Running a Fast Mile

Can’t see the video? Click through to the post.

I’ve never been a particularly fast runner and even after training for and completing a marathon, I’m still pretty slow. So my March Fitness Challenge is a single mile.

A mile is 1609 meters, about 30 feet more than 4 laps around a standard track, which is 400m on the inside lane. I did my test run on March 1st and surprised myself by running it in 6m 50s. My friend Jason Evanish, who ran cross country  in high school and ran something like a 4:45 mile, gave me me some tips on training for a fast mile. Maybe not revolutionary stuff, but as someone used to training shorter distances, it was helpful:

  • Intervals workouts: run 1 laps at the track at your goal pace (mine is 6min, so slightly under 1:30 for the single lap). Repeat 4-8 times, with a few minutes of rest in between. Last one should really hurt. Once or twice a week.
  • Longer runs: 4-5 mile runs, don’t worry as much about time, just get some endurance in
  • Fartleks: Swedish for “speed play”, this is something inbetween intervals and long runs, a mix of easy running, with bursts of faster pace interspersed. I’ve read a lot about these and need to actually try doing them
  • Swinging arms: it’s important to swing your arms straight forward and not cross your arms across your body, which wastes energy. Also, swing your arms back hard enough that your hands meet your hips. This opens up your chest so you can breathe better.

I’ve been trying to follow his advice and also modifying my workout routine a bit: doing heavy lifting only one time a week, down from two (which helped for improving handstand pushups) and doing moderate biking on the days I don’t run or do track workouts.

The month is already over half over so we’ll see how it goes. I’m hoping to crack a 6 minute mile. Let me know if you have any other tips or advice for me in the comments.

Lap one of four

Edit – Final Mile Time

So I finished my mile challenge with about a 20 second drop, from 6:50 to 6:30. I was hoping to drop it further, to the low 6 minutes and perhaps even break into 5, but it was not going to happen.

The day was a little cool and I wasn’t feeling my best, but you just gotta make the most of testing day. Was definitely wiped at the end. My friend Jason tells me a 20 second drop is pretty good for a month, probably because when you’re training a ton like he was, you didn’t see drops that big, that quick.

Anyway, here it is!

What It Feels Like to Hit the Wall

“Hitting the wall” or “Bonking” is a term used by runners and bikers to describe glycogen depletion which leads to sudden fatigue and energy loss. In all my running, I had never experienced it – until recently.

Photo Credit: sebastien.barre

I was looking forward to the November trail race my girlfriend and I had signed up for at the China Camp Basin (she’d do a 10k and I’d do the half marathon).

Unfortunately, we suffered a brain fart and went there on Sunday rather than Saturday and missed the race. Whoops. It wasn’t all bad as we hiked the trail together for 2 hours instead and went oyster shucking at Point Reyes afterward.

Still, I was annoyed at missing the race. I had been looking forward to pushing myself, so I decided to run a fast 13 miles on my own instead. And that’s when I learned what it’s really like to hit the wall.

Getting to Empty

I went on my usual route that followed the Embarcadero along the water all the way to the Marina (the top of San Francisco) and back. I wasn’t feeling super rested that morning, but I was able to maintain around a 9:30-10min/mi pace which is faster than my usual long run, but slower than previous race paces.

I started getting hungry 40 minutes in but waited until the half way mark, 6.5 miles, to eat my one energy gel. As I headed back, I felt myself getting tired, but I really kept pushing hard.

“This is a race! Go all out and finish exhausted!” I told myself.

This pep talk got me through miles 7-11 but at mile 12 I started feeling really tired and hungry. I was frustrated but slowed, recognizing that I still had 2 miles to go.

The Bonk

That 12th mile took forever. I had my eyes closed for most of it (very bad idea, don’t do this) because I was so uncomfortable and just wanted to zone out completely.

When I finally made it to mile 13, I was basically shuffling. I didn’t want to walk because I knew if I did, I wouldn’t want to start up again. I was starving and it felt like the air had become thick and resisting my motions. Every step was a struggle.

Finally around 12.5 miles, I literally collapsed on my hands and knees. I couldn’t go any further. I walked the last .5 miles, just about finishing 13 miles (without the extra .1)

See my Runkeeper activity for this run.

When I got home, I stuffed my face with snacks and microwave meals (I know, the food of champions). It took a few hours of food, drink, shower and rest before I really felt myself again.

What It Means, Physiologically, to Hit the Wall

There’s a lot more science than I can touch on here but basically it appears I ran out of glycogen, which breaks down into glucose and is one of the primary forms of energy in the human body (the other is burning fat).

The more intense your activity, the more glycogen you use (compared to fat). During most long runs, I maintained a 11 min/mi pace, which is much easier on the body. During races, I would typically carbo-load, stuffing extra glycogen into my liver and muscles, and have several energy gels or drink lots of gatorade during the run.

Because I was running hard and didn’t replenish my energy sources fast enough, I ran down to nothing and crashed. Your brain uses a lot of glycogen too which might explain why I wanted to close my eyes – your mind starts working poorly when you’re low on energy, just like your muscles.

Additional Resources

I’m glad I had a chance to experience “the wall” but I don’t ever plan on doing it again. I found some resources on glycogen depletion that you might find useful as well.

Have you ever hit the wall? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!

 

 

 

My SF Marathon 2012 Race Recap

So you might be wondering why you haven’t seen a post on my SF Marathon. Well, it’s in part because it was a rough race and didn’t go as well as I expected. In addition to that, when I was relaying this story to my friend Derek (the one I interviewed recently) he encouraged me to share the honest truth with the folks over at Greatist.

So I wrote something that appeared last week in Greatist’s weekend edition, but I wanted to share it directly with my blog readers here. I think down the road, I’d like to do a piece on “things I’ve learned so far about running” but let’s start with this race recap.

What I Learned from My First (Blunder-Filled) Marathon

After many months of training, I ran my first marathon this summer. It was agonizingly hard, and I made a lot of mistakes both in training and in the race — but I made it to the finish line. Did it change my life? No. Did it make me a better runner? Yes. Was it worth the hurt? Definitely.

This is how I prepared for and completed that 26.2 mile race. Hopefully my experience and mistakes can help your own journey to completing that first marathon.

Deciding to Run

After graduating from college and finishing an NCAA career in men’s gymnastics, I spent a few unsatisfying years lifting weights to stay in shape. On a whim, I tried running in a pair of Vibram Five-Fingers (those minimalist shoes) and loved how they felt. I hated doing any kind of running as a gymnast, and despite a major knee injury requiring numerous surgeries, the minimal footwear made running fun and basically pain-free.

My competitive career as a runner began in July 2011 when I ran in the San Francisco Marathon’s 5k. The adrenaline rush from that first 5k was thrilling and got me rehooked on being a competitive athlete. In the months following, I ran more 5ks, a few 10ks, and even some half marathons.

Around the winter holidays, I thought to myself, “It’d be pretty awesome if I came back to next year’s SF Marathon and did the full distance. Seven months should be plenty of time to train.” For whatever reason, I felt that finishing a marathon would officially make me a “real” runner. And before I knew it, I had an SF Marathon registration email sitting in my inbox, and there was no going back.

SF Marathon 2012 Race Course

Training for the Race

The marathon distance was daunting, but I knew from my years as a gymnast that with the right training, the seemingly impossible becomes possible. I looked at several well-known marathon training plans, but they generally required running 5 or more times a week, and I wanted a plan with lower mileage to protect my knee. I ultimately turned to running blogger/coach Jason Fitzgerald to devise a custom plan for me.

I ran about three times a week: One easy run, one longer run with a few miles at a faster “tempo” pace, and a slow long run on the weekend. I lifted weights, used the elliptical or performed body-weight exercises on two other days, and rested the other two days. Continue reading…

Long Runs, Tapering and Final Marathon Prep

I’m running the San Francisco Marathon this Sunday.

It sounds so oddly nonchalant as a weekend activity – like I’ve decided to watch a movie or have brunch with a friend. When I hear the words come out, it sometimes feels like someone else is saying them.

I’ve known this day was coming for a while, but it’s still surreal to have it finally be here.

Long Runs

The last few weeks of training since the Lake Chabot Half Marathon have gone pretty well. I followed the PR Race Plan Jason Fitzgerald of Strength Running put together for me and it’s been great. Building up the distance beyond the half marathons has been hard – especially early on, the last few miles of every run were really tough on my feet.

Over time, I’ve come to enjoy these 2+, 3+ hour runs and completing them have helped me gain confidence in my ability to finish. Here are my last few weekend long runs (with links to Runkeeper):

I was pretty bummed to miss the 20 miler. After having a tough long run in New York and splitting up the distance in the next run, I was looking forward to testing myself in my final big long run. Unfortunately, I started feeling pretty crappy starting Friday morning (aches, weakness) that I knew trying to push myself that weekend would have been foolish.

Tapering and Final Prep

It feels weird to run so little after running so much, but the two week taper is an important part of my training plan. I realized the marathon actually starts around 5:42 am for me, which means I need to get up around 4:30am. Since I normally sleep around 1am, I’ve been sleeping earlier and earlier to prepare my body for this early morning race.

I also got some last minute gear for the race:

  • a Camelbak water bottle with a handle so I can just palm it
  • Gu gels to keep me fueled up during the run
  • a sweatband to keep my eyes stinging over ~4 hours
  • new injinji socks to keep my feet blister-free

The most important preparation left is all mental. I have a good friend and former teammate who was planning to pace me for the 2nd half of the race, but I just got a call from him saying he might have broken his elbow in a biking accident so who knows.

Either way, I know that my mental game has to be totally on point for this race to be a success. I want to break 4 hours, which means running 9:09 mins/mi for 26.2 miles straight, having never run more than 16 miles in one go.

Intellectually I understand that most first-time marathoners never run the full distance before the race, and that their long runs are slower than race pace, but the gymnast in me, which is used to practicing something tons of times before competing, is a little thrown off.

Still, I have to trust that my training has put me in a good place. My feet getting hot/sore on long runs no longer seems to be a limiting factor and the SF hills are no longer intimidating after 3 races and a collective 33 miles run on far hillier trails.

All that’s left to do is to run my race. And I plan to do exactly that. Wish me the best and I’ll do a full recap after the marathon!

Photo Credit: HalfMarathons.net

A Chance to Start Unknown and Finish Unforgettable [quote]

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I run because I can. Because when I do, there’s always the chance to be extraordinary. A chance to start unknown and to finish unforgettable. A chance to overcome all obstacles, to fight through pain and suffering to test your emotional limits and boundaries, to experiment with the potential of the human body and discover just how far you can push yourself.

Laura Weisberger – 16 year old cross country and track runner in her Running Times article “That’s Why I Run

Photo credit: Gustavo Minas