From Race Prep to Building a Base

I just completed a rather dumb training cycle. With just a few sub-100 mile months under my belt after two months of near zero training due to injury and a cross country move, I decided last fall to run a spring marathon … and to use the Hansons Marathon Method Advanced Program to help me achieve that goal.

So I went from less than 100 miles combined over last June, July and August, Last 12 months mileageand September, October, and November each in the 80-ish mile range, to cranking out four consecutive 150+ mile months (two of those months over 200 miles) in my marathon training program.

It felt great at times. But it also hurt at times. On race day I met my goal of running a sub-3:30 marathon, but I wasn’t quite ready for it. I don’t recommend this kind of running. I needed more of a base, and a more gradual increase in my weekly and monthly mileage. (For the long boring race report/post-mortem of my race, visit my Running Ahead training log here).

So now I’m building a base. Runners with a strong base are stronger, better runners. I want to be a stronger, better runner. I’ve never built a base, but have mostly geared up for races, finished the races, and then – due to injury or life change – stopped running for a period. I’m done with that kind of running. Now is time to build the base.

Though I have some racing goals in mind, my primary goal now is to just keep running, with less intensity but with disciplined regularity, to build my mileage base, get stronger, and increase my endurance. From weeks in the high 50s and low 60s during my marathon training plan, I’m dialing back to 35-40 miles per week (150 miles per month). But unlike I’ve ever done, I hope to string together several months of regular running with consistent miles. Perhaps I’ll intersperse these miles with a few races, but the primary focus will be the disciplined, yet less exciting, goal of building a base.

It’s easy to get up early on a dark, rainy day when you’ve got a marathon on the calendar and a personal record to chase. This new stage of training – with no personal record or marathon on the immediate horizon – will be a new kind of challenge for me.

Still, I have a few race goals for the next few months. For one, I want to go sub-6:00 in the mile. When I was 16 years old I ran 4:23. Those days are LONG gone. However, last year I did surprise myself in an open mile in Minneapolis and ran a 6:03. With more training already this year than I had at that time last year, I am pretty confident I can go under 6:00 – perhaps even close to 5:50 … but we’ll see. I’ve signed up for the inaugural Monumental Mile on June 5 in downtown Indianapolis. Should be fun.

The other race goal I have for the short-term is to drop my half marathon time. In Saturday’s full marathon I hit my half marathon split at just 12 seconds off my half marathon personal record. If I ran a half marathon at just 12 seconds off my personal record, and then continued to run another 13.1 miles, I know I can drop a few minutes from that PR in an open half marathon. But the problem with reaching this goal is that I won’t be in respectable half marathon race condition until sometime in June … and after the end of May there are very few half marathons in the region until late September, when I will report to Ch-BOLC (Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course) to begin my training as a Chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard.

So the goal for the moment is base-building. Get out there and run 5-6 miles three days/week (easy pace); 7-8 miles two days/week (with a moderate tempo and/or fartlek workout); and a 10ish mile long run. Though I’ve just trained like a madman with 3:50am alarms and 12-14 miles before sunrise some days, this shift to a different kind of training is likely to be my hardest challenge yet.

Wish me luck, please.

this post is about running … and life

I ran a marathon back in March, and I felt pretty darn good about it. But since then the running has fallen off a cliff. In two months since the marathon I've run less than 100 miles … in the last month I've run less than 10 miles. Pathetic.

Just over a year ago I got back into running for the first time in 17 years. Getting back into running was a great experience, and signing up to run the Army Ten Miler, then the Richmond Half Marathon, and then the National Marathon was great motivation to keep training. By the end of it all, I went from "Couch to Marathon" in one year. It felt great. I felt great.

Yet in this whole process running never quite became an essential part of my life. Sure, it was something I did five days/week, and to an extent I became obsessed with running during this stretch. But once I achieved the goal of completing a marathon the motivation died down.

A lot.

The desire to wake up at 5am and run 14 miles diminished. Unlike other runners, my days didn't feel incomplete if I didn't go for a run. As much as I enjoyed the experience of a good run, I also enjoy many other things. Such as sleep. And time with my family. And a bedroom that didn't smell like a locker room.

But it wasn't just these various comforts that led me astray from the straight and narrow running path. Running – particularly marathon training – is an emotionally and physically draining experience. I learned in this process that I have room in my life for one additional, intense activity beyond my family and my work.

For a time that one intense activity was my marathon training. Since the marathon, however, my emotional energy has been focused on our family's move from Arlington, VA to St Paul, MN later this summer, and my transition from my current church to my new congregation. Though I am terribly excited about what lies ahead, I am also sad to say goodbye to many good people and places here in Arlington and on the East Coast. The transition is emotionally exhausting.

Nonetheless, I need to run. For my health (I've regained weight since my marathon), for my sanity (the time alone in my thoughts and non-thoughts is great therapy), for the challenge (I did enjoy watching my progress from week to week, race to race), running was and still can be such a powerful and meaningful part of my life … and an activity that keeps me grounded during a hectic time of transition (thanks, Christine, for helping me realize my need for some grounding). Perhaps not as intensely as I did in my marathon training, but I need to get back out there and make running an important part of my life again.

So the challenge for me is this: to turn running from an activity that is purely goal-oriented (run my first ever marathon) into a life-giving activity that becomes part of my day-to-day routine.

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More of my posts on running, including some that describe my "Couch to Marathon" journey, available here.

Having Serious Doubts About 26.2

"Just go home," I told myself , about one mile into yesterday afternoon's sixteen mile run.  "Turn around.  You can get your long run in later in the week."  I was weary after a lock-in with nine youth from church on the night before, and a morning service project with those same youth pulling invasive English Ivy out from a hillside at a local nature center.

And so as I struggled up and down over the rolling hills of the first four miles of my workout yesterday I tried to talk myself out of the run, until finally my legs and breathing fell into a steady rhythm as the route plateued and then headed downhill toward the Potomac River, where a wonderfully flat three mile stretch of a canal tow-path awaited me.

In the final few miles my doubts returned.  "Stop here, call Jessicah, get a ride home," I told myself as I ran past a grocery store.  And again, at a split in the path where I could have made a quicker route home – but would have falled short of the sixteen mile goal – I once again tried to psych myself out.  "Go right, head home, be done."  My knee began to ache.  Finding the strength to stride over curbs and onto sidewalks became a serious challenge.

Nonetheless, I stuck to the plan and finished the run strong, despite the wicked hills that I faced after about mile ten.  In fact, this was my best long run to date – I hit every mile under 9:00, and my half marathon split was much faster than my time at the Richmond Half Marathon two months ago.

Yet when I got home I was worthless.  My body was extremely achey, and despite stretching, my muscles siezed up, making it very hard for me to move.  I couldn't eat much, I was thirsty for hours, and I was exhausted.  I fell asleep about 90 minutes after my run, woke up a few hours later, and then went to sleep for the evening.

Ever since running the Richmond Half Marathon in November, I have been eager to run a marathon.  I chose the National Marathon on March 26, because it would give the motivation to train during the winter. Furthermore, I loved the idea that I could go Couch-to-26.2 in one year.

(I began running last April, after 17 years of inactivity.  At the start, I couldn't run for two minutes without getting winded, but thanks to the Couch-to-5K program I got to the point where I could run a full 3 miles.  I wrote about my return to running in a blogpost last June, Getting Reacquainted with Running).

But I'll admit that I'm having doubts.  I got my butt kicked on – and especially after – yesterday's run, even as I put in one of my best workouts to date.  About 20 hours after my run, I still feel like garbage.  Do I really want to keep doing this to myself?  Perhaps I should dial it back and run the half marathon instead?  Or, should I be preparing for and recovering from my long runs differently, so that I'm not in such horrible shape a day later?

I'd greatly appreciate any advice that my running friends can share.  I'm not sure if I'm simply being plagued by fickle doubts – as I was on yesterday's run – or if I indeed need to dial it down and get more mileage and fitness before I try to conquer the 26.2. 

I know I can run a marathon, but simultaneously, I'm not sure if I can … right now, anyway.

Making Meaning on a Sunday Morning

I skipped church on Sunday morning.  It felt strange, for sure.  I'm a pastor, after all.  I usually work on Sundays, preaching a sermon, presiding at the altar, teaching a class, leading children in prayer.  I'm someone who finds great meaning and power in the Word and Sacraments and the fellowship of the Christian community.

But my Sunday apart from my routine of spiritual fellowship and leadership was not devoid of 09ArmyTenMilerStart meaning.  Quite the contrary.  I took off this Sunday to run in the Army Ten Miler, the largest ten mile race in the country (30,000 registrants; 21K+ finishers).  When I first committed to running this race, it was meant to be a capstone to a six-month return to fitness.  Yet, after an injury that kept me from training for two months, the race became less a capstone to my return to fitness than it was a gut-check as I struggled to stick to one of my exercise goals despite the set-back.

Truth be told, I had no business running the race. I hadn't run more than five miles over the past month, and when I tried for six miles on a recent training run, I crashed and burned with just under a mile to go.  But I ran the race anyway.  It had enough meaning to me that I ran.

And indeed, many among the gathered collection of humanity at the Army Ten Miler were running with meaning.  Sure, there were many people like me who made completing the Army Ten Miler a fitness goal, and many others who had goals of finishing in a certain amount of time.  Particularly in an age of rising health care costs and ever-increasing indicators telling us that we're unhealthy, such goals can be very powerful and motivating.

But people were also running as members of teams.  Over 700 teams competed in the race, from teams comprised of members of military units, to teams of staffers from military contractors, to at least one church team that I saw, to college teams, and so forth.  Their team camaraderie and dedication was fun to watch.

Most significantly, however, were those who were running in honor of soldiers serving overseas, and those running in memory of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Where my wife and I were running – in the back 1/3 of the pack – perhaps as many as 1 in 10 of the runners wore shirts revealing a deep and personal connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: shirts printed with the picture of a soldier killed in action; shirts printed with the picture of a friend or spouse serving overseas; shirts showing that the runner had served in a certain unit at a certain base overseas.  And then, of course, there were the soldiers in wheelchairs, having lost a leg or two in battle.  This race was for many a memorial event, honoring and remembering those who have served and those who continue to serve.

The Army Ten Miler was an amazing, meaningful experience.  Quite different, to be sure, than my usual routine of Sunday morning worship and fellowship.  It's like comparing apples and oranges – both fruit, both good for you, but nonetheless quite different.

It has become clear that fewer and fewer people are making meaning on Sunday mornings by gathering for worship and fellowship, or are making meaning during the week by meeting for Bible study or prayer groups.  But just because the church no longer has the lion's share of the meaning-making market doesn't mean that people are not making meaning.  It is soooooo easy for us in the church to suggest that folks who are outside of the church are leading hapless lives devoid of meaning and purpose (a sentiment I've heard stated more than once).  On the contrary!  Beyond the hallowed walls and stained glass windows of the church large throngs of people are deeply involved in groups and communities and activities which shape their identity and give them meaning.

In an era of church decline our call, perhaps, ought to be to put our ear to the ground and listen to what it is that gives people meaning and purpose, and to believe that God is doing something beyond our walls.  This is not to suggest that churches should abandon the riches of our tradition and faith for ten mile runs, or that God is at work in every activity that gives someone meaning.  Not at all!  But it is a call to take seriously how people today are making meaning, and to consider the experiences of those who do not sit in our pews as worthy of our attention and respect.

Getting Reacquainted with Running

I haven't exercised much since 1993, the year I graduated from high school and won a state gold medal in the 4×800 meter relay.  Sure, I have purchased gym memberships and bike equipment, but I haven't used either much, except perhaps for the few months of biking I did just prior to my October 2002 wedding.  I gained weight, got warnings from doctors about borderline blood pressure and high cholesterol, and purchased larger-sized pants.  I haven't done much of anything to return to any semblance of the athlete I was in high school.

To be clear, I know that I'll never run a 4:23 mile or a 16:30 5K ever again.  And I'll never weigh in at 169 pounds, my high school weight, again (at 6' tall and a big frame, I was one of the biggest runners on my team).  And I'll never win a gold medal in anything again.  And I'm OK with that … now.  But that wasn't always the case.

You see, for me – someone who experienced significant success as a runner in high school – the past has been an amazing deterrent to my attempts to keep fit.  I think the past can do that to many men.  In recent years when I've gone out running I've felt dejected that what was so easy in the past had become so difficult, and I quickly lost patience and confidence.  The framed gold medal and photo of my relay team hanging on the wall was simultaneously a source of great pride and of great shame – Look at what I once did!  But wow, look at me now.

I think I've turned a page, however.  Since Easter my wife and I have been running again.  We started slowly, with the Couch to 5K training program.  [When I say slowly, I mean slowly – the first week of workouts consist of 60 seconds of jogging followed by 90 seconds of walking, for 20 minutes.]  We ran our first 5K on May 29, and now I'm up to running 4-5 miles on training runs three days/week.  Though when I'm running my mind and my body remember what it was like to run 17-20 years ago – and that experience surely helps me today – I'm quite happy these days with distance runs that come in at a 9:30 pace, rather than the 6:00 or faster pace I often ran on such runs in high school.

What made me commit to running now?  People, specifically my wife, a few friends, and many strangers.  It all started when a couple from church invited me to sign up for the Army Ten Miler in October, knowing that I was looking to get back into shape.  And since the race registration last year filled up in less than a week – and that's for 30,000 runners! – I didn't have much time to mull it over.  I said yes, got online, and signed me and my wife up for the run.  Then I joined the Couch to 5K page on Facebook, and was excited to post my updates on the page after each workout, and read how others were doing with the plan.  Finally, I joined DailyMile.com, a social network for runners, cyclists, and triathletes.  Sharing workouts, receiving advice and encouragement, and "meeting" other runners has been a great help for me as I've stepped up my running since May.

What does all this mean?  Like many people my age, and particularly many pastors, I am overweight and out of shape.  Getting reacquainted with a long-lost passion of mine has been a gift from God, for all kinds of reasons.  I am working on my health and investing time and energy into something I love to do, a commitment which forces me to re-evaluate my priorities, from the foods I eat to the schedule I keep to the amount of work I'm willing to take on.

But perhaps most significant for me is the way that returning to running has allowed me to reconcile who I was with who I am.  For many years I've sort of written off my former running success, so irreconcilable was the memory of my "glory days" with the weight gain and fitness failure of my 20's and 30's.  And though I am not the runner that I once was, I am a runner again … and that alone makes me happy beyond belief.  I'm on the road to health and fitness, and am excited for the 10K and Ten Mile races I'm running in August and October.

Well, there's more to say about this, but it's time to go to bed.  I have a 5:00am alarm set to wake me up for my morning run.