Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The one where I wore gloves the WHOLE RACE: Black Cat 20 Miler 2017

On Saturday I ran the Black Cat 20 Mile race in Salem, MA. This is a race that I did once before in 2014 and had what I felt was a breakthrough performance. I was planning on running it again in 2015 but it ended up getting cancelled due to the neverending snowstorms we had that year. Last year I can't remember - I think I didn't want to because it was a week out from the New Bedford half that I always do, so I declined. This year, the calendar fell pretty much the same way, with Black Cat falling 8 days before New Bedford, but I really wanted to do it, so I decided I would aim to do it as a "workout" (something that is not a strength of mine), holding something back, so that I could really go for a PR attempt at NB.

The weather here in New England has been absolutely bizarre the last couple of weeks and the week leading up to Black Cat was no exception - I ran in shorts and a long sleeve on Wednesday, but the forecast for Saturday was frigid temps with heavy winds and a windchill in the negative 6 to 10 range. Um, cool? As the week went on, I began to dread the race. I had some sort of low level illness going on in the early half of the week that resulted in me cutting my Monday run short and dropping out of the workout on Tuesday, not the greatest confidence boost ever. By Friday I was running better but still wasn't feeling 100%, with weird sinus congestion and just general fatigue still playing a factor. Nevertheless, I was signed up for the race (for a RIDICULOUSLY cheap price of $26 - they did away with automatically giving out shirts this year so already the price was down to $40 for the 20 mile which is pretty great as is, but then I signed up with a discount code in February that got me $14 off...absolutely amazing).

I stayed with my teammate Taylor on Friday night and so headed down to Dedham where we dined on absolutely DELICIOUS Italian, watched some college bball, and went to bed early. I was still debating what the hell to wear and had brought an entire backpack full of various clothes - I wanted to represent GBTC, but there just didn't seem to be any combination of items that would be warm enough. In the end I went with a standard long sleeved shirt, GBTC t-shirt for an extra core layer, and my most favorite lightweight Craft jacket, semi-thick tights, ankle height smartwool socks, a buff, a hat, and GLOVES. I may have never discussed it here but I have a very bizarre bloodflow pattern where my hands get absurdly hot when I run. I can think of maybe 3-4 times in my life where I've actually worn gloves for an entire run, because typically they get uncomfortably hot within a couple of miles and then stay comfortably warm once I take the gloves off. Spoiler alert: I LEFT MY GLOVES ON.

Getting to the race was amusing; we underestimated slightly how long it would take to drive to Salem and this combined with a closure on I-95 resulted in us pulling into the parking lot at 7:45....for an 8 am race. I ended up using the bathroom in a random diner while Taylor paid for parking and changed and we jogged over to the Hawthorne Hotel where our other teammate, Joy, had thankfully obtained our numbers. After a brief reprieve in the hotel ballroom we headed out into the bitter cold where everyone was starting to gather. They played the LONGEST, most dramatic version of the Star Spangled Banner I've ever heard (not great when you are quickly freezing) and then we were finally off.

Pre race...happy! And cold...

The gun fired and I took things out at a fairly relaxed pace. Taylor was running the 10 mile so I let her frolic off ahead of me, and found myself running in a relatively good position. My original plan for the race was to start slower than marathon pace, try to run GMP for the middle 10 miles, and then do whatever I wanted - either pick up or stay or die - for the last 5 miles. That...did not happen at all! The race is a 2 "loop" course, with each loop consisting of an out and back to Marblehead and back, followed by a loop in Salem. I'll break the race report into segments in that way.

1-7 (first out and back) - 7:13, 7:28, 7:33, 7:14, 7:33, 7:29, 7:36
Right out of the gate, I felt pleasantly relaxed and good. Because I had decided I wasn't truly racing this race I decided to let myself listen to music, a decision I was EXTREMELY thankful for in the desolate late stages of the race. I felt like I was running so easily that I was actually surprised at my first mile split, and let myself dial it back a little bit. There are quite a few small rollers throughout the course but the one of the only true "hills" to speak of can be found in mile 3. Around this time Joy pulled next to me and said something to the effect of "I'm worried about what's going to happen when we turn around". It was true - I knew that there were 20-30 mph winds around somewhere, but hadn't felt any yet - in fact I was actually getting a little warm and contemplating if I'd overestimated the weather and overdressed. As it turns out we were actually just running with some kind of cross/tailwind, as I would soon find out. I went past Joy and enjoyed the slight downhill out to the turnaround in Marblehead. Around this time I found myself running with a little pack, including a very tall man, a woman in a blue jacket and an NYC marathon hat, and a younger woman with a black jacket. I could get a glimpse of black jacket's bib to see if she was in the 20 or the 10 mile, and I eventually just decided to assume she was in the 20 and hang with her for a bit. We hit the turnaround and 2 things happened: I took water and had to break ice on the top to get at the water, and we turned around and OMG THERE WAS WIND. Woof. I immediately began managing expectations. This was going to be a rough, rough next few miles. By this point I had passed blue and black jackets, and I spent some time drafting off tall guy - didn't work that well, but probably still worth the effort. The rollers on the way back seemed a little bigger with the headwind, and I kept reminding myself that I was really running this as a marathon effort workout and I could slow down any time I darn well pleased. Easier said than done. Despite my frustration with the wind I kept up a decent clip. We headed back into town and the wind continued to pick up. It was somewhere around this point where I decided to try and take my first Gu....it was frozen, and I made the mistake of trying to shove the whole thing into my mouth anyway, and then take water. The result was a giant glob of caramel Gu surrounded by ice water that there was no way I was going to be able to swallow. So I did the logical thing - I spit the Gu ball and water out to the side, laughed, and said out loud to whatever random people were around me "well, THAT didn't work". I ate whatever was left of the Gu pouch and continued. At some point in this stretch blue jacket caught up to me, and we ran in a little flying V with a guy in an orange Boston jacket for awhile. The wind sucked, and I kept trying to convince myself that somehow we were sharing the burden, but I wasn't sure that was true. 

8-10 (loop 1) - 7:22, 7:30, 7:26
As we headed back into town, Blue Jacket and I were running together. We made a turn and FINALLY were granted a reprieve from the wind, and it felt glorious - I literally picked it up immediately just based on the fact that running suddenly felt so much easier. People were starting to pass as they began the home stretch of the 10 miler, and Blue Jacket asked me if I was running the 20. I (somewhat sadly) replied that I was, but that I was doing it as a training run and kept telling myself I could slow down whenever I wanted. I then proceeded to lock onto her shoulder and stare at her NYC Marathon hat for approximately the next 3 miles. The other true hill in the course comes around the 8.5 mile mark, and as expected it was unpleasant. We then entered a stretch with a really obnoxious crosswind coming right off the water; water which we could see and was lovely to look at, but would have benefited from some buildings in the way to block the damn wind. Blue jacket pulled a bit in front of me, a pattern which would continue as the race went on. At this point I was already thinking about how sick of fighting the wind I was.  It wasn't necessarily that my legs were tired or I was anywhere near aerobic fatigue, I was just so over fighting the wind. I was also COLD, which is something that almost never happens to me when I run. I'm a cold weather runner through and through and it's really rare that I actually think about being cold when running in the winter, but the windchill was just piercing through.  I stared longingly at the finish line as I passed it and headed out for the second lap.

11-17 (out and back 2) - 7:21, 7:18, 7:26, 7:11, 7:42, 7:42, 7:37
I was not excited to run another 10 miles, but I kept trying to remind myself to a) not think to far ahead and just run the mile I was in, and b) remember that I wasn't SUPPOSED to be pushing it to the limit, so to just keep that in mind. Running back out without the wind in my face was nice. The hill out into Marblehead seemed a whole lot bigger the second time around, but I managed to run that mile PERFECTLY at GMP, go me, haha. By this point I had lost blue jacket up ahead, and I was a little bit curious as to where I stood in the general women's rankings. As it was in 2014, once the 10 milers split off the race becomes a whole lot more sparse. I started counting women on their way back as we got closer to the turnaround - I counted 5, and I knew there were also blue jacket and an SRR woman who I could see ahead of her. Great! I thought. If I were fighting for top 3 or something, I would get stressed out now and really have to try. But I don't and I'll probably get an AG award anyway even if I stay right where I am, so this is perfect for my goal of doing this as a workout. What I had completely forgotten about then was that there was also a 20 mile RELAY - as I would figure out later, I had actually been sitting in 5th at the time of the counting! In reality it's probably better that I didn't know that at the time, but it does amuse me that the thought of "oh, good thing I'm NOT fighting for top 3" crossed my mind when in fact...I was! I did a better job of taking my second Gu, slowly pulling chunks of it into my mouth and basically chewing them before taking more. On a side note, strawberry-kiwi Gu roctane = yum. 

We hit the turnaround and as I had anticipated, shit started to get real. The wind seemed a little bit less ferocious initially as we turned around, but it quickly became apparent that it had just shifted directions slightly and had also become stronger since we had last run down this road. Again, I kept reminding myself "you can always slow down! It's just a training run! Whatever whatever!" And yet I found myself annoyed by the 3 women who seemed somewhat within striking distance....and so I decided to strike. First I came upon a girl in a windbreaker who had pulled off to tie her shoe and quickly ate her up (turns out she was a relay runner anyway). Then I encountered a woman in glasses who I leapfrogged with for a bit but eventually passed. Next it was a girl in a 2013 Boston jacket and a braid, who I again leapfrogged with before passing for good. I managed to convince myself that these people must be in WAY worse shape, way more tired, way more sick of fighting the wind than I was, and that once I passed them, even if I slowed down, I had passed them for good.

Miles 15-17 were absurd. At one point I ran down a hill and the wind was so strong that I actually felt like I was having to work harder to run DOWN the hill! The crowd had spaced out so much that there was no one to draft off of, and I kind of just felt alone in a desolate wasteland as I made my way back into town. This was also the point where I REALLY started to feel cold - my legs felt frozen and uncoordinated, I literally couldn't feel my face, and I was still wearing gloves! I accepted that I was going to slow down due to the continued fight against the wind; even the slightest incline seemed massive and I was just so ready to be done. I had definitely started counting down the miles, and with every one my only thought was "uhggghghg isn't this over yet??" 

18-20 (second loop)
7:25, 7:57, 7:31
After a high five from a cop directing traffic (cute!) I headed back into the town loop. At this point I couldn't even tell I was in a race anymore - cars were driving around, and I could barely make out the yellow jacket of some guy probably 400 meters in front of me. I hoped that I knew the course well enough that I wouldn't screw it up and kept going. The break from the wind in the town was once again welcome, but I was dreading what I knew would happen when I made the turnaround at the cove to head back towards the finish. I don't even know how to explain this: I made the 180 degree turn and literally found myself thrown backward by a wall of wind. I was looking out at the ocean with whitecaps on it, the wind was throwing me backwards, and it was damn near impossible to keep moving forward. I screamed some obscenity that was immediately lost in the wind, because not only did I feel like I had slowed down to damn near walking pace, but I knew I had to climb up the hill. Midway through, with 30 mph winds gusting in my face, I walked for about 15 seconds feeling near tears at how absolutely awful this was. Then I snuck a peek behind me (no one to be seen), manned up, and kept running. By the last mile I actually couldn't feel my legs anymore; I was weaving and stumbling, praying that there weren't going to be any cobblestones or random inclines in the pavement because I absolutely was not equipped to handle that. I felt like I was running through some abandoned wasteland - there was NO ONE out, anywhere. Finally, right before the finish Taylor came into my view, screaming something I couldn't understand in my current state, and I threw up my hands and yelled something to the effect of "F*uck this sh*it!" Then, thankfully, the left turn to the finish, and I did everything I could to have some semblance of a kick and crossed the line in JUST under 2:30, 2:29:50.

Someone handed me a medal and I attempted to form the words "thank you" but it probably came out sounding like slurred gibberish; my facial muscles were frozen. Taylor came down and gave me her coat and we headed into the hotel - she told me she thought I had been 4th or 5th woman, which sounded about right to me given the 2 women I had passed in the backstretch. I got my coat and we headed back out to cheer for Joy and Brianna, who had struggled but thankfully found each other and were able to motivate each other to the finish. Reunited as a team, we headed back to the ballroom to warm up and see if anyone had won awards. 

We are very very cold.

Awards was great, because as it turns out we had won the team competition! And we got to stand on a podium, and that was very exciting. Then came the women's awards. I was expecting something in the age group, so kind of tuned out as they announced top 3. But then suddenly I heard something to the effect of "wait, there's a correction in the women's results, and 3rd place..." it was ME! Hah! So that was when I found out that passing those women around 14-15 really WAS my bid for top 3 after all. So I really cleaned up in the cup award arena (pint glass for team awards, coffee mug for individual) - next year I've gotta go for the win because you win a black cat shaped bottle of wine for first!

Anyway, I'm really happy with this race/workout/whatever. I do think I held back a little bit - I imagine that if I hadn't been thinking about New Bedford this coming week or worrying about hurting myself when I couldn't feel my legs, I probably could have run 1-2 minutes faster, but that's fine - the GOAL was not to race it!  While I definitely had to try pretty damn hard due to the weather conditions, I didn't feel like I ever went to the bottom of the well.  I spent a lot of time mediating my effort given what felt "relaxed" and not really worrying about pace, and the fact that what feels relaxed on a day like Saturday is only 3 seconds slower that I hope to run for 26.2 is certainly a good sign. It's funny, because 20 miles is not far off from 26.2 miles, and yet I felt like I just scampered into this race like "oh, yeah, whatever, I'll run 10 miles in my first double in ages the day before, and I don't really care, and whatever" but really a marathon is NOT THAT MUCH LONGER. I think if I can get my head in check for Boston and remember what it feels like to run relaxed (assuming the weather is in my corner) I really have a great shot at accomplishing what I'd like to accomplish there.

Also, I've only run one other 20 miler and it was at this race...but whatever, STILL A PR! It was faster than my 20 mile split of any marathon I've run too, so I guess I'll take it.  The 2017 train of PRs in minor distances keeps rolling along...next up is the one I really care about, the half marathon. The weather forecast again is looking like trash for Sunday (snow? or sleet? or BOTH? and 20 mph winds? Yes, good.) but I am still aiming for a PR at the worst, and slightly bigger goals than that at the best. We shall see!

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Amherst 10 Mile Race Report, and some other word vomit

SOMEDAY I will remember to write more regularly, so I don't have 4000 things to say when I do. My life has been a little intense lately with the combination of marathon training and studying for a certification exam in March. I sort of feel like all I do is go to work, run, and study (and though I've been at it for almost 3 months, I hardly feel like any of the studying has actually sunk in...guess I've got to trust my brain). But I've tried to carve out some time to write a race recap, so while I'm here I guess I'll recap some other things too.

February was, overall, quite a solid month of training. I consistently got myself to track practice vs. doing workouts on the treadmill which was definitely an improvement. I had one long run that almost ate my soul, 18 miles of awfulness in the remnants of a previous snowstorm + additional snow coming down through the first half of the run + snow turning to slush in the later stages. I don't think I ran on solid pavement for the entire 2 hours and 30 minutes of slogging misery. I texted Andrew at maybe mile 4 or 5 saying there was no way I was going to finish my run, yet somehow I plowed through basically every mental trick in my arsenal to complete exactly 18 miles. One nice thing about Boston training in Boston is that even on a totally shit day when you're sliding half a step backwards for every step forward you take, you see plenty of other runners out there. Normally when I'm out on the course everyone's smiling and waving and cheerful. On this day, we acknowledged each other with the sorts of grim faces usually reserved for prisoners of some sort. It was not an enjoyable time, to say the least.

Last weekend's long run was the complete opposite - it was my first 20 of the cycle, and despite my usual hemming and hawing and procrastinating and totally psyching myself out, it was awesome. I took the train out to Woodland, did an out and back to Wellesley and then came back on the course. It was one of those bluebird days for running - 45, sunny, not a lick of wind, just incredible. I started off at a fairly conservative pace but quickly found myself easing into the low 7:40s without putting much thought into it. As is my custom, I decided to roll with it and see what happened. I kept clicking off around that pace until around mile 10, where I hit the hill coming up over the highway and suddenly got really tired. I didn't particularly care - I had actually bagged the idea of doing any marathon pace miles earlier in the day when I woke up with some annoying sinus congestion - so I slowed down to 7:5x for a couple of miles. But something weird happened when I hit the Newton Hills. I decided to really push myself on the uphills since hills are NOT a strength of mine, and I have a bad habit of giving up halfway up because I'm tired and it's hard and wahhh. As I pushed the uphills and cruised the downhills I found my pace dipping into the 7:30s, and later on, the 7:20s. It was amusing and wonderful because unlike my previous attempts to run at marathon pace, I wasn't going overboard with TRYING to run marathon pace - it was just happening. Which I think is kind of the point. I wound up with an average of 7:38 pace, one of my fastest 20's ever and the type of run I'd typically expect to do riiiight before taper, not randomly in the middle of February. My mind has a hard time adjusting to changes in it's framework for running, and the fact that 7:38 pace might actually be a not-insane pace to run 20 miles at was a little hard to take in.

Unfortunately I did pay a little bit for my hubris - my recovery miles on Sunday were fine, and I took Monday off, but I developed a very bizarre knee issue during my track workout on Tuesday. I've had a similar issue before but this was it's worst iteration yet - the pain isn't really in my knee joint proper, but more in the back and lateral, kind of around my fibula and popliteus tendon (my guess as to the culprit). It essentially feels like something is getting trapped when I'm in a certain range of knee flexion and it hurts like hell within that range. Outside of the range? A little annoying, but overall OK. I dialed back the miles pretty significantly from Wed-Sat, although by Friday things seemed to have turned the corner. And just in time, because Sunday I had made the silly mistake of signing up for the Amherst 10 miler, known throughout the land as a really, really hard race.

My decision to do this race was part general insanity, part not feeling like doing another long run by myself, part loyalty to my team (while I am certainly not the person GBTC wants to have to score at a Grand Prix race, I am a person who can cross the finish line and therefore am better than not finishing a team), and then cemented by the fact that my friend Taylor was also running. So we set off for Amherst at a delightfully early hour on Sunday morning. Aside from the course of death, this is the type of race I love - so low key, with it's start at the local high school and it's minimal fanfare and the fact that when you look around pretty much everyone you see is some level of serious runner. As a Grand Prix race this year, that serious runner number went up significantly, and definitely explains why running 7:11 pace for a very hilly 10 miler barely even got me into the top 40% of the total field, or the top 1/3 of women!  The weather was pretty nice - a stiff wind for sure, but good temperatures for running - and I ended up going with capris, singlet and armwarmers. I considered shorts but figured given the questionable knee it made more sense to give my legs a little extra TLC.

After doing a quick wardrobe change and scampering around trying to figure out which school our bags were in (the middle school...not to be confused with the identical looking high school a couple of blocks down) we got behind the line just in time for the gun to go off. The first couple of miles were OK. Taylor and I were running together, which was great - our plan was to stick together through 5 miles and then see where we were at, but I had a feeling (which would later be proved correct) that I wasn't going to be able to hang for quite that long on the hills. Mile 1 was 7:06 which was a little slower than I was hoping for, but I also thought it probably paid to be conservative because I knew what was coming. Mile 2 was a 6:52; in hindsight I actually wish I'd gone a little faster there because it was all downhill and I don't think it would have made a difference later. Mile 2 to 2.5 was sort of OK...AND THEN came the worst mile I think I've run in any race ever....
Can you spot the mile that made me want to go cry in a corner?

I don't even know what I can say about this mile. I wanted to fling myself on the side of the road and just give up. At one point I was fairly confident that I was running slower than I could have walked up the hill, and I felt terrible about myself, until I realized that no one was passing me and everyone around me was on the exact same struggle bus as I was. It was AWFUL. Mile 3, which at least started out flat, was a 7:29. Mile 4, which consisted of the culmination of the hill, was 7:55. 7:55!! I can't even tell you the last time I've run a mile that slowly in anything other than a marathon. When I saw that split I went down into a deep dark rabbit hole. Never mind the fact that we just climbed like 400 ft in that mile. I felt terrible, I was mad about my split, and my brain totally went to that place that I'm trying to convince myself to stay out of when I race. Taylor was gone out in front of me and all I could think was "never again. I'm never doing this race again".

Having essentially given up on the idea of running any sort of reasonable time, I got down to the business of completing the damn race. We turned onto a dirt road that bounced bizarrely - it wasn't muddy, but I think it was partially frozen or something, because there were points when I sort of felt like I was running on a trampoline. Mile 5 was a 7:29, and by then I basically was like, welp, if you average 7:30s for this one, I guess that will just have to do. But just when I had resigned myself to that, something odd happened (looking at the course elevation, it's not really that odd, it's the fact that I started running downhill. BUT WHATEVER.) I started feeling a little bit better, then a lot bit better, and then all of a sudden I felt AMAZING. Mile 6 was a 7:03. Mile 7 was a 6:45 and I almost burst out laughing, then nearly laughed again when I came through mile 8 in 6:43. Sub 7 miles in the late stages of double digit races isn't really a thing that's happened to me, particularly when the first half of said race consisted of soul crushing hills. I was passing people like it was my job, laughing in the face of the minor uphills, and all in all, suddenly, having a great time. I think I closed at least a little ground on Taylor in this phase, although she still finished just under a minute ahead of me. I had heard that there was one more big hill coming but I convinced myself I was ready for it. I was ready to take that hill on!

Orrrrrr not quite, because as I turned into the face of another steep, half mile long hill and was immediately hit with a 20 mile per hour headwind, I cursed every decision I had made so far that day. The GBTC coach, Tom, actually designed this course, because he is a sadistic person. And of course he planted himself, smiling, smack in the middle of this hill of death. I made sure to tell him he was evil as I ran by, grimacing. My left leg seized up pretty badly right near the top of the hill, and I was actually reduced to a walk-shuffle for a second or two, but thankfully I knew that once I got over the crest I could barrel down, around the parking lot, and to the finish. I finally crossed the line in 1:11:52. In more amusing news, I thought I was close to a PR but didn't realize I'd actually run one until I looked up the results from that race - I guess I had it in my head that I'd already run a 1:11 when it turns out I hadn't! My previous PR was 1:12:41, so that's a pretty nice chunk of time off, especially on a course where as far as I can tell NO ONE PRs. So I was pretty happy! A hard effort and digging myself out of a mental hole - all in a day's work. The best news of all was that my knee strangely felt BETTER after the race - like I finally knocked whatever was out of whack back into place. Can't complain about that!

Before I wrap up this meandering post, I feel like I need to tell one more story. Last night I went to track and as usual, the workout intimidated me - a 2 mile tempo followed by 1200s (prescribed 7 but let's be honest the workouts are made for people doing like 80 miles/week, so I decided to do 4). The tempo felt GREAT - 2 miles in 6:45 pace felt like the easiest thing in the world. The 1200s were another story. I was watching the faster group including Taylor and another girl who had just run a 1:24 half and kind of thinking to myself "man, if I could just hang with them..." But I tried to jump in with them on one interval and was pretty much immediately off the back. I was running perfectly reasonable paces but I wasn't quite fast enough for the group. Finally, everyone was wrapping up and it was just me and the 1:24 girl doing one more 1200. I made some self deprecating comment about running behind her, and we began. Almost immediately, I dropped back and thought to myself "well you aren't fast enough to stay with her". And then, I impressed myself. Because my very next thought was this (a hilariously inspirational thought to come out of nowhere): "STOP BUILDING WALLS IN YOUR MIND". And with that, I forced myself back up with her. I didn't make it the whole interval right behind her - she pulled away at the 800 and finished about 50 meters ahead. But I'll be damned if I didn't run that last interval 9 seconds faster than the previous one, including coming through the 800 in 2:59. I absolutely would never have done that if I hadn't found a way to convince myself that I could stay with her. I do genuinely believe that a fair chunk of my barriers in running ARE mental, and are based on my mental image of my physical capacity which I surpassed a long time ago. 

All of this to say, I think I'm going to go ahead and try to run a 1:30 at the New Bedford Half in 2.5 weeks. It's time for some of those walls to start coming down.