Running in Memphis

Four years ago, I signed up to run the St. Jude half-marathon in Memphis. The event ended up being canceled due to adverse weather. I’ve been wanting to run it ever since, but never actually signed up until this year. Today was the race.

I set a new personal record of 2:12:52, breaking my old record of 2:13:34 set in Nashville in 2014.

I could not be happier.

I love the Memphis course. Absolutely love it. It makes me hate the Nashville course now. I’m already signed up to run Nashville next April, and I have every intention of running that half-marathon, but I’m hooked on the Memphis race now. I may do two a year for the time being.

The Memphis course has several advantages over Memphis. It’s much flatter. It’s far more scenic. You get to run through the St. Jude campus, where they remind you what you’re running for. (I might be a fundraiser next year, Lord willing.) The water stops are more frequent. The exit process after crossing the finish line (at AutoZone Park) is far less convoluted. There are fewer turns. The final 3+ miles are a virtual straightaway. The only advantage the Nashville course has is the starting point. Broadway Avenue is much wider than the starting point in Memphis, which is on 2nd Avenue. In Memphis, you’re literally packed together like sardines starting off.

The weather was perfect. It was in the upper 40’s when I arrived just before sunrise, and in the 60’s when I got back into my car after finishing. It was sunny with no wind.

The irony is that I felt really fatigued during miles 7-9, and started to wonder if I’d be able to run the entire distance. That’s always my primary goal, to be able to run the entire 13.1 miles without having to walk. I was a little concerned, because I wore down a little more than midway through.

And then something happened that I cannot explain. The course turns west for that final straightaway right before the 10-mile marker. I checked my time at that point. I was at 1:42, and figured I was about a minute slower than I needed to be for a personal record. Could I speed up enough to shave off a minute? I was going to try. At that moment, everything seemed to click perfectly. I suddenly felt wonderful & confident. I was tired, of course, but no longer so fatigued. I sped up for the final three miles. I was passing other runners. I never speed up at mile 10. This has never happened to me. That’s the point where I typically start to fade, with my pace decreasing with each successive mile. My 11th mile today was my 4th-fastest of the race, and, oddity of all oddities, miles 12 & 13, at 9:11 each, were my two fastest miles.

And so I broke my personal record. I’ve never felt better after a half-marathon. I wish I could save my best for last every time. But I don’t really know how I was able to accomplish this.

Today’s run was made even sweeter by the fact that the Nashville race back in April was such a dud. It was hot that day — in the 80’s for most of the race — and my time was by far my worst ever. It was confidence-shattering, and I really was hoping to redeem myself in Memphis. And so, at 48, I broke the personal record I set at 44.

Also, my sore right knee & right quad that have plagued me the last 2+ weeks were not a factor. I arrived downtown almost 2 hours prior to the start of the race, and had time to stretch out ad nauseum. And that’s exactly what I did. Believe me, it made all the difference.

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The conclusion of half-marathon training & right-side ailments

This afternoon I ran a 5K. There’s nothing remarkable about that by itself. I do those all the time. However, the next time I lace up, Lord willing, I’ll be standing on 2nd Street in downtown Memphis Saturday morning waiting for the St. Jude Marathon to start. That means my half-marathon training is complete. The only thing left now is the actual half-marathon.

Since October 1, when I began training, I have logged 125.7 miles. I have met every goal I set for myself. It has become routine for me to take off the two days prior to every half-marathon, and I’m going to enjoy those.

But what would running be without ailments? Two weeks ago, I did something to my right knee. It was the second of back-to-back “short” runs. Normally, I take a day off between runs. But on the 14th and 15th, I ran on back-to-back days. The second of those was a “hill run,” which means I incorporated “the big hill” in the subdivision next to mine. I only started doing this as part of my half-marathon training in order to build up strength and endurance. (I normally do not confront “the big hill.”) On this particular run, I did something to my right knee that I have not been able to overcome yet.

Indeed, I’ve been running with some soreness in my right knee & right quad ever since. It’s not debilitating, just a nuisance. In fact, I was able to pull off an 11.5-mile run last Monday. So I do know I can run with it. Incidentally, this is the same leg in which I tore my calf muscle near the end of January. I’ve been running with a compression sleeve ever since. I don’t know if all that is related, but it seems as though every time I have a running ailment, it’s on the right side.

I’ve done everything I need to do to prepare for this half-marathon. I’ve never run the Memphis course, and I’ve never run two half-marathons in one year before now. I do know that after Saturday, I’m taking a few days off. I’ve spent one-third of 2017 training for half-marathons, and, at 48 years of age, they do not get easier.

Final long run

Today I reached another goal in my half-marathon training. I always do a long run of 11+ miles during my training, and the 11+ mile run was the next in sequence. That was this morning. It had been 12 days since my last long run, and it’s 12 days until the half-marathon. As the runs get longer, I have to space them out a little farther, and I’m so thankful the weather cooperated. It was perfect. I began a little after 10 a.m. It was 42 degrees with full sun and very little wind. It was sufficient for short sleeves. I slowed it down to my half-marathon pace, and squeezed out 11.5 miles. So my next long run will be the actual half-marathon next Saturday. The thing about increasing my long runs by about a mile each time is that I’ve always got just enough to complete each one. When I ran 9+ miles back on October 30, I thought to myself I could not have gone much further. When I ran 10+ miles back on November 8, I thought to myself I could not have gone much further. And today, I thought to myself I could not have gone much further. But in 12 days, I will have to go further — 1.6 miles further than today. The one advantage I’ll have in Memphis is that the course is much flatter than what I’m used to training on here. Today’s run was quite hilly. (I ended up taking a different course than my usual route.) So if I were to subtract out the hills, maybe I could have gone further. At any rate, my remaining training goal is to work in 4 more short runs (5K to 4 miles), and then take off the two days prior to the half-marathon on December 2. As always, I’m excited and scared all at the same time.

Running up a storm

My 5th half-marathon is 4 weeks from today. Four weeks is all I have. This will be my first time running the St. Jude race in Memphis. I have run the Nashville race the last Saturday in April every year for the last 4 years, and am already registered for next year’s.

As always, I am both excited and scared about the upcoming half-marathon. I get nervous just writing about it. Despite the nerves, I am training better and smarter than any previous training regimen. I had to change the way I did things back in the spring when I was coming off an injury, and I about have it perfected now.

I’ll typically do maybe 3 short runs in a week, plus a long run. My short runs range from 5K to 4 miles or so. On these, I’ll deliberately run extra hills just to increase strength and stamina. My long runs are the variable, and they form the backbone of half-marathon training. My initial long run was supposed to be 5 miles, which would increase by a mile each time so that by the end of October, I’d be up to an 8-mile long run.

But my initial long run ended up being 10K. So I started out a week ahead. And my most recent long run, this past Monday (October 30), was 9.35 miles. So I’m still a week ahead. This way, my weekly miles increase only nominally, which I have to be careful about. (I’m still paranoid abut re-injuring myself, and still wear a compression sleeve around my right calf even now.)

So my long run next week, Lord willing, will be 10 miles, and then 11miles, and so on, until I work my way up to 13.1 miles on December 2. Every time I add a mile, it gets progressively more difficult. It’s one thing to add a mile to a 5-mile run. It’s quite another to do an extra mile after you’ve run 9 or 10 and you already want to stop. Indeed, this is the part of half-marathon training that isn’t very fun.

I’ve never run two half-marathons in a single year. I’ve always run just one. The thing about running a half-marathon is that you don’t just show up on race day and run without preparation. For me, it’s a two-month commitment. I have to train for these things. After each half-marathon, I go back to running mainly 5K’s. So I don’t stay in half-marathon shape year-round. Committing to two half-marathons in a year means I’ll spend one-third of the year training for half-marathons. And 3 months after the December 2 race, I’ll start training for the next one. I don’t think I’ll regret this, but I don’t know that I’ll make a habit of running two races per year, either.

After every goal is met, my confidence grows just a little. My long run on Monday took 1:25:20, which averages out to a 9:07 mile. If I were to maintain that pace for a full 13.1 miles, I’d finish the course a few seconds under two hours. My personal record for 13.1 miles is 2:13:34. I’m under no illusion that I can maintain a 9:07 mile for 13.1 miles. Every time I add to a long run, my pace slows, so by the time I run the actual race, I’ll average, at best, maybe a 9:30 mile. And I’d be perfectly happy with this.

Why training for a half-marathon beats watching the NFL

My next half-marathon is December 2 in Memphis. It will be my 5th half-marathon — my 2nd this year — but my first outside of Nashville. I always allow myself two months to train for a half-marathon, which means my training officially began yesterday. I ran just over 4 miles and tackled some unrelenting hills nearby. The objective was to increase physical strength and also endurance. I’ll go on longer runs later on that don’t involve so many hills, but I’m going to make my shorter runs as difficult as I can.

I’ve been running almost exclusively 5K’s since my last half-marathon on April 29. My monthly goal is always at least 50 miles. I was faithful to this goal all during the summer. But summer heat means shorter runs, and it takes quite a few 5K’s to add up to 50 miles. Now it’s turning cooler, so I can begin to lengthen my runs. You won’t be prepared for a half-marathon by just doing 5K’s.

Yesterday, I went to church, then came home and ran. I continued my recent tradition of completely ignoring the NFL. I have not missed “No Fans Left” since cutting it out of my life last year. There are some parts to half-marathon training that are not fun, but even the most demanding half-marathon training still beats the NFL without question.

Let me give a few examples:

  1. You can spend upwards of $100 on authentic NFL jersey. But why would you spend $100 just so you can wear some other dude’s name on your back when you can purchase a new pair of running shoes for less? I’ll get 350 miles (about 6 months) out of a good pair of running shoes. That’s money well spent.
  2. Let’s say you go to an NFL game with a friend or maybe your spouse. By the time you fight traffic, pay for parking, buy decent tickets, and eat overpriced concessions, you’ve dropped at least $300, not to mention having invested the better part of your day. Entry fees for the last 3 half-marathons I’ve registered for have totaled less than $300.
  3. Let’s say your team wins. Congratulations. What have you gained? Maybe you’re in it for the experience or camaraderie with the other fans. That’s great. And if that’s what you want to do with your time and money, then fine. But your joy is going to be fleeting. After all, you’re just piggybacking on someone else’s preparation and game day performance. You didn’t really do anything except make a little noise. Running a half-marathon (or any race of any length) belongs to the runner. He/she isn’t piggybacking on anyone else. If you’re a runner, then its your own preparation and your own race day performance that you get to celebrate.
  4. In the NFL, you’re paying to watch other athletes perform. In a half-marathon, you are the athlete. The spectators are cheering you and encouraging you. Granted, I’ve never performed at the elite level of an NFL player, I’m not earning millions of dollars, and no one’s asking for my autograph, but I’m also creating my own glory and authoring my own performance. Believe me, the joy and satisfaction I feel after finishing a race dwarfs any joy and satisfaction I’ve ever experienced after watching a professional team win.
  5. If I watch an NFL game either on TV or in person, I’m largely sedentary. I’m no better off after watching a game. I haven’t improved myself in any way. But running is all about self-improvement. The proof is in the satisfaction you feel after a training run, meeting a goal, or finishing an actual race.

Back-of-the-packer

Competitor Running is an online publication dedicated to runners that I susbscribe to. They often have articles that I find useful, and a few days ago they ran a piece entitled, “8 different types of runners that you will definitely encounter.” I figured I’d scroll through the piece to see what type of runner I classify as and was dismayed to discover that I’m a “back-of-the-packer.” I bristled at the slight. The description fits me perfectly, but in self-defense, I typically finish around the middle of my age group and not the back. I don’t fit any of the other categories. I’m not an ultra-runner, I don’t dress up in costumes or excessive running gear, I’m not a “do-gooder,” I don’t do obstacle courses, I don’t run Disney races, and I don’t try to work my running into every conversation. So that only leaves one category: back-of-the-packer. According to the article, “This group will forever hold a dear place in my heart long after my running shoes have been retired. I easily fall into this group, so I’m slightly biased. These guys are out there, rain or shine, pounding the pavement for the sheer satisfaction of finishing. Yes, we have our time goals too. But we don’t race for the glory of the win. We race for the love and zest of life it brings us.” Well, that’s me.

The heart of a runner

Today was my annual physical. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it’s a necessary evil. Every three years my doctor orders an EKG as part of my labs. Today was one of those years.

I always show up well before my appointment time in order to knock out my labs first. That way, once I see my doctor, I’m done. So as I was sitting in the waiting room between my labs and the actual visit with the doctor, I received a call from the technician who had done my EKG. She needed to see me.

I knew exactly what this was going to be about. She had already shown my doctor the results of my EKG. They were concerned about my low heart rate. It was 40 beats per minute. She relayed the message that my doctor wanted me to see a cardiologist for further testing. “I’m a runner,” I informed the technician. “I run half-marathons. My ‘at rest’ heart rate is always in the 40’s.” (Sometimes it’s even lower.) She told me to just talk to the doctor about it. In the meantime, she handed me a lab order I was to give the cardiologist when I made my appointment.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. The last time I got an EKG, the lab technician doing the test was a little concerned about my heart rate. It was something like 48 that time. Once when I went to the local walk-in clinic, I set off their low heart rate alarm when they were taking my blood pressure and pulse. So this is something I’m always prepared for.

At any rate, after sitting in the waiting room watching a small army of pharmaceutical reps take priority over the patients, I finally got in to see my doctor. I asked him about the EKG. I reminded him that I am a runner and that a heart rate of 40 is perfectly normal for me. “You know what,” he admitted, “I forgot that you’re a runner. I actually had you confused with another one of my patients who is overweight and doesn’t exercise at all.” He listened to my heart and lungs as part of the examination. “Slow and steady,” he remarked. “Don’t worry about that lab order. I’m not concerned.”

Make that two half-marathons in 2017

Several years ago, in November, 2012, to be exact, my wife & I attended our son’s high school cross-county banquet. We were seated with another couple and I got to talking to the dad about running. At the time, I was just a casual runner. My longest run up to then was something like 7 miles. He asked me if I had ever considered running a half-marathon. I told him something like, “That’s crazy. I could never run a half-marathon.”

I have since run 4 half-marathons (five if you count the one I did in practice).

After that brief exchange, I began to ponder the idea. How did I know I could never run a half-marathon? I had never trained for one, never even tried. Thus began an obsession. I set as a goal the St. Jude half-marathon in Memphis the following year (December, 2013). That would give me 13 months to prepare for my first half-marathon. I trained like crazy, and even ran a half-marathon in practice 12 days before the scheduled event. (I remember it as the Monday before Thanksgiving, 2013.)

And then the race was canceled due to an impending ice storm.

I transferred my registration to what was then the Country Music Marathon in Nashville the last Saturday in April, 2014. That became my first half-marathon. I’ve done every one since, a total of 4 now.

Since the half-marathon-that-wasn’t four years ago, I’ve wanted to run the Memphis course. I just never have followed through. After last year’s race in Nashville, I wanted no part of half-marathons for a while. For whatever reason, that race (2016) was harder on me than any of the others, and I was a bit emotional after it was over.

A few months ago, I went ahead and made a hotel reservation in downtown Memphis for the night of December 1, just in case. Sign-ups for the St. Jude race opened this morning at 10 a.m., and it will also fill up before the day is out, so I jumped on it right when registration opened.

If last year’s half-marathon was difficult, this year’s was nearly impossible. It happened to take place on what would end up being the hottest April day in Nashville’s history. My time was 22 minutes slower than last year’s, so if there were ever a time to be turned off half-marathons, it should have been this year. Instead, I found myself psyched over the idea of running the Memphis race on December 2, and so I resolved to do it. It might be a case of wanting redemption after Nashville’s sweat-fest. It might be age. I’ll be 48 by the time the Memphis race rolls around. I don’t know how many more years I’ll be able to run like this. Hopefully, I’ve got a few more half-marathons left in me. But as long as I am physically able, I might as well capitalize.

So, Lord willing, four years after what would have been my first time running the St. Jude half-marathon in Memphis, I’m finally going to do it.

The half-marathon training plan I will use from now on

A few days ago, I posted on the modified half-marathon training plan I had adopted this year in light of the fact that I was overcoming an injury and trying not to reaggravate it but also prepare myself to run a half-marathon. March and April have always been my primary training months, given that the half-marathon I run is always the last Saturday in April. Heretofore, my strategy has always been to run as much as I can as often as I can, average 20-22 miles a week for 8 weeks, and get in at least one run of 11+ miles leading up to race day.

Last year, I ran 189 miles in March and April, including the half-marathon. This year, that figure dropped to 115.3, a decrease of nearly 40%. I successfully ran a half-marathon three days ago after using this plan. It’s simple. My strategy was to run two or three 5K’s a week, plus a long run that increases each week until achieving at least one run of 11+ miles. Also, I was determined to avoid running back-to-back days. (I only violated this once.) So my plan was a lot more structured than before, and I stuck to it reasonably close. Here’s how it actually played out. (Distances are all in miles.)

March 4: 3.14
March 6: 3.14
March 8: 3.13
March 10: 3.12
March 13: 5.01
March 16: 3.15
March 19: 3.16
March 21: 6.22
March 23: 3.18
March 27: 7.07
March 29: 3.13
March 31: 8.02
April 6: 3.13
April 8: 3.12
April 10: 3.13
April 12: 11.02
April 14: 3.13
April 16: 3.13
April 18: 3.12
April 19: 3.15
April 21: 8.16
April 24: 3.13
April 26: 3.10
April 29: half-marathon
Total mileage: 115.3

And this is how I’m going to do it from here on out, at least for as long as it works. It’s far less strenuous (less injury risk) but also leaves me fully prepared to run a half-marathon.

Hottest run ever

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Today, I ran my 4th Nashville half-marathon in as many years. As expected, it was much warmer than is conducive for a long run. I’m talking off-the-charts warm, about 25 degrees warmer than I prefer. When I arrived at Nissan Stadium a little after 5 a.m., my car thermometer showed 77 degrees. When I left around 5 hours later, it was 84. The promised breeze never really materialized. The morning clouds did not stay around for very long. Mother Nature conspired to make the weather as un-runner-friendly as possible.

I’m not complaining. There was nothing I could do about the weather, and all the other runners were running in the same weather I was. In fact, I never heard a single other runner complain about the weather the entire time I was there. No one makes us show up to run half-marathons/marathons. It’s strictly voluntary. So I’m not complaining about any of this.

My previous three half-marathons, I’ve been able to run the entire distance without taking walking breaks. Sometimes it has been dicey, but I’ve always managed to keep running until the finish line. I knew going into this year’s run I was going to have to let go of that as a goal. I’ve never attempted a long run in weather anywhere near this warm, and I had to embrace walking breaks as a reality.

I was hoping to make it halfway through before resorting to walking. I took my first walking break at the 10K marker — almost halfway — and still managed to do more running than walking for about the next 4 miles. Everything changed after I passed the 10-mile marker, maybe 10.5 miles. I stopped sweating. I had been sweating profusely — I always do — and drank everything they offered at each water station (about every 1.5 miles). At one point, and I don’t remember exactly where I was, I reached up to run my hand across my head — I just got a haircut yesterday — and realized my forehead was dry.

Also at that point (between 10 and 11 miles), I started to grow concerned about the possibility of heat stress/exhaustion. I didn’t actually feel any of those symptoms, mind you, but while I was trying to prevent overheating that might lead to sickness (very embarrassing when that happens), I also trying to be mindful about other negative consequences.

So for the final 2.5 miles or so, I actually did more walking than running. I was not alone. The entire pack of runners I was in was forced to alternate walking/jogging at that point. We were all laboring, just trying to finish the race at all cost at that point.

My finishing time was 2:38:18, which was a little more than 22 minutes slower than last year’s time. Honestly, it’s about what I expected. I knew I wasn’t setting any sort of personal record today. It would have been foolish even to try.

Overall, I figure I ran maybe 10 miles out of the 13.1. I’m thankful I finished, because there was a long stretch of the run when I wondered, “How on earth am I ever going to finish?” Even though my time was off by a considerable amount, this one was special to me. Everything about today’s half-marathon was hard, going back to an injury I sustained 3 months ago, to the recovery, to the difficulty of today’s run.

I have to say that the race planners did everything they could to keep us cool. There were several “amenities” I’ve never seen before: water hoses spraying mist at every water station, cold, wet sponges around the 15K marker, and icy wet cloths after the finish line. Every little thing they did for helped in some way. It takes a lot of volunteers to be able to have a race of this magnitude, and the ones who clean up after us are the most awesome. There are literally tens of thousands of paper cups that have to be picked up, all those sponges, and it takes hours to stand there and pass out water/Gatorade to all the runners.

I honestly don’t know how anyone could run a marathon on a day like today. I say that about marathoners every year, because it is extremely difficult to run the “double half-marathon” even during ideal circumstances. The marathoners run with the half-marathoners for the first 11+ miles, and then the marathoners split off to take their own course. At the split, even though there were fewer marathoners than usual — I’m sure many of them switched to the half-marathon given the heat — the few I saw were walking/jogging just like us. I don’t know how a person can keep that up for so long because they still had 15 miles to go at that point.

I know it seems like self-inflicted punishment to run half-marathons. It has always been difficult for me, because 13.1 miles is right there at the edge of my limit. I’ve never been able to go farther. Yes, they are difficult, but I’ve never found myself wondering, “Why exactly am I doing this?” I do them because I really do love running, running 13.1 miles all at once is hard for me, and a person gets a true sense of accomplishment from doing things that are hard.