Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Valentine's Day Marathon '11

The morning of the Valentine's Day Marathon I woke up, got dressed, walked the pooch and then hopped in my truck and left. I made a quick stop at a deli for a nice roast beef, egg and cheddar sandwich with hot sauce and a large cup of black coffee. Good fuel to get me through the 26.2 miles that were coming up.

I made the short drive to the park, found a place to park and went to check things out. This was a very informal race: no registration, no fee, no awards, and aid station only at end of each 6.55 mile loop. With all of the snow we had I wasn't sure about running the race at all. The only reason I was really there was to use it as a training run for the 50k trail run (The Hat Run) I had next month. Due to weather I hadn't been getting many miles in and this was good way to push myself into a long run.

The race would also be a good test for Vibram Five Fingers KSO Treks. I had done some limited trail running in my Sprints and KSOs but was worried about how well my feet would do for a long trail run if there were a lot of rocks and roots. For short distances rocks and roots didn't bother my feet, but a 50k could prove different. So, shortly after signing up for the Hat Run I bought the KSO Treks, which have a slightly thicker sole. They also have a bit of a tread, more like a typical trail running shoe, which could prove valuable. The Valentine's Day Marathon I hoped would give me a good idea whether my feet would hold up with the KSO Treks or whether I had to quickly come up with another plan.

Upon arriving at the start/finish area I "checked in". I quickly donned my red stocking cap, which we were asked to wear to help ID "racers", but not required to wear and my bib number. I was assigned the number 2 and was feeling pretty special despite the fact that all of us got the same number. I didn't really understand that, but didn't care, figured it was all part of the fun.

There was a bit of a wait for start time and then for everyone to get organized. A few minutes after 10am, our official start time, we were set and the National Anthem was sung and race instructions given. Lots of warnings of ice and hard packed snow in them and cautions especially when passing. Then we were off!

The start area was only standard sidewalk width so I positioned myself a bit back from the line. The race included a 10k and 1/2 marathon option and I wanted to let the shorter distance runners a chance to get free without tricky passing. My mistake!

Within 50 yards I, along with many others, found myself trapped by a couple groups of some of the rudest and most inconsiderate women I've encountered during a race. I understand running with your friends, it makes the miles go by easier, but when you have a narrow path with deep and dangerous to run on snow and ice to each side and insist on running on 3 a breast so you can talk you are being inconsiderate. And to do it at the start of a race with several hundred runners trapped behind you goes beyond breaking race etiquette. They made no effort to move over as runner after runner slipped and scampered off path around them. They just kept chatting oblivious to the rest of us who were taking up space in THEIR world.

It took me almost a 1/2 mile to work my way around them and I was off. The opening 2 miles were as icy as promised. I was very glad of the extra traction my Treks provided me. As long as I kept my strides relatively short and took it easy around corners it wasn't too bad. There was one steep hill, to get up the side of an overpass, that proved too treacherous to run, but rest was doable.

The first 2 miles went by relatively quickly. There was some slipping, but damage done by it was minimal. But I was looking forward to the hard packed snow with good footing that we were promised for the remainder of the 6.55 mile loop. Once there though, I was less than thrilled.

The snow became hard packed alright, but was like ice and had all sorts of bumps and angles to it. Pace quickly dropped as it became a major effort just to stay upright, much less move forward. I had managed sub 9 minute miles to that point, but knew I was quickly around 11-12 minute pace now. The only fun part was 1/2 mile into it trying to hammer the gong they hung by the trail without slipping and turning my butt into a toboggan on the downhill where it was placed. I kept my feet somehow and rang out a solid bong on it.

The rest of the first loop consisted of some nice scenery and occasionally passing or being passed by other runners. A few comments during the brief meetings to distract from how the body was feeling helped pass the time. Footing remained horrible and feet continued to slide all directions twisting them up as well as my ankles and knees. Everything below the waist was a bit upset with me as I hit the end of the lap.

The aid station at the start/finish area was self serve, so I grabbed a bottle of water to refill my bottle that I was carrying in my waist pack. I quickly filled up and took off again for the start of lap 2. The temperature had warmed slightly since the first lap, which wasn't surprising since it took me around 1:06 to complete it. But, the footing hadn't improved much.

On the 2nd lap the ice was still slick, as was the hard packed snow, but both had improved very slightly. Unfortunately my legs were fried from the first lap and the 2nd lap just managed to put an even bigger hurt on them. I was still occasionally passing and being passed by other runners but things had thinned out considerably. I spent a good portion of the loop on my own. Even the 'highlight' of banging the gong was dampened when I slipped causing myself to straighten up right into the branch it was hanging from. I caught a bend in the branch right in the belly of my right side trapezius muscle. No major harm done, but an added insult to the injury I'd already been facing.

I completed the first half of the marathon in approximately 2:15. Far from a PR performance, but I was happy with my efforts. I quickly refilled my water bottle again and took off on my third loop. Things had continued to warm and there was now a 1/2 mile stretch of the start/finish stretch that was getting soggy. My feet were quickly soaked and over the first 2 miles got very cold. There was good news though. The ice had melted slightly and the hard packed snow had softened considerably and wasn't nearly as slippery. If my legs weren't already extremely sore from the first 2 loops I probably would have made much better time on this loop. But, as it was, I just kept plodding along at the same pace, unable to go faster. On the positive side though, the beating my legs were taken was considerably lessened.

The third loop was pretty uneventful. I saw very few runners, hit the gong without hurting myself and slipped around considerably less. I ran a slightly slower lap than the second, but didn't feel much worse. Unfortunately the final 200 yards was now a big puddle and my feet were thoroughly soaked and muddy by the time I reached the aid station.

I again quickly filled my water bottle and plunged into the fourth and final lap. The first 600 yards were more mud puddles and I slogged through them. The rest of the course had improved tremendously and if I had fresh legs I think I could really have cranked out a good lap on it. However, my legs were done and I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other. This lap there would be no luxury of having other runners to occasionally focus on, I was pretty much alone. In the first 4 miles of the loop the only people I saw were 2 unfriendly walkers going the other direction. Somewhere around the 4 1/2 mile mark a runner, not in the race blew by me. I saw and passed one other racer a mile from the finish.

The last lap was an exercise of will power. My legs and feet were in pain. My toes were frozen. I was starting to feel dehydrated and my blood sugar was plunging. I wanted to stop badly and say the heck with it. It was a race, but I was doing it as a training run. No harm in quitting. But, I've never had a dnf and that more than anything kept my feet moving. My spirits did buoy in the final mile when I saw and over took another racer. It wasn't so much from passing him as knowing I wasn't the only one still left on the course. At times it felt like I was alone in the world and just that one person made a big difference.

I finished strong, but still had my slowest lap of the day. My unofficial and official (timing was all on our honor, we recorded our own finish times) was 4:43:24. I felt like crap, my feet, ankles, knees, and all leg muscles were killing me. My right shoulder was throbbing, I was dehydrated and blood sugar shot. But, I was in and alive and met my goals. I got in a training run that would help me be ready for my 50k. My feet, though sore, showed they could go the distance in vibrams, no way the 50k course could be harder on them. I made it through almost 5 hours of running with zero calories or electrolytes, doing 31.2 miles with them would seem easy.

All in all it was a good day. I learned and gained a lot. I knew I would pay for it for a couple of days, but that's ok, as an endurance athlete I know to expect it. I may have even set a new PR, for my slowest ever marathon, but still haven't been able to find records to confirm. I had my first ever top 10 marathon finish and since there only 15 finishers I was also in possesion of my second worst finish, being only 6 places from my second dead last place (the only 1 I had was in a an injured 5k high school cross country race that would end up costing me the season). Looking back, I'd gladly do it all again.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Change of Season

I first started running when I was 11 years old and as a 7th grader joined my middle school's cross country team. However, it wasn't until 2 years later, as a freshman I high school that I started running year round. I quickly found that I was just as at home running in worst part of winter as I was the rest of the year. Whether it was because I was comfortable wearing shorts no matter the weather, my sure footedness or something else, running came naturally to me.

I took a 3 year hiatus from true winter running while I lived in Texas. Laredo rarely got below 40 degrees and we never saw snow while I was there. Despite the time away from it, when I returned to the north, I found that I hadn't lost a step in regards to winter running.

The ability to wear shorts year round I long ago wrote off as being a simple case of mind over matter. I didn't mind the cold, therefore it didn't matter. My ability to keep my feet under me no matter how slick and icy the roads became, I never really thought about. It wasn't until a few years ago that I even bothered to take notice of my luck.

About midway through that winter after hearing many a runner complain about their many slips and falls something clicked in me and I finally started to wonder why I had never joined their ranks. Sure I've slipped many a time and done all sorts of spins, twists and maneuvers that would make even the most experienced ballerina jealous, but I had never gone down. That isn't to say I never fell, but those few times I had was not because of slips, but rather from tripping over an unseen object hidden beneath the snow on the trail upon which I ran. Tripped and fallen yes, but never slipped and fallen on the ice.

It wasn't until the following fall that I finally caught a glimpse of the reason why. As the weather grew colder and the winter rapidly approached I started to notice something different about my running. How I had gone over 20 years without noticing, I don't know, but I was now. I found that my stride was slowly getting shorter. My pace wasn't changing much, but I was definitely shortening and quickening my stride. The colder the day, the shorter the stride. I wasn't sure why, but I was positive this is what was happening.

It took me a while to figure out a possible reason, which it wasn't until this winter that I finally felt was confirmed.

My normal stride is fairly long and as a result my heel would strike well in front of my body at a sharp angle to the ground. This was fine most of the year, but on ice it would prove dangerous. Only a small part of the sole would come into contact with the ice, which would lessen traction, and the angle would velocity across the surface of the ice. By shortening my stride I was allowing the heel to strike at closer to a 90 degree angle which would bring more tread into contact, therefore more traction, and would provide less angular velocity across the ice.

I won't try to go into physics to explain this, but it's a relatively simple idea. A simple way to look at it would be to think about an object sitting on ice. If you give it a push from the side it goes sliding across the ice. If you push straight down on it, it doesn't move. From there it is easy to see that as you vary the angle between straight down and directly from the side that the distance the object will slide varies. Same thing for our feet. That's why when most of us walk on ice we do so gingerly, carefully putting our feet down directly below us, flat footed.

Despite not realizing it, I had for many years been changing my stride every winter to maximize traction and returning to my optimal stride as winter passed. I would still slow further and run cautiously on ice, but my slipping was minimal.

Last winter I spent most of the winter working on becoming a forefoot runner and learning to run in Vibram Five Fingers. I was too busy concentrating on learning how to run differently that I wasn't paying any attention to any of this. After a couple weeks of running on snow and ice this year I came to a realization that helped confirm my theory on the shorter strides.

As I was running on a very slick, icy road, I realized I was running normal speed for dry ground and I hadn't shortened my stride. After thinking about this for a while I realized that when running forefoot my foot was landing directly below me at a 90 degree angle to the ground. This meant no angular velocity. In addition I was maximizing the amount of tread in contact with the ground, further improving traction. At least to me this confirms my theory about the shorter strides.

I still don't know why or how my body just automatically made this change in stride, but I'm sure I've been doing it since day one. I remember my freshman year my track coach getting on me all through February and March about lengthening my stride. He was same coach I had all fall for cross country and he never had problem with my stride the entire season. Every spring and fall while I was in high school he never commented on my stride, yet every winter same thing, lengthen my stride.

Winter running will always carry some risks and nothing can make you immune to falls. But, experience has shown me that the risk can be lessened by having your foot land as close to a 90 degree angle as possible and pretty much directly under your body. You still may need to slow down on ice, but by following this you should have maximum traction and minimize slipping. Don't let winter frighten you out of running, dress correctly, adjust your form if necessary and have fun.