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Learning to love the taper

The Victoria half marathon is now only seven days away, which means that I’m well into taper mode. My last few weeks of training have gone well enough. My longest long run was a solid and steady 11-miler back on September 20 (V minus 22 days) followed on 9/30 (V-12) by a very brisk 9-miler.

I have mostly focused my recent training on pacing. I’m feeling very strong (for some odd reason!!) so I’m having to fight the urge to go out too quickly, which always only results in tiring too much in the later miles. To train for my race strategy, I’ve practiced staying steady on pace during the first half and then making each mile in the second half just a little quicker. For the most part I’ve been successful doing that.

Over this past week my focus has turned to rehearsing for race day itself. I confess that now that I’m no longer working, I’ve developed a very casual attitude toward mornings… as in, I don’t do them at all! I’ve never been a morning person, but these days if I’m out of bed before 8:00, that’s early. But the race will start at 7:30!

So for my last two runs, I have set the alarm and made myself get up. On Friday, I had it set for 5:40 and managed to talk myself into getting up at 7:00.

This morning I set the alarm for 5:30 and I was up at 5:40. What an improvement — hurrah!

Unfortunately I can’t simply wake up, go out the door, and run. There is food to consider, and there are morning rituals. My goal for this week’s running has been to duplicate as many aspects of race day as possible.

I know from experience that if I’m up three hours before the start of the race, and if I’ve finished eating two hours before, my stomach will usually allow me to run without too many complaints. I also know from experience that a banana or two along with a slice or two of bread and a cup of coffee will usually work well for me on race day, provided I’ve eaten well (three cheers for pasta!) the night before. So — despite the fact that I really don’t like bananas at all — I’m eating bananas.

The other good thing about bananas is that I can usually find them in Victoria. Running this race means international travel — albeit only 20+ miles across the strait. I’ve learned what foods I can and cannot bring with me into Canada. I’ve never had any problem bringing a few slices of bread, but fruit? Yogurt? I’m not even gonna try. But there’s a little deli restaurant along the way from the ferry dock to the motel, and I’ve never failed to find a bowl of bananas there. They might cost me a dollar or more apiece, but I’m reasonably confident that I’ll find them there.

I plan on running just one more time between now and next Sunday. I’ll set my alarm for 4:30 on Wednesday. I’ll eat a danged banana or two and then I’ll go out and run 4 or 5 easy miles starting at 7:30, just moments after sunrise.

I was thinking about this whole taper thing while I was running this morning. I was thinking about how nice it is that I don’t freak out about it anymore. I no longer talk about “taper terror.” It’s not that I’ve become blase, but simply that I now know what to expect. I know I’m going to be anxious. I expect to gain a pound or two. I’ll have nightmares and butterflies and at some point I’ll become convinced that I’m going to fall apart. Or not. Whatever. On race morning I’ll be an insufferable basket of nerves, but I’ll somehow get myself to the starting line and I’ll run.

I’ve done this. I know how it works. I know I can do it. The nerves and the spreadsheet obsession are simply parts of the process for me.

Within the next week, I’ll pass two life milestones. One is a birthday — my 59th — and the other is the 6th anniversary of the day I first stepped onto my new treadmill and pronounced myself a “runner.” I put those two numbers together and marvel at the fact that I’ve been running for more than 10% of my life. Given that, I guess it’s about time I figured out a few of the tricks of the trade, right?

This morning I took some time after finishing to look around and enjoy the beautiful morning that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.


It was worth getting up for! I could learn to love this.

One step at a time!

There’s a milepost up ahead…

It’s hard for me to believe, but it’s been four weeks since the Victoria marathon. By now the sore muscles are nothing but a distant memory. My left knee and hip are no longer complaining. I really did run a full marathon and live to tell about it!

I haven’t felt much of a sense of urgency around going out to run. I’ve only been out five times in these past four weeks. Mostly I’ve been deliberately slow, but I did challenge myself one time to run a sub-60 minute 10K. I actually set a new PR for that distance — 59:10 — and I was happy to see that I still have some speed after all the months of focusing on mileage rather than pace.

So what’s up ahead for me?

I’m firm in my resolution not to run another full marathon any time soon… at least not until the year that I turn 60 or 65 or 70 or…? That is, not until a year when I’ll be among the youngest in my age group.

I tell myself that this is the fallow time of year, and that it’s the perfect time to back off the weekly miles a bit. But still, a regular 15-20 miles-per-week routine feels about right… and I’ll get back to doing that, soon.

I’m eagerly waiting for registration to open for a local race, the trail half marathon that I want to run in late April. I love the idea of doing an off-pavement race, which I’ve never done before. It’s another guaranteed PR!

I’m planning to run my local half marathon again next June. For this race I’ll set myself a challenging time goal. This slow happy runner is eager to do some speed work!

I bought the official race photos from Victoria, something I haven’t generally done because I never look like I’m running. This time, I really do look like I’m running! My finish line photos show a very determined yet happy runner, just seconds away from achieving something really big, something that I couldn’t have imagined five years ago — something that even six months ago had seemed a foolish and nearly impossible dream.

Big things are indeed possible, with ample preparation and a willingness to take things one step at a time.

Running guru John Bingham once said, “Some of us have to keep crossing those finish lines to remind us that we can.”

With each finish line I cross, I learn more about who I am, what I’m made of, what I’m capable of doing. Each finish line I cross makes the next one both a little more possible and a little more enticing.

There will definitely be more finish lines for me in the future. It’s likely that one of those finish lines will be more than 26 miles away from the starting line. But I can be content to wait a while before I aim for that one. I’ve got so many other places to go!

Every single milepost up ahead is a finish line of sorts, a finish line that is always out there urging me to do and be a little more, a little better, a little happier.

One step at a time.

I am a marathoner. Wait — what? Oh yes, I really AM a marathoner!

I did it!

After all those months of training and planning I actually did it!

I ran the Victoria Marathon this past Sunday. It was my first full marathon and it may be my last, but I did it.

Well, I may do it again sometime, but I’ll do it in a year that my age ends in a 0 or a 5 so I’ll be at the young end of my age group.

Six months ago when I registered, I made a totally wild-ass prediction of my time. I predicted I’d run it in 4:50:00. I ran it in 4:50:21. I’m entirely satisfied with that time!

With an 8:45 AM start, I was up at 4:30. I was a colossal bundle of nerves, but I managed to choke down two pieces of bread, a banana, and a cup of coffee. It was an absolutely perfect day, with hardly a cloud in the sky. Temperature at start time was probably in the high 40s, and it was probably close to 60 when I finished. I was concerned about getting overheated in the full sun, but a light breeze off the water kept it manageable most of the way.

As it was my first marathon, my fundamental goal was to simply finish. I was reasonably confident about that. My “that’ll do” time goal was to break five hours. I figured I’d need a really good day to break 4:50.

I’d pretty much planned to run this race as a large positive split. Having never run more than 21 miles before (and that only once), I figured I’d try to maintain a nice steady pace for as long as possible and then hope I had enough in reserve to keep putting one foot in front of the other until the finish. That’s exactly the way it played out. I ran the first dozen or so miles at a consistent 10:25 to 10:35 pace. I’d estimated I’d hit the 13.1 mile (halfway) mark at 2:18 to 2:20. I hit it at 2:17:55, dead on a 10:30 average pace.

The middle miles of the course (the part I hadn’t seen while running the Victoria half marathon twice before) were a little hillier than I expected or desired, but they were extremely beautiful — wrapping around Oak Bay, through upscale neighborhoods and a golf course. By mile 18 I was starting to get a little tired, but still feeling good.

I took my first walk break at mile 20, and this is where I screwed up a bit and lost some time. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt (with the sleeves pushed up as far as they would go at this point) under a vest. I was getting a bit warm. I couldn’t remove the vest because I needed the pockets and because my race bib was pinned to it. So I tried to wriggle out of the long-sleeved shirt without removing the vest. This resulted in my right elbow being skewed in a full-on strait-jacket position, with no hope of getting my left arm out of the shirt. I struggled for nearly half a mile, then gave up and managed to shimmy my right arm back into its sleeve again. I got straight back to running but the damage had been done. I “ran” that mile in 14:10. Argh!

From the end of the shirt debacle at 20.5 miles, I ran to 22.2 miles. I hit that point at exactly four hours and realized that I could walk the last 4 miles and still finish in under five hours. So I decided that for the remaining miles I could walk a bit here and there, and that a 12:00 pace in the final miles would suit me just fine. My legs were still behaving remarkably well but the soles of my feet were getting extremely sore. The walk breaks felt really good.

I was still well-focused mentally, but from about mile 25 on I would catch myself sort of wanting to dissolve into tears. I was actually going to do this! The spectators were awesome (as they had been along the entire course). There was music and cheerleaders. There was a short downhill just before the final turn onto Belleville Street on the Inner Harbor waterfront, with the Parliament Building and the Empress Hotel ahead and walls of cheering spectators on both sides of the street.

When my watch read 26.0 miles I turned on every last remaining ounce of energy I had. At the finish line my watch read 26.40 miles, but races always seem to run long, so I wasn’t surprised about that. I was surprised that I ran that last 4/10ths of a mile in 4:02 — I managed to sprint the last bit to the finish at a 10:05 pace. On the finish line video I actually look like I am running! My 4:50:21 final time was almost exactly an 11:00 average pace. I’d have beaten my really good day goal by 2 minutes if the finish line had actually been at 26.2 miles.

I’m very proud of my accomplishment. I finished 31st out of 47 in my 55-59 age group. My age-graded time (this is a handicap scoring system which takes age into account — I believe it’s based on a reference age of about 30) of 3:39:10 put me 231st out of the 781 female finishers. What really blows my mind is that out of those 781 female finishers, only 39 (including myself) were my age (58) or older. I’m not a young marathoner — certainly not a young first-timer.

I managed to travel the entire distance without stopping — no pit stops! I took five walk breaks totaling about a mile and a half. As for nutrition, I sipped water generally at every other aid station (and by the end of the race I could actually drink while running without choking or getting water up my nose). I started attempting to eat at about the 10 mile mark. I managed to consume six pretzels and three Shot Bloks between there and the finish. My stomach handled that but could not have taken any more. I never felt that I hit THE WALL and wouldn’t be able to run another step, but from about mile 24 I was less interested in running and mostly focused on the fact that I would soon be done.

I was astonished afterwards that I had sore abdominal muscles — at some point I started using my core muscles to keep going. I had almost literally run the last few miles on guts. I think I’ll add some core strength training to my routine in the future!

As for the rest of me, I have sore leg muscles and tender feet, but my knees feel sound and strong. I’ll probably give myself two weeks off from running and then resume, gently, shorter and slower. Meanwhile I have some autumn hiking and bike riding to do.

I had a fabulous support crew in my friend CFL. He brought his bike and pre-plotted out the places that he’d be able to catch up to me. As it turned out, he was able to ride almost the entire course, on the sidewalk away from the runners. While “pacing” with a bicycle is strictly against the rules, no one complained about his discrete presence at a distance — and I certainly wasn’t focused on him! It was nice, though, to glance over occasionally and see him there. He took quite a few photos. Here I am being very relaxed, focused and cheerful, somewhere around mile 10.

And this is me at about mile 25. Running on guts? Yup.

So after the rest and recovery period, what’s next? A rocky, steep trail half marathon next April. CFL and I will do a metric century (62 mile) bike ride together sometime next year. And, to my astonishment, he was so impressed with the camaraderie that he saw out on the course that he’s thinking about walking a full marathon next year. Me? I think 13.1 miles will be plenty for me for a while. But I’ll always get to say that I AM A MARATHONER.

Who would have thought?

One step at a time!

Five years and almost 2,800 miles ago…

It was five years ago today that I stepped onto my new treadmill for the first time.

The treadmill was sort of a birthday present to myself. It represented a promise to myself to lose the ten pounds I’d gained during my years of graduate school. More important, it was a defiant denial to my physical therapist’s pronouncement that I’d never again walk without pain.

I’d been advised by faculty to set myself a new goal to stave off the possibility of post-PhD depression. So I decided to get back into something resembling physical fitness. But I’ve never been one for small goals, so I set myself a bigger goal than mere fitness: I was going to run a half marathon.

I’ve been a would-be runner since I was a child, but my attention was always so focused on being a good student that I never found time for sports. I admired runners, especially distance runners. I’d watch the Olympic marathons on TV and get choked up with emotion.

When I first moved to Washington eleven years ago I moved into a neighborhood about five miles from downtown. There was this trail — the Olympic Discovery Trail — that skirted my neighborhood. The road into the neighborhood crossed the trail. It was a misty June morning in 2007 when I found myself stopped in traffic at the trail — waiting for a bunch of runners to go by. That was the day I learned there was an annual marathon and half marathon race in my town. I sat there and watched them run by, and I wept.

The next year, in June of 2008, I took a break from dissertation writing for a couple of hours. I walked to the trail and I stood there in the rain watching them run by. That’s when the goal began to form in my mind.

My first day on my new treadmill, I walked six tenths of a mile. It took me fifteen minutes to do it. It took me two and a half weeks to work my way up to two miles. It was more than a month before I ran my first few steps. I did a total of 145 miles on the treadmill over a four month period before I dared to run in the real world for the first time.

My feet hurt too much to wear snugly-fitting running shoes, so I ran in Nike sandals on the treadmill, and in hiking boots on the trail. I’d run nearly 250 miles before I finally got myself properly fitted in a quality pair of running shoes that my feet would accept.

I was   r e a l l y   slow, took a lot of walk breaks, but was starting to feel better and was losing a little weight.

I was on track in my training to run our local half marathon in June 2009, but I didn’t know how to train properly. I tried to do too much too soon and injured both knees two weeks before the race. I could barely walk for a month, and it was two months before I dared to run again…. very slowly.

I finally ran my first half marathon in February 2010. I haven’t stopped running since then. Gradually I got a little faster. Eventually I stopped taking walk breaks.

Five years ago today I had a big goal. But I never dreamed that five years later, I’d be ready to run my first full marathon.

By one of those numerical coincidences that I love, when I cross the finish line on Sunday I will have run exactly 2,800 miles since that first day.

As every runner learns, not all of those miles have been happy ones. I’ve come to accept that my knees will hurt a bit when I start out, but that everything will settle down and I’ll be comfortable by about mile 3. My knees, hips, ankles and feet have all become much stronger and hence more resistant to injury. Overall, running has made me a happier, healthier, stronger, and more resilient person.

Oh yeah, and I’m about 15 pounds lighter. I’d estimate that I’ve lost about 30 pounds of fat and gained 15 pounds of muscle!

When I finished my last pre-race run on Wednesday, I texted my friend:

“Slow, steady, strong, safe, and sound. Success!”

I think I’ll make that my mantra on Sunday.

See you on the other side of the finish line!