This past weekend the GeekGrl and I had a family function to attend near Salt Lake City and so of course we looked for a race to enter since we would need to get a run in anyway and it’s always fun to check out local events from locales other than where you live. The only thing I was able to find that fit our schedule was a half-marathon in its inaugural year called the Run Elevated Half Marathon. The race begins near a ski lodge in Alta, UT at an elevation of close to 9000 feet and it descends through the canyon and ends at the base of the mountains in Sandy, UT. According to my Garmin there was almost 400 feet of elevation loss on the course and the majority of it takes place in the first 9 miles.
The race starts at 6:30 in the morning but you have to arrive at the finish line by about 5:00 a.m. in order to park and catch buses to the start line. It was cold and dark when they dropped us at the start line and we ended up waiting form maybe 45 minutes though it seemed longer because the GeekGrl and I hadn’t brought any warm clothes. Runners were allowed to bring a drop bag for warm clothes that would be transported back down to the finish line but for some reason the information that it would be about 50 degrees at the start line didn’t register with me as being particularly cold.
For some reason I’ve been having difficulty with the concept of relative experiences lately. My mind has been defaulting to extreme cases so when I saw the 50 degrees warning I immediately thought about how 50 degrees felt relatively warm compared to winter. I can recall several winter runs when I was blessed with a “warm” day of 50 and ran comfortably in shorts and a singlet. I did not think about all the other runs I’ve done in the summer when 50 degrees feels pretty cold compared to the average 90 degree temps. In a similar vein, when we ran the Squak Mountain marathon earlier this year and I read that there would be 7,000 feet of climbing it didn’t seem all that bad in comparison to the 27,000 feet of climbing at Wasatch but again, I didn’t consider the relative distances, 100 miles versus a marathon, and then appreciate that Squak Mountain was mile-for-mile every bit as hard as Wasatch.
In any case, there we stood huddled out of the wind holding each other behind the port-o-potties waiting for the start. The race began exactly on time and predictably people tore out at the starting gun like they were on fire. I’ve done this enough times to appreciate that you really have to be conservative at least for the first mile just to see how your body feels so that’s what I did as all kinds of people surged past me. Almost as soon as the race started we were hit with a light sprinkle that turned into a cold rain and I was thankful at least that it had held off until after the start. The rain, however, didn’t last long and I was feeling increasingly good so I picked up the pace.
Running downhill used to be something I really excelled at; even my fastest friends had to run hard when it came to going downhill. However a couple nasty spills and a fractured hip changed that dramatically. I would say that during the 2011 and 2012 running season I was not myself as a downhill runner. I became slow and cautious. For the longest time I couldn’t really put my finger on what it was that slowed me down so much. I mean, sure, I had lost confidence but it wasn’t the loss of confidence per-se that caused me to slow, there was something behind it and lead to less confidence.
A few months back the GeekGrl and I took up Olympic Weightlifting and this has resulted in doing a lot of squats of every description. We don’t just do the half-squat that you often see people at the local gym doing, we do the deep full squats of an Olympic weightlifter. We do front squats, back squats and overhead squats. We also do a lot of split squats, which is akin to a weighted lunge, and a lot of dumbbell jumps, which is really doing what box jumps are intended to do except instead of jumping up onto some platform you are simply doing your vertical jump while holding dumbbells.
After about a month of the Olympic weightlifting I noticed my legs started to feel solid when they hit the ground as I ran the foothills behind my house and that is when it clicked and I finally realized what had been going on and what had caused my lack of confidence in my downhill running. During my various injuries I had lost a lot of leg strength and that resulted in a slightly spongy, unstable feeling when my feet hit the ground as I ran downhill. It’s nothing that I ever noticed except in contrast to how I feel now but somewhere in the recesses of my mind I did sense this slight instability and so I slowed and became more cautions, lost confidence.
Regaining that solid feeling was pretty amazing because when I first noticed it returning it was like seeing someone you think you recognize but aren’t quite sure. I was tentative at first but the longer I paid attention to the feeling the more recognition set in, “Yes, this is how my legs used to feel when I hammered the downhills, like steel springs not like worn out shocks.”
This race put my newfound leg strength to the test but what was great is that my confidence was back and I knew in my heart that it would be a very rare person who could beat me on the downhills. After about a mile and a half I just decided to attack the hill and let fly. I quickly started passing people one, two, three at a time. I then started catching entire groups of people, the cluster at the front of the back of the pack, the cluster at the back of the middle of the pack, the cluster at the middle of the middle of the pack and so on. By the time I left the canyon at mile nine I could tell from the dispersion of people that I was in that more thinly populated training edge of the front of the front of the pack.
However, by this time I had developed a pretty large blister on the heel of each foot. I could feel them there and they hurt. Despite having my leg strength back my feet weren’t used to that kind of pounding. It may have been wiser to have backed off but the way I saw it the blisters were there already so there’s no point in backing off. The worst that could happen is what, they could get slightly larger? They could tear and be a little more painful? The point is I really didn’t care because I had two other tests I wanted to run on myself.
The first thing I was curious about was an article that I had read in Scientific American Mind called “No Brain – No Pain.” Basically the article lays out the research that points to the current consensus that pain is really more of an emotion than it is a physical state. In lay terms this is the whole “mind-over matter; if you don’t mind it don’t matter” idea but in far less macho terms. Obviously it’s not actually the case that pain is only an emotion and that you could basically get stabbed in the face and not care. It’s more like the severity of our pain is a function of our emotional relationship to it. The degree of actual tissue damage plays a role but out “pain emotion” really cranks up the suffering. What I wanted to do is kind of play with this idea as it was happening, observe my sensations and see if I could turn the pain up or down. I do not recommend turning it up. It works and is, duh, painful.
What I found interesting is that any mental reference to the idea of pain, struggle or doubt made it hurt worse. So, for example, if I told myself “I just need to suck it up and run through the pain” it hurt worse. In fact bringing the word pain or suffering to mind is what made it hurt worst of all. It was also the case that I felt more pain if I had any thoughts of doubt or struggle so the thoughts “I doubt I can catch that guy” or “I need to dig deep and push so I don’t get passed by the guy I just passed” brought about more pain but not as much as if I was actually thinking about pain. What diminished the pain the most was when I was just thinking “let’s see if I can catch that guy” or “I bet I can catch that guy” or at times when I was thinking strategically like “I’m going to back off a little on this uphill so I can conserve some energy.”
These thinking strategies worked well for me until maybe the last mile when I was physically spent and quite realistically, there was nobody left to pass unless they blew up before I did and everyone was turning on their kick and trying not to blow up before the finish line so getting passed back was a very real possibility. The last mile, I’m not ashamed to admit, was pretty brutal. It was a struggle, I had several doubts and man was it painful but this brings me to my second self-test. I wanted to see how fast I might be relative to other runners.
Last year as the Slam wore on I lost more and more speed and gained more and more weight. I entered last season at about 197 and hit a low of 187. This season I started at 208 and despite what I felt were good efforts I have been unable to lose anything. I did drop to 207 for one day but I’ve mostly been hanging out at between 208 and 210. My attempts at losing weight and regaining speed involved starting the Hanson’s Marathon method, which includes a lot of speed work and running at faster paces, and trying everything I could with respect to dieting including a couple of “fad diets.” The fad diets resulted in immediate weight gain and my regular just eat right and watch your portions resulted in no weight loss at all.
To top it off, the paces I was trying to run using the Hanson’s method were just killing me. I think I made it two weeks into the plan and I was so smoked that I was falling farther and farther off my paces. Of course my paces were based on times that I was able to run when I was 10 to 15 pounds lighter but that didn’t really matter much to me because those were the paces I wanted to run, the paces that would get me to another Boston.
I began to feel increasingly desperate and despondent. All I could think about was that my time as a fast runner was over and I just had to accept that one simple fact. Desperation and despondency is a really bad place for me to be because that is when I eat the most and eat the worst. I was heading for a serious downward spiral and I knew it but then I thought of a quote I had heard somewhere, a quote about the F-4 Phantom fighter jet that is attributed to a Vietnam fighter pilot named Clarence “Dick” Anderegg. He said, that the F-4 was “proof positive that if you put enough thrust behind a brick you can make it fly. It’s a brute but the power and magnificence of this machine were a joy, always.”
If you put enough thrust behind a brick you can make it fly…that thought really resonated with me. I’m not the biggest guy around but let’s face it, as fast runners go, front of the pack runners, I am pretty much a brute and I’ve always known that I do not run off my talent as a runner, I run off my power, my leg strength.
I actually spoke to Luke Humphrey once, the guy who wrote the Hanson’s Method book, and told him about how when I ran my Boston qualifying time it was the weekend after I had run back-to-back marathons, both sub-4 and one was my previous marathon PR. I told him, “That was the year I had trained for my first Leadville.” His response, “You must have just been so strong that you were able to pull it off.” All these thoughts started rolling around in my head and that is what actually lead me to Olympic weightlifting in the first place. As far as lifting goes, it is simply the best kind of lifting to do for runners, period. In the absence of being able to lose weight I was hoping to generate enough power to propel my brick of a body fast, or at least faster than I have been able to pull off so far this year.
So, with the second test in play, the test of “did the Olympic Lifting make me faster” I gutted out the final mile and finished the race in 1:31:54. That is a pretty fast half-marathon for anyone and yes, I understand that were it not for the downhill I probably could not run a half that fast but here’s the deal, I finished 27th out of 408 runners putting me in the top 7 percent. When I ran my BQ time at Tucson I was number 113 out of 1079 placing me in the top 10 percent. Tucson is also a downhill race.
I’m not yet prepared to say I’m back to my BQ form given that I’m still 10 pounds heavier and this was only a half-marathon but I am saying that things look promising and as far as the lifting goes, relative to the experienced lifters, I am still a total whimp. My coach has me focusing on form, not strength but the strength is coming bit my bit. My first real test will be the Air Force Marathon coming up here in just a few weeks. My original intention was to attempt a BQ there but I’m really on the fence. On the one hand I do want to make a BQ attempt but on the other hand I want to make it a serious attempt and I’m not quite sure I’m ready.
Because of the 5 minute drops in BQ times I would have to break my old marathon PR, which has stood for two years and nine months now, by at least 3 minutes and 14 seconds. What I may do instead is just run Air Force hard enough to get a sense of where I’m at and then save a serious attempt for later in the year either at Marine Corps of Honolulu. Who knows, I probably won’t make that decision until race day when I’m picking which pace group to line up with.