1/3rd of a 24 hour run: thoughts on failure

Pre-race gear

On Dec 31st, I started running the San Francisco One-Day race. It’s a 24-hour race at Chrissy Field, with a great view of the Golden Gate bridge. Runners make ~1-mile loops around a lagoon from 9am on Dec 31st to 9am on Jan 1st, trying to log as many miles as they can.

My goal was to run 100 miles. I ended up running 40 before dropping out. I’ve never dropped out of a race before. It felt miserable. I felt like a failure, and like a quitter, and in some ways, I still do. It will probably take longer than the three days it’s been since the race to come to terms with dropping out.

The race itself: the course was beautiful. The light on the Golden Gate bridge was amazing to see in the morning, and at midday, and at sunset.

As for the running – the first five or ten miles were great. I was trotting along at a pretty good pace, keeping up with some of the top runners in the field. Between miles 10 and 20, I ran by myself, and I had some expected existential mini-crises: “Why are you doing this?” “Wouldn’t you rather be at home, petting the cats?”, but I kept up my pace. I finished 30 miles in six hours, which was right on track with my goal pace. I was also in 2nd or 3rd place for female runners at that point, which felt pretty good.

Around mile 34, my knee started hurting. Yes, that knee, and that same part. It was the injury that took me out for six months in 2012. Last time, it was caused by overuse, and by hitting the hills too hard, to quickly.

This course in SF was a flat course, but I knew what the problem was. I’d gone from running flat in Philadelphia to, before this race, running hills for a few weeks near by parents’ house in California, with no ramp-up time. I’d made the same mistake twice.

In a race, when some part of your body starts hurting, you try to do something differently for a bit. Walk half a lap, change your stride, strike with a different part of the foot, anything that might make the pain go away or allow your body to use different muscles for a bit. I tried a bunch of things, but the knee pain wasn’t getting better. I honestly didn’t expect it to. This particular pain wasn’t one you just worked through – it would just get worse.

I stayed on the course for another hour, mostly walking and occasionally jogging, giving the knee time to change it’s mind. I was hoping it would tell me “Just kidding! I was just messing with you. You can keep running.”

It wasn’t going to happen. Part of me knew it wasn’t going to, even though I was giving it time to stop hurting. I made it to 40 miles at around 8 hours, and dropped out. Spending the next 16 hours on the course, in pain, potentially damaging my knee irreparably, just didn’t seem like a good idea.

I took a shower at a friend’s place and immediately started driving back to Orange County.

The next 9 hours, as the clock turned to 2015, were spent alone in the dark, on the open road, or sleeping in the back seat of my car. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone.

I felt like a complete failure. I’d been looking forward to this race for so long – it had been a race I’d wanted to run for years. The idea of honoring my sport by finishing 2014 and starting 2015 with running seemed very symbolic. Now, I had to get over those sentimental notions. The calendar’s an arbitrary creation anyway.

I’m taking the next two weeks off from running, to let my knee – and the rest of my body – heal. After a year with 17 marathons/ultras, an average of ~50 miles per week, and almost 2,500 miles run in total, and crossing the 10,000 lifetime-mile threshold, it’s probably time to let my body recover for a bit.

However, I’ve had some time to reflect. Ultimately, this is an expected value calculation, where two outcomes were possible. In the first, I would have stayed on the course and finished the race; I most likely would have injured myself even further, which would mean being off of my feet for at least six months, and maybe much longer. In the second, which I chose, I stopped the race, take two weeks off, give my body time to recover, and get back to running slowly after that. Sounds better to me. While I’m not happy with the outcome in the short term, I know this was the right choice for the long term.

Handling this failure isn’t easy, but it’s also a good learning experience.

Also … I’m also now pretty sure I can run 100 miles in 24 hours. Running 40 miles in 8 hours is a pretty damn good start. I think I can do it again … and, next time, keep on running.

First, rest.

Check out the bridge in the background! This was our view all day.

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Race Report: The Hardest Race I’ve Ever Run (Pine Creek 100-miler)

I ran my 2nd 100-mile race this weekend. It was the hardest race I’ve yet run, and in some ways, gave me a new appreciation for ultrarunning. I’d read a lot about some of the most difficult, trying parts of long races, but hadn’t really experienced the full extent of real challenges ultrarunners face until this race.

Background

Last year, Will and I ran something like seven road marathons. Road marathons aren’t my favorite; they’re usually painful due to the speed at which you have to run them and the pounding of the pavement, and they aren’t very scenic, especially in comparison to trail runs. I was getting burnt out on road marathons.

I convinced Will to sign up for a trail 100 with me.  He suggested the Pine Creek Challenge, which he’d run as his first 100. This race was a good fit for several reasons. It’s located in Pennsylvania, so it would be a good way to see a part of the state I hadn’t seen before and probably wouldn’t have the chance to see again for a while. It was also after summer (yet before classes really got going), so we’d have ample opportunity to train.

Leading up to the race, I ran lots of solo 30-mile unsupported training runs, as well as a 12-hour race and a 50-miler trail race. These were all great experiences, especially because they represented the best part of running to me – the adventure of trying something new. Also, none of them were road marathons.

After our internships ended, Will and I visited several national parks. We took on a lot of the more challenging, iconic hikes and runs, including Angel’s Landing in Zion, hiking from the Grand Canyon Rim to the Colorado River and back in a single day, and Half Dome, all in the name of training. We may have overdone it here – we probably should have left more time for lazy tapering in preparation for the 100 – but these opportunities and the scenery were too good to miss.

Leading up to the race, I felt I’d trained well, especially given the long work hours at my summer internship and the erratic travel schedule afterwards. I’d logged more than 1,200 miles in the six months leading up to the race, including ten marathon-or-longer distances. While I wasn’t “pumped up” for this 100, I felt ready.

The Race

Pine Creek Challenge is a 100 mile race on relatively flat, wide gravel trail in upstate Pennsylvania. The first 20 miles consisted of a five-mile stretch, which we ran out and back twice, finishing that portion at the start line. The next 80 miles were one long, 40-mile out-and-back – again, ending at the same place we started.

The weather forecast was questionable for the week leading up to the race, alternating between ridiculously humid and largely rainy with possible thunderstorms. I wasn’t concerned about the rain, as my last 100 took place almost exclusively during a deluge. I wasn’t concerned about the humidity either, as New York City had been pretty brutal to train in over the summer.

Part One – The Beginning

The start line (photo credit: Will)

We arrived at the start line around 5:15 in the morning. It was humid enough outside that I put on a bit of bug spray, and warm enough that I didn’t need a jacket. That should have been my first warning sign; the best weather conditions for races are ones where the temperature is just a bit below comfortable.

Will and I arranged our drop bags, which contained our gear that we could pick up at different aid stations, and headed to the start line. The race itself had 62 registered runners, which is pretty small, even for a 100.

As a result, the start line felt very informal and not at all crowded. A few people were sitting on the ground adjusting their shoes. When they played the national anthem, we all turned towards the flag; someone had inconveniently placed the port-o-potties between the start line and the flagpole, so runners would come out of the restroom, see everyone staring in their direction, get confused, then turn around and face the flag once they realized what was going on. Nobody was toeing the line; thirty seconds here was not going to make or break anyone’s race, and it’s very foolish to start out too strong on an ultra; you’ll burn out quick.

At about 6am, we started off. Will and I together for the first five miles; he was planning to hold back a bit so he didn’t burn out too early.  I was aiming for a sub-24 finish, but didn’t really have any strategy other than run at my usual pace for as much as I could.

The first five miles were mostly in the pre-dawn light. Some runners had headlamps. I opted not to wear mine, instead enjoying the tranquility of the morning.

As the sun came up, we were able to appreciate the beauty of the scenery. A light mist covered lush, green farms on either side; we’d occasionally run past cows or a mossy pond. When the mist lifted, the early morning sunlight pierced through the clouds, turning the whole landscape a dewey golden yellow color.

Part of the fun of out-and-back sections is seeing where other runners are along the course and how they’re doing. I was excited to see that three of the top five runners were female. It was fun seeing Will after he took off, too.

By mile 17 or so, I’d seen the same scenery three times and was ready for a change. I made it through the start-line aid station around mile 21, and at this point, I felt like the real race was beginning.

Part Two – Things I don’t Really Remember and Early Challenges

Somewhere on the course – it was pretty! (Photo credit: Will)

I’d be lying if I said I could accurately describe the next 8-10 miles and my state of mind. I know the scenery was pretty, because the trail had lots of trees making pretty tree arches and because I ran it on the way back. I know there was an aid station around mile 24, but I don’t remember it. I know the next aid station after that was 7.7 miles away, which was pretty far. I saw two horse-drawn covered wagons along the way, as well as several very happy Amish women on bicycles. This bridge fits in somehow, and it was very pretty.

A bridge we ran across. It looked a lot creepier at night. (Photo credit: Will)

 

I do remember being pretty happy to be in such a gorgeous area. The trees and the river nearby were really just beautiful.

After those 7.7 miles, we had another long stretch – 8.3 until the next aid station. I fell in with another runner from Philadelphia – he’d completed an Ironman (!) and was an all-around excellent athlete. We paced each other through that long stretch to mile 40.7 before splitting up. He looked like he was doing well, but said he was struggling; I think he dropped out at some point.

We were reaching the early afternoon, and the hottest part of the day. This is the first time I really started struggling, for two reasons: my GPS watch and, as mentioned, the heat.

One: I’d been relying on my GPS watch to determine my walk breaks. I soon realized I was getting grumpy, because the watch was demoralizing; seeing the distance kept reminding me how far I still had to go. I decided to change my strategy and take my walk breaks based on a technique I’d learned from one of my ultrarunning friends: counting your breaths. I would run for 100 breaths (about 400 steps) then walk for 20 breaths (about 80 steps), repeating as necessary and adding either to the run or walk portion if I wanted to. This allowed me to disconnect myself from the watch and be more in-tune with my body and with nature. Studies show that the fastest runners are not the ones who focus on their distance or their own bodies, but the scenery around them. Additionally, part of the reason I like trail running is the experience of immersing myself in my surroundings; it’s hard to do that when you’re constantly staring at a digital screen.

Two: the heat came in fast. I recognized what was happening before it fully hit; I’d experienced the same thing at the 12-hour race I ran in New York. That didn’t make it easier to handle. By mile 43, I was getting dizzy during my walk breaks; I didn’t get dizzy during the running parts, but I couldn’t just run through the heat – that would be disastrous.

At one point, I think around mile 44, I reached a man on a chair; I think he was taking race bib numbers, but it wasn’t really clear what his role was.  He said something horrible: “You’re almost at half way!”  I muttered “Thanks” and kept going. There’s really nothing worse than being reminded how much further you have to go.

About a minute later, I couldn’t take the heat anymore. I remembered reading the article about Tim Olsen, an elite ultrarunner who struggled at the Hardrock 100; at one point, he decided that laying down on a mattress in a pile of trash was a really excellent choice for taking a break. I took a page of out his book and just collapsed on the side of the trail, back to the gravel. It felt great.

Another runner passed me asking if I was okay – I was, and she seemed to believe me, so she continued on. I was up just a few moments later.

Around mile 45, it started pouring – torrential downpour. My kind of challenge. I was ecstatic. I felt revived, revitalized, and excited to be alive. I was happy to be running again. I felt strong.

Mile 46 brought an aid station, along with a lot of runners huddling under it. I grabbed a trash bag for rain protection (I ended up not using it, because it was till warm) and took off again.

The rain subsided pretty quickly, but the happiness I’d felt during it lasted for a few more miles.

I also knew that my pacers would be meeting me at mile 53; that thought buoyed me through the next stretch.

Part 3 – Running with Friends

When I saw my two pacers at the next crew station, I was so happy I almost started crying. I couldn’t believe I had friends who loved me so much that they’d drive four hours on their weekend to run in the middle of a forest – probably in the dark, and slowly – while I was most likely (read: definitely) a terrible conversationalist. I felt so honored and humbled – and I was really, really looking forward to running with them.

Christina joined me first. She initially was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with me for the 16 miles we’d talked about, but was quickly dissuaded of that notion when she saw how slowly I was going (I was probably running 13-14 minute miles at this point, which actually isn’t that bad for a 100 … but is very slow for any other time). She took me to the turnaround and back to mile 68. We had some pretty deep conversations – the kind you have when you’re out in the forest at stupid-o-clock in the dark and nobody is around.

Jess would pace me for the next 12 miles, up through about 80.5. These were really hard miles for me, and Jess was so supportive, even though it definitely could not have been fun for her. I was still awake and moving, but I was moving very slowly. I was starting to feel the effects of the earlier humidity, and I repeated my earlier trick of starfishing out on the gravel.

At my last 100, I’d almost run out of batteries for my headlamp a few times, which would have left me completely in the dark. After that experience, I developed a weird pathology about light, and Jess had to put up with my constant worrying about whether or not the flashlight we had would run out of batteries. I probably mentioned it something like 20 times. We found more batteries for the flashlight at an aid station, and at mile 80 I’d also have my headlamp – but on reflection, I realize this fixation was definitely symptomatic of having run 70+ miles.

I was terrified of what would happen at mile 80. Mile 80 was the start of some long, solo stretches (remember the 8.3 + 7.7?). It was going to be dark, and I was tired, and I’d be alone. I was really nervous about it.

Part 4 – The Darkest Part of the Race

Jess and Christina left at mile 80.5. I was so happy to have had friends on the trail with me for so long – it was so motivating. The rest was up to me.

I downed about 12 ounces of Diet Coke to wake me up and grabbed my jacket, extra headlamp batteries, and my iPod, and charged into the darkness. It was me, the forest, the trail, and the night.

The next three miles were amazing. I felt like I was running downhill, and I ran most of them with very few walk breaks. I was listening to really upbeat Australian folk music about dingos and emus, so I was pretty happy. Then I had to pee three times in thirty minutes, the caffeine wore off, and I was exhausted again. This is when it got bad.

At this point, I couldn’t even walk straight. I was zigzagging back and forth on my little rut of the trail, and I was I was resting on the gravel every two miles or so. Literally, that gravel was the most comfortable bed I could imagine. A woman on a bike pacing another runner passed me while I was on the ground – she somehow looked like an underwater octopus.

I got up after one rest, and behind me I saw a shadow. At first I thought I was hallucinating, but it was, in fact, another runner – he just wasn’t wearing his headlamp. He and I somehow fell into step together and made it to the next aid station.

From there, we only had 11 miles to go. We shambled back onto the trail.

I can’t begin to describe how hard the next 4 miles were. I was exhausted. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I’m sure I was sleep walking at some point. I had my first real hallucinatory experience; I saw 10-foot long shoes (they were trees), a two-story apartment complex (also trees), a huge covered bridge (still trees), a bunch of miniature footballs on the trail (leaves), a pile of white index cards that someone had drawn smiley faces on with red pen (leaves), and even the new iPhone 6, which wasn’t announced yet (leaves). The strangest part was seeing these things and knowing they weren’t real, but my body thinking they were. I gingerly stepped over the iPhone 6 so as not to crush it, even as I told my subconscious mind to make the vision go away.

I was also borderline hypothermic. I was wearing a long-sleeve jacket, but not a very heavy one. If we stopped for more than a few moments, I’d start shivering uncontrollably.

The last half-hour before the sun came up was the most miserable half-hour of running I have ever experienced. I am so, so thankful to have found this other runner; I know he was in just as bad of shape as I was, and I think we both felt better that we could look out for each other.

Physically, I wasn’t in any particular pain. My feet were fine, and my muscles and joints felt fine. I was just generally fatigued, and my body was confused that it still had to be awake.

When the sky finally lightened, my new running friend and I could not have been more thrilled.

I woke up immediately. My body felt like a new day had begun, and mentally, I felt awake and alert. Basic math skills returned somewhat (they’d literally been nonexistent earlier – we couldn’t do things like add 0.9 to 8.3. That was challenging).

We reached the final aid station at mile 96.5, and I was ready to take on those next 3.5 miles. My runner friend and I parted ways, and I took off.

I was thinking about just a few things over those last few miles:

  • How outrageously hard this race had been, and how I didn’t yet feel any sense of pride for having finished it, even though I knew at that point I would finish it. It had just been hard and miserable.
  • That Will was waiting for me at the finish line, and the faster I got there, the faster I could see him.
  • How fortunate I was to get to be immersed in nature on this adventure (and survive).
  • Bed and sleeping.

The same yellow glow from more than 24 hours ago was filling the farm valley. As I saw people beginning their Sunday morning, I thought about the fact that they’d had a whole cycle of life since the last time I’d passed through there – eating, drinking, seeing friends, sleeping, and waking up again – and I’d just been running the whole time.

The final turn back into the parking lot was surreal. It was simultaneously overwhelmingly emotional and also starkly apocalyptic. The 0.1 mile driveway to the finish line seemed long and empty. There was a car sharing the driveway with me, which was weird and anticlimactic after being on a trail for so long. Will was in our rental relaxing (he’d finished a few hours before me) – he waved out the window as I passed, then got out of the car to follow me to the finish line.

There were only about eight people at the finish line – all race coordinators who I didn’t know – and they seemed wholly separate from the experience I was going through as I crossed under the finishing arch. I was just happy to be done. They clapped and waved cowbells, but I didn’t really know them and they didn’t really know me, and it seemed sort of hollow.

I thanked them and smiled and turned around, limping back to Will, who hugged me. The race was over. I began shivering again as we walked back to the car.

Will and I at the finish line, just after I crossed it

Afterwards

It took me a couple of hours to write this, but it took a few days to really think and digest my thoughts about the race. I obviously struggled a lot during this race, and I’ll probably go back later and add more color about just how hard it was. I thought about dropping out basically nonstop, and, the weird part was, I didn’t think I’d even care that I hadn’t finished the race; I’d just be happy that the pain was over. I’d never felt that apathetic before.

But, you can only make the decision to drop out at aid stations, and somehow, whenever I was there, the thought didn’t even cross my mind.

62 people registered to run the 100-mile distance. 54 showed up at the start line. Only 37 finished (possibly less – that was the count when I arrived, and there were many people still on the course behind me).

I know I want to do another 100-mile race, and I know it may be as mentally challenging as this one. That scares me a little bit.

For now, I’m just enjoying relaxing and thinking about the shorter races I have coming up.

 

Running around New York (literally)

Starting out in the morning. This GoPro is definitely a fashion statement.

Today is my Marathon Birthday – I’m turning 26.2 years old (the .2 is 20% of a year). To celebrate this holiday that I have made up, I decided to run around the island of Manhattan – about 32 miles. I also used a GoPro to make a video about it – check it out above!

I’d run many of the paths around New York before, but there were some parts I thought would be tricky from a navigational perspective. I conveniently found this grassroots ultramarathon organized last year – the Madhattan – where 50 people ran the the same self-supported ultra I was attempting. I used their map as a template to help me prepare for the tricker-to-navigate areas, especially the north east part of the island, where the trail on the east side of the island ends.

I’d read a trip report from someone who cycled it, as well. He put it reassuringly: “It’s an island. You won’t get lost.”

 

This is where I started. I took this with my Android phone!

With these encouraging words in mind, I started running from the West Village area about 5:15 in the morning. I’d decided early on to run counter-clockwise, because the Staten Island Ferry area – where people go to visit the Statue of Liberty – becomes impassible to pedestrians by about 8am on the weekends due to mass quantities of tourists. I also started early because this was my first time using a GoPro camera, and I wanted to capture pictures of the sunrise.

Heading north along the East River was gorgeous – the sun was just rising, and the first 7.5 miles were along a well-marked trail that I was familiar with. I had to jump off for a bit and onto 1st Ave due to construction, but was back on the trail within a mile or so. I also noticed a bit of a headwind, which I hoped would pick up on the way back down and give me a boost going the other direction. I saw almost no other runners or cyclists out.

Sunrise at the southern tip of Manhattan. Taken with GoPro and edited in Lightroom. This camera is legit.

After about 120th Street, the trail along the water ended and I moved onto the streets. It was still pretty early at that point, so there weren’t a lot of people or cars – I could basically jaywalk against red lights. I picked up the trail again and took it most of the way up to the northernmost tip of the island, where I ran an extra two blocks and almost crossed Broadway Bridge, leaving the island. Fortunately, someone gave me directions to Inwood Hill Park – northwest part of the island – which I immediately also failed to follow correctly. I somehow ended up on the wrong side of the fence protecting Columbia’s football stadium, and, instead of running around again, just climbed over to escape. Clearly, the well-meaning cyclist from above had never met someone with as bad a sense of direction as I have.

Inwood Park was beautiful. So lush and green – there was even a little part where I got to run on dirt trails for a bit!  This part of the run also threw into sharp relief the fact that New York City smells really bad in a lot of places. Inwood Park smelled fresh and foresty – such a nice change.

Trails at Inwood Park, next to Columbia University. I’d love to run more of these trails before the summer is over – so beautiful.

Shocking zero people, I got lost in the trails and asked a guy for directions to the Hudson River Greenway – the path that goes along the west side of the island. He pointed me in the right direction. I did this part a little differently than the Madhattan runners did – I ran about the same distance, but a slightly different route, due to my great navigational abilities.

The route I was attempting

The route I was attempting. Click to enlarge.

Immediately after leaving the park, just after mile 20, the battery on my GoPro died. Fortunately, I had been forewarned of the device’s short battery life, and had brought two backups. This also provided a good opportunity to eat my sandwich. Since I still wasn’t clear on where the Hudson River Greenway was, I looked around for someone I thought might give me some additional guidance. A woman on a bike was nearby, and, deciding she was a likely candidate for solid information about bike trails, I asked her. She gave very good directions. Once on the path, it was a straight shot back down to West Village.

The last ten miles weren’t overly challenging, although my feet were in a bit of pain from the sidewalk pounding. I was fortunately aided by a tailwind – the previously identified breeze had picked up quite a bit, and my speed picked up (a very small bit!) as well.

By this point, it was midmorning, and a lot of walkers, runners, and cyclists were enjoying the good weather. However, the trail was wide and I was familiar with it, so it wasn’t difficult to avoid other pedestrians.

Other pedestrians out in the wild.

About four and a half miles out, I passed the yacht club – I use that as a waypoint on a lot of my runs. There’s a family of Canadian Geese with two little baby goslings – they were swimming around in their normal spot.

The last two miles were probably the most difficult. This was territory I was familiar with, so, while I wouldn’t get lost, it wasn’t visually exciting. My ankles were also very sore by this point.

 

During these two miles, I really appreciated the loud city noise and the fact that it’s pretty par for the course for New Yorkers to talk to themselves; I made up some pretty terrible songs, which I sang to myself, during these last few minutes of running. My improvisational musical abilities spanned topics as diverse as the number of miles I had left, the neon yellow shoes of the guy who just passed me, the number of miles I had left, the kid on the bicycle who just passed me, and the number of miles I had left. I told myself that people were looking at my head-mounted camera, not my crazy talking-to-self tendencies.

I finished right back where I started, with a view of One World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty.  After turning off my GoPro, I made a beeline to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts.

Putting together the video was a lot of fun, too. Somehow adding music to pictures is weirdly inspirational.

Overall, this was a really fun run. For people interested in doing it, I’d advise you to spend some time with the maps of the area – that helped me avoid a lot of possible extra miles. As for me, I like getting back to leisurely long runs, where I don’t have to worry about time and can just enjoy the scenery and the feeling of taking on a new, and sort of crazy, challenge.

Check out the GoPro imprint on my forehead!

Podium Finish!

I just got an email from McAllen Marathon team – apparently I came in 3rd! The listed 3rd place finisher didn’t actually finish the race, even though her chip triggered at the finish line. Kinda cool! Here’s the email. Text below.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 5.06.49 PM

Congratulations Lisa!

After reviewing the final results from Sunday’s McAllen Marathon, we discovered an error. It seems the overall third place female finisher in the marathon did not complete the marathon. Her chip was somehow read by the sensors. She notified us of the error and we have removed her from the results.

You are now the overall third place finisher and winner of $250.00. Please complete the attached form so we can mail you a check.

Thank you for running the McAllen Marathon.

Thank You,
City of McAllen

Leslie A. Howland
Marketing & Events Coordinator
Parks and Recreation Department
(956) 681-3333

Behavioral Contagion – or Why I ran a Solo Marathon this Weekend

I just ran a solo marathon. Google+ makes these gifs look good.

My usual training method is somewhat ad-hoc:

  1. Run a few miles a week
  2. Run a few more miles each week
  3. One day, notice I’m running a lot of miles
  4. Sign up for a 50k race that’s three days away.

This somewhat contrasts to my new Wharton MBA classmates plans. Several of us are running the Philadelphia Marathon; my classmates are following quite rigorous training plans, which involve increasingly long weekend runs: 18, 20, 22 miles. Out of laziness with regards to my own training plan, I’ve latched on to their long runs.

Behavioral Contagion is a fascinating type of social influence. It explains why members of a social group tend to do similar things , like all face the same direction in an elevator or all order diet-busting dessert at a restaurant. It also explains why I seem to be following a training plan for this race – everyone else is doing it.

Behavioral contagion played a part in my decision to run a solo marathon this weekend. Here’s how:

  • Hogfest. On Saturday, Wharton hosted an inter-collegiate rugby tournament. I know I would be celebrating with the team that evening, and I also knew they’d be glowing from post-tournament exhaustion.  I felt like I would be missing out if I weren’t also athletically drained and able to celebrate with them.
  • 20 miles is almost 26.2 miles. I also knew that my runner colleagues would be running about 20 miles this weekend. But, in my mind, 20 miles is just an hour short of a marathon. It seems silly to not just tack on an extra 6.2 and get the marathon.

Perverse logic. But, there it is.

I thought about all of this on Thursday. True to my historical training regimen, three days later, I woke up and ran a glorious, easy, solo marathon.

The weather was amazing – just around 50*F. I ran along the river, with a very slight breeze and the sun low on the horizon. There were a few stretches of gravel path with green branches arching up on either side. It wasn’t a redwood forest, but it was gorgeous nevertheless.

The geeky runner information: My goal was to run a 4-hour marathon without feeling terrible afterwards.  I was trying to run at a consistent pace – one that didn’t feel frantic, but also that was a bit of a push. I ran my first 13.1 in 1:59:53 (just under two hours), then finished the entire run at 4:04:22 – pretty close to goal. Legs were a little wobbly around mile 16, but a Gu helped with that. Overall, this wasn’t terrible – and I think I can improve on 4:04 for Philadelphia, especially since I hadn’t tapered at all for this particular run (the total mileage for the week was 56.2).

In summary: I was “contaged” to run a solo marathon. But it was the best kind of contagion – the kind that pushes you just a little farther than you would have pushed yourself.

Also – this happened to be my 30th marathon. Yay!

What I think about when I’m Running

Me running Boston … I think this was around mile 15.

Someone recently asked me what I think about when I run. I actually get that question a lot, so much so that I thought I’d written about it already. After digging through the archives, I realized I hadn’t – so here’s a sample of my thought process a little bit after the half-way mark of a marathon.

Okay, 14 miles in. Just 12.2 to go. That’s more than halfway done. I wonder if I can run the second half of this race as quickly as the first half. How fast did I run that last 0.8 of a mile? Like 8 minutes and 7 seconds? That’s pretty slow. What does that translate to for a full mile? Maybe 10 minutes and 13 seconds? That’s sort of like ten minute miles. That’s pretty slow.

I wonder if I can run my second half as fast as my first half. How was that last … I guess .9 of a mile? Now we’re at 8 minutes and 15 seconds? How is that possible? How does that compare to my average speed for the first 13.1 miles. I guess I could calculate that by taking whatever’s on my watch now … 8 minutes and 22 seconds … subtract that from my total time, then divide the remaining by 13.1?

But who divides things by 13.1? There’s no easy way to round that to something easy to divide by.

I wonder when the next aid station is. Maybe 3 miles. I’ll say three miles. So less than a half an hour away at my current pace. Maybe they have those chocolate Gu gels. Delicious.

Maybe I’ll work at it the other way. 12.1 miles to go, and if I run it in 10 minute miles or so, then that will take me 121 minutes or something? Is that even right? So two more hours? That’s slower than my first half I think. That’s pretty slow. Two hours is a long time.

But I’ve already been out here for about two hours. So it’s not that long. It’s less long than I’ve already been running.

I have a Gu with me right now. Maybe I should eat it. But the next aid station is probably pretty close. So maybe I should wait. Or maybe I’ll eat the Gu now, then get one at an aid station but not eat it at the aid station and just hold on to it, so I can eat it later.

Maybe I should run faster. If I run nine minute miles, I’ll get to the finish line about 12 minutes faster than if I was running ten minute miles. That’s pretty good. That’s almost fifteen fewer minutes of running overall. Think of all the things I could do with fifteen extra minutes at the finish line. I could … eat finish-line food. Get to my car faster and take my shoes off. Eat finish-line food.

I wonder if they have anything with peanut butter at the finish line. Or anything with protein really. Protein’s good after a race. But I really want a donut, like one of those Chocolate Glazed ones from Dunkin Donuts. I wonder where the closest Chipotle is to the finish line. Maybe they have cut up oranges and bananas at the finish line. I like Chipotle’s whole wheat tortilla … I wonder if they’ll have that at this store. Do they have Churros at Chipotle? Maybe I’ll treat myself to a Churro. Or maybe I’ll hold out for a Chocolate Glazed Dunkin Donut.

I wonder when the next aid station is. I think they said there was one at mile 16? Or maybe it was 17. So that’s like … less than 30 minutes away. For sure. Definitely less than 30 minutes, even if it’s at mile 17. Mile 17 would be a weird place to have an aid station though, so maybe mile 16. If I’m at mile … well, my watch says 14.2 now, but probably it’s ahead because of all that maneuvering through the start-line crowds. So probably I’m only at mile 14. Argh – that messes up all my time calculations. But two miles away from the next aid station. So twenty minutes – less than that for sure. So maybe 18 minutes, because I’m running nine minute miles now.

Well, my watch says 9:30. But that’s close enough to nine minute miles. So 18 minutes. But now I’ve definitely run farther than when I did the calculation, so probably like 17 minutes. That’s way less than 30 minutes. I think I can wait 17 minutes before eating a Gu.

I wonder what food is at the aid station. Does this one even have Gu gels? Did they say that in the race packet? I should really read those things. Remember that race that I didn’t read the race packet, and the race turned out to be 1.2 miles longer than they said it would be, but I didn’t find out until a mile from the finish line? Worst race ever. I should read the race packets.

I wonder what flavors they have at the aid station. Maybe I’ll get a chocolate one, because chocolate is delicious. But so is that weird strawberry flavor. But that one’s kind of sticky so you have to drink a lot of water afterwards. Ny hypothermia for me! Or hypertremia? What’s the one where you have too much water?

It would be great to just zone out for a bit. Maybe I’ll think about that book I’m reading for a while. They just got done with a family dinner in the book, I think. Someone cooked salmon and there were rolls. I’d like a bread roll right now. I wonder if the aid station has bread rolls.

That’s ridiculous. Why would the aid station have a bread roll?

That would be awesome if it did. Maybe with honey.

Okay, 11.9 miles to go. What’s that multiplied by 9 minutes and 37 second pace? That’s pretty close to 12 times 10, which is 120 minutes. That’s like two hours! Surely I’ve been running for longer than one minute. Definitely, because I’ve covered at least three tenths of a mile. At least. I wish I could run three tenths of a mile in one minute. That would be a really fast mile. I’d have finished this race already.

I wonder if they have baked potatoes at the finish line. Or donuts.

11.8 miles to go.

How to Run Your First Ultra

Someone recently asked me about my first race. The story’s a little strange: I ran an ultramarathon before running an organized marathon. Here’s the story about how that decision – to run an ultra, poorly trained – came about.

When I moved to Sacramento, I signed up for Lake of the Sky Trail Run, a 36.4 mile race. I signed up for it just so I would have something to train for. I wanted to make sure my new 9-5 lifestyle would include running. All I knew about Lake Tahoe was that a lot of people went there for vacation.

An ultramarathon is defined, technically, as any distance longer than 26.2 miles.  So, if you finish your marathon and run another 1/10th of a mile, you’re there.  However, most races aren’t 26.3 miles. The shortest generally-accepted ultramarathon distance is a 50k, or 31 miles, which is just less than five miles longer than a marathon.

For the first few miles of Lake of the Sky, I fell into step with a couple of women.  I think they were doing about a 9-minute pace. They were talking very intelligently about the need to train for races like this. Their opinion, which I now share, was that, with a little training, anyone can run a distance like this within a reasonable amount of time.

The farthest I had run prior to this ultramarathon was a 26.2 miles; I had run a single unsupported marathon about a year prior. Since then, my longest distance was around 20 miles. Not only that, but I didn’t realize that Lake Tahoe is at 7,000 feet of elevation. Bad decisions all around. Continue reading