I came into January following my best season yet where I saw big PRs across three distances: a 3:35 at the Baltimore Marathon, a 19:32 5k at Waystation Turkey Trot, and a 1:12 at the Goodloe Byron 10 miler. I had improved my form to run at a 180 cadence, I fell in love with a light, fast shoe with the Altra Escalante, and probably most importantly I no longer had a pituitary tumor in my head. I was ready to hit this spring hard.
Hard like Daniels
I’ve tried following Jack Daniels plans before and I knew they are intense, but that didn’t stop Jenny and I from making a pact in blood to “aim to try” to follow Coach Jack along an iditerod through the fiery pits of overtraining induced tendinopathy married with soul crushing sensations of inadequacy he calls his Q2 plan. Guys, we had a Google docs spreadsheet and stuff. It was serious.
Aim to try I did, with gusto. In January, I took only 3 days of rest in 31 and hit an all-time high in mileage (230) and hours (30). I did my best to hit the prescribed Q sessions. At first they were rough going and I couldn’t do as many repeats as indicated. By the end of the month, though, I started to adapt and began successfully hitting the workouts. One such that stands out is the 6x400m R pace runs I did with Jenny on the track while Matt, Dustin, and Louis took easy laps with big grins on their faces. I’m not sure, but I think they were reveling in our suffering. It was cold, too.
But Daniels was working, and I was running strong. Too strong, as it turns out.
Here’s the problem with getting faster: you get faster. I already have a clinically significant case of Stravapridinosis, characterized by a nagging voice in the head begging one to consider “but how will this look on Strava?” whenever the Garmin is on. This condition is exacerbated with every minor increase in fitness.
As I began to feel the gains from Daniels I found that it became easier and easier to run faster, which I did… a lot. I can get away with zone 3 running when I’m not also running 7 days per week, or mixing in hard zone 4 workouts, or certainly not both at the same time. I ran way too many squarely zone 3 miles because it felt great at the time. It felt easy and I loved running fast. In fact, I felt better running in zone 3 than in zone 2. And boy did my average pace on Strava look impressive!
Pride is expensive, especially on the legs, as we’ll soon find out.
The show-n-prove race
My spring season goal was the Frederick half marathon. Out of all of my PRs, my half marathon was the oldest and therefore least indicative of my current fitness level so it was time to see what I could do.
Conveniently, the RRCA championship race came up smack in the middle of the season and presented a perfect opportunity to test my fitness. Speaking of fitness, let’s talk about Jenny.
Jenny’s been chasing the 1:30 half for a while now. Although she is in no way competitive at all and is never inspired to greater heights by the opportunity to trounce all those who would dare to challenge her supremacy, I talked big game about how I was training for a 1:30 too. Realistically, I knew that was a stretch at this time, and only with a perfect season paired to a perfect May race day would I be in shape to threaten that time. But it didn’t hurt me to write a check with my mouth that my legs can’t cash, so long as it motivated someone else to train harder, so that’s what I did.
Nevertheless, my goal was still to whittle my time down to as near as 1:30 as I could shave it. That’s a 6:52 pace. My “B” season goal was a sub -70 in the 10 mile distance. That’s a 6:59. I knew after a 1:12 on a hard course like Byron, a 1:09:59 was doable.
It rained the entire tme at RRCA. I run well in the rain. I also had the fortune to have Javier to pace & chase. We had the same time goal and ran together for about 5 miles until he cheekily quipped “now the real race starts” and then dropped me. I kept him in sight, though, and hunted him down to within 20 seconds and a 1:09:30, a 6:56 average pace.
I hadn’t left anything on the course. Those who throw up after hard races might say otherwise because I didn’t run quite that hard. I knew I didn’t have it in me to drop a 20:30 5k at the tail of that effort on that day, but I came away feeling optimistic. I had yet two months to train. 1:30 might be possible after all.
But maybe not
The optimism didn’t last long. Before the RRCA race I had detected a few warning signals from my right medial ankle stabilizers, but they were fleeting. Not so post-race. My ankle hurt off and on for the next month. I held out hope that it would resolve itself and kept running.
But something else was off, and I knew what it was. It was overtraining. I needed to rest badly, and I knew it. The volume and intensity in January and February had caught up to me and the race pushed it over the edge. Did I rest? Of course not. Resting is for the bush league.
Instead I gave Needwood a shot. I ran slower at Needwood than I did at RRCA. I needed to rest. Did I rest? Of course not.
I had committed to pace the Mission 10 miler for the 7:30 group. I knew that this would be easy as I had run at least 5 sub-1:15 10 mile runs on “easy” days in the last 8 weeks not to mention a 1:09. But knowing and feeling are different beasts, and the pressure to perform not just for myself but for the people I would be pacing kept me running at least one 1:15 10 miler each week through March while struggling to keep the mileage up. I postponed the Daniels plan with the intent on taking a couple of weeks to “rest” by running a lot of 7:30 miles. I hoped to pick it up again after Mission and do at least the distance-specific speed tune up work.
But maybe yes
The Mission 10 miler renewed my hope that I could still pull off a decent race at Frederick, because I ended up averaging a little on the fast side with a 7:23 against a goal of 7:29.999, but it felt so easy. As in conversationally easy. I started breathing heavy on the New Design roller coaster at mile 9 but otherwise it was a breeze. Race magic!
Unfortunately, even though I felt easy in the heart and lungs, my ankle wasn’t having it. The race pushed this nagging soreness over the edge, and it started to noticeably hurt after only 3 miles of very easy, measured running with a form emphasis on not bothering it. I took 5 days off.
When in five days hence the issue had not abated, I booked an appointment with Dr. Montenegro at Charm City. I tried on a variety of quality footwear at affordable prices to the backdrop of “the talk” – the one where Dr. Coach Javier reminds me of what I already know but infrequently (and when so, begrudgingly) practice, which is to run slower. I’ve seen the studies. I’ve read the literature. I know there is no aerobic benefit to running in zone 3 compared to zone 2 but there is an increased strain on the lower body, but I keep doing it anyway. And I introduce strain on my lower body.
All roads lead to Hoka One Ones
Last spring I had some issues with with my achilles. Physical therapy failed to correct that problem, but Hoka One One Clifton 3’s succeeded. This spring, I developed some issues with whatever it is that connects to the medial ankle bone. The only other shoes I owned at the time with sufficiently low mileage were my Hoka Challengers. They’re trail shoes. And when I wore them, lo and behold: no ankle pain.
I love the Escalantes almost as much as I love my Verticoli, and a perfectly balanced brush with minimal torque made from illegal whale bone is a tough act to follow, but I will concede that their lack of stiffness does nothing for pronation. The Hokas do, and that something is protect against it to the degree necessary to relieve my weak, small ankles. I mortgaged my house again and came out with a pair of Bondis.
They are almost twice as heavy as the Altras and four times as ugly. I find it hard to keep up the cadence with them on because it’s like running with a pair of skiff anchors. This makes it easy to take Javier’s medicine and run slower though none the more enjoyably.
For the entire month of April I put in miles like a lamed horse with four shoes a hoof. By now I had abandoned Darth Daniels’ plan wholesale and accepted defeat for a second time.
Tapering since 1992
I don’t beieve in the long taper, but alas an overuse injury before a big race forced my hand. I didn’t decrease volume, but I did significantly decrease intensity. I made a college try at a couple of threshold (sub-7:00) miles on days where I felt like it, but those few and far between didn’t make me any fitter. They instead reminded me that I’m fat, slow, and have never run before. They were embarrasingly hard. The peanut gallery on Strava watched and disapproved. If Coach Daniels were dead he’d be turning in his holy grave.
I like confidence runs before races. I searched for one on that Ahab tip for weeks. Yet each run felt harder and slower than the last. I commented to my regular training partners that never had I felt so unprepared for a race than I did for the impending exercise in futility so called my “A” race. I believe the phrase “I’m literally dying; help!” may have been involved.
The week before the race we did a final 10 miler on the canal. The canal, guys. So happens we passed Matt at mile 23ish of his 100 mile race; a total coincidence. We gave him an 800 meter lead on us so we couldn’t be accused of pacing him – against the rules so early in the event – but we couldn’t catch up to him. Yes, you read that right. I couldn’t keep pace with someone running a 100 mile run the week before my half marathon. You can’t spell confidence without F. F minus. F minus minus.
The race day cometh
I took my kids to Legoland the week before the race (“meh” out of 5, do not recommend) yet got in a little bit of running midweek, totaling 17ish. The low point in the trip was when I discovered all of the segments within reasonable distance of the hotel were dominated by guys running 5:20 pace for 1200 meters. That’s not “I don’t feel like taking the CR today” speed, that’s “I am not physically capable of taking that CR on my best day” speed. Many bad words were imagined but not spoken to protect the ears of the young, innocent, and highly impressionable. Again, don’t go to Legoland; you won’t get any CRs so what’s the point?
I was on my feet most of the days and got my Garmin’s arbitrary 12,326 step suggestion in. On Saturday, Jenny, Katelin and I did a casual airport loop before picking up our Bibs at the expo and went full math nerd at the prospect that my bib number, 1363, might be prime. But it isn’t. It is a multiple of two primes. We checked. We’re cool like that.
The cursed ankle hadn’t bothered me in a couple of weeks. I wore the Escalantes for the race, because I wanted to pretend that I am fast instead of pretend that I’m tall.
I’ve never felt more nervous about a race than I did on Sunday morning. As Jenny and I haunted the fairgrounds we discussed what all runners discuss to psych themselves up for a great day: that we hate racing, we hate running, why do we do this to ourselves, whose dumb idea was this, we’re never racing again, what donut we will eat when we are done, etc. etc. I felt nauseated, but I rose up and overcame. I don’t throw up after races and I wasn’t about to start throwing up before races either.
Chatting with the Steeps crew at the tent calmed my nerves. Speaking of nerves, only a guy with nerves of steel would risk moving a picnic table on race morning. I could have pulled something; you just never know with these things. I’ll accept the annual club reward for Race Day Risk Taker, a new category I invented just now. I’ll even share it with Eric Cameron who managed to out chip-time me and came out exactly 1 spot ahead of me in the results despite assisting in the picnic table heist. This goes to show that I clearly shouldered more of the table’s weight than he did. I am going to talk about this for months.
It’s now time to head to the start line and actually run. Whose idea was this?!
Off we go
Jenny and I lined up together, and then proceeded to run 13.1 miles together.
I am not the only casualty of Coach Daniels this spring. It seems his mighty feasting of blood, spirit, and will to run on my wracked and tormented soul could not sate him, and so Jenny too bent her flexor digitorum longus to Jack’s cold kiss. In other words, her legs hurt, man. Fortunately I know a guy who has the stuff she needed. His name is Javier and he’s got the hookup on the Hokas. No skunk shoe at Charm City, only the good stuff.
I digress here to illustrate how it could be conceivable to those who know us that a mortal such as I could be seen fewer than several miles behind the skirted legend herself. What really happened? I don’t know. I ran a pace and she didn’t drop me.
Cameos by Jordan coming off his injury and getting back in the game, coming in 2nd on the coed relay with his wife. This is the first time I’e met Jordan IRL after Strava stalking each other for literally years.
Given how I had been running recently I set modest goals. I didn’t think I’d be able to match my RRCA pace of 6:56. I guessed that I would end up somewhere between 7:00 and 7:10 on average, a result I intended on achieving by aiming for 6:59 yet coming up a little slow on the east side precipitous sheer cliffs the city of Frederick calls a boulevard.
My new thing is running races by quarter miles and it is amazing. I set my “race” mode on my watch to display one and only one screen: lap distance and lap time. I knew a 6:59 was 1:44.25 per quarter, which meant 52 seconds at 0.125 in. I adjusted my pace twice per quarter. Once around the 0.12 mark based on a 52 second target and once again at around 0.20, where I wanted to be around 1:25 or better.
Although it means I have 53 laps instead of only 13, they go by quick. I’ve heard the race advice to “run the mile you’re in”, and I applied that to “run the quarter you’re in.” The only thought on my mind was to make the next quarter under 1:45. I succeeded most of the time. I never ran significantly faster than 1:45 – consciously slowing down if I was ahead at the 200m mark – nor did I make up lost time from the previous quarter.
Throughout the race we were greeted by cheering friends. We saw Art and Katelin several times. I skipped a water stop to take a high five from Louis at the turnaround, which was more nourishing I think. Matt impressed me by simply remaining vertical only seven days after coming in second at his debut 100 mile race.
The trouble spot on my ankle didn’t flare up at all. Instead, because I’m me, a brand new pain appeared in my hamstring behind my right knee, and became somewhat critical near the famous out and back. Somewhat, because I could still maintain form and pace, but critical because I knew that if this had started at mile 6 I would have had no choice but to drop the race to protect my body. With only a mile to go, I knew I’d last.
As such, I made the conscious decision to run the hill on effort rather than speed and consequently we dropped pace on that quarter to 7:40 and ended up with a mile 12 split of 7:20ish. I wanted to push it, but I also want to run for the rest of the summer and hike the Salkantay trail in Peru five weeks from now. We left 20 or 30 seconds on the course in the last 5k, but I don’t have any regrets, because I walked the next day.
Speaking of the course, how do you manage a long course with that out and back? Everybody’s GPS recorded at least 13.2 so I’m inclined to believe that it was long. I play Gran Turismo and Forza. I know the racing lines and I ran them.
Our official finishing chip time was 1:33:32, 4 seconds ahead of gun, for 7:09 average. Strava has my 13.1 split at 1:32:46 for 7:05 average. I’ll call the chip time an official PR and the 1:32:46 the unofficial PR. Now, on to the really important business.
I am posting this for posterity because I’m quite sure that if this ever happens again it will be in the distant future:
We crossed the finish line together, but Corrigan Sports uses the same timing technology as Katelin’s watch and therefore sorts me slightly ahead of Jenny. We’ll have to see the official videos to know for sure.
All in all, I’m happy with the results. I ran my first half marathon here at Frederick in 2015, in 2:11 in 1900-somethingth place. Three years later I ran a 1:33 in 98th place. Breaking into the top 100 was a secret stretch goal for me from the beginning. When I started running I never dreamt that I would achieve a result like this ever, let alone only thee years later. I’m excited to think about where I might be 3 years from now. But there’s a good chance it will be in the finisher’s area of the Frederick Half Marathon.
Coach Evan is accepting clients for 1:1 customized plans that involve a very limited quantity of zone 3 mileage. Here’s a preview of the kung fu I offer:
The trick is to never actually touch the ground. That just slows you down. I can help you perfect your Wu-tang hover technique.
I signed up for MD Heat 50k as an alternative to the exercise in masochism and the voiding of my term life insurance policy known as Catoctin. I need an excuse to keep my mlieage at an unsafe and unreasonably high level throughout the summer and that’s going to be the thing. As with last year, I am going to do approximately 95% of my training for a trail 50k on flat roads. On race day I’ll throw my nutrition plan out the window and subsist on Gulag rations of M&Ms and spend the bottom 25k with calves that are cramping so bad they’ll cast me for Fear the Walking Dead.
My actual plan is to up the mileage and stick to 80/20 – 80% very easy, 20% “effort” with a mix of threshold miles, hill repeats, and some M-paced segments of long runs. In other words, what I should have been doing all along. Maybe this summer will be the season I train with my head instead of Strava weekly average pace statistic. But it probably won’t be.