Wednesday, April 13, 2016

I feel the need...the need for speed

2015 involved a lot of long-distance training. When you plan to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run a marathon…all in one day – you need endurance like there is no tomorrow.

What you don’t need, at least if you’re a normal person like me, is speed. After I ran the Mississauga Half Marathon last May (where I got an awesome PB despite not getting much speed work since I had calf troubles all winter), the vast majority of my training revolved around getting time in – mostly in the saddle since I had a lot of bike fitness to build to get to being able to ride 180km comfortably, but also with running.

I knew I wouldn’t be running the marathon in IMAZ like I would run a standalone marathon – so really, all that mattered was prepping for the distance. Given how IMAZ turned out (I had to walk 25km of the marathon after my back seized up), that training approach was the right one. Slow and steady wins (or at least completes!) the IM race.

Enter 2016. I knew coming into 2016 that my next big goal would be far more challenging than anything I’ve taken on yet.

Aside: Wait a second…that’s not true. Just deciding to ask for help to get fit was a much harder decision, as was the decision to sign up for my first 10k back in 2012 when I hadn’t run around the block. In both of those cases I had no clue if I could succeed – so those were much harder challenges when I think about it.

Okay. Let’s say instead, that I knew my next big goal would be the most challenging fitness thing I’ve taken on since finishing my first race. I think that’s true.

Why is that? Well, because I am suddenly setting my sights on goals that aren’t simply: Finish and Finish Smiling - or in Triathlon-events: Finish. Finish Smiling. Don’t Crash on my Bike.

After finishing Ironman, I knew I’d done all the distances I wanted to do. While I fully plan to do more Ironman races and more marathons, you likely won’t see me signing up for anything longer. I don’t generally have any desire to do an Ultra Marathon, nor do I want to do Ultraman or any other Ultra Triathlon. I will leave those kinds of awesome feats to some of my inspiring friends.  

Nope.  I knew my next goal would be all about speed….about getting faster at all the traditional distances – both in running and triathlon.

The movie Top Gun said it best:

But what does speed mean exactly when it comes down to my goals? Sure, I want to get faster – but what kind of goal can I set to help with that?

Well, back when I ran my first half marathon in 2012 (about 4 months after my first race ever), my brother said to me, “Hey, if you could just double your time, you could qualify for Boston.”

Boston. The word means a lot more to me now than it did back then. Back then, I only knew it as probably the most famous marathon in the world. The one people had to qualify to race. I didn’t know what the qualifying times were, when it was held, or anything else either. I assumed it was way, way out of my league as some random girl who found fitness in her 30s.

But my brother’s comment had me thinking pretty much from that day forward: Could I really qualify for the Boston Marathon? How hard could it be to run the same speed for twice the distance?

Aside: Hard. Very hard.

I hadn’t even tried to run a marathon yet, but I already had the goal percolating in my mind.

I’ve run two marathons since then. The first, in September 2015, I ran in 4:15 – slower than my longest training run that year, because I’d been sick.

The second, in May 2014, I ran in 3:50. That was the marathon that confirmed to me that I could qualify if I worked hard. I was under BQ pace until almost 30k, before fading dramatically over the closing miles.

Enter 2016.

After recovering from IMAZ, I spoke to my coach Mark Linseman about my goals for 2016. Originally, I’d thought to run 2 marathons: one in the spring and one in the fall. But then I was smart. I decided to ask him what I should do – given my goal to qualify for Boston. I asked him simply because this wasn’t simply about doing something…this was about doing something WELL. I wanted to put myself in the best position to qualify…and I knew he’d be a better judge of just what that would take.

Coach Mark suggested I train to run a fast half marathon in the spring, and then build into a BQ race in the fall. He noted that in order to race in Boston, I couldn’t just hit my BQ time of 3:40:00; I had to beat it. These days, it’s hard to tell what the actual race cut-off time will be, but it is guaranteed to at least be a couple of minutes. He suggested a fall marathon would let me target a finish time of 3:35 – giving me some buffer to make sure that if I qualify, I could actually register for and run the Boston Marathon.

So, for the past 3 months, I’ve been training to run a speedy race at the Toronto Goodlife Half Marathon on May 1, 2016. My goal there is to run a 1:40, cutting 5 minutes off my current PB (1:45:19). When Coach Mark suggested that goal, I admit that I thought he was a bit nuts. That’s a really fast time (at least to me).

But over the past few months, Coach Mark has had me do some progressively more challenging training sessions – both at steady (4:55km pace) and tempo (4:35km pace) paces. When I started, those paces terrified me.

My first tempo workout, the first week of January, was a mess. What was supposed to be 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 @ tempo pace…turned into 7x2min @ tempo pace. I couldn’t even go longer than 2 minutes at 4:35 pace without overheating on a treadmill. Yikes.

Aside: Yes, it’s been winter – I’ve done all my hard workouts on a treadmill or at Monarch Park, which has an indoor track.

Since then, while I have generally gotten my distance at pace in, I have yet to actually nail a tempo workout. Not a single one! But I have upped my tempo time to 40 minutes within one session (i.e. I was supposed to do 4x10min – I did 2x10, 3x5, 2x2, and 1) – which is a pretty big improvement.

I’ve had a bit more success with my steady pace workouts. My first one back in January included 10, 8, and 6 minutes of pace work. Since then, I’ve actually hit some of my targets (much to my surprise!). Although not my most recent one; I was supposed to do 45 min steady, 30 min steady, and 10 min tempo….Instead, I did 30 minutes, 15 minutes, and then 3x10 minutes at steady pace – with no tempo. But that means I still did 75 minutes at steady pace (which happens to be below my goal BQ pace) – which is an insane improvement over the 24 minutes I did back in January. 

And through it all, I’ve also been doing track workouts with the Toronto Triathlon Club. Those ones have been far more hit and miss thanks to my asthma not liking Monarch Park all that much (and sometimes missing sessions when I’ve had to move my long run from a weekend). But even there, I was able to do 20x400m between 4:10 and 4:15 pace (on good rest) recently.

The Prep Race: MEC 15km

This brings me to this past weekend. I signed up for the MEC 15k race thinking it would be a wonderful practice run heading into the Toronto Goodlife Marathon. After several years of doing the Yonge St. 10k this weekend (which got cancelled this year), I figured the weather would be pretty nice – and very similar to race day.

Alas, I was wrong. While the temperature for Toronto said it was around -1C, feels like -8C, it seemed much colder on the waterfront (it often is). I got to the race and was already cold. And yet, after warming up for a couple of km in my windbreaker, I decided that wearing it would be a bad plan. I’d rather run cold than get a bit too warm. So I ran in light running pants, a tank top, and a very light long-sleeved shirt.

I don’t know if I made the right choice…but I don’t think I made the wrong one. If that makes any sense. I think running with the windbreaker would have caused issues…but so did not running in something warmer. C’est la Vie. You can only do what you can do.

It was a small race, so it was easy to line up a few rows from the front. I figured given my pace goals, I didn’t want to be too far back. When the gun went off (or blowhorn, or whatever it was), I took off.

Needless to say, I promptly went too fast. I was cold, what can I say. What I was supposed to do was go steady for a couple of km and then speed up….what I did was go tempo and slow down to goal pace. Ooops.

Within 3k, my upper body got warm. This is really normal for me. I tend to get hot very quickly when I run. So I rolled up the sleeves of my shirt, basically running with bare arms. No big deal, I figured. It seemed warmer than I was expecting.

Aside: Famous last words.

For a while, I was doing great. I felt good. My legs were moving nicely. The sun was out – and the sun felt nice – I figured I was doing okay.

First 5km: 4:39, 4:45, 4:45, 4:41, 4:46. There was a long downhill in there. Nothing crazy, but it was down.

Some guy cut me off (not intentionally) from getting a cup of water near the turnaround…so I figured I’d wait for the next water station. I was thirsty, but it wasn’t too bad. I’m just in the habit of drinking water when I race. Usually I carry a hand-held, but I decided it was too cold today, so I’d make do with on-course water.  Good choice, bad execution.

On the way back from the first loop (the course was a 5km out and back on the Martin Goodman Trail, followed by a 2.5km out and back), it seemed like there was a bit of wind. I am not sure if there really was, but it felt colder. My pace dropped a bit. Part of that was because I was going uphill for a bit. Part of it was because we caught the 5km runners and I had to weave around some of them. I didn’t actually think any of this was a big deal. I still felt okay.

I got a cup of water around 7km, but it was really cold…so I only had a tiny sip. Brr! That was enough water for me! I started sipping a gel (Caramel Macchiato flavoured) around 7km, finishing it around 9km. When I hit the turnaround (which was about 5 feet from the finish line…how mean!), I was starting to feel a bit cold.

Second 5km: 4:47, 4:47, 4:50, 4:47, 4:52.

As I turned to start the mini-loop, I pulled down my sleeves for a bit. The sun had gone behind a bank of clouds, so it got a few degrees colder. Sadly, ,my sleeves were sweaty…which means they were damp. As a result, I didn’t get any warmer, I just got colder, so I rolled them up again (figuring cold and dry was better than cold and damp). But there was only 5km left. I could do it. I also know that this 5km was flat. Not even a little up/down. I was looking forward to that part.

This is when I started feeling a chill in my quads. For some reason, when I start getting cold while running, that’s where it happens. My poor quads felt bitterly cold and it was like they stopped working. My pace seemed to fall off a lot. I felt like I was slogging.

I focused on a girl in front of me – thinking if I could keep her within sight, I was still doing well. I’d followed her from the beginning – her pretty much always just far enough ahead that I couldn’t catch up. But she was a good pacer. When she pulled away, I tried to speed up. I kept doing this the whole race.

About 2km out from the finish, I started coughing. The cold had finally hit my lungs. My asthma was doing okay, but my lungs were burning. This wasn’t pleasant. But I just kept going. I was almost there. For the last 5km, I went as fast as my cold legs would carry me while continuing to cough. I also rolled my sleeves back down again. I was so very cold.

I ran across the finish line so very, very happy to be done. I also felt like I was going to puke, but I didn’t. Phew. But honestly, I felt awful.

Last 5k: 4:51, 4:56, 4:50, 4:55, 4:46

 I very quickly put on all the extra clothing I’d brought with me. I was still cold. But I waited a few minutes to cheer on my friend Michelle who was right behind me…before I headed out. I think it took me a hot shower, a heated blanket, and most of the day to feel warm again.

All in all, my time was very good. 1:12:04 according to my watch – a 5 min PB over the only other 15k race I did - back in 2014 – the Midsummer Night’s Run 15k. Officially, I finished in 1:12:06 I found out later). I finished 6th out of all the women (Okay, there were only 35 or so women) and 44/182 overall. Pace wise, I went 4:48 per km. I had been aiming for 4:45 (well, for 13km since I was supposed to start of easier than I did).  Given the weather, I was really happy with that. If it is ever 5 degrees warmer in 3 weeks, maybe a 1:40 really is doable. We will see!

Speed-work works

When I think about everything together, it’s kind of amazing how much I’ve improved in just 3 months of focused speed work thanks to Coach Mark's help. As long as I don’t get hurt, I’m well on my way toward getting into the shape I need to be in to run a BQ in the fall. Of course, anything can happen on race day (as I well know from my “Oh it will be hot and dry” expectations for IMAZ)…so we’ll see.

But in the meantime, I’ll continue to have a lot of fun. I have to admit: Running fast is fun…even when I think I'm going to die.

Funny how that works.