Planning for Negative Splits

Let’s face it, we all love to race. The excitement and energy of race day makes all those early mornings and brutal track workouts worth it. Some of us chase seconds, while others horde race bling, whatever your motivation may be it’s wise to have a plan for your year. An important part of my job as a coach is to help athletes plan for success; this starts by discussing the season’s goals and working with them to creating a roadmap for the year. This week I have asked Prana Endurance athlete Shira Catlin to provide her thoughts on her training and how we worked together to prioritize her races.  Her season included an Ironman, a marathon, and less than a week later, an ultra (50 miles). With this type of schedule she had to train smart, not only to avoid injury, but also to avoid overtraining.

Prepping for Marine Corp Marathon consisted of IronMan training  and the broader goal of running a 50 mile race less than a week after Marine Corp. Training wise it was a tough for me to think about running a marathon and not trying to PR but thanks to my coach Frank I realized it was ultimately the best decision to use Marine Corp as an enjoyable experience- one to try to practice negative splits and enjoy the vibrant city and epic spectators.

I had a choice at the start of the race to start with the 4:10 pacer or the 4:15 pacer. I knew that the 5 minute difference in these pace groups would have a substantial impact on my ability to run a negative split. I have been working on starting out slow and being conservative but even starting with a 4:10 pacer could even slightly encourage me to run a little too fast at the beginning. I chose to start with the 4:15 pacer and am glad I did. The pacer was in good spirits and reiterated multiple times that we should not try to zig-zag at the start around people ahead of us. With approximately 30,000 runners this race was substantially larger than any event I had participated in; and the crowds at the start reflected that. It was hard for me not to zig-zag around people as it felt like I was merely walking for the first mile. This was the most challenging part of the race, being conservative and thinking about the larger picture of a negative split race.

Though the pacer was generally sticking with the 9:43 pace the congestion in the first few miles made it challenging, my watch was showing closer to 10 minute miles. I fueled with gatorade and water at each aid station and took a Gu every 5 miles, every other 5 miles I would take a caffeinated gu. I used this method because I had been training with Gu and knew my body would be happy with the choice.

At mile 13 I knew it was a good time to gradually pick the pace up. I had inadvertently been leapfrogging with the 9:15 pacer for a few miles because of aid stations and crowds so I new that I could maintain a pace without having a group to hold me accountable. As I picked the pace up the heat also became a larger factor in my performance. I don’t run well in the heat. As my Strava shows this summer was a real struggle, anything above 65/70 degrees and my body would fall apart. The forecast predicted 80 degrees around the finishing time and Marine Corp had sent out a forewarning to runners giving a heads up about the uncharacteristically high temperatures for this race. I began to feel the heat more and began grabbing gatorade and water at the aid stations to supplement my nutrition and to stay hydrated. I’m grateful for one aid station that was handing out a limited supply of mountain dew, the little bit of extra caffeine helped keep me going.

Once I was in the vicinity of the Pentagon the struggle bus around me became clear. Many runners were doing a hobble walk, it was clear that the sun was affecting many athletes. In this moment I was incredibly grateful for my conservative start. I still felt like I had a substantial fuel. In Crystal City there was a fantastic water mister set up which was a nice brief relief from the heat.

The final stretch going down Jefferson Davis Highway felt strong and heavy. My legs and body were working together best they could to pick the pace up just a little bit more to have a solid finish.

That final hill was rough. Many runners were walking and in large packs so making it up the hill quickly wasn’t any easy option so I wiggled my way through with many “excuse me, thank you’s.

In Shira’s recap of the Marine Corps Marathon not only can you see her passion and excitement for the sport, but also how to run a perfect negative split race. Going into a race with a strategy and sticking to it takes most of us years to master. In her race, not only was Shira able to hold back and conserve energy, she was smart in recognizing factors which were out of her control (the heat) and adjust as she needed. Her accomplishments were even recognized by Strava who provided a free pair of New Balance sneakers for running a marathon on negative splits.  In 2017 Shira has set her goals to complete another Ironman and will test her limits with a 100 mile foot race. To your success Shira!!  Look forward to working with you in 2017.

The Boston Experience

Boston Marathon Last week on April 18th 2016 (Patriots Day) I had the honor and privilege to run the 120th Boston Marathon. Like so many others, for me this journey has been years in the making. Along the way I have put in thousands of miles, created amazing memories and have grown as a husband, friend and coach.

All of this could not have been accomplished without the constant support and encouragement of my wife. She has had to deal with me mousing around the house in the early mornings as I head out the door for an early run. I am never around for those famous San Francisco brunches that everyone in the city stands in line for hours every Saturday and Sunday morning. Thanks Love!

I really can’t recall when I became obsessed with qualifying for Boston. However, I do know that my life as an athlete changed as soon as I set my sights to run the Boston Marathon. In 2012 I made it my mission to become as strong a runner I could; after all, I just needed to shed 40 minutes from my fastest marathon time to meet the qualifying standard. It will come of no surprise to those who know me, I became a bit obsessed with this task.

After a year of training I ran the California International Marathon it was my first attempt at a BQ and I needed a 3:10 to qualify. I put it all out on that course and unfortunately came in short of my goal, reaching the finish line in 3:10:50 and missing my time by 50 seconds. I finished the race devastated and exhausted. After spending some time in the medical tent due to a mild case of hypothermia… my wife came to the rescue again with a motivational talk, encouragement and some hot chocolate. So, I picked myself off the floor and started training even harder.

Finally, in 2014 at the Chicago Marathon I was able to barely hit the qualifying time I needed, coming in at 3:09:44. Knowing that my time might not guarantee me a spot (typically one needs to run 2 to 3 minutes faster to get accepted) and now with a new goal of a sub 3 hour finish, I adjusted my training, started to do more weekly miles than ever before. By this time we moved to San Francisco and I was fortunate enough to find a group of incredibly fast runners who would push my limits week after week. I was a man on a mission. In January of 2016 I was rewarded beyond my expectation as I finished the Houston Marathon in 3:01:57, guaranteeing my entry into the 2016 Boston Marathon with a hefty margin. My sights on a sub 3 hour marathon are not forgotten, but more on that in future post.

So, that’s my road to Boston. Finally I had earned a spot to race with the most talented and dedicated people in our sport. And let’s face it, who doesn’t love to show off the iconic Boston blue and yellow shirt? It’s a badge of honor which earns admiration and respect by serious runners wherever you go.

Yes, I wanted to run Boston, but I never understood what kept people going back year after year; an obsession of sorts.On Patriots Day of 2016, that all changed for me. Lets just say that from the moment I crossed the starting line in Hopkinton to when I reached Boylston Street I was a different person. Not to be overly dramatic but those 26.2 miles transformed me; they have had such a profound impact on me, particularly as a coach. Since the race I have had a few days to reflect, and it goes without saying that the Boston marathon is so much more than just a road race; it’s an experience, a celebration, a gathering place for athletes to showcase the hard work and take a victory lap around an amazing city, on a historic course. It is your opportunity to run next to world class elites, olympians and those who have undergone traumatic events with inspiring stories leading up to this incredible race. You are able to make that one day what you want of it.

For me it started from the moment we boarded the aircraft in San Francisco, you could feel a vibe and enthusiasm in the air. Fellow passengers wearing prior year Boston gear or shirts from their favorite events. It made me realize how small the running community really is as I recognized a few friends in the airport and on the plane. The flight was long and uneventful, but provided a good opportunity to get some reading and for me to jot down some thoughts about a future blog post. Once we arrived in Boston, it was on.

The entire city was energized. Veteran runners showing off their prior year Boston finishers jackets, some even having the years they participated in the race embroidered on the back – impressive stats for sure. Others made a vacation of it, enjoying the city with their families and friends. For race weekend Boston is a gathering place, as friends from all over the world come together. Many of them meeting up to get a final shake-out run days before the race. The city of Boston is prepared and ready for what is to come. Bostonians lay out the red carpet for the race; embracing the fact that for the next few days the marathon will take over their city. Even the Red Sox were in on it,playing a game every day leading to the marathon including on Marathon Monday. To top it off, the game conveniently lets out just in time for fans to spectate the marathon. How cool is that?!

We got to Boston a few days before the race to meet up with friends from Portland, SanIMG_3954 Francisco and Denver. It was a great time to reunite, catch up and chat race day strategy. We also took in the sights of the city and it’s amazing history and architecture. We got up early on Saturday to take care of the packet pick-up and race expo, given that it was my first Boston I felt an obligation to spend more money than I wanted buying Boston gear and the race jacket. Even though the color this year is not my favorite, it has started to grow on me. Getting the expo out of the way early allowed us to just relax and even catch a Sox game at the beautiful and historic Fenway Park. It was truly a highlight of the weekend and a great way to spend quality time with Ian and Lehiwa, who made the trek all the way from Portland, Oregon to spectate this wonderful event. They are amazing friends who have supported me since the moment we met 10 years ago.

Boston AVOK, now on to the race… Unlike many races the Boston Marathon starts later in the day
(10am) however, athletes still need to get up early to catch a 6am bus and take a ride which seems to take about 45 minutes around Boston to the starting line in Hopkinton. Once everyone arives, the waiting game begins… just picture 30,000 athletes waiting around trying to stay hydrated, calm their nerves and making small talk as they get ready for their starting wave gets called over a loudspeaker.

For me, I was lucky to have secured myself a spot on a privately chartered bus. We parked outside the Athletes’ Village,had our own bathrooms (a HUGE perk as we all know how the lines can get before a race) and plenty of room to stretch out and warm-up before the race. Kinda felt like an elite. It was also a good opportunity to chat with my San Francisco training buddies.

My plan was to run the first part of the race with David, a very talented (2:40ish) runner. He was running the race for fun, but having had done the race a few times he understood the importance of holding back and respecting the course. Our plan was to keep on a 7min/mile pace till the Newton Hills, then I would assess how I was feeling, if I felt good I would take off and finish the marathon on negative splits to have a perfect race.

This year was particularly warm with little to no cloud cover and a headwind, not ideal conditions for a runner. As we stood at the starting line and without the need to saying a word one could tell that the weather conditions were on everyone’s mind. With conditions like these athletes start questioning their fitness and have the potential to psychologically sabotage their performance – not the ideal way to start a marathon. We (the SF Crew) were all in Wave 1. Having put in the volume, dropped weight and properly tapered, we were all in sub 3 hour marathon shape and patiently waited for our wave to be called.

At 9:45 we finally heard our call and started the quarter mile walk through town to the starting line. By this time it was around 9:52 and the sun was blazing down on us. We wished everyone luck, reminded each other to take the weather into consideration and adjust goals as needed. Shortly after the national anthem played the gun went off.

 

Boston MarathonOff we go, the start of the race was a bit hectic as many races tend to be. My job was to stick with David, so I did and followed his lead as we cruised downhill holding back as much as we could and staying within our 7min pace. In Boston they have hydration stations at every mile and before I realized we had hit mile 1, David called out the splits took some fluids and warned to hold back the pace. We did the same for the next 6 miles or so, just conserving energy and making sure we stayed within our pace. About this time it felt like it was 100 degrees out. David looked over and mentioned that we might want to reconsider our goal due to the heat. I acknowledge as I grabbed a bottle of water from a volunteer and poured water over my head.

From this point forward I ran with a bottle of water in my hand, handing out water to David and making sure we both stayed hydrated. Around mile 12 was when I started to feel the effects of the heat, even having stayed on top of my hydration, salt intake and fueling; my legs started to feel a bit heavy. This was about the time I started to wonder how the next 14 miles would play out. David being the amazing Domestique kept us on pace. His plan was to stop as soon as he saw his wife at mile 15 and I would run the rest of the race building speed. We reached his wife, he wished me well and I was on my own.

Mile 16 till about mile 21 is what I feel was the hardest part of the Boston Marathon. This is where the Newton hills start. This section of hills comes when your legs are getting heavy and you are getting tired. I did some quick math and quickly realized that I had to pick up the pace to around 6:50min/mile in order to hit my goal time. On a flat course with cooler conditions I could totally make that happen, as I had trained for this several times before. However on this day it was not going to happen. So, I just played it smart and backed off, there was no need to push myself so hard that it would prolong recovery for my next race. It was at this point in the race when I just turned my mindset from racing to just having fun and enjoying the day.

heartbreak_hillRunning without a goal in mind is refreshing. I had planned to see Ashley and our friends around mile 17 and while it was not easy to spot them, their bright Prana Endurance tops and extra cheering did the trick! I stopped for a few seconds for a kiss and took off again. It was great to see them and it really re-energized me when I most needed it. The next few miles were not easy as you enter a few rolling hills and some steep inclines, finally reach mile 20 and the infamous Heartbreak Hill. Compared to the hills in San Francisco, it is not that bad. But when you have 20 miles on your legs, it feel like you are crawling up a never evening mountain. Right at the top of the hill I started getting a muscle spasm on my right leg. Just what I needed for the last 10k.

The next 10k is mostly downhill with a few rolling hills as you start entering Downtown Boston. The first sign that you are close to the finish line is when you spot the famous giant Citgo sign which is about 2 miles away from the finish line. By this point the crowds are about 4 deep on each side of the street and the cheering starts to become deafening as you get closer to the finish. Once you turn on Boylston Street the wall of noise is like nothing I have ever experienced in my life.

Boston MarathonIt is overwhelming to see thousands of people cheering on athletes as they reach the end of their 26.2 mile journey. I could not help but slow myself down to soak it all in, I had seen this finish line so many times from the live television coverage, being actually on the road took on a totally different perspective and feel. I reached the finish line in 3:12. Not my fastest marathon… but by far my most memorable and impactful race.

After the race I was feel surprisingly good having made the decision early on to not push myself was a wise choice. We made it back to the hotel, showered and headed back out the door to the finish line. We wanted to cheer on the last few people finishing the race, it must have been around 5pm and those folks had been running for almost 6 hours. It is one thing to finish a race in 3 hours, but to be out running for 6 takes a lot of dedication and mental toughness. The crowds had died down a little, which allowed us to get to the finish line and welcome the last runners in.

The after race parties in Boston are something not to be missed, most of them are by invitation only. We joined a few and finally met set camp in an Irish bar, where we meet with a lot of our friends from Colorado and San Francisco.. Had a few beers, danced a little and around midnight called it a night while others found a nearby nightclub to continue the party. It was great to see our friend Jay, who conveniently coordinated his birthday to fall on the same day as the marathon. That has to be the best way to celebrate a birthday.

Boston is truly an unforgettable experience for all involved. Whether or not you are able to run a perfect race, set a personal best, or qualify for Boston in Boston… what matters is that you enjoy your experience.

Boston…I will see you next year 🙂

boston-finish-line

The Journey Continues – The North Face Endurance Challenge 50k Recap

I ran 31 miles the other day. OK, 50k if you want to be dramatic about it. Whatever way you put it, it was a fascinating experience. This post is a long one so just sit back and enjoy… as I went to great lengths to get material for this post 🙂

Being my first “Ultra” distance race I was a bit nervous taking a leap into the unknown. Not so much because of the distance as for the multitude of variables an athlete can encounter during 6 hours of running in the trails. Do I have enough fuel? Will it be cold? Am I overdressed? Lets face it, I’m a “tropical” weather kinda guy, I just don’t do well in the cold. So, honestly that was my biggest worry going into this little adventure.

Run

The North Face Endurance Challenge is a series of races which take place in 5 states and Canada. In San Francisco we are fortunate to host the Championship event of the series in the Marin Headlands, about 10 miles from the city. It is a scenic and beautiful but challenging course that puts even the most seasoned athlete to the test. What the terrain lacks in being technically challenging it makes up in elevation. Participants in the 50k take on approximately 6k feet of elevation gain, and those nut cases doing the 50 miler endure over 9k feet. The views up there are amazing.

My plan was to just enjoy the day and experience. Given that the Houston marathon in January is my goal race I couldn’t risk pushing myself too hard. My intent was to use these 31 miles as a training run, no goal in mind – just enjoy the experience and see what this ultra stuff is all about. I was aiming to keep my heart rate under 140 bpm average for the entire race. Doing so would allow me to gain the benefits of a long “easy” run and prevent extended recovery, which I can’t afford given Houston is just a little over a month away.

cove

The Race:
The 50K started at 7am. It was about 45 degrees but thankfully the wind was nice to us. We climbed the first few miles, then around mile 4 descended into the first aid station where I was greeted by my supporting wife. I stopped to say hi and to remove a rock from my shoe (one of many)… then on we went. I would not see her again ‘till mile 25. Not knowing what to expect I was a bit over prepared with a running vest full of fuel and extra socks just in case. After leaving the first aid station we did some more climbing, this time for about 6 miles up to an area aptly named “Cardiac”. Along the way my stomach decided to start acting up and I kept having issues with my shoes causing me to take longer than I wanted at each aid station. I think my stomach issues were due to too much sugar and not enough water. I quickly replaced the electrolyte drink in my bottles with water and took some salt which seems to help settle my stomach.

Departing Cardiac is when the fun began as the trail rapidly descended into a damp, mossy, wooded area which was the highlight of the race for me. A fast technical single track, which felt like a 2 mile descend; the wet ground and lack of sunlight makes this section slippery. One must take extra care, especially as you navigate over and under downed trees. Wrong placement of your foot and you could twist an ankle or find yourself eating dirt. Which is precisely what happened to me as I stepped on a makeshift wooden bridge and slid into a mound of decaying foliage. What a blast!

Moss

I recovered quickly, smiling and enjoying the remainder of this rollercoaster ride. When you reach the bottom you turn right around and you go again. Around mile 20 or so, my legs started to feel fatigued. My stomach had settled down by this point but I kept having a few issues with my shoes. I figured that I just had to deal with the discomfort for a few more miles. Finally, I saw my beautiful wife and our dog at mile 25. Not only did she have an extra pair of shoes, but also a surprise treat of gingerbread waiting for me – delicious! After a quick change of socks and shoes the rest of the run was a lot more enjoyable. Coming out of the aid station we did some more climbing to be greeted by a spectacular view of the ocean and the panoramic landscape of the Marin Headlands. This was about mile 27, the farthest I had ever run. I stopped to admire the views, did a quick self assessment and surprisingly I felt great. My heartrate was getting a little higher at this point, around 150, but that was expected. This was the last major climb, as we descended to the finish I looked at my watch for the first time and wondered if I could make up the time needed to finish in under 6 hours. I tried to pick up the pace a little but honestly my legs were hurting and all I could muster was a 8:30 pace which was not going to cut it. So, I slowed myself down and cruised into the finish line, where I saw my wife smiling and cheering me on as she has done so many times in the past. That is always my favorite moment of every race.

Aside from some minor stomach and shoe issues I had a great race. Finishing with a time of 6:05 (elapsed), running time of 5:42. I was able to keep myself under control by monitoring my heartrate and just playing it smart. I managed to avoid entering the dreaded “Pain Cave” (not a fun place to visit) and going into a dark place as is very common in these endurance events. What helped was not only having trained on the course, but also having put an average of 60 miles a week made for a great base. On the last mile I started thinking about those competing in the 50 mile race. I had just completed 30 miles and the thought of doing 20 more is insane. I have a newfound respect for those athletes. That is a whole other level of crazy which I can’t yet comprehend. Not sure I’m ready to sign up for a 50 mile race just yet… another 50k, yes, absolutely!

Trail races tend to even the playing field for a lot of people and the sense of community is contagious… in the span of a few miles you can get to know a lot about a perfect stranger or help encourage someone who is just having a bad day. It is not about the finishers medal, after party or beer garden; but all about pushing oneself to the limit and welcoming whatever the trail gods have in store for you on that day. I had a great time enjoyed every moment of the race and just took it as it came. Maybe it’s time to sign up for the next one, who’s in?

See you on the trails!

Finishline