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.

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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.

Ironman Vineman

Ironman Vineman
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You know, if I hadn’t paid an arm and a leg for my official Ironman photos, I probably would have given up on writing this race recap.

I mean, it’s been a month! I’ve slept all the sleep, eaten all the food and rested all the rest. I’ve been back to a training schedule for the past three weeks.

I have no excuse for my tardiness, other than the usual: been busy.

But, I paid $100 for a bunch of files, so you’re getting a race report. I’m getting my money’s worth. Hope you enjoy!

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Pre-race

Windsor is only a two-hour drive from home, so our plan was simple: get there Friday morning and do all the pre-race things the day before the race. Saturday was the big dance.

Except a few weeks before race day, Julie — a friend who was also doing Vineman as her first Ironman — pointed out that the last day for Athlete Registration was Thursday. No packet pickup on Friday. Can’t get your stuff on Thursday? No race.

Which I would have known, had I read the Athlete Guide carefully. And since I usually “read” those in the car on our way to a race… well, my Ironman would have been over before it started.

Phew, crisis averted. Julie and drove up together on Thursday, got our packets and drove back home — to return on Friday morning and get the real party started.

Obligatory "look at me, I'm going to race Ironman!" photos.
Obligatory “look at me, I’m going to do an Ironman!” photos.

Oh, and this race was going to be a child-free getaway for HusbandRuns and I. You know, some couples go to Sonoma Valley for a weekend of wine tasting, maybe a concert, or a spa day. We go to partake in Ironman. To each their own!

So our first stop on Friday was mandatory drop off for bike and bike gear bag at T1 on Johnson’s Beach. Then a short dip in Russian River (yup, as warm and shallow as I remembered it to be).

VinemanBikeDropOff

After that, we drove over to T2 in Windsor for mandatory run-gear drop off, and finally, well past 2 p.m., we headed to Santa Rosa for lunch.

Lunch involved:

  • a truck backing into our car as we were pulling into the parking lot behind Russian River Brewing Company,
  • miraculously – no damage to the car? The small dent popped right back out. Needless to say, the truck driver was mighty pleased and grateful (he tried to give us money for a buff, which we refused, seeing how there was hardly a scratch),
  • delicious pizza, beers, and more beers (carbo-loading), and finally:
  • a parking ticket, because in our little fender-no-bender, we didn’t notice the parking meters.

That we laughed it all off is a testament to the amazing quality of Pliny the Elder and the rest of Russian River Brewing’s delicious brews.

RissianRiverBrewingBeerFlight

If you’re ever within driving distance, it’s a must-try! Remember to feed the meters.

Race morning

Per usual, I kicked off race day with mediocre hotel-room coffee at 4 a.m.

Then I got burned.

I had just run water through the coffee maker to heat it up for my instant oatmeal breakfast and, splash! All over my right hand. It probably would have hurt more under normal circumstances, but on race morning, I was too focused on other stuff to care. (FYI, the burn formed a big blister while I was on the bike, which popped some time in the beginning of the run. The lifecycle of a burn, all in a day’s Ironman.)

We loaded my swim bag in the car and took off for the 30-minute drive to Guerneville. Traffic got backed up as we approached Johnson’s Beach, but the brilliant Waze app took us to a narrow side road that ran parallel to what we thought was the only street to the beach. Score!

Next thing I knew, we were by the entrance of the athletes-only transition area. HusbandRuns told me he’d meet me back there before the swim, and I entered Ironman. No going back now!

Well, going forward was slow, too, as I quickly realized my bike pump was in demand. I stopped three or four times to let folks borrow it and wait for them to get air in their tires. The extra few minutes were totally worth it, as we exchanged heartfelt well wishes for a great race!

Then I got to Magic Bike, pumped his tires, got my water and Nuun for the bike, grabbed my wetsuit, cap and goggles, and found my husband conveniently waiting for me near a porta-potty with a pretty short line. Another sign for a smooth day ahead?

Potty business done, I decided to just put on the wetsuit already. I stripped down to my two-piece Team Betty swim suit, squeezed into the wetsuit, put on my swim cap, and… realized that we still had at least half an hour to go.

This is the first time in the four years I’ve been doing triathlon that time was not racing before the start.

We watched the professional men’s start from the beach, then the women… then continued watching as athletes started filing into the narrow walkway to the swim arch. Men in green caps, women in pink:

VinemanSwimStart

Notice anything? Where is the pink?!???

The start was self-seeded, meaning everyone got to decide what wave to join based on their expected swim finish time.

Bit of a problem for a first-timer who had never even swam the entire 2.4 miles…

I had absolutely no clue how long it would take me. No more than two hours, I hoped? And certainly no more than the cutoff time of 2:20?

Finally, I decided to seed myself in the 1:20-1:30 wave (a little over twice the time I’d need for a 70.3 swim) and walked over to join the thick crowd of nervous wetsuits.

Swim

First snag: I hadn’t noticed the area was fenced-off, so I’d need to go to the very back of the line and try to make my way forward to my wave.

Surprisingly (or not?), everyone was very courteous and more than willing to let me pass when I mentioned I was hoping to get to the wave in front of them. I guess it’s in everyone’s interest for people to seed themselves in the proper swim group!

That, and triathletes are just awesome people in general.

I reached the back of the 1:20-1:30 crowd and we inched our way forward until I stepped over the timing mat. Time to start swimming!

Well, not before taking care of some over-hydration business first. (I’ve said it before: all triathletes pee in their wetsuit before the swim start, deal with it.)

That took a good minute, by the way.

Then I dived in and started swimming…

… and right away, I found myself in a pack of swimmers going at a much slower pace that I wanted to go.

Russian River is so narrow and shallow, that I could have easily stood up to walk around until I found more space. But walking in water is a lot slower than swimming, and I had made a pact with myself that I would not walk the swim. My legs would get plenty of action later in the day.

So I swam at a near-sprint to pass the first pack of swimmers, then settled down into my rhythm… until a few minutes later, I hit another slower pack and had to pick up the pace again. This sprint-settle down-repeat cycle went on for almost the entire swim.

VinemanSwim

As I reached the turnaround, I glanced at my watch for the first time: 37 minutes? That was better than all of my 70.3 swims! It was like getting a fresh burst of energy and on I went, swimming past walking guys, swimming past slower groups, just swimming.

I exited the water at 1:13-something on my watch and I couldn’t have been happier!

Vineman swim exit

Swim time: 1:14:41

T1

A volunteer handed me my bike gear bag and I trotted over to the changing tent. They don’t have changing tents at Ironman 70.3 events, so this was my first time in one. And seeing how I was in a swim suit and needed to be in my cycling kit instead, it’s a good thing we had privacy! I took quite a while to dry off, wipe as much mud off my feet as I could before putting on socks and get dressed. Then again, I had a long day ahead of me. No rush.

T1 time: 9:44

Bike

The Vineman bike course is a thing of beauty. First, you ride against the backdrop of these big evergreens. It’s still early morning and the sun is low, and its light is soft, and everything is simply perfect.

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Then the vineyards start rollin’. Winery after winery, after winery, as we pedal along on the smooth roads. Many of them newly-paved. Two thumbs up!

VinemanBike2

I stopped at the first Bike Aid station to refill one of my water bottles and was helped by no other than Harriet Anderson. She was volunteering with SVTC, on trash pick-up duty! That’s right, Harriet Anderson was picking up our trash. If that doesn’t show you how amazing the triathlon community is, what would?

After that, I made two more stops. One to get my special needs bag, where another kind volunteer helped me pour my special-needs bottles of Mexican Coke into my bike bottle. (Coca Cola is my worst long-ride addiction, if I’m going to ride for four or more hours, I need my coke!) And one last stop at mile who-knows-what, because I would decidedly have not made it to T2 with a bladder that full.

(Water to go at all aid stations, coke, Nuun… I was very well hydrated.)

VinemanBike3

Not least, the course is all rollers. There are two climbs up Chalk Hill at miles 44 and 100, respectively, and yes – that hill does get steeper the second time around. I was riding pretty conservatively and my legs felt fine. But with about six miles to go, I decided to shift into an easier gear and spin the legs out some more. I had a marathon to run, after all.

Bike time: 6:50:08
(OK, in hindsight, that is quite slow. I’ll pace myself better if I ever do this again!)

T2

I handed off Magic Bike to a volunteer, grabbed my run gear bag and went into the changing tent. Put on my Team Betty tri suit, ran out to the porta-potty — and back in for the rest of my changing. My feet were still muddy from T1, so I used up a mini-pack of wipes to get as much dirt off as I could. Don’t want to get blisters if I can help it! Then I drank ice water. Then I applied sunscreen. Then I put on my race-belt tutu. Then I sat on a chair for a bit… Then I realized that I was basically hanging out in T2, stalling. Not knowing if I’m ready to run a marathon. How would my legs feel? Would it be too hot? Would I make it?

Suck it up. Only one way to find out!

Time in T1: 15:01
[seriously……..]

Run

The first thing I realized when I started running was that it wasn’t terribly hot out, and my legs weren’t feeling terribly bad.

The next thing I realized was that turning my race belt into a tutu was one of my smartest Ironman decisions yet.

IronmanVinemanRun1-2

Right away, I started getting loud cheers from spectators lined up around the beginning of the course:

Cute Tutu!
Go, Tutu!
You got this, Tutu!

And from fellow runners:

Nice Tutu!
A Tutu? A Tutu!
That.is.awesome. A Tutu. [chuckle]

and, my favorite (I got that some time on my second lap):

VAMOS, Tutu!!

It is impossible to get cheers and smiles from everyone, and not get a lift in spirits. So most of the time, I was running with a grin on my face.

The run was a three time out-and-back on a 4.5-mile stretch, which was a great way to consolidate aid stations and spectators. The small stretches of road that didn’t have many spectators lined up were either along beautiful vineyards, or had loud cheer stations from volunteers or sponsors.

IronmanVinemanRunTutu

I took the first half “lap” at an 8:44 average pace, fully realizing I would not be able to keep it up. But as long as I felt good, why not?

Back near the run start and on my way to the second loop, I ran by the area with our special needs bags almost too quickly, and had to back down a few steps to find my bag and get some gels.

Nutrition-wise: I had switched from Bonk Breakers to gels for the run, and my stomach was feeling good. I did have to duck into a porta-potty coming back on my second lap. It felt weird stopping to use the restroom during a run – I never do that, even in a marathon. But when you’re out there for hours and hours, it just can’t be helped.

At that point I had slowed down quite a bit, running a 10 min/ mile pace on the uphills (there was one big climb on that course, which we had to basically do six times, and one smaller climb that wasn’t so bad).

Luckily, HusbandRuns was on the course as well and he would join me for a few yards here and there to keep me company. He even offered me snacks – which I refused, since we’re not allowed to accept any outside assistance, but also because said “snacks” consisted of plums and tomatoes.

Many thanks to fellow Betty Julienne, whose husband took this photo! I wonder what we were discussing at this point, perhaps the possible consequences of snacking on plums during a marathon?
Many thanks to fellow Betty Julienne, whose husband took this photo! I wonder what we were discussing at this point, perhaps the possible consequences of snacking on plums during a marathon?

It was great seeing all my fellow Bettys on the course, too, and getting (and giving) smiles and shout-outs! Those Team Betty kits truly light up a race course, don’t they?

I won’t lie, by mile 21, I was ready to be done with the marathon thing. I was tired, my stomach was starting to feel weird, I had been out there for 12 hours and really wanted to lie down and take a nap — or just go to sleep.

With a mile to go, I ran for a bit with HusbandRuns for the last time.

We reached the “Athletes only from this point” sign at the start of the fenced-off “runway” that looped around Windsor High School and eventually lead to the Ironman finish line. I kissed HusbandRuns “see ya in a few minutes” and dived in.

Approaching the Ironman finish chute is something else. Words really don’t do it justice. So many people lined up and they all scream their lungs out, and give high fives, and shake those cowbells – so.much.cowbell!. It is so loud and so incredible. And, of course, you know that you are about to finish an Ironman – something that once seemed insane and impossible. (Something that your husband once said is as crazy as sticking your hand in the electrical outlet and keeping it there for eight hours.)

It basically feels like this:

IronmanVinemanFinish1

And this:

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The softest, most incredible, welcoming and celebratory red carpet in the world!

Run time: 4:25:22

I crossed the finish line and a volunteer immediately came over to put a medal around my neck, help me take my timing chip off, give me a water bottle and a space blanket, and ask how I feel. It wasn’t a courtesy question, either, he really meant business and I knew from the way he looked at me that he was assessing: can she stand on her feet? do we need a wheelchair? will she faint, or will she walk?

I was feeling perfectly fine at that point, so the volunteer directed me to the food tent and went over to help the next finishers.

Meanwhile, HusbandRuns was nowhere to be seen and after five minutes of looking around, I asked the folks at a nearby information table for a cell phone, so I could call him and find out where he is. He didn’t pick up, so I left a message. And after another minute of looking around, realized that I forgot to take a finisher’s photo. Doh.

IronmanVinemanFinisher

By that point, I was so cold that taking off my space blanket for 30 seconds to take this photo felt like eternity.

Then I spotted HusbandRuns, ran over to grab some food and we rushed to the car. I needed to be inside and warm up (heater to the max!) while he went to get my bike and gear bags.

It is so, so nice to have an IronSherpa to take care of those things for you. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I was at that point.

Shortly after that, we headed back to the hotel and, once in our room, I took off my still soaking-wet and stinky (but beautiful!) Team Betty kit, and finally made myself my own Iron Throne: a nice, hot bath!

Total time: 12:54:56
Overall rank: 680
Gender: 123
Age group: 27

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Should I pause my Garmin, and other existential runner questions

Should I pause my Garmin, and other existential runner questions
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If you’re like most contemporary runners — equipped with our fancy GPS watches that track miles, pace, cadence, heart rate, calorie burn, sweat rate, outside temperature, altitude, humidity, wind factor, the S&P 500, and possibly Charlie Sheen’s mood swings — you have probably pondered the classic contemporary runner’s dilemma:

To pause, or not to pause my Garmin if I have to stop mid-run?

Red lights, water breaks, bathroom stops, fix-the-wedgie stops: they add up. The longer you’re out there running, chances are, the more time you’re spending at rest.

Take one of my recent long runs:

For an 18-mile run, an average pace of 9:22 is not bad for me. I was under instruction to run the first eight miles easy, then run miles 9 to 15 in the 8:30s, and scale back to a 10 min/ mile or slower for the last three – and looking at it mile by mile, I nailed it. (Definitely chose “slower” for the last three miles, too!)

But now, look at my “elapsed time” (detail on the Strava activity page) vs what is, in effect, my moving time:

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The thing is, this route is an out-and-back that goes through a total of three red lights, including a very busy intersection (typical wait time: two to four minutes), and two road crossings where drivers don’t watch for runners dashing out of the park trail, so you better look twice before you do. And, in this case, I had one water stop and one bathroom stop. The result is a difference of nearly eight and a half minutes.

Does that change things?
Does that mean I nailed my paces, or not?

SHOULD I PAUSE MY GARMIN?

I actually asked my coach how he wants me to record my run times in my log – should I do moving time or total? – and he told me to do moving time for run and bike, and total for swim. I get it. Those are training runs (or rides), and they will be interrupted. You can’t beat yourself up for messing up the pace on Mile 15 because you had to wait at the red light for three minutes, and now it’s 11:30 instead of 8:30.

Yes, you did take a break; yes, your heart rate went down – and yes, in a race, no one will stop the clock for you. For training runs, though, my philosophy (and I’m glad that my coach agrees!) is that it’s the movement that matters. Give the prescribed effort when you can, and if circumstances are forcing you to pause – pause your GPS, too, so you can keep accurate track of real effort, vs rest.

Races, of course, are another story.

In a race, the clock doesn’t stop when you do

I have heard of situations when things like a passing train or, recently, a gas leak (talk about danger of “blowing up”!) have caused course marshals to stop participants for anywhere from seconds to minutes. Later, the times are adjusted for the affected athletes.

But in general – this seems so obvious, I feel silly saying it! – your net finish time is the time that it took you to get from the start to the finish. Do whatever you like in between – eat at each aid station, go porta-potty, take a nap – it is added to your net time. The timing chip don’t lie!

As someone who qualified for the Boston Marathon with what ended up a meager eight-second cushion… I can’t tell you how well I understand that this is a fact.

Which is why it boggles my mind to see some people reporting race finish times that are, in fact, the moving times on their Garmins or on Strava.

Seriously?

The actual race result – the net time – is out there on the Internet, for everyone to see. Who are these people fooling, besides themselves?

I, too, wish that moving time was the standard in race tracking. Wouldn’t it be great? You could take a five-minute break at an aid station, instead of rushing though and getting sticky electrolyte drink all over yourself. You could take a nap! Transition times would be scrapped from your total finish time in triathlon, and you could blow-dry your hair after the swim, and put on some lipstick before the run!

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Of course, that’s not how it works. For race results, moving time means zilch.

On training runs, sure: set up your Garmin on auto pause. Granted, if you run 10 miles at a 7:30 average pace, but take 5 minutes standing rest after each mile… well, that’s quite a different effort than running 10 miles at a 7:30 pace without stopping. If the goal was the latter, then you cheated yourself.

But for most runs, go ahead and let your timer stop at that red light or water fountain break. As long as you’re not doing it in the middle of what needs to be hard work and, in this way, consistently jeopardizing the work, you’ll be OK. And if you are doing that auto-pause a bit too much, too long, then don’t expect those training paces to manifest themselves in a race.

Do the work. See the real results. Don’t lie to yourself (and others) about your results. Few will be fooled.

Most importantly, though, have fun running and racing! Isn’t that why we do it, after all?