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.

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I Am Sisyphus (Again)

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Last week, I reported the good news that I had already lost 20 pounds and returned to my goal weight of 138 pounds.  Sadly, I can already tell that weight maintenance is going to be a battle. And, unfortunately, it looks like one that may last the rest of my life. That 20th and final pound has been lost, gained, and re-claimed four times and it’s only been a few weeks. Huffington Post says I need to get used to this, because “weight maintenance is actually the state of gaining and losing small amounts of weight over and over again.”

This reminds me of the Myth of Sisyphus, about which I wrote this poem in 1997:

And I was Sisyphus again today,
Elated at the top,
Only to fall down under the rock’s
Crushing weight.
Yet I know I will be happy again tomorrow,
Only to slip back down again,
Still happy afterward, as I approach the crest.
Mankind and I, we are so simple in
Both our pleasures and our defeats.

To be successful, the Mayo Clinic suggests that “weight maintenance requires daily exercise, a healthy menu, a long-term commitment, and constant vigilance.” Wait a minute. This sounds suspiciously like dieting. They also say not to worry, because it will get easier after two to 5 years of keeping the weight off. When they said “a long-term commitment,” they weren’t kidding. It’s clear that I’m going to need as many strategies to maintain my weight as I did to lose it the first place.

My first strategy is to continue using the MyFitnessPal app every day. As I have explained in the past, this is my version of keeping a food and exercise journal. According to WebMB, I should be able to maintain my weight while consuming 2,000 calories a day.  This is significantly more than the 1,200 calorie diet I’ve been on. I just can’t bring myself to program this into my settings, so I’m starting with 1,500 and will adjust later, as needed.

My second strategy is to remain committed to exercise. This should be the easy part for me, since I am still training for marathons and have always been active. This article in Women’s Health Magazine suggests that exercise is the single most important factor in keeping weight off. The stat came from The National Weight Control Registry which tracks people who successfully maintained weight loss of 30 pounds or more. It turns out that 90% of these people exercise an average of one hour per day.

This study using data from the Registry confirms that my first two strategies are important to maintaining my weight and also suggests two others. These are monitoring my weight regularly and having a low-fat diet. We have a digital scale in our master bathroom and I use it almost every day, making the weight monitoring no problem. Focusing on lowering fat is another matter. I lost the weight by counting calories and exercising. The only significant diet change I made was cutting out alcohol. Generally speaking, I ate essentially whatever I wanted in lower quantities or I exercised more to burn it off. I’m going to mull over the low-fat focus a bit more…

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(Above: My brother helped pace my half marathon run in Middlebury, VT on May 4, enabling me to finish well under a 9 minute-per-mile pace.) 

What is going to be critical to maintaining my weight is to be vigilant on race weekends. Take this past weekend for example:  I ran a half marathon faster than my goal, in 1 hour and 56 minutes. My average pace of 8:51 per mile is under my marathon pace needed to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I even ranked in the upper 20% of all female runners in their 40s, my “group.” That’s the great news. The bad news is that it’s two days after the race and I’ve gained three pounds. 

Evidently this is common, especially for women, when training for marathons.  A few of the many online articles about this can be found here, here, and here. The main causes of the weight gain include overestimating energy needs, feeling you deserve to eat what you want, and not being active enough outside of the actual training. Originally, I was thinking of not using my app during race weekends as a reward. I’m scratching that idea to make sure I keep the 20 pounds off. If I’m destined to be Sisyphus, I should at least make rolling that stone up the hill easier on myself.

Ideal Weight?

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People are starting to notice that I’ve lost weight. Judging by their reactions, the first 10 pounds disappeared without much fanfare, but it was the next five that seemed more apparent to everyone, including me. That’s pretty much how the process went too:  10 pounds were relatively easy to lose and the last five took much more commitment and focus.  And I have five more to go.

One of my friends who hadn’t seen me in a while said the other day: “Wow! You look great! Don’t lose anymore.” Although that’s a positive reaction and one that I was initially happy to hear. The “don’t lose anymore” bit has been stuck in my craw. I’ll tell you why.

I think I am a pretty good judge of my own weight and that my goal of losing 20 pounds is realistic and healthy. When I topped out at 165 pounds, I was clearly overweight. And, when I began this year at 158 pounds, it was evident that I still had quite a bit of weight to lose.  Photos confirm this, as did the many tight or impossible-to-wear clothes in my closet.

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(Above: Me with Karl Roemer, my high school soccer coach, last summer. I weighed 155 pounds at the time.)

My whole life, I’ve heard things like “You have those soccer legs” or “You have a big frame and carry weight well” and the like. Actually, I don’t have a big frame.  I have a medium to small frame, something I just confirmed by consulting several websites. The first suggested that I take my fingers on my right hand and wrap them around my left wrist. Since I can go all the way around and then some that indicates a small to medium frame.  This other website claims that the best way is to actually measure your wrist. My wrist is 6.25 inches around, also indicating that I have a small to medium frame. 

I’m talking about my body frame, because that is one of the key inputs that helps to establish “ideal weight.” Reflecting back on my weight through the years, I consider 135 pounds to be ideal.  And, as you know, my goal this year is to weigh 138. Because of my friend’s comment, I took some time to confirm that my goal is reasonable.

After my sophomore year of college, I went on a serious diet for the first time, in order to lose what I had gained resulting from the combination of a serious soccer injury and typical college drinking. Before that diet, I weighed about 160 pounds. I lost the weight and swore I would never weigh over 140 pounds again.  I kept that promise until things went a little wacky after being treated for a serious thyroid disease about 12 years ago.

Fast forwarding to today, I now weigh 143. Losing 5 additional pounds would put me at my goal of 138. Even though I know through experience that it is a good weight for me, I did research on “my ideal weight.” That’s how I found this nifty Ideal Weight Calculator.  

Self-described this way: “The Ideal Weight Calculator computes the ideal body weight as well as a healthy body weight range based on height, gender, and age. People have pursued an ideal weight formula for centuries, and hundreds of formulas and tables have been created. However, there is still no definite answer regarding the ‘best’ weight for a person. However, the results obtained by most formulas are very good. The Ideal Weight Calculator provides the results of all the popular formulas for comparison purposes.”

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(Above: My results using the “Ideal Weight Calculator”)

When I plug in my age, gender and height, these four methods of determining ideal weight come up with a very small range of between 134 and 138 pounds. And, very interestingly, this other website uses a database of survey responses to indicate an ideal weight. Halls, M.D. believes that ”almost all ‘ideal body weight’ websites use obsolete formulas or tables created in 1979 or earlier” and that his page tells “what people just like you think about their ideal weight.” Guess what? People just like me evidently think their ideal weight is 136, which happens to be right in between the range indicated by all of those “obsolete formulas.”

At any rate, I’m pleased that this exercise confirmed what I already knew to be true. Not only is my goal of weighing 138 pounds realistic, it is very close to my ideal weight. It may not be easy to lose these last 5 pounds, but at least I’m not crazy or unhealthy for trying.

Quarterly Report

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This is the first quarter status report on my dry year.  Believe it or not, three months have come and gone since I quit drinking as my New Year’s resolution, and started this blog to share my thoughts about that and other things. To be perfectly honest, I’m completely over the whole not drinking thing. By that, I don’t mean that I want to start drinking again. What I mean is that not drinking alcohol has become so ingrained in me that I just don’t think about it very much. And that’s making it difficult to find things to write about.

At the end of my first month, I reported that I had lost six pounds simply by not drinking, and that I was dismayed that forming a new habit was going to take a lot longer than I had expected. Then, at the end of my second month, I realized that my old habit of drinking wine every night had disappeared unnoticed, and I was 11 pounds lighter. In between those two posts, I revealed that a big motivator for embarking on my “dry year” was my belief that alcohol was preventing me from losing the 20+ pounds I had gained over the past several years, as well as from being a more competitive runner.

In chunking out my planning and goals into more manageable bits, I decided not to change anything else about my eating or fitness routine in January. And, in February and March, to focus on my diet first, mainly by using MyFitnessPal to track everything I eat, as well as my exercise. I hoped to lose 15 of my goal of 20 pounds by that time. My plan was to then pivot from my diet to my running and race training in April, and to try for my personal best marathon time on my 46th birthday in late July. Assuming all goes accordingly, I would still have five months to complete my diet goal before the end of the year.

Even though there’s still snow on the ground here in Vermont, March is over. The inevitable question is: How am I doing? Drum roll please…..

I lost 15 pounds! I’m particularly proud of that, because I was on vacation the first two weeks of March. In just 90 days, my Body Mass Index dropped from 24.7 to 22.4. According to the U.S. Navy body fat calculator, my percentage of body fat dropped from 27% in mid-February to 24% today. I’m not quite in the “fit” category yet, so there’s more work to do. However, I’m really getting close to my ideal weight and fitness level, and feel very happy with my results.

So far, my theory that losing weight will make me run faster appears to be correct. I took part in the Run for the Border Half Marathon on the New Hampshire coast this past Sunday.  It was raining, windy and cold – I got hit by foam and sea water from waves that crashed against the seawall and sprayed onto the race route! Because of the crazy weather and coastal flood warnings, the race was shortened to 10.19 miles. I surprised myself by racing at a 9:02 per-mile pace, much faster than expected. Last year’s half marathon results were all slower than this, ranging from a 10:27 per-mile pace in Middlebury in May, to a 9:20 pace down in Manchester, Vermont, in early September. I felt very comfortable the whole race and definitely had more in the tank when I crossed the finish line.

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(My vantage point running the Run for the Border Half Marathon in coastal New Hampshire on March 30, 2014.)

Over the past three months, the most important thing is that I had decided to reward myself early with a trip to Laos. Since I was saving well over $4,000 this year by not drinking, and it was burning a hole in my pocket, I deserved a big reward for all of my efforts. My 10-day trip was unforgettable and under budget — around $2,500. Later this year, when I reach all of the other goals I’ve outlined, maybe Bruce and I will take another trip together to celebrate.

Laying the Foundation

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Now that I have breezed into February without incident and it seems clear that my drinking ban is going to stick, it’s time for me to start focusing on some of the reasons why I began this social experiment in the first place. This month, I want to lay the foundation for achieving two goals, both of which were top contenders for my New Year’s resolution originally and, in my mind, are part of the package.

My theory from the outset was that eliminating alcohol will enable me to finally achieve two important personal goals that I have been thinking about for a while. They are: losing 20 pounds and running a marathon in personal record (PR) time. In this post, I’ll give background on these goals, and in future articles, I will explain my plan for and progress toward achieving them. I have also already thought of several related and interesting research topics that I will explore, as well.

Let’s start with losing weight. No, I don’t think I’m fat. And, yes, if I were destined to remain at my current weight, I would have a happy, healthy, and productive life. However, I used to be much thinner and, with my continued commitment to exercise, I should have a shot at getting back to my “ideal” weight.

I’m not comfortable giving you the exact numbers. But, I will confess that on January 1, 2012, I stepped on the scale at a personal high weight which was 35 pounds higher than my lowest adult weight. The good news is that I’ve already made progress. After going down and then all the way back up again over the course of 2012, I managed to drop seven pounds in 2013. And, I already reported that I’ve lost another six pounds so far this year. For those of you who are having trouble with the math, this means I am down 13 pounds from my highest weight.

My first challenge is deciding on where to set the marker on counting down the 20 pounds. I plugged “what is my ideal weight” into Google and got the most amazingly helpful information from Self, a magazine to which I am often subscribed. The two questions asked by the trusty Ideal Weight Calculator were my gender and my height. I am female and I am 5-feet 7-inches tall. The results?

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Thanks, Self. I already weigh somewhere in this 40 pound range (whew!) and I still remember the one day in my life when I weighed 118 pounds. I was in 8th grade and it was the most dreaded day of the school year, when all the girls had to lineup in alphabetical order to file into the nurse’s office two at a time to get on the scale. I vividly recall the nurse writing what seemed like a very large number onto a little slip of paper that she handed to me: “118.” I assure you, this weight is not remotely plausible or desirable for me as an adult.

Since I’m too lazy to do any measurements to figure out my body mass index, I’m just going to pick the stretch goal of losing 20 pounds this year. It’s near the middle of the range, it’s a weight I would feel very accomplished to achieve again, and it’s about what I weighed in 1999, when I started training for my first marathon. I have 14 pounds to go.

Speaking of marathons, the first one I ran was the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington, in 2000, with my sister-in-law Moira. We crossed the finish line holding hands, with a time of four hours 41 minutes and 41 seconds. I swore I would never run another one. That feeling lasted about five years, and then, in 2006, I attempted Rock-n-Roll Phoenix. At that time, I was a very active member of the Arizona Road Racers, and I had recently achieved my PR half marathon time of one hour 55′ 55″. That’s fast for a recreational runner at my age and level. I was a bit disappointed with my subsequent marathon time of four hours 31′ 10″. Little did I know then that it would remain my PR today.

I’ve only run three marathons since: the Air Force Marathon in 2012, which I ran in about four hours and 45 minutes with a hip injury; Vermont City 2013, which I treated as a training run since it was so early in the season; and the 20th running of the Philadelphia Marathon this past November, which kicked my butt at about mile 18 and took me a few minutes longer than did Air Force the prior year.

I’m already signed up for the Around the Lake Marathon for my birthday and my goal is to do that in under four hours and 30 minutes — a PR! I am filling in my race calendar with a handful of other marathons and half marathons, kicking off my race season with the Run for the Border Half Marathon in late March. Speaking of which, it’s time for me to take advantage of the break in the cold weather and get in a training run right now.