Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fairfield Half Marathon

My standard three alarms were set in 5-minute increments (starting at 6:20am) but thankfully I didn't need any of them. My eyes shot open before the first alarm even went off, and I was wide awake at 5:45.  I didn't want to risk going back to sleep for just 25 minutes, so I laid on the couch and read my book. I think my friend Ron nearly fainted when I texted him that I was awake. He responded: "oh glorious day! it's already amazing!!"  And that about sums it up.

I went into this race feeling fantastic. I felt strong, capable, and ready. I was optimistic, energetic, and actually quite excited about running through my old college town. Every time I'm in Fairfield, I get that warm fuzzy feeling like I'm "home" again. 

By the time Ron arrived, promptly at 6:50am, I was ready to go. Since I had laid out my clothes and set aside my sports beans the night before, basically all I needed to do was throw on my clothes, wash my face and head out he door. I grabbed a slice of bread with peanut butter & honey (standard pre-race fuel) about T-minus 1.5hrs until the start.  The only things I brought with me to the race were my credit card, a $10 bill, chapstick, and sports beans, all which fit nicely in the pockets of my nifty Adidas running shorts. I also brought my phone and water bottle, but left them in the bag check with Rons stuff. We parked at the Fairfield train station and took the shuttle bus to the beach. I still can't believe how early we were - the timing was perfect. We had plenty of time to pick up our numbers and wait in line at the porta-potties without being rushed. I even snagged a small tee shirt!  It was a nice relaxing way to start a race. At one point, while scanning the crowd for Ron, I noticed John Fields from my graduating class at Fairfield. What a small world.  I chatted with him for a bit and wished him good luck, then proceeded to the bag check.  

The humidity factor had already skyrocketed by 8:30 in the morning.  The announcer kept advising everyone to hydrate well - before, during and after the race.  I decided to heed his advice and took full advantage of the water tables before the race even started. I'm so glad I did!  I remembered my experience with the Fairfield Half 3 years ago, and it was NOT pretty (I was sick to my stomach and nearly collapsed in a pile of misery and tears just before the finish line).

Ron and I parted ways and made our way to our respective starting lines (the start was split by men/women for crowd control, which I think was a fabulous idea).  The race started out pretty well. I ran along the sidewalk for the first mile or so, comfortably passing most of the crowd and working my way up to the runners going my pace.  The separate starts helped a lot to alleviate congestion, and before the end of mile 2, there was enough room to run freely, and I fell into a comfortable groove.  

The initial comfort level was extremely short-lived.  This race was TOUGH!!!  I remembered Fairfield being hilly and hot, but I completely forgot just how hilly and hot it actually was! It was brutal. I was pouring sweat before I even crossed the starting line.  The sun beat down on me nearly the entire time and I could actually feel my face start to burn.  I slugged up every single hill, slowing nearly to a walk pace, while dozens of runners flew past me. I made up for the uphill struggles by letting gravity take over on the downhills; I flew down the hills but destroyed my toes in the process. The fire hoses set up on ladders spraying the road were my salvation. I ran underneath the water sprays with the determination and glorious ecstasy that usually comes with crossing the finish line. I was so afraid of dehydrating that I stopped for water at least 4-5 times. I could not have survived without the multiple water stops. If it weren't for the fire hoses, water stops, and the occasional stretch of shaded road, I probably would have died.

Somewhere in the first half of the race, I saw Ron up ahead, caught up to him and matched his pace. His plan was to run 8-min miles, so you can imagine how shocked I was to find him.  Granted, he was taking it "easy" but I still couldn't believe I actually passed him! Ron is a super star; he qualifies for the first corral at NYRR events. 

A little farther into the race, I overheard two girls behind me talking about CPTC and I could have sworn one was runnerskitchen (Megan if you are reading this, were you or your friend wearing red sunglasses?)  Those girls seemed to be taking it so effortlessly, and kept going at a conversational pace throughout the entire race. It's ironic to me because I was legitimately racing this race, and we were around the same pace... anywho I couldn't believe how fast I was going and kept calculating my pace in my head, thinking I might PR. I racked my brain, trying to remember my previous half PR, but that was years ago. I didn't think I would get it, especially when I noticed my pace dropped significantly in the last half of the race. 

At another point, I overheard tons of people cheering for someone named Maggie. As I slowly closed the gap between me and this girl Maggie, I realized that she was one of my old tutees!! Again, what a small world. I congratulated Maggie on her awesome pace (this was her first half marathon) and then plowed on ahead.  It's all kind of a blur at this point. I ate 4 sports beans somewhere around mile 7 or 8. They tasted really sugary and gross and kind of bothered my teeth.  

I had to do so much self-talking and coaching throughout this race. I kept wondering when the hills would end.  I didn't want to tire myself out too early if lots of hills awaited, but I wanted to give maximum effort on the uphills if there were only a few left. As it turned out, I needed to give maximum effort anyway, just to avoid walking up the hills. I kept searching desperately for each mile marker.  Once we reached mile 10, I picked up the pace, thinking I could survive with just a 5K left. After that, it seemed like FOREVER before the next marker sighting; I actually thought I missed mile 11 and would be coming up on mile 12 soon. WRONG. When I finally saw the 11 mile marker after what I thought for sure was 12 miles, I nearly cried.  The course was taunting me. 

Ron came up behind me around mile 12 and put on an incredible kick for his last mile.  I tried to follow his lead, but he was out of my sight before I could even process what was happening.  When we approached Penfield beach I was pretty much sprinting and thought for sure I could push it at that pace just a few more yards. Then we turned the corner and I found out we had another .25 miles left. I wanted to give up then and there.

At the end of the day, all that matters is that I gave this race 110%.  I ran fast, I ran hard, and I never stopped. I felt optimistic going into this race, and I surpassed all my own expectations. I got a PR!!!!  My standing PR was from 2009 - 2 years ago! - and I killed it by almost 2 minutes! I was so surprised that I nearly cried... but surprisingly I didn't. Despite continually pushing myself through the entire race, enduring extreme agony for the last 2 miles, and being on the verge of tears nearly the entire time, this is the first half marathon I can remember where I didn't cry. 

The craziest part of all, is my time improved by 12 full minutes in just four weeks. Unbelievable! (I just ran the Brooklyn Half about a month ago, and didn't even break 2 hours.) It's even more incredible because I haven't even been training. The longest run I did between Brooklyn and Fairfield was 8 easy miles. I've been doing my standard 1-2 mile morning runs, with the occasional (3-6mi) weekend run thrown in, but that's the extent of it. Then I just got up and ran a half marathon PR on an extremely tough course. Go figure. I'm positively thrilled.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The iPhone armband: to buy or not to buy?

My phone usually gets left behind on runs. It's too bulky and annoying to carry, plus I'm always worried about dropping or breaking it. I know I should bring it, even just for personal safety, but knowing and doing are two entirely different things.  Hence, the search for the perfect armband commenced.  It took a few months to make up my mind. After countless trips to the accessories sections of JackRabbit, Lululemon, Foot Locker, and Sports Authority, I settled on a lightweight armband with a clear window that allowed access to the touch screen.  It was made by Nathan - the same company that made my waist pack (which I am very happy with).  Even after all that careful decision making, I still couldn't bring myself to cough up $35 on a running accessory - I mean, the only use I would really get out of this was on occasional long runs.

After nearly a month of continued deliberation, I got a 10% discount at JackRabbit from a City Running Tour, and finally treated myself to the armband.  I loved it immediately!  However, my beloved armband quickly turned out to be extremely annoying.  The actual band was tight on my arm and the phone felt clumsy and awkward bouncing on my arm.  I needed to take it off every time I wanted to check my phone.  The fancy earbud cord saver was just bothersome and unnecessary because I never run with headphones.  The phone barely fit - I needed to remove it from the case every time I wanted to put it in the armband.  Even then, it was a struggle to get in and out.  Now that I have the iPhone 4, it doesn't even fit at all!  Needless to say, I no longer use the armband and it was probably the worst running gear purchase decision ever.

(On a happier note, I received a free armband at the Revlon run/walk, and it fits my iPhone 4. Even though it covers the screen, it's way more comfortable to wear. By far one of the most functional pieces of promotional swag I've ever gotten.)

Running is not complicated

I started my running career in high school with a few pairs of $7 cotton Soffee shorts and a bunch of old tee-shirts. Pants from Walmart or K-Mart completed my ensemble in winter, along with sweatshirts - yes, I wore good old fashioned Rocky-style crewneck sweatshirts - and drawstring sweatpants. Sometimes I even rocked the sweats with rubber around the ankles. Running doesn't require any fancy gear. You can get out there and run in anything.

However, after I'd been sweating it out in 100% cotton for a few years, I slowly came to realize that tech fabric clothing might be worth the extra $$. Special synthetic fabrics with moisture-wicking technology are far more comfortable then ordinary cotton.  It is also true that as a distance runner, you will need to carry certain things, primarily your keys, and possibly some food/fuel, money, and maybe your phone. For these reasons, I truly appreciate innovations like runners shorts with built-in pockets, and a waist pouch to carry things.

Yet, I never could convince myself to buy any fancy new clothing until I started working at specialty running shops. After a few months at both the New Balance store, and Greenwich Running Company, and being exposed to the specialty running apparel nearly every day, my resistance eventually wore down... and I wanted everything! (The employee discount certianly didn't help matters.) At New Balance I ended up buying arch supports and special cross-trainers for the gym. (prior to that, old running sneakers would simply be downgraded to gym shoes) I bought a special lightweight breathable fleece, and quite a few pairs of tops and capri pants. At Greenwich Running Co, I ended up purchasing "The Stick" and nearly bought a foam roller but decided it was far too painful.

Greenwich Running Co was definitely the reason I decided to try Sports Beans; considering they were sitting next to the register taunting me nearly every time someone would grab a handful of the brightly colored little bags like candy. I also became intrigued by Clif Shots, which were good, and GU Chomps, which were flavorful but a little too sugary for my taste. (Note: To this day I still can't stand the idea of consuming straight GU, and would much rather chomp on gummi bears and Sweedish Fish during a race than put anything that literally looks like "goo" into my body.)

Even though my running accessory purchases have been few & far between, I've managed to accumulate quite the collection over the years. Here's a quick snapshot:

- New Balance running fleece - bought while working at the New Balance store. when you're exposed to something you want for days on end, you tend to eventually cave, and so it was with this fleece. After weeks of deliberation, I decided I must have it.

- Wind-resistant mittens - free back stock from NB store. althought they aren't attractive, they DO block the wind and cold, and actually keep my hands warm (no small feat!) through the worst winter months.

- New Balance women's running tanks - my first real "tech" fabric tops. also used at the gym.

- Nathan waist pack - bought at the expo the day before the Philly marathon. Thank goodness I purchased this! otherwise I would have been running with a plastic bag of candy literally in my hand for the entire marathon!

- Saucony running shorts - purchased while working at Greenwich Running Company. I spent the better part of an afternoon trying on every single pair by every single manufacturer in the entire store, and deemed these the best fit and most comfortable. My very first "tech" running shorts.

- LL Bean reflective arm bands- gift from dad so I wouldn't get hit by cars at night.

- Reflective ankle bands - bought recently at the bike shop to supplement arm bands for added visibility. original intent was to use for night bike rides, but I soon realized they could easily be used for night-time running visibility as well.

- Lululemon arm warmers - fantastic, fantastic purchase. LOVE THEM. they cover my hands and have a nifty hole for the thumb. reflective strip running along the entire arm. 'sticky' lining at the top to help keep them from falling down, pockets on the hands for keys and whatnot.

- Lululemon wrist pouch - great for holding keys, Metrocard, credit card, and maybe some cash... when I don't have any pockets. all the accessories at Lululemon are so innovative and amazing but usually a bit too expensive for my taste. The wrist pouch and arm armers were just "could not pass it up." I even tried to get the matching winter gloves with a special static finger tip for operating the touch screen on my phone, but sadly I didn't move fast enough and they completely sold out...

- Smartwool headband and neckwarmer - splurged at JackRabbit this past winter in hopes of insulating myself from the freezing temps and protecting myself from the harsh freezing winds.

- Fluorescent orange arm warmers - snagged at the NYC running show, supposedly made of the same day-glo fabric that construction workers wear for visibility

All of this stuff is great - and certainly very useful - but not necessary at all. I don't think any of this really makes you a better runner.  It's just a luxury.  You can buy all the fancy stuff, or you can completely go without.  Either way, you can still run!

Even with all my gear, I'm nowhere near as 'decorated' as other runners... I see people wired up to their iPods, mp3 players and gps devices. People have chips in their shoes and gps technology in their watches. They wear heart rate monitors and fuel belts that make them look like they're about to go on a mountain trek in the Appalachians. I'm not criticizing... Everyone needs to do what works for them. If music helps you tolerate your run, and if extra fuel & hydration helps you go even farther, then go for it! A little help along the way is fine - as long as it enhances your running experience, and doesn't detract from it.

It's just for me, running is all about freedom. It's about feeling weightless and flying along without restriction. About escaping the monotony of daily life. About clearing your mind.  I would hate to complicate things beyond that, or feel burdened by extra accessories. I don't want to have to worry about securing my arm band, or setting my gps, or finding a place to carry my phone.  I want to be able to lace up my sneakers and dash out the door. The essence of running is beautiful and natural; to me it's simple and requires nothing more than a desire to get out there. Let's try to keep it that way.

PS - I would however argue that a good pair of sneakers is absolutely essential.