Tuesday, 16 April 2013

#103 Tomorrow Never Knows

"The marathon can humble you." - Bill Rodgers, 4-time Boston Marathon champion

Words cannot begin to express the series of emotions that I felt before, during, and certainly following the running of this years Boston Marathon which occurred yesterday, Monday 15 April 2013. As I write this post from the back seat of our car heading back from Boston to Toronto, I still cannot begin to comprehend the severity or significance of it all.

What should have been a celebration of accomplishment for 27,000+ runners, their families and friends, and the entire Boston community, was tragically transformed by a most savage and senseless act. An act of needless violence that we still don't seem to understand and certainly can't explain.

The running, training, and racing that was supposed to be the reason for the days events soon became a matter of insignificance which paled in comparison to the things in life that truly matter.

My thoughts and sympathies go out to the individuals and families that were directly affected by the blasts that occurred at the finish line. To those who were in Boston for the marathon and the celebration of our sport: runners, supporters and spectators alike. And to all volunteers, organizers and medical and security staff involved in the planning and implementation of the race. Their preparation and dedication to their tasks certainly played a pivotal role in ensuring that things were not much worse than they were. They all did an amazing job and should be given the praise and appreciation they most definitely deserve.

We still don't know enough to make informed opinions as to why and how this was able to occur and are left feeling both angry and unsure, wanting and needing to understand.

Given my location at the time of the events, I feel I am entirely unable and unqualified to comment further having not been anywhere near the finish. Thus, I was fortunate not to be directly affected by those terrible acts and thankfully nor were any of the people who were with me in Boston. I am eternally grateful that fate and chance meant that we were kept safe and secure.

Considering the lasting impact that these events will have on those affected, I do not feel entirely comfortable posting about my race or experience since it most certainly is of minimal significance in comparison. Yet all the time and energy that were spent in the preparation and training as well as the excitement and eagerness to live out this experience can not and should not be entirely discounted. For the only way to allow acts of intimidation to be successful are if we let those who wish to strike fear and uncertainly into our hearts and minds, distract us from the things in life that matter most to us.

Running the Boston Marathon yesterday was in short, the most absolutely incredible, most difficult and in retrospect, the most rewarding experience I have ever had to date. From the build up of excitement over the past days and weeks, the eager nervousness on race morning while standing on the starting line, the incredibly naive and neurotic execution, the emotionally drained and angry finish, to the shocking and senseless aftermath. This was an experience I will always remember.

The Boston Marathon is special. It is among the oldest and without a doubt the most famous of all running races in North America, with this year being the 117th running. The race is special for many reasons but many people agree that its history and tradition are what makes it so great. It is also one of few races where all runners must qualify in order to participate (with the exception of a few hundred charity and sponsored spots... these runners were unfortunately those most affected at the time of the explosions). Many runners deem Boston to be the pinnacle of recreational running success and the act of merely qualifying is the greatest accomplishment in and of itself. Running the race then becomes the ultimate celebration of that accomplishment. Perhaps more amazing than the act of running as a participant in the race, is the outstanding and endless support of hundreds of thousands of fans and supporters along the course. From the start in Hopkinton to the finish near Copley Square, the citizens of Boston and its surrounding areas come together to cheer, celebrate and congratulate all the race participants in the most amazing show of camaraderie and community that I have ever witnessed in any event, sporting or otherwise. Quite simply, the Boston Marathon is special.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to experience during that race. Believing I was more trained and physically fit that I have ever been in my life, I opted to take on a most ambitious plan of going for a personal best time on a course, which on appearance, seems could and should be favourably fast. But all the reading, the research and the real-life experience of others could not have convinced me that my plan was so ripe for failure, which it ultimately was!

I set my mind on 2:32 and planned to pace it perfectly (i.e. an even split including a 1:16 half). I hit those paces almost to a tee right up to about 25k but knew long before that things were about to get bad and this was not going to be a great day. My legs were already starting to suffer around 20k and were screaming shortly after 25k. The four major up-hills through Newton from 26 to 34k were actually a pleasant reprieve from the extreme suffering running downhill the vast majority of the race. With only 8k left to go and a gentle drop down to Boston, I was ready to throw in the towel.

For the first time in my life, in the midst of running a race, I actually came to a complete stop. With tears in my eyes, I painfully walked toward the closest barricade and was mere metres from quitting the race and walking off the course. And if not for the women who was standing a few feet away and eagerly cheering, I would have quit and likely regretted it for the rest of my life. Instead, she said to me these simple words I will never forget: "You can't stop now. You've come so far. Keep going." I looked at her only briefly, cowardly, then looked away. At that point, another runner came running from behind and passed me. He too offered his own words of encouragement: "Keep it up buddy. Don't stop." I painfully began walking and then jogging again. I kept going and began to settle into the only pace my body would let me go. My mind remained in a very dark place and sadly, I am unable to say that I was able to enjoy those final few miles and the incredible crowd support unlike anything I had ever seen or could have expected. I wish I could have gave them my thanks and my profound appreciation. I wish I could have enjoyed the energy they had for us.

I finished the race in a time that I would never have expected coming to Boston and which I was definitely not pleased with in the moments immediately following the race. Although entirely respectable, this 2:37 was not only far from a PB, but it felt incredibly and entirely awful for the last 8k. I had come wanting more but was left feeling ashamed that I could be so disappointed. How could I have failed so badly? When we eventually met up at the finish area, coach Campbell asked: "So, what did you think?" I quickly and quite bluntly replied: "I hated it. I'll never do this again."

However, only a short time later when I was able to give my performance some critical reflection, could I begin to  apprehend how ridiculous and unrealistic my pre-race plan had been. I had no place trying to run a PB on this challenging Boston course and certainly not one as aggressive as a 2:32. But as many other and far more experienced runners can rightly attest, it is only through the first hand experience of running the course myself could I ever gain the knowledge and insight that is necessary to potentially and only perhaps perform well at this race. I truly believe that racing well is most definitely a skill that must be practiced and perfected over and over again and will come with its fair share of positive and not so positive outcomes. Consider this a lesson learned, as hard as it seemed to take at the time. Now, only a day later, I am already eagerly anticipating my next running of the Boston Marathon and planning how I can better my experience by giving the course the respect it so surely demands and deserves.

I won't go on any further, for again, this means nothing in the grand scheme of things as compared to what would happen next.

An hour or so after I and many of the people I knew had finished and were back at our hotel trying to recuperate both physically and mentally, we first heard the news that something terrible had happened near the finish line. We couldn't even begin to imagine the frightening scenes of chaos and confusion that were occurring about a kilometre away, at a location we had all spent a significant amount of time over the past 48 hours. We frantically tried to account for everyone we knew of in Boston and began to inform our concerned loved ones back home that we were all safe and secure. With little to do but worry anxiously and continue to try and comprehend the pieces of information that were beginning to emerge, we did the only thing we could that seemed to make any sense, which was to spend our time together and try to make the most of a truly tragic situation, which is what we did for the remainder of the evening. An evening that should have been filled with celebration and cheer; but instead was weighted with sadness, uncertainty and the slightest bit of guilt.

We as individuals are the sum of our experiences and interactions. In some cases, our experiences can profoundly impact the people we are and the people we want to be. Many will not believe when I say it and only my actions going forward will reinforce it, but I have been eternally humbled and perhaps changed by my Boston experience. I have learned valuable lessons and hope to be a better person for it.

In the past, there have been times I have been bold and brazen. Angry and arrogant. Offensive and insulting. Unkind and insensitive. I do not deny any of this and while I cannot pretend it didn't happen or say I didn't mean it; I am very much disappointed in myself for the impact my words have had on my own reputation as well as that of my close friends. I consider myself a passionate person who has been very fortunate to discover an activity, a sport, and a lifestyle that I truly love and cherish. Running has, is and will always be an important part of who, how and why I am. But it is also not all I am. I happen to value honesty and integrity, perhaps to the disregard of tact and sensitivity and sometimes say things or express opinions without thinking about who and how others are affected or could interpret my message.

In the future I will certainly not shy away from expressing provocative opinions or taking unpopular positions on various topics if I feel they represent and promote a truth or reality I believe in. At the same time, I truly hope to adopt and articulate a far more humble and respectful tone and voice. I have been guilty of prioritizing my own interests and experiences at the expense and lack of appreciation of others. At the end of the day, we can never truly understand or appreciate what it's like to walk (jog, run, whatever!) in someone else's shoes and therefore have no ability to judge or assign value. We can spend our entire lives trying to find meaning and happiness for and by ourselves but will often find the most success in the interactions and positive engagement we have with others.

The final thing I'd like to say is a sincere thanks to all those who shared and contributed to this most important, maturing, and meaningful experience. To all the members of Black Lungs Toronto, who are also my best and closest friends. I do this for and because of you. You make it all worthwhile. To my family and friends who tirelessly support and celebrate me no matter what I say or do. You are the reason I strive to be better each day. To those I don't know personally but who follow me here or elsewhere. Whether you love me or love to hate me, I hope you don't judge me purely on what you read here. And finally, to Melinda (and her dog Charlie) who has patiently put up with my misplaced insecurities and priorities longer than she should have. You continue to believe in me even when I don't, and for that, I know you are the one! Thank you so much.

And thank you all for reading this far. That was quite a post. I don't expect to write another for quite some time, so I wish you all the best. Despite all that happens and every reason you may have to stop... please keep running.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

#102 I Will

The Road to Boston: Race rehearsal(s)

There are now less than 5 days until the start of the 117th Boston Marathon. Oh right, of course you know that... I've only told you like a million times before! For those who want to watch the event live, you can do so here, http://watchlive.baa.org/ starting at 9:30 EST. It's going to be a good one!

This will likely be my last post/update before the big event so I hope you enjoy it! I/we leave on Saturday morning (early) and plan to drive more or less non-stop the ~10hrs to Beantown in time to arrive for a brief stint at the expo and a ~8k shake-out run. Sunday should be a relaxing and restful day taking in the B.A.A. 5k and mile races whilst trying to stay off our feet and cram our faces full of carbs. Monday morning is go time and all signs point to PB!

Today, I ran the last bit of 'effort' before the race. A run I like to call the "insecurity session" because it is right about now that taper madness fully sets in and we begin to question everything we've done in training and begin to doubt ourselves. So mostly for the security of my sanity, I ran a short (5k) interval at approximately marathon race pace to 'prove' that I'm ready. I did it on the dreadmill which meant it was much warmer and sweatier than I'm used too, but also felt pretty comfortable. Now, I'm mentally psyched up and ready to roll!

Last week (which ended up totalling 142k!), we ran a mid-week long run of 33k and followed that up with a Friday hill workout (the 'Beardsley Hill Special') which consisted of 10 x 600m hills (the approximate distance and grade of the infamous 'heartbreak hill') at approximately marathon pace/effort. It was both challenging and confidence building. In the end, the week was anything but easy and yet I felt and continue to feel great.

I fully admit that I've been feeling/acting/writing a bit arrogant recently but hope you can understand that I am merely excited to see what I can do given my on-form fitness and race results this cycle. I feel that I've set the bar extremely high and am only the slightest bit concerned that I will not live up to expectations (I know there are those of you who hope to see me fail). I've been shying away from making predictions but have been so bold as to say a 2:32:XX is a definite target (but could also be suicide!). I refuse to acknowledge anything more ambitious, but don't think it hasn't crossed my mind. I have worked extremely hard and put in a tonne of training to get where I am today and I truly believe that in a sport such as running, hard work and dedication pays off and is rightly rewarded.

So, barring any unforeseen disaster, I will line up in 5 days intending to push my body to its absolute physical and mental limits. There is a very real risk that I will exceed those limits and could fail spectacularly. If I do, I have no regrets. One way or the other, I will give it my all in Boston. I am ready. I am trained. I am going for it.

Thanks for reading and keep on running.

Monday, 1 April 2013

#101 It Won't Be Long II

The Road to Boston: Taper time (sorta)

There are now just two weeks to go before I line up in Hopkinton to run my first (and by default, fastest) Boston Marathon on Monday 15 April at 10am EST.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that following the 'Around the Bay' (30k) race, it would 'officially' be time to taper my training and wind down, in order to 'peak' (i.e. maximize performance) in Beantown.

Well, as it happens, last week was a bit bolder than I was planning, in part thanks to how great I was feeling. And so despite the hard effort at ATB, I ran just over 150k for the week and felt fantastic whilst doing so (feeling way too damn good?!). Most miles were done 'easy', but my paces were a bit faster than they should/could have been. I also ran a fair share of rolling hills and even managed to complete a challenging yet comfortable speed workout on Thursday that included more than 11k of speed work at approximately half-marathon pace (HMP). In sum, I'm (still) feeling super fit and ready and rearing to tackle the 42.2.

Anyone who knows anything about running generally, and marathoning specifically, should recognize that the days and weeks immediately before a key race or event, and commonly known as the 'taper,' are potentially the most critical in terms of producing an optimal performance (assuming that an appropriate amount of training was done in the 8-12 weeks before this time). This refers mostly to what kind of training (how much, how often, how hard) one should do to maximize energy levels and minimize fatigue but should also include what one consumes to fuel up (carbo-loading) and slim down for race day as well.

Unfortunately, most people don't know enough about either of these things. Common mistakes I see people making all the time are a) running too little, especially in the 3 weeks, before the race and b) eating too much (excluding in the 2-3 days right before the event... when carbo loading is most effective).

In short, people take too much time off running, and thus feel stale on race day; and also eat too much. No wonder they go stir crazy during the taper. I won't go into any great detail here, but from my own observations and interactions, I see many people making some seemingly minor yet significant (and sometimes stupid) mistakes in the final few weeks of training that ultimately costs them time and can even make racing a marathon a pretty terrible experience. Yup, this coming from the guy that just ran ATB "all out" only 3 weeks out of Boston... it's so easy to say "I told you so" after the fact.

3 weeks to taper is a ridiculously long amount of time. Even 2 weeks is pushing it and may be unnecessary! Our group has done a modified taper of ~10 days to great effect. We run a late cycle long run less than 2 weeks out from the race and then begin our taper in earnest after this point. So, for example, this week we will run a mid-week 30+k run and then our mileage will start to gradually decline (however, not the frequency or intensity...we also do a hard workout late in the week). As a result, we ride the wave of fitness late into the second taper week and then give the body the time it needs to (fully) recover. It sounds crazy, but it works!

So ya, this week will also be another week of relatively tough training (tapering) and end up being 120+k. What one does in that final week is very personal and based on the individual but the adage 'less is more' definitely applies at that point and running should be as easy as possible and really only serves to maintain mental sanity.

I've now written far more than I ever intended and much of it is anecdotal and based on my own experiences. As always, my words should be taken with a grain of salt. All the best to those of you now in 'taper mode' whether for Boston or some other race. Keep running... and leave the carbo load to the last 3 days before the race.