Since I did not launch this blog until January 1st, there was no obligatory end of year post for 2015 in which I broke down the ups and downs of the past year. And yet 2015 was an important year for me as a runner, as instructive as any year I have had since I first laced up in 2011. So without further ado, I give you the good, the bad, and the ugly of my 2015 (in reverse order so I can end on a high note).
Trying new things without considering where they fit into my training
I experimented a great deal in 2015, adding new elements to old workouts such as making the standard long run a progression run or mixing hill repeats into my tempo runs. Often these changes were calculated well in advance and added to my training programs in appropriate places. Occasionally, in my zeal to try something new, I would read about a new workout and spontaneously try it the next day.
One such ran was a modified progression run. I like progression runs. I tend to make every third long run a progression run in which the first half is run at a comfortable pace and then run the second half with some sort of speed element. This mimics my racing strategy in which I try to run negative splits. For four years I have trained this way. The new progression run I read about began mixing in speed play right from the start after a two mile warm up. This was far more intense and much earlier than any sort of long run I ever attempted. The result was me, four miles from my car, utterly spent. It was a hard lesson learned. As you progress as a runner you absolutely should attempt more challenging variations of your tried and true hard runs. But plan these runs well in advance and consider how your training earlier in your cycle will build, not just to your race, but to these more challenging runs. Or endure a four mile shuffle of shame back to you car.
Running when I could not control my emotions
Somewhere in the near future I will be committing time to writing a post on how running helped me tame and understand depression. Now is not that time. For now, accept that in March of 2015 I began to recognize that I was depressed and that for the next five months or so I would run while trying to understand my depression’s underlying causes, which were related to my career. Running would end up playing a critical role in my ability to tame the beast, but before it did, the beast wreaked havoc on my running.
We all run amidst distractions and stress. We have families, we have jobs, we have student loans and bills; we are pulled in 20 directions at once. Since I started running it has been a respite from the normal stress of everyday life; it is often where I feel most like myself. None of this was true last spring.
In hindsight it may have been wise to stop training for my spring half marathon and simply enjoy the therapy that running afforded me. However, I have always run to race so that option never crossed my mind. What did cross my mind, at least early in my depression, were the constant thoughts of inadequacy, of frustration, and of worthlessness. I had left a job that I deeply loved, yet also needed to leave. It was the right decision but after the relief of making it wore off, guilt crept in. When I ran my negative thoughts were my constant companions. I ran angry, so angry in fact that I had a headache for two days after I PRed a five mile race because I ran the entire race with my jaw clamped down tight in anger.
It all came to a head in May at the Rite Aid Cleveland Half Marathon. By this point I was teetering close to serious injury, I had attacked my runs with such ferocity. I always plan my races carefully, intending to start slow, mapping out where I will get water, choosing points where I will make the decision to push the pace further or back off. I planned as I always do, then on race day I threw it all out the window. I blew through my usual early race pace and settled into a punishing one that, if I could hold it, would trim four minutes (Adam, you idiot) off my PR. I drank little (why slow myself down), I downed an energy gel far too early (and away from any water to help wash it down – hello cramps!), and I did what I had done for the last two months: I ignored every alarm bell, every warning sign my body kept throwing at me (you know this won’t end well, right?). So I crashed. Hard. The last three miles were an agonizing shuffle uphill in quickly escalating heat. Amazingly I finished only four seconds off my time from 2014, four seconds off of my course record. But whereas I had felt fresh and energized the year before, I crossed the line in 2015 beaten and broken. It would take me three weeks to recover and longer to enjoy running again.
Not sticking to a strength plan:
As frustrating as the start to 2015 was, I made several strides that set me up for this year, where I will be tackling my first marathon. An area where I felt short of preparing myself for 2016 was in sticking to a consistent strength plan. I blame two factors. First, I did not pair the right workouts with the right running days. I would attempt punishing strength workouts right after I had completed punishing runs, leaving me exhausted. Not the ideal way to build a constructive habit. Second, I failed to create the conditions that would help me start and then maintain the habit of completing strength workouts on a daily basis. Habits and habit formation for runners is a topic I will be covering soon, so I will not be spending much time talking about it here. For the time being it is enough to know that beginning a new habit, completing daily strength training, required me to consciously create conditions that would make such training an automatic part of my regimen. I failed to give this the proper attention early and as a result I failed to meet this goal.
Despite the hangups, the ugliness of letting depression interfere with my running and failing to build habits that would make me a stronger runner, 2015 was a good year. I was able to use the failures mentioned above to become a smarter runner and I continued to build on the success I have had since I took up running in 2011. This led to some memorable moments.
40+ mile weeks
I said 2015 was a transition year for me and the most successful transition I made was to add mileage to my weekly training in preparation for 2016’s marathon training. As I prepared for my fall half marathon I created a training program that added roughly ten more miles a week to the low to mid-30’s I had averaged near the end of 2014. Best of all, I adapted my training schedule (more on this below) to ensure that the added mileage did not lead to injury. The result was my fastest half marathon yet (by 2:20 off my 2014 PR) and the confidence of knowing that I have tackled most of what my first marathon training plan will throw at me.
The long run in Manteo
Sometimes the best runs are the ones that have nothing to do with training. You leave the watch at home, you walk out the door and simply run.
I vacation in the Outer Banks yearly with my family. It is a spiritual place for us; we have gone there to heal after several difficult times. There we can simply be. Last June I was starting to feel that I was crawling out of the hole I had been in since early March. I had confronted the most of the issues that had left me feeling inadequate, angry, and worthless. I was beginning to make peace with where I was in life. It was on a long run on tiny Roanoke Island that I felt like I turned a corner.
Training that week had not gone well. Unseasonably hot weather (the heat index hit 120 several times) made running uncomfortable and exhausting. Yet one hot afternoon I felt the need to run. While my family fished I made my way to Manteo, a small town on Roanoke Island, Norman Rockwell on the Water my mom calls it, and took off. Despite the heat, I ran, no longer feeling the anger I had in the previous months, just enjoying the salt air and the quaint scenery of the small houses, the island farms, woods, the site of the Lost Colony of the 1600’s where the first English child, Virginia Dare, was born, and then finally the island’s end where a small beach sits beside a bridge that takes you to the mainland.
I did not plan it, yet at the waterside I felt a weight melt away. I no longer felt worthless. I no longer felt like I wasn’t where I was supposed to be in life. Overcoming depression is never that simple. I still had much to work out. But for the first time in four months I felt some semblance of normalcy and hope. I felt like me again. I watched the waves for a few more minutes and then I turned back, concluding the second half of one of the more meaningful runs I have ever had.
Nine-day training blocks
After Meb Keflezighi won the Bosotn Marathon in 2014 there were calls to know just how he had done it. Meb was at an age where runners are supposed to be slowing down, not speeding up. Yet Meb had defied the odds and captured that most poignant of Boston Marathons a year after the 2013 bombings. Meb revealed some of his training secrets in his book, Meb for Mortals. For serious racers it is a must-read. In the book Meb shares one particular training secret that I instantly adopted: 9-day training blocks. The blocks replace the weekly schedule that is the hallmark of almost every training plan you will ever see. In his book, Meb explains that changing to the 9-day blocks became necessary as he got older and could no longer take the pounding of weekly training.
This was exactly how I felt. Too often when I ran my three key workouts in a week I felt fatigued, or I would have to skip key workouts because of soreness, or I would run the workout but badly miss my planned time. My training often featured a week-long break midway through so I could avoid serious injury and/or recharge my batteries. Following Meb’s example I re-wrote my fall training plan to fit into 9 day blocks. I still ran all the key workouts that were called for in the 12 week plan I had adopted. I simply extended the length of training to be 12 x 9 days instead of 12 x 7. To make sure I maintained the higher weekly mileage I wanted, I added in easy days every week, anything from 3-6 miles to ensure I met my mileage goals. The result was the best, healthiest training I have ever done. Even in the summer heat, I often hit my time goals, I felt stronger during my long runs, and I often had to hold back to make sure I did not overdo during my easy runs. I firmly believe this change is why I stepped up to the start line of my fall half marathon feeling as good as I ever had.
My PR at the Towpath Half Marathon in October
The rocky start to 2015 had long-since smoothed out when I laced up and toed the start line of the Towpath Half Marathon in October. Depression had been tamed, new training had been successfully completed, higher training volume had been conquered. I was strong as I had ever felt as a runner and the result, a PR by 2:20, would bear that out.
Though I will not give a whole race report, one part of that race stands out. I love the Towpath Trilogy races because, as small races set in a national park, they are a direct contrast to the bigger, crowded races I run in cities. I love both types of races, I simply enjoy ending my year with something more secluded, scenic and personal. The race course for the Towpath Half Marathon is essentially an out-and-back course and as I hit the turnaround to take me back toward home I found myself completely and utterly alone. I could hear no one behind me and the closest runner ahead of me had a solid lead of 100-150 yards.
I had, up to this point, been running slightly ahead of the pace I wanted to run and I began to wonder if I could maintain it. I wasn’t worried about dropping into the dreaded shuffle but I felt that maybe I had overextended myself and needed to slow it down and accept finishing with a time similar to my 2014 race. Yet, I kept seeing that runner ahead of me. I made my decision and decided, slowly, to track him down. I was at Mile 7. I would not catch up to him for three miles. When I did, I toyed with the idea of passing him, but I had expended so much energy just to catch him and his pace was still strong, still just ahead of what I thought I should run that I just settled in behind him. For the next two and a half miles we ran together. I always have a kick and my kick occurred a half mile out from the end. I began my sprint, passing this runner who had probably kept me going for the last 5.5 miles and then passing others in a pack just ahead of him. I crossed just ahead of a pack of ten or so runners, including my racing buddy from those last six miles. It was enough to get me third in my age group and to trim off that 2:20 from me previous year’s time.
There is an African proverb: If you want to run fast, go alone. If you want to run far, go together. For the last half of that race we two runners had gone together and that, as much as anything I learned, experienced, or conquered in 2015, helped me complete that wonderful race and draw my my running in 2015 to a close.