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A 26k run in the park ain't no walk in the park

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I had a feeling today's run would be tough. I wasn't psyching myself out or anything, but this run was a jump into new territory for me.

My previous record was 24k, on a beautiful Sunday morning back in mid-September. We headed out to a park I'd never visited before, enjoyed the scenery and conversation while testing out new gels and sucking back as much water as we needed. I was tired by the end, but had enough energy left over to push my running buddy to go one bridge further so we could clock a full 24k instead of the 23.5 we were at when we hit the end point. After, we headed over to the coffee and candy shop, ate orange creamsicle fudge and laughed over cappucinos.

Oh, September. You were so long ago.

That run was also in a different headspace. In the half marathon clinic I was taking, that was the pinnacle of our training. The 24k was the BIG one. All your mileage increases led to that, and stopping the watch at the end meant the beginning of tapering so that you could knock out the best 21k race possible. It was on that 24k that I decided I could, in fact, run a marathon someday.

Last week, I did 23k. It was good. Nice-ish weather for a fairly easy 11.5 out and back. Just a normal Sunday long run.

This week... Ouch.

I woke up all right, at least. I had everything ready to go, and was prepped for the weather, which had swung back down to a balmy -16. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was ice fog. Nothing but ice fog, across the entire cityscape. I grumbled and bundled up, layered, filled my bottles and headed out. I started my Garmin as I walked outside, only to hear it squawk at me. I'd forgotten to charge it, so I had a whole 18% of my battery left. Oops.

My belt tried to get to me first. Somehow, it had loosened up to the point where it was falling off my butt as I did my warm-up run to the store. I could have just stopped and adjusted it, but it was freaking cold and I wanted to keep moving. On the way over, I decided that I'd break today's run down into five 5k runs. 5k is a nice, manageable chunk of distance. Just knock five of those out, then a little bit more at the end for good measure.

The jump from 23 to 26 is weird. I think there's more of a mental jump than just an extra 3k. You're suddenly no longer in the low 20's distance - you're now approaching 30. I tried thinking of it in miles to see if that made it any better (today's was 16.4 miles, for what it's worth), but that made it worse because my brain automatically associates '16' with a nice little mid-length run. I obviously won't know until next week, but I think I'm going to have less trouble with the jump from 26-29 than I did from 23-26 (ask me if I still agree when I'm at the 27.5 k mark next Sunday).

The first 5k was pretty good. I was bouncy and alert, properly dressed (if you're not, you know it), and the wind wasn't too bad. The nozzles on my water bottles were a little frosty, but that had never been a huge problem. I was trying out a new gel flask instead of packets today, using a slightly thinner consistency of my fairly thick gel (I like hammer gel). I've been starting with small gel doses on every second walk break (basically every 20 minutes), and that seems to keep my energy pretty stable. Since this was my first time using the flask, I'd measured out three ounces of goo, figuring that would equal double the number of packets I usually take with me (more on that later).

The second 5k started to get a little rough. The wind picked up and blew tiny ice chunks right into our faces. Eyelashes (and beards for the gents) were coated in ice. Sunglasses just fogged up, so they didn't help. My shirt had come untucked when I was messing with my belt earlier and freezing wind started blowing up my jacket onto bare skin, which got that unpleasant burny feeling. I've had bad frostbite before - it's not a good thing. It took a couple tries, but I was able to get my clothing adjusted so I wasn't exposing myself (to the drivers on Memorial, you're welcome). My water bottles had frozen solid by this point. I didn't actually realize how bad they were until I got home - I figured that since I couldn't see the ice chunk floating in the bottle, it must just be the lid that was frozen. The reason I couldn't see a floating ice chunk is because my entire bottle was an ice chunk. I tried running with my mitt wrapped around the top of the bottle, hoping it would unfreeze enough for me to get a bit of water, but no go. It wasn't too bad - I was trying to get to it more because I knew I needed the water than actual thirst.

Around the start of my third 5k, we saw the first of our group turn back because of the weather. I wasn't actually feeling too bad at that point - The weather was annoying, but not the worst we'd seen (that would have been the full on blizzard for our 19k a couple weeks ago). My Garmin battery finally gave out at 10.8k, which meant I was on my own for pace and time from then on. Around 11k, we headed off in a direction I hadn't been before. Unfortunately, the scenery wasn't great (a heavy use road rather than the nice nature preserve in the other direction), so I had nothing to distract me. I was starting to really look forward to our turn-around point. There's just something about reaching half way (or, in our case, slightly beyond halfway since we added an extra loop at the beginning) that gives you a little extra push. It's like gravity is pulling you back home, even through the uphill areas. We hit 14.5k and headed back.

My feet were starting to hurt. My thinned-out gel was the consistency of sticky gummy candies (at least I could get the lid off the flask to get to it). My water was still frozen, but I was getting hydration every time I knocked the ice balls off of my lashes. Seriously. And I had to pee. Oh my God, I had to pee.

Woohoo, welcome to the mental wall! I've come up against slight mental blocks on tough runs before, but never like this. My body was doing all right. My feet knew that if they kept moving, eventually I'd let them crawl into some warm fuzzy socks and maybe a heating pad. I was putting one foot in front of the other, breathing all right, and I knew I'd get home. It was my brain that was fighting. I won't say that I wanted to quit or that I was regretting going out, but my mind was exhausted. I just wanted to be done. I stopped focusing on the remaining distance, my pace, the time, the weather - and just ran. 10 minutes on, one minute off, landmark to landmark. This was all familiar territory that I could knock out in my sleep.

With 6k left, we hit the washrooms. Not to get all TMI, but I'm usually pretty good about not needing to use the facilities on long runs. Today was an exception, and I think I gave Austin Powers a run for his money. It ended up being a good thing, because it gave me a minute to rest and warm up a tiny bit. I grabbed a good gulp of water from the fountain, and headed out to tackle the last 5k.

From that point on, it was just counting down the kilometers. We hit Crowchild, which is the turnaround point on the short runs. 3k left. 14th street bridge. 2k. My normal home turn off at 1k. I may have been talking to myself a little bit by this point, but there's no shame in that*. From my warm-up runs, I know that there are 33 lightposts on the path from my normal start point to the store. I counted those down, one at a time. Hit the finish. Walked in a circle. Swore. Walked in a circle the other direction. Swore some more (in a good way). Did one more circle, just in time for the rest of my small group to come running in. High fives, then hobble into warmth.

I wasn't the only one who struggled today. I heard a few people, including some who have a couple marathons under their belt, say that it was one of the hardest runs they've done. My old run leader used to call them character-building. Yeah, that's one way to put it.

I'm glad I went, and I'm glad I was able to do the full 26 (point-freaking-five, because I *felt* that last 500 meters). I learned a lot from this one.

On the practical side of things, I need to:

a) Wear two shirts, one tucked in to my pants, if it's going to be -16.

b) Figure out a solution for my water bottles so they don't freeze (I've heard a bit of salt or sugar helps - maybe try one water and one gatorade mix?)

c) Charge my stupid watch.

d) Be more aware of how much gel I'm taking in with the flask.

The last one surprised me. It looked like I'd put a ton of gel in the flask when I started. Three fluid ounces is just slightly more than three packages, which is about what I'd use on a three hour run. So far so good. Partly because I'm not used to portioning the gel myself, and partly because the cold made it really thick, I ended up... drinking? Eating? (It was kind of between the two) one ounce - or one package. Nowhere near enough for a run that ended up lasting almost three and a half hours. I like the idea of going with the flask instead of packets, but I need to make sure I'm still getting the right amount. I guess that's why they have those handy measurement markings on the flask, huh?

Oh, and:

e) If I have to pee at Edworthy the first time around, pee. It's a long loop back, and a full bladder makes those potholes on the road really uncomfortable.

Aside from a couple technical things to watch for the next time, I think this was a good exercise. As I was walking home, it hit me that I could very well be feeling this tired after 3.5 hours of running in the race. I've gone through mental strategies as much as I can, but until you're actually facing it it's hard to know how you'll get through it. What happens when I hit 35k, for example, and find that I just can't run for more than 50m at a time? The whole point of the long runs is to play around with things so that you can reduce the chance of that happening, but it's hard to know what's going to happen until the race itself. I know that, barring injury, I can do 42. I don't know what the last 10-15k of that is going to feel like. I do know that if I can do 50 meters, I can do another 50. And another. You get through it, and put one foot in front of the other until it's done.

And hey, between this and the last blizzard, I have some great mental fuel for that.

* My running mantra is "One foot, two foot, red foot, blue foot". Maybe there is a little shame in that.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Whoa! If conditions were such that my water bottle might freeze during the run, I don't know if I'd have the toughness for that -- way to go!! Love the mantra. :)
    1921 days ago
    Today was my first half. My mantra was "dead last, but NOT dead." Congratulations on completing such a tough run!
    1923 days ago
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