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.

 

Why Not Try It for One Month?

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Earlier this year, I was talking to someone I had just met and it came up that I had recently lost over 20 pounds. The guy was really excited when he heard this and asked the inevitable question: “How did you do it?” I told him the same thing that I told all of you in this blog post: the foundation was quitting drinking alcohol as my New Year’s resolution.  He didn’t miss a beat before giving me a wide grin and saying: “No, thanks. I don’t need to lose weight that bad.” (In my opinion, he certainly did.)

I have gotten similar responses from more than a few other people. Every time, it saddens me. I was able to lose 20 pounds in a little over three months after quitting drinking. And I want other people who express an interest in losing weight to try it. What does it say about someone if they’re not even willing to consider quitting drinking for 90 days? Perhaps it indicates that these are precisely the people who should be putting alcohol on hiatus.

Don’t get me wrong. I know there are as many ways to lose 20 pounds as there are people who need to lose the weight. But my own experience makes me wish there were more willingness to – just temporarily — change this one thing. It’s true that you have to do a few other things to make real progress. However, quitting alcohol is one of the best starts you can make.

Months ago, I described the many reasons why I felt that cutting out alcohol was the best way for me to kick-start my dieting process in this post. It was, by far, the easiest time I had losing weight. Sometimes I still don’t believe it’s true. However, every time I step on the scale, I see that I have really lost over 20 pounds this year.

It’s not just me. There are also plenty of others who say the same thing. A blogger on a similar journey to my own shares these insights gained from giving up alcohol to lose weight. Also check out this article, this one, and this one from Livestrong. Not to mention these thoughts from a woman who lost 100 pounds and says that giving up alcohol was the most important step for her. It’s no coincidence that the South Beach Diet, one of the most popular and effective diets for more than a decade, bans all alcohol in Phase 1.

If you don’t want to lose weight, ignore this advice. However, if you are one of those people who envies me for having returned to my ideal weight or knows deep down that you would feel much happier and be much healthier if you lost a little weight, try it. Quit drinking for just one month and let me know how it goes.

My sixth month without alcohol is drawing to a close and I certainly wouldn’t trade what I’ve experienced along the way for one sip of anything.

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.

Embracing Stretch Goals

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To be completely honest, when I set my secondary New Year’s resolution goals of losing 20 pounds and getting my Personal Record (“PR “) marathon time, I knew that I would be successful.

Sure enough, last week, I announced that I’ve already lost the weight. And — knock on wood — with my first marathon of the season just a few weeks away, I feel confident that I will get my marathon PR early.

**If you are not very interested in running, please stop reading now and tune in next week, when I promise to write about something else.**

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(Above: My view during my half marathon last weekend. Having my brother as my pacer, helped be achieve my best performance since 2005.)

To help ensure that I get my PR, I already contacted the Vermont City Marathon’s 4.5 hour pace team to introduce myself. Since my fastest marathon time so far is 4:31:10, sticking with this group will help me squeak in a new record. I’ll let you know whether or not I am successful over Memorial Day weekend. 

Since I realized early on that these two sub-goals were sandbagged, I announced another goal for my dry year about a month ago. It’s the big kahuna: qualifying for the Boston Marathon. This is a “stretch goal,” defined as a goal that “cannot be achieved by incremental or small improvements but requires extending oneself to the limit to be actualized.” Some people might even say that it’s impossible for me to “Boston Qualify,” or BQ. I mentioned my current PR marathon time above. To qualify for Boston, I need to cut more than 35 minutes off my best time.

Do I think I can do it? You bet. However, like everything else worth striving for in life, it will take goal setting, commitment, and follow-through. This is a great summary on how to set athletic goals. In order to BQ, I am now approaching every single workout with multiple goals in my head: the minimum I will accept, the true goal, and the stretch goal. I find that I am reaching these true goals and, such as in the half marathon last weekend, I am sometimes even surpassing the stretch goal. 

I’ve already significantly improved my chances of cutting 35 minutes off of my marathon time by quitting drinking and losing 20 pounds. In a previous blog post I shared this summary given to Princeton athletes on the negative impacts of alcohol on athletic performance and this Runner’s World article about how running weight makes people faster.

Additionally, I am committed to a more aggressive training plan, Hal Higdon’s Marathon Intermediate 2. Compared to my past training, this plan requires me to run three times during the work week, with the Wednesday run peaking at 10 miles. It also has a very rigorous weekend running schedule that features a Saturday run at my planned marathon pace that also peaks at 10 miles. Running at pace on Saturdays means that I have to run the Sunday long run fatigued. Speaking of the Sunday long run, a beginner’s training program peaks with an 18-mile run, and an intermediate program peaks with one 20-mile run. This plan requires that I run three 20-mile training runs. Honestly, that’s rough.

A seasoned, marathon-running friend, who is affectionately known as “B-Rad,” once told me, “I run marathons at a minimum every third week, because I hate those long training runs.” I do, too. So, with B-Rad’s training in mind, I have scheduled two marathons prior to my BQ race, as well as three half marathons. This helps me mentally by limiting the number of long training runs. From here on out, I just need to do one each of a 15-, 16-, 18- and 20-mile training run in preparation for my BQ try on July 25th.

Since my recent half marathon performance exceeded my stretch goal, I absolutely believe that I can qualify for Boston. This was my first sub-2 hour “half” since 2006 (see my Arizona Road Racer results here). My time of 1:55:57 in the Middlebury Maple Run was 21 minutes faster than my own performance in the same race last year. A year ago, I placed 44th out of 62 women in my group, women in their 40’s. This year, I placed 10th out of 54, well into the top 20% of my group.

I checked in with Runner’s World’s Race Times Predictor to see how this half marathon performance should translate on marathon day. It equates to a 4:02:00 marathon time, 29 minutes faster than my current PR but seven minutes slower than what I need to BQ. This is great news! Vermont is hilly, while my BQ course is flat. Middlebury has a lot unpredictable and varied terrain, while my BQ course is a five-mile loop that I will run multiple times.

For good measure, I also put my target marathon time into the Race Times Predictor and learned that a 1:52:00 half marathon time is equivalent. I’m trying for that time, a PR for that distance, in the Crowley Road Race in early July. Wish me luck. And, as you might expect, I’ll let you know how it goes.