile.  At that point in the race, it was incredibly demoralizing.  I pushed on as best as I could, shuffling when possible and walking when all else failed.  When I spied the top of the hill I resolved to run it on in no matter what.  If the final 1/2 mile hadn’t been downhill, I’m not sure if that would have happened, but I just moved forward, following the runners in front of me.  As I rounded the curve to the finish, I spotted my family on the sidelines, big smiles on their faces as they watched me approach.  I could have cried from relief.  Instead, I high-fived my kids and urged them to join me in the final sprint to the finish line.  My son hesitated, but my daughter jumped right in.  We rounded the corner and to my delight, spotted the finish just 100 yards ahead.  It’s a sign of how wiped I was that my daughter, who is much more of a walker than a runner, sprinted a few steps ahead of me to the finish.  Her push in those final few steps allowed me to cross the finish line with a smile on my face.  Final time?  2:09:27.

I feel fortunate that I had my family at the race to lift my spirits.  Of course, the free champagne that was offered at the finish helped me to temper my disappointment as well.  There was also a wonderful spread of food at the hospitality tent so I loaded my plate and then shared the snacks with my family.  At that point the only thing that I could stomach was some wonderfully salty potato chips.  As I cooled down and returned to the land of the sane and rational thinkers, I was able to realize that the exhaustion, stomach cramps, nausea, and dizziness were all clear signs that I was struggling with the heat throughout the race.  Which made me glad that my body was smarter than my brain and that my pace just naturally slowed.  I probably wouldn’t have finished the race otherwise.  When I returned home, I did some reading about the effects of heat and humidity on running, and discovered that many pacing adjustment charts allowed that for today’s weather conditions you should expect your pace to drop by at least 45 seconds per mile.  If I factored that into my finish, I would have run a sub-2 hour half today, which would have beaten my best time by several minutes.  It’s all about the perspective I guess.  That, and the knowledge that you can only control so many factors, so sometimes you just have to do your best, and cede one to Mother Nature every now and then.

A brief shout-out to everyone involved in the Delaware Running Festival, who put on a top-level event despite all of the weather challenges.  In spite of everything, I managed to enjoy myself today.

Reality Check

The other night, I got a text from a friend and fellow runner who mentioned that he was thinking of running his first ultra this year.  He’s run many marathons over the years, but decided maybe he’s ready to try a race that’s just a bit longer.  As a recent convert to the world of ultrarunning myself, I immediately voiced my enthusiastic support for the idea.

As our conversation continued, I made some comment along the lines of “it’s fun to do something that so few people are willing to attempt” and he informed me that the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2014, there were just over 550,000 marathon finishers in our country.  That sounds like a large number, until you compare it to the general population and realize that it equates to less than one tenth of one percent of our population.  I’ve heard similar statistics before, and it always strikes me as unbelievable.

I know that most people don’t run marathons, but I still feel like a lot do.  I can name an endless number of personal friends and acquaintances who have finished at least one marathon.  There were six girls on my collegiate gymnastics team my senior year – 5 of us have run marathons.  Now I know that you could argue that we were already athletes, so it’s not a huge leap to think that we might transition to a new sport after college.  That’s not the only place where I cross paths with runners, however.  I teach at a small independent school.  There might be 40 of us total on staff at the school.  Two of my fellow teachers have completed marathons before.  That makes three of us out of 40, and while you can argue that athletes of any type are more predisposed to take up running, I don’t think you could automatically say the same of teachers.

I’ve been running these distances for more than ten years now, and as I’ve gradually built up my mileage base, my life as a runner has just come to feel completely normal to me.  Sure, not everyone runs marathons, but many people do at least one eventually.  Right?  I fear that I often sound cocky to those who don’t know me well.  A typical exchange on a Monday might go like this:

Random colleague: “How was your weekend?”

Me: “Great!  I spent a lot of time outside.”

Colleague: “Doing what?”

Me: “I went for a run and the kids had baseball games.”

Colleague: “Did you run far?”

Me: “No, only for a few hours.”

Colleague: Stunned silence…

I never think about how people will react to my response until I see their faces and I piece it together.  And then I realize that I do sound a bit crazy.  But the thing is, when you train for up to 4-5 hours at a time, a 2-hour run really does feel short.  And when you are out there, and pass hundreds of other people running on a Saturday morning, it seems like a pretty popular thing to do.  It’s easy to convince yourself that this running this is pretty common, no big deal, because that’s what it is for you.  And it’s not until you pick up the Wall Street Journal (or talk to a friend who has) that you realize that you’re part of a pretty select group of people.

And I have to admit – that makes me feel pretty damn good.

Color Run Race Report

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It feels a bit silly to call this a “race report” since there are no recorded times at The Color Run, but since we paid for it and had official bib numbers, we are just going to be flexible here.  I should start by telling you that The Color Run may be one of my all-time favorite running events, which is impressive since I’m not usually a fan of shorter races.  This is no ordinary short race, however.  In case you’ve somehow missed the memo, The Color Run is a 5K that takes you through various “color zones” where you are doused with colored powders.  If you do it right, you finish the race looking like a colorful camouflage warrior.

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I first ran the race in 2012, and quickly decided that it would be more fun to make this a family affair.  In 2013, I dragged the husband and kids along and they quickly fell in love with the event as much as I have.  This year was our third one running together.  The race moved from July to April, which resulted in unusually cool temperatures on race morning.  We actually had to rethink our outfits, as our standard white t-shirt and shorts combo was clearly not going to be warm enough for the 40-degree temps that we had at the start.  We ended up layering everyone with long-sleeved tees and long pants, and once we got off running, we found that to be just right.

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The Color Run has a great starting line.  They send runners off in small waves every five minutes over the course of an hour, and while you are waiting at the start, you can enjoy the cheerful music and the amusing announcer.  We found ours to be particularly entertaining this year.  Once out on the course, we had just enough time to warm up before encountering our first color zone.  Over the years, we have found that it works best to pair one adult with one child, and to just plan to meet up after each color zone.  With three kids and three adults this year, the strategy worked perfectly, allowing us to check in and take a quick photo after each color.  In addition to the four color zones, there was some upbeat music, a motivating drumline, a wave of bubbles, and a “shine” zone, where you were hit with sparkly silver powder.  After crossing the finish line, each participant received a medal, a color packet, and a shine packet.  A few steps away and we were able to help ourselves to a bottled water and a KIND bar.  After collecting our treats, we made our way to the finish line festival, which is where the real fun begins.

At the finish, another announcer keeps the crowd going with a great musical backtrack.  In between the music, there are frequent “color throws” where everyone in the crowd is encouraged to throw up a handful of color at the same time.  It’s at the finish line party where you end up getting drenched in color, and our family always seems to have an unofficial contest to see who can spread the most color to their fellow participants.

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I can’t accurately describe how much fun this event is.  Of course, if you hate to get dirty, this would be a race that you will want to avoid.  And if you are the super-competitive sort, then you should also skip it as well, since there tend to be more people walking than running.  For all those looking to have a good time, however, it’s one event that you can’t miss.  They even make it easier to get the whole family involved, as kids under 5 can run for free.  With all of the great entertainment on course, and the fun after party, The Color Run truly lives up to its claim to be the “Happiest 5K on the Planet!”