My First Marathon!

My marathon plans took a slight detour on Wednesday when I received a phone call from my Running Room coach, to the effect that a CBC Toronto reporter wanted to run the marathon with a first-timer, and would I be interested?

I thought about it for about 5 minutes, and weighed the pros and cons. On the downside, the experience would be less personal, and I’d spend much energy talking. But then I was already planning to spend energy waving at the 15 people who came out to cheer me at 12 spots on the route, so what’s a bit more energy?

After dealing with some serious taper madness (see earlier posts), Sunday finally arrived! Other than a small frog in my throat, I felt pretty great.

But with the reporter and the family and the fact I actually wanted to enjoy my birthday (not to mention the frog) came a slight goal modification. I was going to go all out for a 4 hour time, but I wouldn’t be crushed if I didn’t make it. I didn’t want to risk having a terrible time or not finishing. (And did I mention it was windy, rainy, and miserable?!)

So I went out slowly, and made pretty much the only strategic move that I’d have done differently if I had to do it over: I held myself back at the beginning, and again in the middle miles where I felt really great and could have pushed it again. I didn’t want to run out of energy!

At Mile 17, the distance started to play with my head, particularly since we weren’t even halfway done the 17 km stretch along the lake (where it was even windier and rainier). I started wondering if I was capable of finishing in a good time. But after a few minutes, I bore down and continued, due in part to some serious providence (finding a goo distributor just after I lost all of my goo packets).

By Mile 21, I was feeling like I’d conquered the wall and all was good. Then, in Miles 22 and 23, the frog started to make an appearance again. I was still on pace for 4 hours as late as the 23rd mile; but it started to slip away in Mile 24, only to lead to a 2 minute (!) time loss in Mile 25. I recovered a bit in Mile 26 and the finish (losing about 1 minute and 40 seconds over the last 1.5 miles), but the damage was done, and I came in at 4:05:16.

But when I looked at people’s split times, I noticed something interesting. Most people had a dramatic decline in the second half due to fatigue and the weather conditions. I, on the other hand, ran a relatively even split (2:01:10 and 2:04:06), despite a terrible last few miles. What that means is that a) my finish is a lot stronger than I think; and b) my start could probably be a bit faster. Since those two concepts are in some tension, if I do one of these things again, it will be interesting to see how it goes!

But the time wasn’t exactly the point. The $4301 raised for the Red Cross; the incredible support from friends in Ontario, Vancouver, Tennessee, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco (along with friends and family throughout the continent and the world); the 15 family members and friends who came out and cheered in brutal windy and rainy conditions; the parties afterwards; the guys and office workers who congratulated me afterwards; and the fact that I went all out to finish something even though it wasn’t my best day or the best weather, and I did it!

I’ll have more thoughts in the coming weeks, but for those who have made it this far, here’s the piece that ran on local CBC Radio this morning (just 6 minutes, and it’s about ME)!

Thanks for reading and your support!

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Taper Madness

I made a reference earlier to taper madness, and I can say one thing: I’m so glad that I spent most of the first week of the taper in Vancouver and was busy at work last week. This taper is kind of driving me nuts, but in a good way. I’m happy and full of energy, and want Sunday to come!

A taper is, in short, what it sounds like: 2 to 4 weeks at the end of your training when you consistently cut down your mileage. You generally reduce length, but not intensity, each week. The idea is to allow your muscles to recover from months of training, but not to completely relax and get rusty. And given that I’ve also spent the past months strength training my back and glutes (in particular) and haven’t want to lose those gains, I’ve been reducing my strength training without eliminating it. So, it’s a bit of a balancing act (like the whole training program has been so far).

From looking at the Internet (yeah, I know), and talking to other runners, there are a whole variety of symptoms: soreness (from the healing muscles), irritability, insomnia, a desire to keep pushing harder, anxiousness, obsessiveness about mental/health state, among other things.

The only real issues I’ve had are recent muscle soreness (in the back and glutes) and a heck of a lot of extra energy. I’m desperately trying to keep myself from going out for a really long run (I’m going to try going for 5K tonight just to keep myself same)! Instead, I’ve tried to channel my energy positively through other things like darts and social events, while getting enough sleep every night.

I will admit, I have felt like a kid waiting for Christmas over the past few days (only 2 days and 17 hours to go, not like I’m counting) but I’m hoping that will dissipate as I get closer.

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On Personal Training

Having lived in California for a long time (and Los Angeles in particular), I am, to be charitable, ambivalent about personal trainers. I think a lot of personal trainers are just going through the motions at best, or trying to ensure you remain dependent on them at worst.

But as the fall and winter approached, I felt like I was caught in a rut – I was doing almost exclusively running, with some other cardio, and some use of weight machines. But I didn’t feel like my fitness level was really improving. And really, who wants to run 26.2 miles if they’re out of shape, even just a little?

My brother, who’s a cynic, went to see a trainer at his gym and said she really seemed to know what she was doing. So, I decided to give it a try.

I have to say: if you have a good trainer, like I do, who seems to know your physiology and strengths and weaknesses (for instance, due to being hunched over all day, I had weak mid-back muscles; and my gluteal muscles were doing no work whatsoever), it can make a big difference. When I ran a half marathon even three months ago, my quadriceps and hamstrings were doing almost all of the work, and would be strained the next day.

Now, after my longest run so far (23.2 miles), I barely felt it on my quadriceps or hamstrings. My gluteals certainly felt it, but it was likely due to a combination of doing significant strength training while expanding my mileage base. And my running form changed significantly, too:  my newfound back strength enabled me to run upright, rather than leaning/crunched over (which not only strains your shoulders and legs, but constricts your air sources)! This helped tremendously with speed and efficiency.

And during the whole training period, I’ve never even come close to suffering an injury. *knocks on wood* Sure, I was stiff at the end of my really long runs, but it’s almost the same as I felt while running the 10 mile-ish distance last year. And my recovery time was a lot shorter, even though the distances were longer.

A lot of women are concerned that they’ll “bulk up” if they do strength training, but that’s never been a problem for me. If anything, the increased muscle has made me seem leaner,  has also made it easier to burn more calories, and has allowed me to have decent posture so I can emphasize those parts of my body I want to emphasize.🙂

So, my suggestion to those aspiring marathoners out there: consider either personal training (with someone who knows what he/she is doing), or figure out your weak areas and try to work on them through some other way!

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Mental Benefits of Running

If you’re writing a blog that hasn’t been updated in almost a month…bad, bad kat. Between my training, a (completely amazing) trip to Vancouver, work and other social engagements, I’ve been neglecting to update this.

But now that taper madness has set in, I figure I’ll try to make up for lost time.🙂

I’ve been thinking lately about how it will feel to complete this marathon; it is seeming quite likely at this point, as long as I can avoid the falling pianos over the next few days. I’m reminded of a talk I had with my good friend Susan about running half marathons. Susan had never considered herself a “runner”; as such, her continual achievements at something she never thought she’d be good at (running an 8K, making it 10 miles, then completing a half-marathon within her goal time, among other things) gave her the confidence to pursue all kinds of other challenges.

I completely agree. I’m convinced that my running and general fitness level not only allowed me to enjoy my travel, but to take all kinds of risks I otherwise wouldn’t have (such as hiking 13 miles in Argentina, among other things). Sometimes I have to pinch myself to see if this part of my life is real. Even though it’s been almost three years, the fact that friends sometimes look to me for running or fitness advice still kind of boggles my mind.

But aside from the goal-oriented benefits of running, on a day-to-day basis, I honestly can’t imagine life without it. One of my friends says that running is better than therapy, and there’s nothing better than waking up aggravated/upset about something, lacing up the shoes, and being able to find peace and/or resolution and ending up happy. The one downside of my marathon training is that my various exercises are so regimented that I haven’t been able to just let loose like I used to (though there’s something to be said for making it 4+ hours in a park by yourself).

And that, frankly, leaves out a bunch of other benefits I get from running…but that’s content for another day!🙂

(FYI, check out Susan’s excellent Saucy Living blog at

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Marathon Training

Sorry that I’m jumping all over the place here, but between work, my social life, and my marathon training, my posts are much more sporadic than I’d envisioned (and therefore ad hoc).

In December or so, I had decided that I wanted to train for the big one – a 26.2 mile, 42.2 kilometer race. I was actually planning to keep it secret in case I decided to downgrade to the half. But, the time commitment just made that impossible – and besides, the encouragement of others makes the accomplishment seem bigger than I’d thought it was.

I’m training in a group with the Running Room, a Canadian retailer that not only sells a ridiculous selection of running stuff, but provides 18-week training courses for about $70. Each week, a new speaker comes to talk to us (about varied topics such as nutrition, strength, and injuries), and then the group goes out for a run together. I’ve been running with the same people for many of my Sunday long runs, too.

But as I mentioned, the time commitment is pretty significant. Every week, I do 3-4 runs, including a long run (about 2.5-4 hours), a tempo run (5 miles or so at 65-80% pace), and either speedwork or hills. In addition, I’ve decided to work with a personal trainer to strengthen those muscle groups (like my back and my gluteals) that weren’t carrying their weight, so to speak.

And, because virtually every run is building additional speed, strength, or endurance, and I’m working on strength two additional times in a given week, I need to make sure I take 2 rest days a week. Early on, I was able to skate by with one rest day, but once the training got more intense, it just wasn’t doable. One thing I’ve learned is that, if you’re committed, the biggest danger isn’t undertraining – it’s overtraining, which taxes your muscles and risks injury.

So, on the plus side, for someone used to running 4-5 times a week, getting out three times doesn’t seem like a lot. But for someone who’s used to being random – lacing up the shoes and going – it’s a mental challenge to try to fit the schedule day after day, week after week, and do particular rigorous exercises that tax your body. And trying to balance the various workout days – for instance, making sure that I don’t do anything too taxing the day before or after my long run – makes me feel like I’m constantly assembling a puzzle.

But, I figure that if the training enabled me to run 22.2 miles (16+ of them after taking a pretty brutal fall) and still be able to walk the next day, it’s worth it. And now that it’s only 1.5 weeks before the tapering period, I feel like I’m on the home stretch!

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I’m frequently asked about how I stay motivated to run. I have to admit, at the beginning it’s tough. I was slow, heavier (therefore slower), and much more prone to being out of breath.

In one sense, I was fortunate, because my neat travel experiences really pushed me to run. But once I got back to the city, it became a struggle again.

The things I did to keep motivated were pretty simple. I’d vary the route (going through parks wherever possible), which was a big help against boredom. And I’d make a deal with myself that once I got out the door, I could go for as long or as short a time as I wanted. And of course, I’ve never cut it below 25 minutes; getting the shoes on and out the door is usually the biggest battle.

Running with others can help too. I’m thinking of joining a running club, and in Canada, the Running Room has organized runs of various distances on Wednesdays and Sundays. I’ve found the group runs to be invaluable in my marathon training.

But, at the end of the day, even the most goal-oriented and successful runners can lack motivation. I did a tempo (read: slightly fast but not crazy) run with a 3:10 marathoner the other day and apologized for holding him up. His answer was that on that day, he needed a pace partner to keep motivated (and given that we both did a hard race on Sunday, we didn’t want to push ourselves anyway).

My advice: try to strike the right balance between forgiving yourself for not being perfect and going all the time, and actually trying to get out there most of the time. And cross-training helps too (the subject of another post).

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Travel and running

Most people I know who spend some time travelling tell me that they don’t work out while they’re on the go. There just isn’t time.

My approach wasn’t any different until I decided to overhaul my life while travelling the world for long periods of time. It’s almost a fluke that I went running at all, but the fact that there weren’t really any gyms around meant that I had to start running to keep in shape.

And it’s not like there weren’t obstacles along the way – in Kathmandu on my very first morning, I ran by some stray dogs who were fighting each other and then decided to turn their attention to me instead. They wouldn’t leave (even when I dodged traffic) until I begged some Nepalese guy to chase them off. After that point, I ran in the hotel garden for exercise (and got some strange looks).

But while I now have a bit of a fear of dogs, I didn’t want to let them keep me from what I wanted to do. So I continued to run, and see different cities in a whole new light.

Like in Hue, Vietnam, where I ran past a group of people having coffee on the sidewalk, who moved their tables and cheered. Or, on the same run, the woman who laughed when I bowed to her small dog and calmly explained that he couldn’t join me.

Or in Hoi An (also in Vietnam), where I saw the shopkeepers setting up for the day, seemingly unaware of my existence. Or in Hanoi and Saigon, where a local grabbed my arm and pulled me across the street to save me from navigating the plethora of scooters.

Or in Aqaba, Jordan, where a group of small kids shyly approached me and said “Welcome to Jordan”, and a taxicab driver decided to challenge me to a race (I won, but he was fast for a big guy)!

I saw a winter sun rise over the Eiffel Tower and the Ayasofia in Istanbul; ran past the palaces of Phnom Penh; ran through the streets of small Tunisian cities and through the desert (unaware of the changes that would be wrought less than a year later); took a running tour ten miles through the streets of Buenos Aires; ran along the ocean in Montevideo; through a forest outside of Prague; ran past Buckingham Palace and through St. James Park; ran along the beach in Mombasa with a Kenyan; ran through the deserted streets of St. Petersburg, past the Hermitage, virtually alone; ran through the streets of Barcelona; and tons of other travel experiences I would never have had otherwise.

So the moral is, what I thought I was doing just for exercise actually turned out to be a valuable travel experience in its own right. Who would have thought?

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