Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Long & The Short Of It

After last weekend, I'm pleased to announce my IT band and I are no longer on speaking terms.

This is fantastic news. After bitching at me for months and months of training runs and resisting my attempts to tame it with therapy, it finally threw such a temper tantrum that it took me out of the running - literally - at the Illinois Marathon. After a day of legs so stiff I couldn't walk from the car to the front door of the place we stopped for lunch, it went quiet.

After a couple of days, I went for a very easy 4 mile run on Dauphin Island's asphalt trail, just to see if I could. Followed up with lots and lots of walking - on the beach and the streets of New Orleans. No word from the IT band.

I cautiously eased myself back into a regular run routine to see if it had anything to say. Nope.

Against the advice of my sports chiro, I ran the Hospital Hill Half-Marathon (at very easy effort. It was a HOT one!) Still, nothing.

So this weekend, with 14-18 miles on the schedule, I took it for a 17 mile spin at my shiny new long run training pace, just to see if it had any famous last words. Nope. Crickets.

Unfortunately, my GI tract decided to fill the silence - it had all sorts of things to say, and none of it was good. I was in luck that there were 3 bathrooms on the course, instead of the 1 that was marked on the map, because I needed all three of them in a bad, bad way. I'll spare the gory details, but let's just say the subsequent dehydration slowed me down a little and gave me a whole new appreciation for people who die of dysentery. Once I'd emptied my system completely and was sufficiently rehydrated, I was able to salvage the run and picked the pace up for a nice 10:14 average. I consider that permission to proceed from "cautious" to "cautiously optimistic" that the demon has been exorcised and my IT band will scream no more. (Knocking on wood, though, just in case!)

Even with fresh painful memories of an angry IT band, I wasn't too concerned about running 17 miles in the heat. I never have been. I'm a good student of distance running - I know all about conservation of efforts, holding back/settling in/finishing strong, adequately refueling at the aid stations, gauging my effort by my breathing (never over conversation pace!), and running at 9:30, 10, 10:30, and 11+ pace.

What got inside my head and psyched me out was not the prospect of a 17 mile run, it was the prospect of a 2 mile run - a time trial for the speed sessions I'm enrolling in to train myself to be a faster, more efficient, stronger runner.

Confession: I've never run anything shorter than a half-marathon. I limped (shin splints) most of a 4 miler just to get the notch on my belt and the experience of having run a race prior to my first half, and I did an easy-paced 8K a couple weeks after the Kansas City Marathon, but neither left me with much of an impression about what "run all-out for 2 miles" meant...except not to go out so fast that I'd wind up walking - or vomiting - along the way.

It's actually sort of ironic - I have a horrible habit of running down the first mile of a weekday training run like it stole something, instead of warming my muscles up at a lowered, reasonable pace for a mile or two before taking off. It's something I've been trying to train my way out of, but when your runs are the best parts of your day AND the only way you decompress, it's kind of hard not to get started as quickly as possible. So it wasn't really the first mile that scared me - it was the second. Thinking back, I'm not sure I've ever actually run two consecutive hard miles before without SOME kind of stop. 10 seconds, say, for Recon to go to the bathroom, 3 seconds to stretch my hamstrings, fix my hair, get a drink, a traffic light - things so insignificant that the only impression they leave is the tiny dent in the Garmin pace readout, but things that would give me that extra couple of seconds to rest, stretch my muscles, drink, catch my breath, whatever - before I took off again.

Either way, I was going into this with absolutely no expectations whatsoever. Because I'd been so plagued with injuries since I started racing, I knew all about playing it cautious, stopping to walk when it hurts, etc. and had absolutely no idea of what 100% effort feels like for me. I figured with any luck, it'd be something BELOW the lowest mile split of my training runs - 8:45 is the lowest for a mile that wasn't net downhill, I think. (I did an 8:20 last week, but that was with a stop for water in the middle.) But either way, I would have been happy with pretty much anything, as long as I didn't commit either of the above sins - walking, or vomiting. In fact, I'm pretty sure that would have been my first AND last speed session if I vomited. It's weird enough being known as "Brian's friend" by people who don't know me; I'm not sure if I could handle the "speed session vomiter" label.

When I first voiced my concerns, my Boston-qualifying (and speed session veteran) friend Jen reminded me that the time trial is just a jumping-off point from which to improve your times as the speed sessions go on. I tried to remind myself of that as I did a short warmup run with my friend Rachel, who's running her first marathon in September. "Warmup" probably wasn't a good word for what we were doing - it was, in fact, more like a slow wringing out of fluid. The thermostat in my car on the way home read 100 degrees, and the McDonalds billboard on the way to the session read 103. About one-third of the course was in the shade, but of course the breeze was totally cut off on the second third, on the sunny side of the abandoned strip mall. The final third weaved through a couple of medians, then we were back to the start - a 1/2 mile, mostly flat loop. And Brian was recording splits, so there wasn't going to be any hiding how I finished, either.

After warming up (2mi) and then icing down with lots of ice, wet towels, and drinking a few final cups of water, we were off. And yes, it was hot. The first loop was easy - I just let my legs fly like I would in the first mile of a regular training run. The second, I started to try to pick people off here and there, while still keeping an ear on my breathing and effort. I ran the first mile well - my Garmin says 7:47, but the split called was 8:02, so I took that. The third, I backed off a little, and my Garmin data shows it - instead of a pace mostly in the 7s, I ran a pace mostly in the 8s. It's almost like a brain scan - I was thinking, "Do I REALLY want to push this and wind up in a more difficult pace group that's going to kick my ass each and every week?"

For the final loop, I was pretty much out of gas. I started out promisingly with a 7:14 pace but quickly dropped back to 8s and even low 9s when I got in the sun and the breeze died. It wasn't until the finish line was in sight that I started moving my arms to make up for the deficit I was feeling in my legs, not giving a damn about how loudly I was breathing, driven not by time or inspiration or happy thoughts...I just wanted to be effing DONE. My pace jumped up from an 8:21 to a pretty amazing (for me) 5:51 and held there for 30 seconds...and then it was over.

16:18. I did it. My first timed short run, ever. I didn't walk, I didn't vomit, I didn't die. Winner, winner.

The icing on the cake was being told that my NYC Marathon goal - the one having so much doubt cast on it - was probably about 15 minutes...conservative.

"The average finishing time for a female marathoner, believe it or not, is a 4:30. You could probably easily finish in 4:05, 4:10," Eladio said, "or even 4. I'd say 4:15 is very doable."

So, if I can run slightly faster than needed for a 4:15 marathon, I can give myself a little bit of a time cushion. I can drink extra, if needed, at aid stations. I can take a couple of pictures, maybe one with my family. And I can finally stop worrying about getting waylaid by that all-important marathon-goal-time-killing X-factor - my GI tract.

NYC Marathon Goal: 4:15.

...if I can stay healthy, that is.

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