My Dry Year: Third Quarter Report

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Now that I’m three-quarters of the way through my New Year’s resolution to not drink alcohol in 2014, it’s time for a quick update to the “Dry Year” thread of this blog.

SCF last drink

First of all, I’m very proud to report that I am still dry and I don’t miss drinking.  It’s true that I missed it early on, had mild withdrawal symptoms the first few weeks, and even had a nightmare in which I broke my resolution by inadvertently drinking a glass of wine. It also took longer than I had expected to develop the new habit of not drinking.

By the end of May, I had already achieved my goal weight and lost a total of 30 pounds (when you include the 7 pounds I lost last year). I explained exactly how I did it in this blog post.Although I had a few challenges along the way, I’m pleased to report that four months later, I am holding steady at 135 pounds, which is a few pounds below the goal weight I had set for myself.

June 2014 (after) CROPPED

In the first half of the year, I had also already achieved my personal record (or “PR”) marathon time. How I did that is explained here. It should be no surprise that, just as I had predicted early on, losing so much weight was the biggest contributor.

SCF with pace group

After achieving these two main goals so early in the year, I wrestled with the question of whether or not I want to start drinking again when 2015 rolls around. In the end, I decided that I want to have a glass of very nice champagne at midnight this coming New Year’s Eve and then play it by ear after that.

I also decided to add a stretch goal into the mix for the second half of 2014: qualifying for the Boston Marathon.  My first “BQ” attempt — as qualifying for the Boston Marathon is known to avid runners — on my 46th birthday in July was a real disaster. Despite that, it was an unforgettable experience to cross the finish line with a very close friend, no matter how long it took us.

This brings us to today.  This morning, I completed my last race of the season by trying one more time to BQ. I was very happy with my training plan, picked a course that had a nice sloping downhill, went to the race properly hydrated and fueled, and even wore a temporary tattoo with my mile-by-mile race plan on my forearm. All signs pointed to a great day on the course.

What was the result? I really killed the first half of the race, achieving a PR half-marathon time of 01:51:55 and stayed on my planned pace through 20 miles. Then, it got very hot and I started to slow and I worried that I might over-heat. Although I didn’t qualify for Boston, I am extremely proud of myself for pushing through the last several miles to the finish line and cutting another 19 minutes off my best marathon time.

887_Marathon_283 (Clarence Demar - Keene - 09-28-14)

As far as qualifying for Boston is concerned, that’s a goal I will happily carry with me into 2015. If you have any other ideas for New Year’s resolutions for 2015 for me, please leave those as comments to today’s blog post.

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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.

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.

Any Damned Fool

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Talking with a friend of mine last week about our respective running schedules, I was reminded of a lesson I learned at basketball camp the summer before my freshman year of high school.

Image(Above: Armed with the knowledge I gained at basketball camp, I made varsity my freshman year. I’m in the back row, with the short, poofy hair, in between the two girls with glasses.)

When I asked my friend about her running plans for the weekend, she said that she was going to “try to make time for a run.” I know this might sound harsh, but it became clear to me in the middle of our conversation that my friend wasn’t going to be running. Sure enough, when I checked in with her on Sunday night, she said she hadn’t run.

Clearly, I don’t have the ability to read minds or to predict the future. A long time ago, however, through my own trial and error, I learned that exercise is just like anything else in life. The first step to achieving something is to actually believe that it will happen.

What does this have to do with basketball camp? When I went to K.C. Jones‘ Celtics Basketball Camp after 8th grade, the former Celtics assistant coach, Donald “Ducky” Meade, told us a story on this very topic that I have never forgotten. In fact, his story is the sole recollection I have from that whole week at camp. It’s a life lesson worth its weight in gold, and certainly worth the cost of one week of summer camp!

The story Ducky told went something like this:

There is a very close basketball game and the key player on the other team has been scoring over and over again. It’s clear to the coach that there’s just no way his home team is going to win, if they can’t shore up their defenses against this one, hot-shot player. 

So the coach turns to the bench and walks toward one of the players–let’s call him Jimmy.  The coach says to him, “Jimmy, I need you to go in there right now and stick with #14. Do not let him score again.”

Jimmy immediately stands up and says, “Coach, I’ll try,” and then moves toward the score keepers to check-in.

The coach steps between Jimmy and the check-in table and says, “Any damned fool can try. Sit down.” He then points to another player and asks him to go into the game instead of Jimmy.

After telling the story, Ducky asked us why the coach didn’t put Jimmy in. None of the girls, including me, immediately understood why, and thought it was really mean of the coach to bench Jimmy. A few of us shook our heads, indicating “No.”

Ducky was a very, very small older man who was extremely energetic and animated. He nearly went ballistic that we didn’t understand the point of his story. So, he jumped around in front of us and explained that, in sports you have to commit 200%, and really believe that you are going to succeed in order to do so. And that’s why Jimmy didn’t get to play in that game. By saying the he would “try” he indicated to his coach that he wasn’t fully committed, and that, inside, he did not have true belief that he could stop that other player from scoring.

After hearing the explanation, it made perfect sense to me. In sports and in life, I’ve been reminded of this truth many times since. In fact, in the short time since I decided to write about this topic, a significant event involving athletic belief has taken place that puts an even finer point on my story. It is much more powerful and positive than the tale about my friend who didn’t fully commit to planning for a weekend run.

I am referring to the story of Meb Keflezighi, who won yesterday’s Boston Marathon, the first American man to do so since 1983. Meb certainly is one of the great American long-distance runners of his generation, having won the New York City Marathon (2009) and earned an Olympic silver medal at the Athens summer games (2004). However, he is turning 39 in a few short days and was listed on the 4th page of the elite runners list in the Boston Marathon press kit (the names were placed in order of their fastest marathon times).

Because of this, no one believed that Meb was going to win the Boston Marathon. When I say “no one,” of course, what I really mean is that no one other than Meb himself thought that he could win it. Yet, on a fine running day in Boston, Meb beat scores of runners significantly younger and faster than himself and crossed the finish line first, thus cementing himself among the all-time great American runners.

Not everyone who believes they will be successful will be. However, if you do not believe it, you can be pretty certain that you will fail.

Boston Strong

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It was almost exactly a year ago that I heard the first live reports of the Boston Marathon bombing on the radio, while I was driving to a business meeting. Tears immediately welled up in my eyes, when I thought of marathon runners so close to the finish line being cut down in their tracks, unable to finish. And, in watching the televised coverage, I remember relating to the 78 year-old runner who was helped across the finish line right after the bomb went off. I think any runner would say that finishing the race would be a higher personal priority at that moment than worrying about your own injuries. Within 24 hours of the bombing, I knew that I was going to try my best to make it to Boston this year. 

Unfortunately, Plan A of trying to qualify for Boston — or “BQ” as we runners call it — based on my marathon running time didn’t pan out. Although I ran several half marathons and trained quite heavily, it was pretty apparent by late summer that I simply wasn’t capable of running a marathon in less than three hours and 55 minutes. Although I continued training, I also put a lot of effort into Plan B, which was to get to the Boston Marathon with a charity racing team. 

Due to the overwhelming response to the bombing from runners around the world, I wasn’t able to make it onto the charity team I selected either. It was devastating to get an email from the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge that read: “We sincerely regret that we are not able to provide you a Boston ’14 marathon entry.  As much as we would like to accept every applicant, that is simply not possible due to truly overwhelming demand.  Thank you for your patience and understanding throughout this unprecedented situation.”

Why am I telling you this story? Because, I just revived my dream of running the Boston Marathon. Here’s how it happened.

Two months ago, I revealed my two tag-along New Year’s resolutions of losing 20 pounds and running my fastest marathon — called a “PR” for “personal record.” I decided to focus on my diet over the months of February and March, in hopes of losing 15 pounds by that time. The weight loss was expected to help me run faster, when I started by marathon training in April.

When I shared my Quarterly Report post earlier this week on Facebook, something in it caught the eye of my good friend, Lisa.  I should probably explain that Lisa is a REAL marathon runner. She’s in the midst of running her third set of marathons in all 50 states. What Lisa noticed is that I ran my first long-distance race of the season at a 9-minute per mile pace, which is a full minute and a half faster than my pace during my first race last year.  Since Lisa and I already had plans to run the Around the Lake Marathon on my birthday in late July, she suggested that I tweak my goal. Now, with Lisa’s encouragement, instead of just trying to PR at that race, we’re both going to try to BQ!

My best marathon time was at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Phoenix, back in January, 2006. I ran that in just over four-and-a-half hours.  As I mentioned above, my BQ time is less than four hours. That means I have to cut a half hour off my best time to qualify for Boston.

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(My official race photo when I got my PR at the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Phoenix, in January, 2006.)

I’ve started using the Hal Higdon Marathon Intermediate 2 Training Program which is an 18 week program that starts out with a 10-miler on the weekly Sunday long run. It also features three training runs of 20 miles prior to the marathon and strong Saturday runs to achieve a little fatigue during the weekly long runs.  This is more aggressive than the Hal Higdon training plans that I have used in the past. Looking at the races in my area, I adapted Hal’s plan by fitting in some competitive distance runs before my BQ try on July 25th.

It’s my hope that more serious training, combined with my weight loss and increase in overall fitness from not drinking, is going to make a real difference in my marathon performance. This is not going to be easy. But, I’m game to give it one heck of a try.

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(My modification of the “Hal Higdon Intermediate 2 Marathon Training Plan” with race schedule.)