Tomorrow I’m running the Pittsburgh Marathon. I’ve picked up my bib, laid out my clothes, and packed my gels. I’ve set my nutrition and pacing plans and drove the second half of the course to check out the hills. I’ve checked the weather every thirty minutes and watched the chance of rain shift back and forth (low forties, chance of rain 30% as I write).
I’m proud to be here. A month ago after finishing the All Day 20k at the Carlsbad 5000 I didn’t know if would be able to toe the line. I had missed a month of training after injuring my sacroiliac (SI) joint, and after cranking out my first full week’s worth of training and four 5k’s in a day I felt a lot of pain.
Carefully I came back over the next few weeks, ramping up my mileage and workouts until I could get in two full weeks of high mileage hitting most of the pace targets my coach set. I feel like my fitness level has returned, but I know I missed a segment of training designed to build leg strength for the marathon. If I had chosen to run the half I would feel more than prepared for a PR. But I decided (after discussing with my coach) to keep my plan to run the full.
That was one of the many questions in my head around the 23 mile mark of the 2016 Anthem Richmond Marathon. I had lost the pace group, my legs felt heavy, and I found myself on a very long run that had seemingly lost its meaning. I passed through a water stop, politely declined a beer from the neighborhood cheering section, and tried to regroup as I plodded off down Fauquier Avenue.
Yesterday I had possibly the worst run of my life.
I drove to a park an hour away believing I would run a trail half-marathon only to discover that the race was the day before. My training schedule called for a long run, though, and I figured it was worth exploring a new location so I headed out.
The trails were complicated and designed more for mountain bikes than hiking/running. Some were well-marked but most weren’t. I had to run with a bad PDF map on my iPhone, constantly stopping to check my location. I was stressed and nervous, and felt a sharp pain develop in my lower back as I ran. I thought I could work through it.
Runner’s World promoted a running streak challenge this summer, asking participants to complete a running streak from Memorial Day through July Fourth. I brought the idea up to Andrea, and she thought it sounded fun. To have a running streak, you have to run at least one mile every day on consecutive days for a set period of time. If you make it to a year, you can register your streak with the US Running Streak Association.
We weren’t interested in going that far, but were willing to give it a try. Since this was a family affair, Andrea agreed to share some of her thoughts about this experience alongside mine.
As I planned my race calendar for the year, I wanted to be sure to include a number of holiday races. Racing has become one of the ways we celebrate, but I wondered if there was any difference or how these fit in with the celebration on the holidays. First up on the calendar was the Fourth of July and the Four on the Fourth race in Carrboro.
Fourth of July Races
Running USA reported that nearly 300,000 runners participated in 485 races on the Fourth of July in 2015. It’s an impressive number, though way behind participation in Thanksgiving and Halloween races. Not surprising given the fact that it occurs in the heat of summer.
I have fond memories of running races on the Fourth of July. When I was about eight, I ran my first race in the one mile fun run at Freedom Fest in downtown Shelby, North Carolina. I didn’t train for it or have any experience running (other than the 360-yard run/walk as a part of the presidential fitness test in elementary school). I think the only reason we did it was because my dad wanted to run the race and the only way it would work was if my brother and I ran as well. I remember little about the race, except the feeling of pride I had after crossing the finish.
In college, the only race I ran was the Peach Tree Road Race in Atlanta when I happened to be in town for the Fourth and the people I visited had a system to get extra bibs by volunteering pre-race. That was my first 10k, and I remember feeling great about completing a longer run than I ever had before.
While the Fourth of July is a major holiday, the individual celebrations tend to blur together for me. I can remember experiencing fireworks or a cookout, but can’t tell you when they occurred. I will remember the two Fourths (so far) when I ran races, though.
Four on the Fourth
This year my in-laws were in town for the Fourth of July, so Andrea and I looked for a race we could run together without the kids. We settled on the Cardinal Track Club’s Four on the Fourth race in Carrboro.
This is a simple race: no t-shirts (though we did get a nice bottle opener keychain), no finisher’s medals. The course starts and ends at McDougle Middle School and winds for four miles through the surrounding neighborhoods towards downtown Carrboro. There isn’t anything particularly special about the scenery, though Andrea and I lived in this area after college so it held some nostalgic value for us. The course is mostly flat, with a few gentle hills to break things up.
It rained lightly as we waited for the start, cooling things off. At the front of the crowd, the elite runners did their strides out and back. A woman behind me talked about how the neighborhood swim team stressed her out (preach it sister). Some people wore America themed outfits, but not as many as I expected. It was a comfortable crowd, and made it easy to relax.
We counted down to the start and headed out. The pack quickly thinned, and I settled into a pace making the turn into the neighborhoods. This was a quiet race. Few cars passed by; only pockets of spectators were out to cheer. As most of the course was in bike lanes we ran more in a line than in groups for miles two and three.
In the third mile we turned back into the neighborhoods near McDougle, and I ran more in a group. I passed some people and had others go by me. I felt good about my pace and tried to keep it up. Being steady let me play rabbit for some high school cross country runners, I think; we passed a coach yelling encouragement to them to pass me and catch their teammates ahead (I held off most of them, though).
The fourth mile finishes on the track at McDougle, which I like. It lets you see who is ahead, by how much, and whether they have a kick or not. If you have anything left it’s easier to break it into 100m chunks and make a final push. I had a good race to the line with another guy, and felt good about the effort. Afterwards, I grabbed a couple of watermelon slices (popsicles and watermelon slices are two of the best things about summer races) and headed over to wait for Andrea at the entrance to the track. I cheered for other runners as they came through, and then walked over to meet Andrea at the finish line.
Taking it All In
We hung around for a few minutes and then headed up the stairs to the parking lot, turning back to survey the scene. People talking, kids playing in the sprinklers in action on the football field, and the final runners working around the track to their finish. It felt warm.
On the way to breakfast we checked in our goals. I wanted to keep a pace at or below seven minutes a mile, and I wanted to hold a consistent pace through the race. I accomplished both and felt good about how my race had gone. Andrea wanted to finish in under forty minutes. She came in well under her goal time. We had a good discussion afterwards about whether or not she could have run faster. We enjoyed the time together without the kids and this bridge in our holiday between the fireworks the night before and the cook-out later that afternoon.
We could have done a lot of things that morning, but it was nice to be out in the community with others doing something fun and positive in a laid back atmosphere. I don’t know that running has any special significance on a holiday like the Fourth, except that it is a time we set aside to come together as family, friends, and community and running gives us a chance to share and celebrate something we enjoy together. The simplicity of this race heightened this feeling, and was nice. We weren’t there for the swag or the medals. We were there for the run.
For more of a logistics take, check out the review.
As I have gotten back into running in the past year, I was curious how 39 year old me would stack up to 18 year old me, but the only comparable distance for that would be the mile. Luckily, two recent races gave me the chance to see.
Memories on the Track
I run longer distances now than when I was younger. In high school, I preferred mid-distance races and ran the 1600 (mile) and the 800 (1/2 mile). I was never that fast in either, but I took both seriously and was good enough to be able to contribute points to the track team.
After graduation I left both distances behind. I might occasionally push myself on a run to see what my split would be, but the result usually served best to show me how much older and slower I was. 18 year old me always seemed to be in the background waving his 5:07 PR in my face and telling me I didn’t belong anymore.
I don’t know that I really quit feeling this way until the past year. Pushing myself to run halfs and then my first full marathon, I accomplished something 18 year-old me never thought I would and carved out a new identity as a runner.
In most ways I feel like a stronger runner today than when I was in high school. I have more knowledge about training, more tools to assist me, and a stronger work ethic. The more confidence I gained while running longer distances, the more I wanted to know how I stacked up to younger me. I wanted to see how much slower I really had become. The only way to test this was through racing a mile. As I started laying out my race calendar for the year, I put two races early on the board that would let me see how far I had come.
The Raleigh RunDown Downhill Mile
The Sir Walter Team team set the 2o16 Raleigh RunDown Downhill Mile took place on June 17th. I had never run an all downhill race before and thought this sounded like fun.
What Am I Doing Here?
The course runs along a section of Centennial Parkway in Raleigh near the State Farmers’ Market. It’s wide, has only a few gentle curves, and features a total elevation drop of around 130 feet giving it the feel of a soap box derby course for runners.
I told Andrea that I thought I would probably be mid-late pack, and didn’t want to embarrass myself. She was very reassuring until we parked and started walking over to the start. The other runners walking with us were lean and fit, like the group in the middle of the start line for a 5k. She looked over and said something like “Yeah, these people are serious.”
As I walked up the hill to the start, I worried I didn’t belong and that I would embarrass myself. I knew this was likely to be a smaller, faster crowd than I was used to running against. Watching the women bolt off the line for their heat didn’t help. I was not used to that much speed at the start of a race, either because it didn’t make sense for the distance or because I couldn’t see it from my position in the pack.
Soon it was time for the mens’ competitive heat. I sized myself up against the other runners and settled on lining up in the third row to be clear of the fastest runners. We waited for the clock at the finish to reset from the women’s heat. My mouth was dry from the nerves growing larger every minute.
Blazing Down the Hill
After a false start, we were off. The lead group separated quickly and the pack started to thin out along the road. I went out faster than expected, so I worked to find open space and settle into a pace that felt right. I pushed myself hard, but felt good about how I was doing. Soon we passed a guy on the side of the road calling out times, and I wondered if that was the 1/4 mile point. It couldn’t be, could it?
I kept on my pace, and came to the Salming flags I knew marked the 1/2 mile of the race. Really? I still felt good. My lungs and legs burned a little, but my body felt relaxed and gravity helped me along. I started to pass a few people and before I knew it saw another guy calling times from the side of the road. I knew he was the 3/4 mark and felt a sense of euphoria. Usually the section of the mile between the 1/2 and 3/4 marks were the worst for me; you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you feel the weight of how hard your body is working. On a flat track, it’s the symbolic “uphill”.
Here, though, I had passed it without noticing. The turnover in my legs increased. I could see the finishing arch in the distance, and as it grew larger I moved faster. I could feel the distance evaporating and felt energized, passing some people and watching others push ahead in their kicks. I saw 5:09 on the clock and reached across the line for a time of 5:13.
Modern-era Personal Best
Andrea told me I looked pained coming across the finish, but I was smiling on the inside. I had secretly hoped I could run around 5:10, but thought a more realistic stretch goal would be around 5:40-45 and wouldn’t have been surprised if I ran a little over the 6 minute mark.
I congratulated the people I ran to the finish with, then turned to find Andrea and clap for the people coming down the hill. This race was a joy to run. It gave me the feeling I had when I was a child and ran just for fun, fast and without abandon. Even Andrea, who doesn’t normally race for speed, left wondering what she could have done in the race and thought about it for next year.
I had a mark I could hold up to 18 year-old me and give the “I’ve still got it” smile. At the same time, 18 year-old me probably would have muttered something under his breath about the race being downhill and that it didn’t count (things my seven year old son actually said the next day). In my heart, I felt he had a point. Gravity and the course provided a boost to my time, and the only way to really measure myself was to head back to the track.
My Imperfect Mile: the 6/21 Pop-Up Miles
Luckily, the Sir Walter Miler guys also hold a series of Pop-up Miles every Tuesday in June. Organizers disclose the location the weekend before, and you show up at the track to race. No medals or t-shirts. It’s a smaller crowd, most of whom ran a mile in the low 5’s or 4’s. I recognized some faces from the RunDown.
Psyching Myself Out, Again
I knew it would be tougher than the downhill mile, physically and psychologically. Most people don’t like running on a track, much less racing on it. The course doesn’t change. There is no point where it gets easier. You know how far you have left at any given point. You know where the wind will smack you in the face.
Aside from that, a race on the track leaves no place to blend in or hide. There are only a handful of people racing at one time, and what spectators there are can see everything unfold. It is immediately apparent when you chip away at a lead or start to fall apart.
Most races on a track are shorter and give you less time to recover from an early mistake. If something goes wrong with your race plan in a 5k or a marathon, you may not have a good day but you have time to adjust your expectations and recover. With the mile, you don’t. By the time you collect yourself the race is over.
Still, because of all these things there is something awesome about racing a mile on a track. There’s a symmetry in four laps that isn’t too monotonous and allows you to track your splits. Likewise, the course doesn’t change much from place to place or over time; 18 year old me may have balked at my downhill mile time, but he would have to respect whatever I ran on the track.
For So Few People, This Seems Crowded
The organizers provide two heats: an “Over 5:30” and an “Under 5:30”. I opted to run in the “Over 5:30” heat. I lined up in the “Over” heat, figuring that was probably the right place for me. I lined up on the starting line at the end of the front stretch with 12 other runners, men and women of all ages (I can’t remember the last time I was in a field that small).
I planned to start fast, tuck in with the lead group, let them set the pace, and then make a move towards the end of the race. At the end of the first turn, though, I found myself boxed in. I watched two runners peel off at the front and start to distance themselves from the pack. I didn’t like the pace, and thought I could do a little better so I made the decision to try and break. This meant slowing down, finding a path to the outside, and then trying to accelerate towards the front of the pack. I ran out of room on the back straight and had to tuck back into the pack. I wasted a lot of energy in the process and now have a greater appreciation for those who can run a “patient” race.
In the next lap I exchanged places with one person and saw another move ahead of both of us and add some distance. I worked harder than I had the Friday before. I felt a twinge in my quad that grew harder to ignore with every step. The heat and humidity weighed on me, and the wind gusted at times in both stretches. My lungs and legs burned.
The third lap was what I expected. The distance was no different from the Friday before, but it felt longer, slower. I struggled to keep my pace and battled my fatigue and anxiety through the lap.
Into the final lap the faster runners waiting for their heat offered encouragement. “Get those knees up”. “Keep going”. “One more”. I started my kick midway through the back stretch, closing on one runner that had passed me earlier, pulling even with her at the end of the turn and pushing as hard as I could to the finish.
I barely heard the footsteps from behind as a guy in a red shirt bolted past with a strong kick, and all I could do was laugh. I may have had another gear but didn’t know how to find it that night, and even if I had I don’t think I could have accelerated enough to catch him.
I crossed the line in 5:40, almost thirty seconds slower than what I had run the Friday before. It felt good, though. I hadn’t run that fast since high school, and though it wasn’t close to my best I think 18 year-old me would have at least respected it.
I stayed to watch the “Under 5:30” heat and then ran the “bonus” 800m race after. I then hobbled to my car with an apparent muscle strain and went to my kids’ swim meet.
A Lesson Learned
Sometimes when we push ourselves to run longer and longer distances, we can forget how much fun the shorter ones can be. I appreciated the chance to test a different aspect of my running, and for these events in particular I like the smaller crowds and closer connection to top runners, even though I’m not in their league. With longer races they finish so much earlier and everything gets lost in the crowds.
I am not as fast as I was in high school but I haven’t lost as much speed as I thought, either. More importantly, I get that it really doesn’t matter. I’m a different runner today than 18 year-old me. I don’t need to compete with my past and the less I do that the happier as a runner I will be.
The first Wednesday in June is Global Running Day. I didn’t know it was a thing until this year, and when I first saw it pop up in my Twitter feed I had my doubts that it mattered.
Since I am in the mode of saying “yes” to running experiences, though, I thought I would try to make something of it. When Andrea brought up the fact that the next day was Global Running Day, I saw an opening and we decided to take the kids on a one mile run the following morning.
I woke up early and went for my usual run, except in the humidity of the early June morning I felt terrible. My splits got longer and longer and my energy waned towards the end of the run. When I got home Andrea was ready to go and rolled our kids out of bed.
Our youngest child is always up for a run, meaning that he will happily ride in the stroller. The older kids (7 and 6 respectively) were nonplussed. They were groggy and both really wanted breakfast instead, especially when faced with the injustice of their younger brother happily eating a cereal bar. Our oldest son rolled around on the floor groaning. Our daughter decided to bring the drama. When we told Howler he was the coach for the run, Cottontail claimed to be the second coach, sending her little brother into a meltdown of tears and screams. Over the din of “I’m the coaaacccchh”, my wife and I exchanged glances that said we both questioned whether the family run would happen.
We got everyone out the door, though, and did a simple mile run/walk around the lake in our neighborhood. No pressure on anybody, just running. We stopped to look at a turtle in the path. Our oldest son could have run longer or faster, but he stopped several times to wait and encourage his mother and sister (Andrea was trying to pull Cottontail along). This was my slowest mile of the day, but it was also the best. Despite how we felt when we talked out the door, we all had smiles on our face when we returned.
The next morning I was about to leave for a short run. The “coach” was happy to go along in the stroller, but my oldest son also wanted to go, pushing himself a little farther to run/walk two miles. I didn’t ask or plead. I don’t know if he always will want to or be able to come along, but I really enjoyed sharing the course with him the past two days.
Next year, I think we will probably circle the date on the calendar and plan something a little more. No matter what I thought before, any excuse to bring us or others together running is a good one.
Our youngest son, Howler (I’m choosing to use pseudonyms for my kids), is two and in the past few months has started stringing sentences together. He is also the child that is most enthusiastic about sports. Last weekend, for example, he asked for golf instead of cartoons when we flipped through channels.
When I was training for my first marathon, he expressed the most interest of the three kids. When I would fall across the threshold after a long run (at least once literally), he would often barrel across the floor to greet me, stopping a few feet away to ask:
“You running marathon?”
When I said “no” he came back with a follow-up:
“You running miles, daddy?”
I’d say “yes” and then he would run back across the room to pretend to be a dinosaur, or he’d laugh and try to bounce on my stomach during my post-run stretches. It was something his mother and I laughed about, but like everything at this age, moments pass quickly. He’s already shortened his question to “you went running?” when we return from a run and now uses “mom” and “dad” (it seems too early for that) when talking to us.
When I thought about what I would want to call this blog, the phrase immediately appeared on the list of options and was the only one my wife and I both liked. It’s one of my favorite memories from marathon training and embodies a spirit of running as something shared by family and friends. We won’t necessarily run the same races (or at the same pace or even run at all), but we can always ask each other if we are running miles, share a conversation, and then run off to pretend to be dinosaurs.
That was the assessment from the orthopedist injecting my knee with cortisone, which I needed because I was in a lot of pain and couldn’t bend my leg. I had pulled up with knee pain in a three mile run the previous day and after feeling my leg lock up on me I was pretty sure that would be the end of my time as a runner. So when he told me I was essentially fine and just needed some strength training, I was shocked and highly dubious.
A year and a half later, I ran my first marathon.
I had always identified as a runner, but only for mid-distances that I did not excel in. I ran in high school (four seasons of outdoor track, one season of Cross Country) focusing on mid-distance races like the 1600m and 800m, but was not good enough to get any interest from a college program.
Like any other high school athlete, I thought that was it. It was time to hang up my flats and just try to crank out three miles every now and again to keep myself in shape. There were no more track meets for me, and if I couldn’t be competitive in longer distances I wasn’t sure why I should run road races.
Aside from that, I experienced a few injuries during college that made me think I needed to scale back my running if I wanted to preserve the health of my knees and ankles. I still loved running, and every so often I would wonder if I could go back to it beyond a single run or two on a weekend, but then my knee or a tendon would throb and it seemed to me that I was destined for limited use (there was also the blow my pride took in the one 5k I ran where a nine year old kid out-kicked me, but that’s another story).
So when I encountered knee pain like I never had before in the late summer of 2014, I figured the years of running had caught up to me at last. I was primed for it. But it wasn’t the case, and I am thankful for it.
A few months later, my wife (who had only taken up running after the birth of our second child) decided to run a half-marathon. I was proud of her and wanted to see her accomplish her goal (which she did last fall), but it also challenged some of my assumptions about running. Between the two of us I had always self-identified as a runner, but I was also the one placing an arbitrary 3-5 mile cap on what I would ever be able to do. If she could do it, why couldn’t I? I had no illusions of winning races anymore, but I did love running and missed challenging myself.
So over the course of the next few months I added mileage to my weekly runs, did more strength training to help prevent injury, and managed to finish a half-marathon in June of 2015. I followed it up with another in November of 2015, and then decided to tackle a marathon this past spring.
Along the way I also started to read through issues of Runner’s World, checked out sites with running and racing news, and picked up a copy of Born to Run. I talked about running with my wife, neighbors, and people at work, and found that running had a community I didn’t experience in high school where (like my most of my interests) only a handful of people my age enjoyed distance running. Being a loner, I didn’t always find it easy to engage with others about running but I enjoyed it when I did. I felt like I had been missing something and was amazed at the diversity of running information and experiences that were out there. I wanted to learn more about them.
So on the way to dinner one night last month my wife asked me what was next. We both knew I was going to run another marathon, despite my protests. But as I am well on my way to turning forty, she asked about running forty races for my fortieth birthday. The idea intrigued us both, but when I tried to map it out it just didn’t seem feasible (we have three kids and both work).
What did seem feasible, though, was to try to fit in as many race experiences as possible in a calendar year. There are so many types of races now that appeal to different people. My kids are young enough that I can get away with some of the stupid ones (cough, beer mile, cough) with limited explanation, and we are not so overrun by activities that it would be an extraordinary burden. They are also old enough that they can start to run with me, and I could share a lot of these experiences with them and my wife.
So that’s what I am going to do (with the support of my wonderful wife). I’m shooting for 26-30 events in the coming year, trying to cover a variety of running experiences. I don’t know if they will always be interesting, but I look forward to sharing them.