Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Race Report: Ice Cube Half Marathon (or "A Winter Warrior I Am Not")

Let me start this by saying first of all that I am so NOT a Winter Warrior. Despite that very-obvious-to-anybody-who-knows-me fact, I let myself be swept up by FOMO (fear of missing out) and some fairly decent bling (I am a sucker for handmade awards) and talked into running the Ice Cube Half Marathon in Mt. Pleasant, MI.  I know you are probably saying, “Yeah, I heard of that race. Wasn’t that a couple of weeks ago?” The answer is that yes it definitely was, but my fingers have just now sufficiently thawed out to be able to type this race report. Seriously, it was that bad.

Let me clarify just a bit. The race itself was not that bad, at least in theory. It has many things going for it. It is a small race, put on by an enthusiastic and committed race director. (If I am not mistaken, he actually makes all the awards himself!) It has a good course, not much traffic, some dirt roads, rolling hills. It has community support (post-race party in a pub, and free bagels and coffee post-race. There really is a lot to love. Except the weather.

The race is part of the Winter Warrior series. These are three races on the same course, one in January (Snowman), one in February (Ice Cube), and one in March (Mud Dog). I had been planning to do all three, but a tooth extraction made me miss the Snowman, but I let my friend Ruth talk me into the Ice Cube. Now keep in mind that I had not run outside probably since my last race. Okay, maybe I did once, but only because the temps got up to the 40s. I prefer to train in winter in the comfort of my basement where it is always a comfortable 68 degrees. I was in no way prepared for 13.1 miles of 19 degree temperatures and icy wind.

Race day came and things were looking good. I drove up to pick up Ruth and Sharon, traveling companions from the Kentucky Cross CountryChampionships, and a new friend Steve. The weather was in the mid-twenties and not too bad. We were optimistic. We headed north. It got colder. The temp on my dashboard was dipping down to 20, but I had lots of layers. No worries.

We got to the race a little early so decided to drive the course to check for ice. The pavement was dry and clear; things were looking good. Then we turned on to the dirt section of the course. There was a little ice… it didn’t look too bad really. Did it?  We drove a little farther: ice, lots more ice. We stopped and Ruth put a tentative foot out of the car. Hmmmm. But it would be okay, right? I mean there were some spots that looked clear where the car tracks were.

Sharon, by far the most sensible of all of us, decided that she was not going to risk it. She decided to step down to the 5k, which was all on the pavement and didn’t venture out onto the icy dirt. Steve, Ruth, and I decided to stick it out in the half. Ruth and I both really wanted a long run. I don’t know Steve well enough to know his thought process, but he was a veteran of the race and just smiled and said he was in too.

The start was just the kind of small race affair that I love, very informal. There was a pretty good crowd because there was a 5k and 10k, as well as the half, all starting together. I figured that the half field would not be too big, as I was sure that most people had enough sense to go the shorter distance. We were off, and I started off comfortably at the pace I had planned.

I had looked at the race results from previous years, as well as the results from the Snowman this year. It looked like if I ran this just slightly faster than my normal long run training pace, I could be in the awards. That pace would have won my age group in any of the previous races. I was a little worried that there seemed to be a lot of people in front of me, including many women. I had looked at the results, and there really should have not been that many women out ahead of me. I decided that they must be in the 5k or 10k and would probably be heading back soon. I was surprised when we hit the 5k turnaround not to see more people branching off.

We turned off the pavement onto the dirt ice road, and headed toward the 10k turnaround. I was still feeling okay. I had settled into pace and was holding steady, but slowed some because of the footing. It was icier than it had looked in the car. In fact, by about a mile into this section of the course, we started hitting sections where the road was all ice, except for maybe an eight to ten inch wide section. Sometimes this was on both sides of the road; other times, it was one narrow strip. We were spread out pretty good, and I was not in a position to pass anyone, but the running took 100% concentration for each footfall.  I had on my screw shoes, and I was not having problems slipping. They were biting really well, but I was haunted by stories of runners taking nasty falls lately on the ice. Caution was the order of the day.

As we passed the 10k turnaround, again I did not see that many runners turn around. It seems that most had chosen the half. There were still a lot of women ahead of me, and I got passed by a few. The course is kind of T-shaped, and as we made the turn-around at the left end of the T and started back, I started to be cold. I felt it in my face and legs first. My lips were numb, especially my upper lip from the frozen snot. My legs were feeling like I was running through syrup. I think that being all tensed up from running carefully on the ice, combined with the cold wind, and the fact that I definitely was not cold acclimated (yes, you acclimate to that just like you do heat) was just too much of a shock for my legs. I was cheered up a bit as I met Ruth and Steve after the turnaround, but that was short lived.

We made it out to the second turnaround part of the T. I was slowing some but still maintaining a satisfactory overall pace. It was really icy here. There was just one narrow strip in many spots, which made it kind of dodgy as the two-way traffic fought for position. There was a little relief from the wind, but when we made the turn to go down the straight part of the T the wind picked up. That is when the weird stuff started. I started to feel a little dizzy. As I was processing that, I realized I could not blink my eyes. I figured they were numb from the cold. “Can your eyeballs freeze?” I wondered. I would have asked a fellow runner, but I knew that if my eyes weren’t working, there was no way my lips were going to get that out.

I kept going. It was around mile 10.5 I think, and there was really no other alternative. I knew if I stopped, I would be even colder. Plus, the important thing at that moment seemed to be to get back to the finish, get my coupon for a free bagel and coffee, and get in as much as steaming hot coffee as I could hold. That is when things got worse. Suddenly my vision was blurry. I wanted to wipe my eyes with my glove. That is when I found that my gloves were frozen. They were those mitten-over-glove things, and I had spilled water on them at the last aid station. The mittens were frozen closed.

Now, besides the blurriness, I had little shapes, mostly triangles, sliding across my vision. I did not know what to do, so I kept running. I kind of felt if I could just get to the pavement, I would be fine. I could speed up and get this over with quicker. We made the turn onto the pavement. It changed the wind, or the wind died down, or something. I realized that I had blinked, and my vision was starting to clear.

I felt better about that, but my legs were screaming by then. This was the longest I had run since my last ultra, back in October. I so just wanted this whole thing to be over with. It felt like the last mile of the marathon from hell Antarctica (my personal version of hell) to me.

Finally, I stumbled across the line. I was feeling kind of disoriented, but knew that the key thing was to get the ticket for the bagel and coffee and get to the bagel shop to warm up before the post run chill set in. I grabbed my medal and the chit, and headed for the warm bagel shop. I did not pay much attention to my time, but did notice that my pace had dropped to an 8:52 overall, which I was still happy with, as that was the training pace that I would normally be running these longs at right now.

Once inside I got in line. It was warm. My face started to thaw out. The line was long. My fingers and toes started to thaw a little. Then I started to feel funny, maybe a little dizzy again. Yikes! It will be okay, I thought. I just need coffee and a muffin. There was no way I was getting out of that line. We moved a little. I started to feel kind of nauseous. I am two people from the front. “Come on,” I thought. “How long does it take to order your damn coffee?”  In retrospect, besides the nausea and dizziness, I may have been a bit cranky.

Finally I got to the front of the line and ordered. I was soooo nauseous by this time. I knew I had to get out of the line. I said to the girl, who had decided at that moment to do something to rearrange her cash drawer, “How much longer do you think this is going to take because I think I am going to be sick.” She took a quick look at my face, shoved the coffee cup and change into my hand, and I sprinted off to the ladies’ room, which was mercifully empty. After a few minutes of being sick, I felt better but was starting to get chilled. Back out I went for the hot coffee. It was ambrosia.

I looked around the coffee shop for Sharon. She wasn’t there so I headed back to the car. She was there and had run a great race. Soon Ruth and Steve came back, both as chipper as could be. It seemed that I was the only one of our group who had suffered. We went inside for the awards. I was sure I had not won my age group, but I was hoping it had been good enough for 2nd. I really wanted one of those little Ice Cube figurines. Unfortunately it was not meant to be. Some speedy 50+ women from cold places like Marquette were in the race. I ended up with third, and no Ice Cube (I am still pouting over that). Of course, Ruth and Sharon both picked up 1st in their age division. I run around with some fast women. J

I would like to say that I recovered quickly from the race, but that would not be true. In fact, it was several days before I even wanted to try running. It has been two weeks, and my legs still don’t feel quite right. As much as I want one of the cute little Snowmen or Ice Cube awards, I am not sure if I will go back. Okay, maybe I will -- but only for a 5k or 10k. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Guest Post: Hoofing It for Your Health

I was recently contacted by the folks at asking if they could contribute a guest post on the blog. They are a site dedicated to providing health information to the public, with a wide variety of health related topics and articles. I agreed and requested that the topic be running-related. Here is the post. It outlines some of the health benefits of running and some of the illnesses that it can help manage or prevent (a little extra motivation to get out the door on these chilly winter days). I hope  you enjoy it. 

Athletes, pro and amateur alike, have been touting the benefits of running since the days of ancient Greece. It's good for your body, it's good for your appearance, it's good for your mental health. With a few exceptions, there aren't many areas where running isn't good for you.

But not many people understand just how good it can be. Running isn't just a general health elixir or restorative. It doesn't just strengthen the heart and expand lung capacity. It also fights off some rather serious diseases, and quite effectively at that. Indeed, it's often so effective that many doctors now push it harder than medication.

There are, of course, some people who shouldn't run. They include people who are sick, asthmatics who have had recent flare-ups, people with recent concussions, people who are tired, people who experience sharp pain when they run, people with back pain, and pregnant women who don't already have regular running routines.

But the number of people excluded from running as a healthy exercise continues to shrink. Thirty years ago, those over the age of 50 were discouraged. Now, as long as they're otherwise healthy, people are routinely running well into old age, and showing all the health benefits that go along with it. Here are a few of the illnesses that running helps to combat.

1. Depression

Exercise is one of the most commonly prescribed treatments for almost all mental illnesses, but especially clinical depression. Running helps for a number of reasons. First, it releases endorphins and other pleasure-inducing chemicals in the brain; this is the cause of the well-documented "runner's high" that keeps so many athletes coming back. And any type of exercise tends to boost self esteem and self confidence, two of the key problems with many depressed patients. But running may also provide a psychological benefit, giving those with depression a period of stress-free meditation that is otherwise difficult to find.

2. Diabetes

Running prevents many cases of diabetes and helps diabetics 
manage their diseases better. There are two types of diabetes. The first, type one, results from a lack of functioning insulin in the body. As a result, glucose can't properly enter the body's cells to provide fuel and instead piles up in the bloodstream, leading to dangerously high blood sugar levels. The second, type two, occurs when the cells in the body develop a resistance to insulin, leading to the same problem. There is as yet no known single cause for type one, but type two is often caused in part by obesity and poor health. Regular running, along with a balanced diet, can greatly reduce the risk of type two diabetes. And those who already have either type typically find it much easier to manage with a regular exercise routine of any sort.

3. Cancer

Running is helpful in preventing many types of cancer, from breast cancer to colon cancer. Concerns have been raised over the years that running itself might contribute to cancer risks, but the science has never backed it up (aside from a link between marathoners and skin cancer that may simply be due to their frequent exposure to sunlight). Numerous studies in recent years show running is associated with a moderately lower risk of developing cancer.  It can also be helpful to those who have already developed cancer: In one study of women with breast cancer, the most physically active had a 26 to 40 percent lower risk of recurrence or of cancer-related death.

4. Run to Your Heart's Content

Every now and again there's a cry and hue when a runner dies of a heart attack, usually during or after a marathon. People with active heart problems are cautioned from rigorous exercise, and it's always wise to confer with your doctor before starting something new. But the empirical reality is that running saves far more hearts than it hurts. You may be at a slightly greater risk of a heart attack during a marathon, statistically speaking, but only barely, and the long-term benefit to your heart more than outweighs it.

Running is one of the most popular exercises. It's also one of the most healthy, far and away. It's great for your heart, it helps fend off cancer, it helps prevent diabetes and it's a proven treatment for mental illness. And those are just a few of its many benefits. If you're looking for a new exercise routine, you can't go wrong with running.

Valerie Johnston is a health and fitness writer located in East Texas. With ambitions of one day running a marathon, writing for ensures she keeps up-to-date on all of the latest health and fitness news.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Race Report: USATF National Cross Country Championships Masters Women’s 6k

Ellen, Donna, Ruth, and me ready to race!
(Photo courtesy of Mitch of the Ann Arbor Track Club)

This past weekend I had another great opportunity to run with the Playmaker’s Elite/New Balance Master Women's Racing Team at the National Cross Country Championships in St. Louis. I was accepted to the team this past September, but have been in a pretty sorry state since joining running-wise, with medical problems severely limiting my ability to train. I attended my first and second cross country events, including the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships, which I wrote about in an earlier post, with very spotty training, and my times definitely reflected that.  I was looking forward to this race as a chance to redeem myself somewhat (although I am still in the early stages of rebuilding my fitness).

This race was the start of the USATF Masters Club Grand Prix Series so was the first team event of the year. These are a series of events which include team races in the various 10 year age groups.  Unfortunately, not enough 50+ women were available for the weekend for this race, so I was running as a solo runner. However,  I was traveling with the 60+ team, who are an amazing group of runners and who are defending national champions in their division in the series!

We headed out early Friday morning in the cold, snow, and ice here in Michigan, but as we headed south, although it was still cold, the roads cleared. By the time we got to St. Louis, there was no snow on the ground. We drove to the course in St. Louis’ Forest Park, which is a huge park filled with museums, sports fields, theaters, and other recreation areas.   It was easy to spot the cross country course because many of the teams were out running on it. We took a quick look but did not have time to run it ourselves because we needed to get checked in at the hotel and ready for the pasta dinner and movie that evening.

Not running related, but one of the cool sculptures/statues in Forest Park
We were staying at the Sheraton about 10 minutes from the course. It was not the host hotel, which was the Crowne Plaza, but was just around the corner from it. We checked in to our beautiful room with a great view of the city, including the Arch, and then headed over to packet pick-up at the Crowne Plaza. That went smoothly, and we got ready for the pasta dinner and showing of the movie The Long GreenLinewhich is about the legendary cross country coach Joe Newton and his team from York High School in Illinois. I will cover that in more detail in another post. I will just say here that it was a wonderfully motivating experience that put us in the right frame of mind for the race the following morning.

Our race on Saturday morning was at 9:15 am. There was a 4k community race before ours, the master’s men after, then high school and junior races, and the men’s and women’s Open divisions following that. There was quite a crowd for the open race because it was a selection race for the national teams. Several elite athletes were there for the race, including Deena Kastor and Shalane Flanagan on the women’s side and Dathan Ritzenhein and Matt Tegenkamp  on the men’s side.

We arrived at Forest Park. It was a chilly morning, so we were relieved to find that just as promised there were ample warming tents for athletes to be able to get out of the cold. The community 4k race was just starting, so we got a chance to get a look at the flow of the course by watching the runners make the circuits. I was delighted to find that the course included a very long section of downhill that was covered on each loop. Of course, on a loop, what goes down, must come up. We had seen the uphill side of the course when we parked. It was also a fairly gradual uphill with a few steeper climbs mixed in. I felt the course suited my strengths pretty well and was optimistic.   

Course Map (We did 3 loops)

As I mentioned, the course is a series of loops around the park. The 6k, which is what the master’s women run, was three loops of the course. There was not much chance of getting lost on the course, as it was all open and extremely well marked (partially because one of our runners had made a wrong turn the year before on one of the loops). The race director had really taken care that the course was well staffed this year and that there would be no chance of a mistake.  Even so, we decided to take a warm-up jog over to look at the turn we needed to make on the second loop of the course.  It revealed an even steeper downhill than the other two loops, something that I filed away in the back of my mind as another positive of the course for me.

We spent the rest of the pre-race time talking to some of the other women. We ran into Terry and Sara from Lexington whom we had met at the pasta dinner, and also ran into some of the master’s men from the Ann Arbor Track Club who were also down for the men’s event.  We picked up our box assignments and were ready to go.  As we approached the starting line, I had two goals for the race: run a smart and evenly-paced race and improve my time over the poor performance in December.

We lined up at the start. This race was much smaller than the Club Championships, with only about 30 women (rather than the 90 in the Club Championships). I promised myself that I would not go out too fast as I had in December, so when the gun went off, I held back the best I could.  In these races, I am still at the very back of the pack, and it is so hard not to want to try to run further up where I would normally be in a typical local road race.  I was more prepared for this than I had been in December, though, and was able to hold myself back. I had planned to go out at about 8:20 pace and was pleased to see, as I went around the corner and started the long downhill that I was at about an 8:10 pace. I hit the first half mile split at about a 7:52 pace, but I was okay with that because I felt very comfortable and knew that the downhill had helped push the pace up a bit. I was pretty sure I was not out too fast, but time would tell.

As we were making the first circuit, the men from the AnnArbor Track Club were just fantastic. They were running back and forth on the course to meet us at various sections and cheer us on.  They did not know my name, but they would cheer for me “Go, Playmakers!” and I could hear them cheering for Ruth by name, as she was running close behind me. It was so great to have their encouragement out there! (Thanks, guys, if any of you are reading this!)   

We made a left turn at the bottom of the long downhill portion and began the uphill side of the course. I settled in and adjusted the pace down to closer to the 8:20 that I was hoping for.  I was pleasantly surprised at how well I was handling the uphill. I have been doing regular hill training since the last meet (where to my extreme mortification, I had had to walk on the uphill section in front of a gaggle of spectators – I was anxious not to repeat that performance. There is nothing like fear of humiliation to keep the motivation level high for training).  As I completed the steepest of the uphills and the first circuit of the course, I was feeling great. My pace was faster than expected, an 8:04 for the uphill section of the course, but I was sure that I was not out too fast. Even so, I pulled back just a bit on the start of the downhill to recover some from the uphill section.

By this time the runners had sorted themselves out. For the last half mile or so I had found myself running behind one woman who was in the 55-59 age group, with a few more women in sight ahead of her. (In the USATF races, we wear our race number on the front and a bib with our age on our backs.) As we made the second loop of the course we came to the turn with the steep downhill. Suddenly the 55-59 women put on a surge. She was hauling down the downhill, intent on passing the women ahead. I thought, "I need to go now too. This downhill is my chance." I surged after her, passing two other women in the process (my first passes in one of these races – in December almost the entire field passed me). 

We settled into the next circuit of the uphill section.  I am used to being passed, or at least dropped, in uphill sections of races. My goal was just to sit off her shoulder and recover from the surge, but I really expected her to run away from me. I settled in about three or four stride lengths behind her. As we hit the first and smaller of the true hills on the course, I noticed that I was suddenly right on her shoulder. “Damn, “ I thought, “I think I can pass her!” So I did.  I was elated, not because she was in my age group or that the place really mattered, but because I had actually passed someone on an uphill and late in the race. Buoyed by that I looked ahead and saw that I was closing on another woman. It was Ruth’s nemesis for the race, the other woman in the 65-69 age group. By this time we were on the steepest part of the course, and I did the unthinkable (at least for me). I sped up. I went by her. In my mind, I thought, “This is for Ruth!” 

I hit the long downhill section for the final time and tried to relax and recover some. I snuck a peak down at my watch and saw that my overall pace was 8:05. I was still way ahead of my goal pace. One neat feature of this course was that runners could hear the announcer from everywhere on the course. About this time, he was announcing that the winners were coming into the finish.   That gave me hope. It would be over soon.  I checked my watch.  I was at about the 3 mile mark – less than a mile to go!  

 As we turned onto the uphill section of the course, I did not dare to look back. I was sure that those women that I passed were probably right behind and waiting to pounce. These fears were amplified because I could hear the cheers from the crowd calling another runner by name. I knew she must be close. It was starting to hurt at this point. My legs buckled a few times as we started the uphill, and my breathing started to get a bit restricted, which is a sign that I am tensing up. “Come on,” I told myself, “this is just like those .5 mile hill repeats you did last week. You can do this!”

As I got to the steepest section of the uphill, I had to resist the devil on my shoulder. He was whispering in my ear “You know, you are way ahead of your time goal. You could slow down some. It might be good to walk this hill. It won’t matter.” I told him to shut up and picked up the pace. I could see the finishing chute. It was a long one, probably about 100 yards.   I was terrified that one of those women who were stalking me was going to pass in the chute.  I was wheezing by then, but I dug deep for a finishing kick. As I got close enough to see the clock, I saw that it was under 30 minutes, but just barely.  I saw 29:50 click over! I desperately wanted to be under 30:00. It was going to be so close! I sprinted as fast as I could, but it was not meant to be. I went across the line in 30:02.  Still, I was elated. It was a 3 minute, exactly, PR over the race in December.

I knew that Ruth and the other two runners, Donna and Ellen, would be not too far behind, so I turned around and ran up along the spectator area at the finishing chute to cheer them in. Sure enough, there came Ruth. I could also see Donna and Ellen coming around on the uphill section. Our wonderful Playmakers/New Balance singlets are such a unique and beautiful color that you can spot our runners easily on the course. I cheered them all in. Everyone had great times.

After finding all of our gear, we hung around for a while, waiting for awards and returning the favor by cheering for the Ann Arbor TrackClub men in the men’s race. Just as they were finishing up, the announcer was calling us to the stand for the women’s awards. We dashed back to the awards podium. As I said, our team is a force to be reckoned with in the over 60 age groups. Donna and Ellen both took first in their respective age groups, Ruth got second in hers. The 60+ team won the team competition! I was honored to be in the company of such amazing runners. The awards were presented by 3 time Olympian and 2 time World Cross Country Champion Craig Virgin.

The 60+ Women's Champions and Craig Virgin

It was fun to play photographer while my teammates picked up their awards. At that point, we had a huge decision to make. We all wanted to stay and watch the open races, but there was still two more hours before the first one even started. We had a nine hour drive back to Lansing, and there were reports of snow in Michigan. We decided that staying for the open races would not get us back until around midnight, so we opted to leave. We were sad to miss what were some amazing races, but “you gotta do what you gotta do.”  I also wanted to say that the race director and the Big River Running Club did an excellent job of putting on a wonderful event.

Despite my improved performance, I was nowhere near the awards. I came in 6 out of 7 in my age group. However, I was delighted to find that I had moved from the bottom 15% of overall finishers to the bottom 33%, a definite improvement. I was delighted, though, to have met my goals for the race. I had run a very smart, evenly-paced race and had a 3 minute PR on top of that. I am still nowhere near where I want to be or even nowhere near where I used to be, but it is progress, and I am pleased. I guess for some reason the running gods are still smiling on me. I will enjoy it while I can. 

I would just like to end this by thanking Playmakers and NewBalance for sponsoring us and for giving me the opportunity to run with such amazing women at races of this caliber. I am honored to be on the team, and I know I speak for all of us in being thankful for their support. 

Related Posts: