Sunday, May 27, 2012

Running Comrades

Back in 2002, I read The Lore of Running by Timothy Noakes, a South African physiologist. The preface of what’s overall a pretty dry book about VO2max and lactate threshold is a lyrical account of the Comrades Marathon, a 56-mile race in South Africa that’s billed as “the ultimate human race.” It seemed, literally, otherworldly. It was this mystical portrait of a formidable test of endurance, commitment and brotherhood. I was smitten. My friend Mark and I talked about doing the Comrades. We’d joke at races about the overblown prose Noakes use. Actually doing the race would periodically come up over the years, as we ran regular marathons and even strayed into ultras with a couple 50ks. For one reason or another, it never happened.

Next Sunday it will happen. Mark’s trained in the heat of Pakistan; I’ve run pretty much everywhere in NYC. It’s funny to think that a decade later we’re going to finally run this thing. I feel as prepared and as healthy as I could hope. I’ve done over 1,000 miles training since the start of the year. I’ve run the marathon distance three times. I ran 50 miles a few weeks ago in a bit over 7.5 hours. I ran over the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges probably 100 times. Perhaps more importantly, I have a running resume over the years that includes almost 25 marathons, three 50ks and the 50-miler. It’s safe to say I’ve prepared.

A lot of people find the idea of running 56 miles in Africa over extremely hilly terrain unfathomable. I get that. It’s not in reality. The thing I’ve learned from training is that anything is truly possible if you set a goal and work diligently to get there. I don’t know what next Sunday will be like. I suspect I’ll suffer quite a bit, even want to quit a couple times. I doubt I will. The main reason is I’ve been there and learned the value of persistence. My recent favorite distance saying is an ultra guy’s advice to think, “It never always gets worse.” The race itself, for me, is a bit of an anti-climax. The real story is in 12 years of preparation, going back to when I first ran a mile around a park in a not great neighborhood I was living in in southeast Washington DC on a sticky summer night. Since then I’ve logged tens of thousands of miles. I’ve failed quite a bit. I was dragged to the hospital twice for IVs. I once comically collapsed 100 yards from the finish of a marathon and was carried across the finish. I’ve hurt my ITB, both Achilles, my plantar fasia. I’ve endured dozens of ice baths, lost toenails, chafed nipples until bleeding and done self-surgery on gross blisters. Long distance running is about chipping away, narrowing down your goal and working bit by bit to get there. That’s for me what the journey’s been.

I can’t wait to stand in the predawn darkness in Pietermaritizburg and hear the Shosholoza and the cock’s crow that will mark the start of the race. Mark and I will then set out on a very long journey that I trust, through some good and tough times, will end in a cricket stadium in Durban. Until then I’ll remember what Noakes himself wrote that once got me so enthralled with doing this thing: “The continual jarring of sharp descents from Inchanga, Botha's Hill and Hillcrest has taken its toll on my quadriceps and every step now sends an ever more painful shock down each thigh.Were the human brain able to recall the pain of Fields Hill, no one would run the down Comrades twice. This then is the point each runner, from the first to the last, must pass if he is to arrive in Durban on his own feet. It is here, stripped of any of society's false privileges, that he finds no hiding place, no shelter of convenience. Face to face with himself he must look deep inside.”

If for some reason you’re up late at night or very early in the morning on June 2-3 (race starts at 11:30pmEST on 6/2 and should end for me nine hours or so later), you can track me on the Comrades site. My race number is 41179.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Persistence is something I admire. It's a trait I admire and want to have. What's great about it is it's equal parts obstinance and hope. That's how I think of running. It's such a long-term thing. In 2003, I was still pretty new to running. I'd been at it for three years and kept improving. I qualified for Boston after doing a 3:02 in Chicago in the fall. I was running so much that I even did a 50k in February of 2003, coming in eight place with a time of about 4:05. I was running 60 miles a week. I felt so ready for Boston and going under three hours. It felt inevitable to me.

It didn't happen. Instead I had the worst day of running in my life. Boston chewed me up and spit me out. Before this year's race, I went back and pieced together my memories of that race. I remember sitting next to a guy from LA on the bus out to Hopkinton. I told him about running under three. I remember realizing I couldn't keep pace with my friend Barney in the early miles. I remember dreading the last 18 miles. I remember seeing people writhe on the ground in pain on Heartbreak Hill. I remember knowing friends were on the left side of the road at Cleveland Circle but going to the right side to avoid them. Finally I remember sitting on a curb after it was over and feeling for the first time really acutely upset by running. I said that day that I'd come back the next year and fix what went wrong.

It didn't happen. I got sidetracked and didn't run that great. Then I ran some mediocre marathons. The years went by. I registered to run one year but got hurt in training and didn't make it. Finally on Monday, seven years later, I went back to Boston, older and heavier but also smarter. My goal was not just to beat the 3:32 I did that day in Boston in 2003 but run the race on my terms. I felt like in 2003 the course ran me. The hills crushed me. This time I didn't flinch when the hills came. One thought kept coming back to me, "This is what I do and why I ran all those miles." I kept powering up them with consistency. I rarely thought about 2003 when I was on the course. The only time I did was at the top of Heartbreak Hill. There was a group of school kids at that op holding signs that said "The end of Heartbreak." I admit, for a moment, I got emotional. It was a moment I realized I'd run a good Boston. I thought back to all that shit from 2003, how physically and emotionally beat up I felt sitting on the curb after the race. The last six miles, while painful, were more of a celebration. I haven't felt that way in many marathons. And so I came away with a great thing: a memory of a certain time on a hill that I won't forget. That kind of thing means more to me than some medal or a number on my watch.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Making Right a Wrong

It is crazy for me to think that on Monday morning, I'll get off the bus at Hopkinton, seven years after I first went to run Boston. At the time, I was coming off a lot of success as a runner. Six months earlier, I ran a 3:02 in Chicago, taking about 20 minutes off my PR. That winter, I got eighth place in a 50k held in Central Park. My thought was under three hours. It didn't happen. Instead, I suffered mightily. This week, I went back and found an email I sent to my friend about the race. Here's what I wrote:
I would have done well -- if I was in the visually impaired category. It was a very, very tough day. I'm not really all that sure what exactly went wrong, but something went wrong. First, it was hot as the dickens, 70 at the start. After running in the cold all winter, I felt like I was in the Sahara. I even grabbed a sponge from some kid on the roadside, only to find it was one of those pre-soaped sponges, so I had toxic materials running down my face and into my mouth. Then, I peeled off to pee in what I thought was a semi-secluded spot at mile 6. I didn't expect a man with a bullhorn to accost me, "PUT THAT THING AWAY!" Basically, the race went smashingly until mile 8, when I started getting leg cramps. I was cruising along at a 6:40 pace at that point. Over the next 18.2 miles, the world came crashing down. Women, the infirm, men in llama costumes all streamed by me. My first half was at 1:32; my second: 2:01. Ouch. It wasn't fun. My only solace is I didn't stop, like the man I saw puking on Heartbreak Hill or the other that was curled up in the fetal position screaming. The finish area did a brisk business in giving out wheelchair rides.
You get the picture. I don't have all the splits from the race. These two tell the story: first 5k: 20:54; last 5k: 30:28. I'm not going to let that happen again. I remember finishing the race and for the only time in running being truly upset. Sitting on a curb, sunburned, incredibly sore and filled with disappointment, I felt sorry for myself. I quickly vowed I'd get my revenge. That day in Boston has remained my greatest regret in running, even more than the trips to the hospital. It's crazy that I get my shot at making it right seven years later.

So I'm ready. I want to find that balance between running smart and not leaving anything in the tank. My main worry is going out too fast. As Bill Rogers said, "You lose your mind in Boston (on the early downhills)." Follow my progress on the Boston Marathon site. My bib is 5081.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Keeping Your Head

Over at DailyMile, there was a comment on a runner's training that made sense. It talked about "keeping your head" at Boston. I've only run the race one time, but this seems to me the biggest challenge. The course is seemingly designed to make you go out way, way too fast, then punish you into submission. That's what happened to me in 2003. It was probably my worst day running, including the two hospitalizations. I knew at mile 10 I was done, steeling myself for 16 miles of getting passed and feeling worse and worse. With the taper fully on, I'm trying to think ahead to the race, how I'm going to run it. Going out easy is a big goal of mine. It's tough because I tend to go out pretty hard and challenge myself, then figure if I die, I die. That approach doesn't work so well with Boston's hills. Time to keep my head.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Boston Training: An Assessment

Boston is just 17 days away. The main training is finished. It's time to assess. Overall I'm pleased with how it went. I didn't get any major Achilles flareups, and I was able to run a fair amount. Did I run enough? Who knows, probably less than I'd prefer. The last few weeks of training were hard with travel. There's not much you can do about that. Here's my assessment:

1. Endurance: B-. Winter is always harder to get in the miles. I started training in January with a great month, 152 miles. I think basically held steady until this past month, when I had a couple big weeks followed by ending with a whimper. I was happy to do most of miles in hilly Central Park. That should prepare me for Boston. If there's any area I'm concerned about, it's endurance. On the plus side, I ran five solid 20 milers. On the minus side, I didn't get in many midweek semi-long runs.

2. Speed: B+. I ran fast during training, probably too fast. If I had to do it over again, I'd be more disciplined about running my easy runs slower and hard runs faster. The way it is, I ran most runs sub 7:30. Three long runs came in at sub 7:15, way too fast. On the flip side, I didn't do nearly enough tempo workouts, and those I did tended to be at 6:40. That's OK.

3. Health: B. As I said, I'm not terribly injured. I have aches, of course. My Achilles is sore right now from doing 7 miles last night at 6:50 pace. I've learned to rest it, use ice and even KT tape. It will be alright. Otherwise, just some odd knee pain and a little hamstring and calf soreness -- nothing that should bother me in Boston.

I guess that leaves the overall grade at a B. That feels right. I'm not in the best of shape, but I'm in pretty good shape. I still think I can running under three hours if I'm able to string together enough quality training without injury. That wasn't my goal this time around. Boston is too hard for that. Originally, I thought sub 3:15 would be my goal. I'm making that sub 3:10, with a stretch goal of 3:05. I don't have a ton to go on since I last ran a race in January, a half marathon I finished in 1:31. That was before most of my training, so I don't put too much stock in it. From prior experience, I know a lot of it comes down to the day. Maybe I'll feel good, maybe I'll be patient the first 10 miles that are downhill, maybe the weather will be great. No matter what, I'm eager to run the course again. I screwed up the last time I went to Boston and got totally humbled. Not this time.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Week in Running

It's go time. This week marks six more until Boston. This is not just the hardest time in training but the most dangerous. It's hardest because I'm now nine weeks into training. That's a lot of accumulated miles -- 337 miles since Jan 1 to be exact. After easing up last week, I returned to "high" mileage. I use quotation marks because a 50-mile week running isn't really high mileage, but it's my limit right now. It's enough to be hard and get me in pretty good shape. That brings me to the dangerous part. With all those miles and hard workouts, my body is at danger of breaking down and succumbing to injury. Training is always like that. I remember back to when I first injured my Achilles. I was running great, really nailing workouts and just finished a 70-mile week. That's when things fell apart. I'm not going to let that happen again. So I'm stepping back a bit this week. My Achilles is achy, and I don't want to push it too much. If that means sacrificing two minutes in Boston, I'm OK with that. I have some travel coming up that will make training hard. This weekend I'll be in Austin for South by Southwest. Then, next weekend, I leave for Paris for five days. I'm looking forward to both trips, although I'm a little worried about getting in miles. I love running in other cities. It's such a wonderful way to see them.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Don't Give Up

My favorite t-shirt reads in simple block letters, "Don't Give Up." It's an ad agency's motto, and I find wisdom in its simplicity. It acknowledges things won't always go the way you want, progress is hard and perseverance is a virtue. I'm drawn to running for those reasons. DailyMile has been a great eye-opener for me to the different struggles other runners face. It's inspiring to see the progress people make. Just check out this collection of before/after photos. I'm often jealous to some degree of the new runners. I remember just discovering running, the feeling like it was a new drug that is life-altering. Improvement comes quickly in those days. It's intoxicating. And then you plateau. This is inevitable. The days of dropping 15 minutes from a marathon PR end. You're left confronting personal limitations. That's when the hard part begins. You need to reorient your goals and outlook, maybe figure out the small things that can make improvements. That's where I've been the last 18 months. Running as a struggle has been something new. It's humbling. What I've noticed, though, is I've begun making improvements again. Going under 3:10 at the Harrisburg Marathon was a nice achievement. It puts me in spitting distance of the three-hour mark. That won't come in Boston, but it could provide a base to make the changes needed, such as joining a running team, that can get me there.

As an aside, I came across a great column in the New York Times recounting the story of Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian resistance fighter during WWII. His story is truly an epic tale of endurance. It's actually beyond endurance, almost reminiscent of all the stuff Pangloss goes through in Candide.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Month in Running

Another month down. 2010 has been a good year so far. I've managed to run quite a bit, finishing this short month with 153 miles running and another four swimming. That's not half bad. More importantly, I feel good with the Boston Marathon seven weeks away. That leaves me with four weeks left of hard training, pretty much all of March. I've done two 20-mile runs so far. I'll do another this weekend, then one more two weeks after that, then finish up with one last 20. Speedwise, I feel like I'm doing OK. Yesterday's hard long run gave me some confidence. At this point, it's just a matter of not overdoing it and resting when I need it.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Week in Running

It was a step-back week for me. The weather was crap and I wasn't feeling great. Little things hurt me, like my hamstring, the ever-present Achilles and a new friend, a sore knee. These kind of dings are to be expected. Training for a marathon is hard work. The body is liable to rebel at some point. What's key, I think, is listening to these signals to ease up. It's easier said than done. I was lucky this week because the weather sucked, giving me an excuse to cut back on mileage. The week ended on a high note when I ran two loops of the park at sub 7 pace. It wasn't too difficult. That kind of hard, fast hilly run gives me confidence for Boston, but also hope that I can figure out a pathway to 3. I've bided my time for a while when it comes to the sub-3 marathon, and I think it's time I figure out how to do a new push. Fitness-wise, I feel great now. I'm only about 152 pounds, and I feel fast when I run. The frustrating part of my quest to run a sub-3 marathon is I know I have the ability and the toughness, but I'm held back by my body not digging the hard work. That's led me to figuring out a balancing act of how much is too much. I think I'm figuring it out. The Boston should be a warm up to giving a serious shot at it this fall, probably in Philly. Is it possible? All I know is if I felt the way I did today, when I did 6:50 miles in the park, I can do it.

The Injury Paradox

The hardest part of being a runner is knowing when to ease off running. The entire activity is geared in the exact opposite direction. It's about denying discomfort, pushing through pain. That can lead to problems. Runners are, as one would expect, rather single-minded when it comes to injuries, which makes them even worse. A Runner's World survey found 2/3 of runners suffered an injury in the past year. That's remarkable. What other voluntary activity can claim such an attrition rate? That means most runners look to avoid injuries like the plague. I'm no different. I've been beset by some problem or other for the past few years. It's frustrating. I've come to the conclusion that the Achilles problem I"ve had for the past 18 months isn't going anywhere. But I've adjusted my training enough to keep major difficulties at bay. At the end of the day, that's what it comes down to, I think, figuring out your weaknesses, working to eliminate them but also simply taking them into consideration. I feel like I've gotten to a place where I can deal with my injuries. I'm ready to start running fast again.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Week in Running

This week marked two months until the Boston Marathon. I wanted to get in a solid week after getting derailed last week. I think I did that. For me, there are three key runs to complete, the rest is gravy. 1) speed: I got in a pretty solid six miles at tempo pace. 2) medium-long run: took care of that with a 10 miler mid-week. 3) long: my highlight of the week with 20 miles at a 7:30 pace, a great run if dangerously close to being too fast. The week's training was rounded out with a nice Vibrams recovery and a 5.75-mile Riverside run at aerobic pace. This leaves me pretty much right on schedule, with two 20-milers already down. My big focus remains recovery. The Achilles isn't too happy, so I need to ease up a bit this week before resuming hard training.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Week in Running

For the most part, it was a week to forget. I came down with some kind of illness on Tuesday that threw me for a loop. Then a friend came to town on Thursday. I'm happy with how the week ended, with a very solid weekend, including a nice long run that was done in tough conditions. At this point, I'm pretty hopeful for Boston.