Handful of Health

How Not to Train for a Marathon

The Big Sur International Marathon has come and gone, and I remain a 26.2 virgin. Nobody ever said “first time’s a charm,” so I’m taking the past six months as a learning experience.

The Theory

I can’t be too upset, because I didn’t follow a standard marathon training plan. Back in December, I recalled how cross-training maintained my ability to run 10K early in 2010. All I knew is that I wanted to include cross-training, but I had a really hectic schedule. Since the long run rules as arguably the most important aspect of a distance training program, I thought that perhaps one long run a week plus four days of cross-training would work. My chosen method of cross-training was martial arts, which is quite different from the bootcamp-style cross training that helped my 10K last year. For my long runs, I went by time rather than distance, pulled from a training program I downloaded on my iPhone.

The Practice

Surprisingly, my plan worked well through the half-marathon distance. Combined with awesome home-cooked meals and plenty of sleep, my running was going great. In February, I accomplished a training PR: 3 miles at a sub-10-minute-mile pace!

That was an epic run. I never thought I’d average a single-digit pace in my running career. I was hopeful that this meant my training would go well all the way through race day.

Things Fall Apart

The problem with running once a week is that your one run becomes incredibly important. You can’t skip it due to weather or scheduling surprises. And that the less time you spend pounding the pavement, the less conditioned your feet are for long distances. By the time my long runs ramped up to 13-15 miles, I started having foot problems. Specifically, blisters all over the balls of both feet and the outsides of my big toes. Missing a long run due to some crazy work deadlines didn’t help.

In April, a month out from marathon day, my longest run was 15 miles and I had one particular blister that prevented me from running more than 2 miles at a time. My hopes for a successful marathon began to dwindle. I experimented with taping my feet and did it wrong, causing an even worse blister that was so pernicious that I strained the pinky-toe side of the same foot from favoring the blistered area.

This is also when I picked up an awesome book called Fixing Your Feet. Unfortunately, the book agreed that it was probably too late. I could tape to prevent blisters, but the fact was that although I hadn’t under-trained, I had not properly conditioned my feet. The good news is that I finally learned how to properly tape my feet, which allowed that darn blister to start healing, which started to ease the strain on the outside of my foot.

What really happened on race day?

Well, I certainly didn’t drop out of the marathon completely! What I did do was transfer my registration from the 26.2 to a 10.6 event, which I walked with my “sponsor” (my boyfriend’s mom) and two friends.

Honestly, the weekend was super awesome, which made it hard to be depressed about my marathon fail. We hung out in Carmel, had our morning coffee on the beach and spent a fun night with friends. And the race expo was incredible! I got to see Bart Yasso’s “world-famous PowerPoint,” with pictures and stories from a lot of the events he describes in his book (which I loved). He is incredibly inspiring! And it was fun to introduce my boyfriend’s mom to some of the run-geekery described by Yasso. And, of course, the expo retailers were fantastic. I’m looking forward to giving the ladies a review of Sweaty Bands, because — just like their tagline says — “OMG, they don’t slip!”

I am glad I only walked. My foot was sore by the 2-mile mark, and at the end, they ached as much as if I had run the 10.6. Great views, epic on-course entertainment and good company made it fly by.

Future Goals

I had almost as much fun watching the marathon runners pass us walkers towards the finish, and cheering them on, as I did participating in the walking event, so I left the weekend as stoked to run a marathon as I was six months ago. I’m definitely aiming for a marathon in 2012. However, I’m going to do it differently this time by adding at least two midweek runs to my once-a-week long run and cross-training. I’m also going to use an ultra (longer than 26.2-mile) training plan, since most training plans don’t have you running the full distance before race day, which never fails to stress me out.

For a half marathon I have coming up in September, I’m currently using the Run Coach Pro iPhone app “couch to marathon” program. I really like it so far. And I think that the half marathon is quickly becoming my favorite distance. However, I really, really want to run at least one marathon in my life! Hopefully, that will be the Big Sur 2012.

Have you ever had to drop out of an event?
How did it affect your training?

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Running in the Cold

I think I’ve finally hit on a combo I like for running in dry, not too windy conditions between 20-40 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a mix of stuff I’ve had in my closet (fleece tops from Christmases past, a summer running tank, a spring/fall running long sleeve) and a couple extras I had to get for colder conditions (breathable gloves, something to cover my ears).

Base layer: My favorite running bra; a long, sweat-wicking tank top; sweat-wicking running tights; Balaga socks; running shoes with enough tread to handle patches of snow.

A little extra warmth layer: A wicking, long-sleeved running shirt (preferably with thumb holes to keep the sleeves down over my wrists); baggy athletic pants (you know, the generic kind with the three stripes down the side).

Toasting toppings layer: A lightweight, long-sleeved fleece with a collar.

Warm accessories: Gloves that keep my hands warm but don’t get soggy with sweat (I got the Under Armour variety from Scheel’s on Saturday); a baseball-style running hat; a headband with a fleecy interior to cover my ears that still fits over my hat. A beanie with a brim could probably substitute for the hat plus ear warmers.

Gadgetry: An iFitness belt so I can easily carry my phone — which has pretty much replaced my Garmin thanks to the RunKeeper Pro app — and some chapstick.

If I got overheated in any of that stuff, it would have been pretty easy to peel off one layer at a time and tie it around my waist. I get cold easier than I overheat, so on my long run on Sunday I felt fine the whole time in that get-up, especially considering that all my technical base layers wicked the sweat away before it could make my clothes soggy and cold. It was in the low 30s.

If you do overheat, and you do loops, you could always drop each layer off at your point of origin (e.g. your car, your house) and it will be waiting there for you when you’re finished with all your laps.

If it was colder, windier, or wetter, I’d probably want to get a full-on balaclava (you know, like what bank robbers wear — keeps your face from going numb) and some wind- and water-proof pants and jacket, and substitute the the baggy athletic pants with a heavy pair of sweats that are nice and fleecy inside. You can also find warmer base layers than tights and a tank top if it routinely drops below 20 degrees where you live.

Of course, there’s always the treadmill! All you need are shorts and a t-shirt all year long. :)

Stay warm, friends!

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Eye of the Tiger

I spent two hours last night tearing through every bit of pack-rat nonsense I’ve hung onto since grade school. I found everything from my middle school BFF’s only squeaky-clean discipline card to my award-winning 4th grade short story about a poet and a dragon.

Why did I submit myself to dust, belly button lint and mouse droppings for two hours?

To find my inner tiger!

My senior year of high school, I decided that I wanted to get fit, learn some self defense and have a little fun. I joined what was then called Tiger Kung-Fu Academy (now Zai Martial Arts Academy). It was a huge part of my life until I started college the next year. I joined a leadership program that involved advanced classes, assisting instructors in beginner classes, and even teaching after-school programs for elementary school kids.

Kids are so awesome. I mean seriously, check out the horse stance on that kung-fu bunny rabbit!

I also did Chinese Lion Dancing (mostly the cymbals, but sometimes I got to be the lion’s butt) and weapons demos, such as the Golden Dragon Fan form.

I'm the only girl in the lineup. If you still can't tell -- I'm to the right of the drummer ;)

Yeah, that’s 18-year-old me in 2001. That was me ten years ago.

I’ve missed martial arts, so I decided to sign back up. It’s part of my quest for mastery, which is the same reason I’m training for a marathon. In a few years, I’m going to be 30, and I want to stick with something long enough to get really good at it. My brother used to say, “If I had spent half the time I wasted on World of Warcraft doing something productive, I could have a black belt by now.” (I think he’s redeemed himself, by the way — he’s a pretty kick-ass sheriff’s deputy with a beautiful family.)

Besides, who can argue with functional fitness — strength, flexibility and self defense?

I walked in today as they were starting their Little Tigers kids’ class, intending to sign my ass up for a white sash, start over from scratch.

“So, have you done martial arts before?” the instructor at the counter asked.

“Actually, I used to be a student here. Like, ten years ago.”

“Oh really? That’s pretty neat. What rank were you?”

“I think I had just started my purple sash*.” (Actually, I was about halfway through it — that’s why I had to dig through all my crap yesterday, I couldn’t remember for sure what rank I was!)

*Purple is like 3/8ths of the way to black, so it’s not terribly advanced or anything. In the words of the instructor at the counter, “That’s when you’re starting to think you know something about kung fu!”

I didn’t feel very purple at the time. I stuttered, and my hands were cold, and I was anxious about whether any of these guys were instructors 10 years ago and if they’d be offended if I didn’t remember their names. I couldn’t even remember what the first basic form was called, let alone how to do it.

It’s Ng Lun Ma, by the way. This is the feet-only version:

Anyway, an awkward chat with Sifu (sifu is to Chinese martial arts what sensei is to Japanese ones; he’s the head instructor and owner of the school) and a few pages of paperwork later, and we’re pulling my uniform from the wall.

Sifu grabbed a purple sash.

“Uh, Sifu,” I protested, “it’s been ten years. I feel like a beginner. I don’t know if I deserve this.”

“You earned it,” he said. “Next week, let’s schedule some private lessons to get you up to speed. You’ll pick it back up fast.”

All I can say is, I’m glad I found my notes. I might spend most of this weekend practicing on my own so I don’t look like a total noob next week.

Also, how weird is it that I can refer to stuff I did 10 years ago, and I’m still more or less referring to my adult life? Getting older is strange.

PS, I got an email today saying that the RunKeeper Pro app (iPhone and Android) is free through January. It has a lot of useful features, and can be a fun way to stay motivated with any running-related resolutions you’ve planned for 2011.

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6 Reasons to Run in the Snow

I downloaded a nifty panorama app for my phone. Click to see the whole thing!

Hello, world! Have I ever told you that deadlines steal your soul? And your blogging schedule? And sometimes your wallet, those dirty bastards? Anyway, moving on…

The Big Sur Marathon is 16 weeks away, which means I am long overdue to start training! However, I’m really stoked about it, and feeling empowered, so I went out for a run today in near-blizzard conditions.*

*In Reno, “near-blizzard conditions” means a couple snow flurries and a lot of confused drivers.

Seriously, check out this snow accumulation. And also, remind me to cut armholes in a trash bag the next time I want to wear fleece out on a snow run.

Fleece shirt collecting snow

I actually started my running career as a sophomore in college during the one semester I spent in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reno snowfall can’t hold a candle to the real blizzards you get in the Midwest, and I ran in the snow wearing cheap sweats from Meijer, where I always checked out with a real cashier because the self checkout lane seemed so lonely. Ah, college.

Anyway, there are actually a lot of reasons to enjoy running in the snow, as long as you have the shoes and agility to prevent faceplanting into a block of ice.

  1. It’s cold. When it’s hot out, you tire more quickly and run more slowly overall. Just remember to stay hydrated (you’re still sweating!), and that you can’t rely on public water fountains if they turn the water off during the winter.
  2. However, you’re not cold. I’m the typical low-metabolism girl who has to wear a parka to the office when everyone else seems fine. You’d think running in snow would be cold, but that’s the beauty of the human body. Within a few minutes you’ve become your own mobile space heater. Just remember to wear warm, wicking layers. You’re no polar bear; your ability to create your own heat has limits.
  3. Hot chocolate. Remember that study that promoted chocolate milk as a post recovery drink? Pop it in the microwave and you’ve got hot chocolate! Score!
  4. It’s pretty. There’s something magical about running in fresh snowfall. It’s beautiful and different and everything is muted and quiet by the fluffy powder.
  5. Hardcore athlete creds. Every time a car goes by, you know that your neighbors think you are totally hardcore. Or maybe they just think you’re crazy. Just pump up the volume on Eye of the Tiger and think of Rocky.Rocky Balboa
  6. You’ve honored your training plan. If, like me, your choice was “run in the snow” or “don’t run at all,” you can be totally proud of yourself for having made the healthier decision. That said, the snow here is almost always mild. Let common sense win, and don’t expose yourself to dangerous weather conditions. I might eschew ye olde dreadmill, but but it’s always a better option than not running. Actually, so is the elliptical, the stationary bike, the rowing machine, the step machine, or even Dance Dance Revolution.

What are your favorite conditions for outdoor exercise?
What kind of whether do you refuse to exercise in?

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I ran a freaking half marathon.

Funny face

Hey guys. I’m still in shock here. It’s been several days — long enough for my muscles to recover from their rigor mortis-like stiffness — but I still can’t believe that I ran (jogged? pseudo-walked? nearly crawled?) an entire 13.1 miles. Yes, a half marathon.

Especially considering that my training took a serious nosedive way back in August, and my last run before the half was a 3.5 mile jog exactly one month in advance. I decided to think of it as a three-month taper period and see what happened.

I was partially expecting to collapse halfway through and wake up in a medical tent next to people who have no toenails left. Or collapse a few hours after from some bizarre sci-fi illness, like toxic overload from muscle breakdown due to an unusually huge increase in activity. I swear I saw something like that on House once.

On the other hand, I kept replaying the mythical stories of runners like the guy who got really depressed at a bar one day and ran 20 miles home in the middle of the night just because, or the guy on my first Odyssey team who ran Boston for the fun of it without bothering to train first, or the chick who would “reward” herself after a long day of hard work with a 30-mile jaunt on the trails.

Granted, I’m sure that these folks didn’t sit on their asses writing lolcode all day either. But the bottom line was, I’d have my cell phone in my iFitness and family close by to pick me up if I needed to DNF. And besides, the route is like the double rainbow of footraces: the Pacific Ocean 100 yards to one side; adorable, old-style, likely multi-million dollar homes 100 yards to the other side; Cannery Row (hello, John Steinbeck!); the friendly denizens of the town of Pacific Grove; coastal bushes that look like something out of the mind of Dr. Seuss… The list goes on and on!

Racing by the sea

You can just barely make out the masses treading alongside the ocean

I had several double rainbow moments on that course. It was rather dangerous actually, as any sort of emotional overload while exercise immediately induces an asthma attack, which nearly happened to me three times.

The tunnel

The entrance to the mythical tunnel at Mile 2

First time was approaching the traffic tunnel that goes under Custom House Plaza at mile 2. Do you have any idea how freaking cool it is to run through a tunnel you’ve only ever been through in a car? The last thing I heard before going in was a girl behind me comment to her friend, “Ooh! This is my favorite part.” The entrance of the tunnel was lined by cheering spectators, who disappeared as we entered the tunnel like a herd of wildebeests, whooping and screaming and cheering out of sheer joy and listening to our echoes reverberate down the tunnel. Just when I didn’t think I could be any more overwhelmed, I heard the most triumphant yet loneliest sound in the world. A  bagpiper stood silhouetted against the bright exit of the tunnel, slowly pacing as runners thundered by, cheering, and giving him thumbs ups. I teared up, choked up, started hyperventilating, and realized I had to calm down immediately, or else. Deep breath, relax your shoulders, relax your face, shout approval at the bagpiper, and keep on flying.

Nearing the finish

Closing in on the finish... maybe a quarter mile to go?!

The second time I nearly had an asthma attack was about a mile before the finish. I had done pretty well through the 10K point, but miles 6 through 8 were becoming increasingly more difficult. Around mile 10, every time I slowed to a walk, my muscles shouted in protest as I muttered f-bombs and checked to make sure there weren’t any MarathonFoto photographers nearby. Only 5K left, and I still wasn’t sure I was going to finish. When I turned off the main drag onto the bike path that funneled into the finish at the wharf, I realized that I was really going to make it. I very consciously allowed myself exactly two sobs, then I pulled my shit together, locked myself in Chi Running mode, relaxed my face into the zen-like mask of a customer service representative, and ran like the wind (read: plodded like elephant) straight to the finish.


The third time was immediately after crossing the finish line. About ten feet to the finish, my heart and mind exploded with joy! excitement! terror! disbelief! exhaustion! transcendental meditation! and I literally leapt across that mythical paint stripe with a smile about 13.1 miles wide. I stumbled past the finish line medical tent in a haze, hearing shouting and beeping and god knows what other commotion that I couldn’t make heads nor tails of. Amongst other dazed finishers, I limped straight to the corral wall, put my elbows on the rail, my head on my elbows, and cried my eyes out.

So, yeah. I’d pretty much say that my first half marathon was the most epic experience ever. I had the luxury of recovering with a barefoot stroll on the beach in Carmel. To my utter astonishment, I only had two small blisters, both of which were gone in two days. I was sore from head to toe on Monday, and from abs to ankles on Tuesday. My knees were fine, a little tender on Sunday afternoon, but not excruciating.

I’ve said before that I can’t believe that I, Elaine, the chubby asthmatic kid who could barely run a mile, can run at all. One mile, three miles… thirteen miles?! You’ve got to be shitting me! However, I have the photos to prove it.

The only thing that I would change from the whole thing is the fact that they “lost” about a third of their finisher medallions, so I didn’t get my medal at the finish line. :( That was a bigger letdown than finding out about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. However, they apparently “found” them a few days ago and will be mailing me one, stat.

I also have a very healthy respect for my upcoming Big Sur Marathon in May of 2011. Look out, Big Sur! Here I come!

Click on a thumbnail to launch my mini half-marathon gallery.

I would like to thank my boyfriend’s mom for making this whole wonderful experience happen. She registered me, planned our entire trip from Reno to Monterey, got us incredible rooms, picked out a fantastic restaurant for a pre-race day dinner, looked up directions to the starting line, got me there promptly at 5:45 a.m., met me at the starting line for company and photo ops, took photos along the course, staked out a spot near the finish line for more photo ops, and got me back home in one piece. Love!

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