Vive La Différence!

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As I reported last week, having resumed the option to drink wine at dinner has decreased the likelihood that I have time or motivation to exercise in the evening.  Since one of my key goals this year is to maintain my weight loss, this presents a real challenge that I’m committed to solving. Recall that not drinking was the main contributor to my losing over 20 pounds last year, as detailed in this post from last April.

For me, not drinking resulted in three positive weight-loss benefits: (1) It directly eliminated a few hundred empty calories each day from my diet, (2) It kept me more focused on what and how much I was eating, and (3) It freed up my evenings, making it very easy to exercise at night.

These past several weeks I’ve been tinkering with my routine, trying to find a formula that allows me to enjoy food and wine with my husband, further my marathon training, and maintain my weight. My concerns that adding alcohol back into the mix could reverse the positive results I achieved last year are well-founded. I’ve noticed more than once that just a few days of complacency result in some extra pounds.

Initially, I drank wine most evenings at dinner and changed my weekday routine by getting up early in the morning to run. I really thought this was going to be the right solution for me. After all, in the old days, they used to say that morning was the best time for a workout, because it let you get it out of the way quickly and set you up for a better, more energized rest of the day. This is still recommended by a lot of fitness bloggers and medical experts, including in this article and this one . I’ve been pretty good at following through with this routine change, happily getting up between 5 o’clock and 5:30 to hit the treadmill before work.

Although a strong 5-mile morning workout puts me in a great mood, unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to help me shed those pesky two pounds. Further routine tinkering has revealed that the evening workouts are much more effective for me.

And, it’s not just about whether I have wine at dinner. In fact, my results appear almost equally as good whether I make time to exercise before dinner (even with wine) or whether I skip wine at dinner and exercise later in the evening. It turns out that my routine and results testing confirm a new “discovery” in the exercise and weight loss industry: everyone is different and you have to figure out what’s best for you. Some great articles about this trend include this one on WebMD and this one from the American Heart Association.

What does this all mean for me? As I begin to step up my marathon training for the season, I’m planning to skip wine most Mondays through Thursdays, so that I can bank an extra hour of sleep in the morning and increase the likelihood that I’ll workout in the evening. On the weekends, I’m going to push out my workouts to the afternoon, closer to the time when I’ll be enjoying all of that great food and wine.

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Best Laid Plans

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I am the captain of a team that runs a 100-mile relay race along Vermont’s scenic Route 100, the appropriately named 100 on 100 Heart of Vermont Relay. The race is an exercise in teamwork. The route is divided into 18 segments of varying length and difficulty. Each team usually has six runners, each of whom runs three legs of the race, passing a wristband as a baton to the next runner at pre-determined transition points along the course. Our team loads up the vehicle at about 3:30 in the morning and gets on the road by 4, to make our 6 o’clock team check-in time and 6:30 start in Stowe.

As team captain, I do the planning and race management. I’m pretty detail-oriented and the team generally appreciates that I take care of everything. When I say “everything,” I mean a host of tasks, from registering the team to forecasting our running times for each segment to managing our fans along the course. One year, I predicted the nearly 15-hour running time within two minutes! In essence, I am a “planner,” and my team was following a well-thought-out plan on race day. This year, our plan was to run most of the race with four runners (instead of six) and be joined by another team member mid-race, who would run a 12-mile stretch to help us out.

En route to Stowe early race day morning, the tire pressure warning light came on. I told the team not to worry, because it was just a slow leak in one of the back tires. We had plenty of time to get air, after we got off the highway in Waterbury.  And we did.

Starting Line

(Our 4 core team members at the starting line. Left to right: Bill, Erica, Bridget, and me.)

After team check-in, we took some team photos at the starting line, watched my cousin Bridget start the race, and then went back to the car. That tire looked pretty soft again—so much so that a runner from another team even pointed it out. My brother suggested I go cheer Bridget on while he and our fourth team member, Erica, changed the tire.  After Bridget ran through the first transition point and proceeded into the second leg of the race, I walked back to the car and found all of our duffle bags, other gear, and cases of water and Gatorade on the grass. When he saw me, Bill shook his head and said with a slight hint of frustration, “There’s no spare.”

Bridget on 2nd Leg

(Bridget completed the first leg and started the second completely unaware of the situation with our team vehicle.)

We loaded back up and headed out to look for a service station, truly believing that the low tire might have been an optical illusion caused by the car tilting downhill on grass. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I stopped a guy directing traffic and asked him how the tire looked. “Pretty flat,” he said. Instead of heading down the mountain, we turned into another parking lot and jumped out to check the tire on level ground. “Pretty flat? Is he nuts?” I yelled. We were looking at metal on asphalt. The tire was completely flat and our race vehicle was not drivable.

We quickly reviewed several possible solutions and decided to have my father bring the spare tire up from Ludlow—where it was sitting in our garage—and  for me to hitch a ride with another team in time to get the baton from Bridget at the next transition point, in about 45 minutes. Since I was also going to be running two legs in a row, we hoped there was enough time to get the spare up to Stowe and on the car, and the four of us to meet at the start of the fifth race segment.

Range Rover

(Unfortunately, this was Bill and Erica’s view for over four hours!)

As it turned out, we were not reunited until after 11 o’clock. While Bill and Erica waited at the starting line in the car for my father to overcome several obstacles of his own on the drive up with the spare, Bridget and I kept running and passing the baton to one another for four-and-a-half hours and bummed rides from other teams to each subsequent transition point. I was truly ecstatic when I heard the familiar sound of a ringing cow bell and looked up to see my brother hanging out the window of our team vehicle and then, moments later, when I passed the baton to Erica for her to complete the remainder of the uphill climb of segment six, outside Waitsfield.

In addition to the grace with which my team dealt with both planned and unexpected challenges, it was extremely heartening how every team we approached for help gave it without question. At the starting line, the “American Bandits” welcomed me, a stranger, and gave me a lift down the mountain. Later, when I explained my predicament to my friend Stacie, her “Sole Sixters” team was enthusiastic about adopting Bridget, while I ran more than 12 miles. After Bridget completed her first run and passed the baton to me, utterly exhausted, Stacie’s calm and smiling face made the difference, as I briefly explained the situation of our team’s catastrophe before turning around to start my run. Then, when Bridget took the baton back over from me for segment five, an acquaintance named Stephanie and her team brought me along to Waitsfield and fed me cookies and water before I was handed the baton back again and started the uphill climb of segment six.

Team Swim Blueberry Lake

(Erica, Bridget, and Bill in Blueberry Lake during a welcomed break mid-race, while Lee was cranking out 12 miles for the team.)

We finished the race at 8:48pm, by far the fastest performance for my team in the six years we’ve run the race.  And, more importantly, we all had a blast, made a lot of new friends, and gained many new stories to tell than can possibly be told here. It’s a great reminder that the best plan of all is to have a great team to start with, and to have fun, no matter what.

The Middle Miles

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Last weekend came and went and I never found the time to write a blog post. It’s true that we were extremely busy with social obligations (more about that later). However, that was only part of it. The bigger issue was that I wasn’t inspired enough by a topic to start writing anything down. Since that has rarely happened since I started this blog, I did a little soul searching to figure out the problem. The problem is that my resolution has hit, to quote one of my old running partners, “the middle miles.”

Although I entered the weekend having successfully completed 7 months of my year-long New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol, I was feeling down and uninspired. Not only did I have lingering disappointment about my marathon run on July 25th, I was also having trouble with my weight maintenance.

When I say “having trouble” what I really mean is that I temporarily stopped watching what I eat and also haven’t been consistent with recording things in my MyFitnessPal food journal. Who can blame me for the latter? It would have been really demoralizing to record everything I ate at the barbecue at the lake on Saturday afternoon. I started out with chips and guacamole, moved on to chips and hummus, and then had some brie and crackers. A few hours later, I nearly filled my plate with an array of lunch offerings, including a hot dog. Before I left the party, I even went back up to the buffet to get two chocolate chip cookies. Unfortunately, the day didn’t end there. We went to a different party that evening and I proceeded to eat different things in a similar fashion, including two cupcakes for dessert. I didn’t need MyFitnessPal to tell me that my 8-mile run that morning couldn’t even put a dent in what I had eaten over the course of the day and evening.

Sunday morning, I forced myself to step on the scale to confirm that I had crossed back over my dreaded weight threshold of 140 pounds. Although it’s a bit of a bummer, like the proverbial middle miles of a long run that I referred to earlier, this set-back is completely normal and only temporary.

In long-distance running, it’s natural to have a break in concentration and to slow during the middle miles. That’s because the mental and physical freshness you had at the start are long gone, but there is still too much distance yet to cover for you to start tasting the finish line. Your mind and body can play tricks on you that negatively impact your overall performance. In running, you mitigate this through your training plan in the months and weeks before the race and through your pacing on race day.

The middle miles of my resolution are even easier to solve. I just have to go back to what made me successful and set a few new reasonable goals. The fact is that I have gone 7 months without a drink and, during that time, have attained my weight-loss goal and have achieved my marathon PR time. These accomplishments are still valid and it will not take very much additional focus to lose a few of those pounds that have crept back on.

Here’s my simple plan to get back on track:

  1. Re-commit to using MyFitnessPal to record what I eat and how much I exercise every day.
  2. Reduce my daily calorie target by about 250 calories a day, since I am (temporarily) no longer in maintenance mode.
  3. Target getting back down to 135 pounds by the end of August.

Notice that I didn’t say stop eating chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes! Hopefully I won’t eat too many of them. However, if I do, it just means that I have to lace up my running shoes and get in an extra workout.

Try, Try Again

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Over the weekend, I celebrated my 46th birthday by trying to run a nighttime marathon, which consisted of eight, roughly 3-mile laps around a lake near Boston. My friend Lisa and I were running it together to try to qualify for next year’s Boston Marathon. When it was clear early on that she wasn’t going to keep up our intended pace, I ran ahead of Lisa. I felt great for the first 11 miles or so. Thoughts of how awesome it was going to be to get my personal best marathon finish time and possibly even qualify for Boston flashed through my mind.

Sharon and Lisa - Around the Lake
(Above: Me and Lisa just before our marathon in Wakefield, Mass. on 7/25/14.)

Somewhere between mile 11 or 12, I lapped our mutual friend Brad and was feeling on top of the world. Shortly thereafter, I started to get stomach cramps and things got progressively worse. The official race timer website reveals that my lap times tanked to 10:00 minutes per mile on the 4th lap, 12:27 minutes per mile on the 5th, 14:38 minutes per mile on the 6th, and 17:59 minutes per mile on the 7th lap. Around 1:30 a.m., I posted a status on Facebook that said: “Do you know what I just realized? I am a morning person.”

It was obvious that I was dehydrated, unable to even absorb water or Gatorade and I had to make trips to the port-a-potty in between laps.  Woozy after the 7th lap, instead of starting my 8th and final lap, I headed to the medical tent. The medic ordered me to eat a couple of handfuls of goldfish crackers—to get salt into my system—before he would let me walk the final lap.  I scarfed down a ton of goldfish and pretzels and my stomach felt much better. My legs, however, were extremely fatigued and the thought of continuing around the lake one more time seemed pointless.

I stared at the finish line and watched the reaction of the other runners as many completed the marathon and others proceeded back around the lake to either complete their marathon run or to keep going for the full 24-hour ultra-marathon. Just when I was about to walk over to the car to try to sleep on the wet grass and wait for Lisa and Brad to finish, Lisa crossed the finish line. I ran to meet her, so happy that she had finished the marathon, even though it was without me.

Lisa asked how I had done, hoping that at least one of has had run well enough to qualify for Boston. I just shook my head and gave her the short version of how terribly it had gone for me. She grabbed my arm and pulled me over to the snack table. After we munched on a bunch more snacks, Lisa confessed, “That was only my 7th lap. Here, hold my coke while I hit the port-a-potty. Let’s walk the last lap together.”

Lap #8 was without a doubt the best part of the race. It was much more enjoyable to chat and catch up with Lisa than it was to tell Brad at mile 11 that I was on Boston qualifying pace. We finished together with the most incredibly horrendous finishing time of 5 hours and 53 minutes, at 2:53 in the morning. Considering how close I came to throwing in the towel, it was actually a victory, wasn’t it? And, as you might expect, we’re signing up for other marathons as we speak, keeping alive our dreams of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

Semi Annual Report

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We’re exactly half-way through 2014. This means that I am also half-way through my New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol. What an amazing 6 months it’s been. I’m a few pounds below the weight I was striving for, after losing more than 20 pounds this year and exactly 30 pounds overall. I also achieved my lifetime PR (fastest) marathon time already and still have two more on the schedule. And, most importantly, I cannot remember feeling happier, more centered, or more confident.

Since this is a major landmark, I finally put some effort into “before and after” photos.  Below is a photo that Bruce took of me yesterday, before we left the house for a wedding. Right next to it is a photo taken when I was 20 pounds heavier last Thanksgiving. 

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What I particularly like about the before photo is the ever-present glass of wine. I can see a big difference in my face in the two photos and, upon looking more closely, also in my arms and stomach. For those just tuning in, you can find out more about how I lost twenty pounds here and thirty pounds here.

Since I’ve been exercising a lot, I was able to lose the weight without cutting out anything specific except for the alcohol. Although I kept close track of my calorie in-take in order to lose the weight, I wasn’t following a low-carb or a low-fat diet. I ate pretty much what I wanted, but controlled calories through portion size and, if that failed, I exercised more.

Speaking of exercise, I have a dramatic set of “before and after” photos of me running.  In the first one, I am running a relay race in August last year and I look terribly heavy at 155 pounds. It’s difficult for me to look at this photo and believe that it’s really me. The second photo was taken during a marathon in Phoenix in 2006, when I weighed about 145 pounds. The third photo is from about a month ago at the Vermont City Marathon at my current weight.  

 

 

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Just imagine how much more work it was for my legs, my heart, and every other part of my body to run 26.2 miles carrying 20 additional pounds.

Over the past month, I’ve grown accustomed to my return to a smaller size. Luckily, I had a few boxes of really nice summer clothes from when we lived in Arizona tucked away in the attic. These things had made the move with us 7 years ago, but never saw the light of day since, until now. I filled up those boxes and more with things from my closet that are now just too baggy to deal with. I also have a pretty good sized pile of other clothes that I plan to take to a tailor sometime soon.

Even though I’m still working through my closet to find out what still fits and what doesn’t and what’s salvageable and what isn’t, it’s no longer stressful to think about what I’m going to wear. That’s because I feel great.

Analyzing how I feel about myself now, it’s not easy to pinpoint the most important cause. Is it because I’m not drinking? Is it because I have lost so much weight? Is it the buzz I get from running? Or, to quote my friend Camille, is it all of it? Luckily, I have 6 more months to figure that out and also to decide what to do next.

 

How I Gained Then Lost 30 Pounds

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Believe it or not, I gained 30 pounds through the years, beginning when I lived in Scottsdale, Arizona in the early 2000s up until when I stepped on the scale here in my Vermont home on January 1, 2013.

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(Above: My driver’s license at age 16. I recall deducting 5 pounds from my actual weight when I filled in the form. Nearly 30 years later, I’m an inch taller and weigh the same).

This is exactly how it went down (or, should I say, up?):

The first 10 pounds were the result of my thyroid slowing down, due to the radiation treatment I received in early 2002 to combat a hyper-thyroidal condition caused by Graves’ Disease.  Although it is an interesting and somewhat scary story, I won’t bore you with the details of how it temporarily affected my life. What’s pertinent here is that, after enjoying most of my life below this weight, I didn’t get below 145 pounds again until earlier this year.

The next 10 pounds were much more enjoyable to gain. I attribute them to a combination of my husband’s excellent cooking and my love of drinking wine along with all of that great food. I guess that, without the thyroid condition, I probably still would have gained at least 10 pounds through the second half of my ‘30s as a result of discovering the joys of great food and good wine. And, to be honest, I loved every minute of it!

The last 10 pounds somehow got tacked on seasonally one winter, a few years after we moved back to Vermont, in 2007.  I started putting on a few pounds at the tail end of each running season in the late fall, and continued adding them straight through the holidays, from a combination of going out to eat more, not resisting the plethora of holiday snacks in the office and at parties, and a seasonal curtailing of my commitment to exercise. As you might have guessed, weight gain during the holiday season is common, although studies about it vary.

Most of these last 10 pounds I could lose pretty easily when I put in the effort, usually as a New Year’s Resolution. And I did so a few times. At one point in 2012, I had lost 15 pounds, only to gain it all back later in the year. Over the course of 2013, I lost 10 pounds early on, but ended up down seven pounds at year-end, mainly from a modest commitment to exercise and by not pigging-out over the holidays. 

That’s a condensed version of how I found myself weighing 158 pounds when New Year’s 2014 rolled around. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that I decided to give up alcohol for the year and also to leverage this resolution to lose 20 additional pounds and to achieve my fastest marathon running time.

In a blog post in late April, I announced that I had lost the 20 pounds and attributed my success to four things: (1) Quitting drinking, (2) Telling the world about it, (3) Approaching it like a marathon, and (4) Using an app to track everything.

My marathon training schedule required me to step up my exercise regime beyond what I had done in the past. And I worked very, very hard on not “blowing it” during my training by over-compensating or over-rewarding myself; I described these strategies here. It paid off! During May, I lost 3 additional pounds.

I simply cannot believe that I have now lost all 30 pounds that I had gained these last dozen years. My new challenge is to maintain my weight at 135 pounds. In fact, I am adding a new goal to the mix: Keeping the 30 pounds off over the next year, so that I can join the National Weight Control Registry.  

How I Got My “PR” Marathon Time

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I’m happy to report that I achieved my best marathon time – my “PR” or “personal record” – over the Memorial Day weekend at the Vermont City Marathon. It’s a good thing, too, since I was sort of cocky by mentioning in a blog post a few weeks ago that I knew I was going to do it.

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Above: My ‘selfie’ prior to the Vermont City Marathon with the 4 hour and 30 minute pace group. One of the pace leaders, Jen Sorrell, is also pictured (with sunglasses).

I ran the 26.2 miles on an unseasonably warm and sunny day in Burlington, Vermont, along a course with diverse terrain, but lots of fan support, in 4 hours 27 minutes and 11 seconds. This is 4 minutes faster than my previous best time, which was at Rock ‘n Roll Phoenix marathon, way back in 2006.

This was only my 6th marathon, but my fourth in the past three years. Up until yesterday, my recent results were very disappointing. I ran the Air Force Marathon in 2012 in 4:46:40, while nursing a bit of a hip injury. Last year at Vermont City, I pulled a calf muscle in the cold and had to walk from mile 14 until mile 17. However, I was proud that I recovered enough to run the last 7 miles, after receiving medical treatment, and cross the finish line in 5:08:53. Finally, last fall, I participated in the inspirational 20th running of the Philadelphia Marathon. I felt strong for much of the race, but really petered out after mile 18 and finished in 4:47:14.

What did I do differently this time to not only chop 20 minutes off of my recent best time, but also to achieve my PR? I attribute these results to 4 things:

  1. Quitting drinking.
  2. Losing more than 20 pounds.
  3. Stepping-up my training program.
  4. Running the race with a pace group.

Quitting drinking was instrumental, because it set me up for a successful diet and also freed-up my time for more exercise. More background about my New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol this year can be found here, here, and here.

Losing over 20 pounds helped my confidence level and my training. I immediately saw faster running times at the start of my running season and I have had far fewer aches and pains along the way, due to losing weight.

Although I had already improved my chances to getting a marathon PR time this year by sticking to my goals of not drinking and losing weight, it was also critical that I employ both training and racing strategies to help me get the rest of the way there. Since I died in Philly at mile 18, I needed to step up my training program with more long training runs. That’s why I selected Hal Higdon’s Intermediate 2 Marathon Training Program that I described here and here.  

Having a solid 20-mile run and strong half-marathon performance under my belt prior to running Vermont City was key to my fitness level and confidence. The last piece of the puzzle was to have support on race day.  There’s a reason why they say a marathon is as mental as it is physical.

That’s why I reached out to Jen Sorrell and Kristin Lundy, the pace team for the 4 hours and 30 minute group, before race day to let them know that I would be running with their pace group. In addition to the well-documented benefits of running with a pace group (see here and here), I felt that contacting them in advance would make me accountable and improve my chances of following through.

Jen and Kristin were fantastic motivators. They cheered us on and made sure we ran consistently on pace the whole race. They also shouted out helpful tips about the upcoming terrain, where we would see motivating fans, when to consider fueling, and how to best approach special terrain like an uphill, downhill or trail. The race flew by and the first mile marker I remember clearly was 10 miles in.

Although I ultimately moved ahead of this group at mile 20 to finish at a faster pace, I don’t think I could have done it without them. My hats off to Kristin and Jen.  After the race, I emailed them both to ask what motivates them to be pace leaders, rather than running for their personal best time.

Kristin said, “It has taken me a long time to be able to run a smart, steady marathon. I have made many mistakes along the way, and learned a lot with my experience. It is really a great thing if I can help someone else along the way, and pass on any tidbit of knowledge I have picked up…Seeing people reach their goal is extremely rewarding. You not only get to revel in your own happiness of crossing the finish line, but you also get to feel good from seeing them do it. It’s a win-win!”

And, Jen added, “I personally like pacing as it’s rewarding to be able to help others meet their goals, whether it is to get a PR, run steady or just finish.”

I still have a long way to go before I can qualify for the Boston Marathon. However, following through with my training and race strategies and achieving my PR are important milestones in that journey.