Giving Thanks After a Tough Running Year

When I was a was a twenty-something runner, I figured my knees would be totally shot by the time I reached age 40, and could no longer run. I was wrong on two counts. First, my knees weren’t shot when I turned 40, and now at age 49, I’ve been running a lot since. But while my knees have been mostly fine in my 40’s, it’s my hips that have given me problems. The upshot from thinking long ago I’d be done by age 40 is that every race is now is a gift. That’s still true, even though this year I’ve spent most of the time either battling hip injuries or recovering from them.

It was with this mindset that entered the Applied Materials Silicon Valley Turkey Trot this past Thanksgiving with a slightly bad wheel. My right hip which gave me problems in October’s Healdsburg Wine Country Half-Marathon had recovered some, but was still sore. The goal was just to go out, find a good pace, hold on, stay competitive, and finish strong. I wore a watch to monitor pace, but went in with no time goal. A well run race, getting the most out of your fitness level, is it’s own reward.

Even with a bad hip and reduced expectations, the morning reminded me about everything I still love about racing. The nervous anticipation building up to the start. Being a part of the surge of humanity released by the “Boom!” of the starting pistol. Running in the tightly packed herd, punctuated by foot strikes and heavy breathing, in the early miles. Finding ways to overcome the doubt as fatigue sets in around the halfway point. The battle towards the end and the fight all the way through to the finish line. The post-race comrade of strangers who all just experienced their own personal journeys through the course.  The feeling of accomplishment after giving just about everything I had. All of that happened one more time.

I figure I’ve run well over 350 races over 36 years in my life, and while a lot has changed over that time, a lot has also stayed the same. I’ve never grown tired of it. In fact, as I get older, I appreciate it even more. So this past Thanksgiving was time for giving thanks for a lot of things, and being able to race once again was a big part of that.

Hill running crash course at Quicksilver

Looking up one of the many hills
at Alamaden Quicksilver Park

As I try to find ways to break routine in my running, Sunday I ran the hills of San Jose’s Almaden Quicksilver Park for the first time in over a year.  There is no flat at Quicksilver. You’re either running up a hill or running down one. No two footsteps are the same and your legs are constantly dealing with the force of gravity in all sorts of new directions not normally experienced on flat residential streets. That’s why trail running over terrain like Quicksilver is a great way to develop strength and balance. I also noticed imbalances and slight flaws in my running form over the hills I’ll be working on over the next few weeks to correct.

I’m going to need good hill fitness since I’ve signed up for the Healdsburg Wine Country Half-Marathon this October 29th and the course has a couple good sized hills on it: A tough 140 foot climb to start the first 0.6 miles of the race and a steep, 160 foot climb between the 8.6 and 9.6 mile marks that will probably make or break the race. So you’ll probably see more of me on the Quicksilver trails and doing hill repeats on some of the highway overpasses in and around my hometown of Campbell.
Hills are tough taxing and tedious. They also make you a better runner.

Getting off the mat and into Bay to Breakers

Tortillas litter the ground on the
Bay to Breakers Starting Line

There’s the old sports cliche’, it’s not about getting knocked down, it’s how you get off the mat. I’d say I got off the mat rather slowly and deliberately after shredding my left hip in the Napa Valley Marathon last March. It took nearly four weeks after the marathon before I tried running again, and that just a slow hobble of a lap around a track for a grand total of 1/4 mile.  From there, I slowly, and at times painfully, built up from there to a half mile, then one mile, then two miles, and finally 3-4 miles started feeling pretty manageable. I’m not sure which were tougher: Those 20 miler training runs for the marathon, or those 3 mile runs on a day my left hip could only hold together for about a mile.

I was already signed for Bay to Breakers since last fall, so recovering enough to tackle the mid-May 12 kilometer race was the goal.  Day after day of careful runs and twisting myself into bunch of odd, awkward positions to stretch and strengthen the hip, I finally got to the point of completing 8 mile run with hip holding up pretty well. So was pretty confident I could handle whatever Bay to Breakers could throw at me.

And handle it I did. Bay to Breaker is one big San Francisco-themed mob scene of a race, a flow of humanity from the east side of the city to the western edge of Golden Gate Park. The idea was to just go with that flow. I had a modest goal of finishing under 7:30 per mile pace, a little less modest goal of finishing under 7:15 per mile pace, but basically, I just wanted to put in a strong effort for 7.45 miles. At the top of Hayes Hill, a check of my watch had me at just over 7:30 pace at three miles and I wasn’t feeling so good. Not an encouraging sign, but I just kept working on getting my knees up, found a second wind, and started zipping through the latter downhill miles in sub-7:00 minute pace, finishing in 52:45 with little soreness in my hip the whole way. That’s something like 7:04 per mile pace, faster than I figured to do. I’ll take it.

Next race up, Santa Cruz’s Wharf to Wharf on the fourth Sunday of July. I’ll leave you with a few pictures from Bay to Breakers I snapped with my iPhone.

Tortillas fill the air at the starting line

Star Wars costumes were popular.  Just ahead of me
were a bunch of fast Princes Leia’s

Folks are queued up for the beer lunge

A race well run calls for a beer.

The Milestone Pod : Some good running data to be had from this little gizmo

It just sits there laced into my shoe, dormant and barely noticeable, until a few rapid shocks spring it into action. It’s the Milestone Pod, one of these new wearable fitness gadgets the Milestone folks asked me to try out for review. You don’t need to do a thing to get a good running data from it. That’s exactly the way Milestone CEO Jason Kaplan wants it, who says “We’re trying to create an experience for runners while doing nothing.” It retails for about 25 bucks and doesn’t require the hassle of carrying a smart phone around on your run, making it one of the better running gadget values out there.

Milestone Pod App Interface

Here’s how the pod works. You simply lace it into your shoes, and the pod starts counting any small shocks as foot strikes and when it counts 100 or more foot strikes a minute for six minutes, it figures I’ve started my run and captures those last six minutes of accelerometer data. If my running cadence drops below 100, the pod thinks I must stuck at a traffic light, taking a quick drink, or otherwise stopped running for a spell and doesn’t include that data into the run. Once my cadence falls below 100 strikes a minute for six minutes, the pod considers the run over.

Once all that run data is captured, I upload it wirelessly to my phone using the Milestone Pod app which crunches the numbers and displays various metrics related to running speed and form. The app displays running form metrics including cadence, stride length, how long my foot is in contact with the ground (stance time), rate of impact, and leg swing as a function of running pace. It also calculates the overall distance covered in the run.

I’ve found these results most useful as a reality check on recovery/maintenance runs as well as long runs. The pod tells me a lot about these slower paced runs like how fast I actually went and what my form was like. If I feel ragged the day after a hard workout, the pod usually picks that up by measuring longer stance time and reduced leg swing. There’s a “Runficiency” metric the biomechanical engineers at Milestone cooked up to determine an overall level of running efficiency that seems to do a good job in telling me when I’m having a good day form wise, or when I need to be working on lifting my knee a little higher.

Towards the end of this run, my stance time went
down and my paced quickened

Having an all knowing pod on my foot has caused me to be more conscious about form, and have found myself thinking “Reduce that stance time”  or “Keep your knees up” during a run rather than simply thinking “Run faster”.  Wouldn’t you know, once I get home and download the data, I invariably find that when these form modifications results in running faster with little or no perceptible change in effort. Success!

The pod also generates good results for track workouts or tempo runs where my pace reaches or exceeds race pace, which for me is in the 6:00-7:00 per mile range. Of course for this kind of fast running, you really need real time feedback from a watch, so the pod is more of an additional, “after the fact” tool to see how the workout went. One thing I noticed on these workouts was the pod always calculated a shorter distance than I actually covered at these faster paces. A test with a couple runs at 6:10 / mile pace and 7:00 / mile pace on a track confirmed this.  While the pod’s distance calculations when I ran at 8:00 / mile or slower pace were pretty accurate, at 7:00 / mile pace the pod calculates a distance about 8%  shorter than I actually ran, and at 6:10 / mile pace, it under counts distance by 15%.

I shared these results with Milestone Pod CEO Jason Kaplan, who acknowledged this could be a limitation of the pod.  As he explains, “Out of the box, the Milestone Pod is more accurate at moderate to lower speeds than high speeds. We offer calibration which makes the Pod accurate for runners at any speed. However, because we calculate distance based on footstrike and gait characteristics, if your form changes as you increase of decrease speed, then we may lose some accuracy. For some, the Pod will remain accurate at any speed if their gait characteristics remain relatively stable even thought their speed changes.”

It should be noted my gait is not typical as I run almost exclusively on my toes. At any rate, this wasn’t a deal breaker for me even though many important workouts are run at varying speeds, which the pod won’t measure completely accurately, no matter how I calibrate it. Thus, it will require more interpretation of the data as I look over the graphs to see how my form was during these workouts.

As running gadgets go, I’m a lot like the Amish. I adapt pretty slowly to the latest running technology. Having run for 35 years, running success is mostly about hard work and effort, and you’re not going to get that from any gadget. However, the right tools provide the information to expend that hard work in the right direction. I’m training for the Napa Valley Marathon this coming March and the Milestone Pod will undeniably help me get to the finish line.

Big Sur Half-Marathon at Monterey Bay: Not exactly what I had in mind

My running stuff ready to go Sunday morning

Well, it’s over.  After twelve weeks of work directed towards this race, it came and went in just under and hour and a half.  I could give you a blow by blow of how the race went, but I doubt you’d want to read it, and I can remember too much about it anyway.  I vaguely remember something about going out in 6:15-6:20 per mile pace for the first few mile as planned.  Then, around mile 8 on the rolling hills and fighting the slight breeze off the ocean, I seem to recall slowing to 6:30 pace and then it started getting worse.  I dragged my butt through the last couple miles to finish 1:26:11 which isn’t really that bad a time, since I finished 1:25:57 last year.  But obviously, I would have run a faster time with a slightly slower start and better pacing and

For the past couple years, I been training pretty seriously for a spring half-marathon and then a fall half-marathon and I’m ready for a break.  I’ll still be running, but I’m looking forward to running a few shorter races rather than one big one.

No more big deep thoughts today, I’m still pretty tired.

12 Weeks to the Big Sur Half-Marathon: The Journey Begins

Start of last year’s Big Sur Half-Marathon in Monterey
(Photo from Big Sur Marathon Events

“The will to win is nothing without the will to prepare”

-Juma Ikangaa

This quote from Tanzanian distance running legend Juma Ikangaa seems the ideal way to start a new series on this blog. Twelve weeks from now I’ll be running the Big Sur Half-Marathon in Monterey.  As any runner knows, it takes a lot to prepare for a half- marathon, whatever your ability.  For many of us runners, taking the journey to reach a mountain top of our own making is why we do what we do.

This fall, that journey is to finish the half-marathon in 1:22, a 6:15 per mile pace.    Last year, I ran the Big Sur Half-Marathon in just a tad under 1:26, about 6:32 per mile pace. No question running a 1:22 will be difficult, but after carefully considering some of the runs and races I’ve done this year, it’s doable.  I’d still be pretty happy if I ran 1:23, about 6:25 per mile pace but 1:22 is the target.   Six weeks before the Monterey Half-Marathon, I’ll run the Bridge to Bridge 12k in San Francisco both as a racing tune-up and reality check.

I’m going to start a weekly diary of sorts, posting each week on my running experiences and thoughts leading up the race.  Rather than a tedious tally of each day’s run, I hope to both inject a sense of purpose into the quest, and share with you the people, the places, and the things encountered along the way.  Sometimes, I’ll describe a certain aspect of the training. Other times I’ll introduce you to other runners, either long time training partners or anonymous runners who’ve gained a certain familiarity as they go by in the opposite direction each morning on the trails.  There will be a few random observations about things as they enter my mind. And with some luck, I won’t be writing about any injuries.

The goal is to share my little world within the strange tribe of runners to give other runners added direction, comradery and inspiration while showing non-runners the purpose for doing these crazy things.   Ought to be interesting, should be fun and as always, I never quite know where this will take me.  Hope you join me for the ride.

Nothing to say "Dammit" about

My performance at the Dammit Run called for a celebration beer

I’m standing there five minutes before the start of the Los Gatos Dammit Run and it feels like a high school race.  Maybe that’s because this five mile race starts on a high school track.  Or perhaps it’s because a few high school cross-country teams show up to test their fitness before the season starts.  I don’t see a lot of old guys like myself, just a bunch of eager kids ready to have fun and test themselves over the varied and at times very hilly five mile course.

For me, the race a bit of a test of my summer time fitness to see where I stand going into the fall.  Of course, this race has long been one of my favorites.  I first ran it 13 years ago when I was 50 pounds heavier than I am now and have done it 5-6 times since then.  There’s always a fun atmosphere and the crazy course, which runs over every possible running terrain know to man in the span of just 5 miles makes this race worth coming back for.  Who needs to run on a boring PR courses? 

The gun goes off and we’re off and running a lap around the Los Gatos High School track.  Then we zig-zag our way around the high school grounds before meeting up with the Los Gatos Creek Trail, where the race takes on a cross-country nature as the field churns through the gravel trail.  At this point, I’m just trying to set a decent pace and get comfortable, knowing the challenging part of the race is yet to come.  I come through the first mile in just under 6:00 pace, a little too fast.

Easing off a little, I’m feeling pretty comfortable and just before the steep hill to conclude the second mile.  Turning to the high school kid running next to me, I say “Now the race really starts” as we take on a steep, 50 yard gravel incline.  I pass through mile 2 in 12:40.

Now the fun really begins.  The course runs cross-wise up the Lexington Dam, ascending maybe 150 yards and after a brief 150 yard respite on a paved road, their another 1/4 mile steep uphill before it’s all downhill back to Los Gatos on a roller coaster ride of trails and the streets of Los Gatos.  On that last steep uphill, a whole bunch of high school kids start ganging up on me, either passing or surrounding me in a big pack.  I find a little opening in the pack and get a second wind and push my way past a few.  I complete the third mile in 8:40.

Getting over the last hill, I open the throttle on the rolling down hills, passing a few here and there, putting on the brakes slightly at times to keep my legs underneath me to prevent a full face plant.  I’m working hard and running well, hitting well under 6:00 per mile pace.   Getting to the Los Gatos High School Track and going once around it for the finish  pressing as hard as I can, this high school kid blows right by me.  I just couldn’t find that extra gear to go with him.  Still, I look up and the clock heading to the finish and see 33:00, and get pretty excited.  My “A” goal was to finish in 33:20, my “B” goal in 33:40.  I cross the line in 33:15, a full minute faster than last year.  Mission accomplished!

Not much else to say.  I’m clearly in better shape than a year ago and now starting to focus on the Big Sur Half-Marathon on Monterey Bay.  That race isn’t until November so I’ve got plenty of time to get better, but have to say I’m pretty happy with how I’m running now.

Everyone milling about before the start of the Dammit Run