Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Art of Injury Recovery - Yes there is an Art to it!

Lately, my favorite motto is - I'd rather my body be hurting because I'm using it rather than it be hurting because I'm not.  Pushing your body in athletic endeavors provides great dividends but the down-side is that sometimes injuries happen.  While our bodies are made for action, maybe born to run, bred to swim or conditioned to bike, eventually we push it just a bit too far, train a little too hard, ignore warning signs, and neglect preventative therapies.  Fortunately or unfortunately, some athletes get very good at injury recovery - like me.  I'm almost a profession injury "recoverer."  Here are some things I've learned.

A few years back, in early 2010 I had been enjoying a great season of training, racing and improving performance.  I was in my early 40's at that time and felt like I'd been born again into a new running career as a master athlete and I felt invincible. After a long year of racing that included a Half Ironman, a bike race, 5 half marathons, some 10K's, 8K's and 5K's and even a road mile, all without even a hint of injury, I began setting my sights and training on a particular early Winter half marathon "target race."  The previous races were strength and confidence builders but the target race was serious.  Preparation went well until a few weeks before when I felt a weird pain in my left Achilles tendon during the cool down of my speed workout.  "No problem," I told myself.  I'll lay off a few days, let it recover, and I'll be right back to full training without anything lost.  The problem was, when I tried to run a few days later it was absolutely no better.  A few more days off and then another try, and the pain remained.  I remember feeling panicked as my race, my precious, serious targeted race was only a week away.  Was I losing the fitness I worked so hard to gain?  Was I even going to be able to run?  In the end and to make that particular long story a bit shorter, I did not recover from the injury but attempted the race anyway.  I ran 4 of the 13.1 miles, pulled out of the race, limped and dragged my devastated self back to the starting area and spent the next 8 months trying to recover from this simple little Achilles injury.  Eight months.  Eight months of laying off, thinking I was letting it heal, trying to run, trying to run through the pain, having to lay off again and again and again.  Before long I wondered if I'd ever recover. 

Finally it did in fact heal, however I can't say it healed well.  Fast forward only 4 short months and one day during one of my interval workouts on the track, I felt a pain develop in my Right Achilles.  Different leg, same exact injury.  Apparently my Achilles heel is my Achilles heel.  But surely I would address this one a bit smarter having learned a thing or two from the previous year.  Nope.  I had the same experience and attempted the same things to recover from this new injury.  And I had the same result only this time, 8 months came and went and it still had not healed.  Every runner will relate to the absolute mental and physical anguish that comes with injury.  The inability to do what you love, an isolation from your training community, a fear of what the future holds, anger every time you see someone else run happily and pain-free down the road, sadness at watching opportunities pass you by while you're side-lined.  Particularly for a master runner, you begin to look at the passing months as parts of your running life you will never be able to get back.  After close to a year of this anguish, I finally turned to John and said, "I can't do this anymore.  I can't hurt, I can't try to train through it, I can't wait for it to heal, I can't discipline myself to get better.  I need help."

Particularly with sports related injuries that were somewhat obvious, I wasn't one to go to a doctor.  With what I was suffering with, I told myself time and again, there isn't anything anyone can do to make this better.  It just needed to heal.  With that mental obstacle standing in the way of me and running, I needed to therefore resign myself to the hope that maybe there is something that can be done, someone who can help.  This led me to the doorstep of "one of the best discoveries" I have ever had as a runner.  Dr. Ernie Ferrel. 

There was one thing I knew about this injury (and the one prior), it had a cause.  I wasn't interested in therapy.  I was interested in full healing and prevention of further injury.  Dr. Ferrel did his first evaluation and  in doing so squeezed the area that had been injured for almost a full year - and I almost went  through the roof.  It was still acutely injured and tender.  His evaluation revealed a leg length discrepancy, which could be considered a "cause" but because he thinks the way I hoped he would, he knew there was another reason why the legs were off.  I had bio-mechanical imperfections that over time caused a chain reaction.  And there were causes  to the bio-mechanical imperfections.  Not only did the Achilles need help to heal but other areas needed work.

The first thing Dr. Ferrel did was pulled me completely off of running.  I had attempted many lay-offs from running with no good results (which always therefore tempted me to just run through the pain), but he needed me to discontinue the aggravation to the injury.  He was not going to allow me to run again until this thing was well under control and also until the area of cause was also under control.  So I followed instructions but the difference was that this time there was a plan and a purpose and I wasn't relying on my own discipline. I felt like this lay-off was going to be different.

Within a few weeks, with all of his arsenal of tools to heal, and his knowledge of anatomy, physiology and the mind of an athlete, experience with the highest level of athletes, Dr. Ferrel worked what I considered to be a near miracle.  How long had I tried to work through this stubborn injury?  And within a few weeks there was clear progress.  The Achilles was in bad shape and whatever prior healing had taken place was not functional.  I had developed scar tissue that was in fact non-functional and restrictive.  Left to heal as it had been, I might well have ended my running career.  Instead, I was infused with hope and confidence as Dr. Ferrel had me back on my feet and training for my next race.

That was over two years ago.  As much as I'd love to think I am invincible, I certainly learned that I am in fact NOT.  My plan is to train and to train hard.  I have goals as a runner and I'm going to pursue those.  So ... Dr. Ferrel is an integral part of my training plan now.  Two and a half years later I am still and regularly in Dr. Ferrel's office.  I have benefited 100 fold for this very smart decision.  I batter my body and Dr. Ferrel basically puts it back together or helps keep it together - some of both I think.

Recently, as mentioned in my last post, I did in fact injure my left Achilles once again.  This was the same one (the original one) that took 8 months to heal last time and when it finally did heal, it had healed badly.  Re-injury was somewhat inevitable. 

Here's the reason why I write this post today.  I injured the left Achilles two months ago - my fault totally and I knew I was pushing it too far.  Today (two months later) I am running hard again.  With the help of this amazing doctor who not only knows what to do, but cares about this patients, cares about our efforts, goals, hopes, who himself is an athlete and a coach, we caught it early, dealt with it properly and the outcome has been amazing.  I have not had the words to express the gratitude as I feared the worst would again happen, but instead the best has happened.

What I have learned in the process:
1. I do not have the discipline within myself to NOT run when I need to not run.  I need someone who I trust to tell me not to run and tell me when it's ok again.  I need that.
2. To get the full benefit of injury treatment and prevention, it needs to be a part of my training plan.  I go 2-8 times per month without fail and I see this as just as important as my long run, my cross-training, my mental preparation, my quality workouts. 
3. If you want to heal, you have to let go of the control you think you have and give it to the one who can help.
4. Do everything Dr. Ferrel says to do.  I keep a training journal for Dr. Ferrel and myself and it reflects not only what I am doing but how it is affecting me and it is used to gage the next move.
5. Don't just get treatment when you're injured.  Get treatment as part of your recovery and to prevent injury.

I would like to thank you Dr. Ferrel from the bottom of my heart.  As hard as it has been to deal with yet another Achilles injury, it is behind me so quickly that I can almost be thankful for it.  Yes, I missed some races and have had to sit on the side-lines for a bit, and yes I'll have to work hard to gain back what I might have lost but I also learned how to heal properly, I was forced into an off-season that I needed anyway, I have gained confidence, I have had my hunger for running re-charged.  I'm getting older and wiser I guess.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

April Running Brings May or May Not

Spring has come and gone quickly this year.  We had such a beautiful warm Winter, I hardly remember Spring coming at all and we have now moved into the marine layer months of June, with Summer fast approaching.  Running has just been one blessing after another throughout this time, with some of the big races done and in the past, a big ones to come in the near future.  The middle weeks have been a time of regrouping and deciding what my ragged body can handle moving forward.

In April I tried to back off a bit, at least mentally.  I decided I wanted to do the Wine Country Half Marathon in May so while I was hoping to get a bit of a reprieve from the stresses of racing hard, I also found myself needing to add a bit of mileage in preparation. Was this a good idea?  The half marathon was to be followed by the State Street Mile and Vicki's 3000.  As much as I'd like to believe a runner can excel at varying distances, this posed a dilemma for me.  I had been racing 5K's (with an occasional longer one thrown in) so all of my training was quite specific to shorter road racing.  So to jump up to the half marathon and then straight back down to the mile meant some changes in my training pattern.

I was very excited to do the Wine Country half marathon.  I had heard for years how amazing the race and the course was and often I had considered it but never quite got my mind and heart into it until this year.  I blame it on Desa.  She has such a positive flow so when she describes something that she really loves, everyone just gets sucked right in.  One day on a track workout cool-down she begins describing the atmosphere, the excitement, the beauty of the course, on and on.  I tend to be impulsive with some types of decisions and on that cool-down I resolutely exclaimed, "I'm in!"  And if I decide it, it happens.  Thankfully my race times and running resume qualified me for an elite entry.  I quickly applied for the entry, was excepted, and BAM, I'm super-glued in.

Now that the half marathon was on the schedule, the remainder of April meant prepping specifically for it.  I squeezed in one more late April race for "fun", the Gaucho Gallop 5K in near hurricane force winds, and trialed a pair of compressive De Soto tri-shorts that I planned to wear in the half.  I increased my long run to 15 miles but with a short few weeks before the race, I only did one or two at that distance and that was less than ideal.  My overall mileage was good (just about as much as I could handle physically) but to really do well at the half-marathon, the single long run of the week really needs to be consistently and considerably longer than race distance.  This was one of the challenges in transitioning race distances.  But I did what I could do and that was that.

The week before the race, I modified my diet so that it was very low fiber.  I focused on BRAT (bananas, rice, apple sauce, toast) for several days because I tend to have GI issues when I race and the longer the race, the worse it is.  I was determined to avoid that this time. 

This was the first race I'd done where I was able to enjoy the perks of qualifying as an elite.  Destination Races, who organize this and several other Wine Country half marathons, provide amazing services for the athletes.  I felt a tinge of guilt slipping into the athlete warming room while everyone else was outside freezing in the early morning fog but I did it for one reason!  To get access to my very own toilet.  That's all I wanted because toilet timing is crucial and there were lines for meters standing at the porta-potties.  Inside the athlete warming room (it was a really nice warm place) there was also a table full of energy food and scattered about on the floor, were very thin and fit runners stretching.  I saw the speedy ladies I'd be racing against, and a lot of folks from the Newton racing team.  Newton was the title sponsor so thus these Boulder runners abounded. 

Wow, I was enjoying this race already.  I felt very little nerves (I have no idea why) and was so excited.  I had trained a bit on the course the few weeks prior and it was almost perfect for me.  Well at least miles 7-13.1 were perfect for me.  Miles 1-7 were basically all up a "false flat" so that was kind of a bummer but at least those were going to be the fresher miles.  Cool, perfect air, some wind but not as bad as I'd thought considering there was a wind advisory in effect.  Lots of familiar faces and many unfamiliar ones too.  I had on my De Soto tri-shorts, my Oiselle/SBRunCo pinky top and a pair of amazing Hoka's I was wear-testing.  Everything in the outfit was purposefully planned and represented excellent companies.  The Hoka's are a new model designed more for racing and running at faster paces and I had been wearing them for about a week or two up to that point.  I loved them and for some reason I was just SO excited to be racing in them!

Boom, the gun went off.  Here is a quick recap of the events that followed.  The first 5 miles felt harder than they should have considering how slow I was running but such is the nature of "false flats."  I had familiar faces of fast folks around me so I didn't worry too much but hoped the latter half would go well.  At some point in there I settled into third overall female with neither of the two ahead of me anywhere to be seen.  They were slated to run sub 1:20's which I was not capable of so I figured they were up there floating along having a good ol' time.  I was more focused on my actual time and personal performance.  We hit a hard headwind around the 5th mile, finally turned the corner and somehow still had a headwind (how does that happen), and then came the daunting Corkscrew hill.  This was the mountain we needed to get over so that we could get to the rolling hills of the vineyards.  Basically I felt like I was going to puke by the time I dragged my rear-end up that 1/2 mile switch-back laden obstacle.  I crested the top and I ran out of my tangent line to grab some water and took a few steps of walking to ensure I got the fluid into me rather than all over me, and then headed down the lovely backside and this was where I fell in love with this course.  From there (mile 7) until about mile 11, there were rolling hills which trended more down than up.  I completed one of these middle miles in 5:45 and I had a small glimmer of hope that I could take back some of the time I lost at the beginning.  Until the 11th mile I floated and enjoyed and marveled at how much I love running.  I had an odd running companion join me for a bit.  There was a dog that joined our race way back in the first or second mile and was running with us.  I assume he came from one of the homes and here he was running alongside me around mile 8 or 9.  He finally fell back but that was just fun!  Basically as much as I enjoyed the downward slope, my legs were becoming quite fatigued so that when I came to the final hills before the finish I basically felt like I hit a wall.  I have to run up THAT?  And they moved us to the right so we couldn't run the tangents on those corners.  I somehow made it up those last few hills (thank goodness for the down hills between) and finally descended into Solvang and made the turn for the finish. I had not looked at my watch in a long while so I really had no sense of what my overall time was and I have to say I was a bit disappointed when I saw the clock as I approached.  I was two minutes slower than I wanted to be.  Maybe I had set too high a goal or maybe I just hadn't spent enough time specifically preparing, or maybe it was the course or the wind conditions, but it was what it was.  I did finish 3rd overall female so that was a really nice accomplishment. Final time was 1:24:34.

The finishing chute was a blast.  Everyone lingered and cheered and met up with the other finishers and were just so happy.  We grouped up for a cool-down.  Every last one of us had extreme fatigue and jello legs, even Ricky.  Then there was the elite athlete refreshment tent, WHAT?  It was awesome.  Food, all sorts of drinks, wonderful people helping us with every possible need.  Massages!  I didn't get a massage but I could have if I wanted and that was really cool.  The awards ceremony was crazy fun because lots of people had spent lots of time in the wine-tasting area.  They did the overall awards first and so I was called up.  The nice girl mistakenly handed all of the overall winner stuff to me.  She hadn't caught the part where they said I was third.  I was like, "Wow, this is awesome."  I had a bunch of stuff and my arms full and a big smile in front of all these people.  And then I noticed that the girl who got second place only got one thing and it was sort of small.  By the time they called up the overall winner the nice girl realized she had "oops" made a mistake and she took all of my neat stuff away from me and handed me a single small thing.  Inside the small thing was a check for $200 so I soon became happy again.  The overall winner also broke the course record so she actually was award $1100 and one of those huge, over-sized, "photo-opportunity" checks.  Deep sigh.

So that was really fun.  Desa was right and I am so glad I did that half marathon.  But that led to the next training dilemma.  How to get my body ready for a fast road mile and a fast track 3000 with only a few weeks to prepare.  This is where I sort of, well not sort of, DID make a very bad decision.  Against coaches orders I dove fast and hard into the next track practice on very fatigued legs, feeling of course quite invincible until the final two intervals when I began to feel something familiar in my left Achilles tendon.  And it was done.  If there's ever a warning, I always miss it.  I go from being totally fine to being totally not fine in a matter of minutes.  The next day I ran in complete pain and I knew my race plans were about to change dramatically.  I made an emergency appointment to my awesome sports doc hoping, hoping, hoping he would say, "aw, it's not so bad.  A few days rest and you'll be fine."  That's not was he said.  He actually said a lot of things but I can't quite remember because I wasn't really listening.  I think he said "we're catching it early which is good but no running until this heals" but I'm not sure.  So therefore I rested it a few days and then ran, and ran again, and a couple of more time so that I ran myself into a downward spiral.  And to cap it off, I did one final hard race in the sand at our tri-clubs Battle in the Sand.  Ah it felt so good to race but it hurt so bad.  On my next visit to the doc I actually began listening to what he was saying.  Let me just sum it up: you can't recover from an Achilles injury while running and continually re-injuring it.  You must stop running, let it heal and let me do what I can to get you back as quickly as possible.  I think that's what he said.  I then resigned myself to no State Street Mile and no Vicki's 3000 but with some luck and a lot of discipline and the therapy of an amazing doctor, I might be back soon and possibly in time for the next big race on my schedule.

Deep breath.  I've been doing that a lot.  Taking deep breaths.  I met someone at the State Street mile as I was watching runners finish.  He approached and asked me if I was Cindy.  Yes!  As it turns out, he was a race director and although I hadn't recalled receiving it, he told me he had emailed me a while back.  He was organizing a Festival of Miles in San Diego's Balboa stadium to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Jim Ryun's first high school sub-4 mile and he had a Master's mile in which he asked me to compete.  He had also invited many of the women I race nose to nose with.  I'm sure I had a sad look on my face as with unbelieving eyes I informed him "alas, for I am injured and cannot run in your event."  Deep breath.  How many opportunities like that can one expect?  Probably not many.  In fact that one was a "once in a lifetime" opportunity because I said hopefully, "I would love to do it next year though!"  To which he replied, "oh, well this is just a one-time event."  Is there ever a good time to be injured?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Carlsbad 5000: Mastering the Masters

There's a respectful reason why runner's over 40 are referred to as Masters.  It's not a term used to place them into a "lesser" category, but is a term used to define their honed skill, experience and grit.  They are Masters of running!  There are tough gritty runners in every age category, but the concentration of these qualities seem higher among Masters runners.  I assume part of it is because the less gutsy runners quit when they're still young and what remains in the Master's category is the cream.  A company of "the survival of the fittest."

So it was, once again at this year's Carlsbad 5000.  An amazing group of Master's runners toed the starting line.  Strong, competitive, survivors with experience.  Carlsbad has many unique and special qualities and one of them is that it presents an opportunity for Master's women to run in their own separate race (with the exception of a few guys who are running the "All Day 20 K") which means the winner gets to experience that true feeling of winning - breaking the line first.  It also provides the opportunity to be a spectator for much of the morning as there are 4 different 5K races, a wheelchair race and the two world-class elite races at the end of the morning.  It's an action packed day with a lot of speed and the hope of watching a world record be accomplished!

This year our Carlsbad experience began on the Friday before as we drove down two days in advance of the event.  We wanted a less stressful experience this year so opted for the extra day.  Having survived the apparent earthquake that evening (we didn't feel it but others did), we were able to do our workouts on the course in preparation.  The Carlsbad 5000 course:  some say it is a fast course and indeed it has some fast features, but I've not found it to be a particularly fast course for me.  There are two hairpin turns, lots of ways to mess up the tangents, and depending on how a person runs on false flats, it could actually be a bit of a challenge.  The race is fast, yes, but not necessarily because the course is fast.  It's a fast race because those who come to run it are fast and because the competition is so high level, it draws something a little extra out of each competitor.  That's why I love this race.

In preparing my race plan and determining my goals, I knew that if I were to be competitive enough to place in the top 3 overall Masters (that was where the money was) I would have to run a bit faster than my PR.  I set my PR of 17:46 just a few months ago so it wasn't a completely far-fetched goal, but again, I had to take into consideration how I run on this particular course.  For me, the course was not as fast as the one on which I set my PR.  But top three in the women's race were predictably always around 17:35 or faster.  It's tough setting up that type of goal without feeling a great deal of pressure and quite a bit of doubt.  My time on the course last year, a mediocre race, was 18:19 and I had little doubt I could go faster than that, but to dip down as far as I needed was going to take another "race of a lifetime."  So a PR of 17:35 was my upper goal, and my lower goal was to at least break the 18 minute barrier.  I felt like that would be fully realistic and in line with my other recent accomplishments.  If I could at least do that I'd consider it a good race.  Besides the time/place goals, I also had people goals.  There were a number of exceptional masters women entered as always and there were a few particular ones I really wanted to beat. 

Moving along in this little story, race day arrived on Sunday, March 30th and we arose very early to get John warmed up for his race (I used his warm-up as my pre-warm up).  The Master's men's race goes off first, at a very early 7:00 am so we warmed up on the course in the dark, taking deep breaths of sea air, trying to keep the nerves under control.  We were joined by Nash in the warm-up and we plodded along quietly and silently in the dark, feeling the contour of the first and second miles before heading back over toward the start line.  The weather was hard to predict.  Cloudy with a chance of rain, but was expected to clear.  As the sun rose, the clouds were heavy and we began to feel a few sprinkles.  Rain and moisture weren't too difficult to deal with.  I was just hoping the wind would stay calm.

The men's race went off right on time, with a damp road under their feet, but otherwise perfect conditions.  It was hard to really enjoy watching their race because I often came close to being overwhelmed with nerves as I had heaped quite a lot of pressure on myself for my race.  I couldn't quite keep my mind present for the men's race and continued to think through my race plan, and prepare my mind for the stress of the pain I was going to ask my body to endure.  But in between my mental hemorrages I cheered for the guys who were out there doing their thing and doing it very well.  The front end of the Master's men's race was blazing fast and included a bit of a pack.  A little farther back were our guys, including Joe DeVreese, Nash, John, Larry Brooks and John Brennand, with Dave Odell doing the full 20K.

I watched the guys finish, which was a super fast 16:44 by Joe, 18:03 by Nash, and 18:26 by John.  Gulp, now it was time for the girls and the men just left us a lot to live up to.  Nash and I run very much the same speed and I was trying to decide what his 18:03 meant for me.

Our Santa Barbara running ladies fielded a team for Carlsbad this year so I was thrilled to be there with some great friends, Monica and DeAnna.  I caught sight of them hanging out near the starting line just after I finished my second warm-up.  Just behind them I saw the competition doing strides and drills and I had to take another deep breath and suck in rich strength and confidence.  At some point in the past I used to look at these women and wish I could run as fast.  I would see them not so much as competition as just a privilege to run with them.  I have begun to alter that thought process just a bit and it has come about as a natural response to my better running.  I now see them as viable targets and I see myself equally as capable as they.  It's an important shift and it isn't a "thing" I try to tell myself, it is how I actually see it now.  I am one of them, they are one of me.  If someone is going to win, why not me just as much as they.  I feel finally that I've earned my place on that starting line and I know that they see me and feel a sting of nerves just like I do when I see them.  This was going to be a fun race.

My race strategy was still a bit unsure.  It really depended upon how it played out.  I often try to hold back on the first mile but this time I wanted to push it a bit if it meant staying tucked in with the leaders, so I would have to see how fast they go out.  I learned from past experiences on this course that if you want to be in the running for the prize, you can't hang back at any point.

Soon we were on the starting line, listening to the singing of the National Anthem, smelling the moisture in the air and taking deep breathes.  My last thoughts before the gun went off were of hopes that my body would be totally "on" for me today and my second thought was, "why am I standing behind this weird girl with long ugly socks.  If she slows me down I'm going to trip her."  Boom the gun went off ... deep breath and go hard, go legs, run hard and smooth.  The first thing that happened was the ugly sock girl cut in to the left, right across my path, and I clipped both her feet.  No actual tripping occurred but I was annoyed.  She then proceeded to run out ahead of everyone else and took an unnecessary lead far ahead of the pack.  That was impressive.  It takes very little time for the pack to thin out and by the time we round the corner onto Carlsbad Blvd, we were free of the crowd and the positioning began.  I was disappointed to find that a pack never really formed and instead we began to string out several feet apart.  I had my eye on those I knew ahead of me and I knew a few fast ones were just behind me.  The first mile is always a bit stressful and it is here that you are able to get a sense of how you feel, whether you can maintain, how hard others are working.  A lot of thinking is going on while the blood is still somewhat oxygenated and all the while, the crowd is loud and everywhere.  I felt good at this point although I also was keenly aware that we were going really fast.  I feared going through the first mile too fast and paying for it later but I really had no options.  It was either stay in there now, or kiss all my goals and hopes goodbye.  This is a race that simply hurts from start to finish.  The first mile is marked by a huge inflated arch so you can see it from way back.  As I was descending toward it, I saw the ugly sock girl still way out in front, and back a bit was the race winner from last year, and a few of the ladies I was targeting.  On my shoulder and pacing off of me was another one of my targets.  Interspersed were a few who didn't quite belong and they began to fade out.  By the first mile (which oops was a way too fast 5:30) I was positioned about right, probably in 5th but not far back of those I was pursuing.  We took the first hairpin turn (I cut it a bit close and knocked over a cone) and then we headed back up the not so "false" false flat.  It was around this time that I was passed by my shoulder buddy (I'm purposefully omitting names).  By the way, my shoulder buddy was the most popular runner in the race and the whole time, I mean the WHOLE time, all I heard was her name being cheered and announced.  I tried to convince myself that was cool, but it actually wasn't.  She had this amazing home field advantage and I didn't like it.  Hmmmm, anyway, she passed me and I therefore got onto her shoulder.  This is where having a bit of mental toughness and self-confidence comes into play.  I had to KNOW I could run with her in order to do this.  If I doubted myself at that moment, I would have simply let her pass and then faded away.  When she passed me I actually thought, "excellent, now she can block the wind for me and I'll use her to go get my other targets."  So we ran back up the hill to mile 2 (sub-11:30) and we were inching closer to the girl ahead.  I also noticed though that one of the other girls I had hoped to beat just wasn't slowing down at all.  She had a large lead on me and this was a bit distressing.  The final mile is a bit of up and down, plus another hairpin turn so it really isn't the fastest section and of course lots of pain was setting in.  I hung with my shoulder buddy, and rounded the hairpin which left maybe 3/4 of a mile to go.  It was here that I passed her back up because she was clearly having a bit of trouble negotiating the slight uphill.  I passed her with attitude and focused hard on the girl ahead.  I had beaten the girl ahead just a few weeks earlier in the 8K by about 1 minute.  I knew she was having a great race today and she was so gutsy and strong but I wanted to catch her
in a bad way.  I was not planning on settling.  She was right there ahead of me.  Up over the little hill crest, past Grand Avenue and to the final left hand turn onto Carlsbad Village Drive for the final 400 meters.  This part of the race is a little fuzzy in my memory.  I had several thoughts but little control.  I remember feeling my legs tie up a bit.  I'm pretty sure I did everything I could to finish well.  I crossed the railroad track and then the finish line, hit my watch to stop my time and doubled over.  I didn't catch the girl ahead (she beat me by 2 seconds) and I felt a bit of disappointment.  I looked at my watch time - it showed 18:00 flat.  I wasn't sure whether to feel disappointed by that.  I did NOT get beaten by my popular shoulder buddy (I beat her by 3 seconds) but I still heard her name being announced as if no one else existed.  Deep breath, deep relief that it was over, a walk though the chute pouring water down my pants to clean up a bit, and feeling in the end - satisfied.  I was satisfied with my 2014 Carlsbad 5000.  I placed 5th overall and was 3rd in my age group (first time ever placing in my age group) and most importantly, I beat Nash by 2 seconds, LOL.  Just kidding Nash.  That was only of second importance.  My official time was 18:01.  I still have something more and better inside me.  There were two women ahead of me that are older than me - one ran 17:35 and placed 3rd overall.  I can do that.  I'm going to do that.  I love this so much!

My teammates Monica and DeAnna ran most of their race together and finished extremely strong within 2 seconds of one another solidifying a very strong team finish.  We placed 2nd as a team and we are very proud of that.

I enjoyed the rest of the morning immensely.  We watched the remaining open races and then settled into the best viewing spots to watch Bernard Lagat go for an American records and for a title.  As hard as I ran, it is beyond mind-blowing to think that these world-class men went almost 5 minutes faster and the world-class women almost 3 minutes faster.  And to watch them run is to watch poetry in motion.  Fluid, smooth, focused.  And they were pushing themselves to the very end.  What an amazing finale.  Bernard did in fact capture the American record - I have pictures of it!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

National 8K Masters National Championships

I blame my brothers.  Ah, the adventure and pressures of being a little sister with two older brothers who like to place bets.  My first memory of racing is when I was 5 years old (maybe 4), in a Santa Clara, CA neighborhood where my family lived.  My oldest brother, 7 years my elder, taunted another neighborhood boy who was also 7 years my elder, "Ha, I bet my little sister can run faster than you!"  Little sister Cindy observed two things.  1) My older brother believes in me, 2) therefore, I believe in me.  I was a tough little tom-boy like many young girls and that day, early in life, I learned that I like to win.  Not only that, I like to win against the odds.  I also like to make those who believe in me, proud.  What we have inside of us lives there and at some point we discover it.  It's nice to discover things early on.

Here I am ... many, many years later having lived with this internal flame that burned many different temperatures over the years.  I find it burning the brightest now.  And I'm not the only possessor of this flame.  You have it too.  All of us have something in us that wants to succeed at every level possible.  I enjoy running and competing every bit as much as I did when I was 5 years old, racing in a cul-de-sac against an older, stronger boy, trying just to make my brothers proud and help them win that bet. 

The Brea 8K hosted the Master's National Championships for that distance this year.  Location:  Brea, CA.  The course: rolling slopes with a few hills.  The competition: The Southern California Association of USATF offers the highest level of competition, combined with the nation's best masters runners from all over the country!  My goals:  My best chance of success was an age group win though I was down the list a bit as far as favored.

I want to do races that pull the very best out of me and this was one of them.  Masters runners are seasoned, experienced, smart, fast.  Today's 40+ year olds are proving that 40 is the new 30, and 50 is also the new 30, and what the heck, so is 60.  They just keep getting faster and are staying faster.  It is tumultuously inspirational.  I find myself more honored than ever to enter these high level races and to see these competitors grind it out, hang on through searing pain, grit their teeth and get it done.  The bigger challenge for a masters runner is not the race itself but getting to each starting line healthy.

So here we were, honored to be in Brea and looking for something special to happen.  For this race, myself, my sweet husband John, our fellow master runner and coach, Nash, my Boulder XC teammate T (Teri) and our old faithful, John Brennand were in attendance.  The masters race was run separately from the community wide Brea 8K.  We got to start at 7:30am when the air was still very crisp.  The conditions were absolutely perfect.  The temperature hung in the low 50's, the wind was clean and calm, the sky was clear and it just felt yummy out. 

We began our warm up about one hour before race start, taking our time covering the first 3 miles of the course and a piece of the final mile as well.  A nice long warm up it was, and I have learned here of late that this is a good way to prepare.  An 8K is about 40 yards shy of a full 5 miles, so our warm-up was close to the full race distance, but nice and easy.  It was a happy warm up meeting others along the way.  Some from Northern California, some from other states, many from So Cal.  Everyone clearly feeling a bit of healthy tension but also feeling a connection.  It was all somehow so comforting as I tried to keep my own nerves in check.

I kept my eye out for the "neighborhood boys" I was to compete against, namely those bearing the mark of 45 on their backs (signifying they age group of 45-49).  I already knew who they were and I already knew I was the underdog.  The great thing about that is because I was the underdog, they weren't keeping an eye on me.

Race time approached rapidly and John had already made his way over the starting line while I waiting in line for the port-a-potty ... again.  It was about then that I heard the National Anthem being sung and I realized I was about to miss the start.  I abruptly shot off toward the starting line, which was about 400 meters away.  The runners were already packed into the starting shoot solid with no gaps and although I mumbled a few "excuse me's" and tried to move up a bit, it was really no use.  There were about 200 bodies layered in and I was not where I needed to be.  With nothing more I could do about it, I relieved my anxiety by reminding myself I had a chip on my foot for timing.  My time would begin when I crossed the start line, not when the gun went off.  Or so I thought.

The gun went off and my group of "70 and older guys" in front of me didn't move very quickly.  There was about a 5 second gap between the gun and my crossing of the starting line, and then from there I had to make my way around the runners in front of me.  Because of my placement back in the starting pack, it was an inefficient start but I calmly went about my business doing what I could to get to where I needed to be.  I paid absolutely no attention to any other runner in the race.  I didn't know where the lead women were.  I didn't know where my age group contenders were.  I didn't know where my fellow Santa Barbara runners were.  I had one thing on my mind and that was to run this race by my race plan and not in reaction to any one or anything else.  My plan was to run conservatively to begin with (at my intended race pace of 6 minutes) for the first two miles.  I wanted to be feeling good when I attacked the hills in mile three.  The final piece of the plan was to come out of mile 4 having made up the deficit in time created by the hills and then find something deeper to pick it up in the final mile.

I loved this race.  From start to finish it was lined with cheering spectators and the atmosphere was electric.  There were wonderful interactions happening between the racers and the spectators as masters runner are also full of class and appreciation.  Mile 1 per clock time was right on at 6:00 minutes exactly.  My watch time was 5:55 which was also my chip time but I was at this point going off of the official gun time and what was being called out to me at every mile.  Mile 2 was slightly slower but the course created more strain in that particular section so I wasn't worried and I came through at just over 12 minutes.  From here it was a sharp left turn into a loop and up a long, steady climb.  It was here that I passed my first significant competitor as she struggled a bit with the hill.  I kept my effort steady and my pace slowed appropriately for this particular mile of the course and I came through 3 miles in 18:18.  Mile 4 was the other side of the hill and allowed for some recovery, relaxation and build up in pace.  It was in this mile I feel I really began to gain on those ahead of me and where I felt my conservative start was serving me well.  Toward the end of mile 4 is the turn back onto the main street that headed back to the finish line and in fact, the buildings and structures near the finish were clearly in view up ahead.  The final mile was not flat, nor necessarily fast but it was going to need to be my fastest mile of the race.  That was the plan and that's what I needed to do.

As I passed mile 4 in 24: ... something, I knew I was to that point not where I had hoped to be but I was still feeling so good and strong.  I didn't realize I was actually picking up the pace until I began passing runner after runner after runner, including my final age group competitor.  I passed her early in the final mile and by the time we finished I had put almost a full minute on her.  I still had no idea who was ahead, how many women, how far, but someone shouted to me, "now go catch Julie."  I know who Julie is and I wondered for several meters of increasing speed how on earth I could be anywhere close enough to catch her.  What I did know is that up ahead there was a battle going on.  Nash was in a group of men, two of which were in his age group.  As I approached from the back, closing in on about 800 meters to go, I saw him pass one of the men but the other lingered ahead of him.  Nash had his own cheering section at this race (his wonderful family came to support him) and I heard them cheering and yelling in desperation.  My consuming thought was then to get on Nash's shoulder and push him past his competitor.  Somehow or another I still had lungs and strength and I got right up onto his shoulder.  He
became aware of me and I know it ticked him off a bit.  That was what I was hoping for.  I moved along with him and just a bit ahead of him and he picked it up and came with me.  We kept the tempo and rounded the turns into the mall parking lot that housed the finish line and then made the final turn toward the finish.  That part is always and ever will be a blur in any race and this one was no different.  I had the vague awareness that the guy Nash was trying to catch finished right ahead of me, and Nash finished right behind me.  Not the outcome we were hoping for.  I also remember seeing my time on the clock.  I was sure I had missed my goal time of 30:00 (6 minute pace) and when I looked up and saw 29:40, I then and there, that was the final mile I had hoped and dreamed I'd have.  It turned out to be a 5:27 (which was 40 yards short of a full mile, so was at about 5:35 pace).  I never did see Julie but discovered she was only 7 seconds ahead of me when it was all said and done.  I also soon discovered that Julie was third female overall.  I therefore was the dreaded 4th!  Just out of the overall medals, just out of the money.  Go figure, but I soon also learned that I had in fact won my age group and that was a very big deal.  My watch time which matched my chip time was 29:38.  Though it didn't make any difference in the end, I also learned that in official national championship races and races that award money, they go by gun time not chip time so my official time was 29:42.  I had to eat those lost seconds that I accrued at the start but I was also glad.  Being caught behind gave me the ability to forget about anything going on ahead of me and gave me the opportunity to run a negative split and make it count when it needed to count.  I was happy.

John finished not long after and he found me jogging around in all kinds of excitement.  Ah, those So Cal/LA girls made a big mistake.  I talked with girl #2 in my age group after the race and she said, "man, I was sure I was set with one mile to go.  No 45 or older women were going to pass me and then, boom, you just flew by."  I explained how I went out conservatively and was just so thankful to have it when I needed it.  And as it should be, there was now mutual respect.

I earned a small amount of money, but more importantly, I own a patch that says USATF National Champion.  Wow, that is humbling, exciting, special and most importantly has made me hungry for the next one!!

Thank you immensely to you who cheered from afar or who participated in the post-race facebook excitement.  It just matters that much more if others share it and care.  I am forever appreciative and want to be there to do the same for you.  Blessings to you.  Thanks to God for the opportunity to run for when I run I feel God's pleasure.

Monday, February 17, 2014

USATF National Cross-Country Championships

Thus begins my tale of twisted endings, of expectations contorted into unsightly figures, of a journey traveled with intentional strides, destination known, but somehow unfamiliar when face to face.  I set out to do something special this year.  I stepped into a commitment to compete as far out of my comfort zone as possible in hopes of attaining something truly worthwhile.  It occurred to me as I embarked on this journey with a few other brave souls, that this is truly living.  Why do something easy and less challenging when you can have a moment of brilliance doing something spectacular.

John and I stepped into the realm of national championship competitions as Master's runners this past weekend.  Though we had done many USATF events within our Southern California association (which is easily the most competitive in the nation) we had not ever done a Masters national competition.  This past weekend we embarked on our first - The USATF National Cross-country Championships in Boulder, CO.

The story began several months ago.  In fact I had targeted this race for about a year and had also hoped to form a master women's team to go in representation of Santa Barbara.  I discovered there are some amazing, brave and motivated, not to mention talented, master women in Santa Barbara and in the end, we entered a team of 5 women to compete.  Myself, Monica DeVreese, Desa Mandarino, DeAnna Odell and Teri Malinowski.  I am forever bonded to these women after our Boulder experience and I am so very proud of them, their fortitude and strength, and their perseverance.

Training began in early December right on the heels of the completion of our regular racing schedule.  The Ventura Turkey Trot was our year's best race.  Actually for me it was my lifetime best 5K performance and all the stars aligned for me that day.  It was the perfect launch into a new challenge - that of cross country at altitude against the nation's best master runners.

Training moved us off the track and onto the grass.  Out of racing flats and into spikes.  Out of the known and familiar into the unknown.  On the grass, our interval distances were marked by orange cones and I could no longer judge my pace based on laps around the track.  The grass was uneven, full of ruts and obstacles, lumps around the palm trees, holes, tufts of crab grass: a soft, sinking energy sucking green carpet.  This surface was going to be our new training partner for 8 weeks so we got to know it well.  Tuesday mornings we hit the grass before the sun rose.  Saturdays were reserved for longer tempo runs looping around the grass as many times as it took.  Workout after workout, we sought to begin to love the grass and make it work to our advantage.  Another goal was to maximize our oxygen efficiency as much as possible here at sea level in an attempt to lessen what would be an altitude shock.

Along with the grass workouts, there was my long run which I extended out to 15 miles (which is a lot for me), two days a week were double workouts combining a run and a swim, and then there were the accessory workouts such as weight training.  The 8 week period was relentless and I kept in mind that my competitors were doing the same or more and they were going to have a huge altitude advantage too.  Besides the training, I began to obsess over the race entries - who was entering and could I beat them?  I obsessed over the weather - would it be too cold, too windy, would there be snow, how would the course be affected?  The weather in Boulder was all over the place and clearly unpredictable.  The pinnacle occurred the week prior to the race when Boulder weather started setting records for negative temperatures.  My final obsession was over the race plan - how would I handle so many disadvantages and still do well?

The pain of training was lessened by a few factors.  1. We have had solid and persistent coaching and guidance from Nash Jimenez who is very familiar with this level of competition and knew exactly how to prep; 2. By the addition of a few more running buddies to join us in the pain - Desa and Amy.  Hurting through workouts with others is so much more fun.  It really is!!

So it went that we did everything we knew to do to get ready for this high level competition.  We capped it off with the Super Bowl 4 Miler which was used both as a time trial and a tempo run and provided the opportunity to practice our race strategy.  The Super Bowl went super great.  We had a headwind to deal with but apart from that, we ran the first two miles "easy and controlled" and picked it up the final two miles.  It played out perfectly and felt great.

Onto the final chapter - John and I left for Colorado one week prior to the race so that we could spend some days above our race altitude.  We were in Colorado Springs and did our final interval workout and taper along some amazing paths.  Everything felt good for me.  I think I felt the altitude but it never seemed to be that much of an issue.  The intervals were the hardest part but were doable and were done at a reasonably high level of speed.  After 4 days in Colorado Springs we headed to Boulder and had our first experience with the location of our race.  We went on an out-and-back path along Boulder Creek and ended with a nice hard tempo.  All I can say about that was when I finished the run, I was race ready and confident.

The rest of our ladies team arrived on Thursday to join us in Boulder and we previewed the course on Friday.  That was a nice run, comfortable and easy and we marveled at how great this course was and how miraculously the weather improved.  The race day forecast called for a high of 54 degrees, low of 37 degrees.  That sounded a lot like Santa Barbara really.  And the course was just amazing - velvet smooth fairway grass on Flatirons Golf course.  Yes there were some twists and turns and some slushy, soggy areas as well as a sick muddy curve, but it seemed so much better than what we had been training on.  Again this filled my heart with confidence that we had really done the right things to prepare.

That night, Friday night, a high-wind warning was issued and it was going to extend into the morning.  This was the first hiccup I felt in my confidence.  With other things to factor in, I didn't want to have to face gale-force winds.  That night I lay awake listening to the gusts hitting our hotel windows, rattling our loose door from the outside hallway (a hallway that was fully inside the building).  Not that I would be sleeping anyway, but I was wishing that wind to go away.  It gusted all night and at some point I dozed off to sleep for a short while.  When I awoke, I peeked out the window to see how hard the trees were blowing.  It had indeed died down a bit but there was still movement.  The shocking and odd thing was the pre-dawn temperature at 6:00 am was 54 degrees.  It was HOT OUT!!!  This was like some kind of Santa Ana episode and it left the air warm (relatively speaking) and dry. 

We took a shuttle from the hotel to the course and arrived to find our Athlete's tent had not survived the night and was in a broken heap.  The snow that remained on the course the day before, was now gone.  It was just an odd scene and coupled with the nerves and tension, it was just surreal.  The organizers had already implemented plan B and directed us to a brick building which was now the new athlete's tent.  I jested as we walked into it, "I see this baby is made out of brick.  Ain't no wolf gonna blow this one down." 

I started out with extra layers of clothing and quickly headed out for my long warm up.  The first thing I noticed was that I felt awful.  My chest was tight, I didn't feel comfortable in my stride, my running bra felt too tight around my ribs.  This was nothing like how my week had been.  I continued to jog, pulling off layers of clothing as I needed to.  I decided to change into a looser bra but even still, I found it harder to breath.  Was it just nerves?  I couldn't tell and there wasn't much I could do about it at this point.  After 3 miles of warm-up we finally slipped into our spikes, and removed most of the layers and our ladies team headed over to the starting line to present ourselves to the line judge to have our uniforms and race numbers examined for compliance.  From there we did strides and drills while the last few minutes ticked off until start time. 

There were about 70 women lined up, each team in a designated starting box.  We were in a far right position which meant we had to angle in a lot to get into the best position during the race.  There was still a wind blowing around too, and it was so oddly dry.  I felt thirsty and couldn't swallow.  I was able to strip down to my shorts and singlet, no gloves or ear covering needed.  I took deep breaths and an attempt to push out the negative thoughts that began to build.

The gun went off, the runners went off and I ran out ahead of those around me and made my angle toward the inside edge of our course where the leaders began to form a pack.  My goal was to finish top 5 and I knew exactly who would be ahead of me and which one of those I needed to beat.  The absolute ONLY thing I could not do in this race was go out too fast.  I knew what I wanted to do, I thought I knew what I definitely could do, and I pulled myself back from all of that into a pace that was slow.  I let the lead pack have their distance and I stayed with the others around me.  Not more than 800 meters into the race I knew something wasn't right.  I was clearly going very slow but I was having trouble maintaining even that.  By the time I hit mile 1 of this 6K (3.73 miles) race my quads began to tie-up with lactic acid.  I had gone out in 6:11 pace, hit the 2K right on but in all of that, I apparently had totally miscalculated what "going out easy" meant in this scenario.  I came around the first of 3 loops in the exact position I needed to be in but the problem was I was in distress already.  It was not long before I began to give up on one goal after another.  I already figured out I was not going to make my time goals, and I was not going to be able to beat the women I thought I could.  From there I began to go into survival mode.  With every step I took, the lactic acid continued to build and my quads screamed at me as if I were doing 300 pound squats.  I felt strain and pain and it made no sense to me.  Here I was running on a flat grass surface which I had trained for, yet my body was shutting down, yet I had felt great all week.  My race, the part that included my heart and soul, was over before I got too the final lap and I spent the remainder of it being passed by women who should not have been passing me.  It was like a nightmare and I just wanted it to be over.  I knew that when I reached the finish line, I might be done with the race but this feeling of agony was going to extend.  I was merely just moving forward so as not to completely quit.  My legs were totally gone, no strength, hardly the ability to pick them up and move them forward.  Each step felt like I was hefting 30 pounds of mud on my soles.  As the crowd cheered and the men's team shouted encouragement, there was just nothing I could do to respond.  Another woman passed me.  Would this ever end?  Finally I reached the finish, crossed it, clicked off my watch, walked a couple of steps, bent over and massaged my quads just so they wouldn't collapse on me.  That's all I needed.  To finish and collapse after running so poorly.  I would love to collapse after a great race, but to collapse after this one would have only been one more humiliation. 

Somehow I got through the chute, timing chips removed and John greeted me with my jacket.  He had to get going in preparation for his race so he left quickly to warm up.  I stood around and waited a short while for the remainder of my teammates to finish and I realized my hands and face were numb.  Somehow during our race the temperature dropped 15-20 degrees.  It was now in the 30's and I was cold.  I quickly began to shiver.  The girls came through in close proximity and we soon huddled together for a quick picture.  One by one we relayed pieces of our experience - my legs, Desa's heart rate soared and kept her from running hard, Monica was unable to breath.  It was just ultimately not what we expected.  Still we all made it and here we were.  On the other side of that finish line.

So you see how the journey began and ended with some twisted finale.  I haven't had time to process it all but when I do, I'm sure I will conclude the same thing - we did everything right in preparation.  The altitude affected me differently than I expected and my race plan was harder to implement than I thought.  A lot of lessens learned I suppose but still I woke up the day after and wished the whole thing was just a bad dream.  I wished I could wake up on race day again and do it all over.

In the end, I placed 13th overall, 4th in my age group and our team placed 4th.  My time is not worth mentioning since this is after all cross-country and in cross-country your final time is a non-issue.  But I will say that my time was 2 minutes slower than my conservatively thought out goal time.

So here I am back home and at sea level and I allowed myself to feel down-hearted for a few hours.  Now it's time to move on.  This coming weekend, mercifully I have another national championship race in which to compete - the USATF Master's National 8K Road Championships - and this one is in Orange County.  The competition will be very tough but at least I will have more control over how I do.  I'm just hoping my legs will begin to work by then since they are currently all but seized up with lactic acid.

Oh the joys of this new journey and yet I am still so very thankful because this race and this experience has made me feel that much more alive!  I am going to keep pursuing the greater things and am going to enjoy the journey.  I am forever thankful that John is on this journey with me, and Nash is too!  And now too we have some master's ladies who have tasted the sweet nectar of higher level competition and they may want to join me for some more soon!!!