The Mermaid Run San Francisco: Sirena 10

The Mermaid Run San Francisco: Sirena 10
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If I had to guess one item on the bucket list of most San Francisco Bay Area runners — or runners anywhere, really? — I’d go with running on the Golden Gate Bridge.

I’d chance, even, that it’s an item you never really get to cross off the bucket list. You do it once, then again, and again – and it never gets old.

GGBridgeMermaid

The price you pay for racing on this beauty, however, is steep. Literally. Getting up to the bridge – and down, and back up again – involves hills. Not massive trail-like hills, but hills nonetheless.

I knew full well about those hills when I signed up for the 10-mile distance at the Mermaid Run San Francisco. The memories are fresh, even if it had been more a year and a half since I last ran a race over the bridge (the San Francisco Rock’n’Roll half marathon). But while the course doesn’t easily lend itself to a PR, the last time I ran that particular race was back in 2013, so I had a PR in mind anyway.

Truth be told, I was hoping to run somewhere around 1:15, a 7:30 min/ mile average pace. (One day, I really hope I can do this course in 1:10 — a 7 min/ mile average pace — but with this year’s race schedule, I knew that couldn’t happen… In fact, for me to be able to run 1:10 on this course, I think I’d need to make this race a key one for the season. Planning your race season: a topic for another, important!, conversation.)

Race Morning

I carpooled with a couple of friends and we got to the Marina Green early enough to score a convenient parking spot just a short walk away from the start. On the flip side, that is also when I realized I forgot my Honey Stinger gels… Not a terribly big deal, I should be able to survive 10 miles without extra carbs. (In hindsight, though: a huge deal for my mental game over the last two miles of the race.)

As usual, Moms Run This Town San Jose had a solid presence at the Mermaid Run and getting organized for a pre-race photo – or two! – was a party.

San Jose MRTT Mermaids ready to roll!
San Jose MRTT Mermaids ready to roll!

When we got the “five minutes to start” warning, I lined up near the front, put my music on and got ready to go.

Hills, wind and mind games

The first two miles of the course are flat and I settled into a comfortable pace. Probably slower than I should have been running, but I didn’t want to blow up too early in the race. The lead group took off super fast and I could barely keep them in my sight within the first mile. Obviously, those ladies were running a pace I couldn’t match for the life of me, so I just ran my own race.

As it happened, I spent those first miles in the company of a small group of ladies and a dude. Why men run those women-only events, I don’t know. We actually talked about this before the start and one suggestion was that they come to run with and support a woman in their life. That’s quite nice, indeed — except this dude was running solo and feeling quite competitive, it seemed. He took off chasing the lead pack and I was left to run with a few ladies in silence.

It’s weird, racing in a tiny group and with no spectators. Quiet to the point of awkward. It doesn’t quite feel like a race, but you know you must push and try to run your best. One long, silent mind game.

For me, anyway.

Every race tests the mind, but in this one, my mind games began much earlier than I thought they would. Just as soon as we started climbing those hills (somewhere along mile 3), I felt tired and started wondering if it’s even worth to push the pace to the point where my lungs hurt. Why? Why make myself hurt when this is the last race of the season, I could run a comfortable 8 min/ mile pace and still get my course PR, and just enjoy the day?

Oh shut up. Because. Because we’re runners, and we do these things to ourselves.

Then came my first course surprise. I saw that we are running out on the left side of the bridge (against traffic), and not on the right as I remembered it from 2013. Not a bad thing, since we wouldn’t have to share the narrow pedestrian walkway with runners still making their way out over the bridge while we were running back, but still. I was kind of bummed because one thing I loved about this course was seeing everyone I know on my way back over the bridge: the smiles and high-fives are such good distraction from the pain!

As it was, I had no distraction but the wind, the beautiful views of Marin and… the flight of stairs we had to run down to get to the other side of the bridge! Course surprise number two!

Down under the bridge we went, over to the other side, and — a flight of stairs to climb! So painful! So annoying that I was forced to slow down to a walk! (No point in running up stairs, it isn’t much faster and I’ll get way too winded to settle back into my pre-stairs pace easily.)

Another lesson in “always double-check the course, even if you thought you know it.”

Running back over the bridge was lonelier and windier than ever and not even the beautiful San Francisco skyline could distract me from the pain in my lungs and my tired legs. I somehow made it over the bridge and – a brief reprieve! – settled into a few delicious downhills before hitting the last two miles of the course.

The last two miles are on a straight, flat dirt path, and are simply brutal. Every time I’ve run this section in a race, I’ve suffered so much! I had actually set a pretty ambitious goal for myself pre-race: to muster the strength and try and run a 7:30 or 7:20 min/mile pace for those miles. Well, I couldn’t. All I kept thinking about was my gels, and how I forgot them, and I needed some calories, even though I drank some Gatorade from a couple of aid stations (and some of it tried to make its way back up my throat ewww… another reminder to not do stuff I haven’t practiced in training!).

I don’t know if that was a mental bonk or a physical bonk — the first is more likely! — but I ran those last miles in 7:57 and 7:47, and I swear I felt that I could not have gone one second faster.

My Garmin clocked my total mileage at 9.75, too, so either the course was short, or the GPS was off — possibly because of the stairs at the far end of the bridge? Who knows.

I was so happy to be done with it at that time, that I could care less about the actual distance, or my time. As it turned out, I finished in 1:16:39. Almost two minutes off my 1:15 goal, but I knew I had given all I had that morning.

I made a beeline for the food, too, and the bagel and banana tasted like heaven!


As usual at Mermaid events, I loved and soaked up the festive, friendly atmosphere. More than a thousand women looking strong, fit, healthy and fabulous in one of the world’s most beautiful places. What more could I want?

Oh, and there is a Philz Coffee truck right near the finish area. Perfection!

Time: 1:16:39
Pace: 7:39 min/ mile
Overall: 13 of 1139
Gender Place: 12 of 1118
Age group: 4 of 185

The 2016 Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon

The 2016 Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon
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Ever had one of these dreams where you’re trying to run, but no matter how hard you drive those legs and arms, you’re barely moving?

That was me on the final stretch of the 2016 San Jose Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon. Trying my best to outrun what I later found out were 19 seconds.

And so I will give you the spoiler right here and tell you that I finished San Jose RnR with an official time of 1:40:18. My goal had been to run my first sub-1:40 half marathon. My “dream” goal had been to run 1:37:XX, which at the time of signing up for this race — immediately after I ran 1:40:09 at the Hellyer Half six months earlier — I had thought possible.

Not every race goes your way, however, and this one didn’t go mine. It wasn’t the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

So now I have an opportunity to take stock of what happened. What went wrong and how can I fix it — and what went right and how can I improve it further?

sanjosernrfeature

The Race

First things first: if you stumbled on here looking for more info about the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose half marathon, you can find a more detailed course description and photos here. This year, I could barely hang onto my goal pace and the last thing on my mind was taking the phone out of my skirt pocket to take pics.

There are three main things to know about SJ RnR:

  • It is flat. The total elevation gain my Strava registered for this course was 138 feet, although honestly, I doubt running under a freeway and back up the road amounts to that much. (Is “freeway underpass” a word? Can I call it that?)
     
    Thanks to its flat profile and what I can imagine is a generous purse, the race attracts amazing professional and elite runners every year. Meb Keflezighi ran it in 2015, and this year, Sara Hall was among the professional women. (She finished second.) The course has a few out-and-back sections, and it’s always cool to get a glimpse of the elites flying!
  •  

  • It is big. This year, there were nearly 11,000 half marathon and 10K finishers combined — and runners in both distances start together. I was in Corral 2 and when we looped back by the start around mile 5, people were still starting.

    sjrnr-start

    If you can’t make it to the start on time and end up in one of the later corrals, your race would likely involve a lot of zig-zagging.

  • It can get hot. Indian Summers are no joke in Silicon Valley and when Octobers get hot, San Jose is usually where it’s hottest. Every time I’ve run this race, it’s been at least 80 degrees at the 8 a.m. start. Dress accordingly.
     
    This year, the forecast called for cooler weather, but alas: it was nothing like a chilly, foggy or overcast morning in Santa Cruz or San Francisco. I was still too warm for comfort!

Expo

The Expo is just like all other Rock ‘n’ Roll event expos: big, crowded. I decided to get there right as it opened on Friday, to hopefully avoid the crowds. It turns out that hundreds of others had the same idea. Traffic going into the parking garage was nuts, the lines for bib pickup were already long. A “quick in-and-out” turned into a full hour – and I still consider this quite expedient :-)

As it happened, I returned early Saturday morning to get my ankle Rock Taped and the crowds were much better. So, for planning purposes: if you can get to the Expo right as it opens on Saturday, do that.

Race morning

It’s always fun to see San Jose transform into a city of runners on race morning. As this one starts relatively late – 8 a.m. is practically noon in runner speak! – I “slept in” until 6, got ready and got to the start area shortly after 7 a.m.

I had literally shoved some oatmeal down my throat before I got out of the car, so breakfast was taken care of — but water, that was another question. I was so. thirsty. Lucky for me, one of the moms in our local MRTT chapter (San Jose Moms Run This Town – join us if you live here!) had an extra bottle of water. I swear, those 8 ounces tasted like liquid gold spiked with pure ambrosia and blessed unicorn tears. Totally saved me.

  • Lesson #1: Hydrate well the whole week leading up to a race.
  • Lesson #2: Hydrate particularly well if you are planning on going to a birthday party the night before the race.
  • Lesson #3: Beer does not count.

At the start, I met up with my training buddy Joe. Joe is a much faster and stronger runner than me, but he has a li’l problem with pacing. Namely, he tends to blow out the gate at a 6-something minute/ mile pace – which is sustainable for a few miles, but not over the course of a half marathon. (Not this year, anyway! One day soon, I’m sure.)

So Joe and I worked together: our pace was in the 7:30s (or so we thought). I was holding him back while trying to keep up with him. Ha.

By mile 4, the pace felt harder than it should have and by mile 6, I was starting to deal with side stitches. They say those are a result of dehydration, so I kept drinking water – a cup at every single aid station.

By mile 8 – as tends to happen to me during San Jose RnR – I was hating everything about this race, this course, this city, this running thing — just, everything. We were still running in the 7:30-something range, but I noticed that my Garmin was ticking off the miles sooner than the mile markers.

By mile 9, Joe could no longer hang back with me and took off like a torpedo. So effortless. Jeez.

I kept thudding on. My legs were heavy, my lungs were burning, stupid stitches. I yet again regretted signing up for that race and carried on…

screen-shot-2016-10-09-at-1-09-21-pm

As we made the right turn on Almaden Blvd, I looked at my watch and I saw it tick off 1:39. And I thought, maybe I’ve got this – maybe I’ll finish in 1:39:59. Maybe… And then I looked ahead and, I swear, every year I think the finish line is straight ahead on Almaden Blvd, but it isn’t. You take one more turn, left, on Park Avenue, and that is when you see the finish line. It is so close, yet so far away.

I pushed my legs as hard as I could in one never-ending long stride that made my lungs explode, and I crossed under the finish arch with an official time of 1:40:18.

Maybe if I had started that final kick a little earlier, I would have made it under 1:40. Maybe I could have pushed myself a little bit harder throughout. Maybe I would have, if my Garmin wasn’t slightly ahead with the miles (a pace in the 7:30s should get me across in 1:39:XX, and that’s what I was seeing on my watch). Maybe I should have at least tried to get a bigger cushion. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that beer the night before.

There is always a “coulda, woulda, shoulda” and lots of maybe’s after a race — but more often than not, those are excuses. The truth is, I did the best I could with what I had in me on that day. All my training leading up to this race was geared towards long distance triathlon or the marathon distance. My tempo runs and long runs in the weeks leading up to SJ RnR were all indicative of running a pace in the 7:40s — and only with luck and a very, very good day, in the 7:30s.

The way I see it, the 1:3X:XX half marathon is so, so close. I just have to work for some more. A goal for another day!

half-marathon-finish

Slow Down to Go Fast

Slow Down to Go Fast
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In the movies, coaches say things like “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” or watch intently as their athlete sprints by on the track, and you know they’re silently willing them to go faster, faster!

In real life? If you’re an endurance runner working with a coach, chances are they regularly instruct you to do just the opposite: slow down.

In fact, slowing down might be the one thing standing between you and the stronger, faster runner you could be.

slowdowntogofast

One of the most common mistakes runners make is push too hard on all of most of their runs. It’s only human: you’re out there running, which means you’re out there working, which means you better work it, right?

The problem is, if you push hard all the time, your body will at some point give in. The consequences are no fun, ranging from overuse injuries, getting sick too often (a compromised immune system), and inability to sleep well, to the worst of all: losing your running mojo and, eventually, giving up on running altogether.

All of the above are symptoms of overtraining and, more often than not, overtraining is a direct result of working too hard, too often.

How do you know if you’re running harder than you should? There are complex ways to determine this, using heart-rate data and software like Training Peaks, which has charts that look like this (I kid you not):

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And there are simple ways, like asking yourself these questions:

1. Do I run all my runs at the same pace?
If you answer Yes, you are either not running often enough to improve, or you are pushing harder than you should — or both. Don’t get me wrong, running two-to-three times a week is totally OK for the recreational runner who either doesn’t race, or does so with no time goals in mind. Chances are, this person has other, more enjoyable hobbies or fitness passions: weightlifting, Cross Fit, Zumba, you name it. Nothing wrong with that! But, continually improving as a runner and knocking out those PRs requires more planning — and more running.

2. Do I need more than three rest days each week to recover from my runs?
If the answer is yes, then you are running too hard. Training for a long-distance event like a marathon, or even a half marathon, requires you to peak at anywhere between 35 to 60 miles a week (even more, for competitive runners). This is hardly achievable with three to four weekly runs. Not to mention, if you need a rest day after every single run, you are missing out on valuable adaptations your body would make if you went out and did a recovery run on tired legs. Again, in order to do this, you will have to introduce some easy-run days into your schedule.

3. Do I obsess over each run’s mile splits and feel unaccomplished if they are slower than usual?
If yes, you most surely are running each run too hard. And it’s hardly breaking news that, if you try to better your time or mile splits on each run… well, sooner or later you will fail. That sort of mindset is almost a guarantee for reaching a point where your relationship with running turns sour.

4. Do I usually feel tired, spent and unable to run another mile at the end of each run?
It’s OK to feel that way at the end of a hard run (a long run, a tempo run, speed work). But all runs? You are running them too hard.

So, what is an easy run and why do them?

The “Easy” Run is:

  • Run at a significantly slower pace than your 5K, 10K, half marathon, or even marathon pace. The delta could be as wide as a full two minutes between your 10K and easy-run pace – and around a minute slower than your marathon pace. And plus-minus 40 seconds on top of that, depending on how you feel that day!
  • Run at a pace that allows you to comfortably chat with a running partner, or…
  • Sing. The test I often recommend is Adele’s “Hello” – if you can hit those high notes while running… well, you should probably be on The Voice, actually. But pace-wise, rest assured that you’re taking it easy.
  • And, finally, at an easy-run pace, you could finish your run – then turn around and do another one of the same distance or duration, right away. At that pace, you could run every day if need be, or even twice a day. It’s slow enough to barely get you to sweat, but still, you are building mitochondria –and that’s pretty much the main goal of easy runs.

Why run easy?

Easy runs are typically scheduled on days immediately following hard workouts or long runs. An easy run done on the day after hard work will force you to run on tired legs – which will give you valuable coping skills for those final miles in a race. It will also help your muscles loosen up. (Seriously, try going on an easy run if your legs are sore — they will feel better after a few miles!) Not least, slow running trains your aerobic system, gradually making your body more efficient at burning fat for energy, rather than carbohydrates.

Reading

If you’re reading this and asking yourself, Why would I listen to some random crazy person with a blog? — well, I don’t blame you. I never take advice from strangers with unknown to me background and credentials — why should you?

So here are a couple of books I hope will give you all the information you need to make your own decisions:

  • Matt Fitzgerald’s book “80/20 Running” cites numerous studies supporting the “run slow to get faster” theory. Interesting read, too!
  • Phil Maffetone’s overview of aerobic vs anaerobic training. Although his 180-minus-age formula for determining target heart rate is questionably simplistic, I admit to roughly sticking to it during my offseason and the initial base-building period each year. It drives my coach absolutely nuts, as he – like many coaches and endurance professionals – find it hard to take the work of Dr. Maffetone seriously because, for one, he is not really a doctor. But that is a different story. I still think his book, “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing,” provides one of the most digested (if not simplified) overviews of how the body uses its energy systems in training and racing.
  • Lore of Running” by Tim Noakes has everything you would ever need to know about running, including a wealth of studies and information on high- vs low-intensity training. Make sure to get the 4th Edition, which has a new chapter on The Central Governor (fascinating stuff).

Make slow runs a part of your training schedule and enjoy them! You are doing work that is benefitting your running — even if the mile splits are nothing to brag about.