speed work

Oakland Marathon Race Report

At the start line with speedy friends. Caitlin, Penny and I.
Photo by Chris Jones.

When I couldn't run Napa Marathon a few weeks ago due to overwhelming stress with opening our business, I quickly changed my plans to run Chuckanut 50k last weekend and after the race hop in the car and help my sister and her husband with the drive from Seattle to San Francisco (they moved down which makes me so incredibly happy!!!). I also signed up for the Oakland Marathon when I signed up for Chuckanut. The way business has been going, I am never certain which race start line I will be able to show up at. So I wanted a back-up plan, just in case. Chuckanut went really well and I was very satisfied with my run and had a fun little road trip Bin-Yanko style.

My legs didn't feel bad after Chuckanut except for a little niggle in calf/ankle/foot that sent me running to Psoas Massage to see Scott, not once but twice this week. While my legs felt pretty good, my body in general didn't feel right. I had a laundry list of symptoms including massive water retention (like 15lbs) while not peeing. Coupled with all the other symptoms, I made a b-line for my doctors office on Thursday morning to make sure that my kidneys weren't shutting down. My doctor advised that I not run the marathon if we didn't get the bloodwork back. It would be dumb to run a marathon if I was having acute kidney failure. Obviously.

Thankfully, my bloodwork came back the next day and my kidneys were fully functional. The bloodwork did however reveal (especially when compared to my bloodwork from 6 weeks ago) that my symptoms are due to my thyroid swinging from hypothyroid (which I have been medicating for 6 years now & had dropped my TSH too low) to a more hyperthyroid state. This explains why I have been struggling to feel great since the beginning of the year. While my iron levels have improved, giving me more energy, I haven't felt right for nearly 3 months. I have had insomnia, been hyper emotional, intolerant to heat and extraordinarily hungry. I just figured that some of the symptoms (insomnia, anxiety, being emotional) were because opening a business is stressful. But after hearing from my doctor and understanding what hyperthyroid (even a temporary hyperthyroid like mine- my meds just have to be adjusted) means for my body.

After receiving clearance from my doctor, I decided last minute that I would run Oakland Marathon. I figured it would be an awesome way to see Oakland and even better, it would be a chance to hang out with my mom (who just moved to Oakland) and have her see me race! I didn't taper at all for this race. Yesterday on my 11 mile run, I pondered whether or not this might just end up being my slowest marathon ever. I was/am still retaining water weight (which makes you feel kind of gross/heavy), but I decided that I should give Oakland a go. After all, a week after racing a 50k and not tapering really put me in the mindset of "come what may". Given the nature of the course, I figured I could just run it as a workout. I knew it had the potential to be a long ride on the pain train, but I also knew that with no expectations, I might just have a flipping blast. And I did.

 Photo credit: San Jose Mercury News

I spent the evening in Oakland at my mom's house and made pre-race dinner for the two of us. The usual: greens, chicken and lots of sweet potatoes. Her new place was perfectly located to roll out of bed after a nice long sleep (9hr!!!) and run less than a mile to the start line. I ate a pre-race banana with sunbutter, lots of coffee and headed out into the perfect morning. It was clear and cool without being cold. I jogged over to the start line where I ran into Caitlin who was also running. I was excited to see her as I hoped it meant I might have a workout partner for the race. I knew from previous years results that the women's winner often ran the entire race alone. Knowing how speedy Caitlin is, I knew that I would have to have a pretty good day to bring home the win. As I warmed up with her and then with my good friend and training partner Liz (who was running as part of a relay), I wasn't sure how I felt. I didn't feel bad, but I wasn't sure how 6:xx pace was going to feel.

I had spent the evening before the race figuring out what 2:45-2:50 pace looked like and I hoped I was going to be able to muster then 6:29 min/mile average it would take to run 2:50. But I really wasn't sure.

I lined up a few rows back with Caitlin and my darling friend Penny (who wins pretty much every trail marathon in the entire bay area). It took me 3+ years to convince Penny to run a marathon, now she crushes dozens a year!

The gun went off and off we went. I went out comfortably, but was also well aware that my pace was ridiculously fast given my goal time. My first miles were 6:01 and 6:00 respectively and I knew that I need to pull back a little. The first half of Oakland Marathon contain pretty much all of the near 1,000 feet of climbing for the whole race and I wanted to be conservative until I was done with the hills at mile 11. The course pretty much goes uphill from mile 3 until mile 11, so it was unrealistic to maintain that pace, but I went with it to get my legs spinning. After two miles, I settled in to closer to 6:20 pace and made my way along. I was feeling good and happy. Just content to be "feeling" it. My body was allowing me to clip along without protest, despite all the demands I have placed on it over the last week.

I really wanted to negative split and have enough for a fast finish style long run, so I did not push too hard on the hills. I went comfortably through the Oakland hills, chatted occasionally with my two bike pacers (as the lead female I had a bike pacer) and tried not to get run over by any cars or miss any turns.

It was a strange thing, everytime we came to an intersect it was a question of whether or not the cops were actually going to stop traffic or if I was going to play a dangerous game of frogger. Thankfully my bike pacers did a good job getting ahead of me and making sure I didn't get creamed. But there were a few times when I literally was weaving through cars. The turns were not well marked as there were often cones in every direction. Again, thankfully my bike escorts showed me the way, but it was awfully strange to have the course be so unclear. In fact, with less a half mile to go we came off Lake Merritt and neither I nor my bike escorts could tell which way I was suppose to go! There were no race marshalls at the turn and I ended up back running traffic, scrambling to figure out which way the course went. Thank goodness we went the right way!

For much of the first half, Caitlin was about 20 seconds behind me. I knew she planned her workout to also be a fast finish long run, so I pressed myself to not let off the pace. Miles 7-11 averaged in the upper 6:40s, but I was feeling really comfortable and looked forward to flying down the hill on the other side. Mile 12 was a nice 400 foot loss of elevation and I picked up the pace dropping a 5:44. I let it out a little but didn't get to crazy as there was a lot of race left. It got my legs spinning again and I was able to drop 4 more miles at sub 6:10 pace.

By mile 20, I was feeling tired, but not anything worrisome. More like tired because I raced a week ago and didn't taper and was at mile 20 kind of tired. I resolved to just continue to maintain my pace and not worry about pushing it too hard. Around mile 21, one of the bike pacers told me my lead had grown to 2:20 over Caitlin. I knew that I couldn't let off the pace or do anything that would cause me to blow up, so I just dug in and maintained.

The last 4 miles seemed to take forever, but eventually I made my way around the Lake and closed in our the final stretch. Fittingly, the race finishes up a hill, so I pushed myself up the final hill and waved my arms to pump up the crowd as the announcer called my name. It was thrilling. I had started the day not even knowing if I would have the strength to finish the race strong and instead, I won. Even more satisfying, I set a new course record in 2:47!!

Photo credit: San Jose Mercury News

I think the most thrilling part of it all is the fact that this is the first time my mom has got to see me win a race. It was awesome to be able to give her a big hug just after the finish and see her so proud!

I am very pleased with how the race went, how I felt and how I handled the ups and downs of this week (heck of this year). It makes me very excited for the races to come this year and to see what I can do!

Hungry hungry hippo

On Robben Island, 2003. Yes that is me. 

Photos in this post are from my time in South Africa in 2003.

Inevitably at some point during taper week the following conversation will take place:

Me: "I feel fat"
Nathan: "Taper crazy"
Me: "No really, I am feel like all I am doing is eating! I am going to be a hippo before I get to the start line"
Nathan: "Taper crazy"
Me: "No you aren't listening, I am stuffing myself. I just can't stop eating."
Nathan: "Yeah, you are getting really fat on all that butternut squash you are eating."
Me: "I hate racing. I am never racing again."
Nathan: "I loooove you. Taper crazy."

No matter how perfectly you plan your taper, or how precisely you execute it, chances are, at some point you will feel tired, sore, fat and out of shape, all of this will likely be accompanied by a ravenous, insatiable appetite. In other words, exactly how you should feel during taper. 

Despite racing 18 marathons and 28 ultras since I did my first race back in 2003 when I lived in Cape Town, I have yet to really make friends with this aspect of taper. I can know its coming, steel myself against it, but somehow some proliferation of these feelings occurs. I often ponder how nice it would be to arrive on race day not feeling like this. But I know, deep down, that these feelings and distractions are actually a vital part of getting to the start line with my mind and body right.

When I break it down, the hungry, hungry hippo I become during my taper (of any duration, usually a two week taper), makes a lot of sense. I come in to taper off of really high mileage, high intensity weeks. I feel primed and like I could do a little bit more, not exhausted or in need of a taper. Just one step removed. Coming off 100-120 mile weeks into a period of comparative rest allows your body the space to feel tired, sore, the flood gates of hunger opened. It is a necessity of a good taper not to be restrictive, to nourish your body to give it strength for the race and to recover from the work. I keep my diet super clean during taper, but there is really little departure from my regular day-to-day diet than usual.

The fat and out of shape feeling that accompanies the ravenous hunger is a little mind trick that comes out of simply having more time on my hands and nothing to do with it. When I start cutting back mileage, I am spending less time running and more time in my own head. I don't necessarily fill up that new found time with stuff and instead try to do what you are suppose to do in taper: rest. 

All of these things are crappy to think and feel, no one enjoys doubting them self or berating them self or questioning their training. The longer I race, the more I recognize this whole thing as a neurotic preparation process. Feeling like a hungry, hungry hippo who is utterly destroying my careful preparation through an imperfect taper process, destroys any unconscious expectations on myself and mentality prepares me to have whatever kind of day is in store for me. It makes me more present, because I ride the spectrum from feeling super fit and primed to feeling completely incapable, and therefore have no choice but to just accept my fate. Usually by race day, I am simply at a point where I say "we'll see how it goes".

Tapering is not a fun process. It is a necessary process however and absolutely vital to going into a race fully prepared. While I may never embrace the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies taper, I am slow learning to recognize the patterns, not fight it and let it produce the result it needs to.

I may still feel like a hungry, hungry hippo (yes, I know that I am not), but I as I enter my final week of taper, I am embracing the process, instead of fighting it. I am preparing to do battle, to enjoy the heck out of myself at Two Oceans in Cape Town running for the Nedbank Team, to return to where my running career (as an adult) began and to explore what is possible.

Besides, hippos are super cute.

Pack Animals

Salomon runners Kilian, Iker and Miguel and NF's Sebastian running together at UTMB 2011

When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives. 
- Ned Stark (Game of Thrones)

When you think of running, teamwork is not the first thing that comes to mind. It is very much an individual endeavor but what I have found over the few years of my running career is that teamwork elevates that individual pursuit and helps you reach new levels you didn't know you could. Whether that is having a team of handlers and pacers to guide you through a 100 miler or having a rockstar partner who can patiently push you up the final ascent out of the big ditch. Sometimes teamwork is just having someone along side you for a time to keep your mind right and your spirits high.

Salomon runner Ryan Sandes dominating Leadville. Winning in 3rd fastest time ever in his debut 100 with help from Salomon teammates.
Photo courtesy Anna Frost

In the past few weeks, I have been incredibly inspired by my Salomon international teammates. Not just because of their incredible performances but because they have demonstrated time after time these value of teamwork. I truly feel that I am a part of a cohesive team, with members who would help me reach my potential, not just someone who shares the same sponsorship. I am incredibly proud of my teammates and very thankful for the support crews that help support all of our efforts. In just the past three weeks, I  have watched:

  • Ryan Sandes kicked butt in Leadville with the support of Salomon team members.
  • Rickey Gates and Anna Frost work together and push each other at TransRockies, absolutely dominating.
  • Kilian, Iker and Miguel run side by side at UTMB. Even stopping at points to wait for each other.

Maybe it is because I hail from a teamsports background that this team aspect geeks me out. But I don't think so. I really believe that even individual pursuits are better through teamwork. I believe we can accomplish more when we work with others than we ever could alone. I fundamentally believe community is one of the most important aspects of personal development.

Salomon runners Anna Frost and Rickey Gates, dominating the Open Mixed division through teamwork at Gore-Tex TransRockies run (source)

Teamwork is currently one of the foremost things in my mind as I set out to run the WC100k in Netherlands next week. Why? Because it is an event in which I represent my team as much as I represent myself. When I run the WC events, I have a one track mind: how do I best serve my team? I best serve my team by running as best and as fast as I can and by helping and supporting my teammates however I can. One of my favorite moments in all of my running life is from two years ago at the WC100k in Belgium. Meghan, Carolyn and I knew we had a firm grip on the gold medal and we worked together through the wee hours of the morning to maintain our position and help each other through rough patches. I will never forget how cool it was to run together en route to a gold medal and 4 top 10 spots.

I proudly don the Team USA kit because it makes me a part of a team. Just like when I don my Salomon gear, I feel a part of something. Next week when I line up, I am excited to help lead my team and fight for a gold medal. Whatever happens, I know that I have some amazing teammates working their butts off and fighting hard for the same goal. I know that I have people pulling for me and their strength will buoy me and drive me through the rough patches. Together we will all succeed. To me, there is nothing better in life to share the journey, the fight, and the triumph.

Doing things that scare you

I don't normal consider myself someone who has many fears. In fact, I cannot bring to mind anything that I truly fear. I like to challenge myself, I like to try new things, I am unafraid to fail.

Since last Summer and even more intensely in the last month or so, I have been doing something that is a little scary to me. Pushing my outer limits. Practically this means, I am working on getting faster, digging down into that place of "I don't know how good I can be" and seeing what I bring up. Marathon fast running, try and make the Olympics fast running.

I came to running after a career as a basketball player and don't have a long legacy of track running or even shorter distance road running. I came into the sport, ran a marathon, ran two more and then started ultrarunning. I never really tapped my potential as a marathoner and I really like marathons. Short, fast and sweet. But running a 2:49 marathon (my PR) 3 weeks after a road 100k World Championship is not pushing that limit. That is pretty safe. In ultrarunning, even though I could blow up, DNF, lose or have a bad day that doesn't scare me. Running 50 miles fast in 6:28, finishing with sub 7 min miles doesn't strike me as pushing my limits (in fact it feels down right comfortable). What scares me is the red line. In my running, I tend to not red line. I have talked about this before a bit, about learning to that "this is so hard I don't know if I can hold it" and holding it place. It is an uncomfortable place, but for where I want to go, I must go there.

For Houston and the prospect of making the Olympic Trials, I happily go there. It has not been easy. Tuesday mornings I wake up nervous about the days track workout. I run my warmup not knowing if I can hit my prescribed paces, wondering if my lungs and legs will sustain me lap after lap. At the track, I cannot hide from my own progress. I can't just run by feel like I often do for ultras, I have to run by watch and splits and miles. It is a totally different ball game. It's hard but in a good way. It is pushing me to go beyond myself. I am becoming a different athlete because of it.

Looking back, leading up to Western States, I felt like I was all in, like I was doing everything to make that race be great. Barring the kidney failure, I think I would have run a great race. But I realize now, I was just doing everything I wanted to. There is more I could have invested, I could have worked harder at the gym, been better about race specific work and had a more athletic diet. I was committed, but I wasn't all in. I am all in for Houston.

Yesterday at the track, I had a moment of transcendence. I was pushing hard in my final 800 meter repeat, getting blasted in the face on the back stretch with wind, tired, pushing and wondering if I would be able to hold the pace. I came around the final turn and hit the straight away and instead of holding on for dear life, I suddenly found something: the next gear. I powered through the final 100 meters in my fastest split of the repeat and finished the 800 also with my fastest split. Then I followed it up with a 75 second 400 meter repeat hitting my prescribed split right on the head and utilizing the next gear again. It felt amazing. I was so tired and happily exhausted, drained in a good way that I don't often feel. That next gear showed me that the red line is something I can manipulate, I can work very close to it for a while (like I have been at the track and in tempo workouts), feel like I am going to run face first into it and then bam, the red line retreats a few paces and keeps me hungry for its pursuit. It is hardwork, it is scary, I could fall on my face and do horribly. But ultimately, the work itself is the reward and the race is just the victory. The things I am learning about myself as a runner right now are amazing and inspire me daily to keep after it.

Photos by Nathan.