In response to the sissy half marathon posting of sissy Steve Herce, I felt it necessary to post a blog entry about my own new experience with competitive racing. In contrast to Mr. Herce, I entered high school in the fall of 1993 at 5'7" and 190 lbs. While my mother, like his, was reluctant to expose me to the dangers of football, she could not stand in the way of destiny. By the end of high school I had reached 5'8" and had gone from taller than most of my peers to shorter, which pretty much ruled out my middle linebacker career at the next level. However, I had bulked up to 210, could sprint well, and hit even better; my compact frame turned out to be great for a power fullback, using my low center of gravity and explosive power to knock over just about anyone in my way. At the peak of my playing days in Division I-A football I was 235 lbs, bench pressed ~400 lbs and worked out with 495 on squats (never maxed out). Suffice to say, one would be hard pressed to find two body types more different than mine and Mr. Herce's.
When I stopped playing football I looked for new sources of sport and exercise. For sport I fell in love with beach volleyball and for aerobic activity I turned to running. Never mind that my body was hardly suited to either! Running was totally new to me. Rarely before had I run any distance greater than 100 yards and I really had no idea what I was doing. The first time I tried "distance" running, I set out on the 2.9-mile (I realize that most runners would hardly consider this "distance," but it certainly was for me!) Rice Outer Loop and had a really hard time pulling myself back and pacing myself. My instinct was to lean forward and run low, ready to hit someone. However, that was hardly sustainable technique for the half hour or so it took me to complete the Loop. That very first time I managed to make it all the way around but my back killed me the next day, aching from the struggle of pulling my torso upright and slowing myself down.
Since then I've never embraced running very seriously but I have always included it as a component of my cardiovascular fitness regime. I have never trained for anything in particular, but I have always set out to do a little better than I had the previous time. Originally this meant running fixed distances and working to increase speed. Once a week or so I would run the Rice Outer Loop, or the equidistant Memorial Park loop, both of which provide a nice, soft running surface (Important for my thundering, heavy-footed running mechanics!), and I would track my completion times in a spreadsheet.
Looking back through my archives, I see that in 2002 I was running these 2.9-mile, mostly flat courses in 27:xx times, a 9:xx pace. 2003 saw me move into 26:xx times, 2004 25:xx, and 2005 24:xx, an 8:xx pace. So over three years I reduced my mile pace by a minute just by running several Outer Loops a year.
Then several things happened at once to motivate me to take running a little more seriously. My strongly competitive nature and fierce data orientation motivated me to purchase a Garmin Forerunner heart rate monitor/GPS. This allowed me to analyze--both during my runs and after--my pace and exertion level at any given point on the course. I had the opportunity to train with legendary NFL strength & conditioning coach Dan Riley, who helped me understand more about training the body's different energy systems.
By 2006 I had begun varying my running workouts to focus on different objectives. For aerobic health I no longer ran fixed distances as quickly as I could (which frequently bumped me into anaerobic mode). Instead I ran for 30 minutes while keeping my heart rate below my maximum aerobic threshold and each time tried to increase the total distance I ran within those parameters. When this started I was only able to eek out 2.5 miles or so. For anaerobic conditioning, I ran different interval programs and sometimes ran a timed 5k.
In 2007 it first dawned on me that I could compete against other runners while running these distances. As mentioned before, I <3 competition, so I signed up for the first annual Rice Flying Owls 5k. I didn't train for it per se other than running a couple of 5k distances, coming in around 27:xx.
When I showed up at Rice the morning of April 14, 2007, I weighed 210 pounds and really had no idea what to expect. I set a stretch goal for myself of 26:00 and drank plenty of water. The latter kind of backfired on me as moments before the race began I seriously had to pee! Fortunately my knowledge of the Rice campus helped me out and I was in and out of the nearest bathroom before the starting gun went off. On the starting line next to me was a 15yo kid built like the cross country runner I imagine Mr. Herce was at that age: tall and lanky and wearing goofy running tank top/shorts. He was also a big dork, making the Herce comparison even more apt. When I told him I was shooting for a 12:00 finish time he seemed to take me seriously and was very impressed.
The race was hard. I probably came off of the starting line too fast as I was fighting against fatigue as soon as my adrenaline wore off. I pushed and I pushed, though, and passed other runners one-by-one. I had pre-planned an MP3 playlist that would have "Gonna Fly Now" (the Rocky training theme song) come on at 25:00, motivating me to sprint hard through the last 60 seconds. However, by the time I rounded the corner for the final 100 meters, it hadn't come on. I cursed myself for mistiming the playlist and used that instead as motivation to sprint through the finish. Then I saw my time: 24:26! The Rocky theme song hadn't come on because I had finished the race before it was due to start! My mile pace of 7:48 was hardly anything to brag about but, given my expectations, I was euphoric--and THEN the Rocky theme song came on, which was awesome. Never underestimate the power of competition to bring out the best performance in a competitor.
I finished up that day #35 of 87 total runners, #24 of 36 men, and #7 of 9 males in the 25-29 age group--60th, 33rd, and 60th percentiles respectively. Clearly I would have a lot of work to do if I ever hoped to beat Mr. Herce's 91st, 84th, and 82nd percentiles!
And a lot of work is exactly what I did--although it would seem pretty meager relative to that of serious runners. Throughout 2008 and 2009 I lived in Switzerland and gradually increased my aerobic load to 45 and then 60 minute runs. Although I neglected anaerobic runs in 2008, I added them back to my program in 2009--albeit only on the treadmill.
Upon my return to Houston at the end of 2009, I decided that it was time once again to test my running on the field of competition and I made a New Year's resolution to run at least three races in 2010--at least one 5k under 22:00 and at least one 10k under 55:00. I also resolved to run barefoot. There are enough reasons to run barefoot that the subject warrants its own blog post. You can see some of them here (http://bit.ly/9TSnoe) and here (http://bit.ly/dCnckK) but my reasons are less scientific: I saw people doing it, read a little about the barefoot running movement, and thought, "Yeah, I can get behind that."
So I began running in December in Vibram Five Fingers barefoot running "shoes" (more like foot gloves). They provide enough sole to protect your foot from glass or sharp pebbles, but not so much as to alter your gait from that of a natural, barefoot runner. At first I developed blisters and could not run my full 60 minutes. Within weeks, though, my feet had adapted and running felt GREAT. Springing off the balls of my feet rendered even my heavy footfalls light. I resolved that I would not just train barefoot; I would race that way as well. I signed up for the January 30th Texas Med Center 5k and prepared to make my barefoot racing debut.
Here again I didn't train for the 5k per se. The week before it, though, I did run a timed 5k at Memorial. When I came in at a PR 22:35 I thought that maybe I hadn't set my new year's goal aggressively enough. The competition would be on asphalt, though, and I didn't know how well my bare feet would hold up on it. To make matters worse, I woke up on the day of the race to find the weather cold (30 F) and drizzly. Part of me said that there would be no shame in running in shoes given the conditions. The stronger part of me, however, reminded me that I had committed to something and that I would be no better than Mr. Herce if I didn't see it through.
When I arrived at the race site, Houston's medical center, I got out of my car and warmed up a bit. At a trimmer 195 pounds, I had less insulation than I used to. Thank goodness I had spent two years running in Switzerland so I had plenty of Under Armour Cold Gear to keep me warm before the race. As we lined up I was surprised and inspired by some other men who were running shirtless. Props to them; that will be me next time. This time, though, I set out with three major goals: 1) don't come out of the start too quickly, 2) run my last mile more quickly than my first, and 3) run the whole 5k under 22:00 (which meant targeting a 7:04 pace),
When the starting gun was fired, I was reasonably close to the front. Data at the end of the race showed that I passed the starting line 6 seconds after the gun. Although I felt like was clipping along at a good pace, I was being passed by people on all sides. My heart rate was higher than it should have been already and I used wisdom from The Big Lebowski to keep me on pace: "They're just a bunch of f'in amateurs," I told myself.
The first leg of the race was on the streets of the medical center, where many tall hospital buildings confused my GPS somewhat. As such, I couldn't confirm my pace for some time. However, my heart rate stabilized at the right level and I felt good. I had decided to run this race with no music so that I could savor the experience and be more mindful of feedback from my body. That proved to be a good decision when I was running 'blind" with an inconsistent GPS signal.
As we emerged from the hospital complex, my GPS stabilized and showed that I was about to finish the first mile--and sure enough, there was the first mile marker. I had run the first mile in 7:10 and my heart rate was 180--about 96% of my theoretical maximum and exactly where I wanted to be for this anaerobic run. My bare feet (protected by Vibram Five Fingers) felt great.
The second mile was good. I passed most of those who had peaked early out of the starting line and I was feeling good. A few times I caught myself increasing the pace a bit and I intentionally backed off, purposefully keeping some gas in the tank for the final leg. I hit the second mile marker at 14:12, meaning I had run the second mile in 7:02 and was averaging 7:06. At this pace I would approach the finish line close to 22:00 and would have a good chance of beating that time with a final sprint. My heart rate was 185, 99% of my theoretical max. I felt good; no need for drastic changes.
The third mile was good and my heart rate remained at 185. Runners around me were now pretty sparse but I still passed a few with slow overtakings. I removed my hat and let my head sweat profusely into the 30-degree air; that felt great. At 2.8 miles I began to stride it out a bit, increasing my heart rate to 190, my theoretical maximum. I hit the three-mile marker at 21:00, meaning I had run the third mile in 6:48 and was averaging 7:00. I rounded the corner and could see the finish line 0.11 miles (176 m) away!
I downshifted and urged my legs to move faster. Reluctantly they picked up the pace and my heart rate climbed to 193--so much for theoretical maxima! I passed one or two other runners during the final stretch but I was also passed by someone who blew by me and clearly had kept more in reserve than I had. I crossed the finish line at 21:43, meaning I ran the final 0.11 miles at a 6:31 pace and my final mile at a 6:52 pace. I stopped my watch, cleared the finish line, dry heaved a little, and then returned to the final stretch to cheer on my girlfriend, Katie, who finished two minutes under her goal time.
So awesome, all three goals accomplished. How did I do relative to the competitive field?
I finished #46 of 1,068 total runners (Overall race results: http://bit.ly/cYtpTp, visualized: http://bit.ly/bGOXIm), #37 of 419 men, and #9 of 109 males in the 30-39 age group (Age group results: http://bit.ly/ac7W0l)--96th, 91st, and 96th percentiles respectively. I hit my goals and set a good base line on which to improve for the rest of the year. Most importantly, this heavy-footed, lumbering fullback crushed Mr. Herce's sissy 91st, 84th, and 82nd percentiles--the best he could do after 15 years of running training! The gauntlet is cast and I hereby publicly challenge Mr. Herce to stop whining about his hip and do better. I furthermore challenge him to post a video training montage to let the world know that he is actually doing something and not just sitting around feeling sorry for himself.
Still, if there's one thing on which Mr. Herce and I *can* agree, it's that the shop's co-owner is ridiculously more accomplished than either of us at running and we both have a *lot* of work to do to take it to that level.