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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Grateful

I'm trying really hard to be grateful.

Grateful I've stayed healthy for so long.

Grateful that my injury (if it had to happen) happened now, in the cold slippery winter, and not during a big summer training block.

Grateful I have a coach who is also a physical therapist (as well as one of the calmest humans beings on earth).

Grateful to have health insurance.

Grateful I can still swim.

Grateful to have so many friends who still care about me, even when I can't run.

Grateful I don't equate self-worth with running fast.

. . . but let's not fool ourselves. I still want to run fast.

Just have to heal, first. And then, I guess, we'll see.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Which Matters More: Talent or Hard Work?

So I have this friend, T___. He's a former professional triathlete who completes Ironmans in the time it takes me to explain what that race is. He also works as a firefightera physically demanding job that has an extremely erratic schedule requiring long hours and sleepless nights. Needless to say, I have a lot of respect for this guy. Therefore, when he asked for my input as he developed a podcast, and then when he asked me to be an early guest on the show, I was very flattered, but also a little nervous. As a writer, I've interviewed other people before, but I've never been the one in the hot seat!


Luckily, a few days before we were scheduled to record, T___ gave me a list of questions. There weren't many, so I decided to practice my answers with my fiance, R___.  Then, during the interview, T___ asked me nearly all of the questions on his list, but he did omit one . . . and of course it was the one for which I had prepared what I considered my best answer. The question has stuck with me ever since, so, I want to lay out my thoughts on the matter.

Which matters more, talent or hard work?

In a nutshell, I think the importance of talent compared to hard work depends upon where someone is in their pursuit of an activity. In the very beginning, I think talent matters more. After all, if you show no aptitude for an activity, why would you want to pursue it? The way I see it, once you realize that you're "actually pretty good" at something, that's when you start wanting to put in the hard work to get better.

Once you're past entry-level, however, that's when hard work increases in importance. Let me give you an example from my own life: I used to play the flute. I started in second grade, and by the time I joined the concert band in middle school, I was simply better than everyone else. By then I had stopped taking lessons, and although I rarely practiced the music, I was good enough at sight-reading to earn myself first chair and stay there all the way through junior high school. However, once I entered high school, I came up against a girl who was working a heck of a lot harder than I was. She took lessons, she practiced, and lo and behold: she was better than me.

Now, in this particular case, I could have risen to the challenge. I could have hired a teacher and taken my flute home every day and worked on my vibrato and double-tonguing and all of my other technical and artistic shortcomings. But I didn't. So she moved into first chair, I took second, and that was that. Hard work wins.

Now it should be pointed out: neither of us went on to be professional flautists. (I believe she's an English teacher somewhere, and I'm a freelance writer and editor; I would bet neither of us have picked up a flute in years.) But had we attempted that career path, I truly believe that talent would have elbowed its way back into premier "importance." Because look at how many professional musicians are out there. They're all working hard: practicing, fine-tuning their instruments, improving their skill and artistry. But the ones getting first chair in symphony orchestras? They're the ones who work their asses off and are still better than everyone else. Professional runners who win World Majors? Of course they're working hard, but so are all of their competitors; they win because they're talented. (And because they have a bit of luck, and a great support system, and all of those other factors that play into great single-day performances.)

So, to wrap up my opinion on this matter in a nice little bow, I think talent matters most at the very bottom and very top of the performance spectrum. But that huuuuuge space in between? That's where hard work comes into play. And that's where most of us live out our life passions. I love running. I love it for lots of reasons, but I found that love because I saw fairly rapid gains early on and wanted to see how fast I could get. Now I'm firmly planted in the "hard work" stage, and that's where I'll stay. I'm never going to be at the level of Shalane Flanagan, or Molly Huddle, or any other superstar who performs in the top 1% of the sport. But I can put in hard, smart work. And then, with a bit of luck and a lot of support, I will push my own limits just a little bit farther than ever seemed possible.

*If you want to hear Tim's and my actual discussion, you can listen here!
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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Portland Marathon Recap #3: The Win

Okay, so honest truth: given the size and past results of the Portland Marathon, I knew there was a possibility that I’d be able to place in the top 5, maybe even top 3 women. However, every time I’ve gone to a race with “placing” in mind, I’ve stressed out and am almost never satisfied with the results, no matter if I live up to my own expectations or not. Therefore, I approached this marathon as laissez-faire as I could. After all, the only factor I could control was my own race, so that’s what I wanted to focus on. If I hit my time, that really was winning enough for me.

Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t want to race other women at all; I just wanted to save my competitive drive for the last few hard miles. Therefore, my race strategy—compliments of Coach J—was this: Whatever you do for the first 13 miles, don’t panic. If you run 6:35s or even slip into 6:40s, who cares? You’ll run the first half of the course uphill, so on the return trip, you can make up time. Bottom line: Don’t go out too hard. Then, get to mile 23, and in those last three miles, race.

This was a great strategy, and it worked . . .  at least for the first two-thirds of the race. I spent the first several miles cruising along comfortably, paying little mind to the fact that I was in third place. (Just to be clear: when I’m talking about “place,” I mean third/second/first place woman.) Honestly, I thought there would be more women in front of me at that point, especially considering that the half and full marathons started together. However, only one half marathon woman appeared near the front of the pack, so already at mile two, I found myself running down Natio Parkway behind just two tiny Japanese women and a bunch of men.

I was still marveling at how good my body felt—6:30s didn’t feel like work yet!—when I caught up to the second-place woman. We were somewhere between miles six and seven, just having turned onto a long, straight industrial road that would lead us to the one major hill on the course. She and I ran side by side for at least a mile, maybe more, and all I can remember thinking is, This lady is breathing way too hard for this early in the race. By the time we hit the hill, I could no longer hear her.

The next seven or so miles passed fairly uneventfully; I mostly spent them watching the pink shirt of the lead woman and the orange flag of the accompanying bicyclist bob up and down in the distance. This was the residential stretch of the race, and lots of spectators were out there cheering for me to “go get her.” It was surprisingly encouraging, especially because we all had our names printed on our race bibs, so people would shout, “Go Allison!” as if they knew me and really wanted me to catch the leader. (And, notably, this is where three of the four spectators who actually knew me were standing—so they probably did really want me to catch the leader!) However, I had no idea what that woman had in store for the rest of the race, so I was content to keep hitting my paces. If I could still see her at mile 23, I knew I’d be ready to “go for it.”

Unfortunately for me, that’s not quite how things worked out. Instead, I caught up on St. John’s Bridge, around mile eighteen, and by the time we made it back down the hill, I couldn’t hear the patter of her footfalls anymore. I was on my own. And when I say I was on my own, I was on my own. From that point through the end of the race, I think I passed three, maybe four men running the marathon; everyone else I caught up to was walking the half marathon. (The two race courses were essentially layered on top of one another—see my earlier blog post for further details.) Basically, the point is: when I got to mile 23, I had no one to race. It was just me, dodging walkers over uneven asphalt and slippery train tracks. So this is where it was easy to get defeated. Where was I going to get any adrenaline? How was I going to find the grit to finish hard when every part of my body was already hurting?

Luckily for me, I had practice in this setting. During this past training cycle, due to a wide variety of circumstances, I wound up running most of my long run workouts alone. As a result, I came up with all sorts of dumb tricks to convince myself to "keep going" when the going got tough. One trick: hypnotize yourself with a mantra. In this case, I co-opted one that had been offered by my friend T___: “Today’s the day.” Today’s the day. Today’s the day. Today’sthedayToday’sthedayToday’stheday.

Trick number two: use your arms. I originally learned this from my first coach, as advice for climbing hills when your legs are tired. My current coach took it one step further and showed me how “using your arms” actually rotated your core to generate more power with each stride. I don't often remember to focus on this, but when I do, it really works. And I remembered this time.

The last trick was arguably the hardest, but it was also the most effective, and that was ignoring my watch. At this point in the race, seeing a 6:45 mile wasn’t going to help me adjust my pace any more or less than seeing a 6:15, other than to make me feel defeated and give up on the PR I wanted so badly. Now was the time to buckle down and pour out whatever I had left; however that showed up on the clock was how it would show up.

So with my mantra and my arms, and without my watch, I bobbed and weaved my way through those last few miles. When I finally made it to the finish line, it was almost exactly like any other marathon finish I’ve ever experienced. I saw the time on the clock, I passed under the banner, and I felt that gush of relief that it was all over. There was no tape to break, no flashing lightbulbs, no paparazzi. I wobbled along on unsteady legs, up to volunteers who wrapped me in the standard finisher’s poncho and hung a finisher’s medal around my neck. A  few moments later, a woman came up to me and led me over to a photographer who took a picture of me shaking her hand (which, ironically, never made it onto the race website or into the Portland newspaper article, although the men’s winner and both half marathon winners are on there!). Then she handed me a surprisingly heavy black box containing a glass trophy, asked me whether I had someone waiting for me in the reunion area, and sent me on my way. And so I went on my way, almost as if nothing had happened: one more day, one more marathon. That's the irony of it all—life is very much the same, glass trophy or not. There will be a new PR to chase soon enough.

2017 Portland Marathon Race Results


Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
(F 30-34)
26.2 mi
2:50:25
6:30/mile
14 / 2,927
1 / 1,460
1 / 234

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Portland Marathon Recap #2: Irks and Quirks

The Portland Marathon is one of a kind . . . and I mean that in the best and worst ways possible.

First of all, it almost didn’t happen.

Second of all, despite this being the race’s 46th year, there were some definite issues that the organizers need to figure out before I can recommend this race to any other runners. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
  • The course took an extraordinarily long time to be finalized. As in, we didn’t find out where we’d be running until a month before the race. Apparently, the reason for the delay was that the race organizers were having trouble securing a permit from the city . . . which none of us knew about until Runner’s World published an article claiming the race might be cancelled. I have two words for that: poor communication.
  • Along similar communication-related lines, I received more emails from the Chicago Marathon—which I wasn’t registered to run—than I did from the Portland Marathon. This is not only a lost opportunity for Portland (after all, they’re the hometown of running apparel behemoths Adidas and Nike . . . neither of which sponsors the race!), but also a point of stress for runners accustomed to bigger races with lots of professional communication. It’s okay to be a little slow getting the details of the race together, but please, be more communicative next time (so us runners don’t go into full-on panic mode), okay?
  • Next up: nutrition. Now, I understand that this is a small and only moderately sponsored race, but if you’re going to provide something other than water on the course—which is very important in a marathon, and for which I am certainly grateful—why in the world would you choose a beverage that has zero calories? Marathoners need calories! 
  • Then there's the course itself. It’s an out-and-back route, which would not be a problem, except for the fact that the half and full marathon courses are pretty much on top of one another and start at exactly the same time. This means that any marathoners who run under four hours wind up colliding with the half marathoners who are walking on the “back” part of the out-and-back course. Speaking from experience, this turns into one big game of Frogger, but a whole lot less fun, given that everyone is fatigued and therefore much less agile than they might otherwise be. Let me tell you: there is no turning on a dime at mile 25.  And if you add in some rain and uneven train tracks . . . collisions will happen. (Luckily, Portlanders are really nice about this sort of things; see below.)
  • Speaking of train tracks, my final grievance is based on something that didn’t even happen to me, but it is the primary reason I cannot recommend this marathon. My friend L___ was on pace to run well under 3:30 when she came to one of several sets of train tracks at mile 25. However, she couldn’t carefully step over these tracks because . . . there was a train on them. She and all of the runners around her had to stop and wait—again, at mile 25, when they were all sore and fatigued and dying to be done—for a train to pass by. L___ still ended up running under 3:30, but who knows how much time that interruption cost her? I'm pretty sure I'd have thrown a fit.
So that’s it for grievances, other than the fact that there was no tape to break at the finish line (a very minor grievance in the scheme of things, but it would have been nice!). Now, on to accolades. (Because Portland really is a lovely place to run a marathon!)
  • The people. And not just the spectators—who were wonderful and supportive, don’t get me wrong—but the runners, too. Because the course was out-and-back, I found myself facing a lot of other runners after I turned at the halfway point and began retracing the course. Not only did these other runners smile at me, but they actually cheered for me while they were running their race. I was astounded. These people had no idea who I was, but nevertheless were shouting, “Go girl,” and “Stay strong,” and “Go get her [the lead woman].” It was amazing support and kept me smiling for a vast majority of the race.
  • The swag—the tree seedling in particular. Every marathon gives its finishers a medal (which typically gets put in a shoebox) and a T-shirt (which eventually gets thrown away), but how many people can, twenty years down the road, point to a giant tree and say, “See that? I won that in a marathon!”
  • The weather. Of course this varies year to year, but the 2017 weather was perfect: fifty degrees and overcast. We had a sprinkle of rain about an hour into the race, which made the footing a bit slippery, but a short shower was by far preferable to torrential downpour or blistering heat alternatives.
  • The terrain. Apart from my grievances (above), the course actually played to my strengths. Being forced to run generally uphill for the first half of the race forced me to stay controlled and attentive, and running downhill for the second half made it that much easier to negative split (my preferred way to race). Also, while a good chunk of the race follows empty industrial roads (read: no spectators and no scenery), these roads are straight (i.e., no turns, no tangents) and they’re fairly well kept. Ultimately, I’d say that any runner who has run and enjoyed the Brooklyn Half Marathon course would like this course, too.
In spite of the negatives—and thanks to the positives—I did manage to run the race I had planned . . . which is obviously a huge positive. So I'll spend my final blog post dwelling on that. Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Portland Marathon Recap #1: A Long and Uncertain Road

There are so many stories to tell about the Portland marathon, it’s hard to choose just one . . . so I guess I’m going to tell several. Bear with me. Because there was a time when I wondered if this marathon would even happen at all.

There's a pretty view out there somewhere. . . .
Late last year, when I went looking for a 2017 marathon, I decided that I wanted to travel, but I didn’t want to leave the country like I had for Berlin. A teammate recommended the Portland Marathon, so I took a look. At first glance, the course didn’t look too hilly, and I had friends in Portland who would be fun to visit . . . so I signed up.  Then, as luck would have it, those same friends invited me to their wedding, which was scheduled to happen exactly a month before the marathon. Perfect, I thought. I’ll use my long run that weekend to check out the course. Yet as time passed, the 2016 course remained stubbornly up on the race website, with no sign of being updated. Oh well, I thought, I guess I’ll just follow the old route and hope it doesn't change much.
   
Then, in June, Runner’s World published an article that made me second-guess my whole plan. It started with the sentence: “One of the country’s oldest marathons is at risk of being canceled this year after failing to secure permits from the city of Portland, Oregon.”

Um, what?

Feet are also having some
bad luck
Fortunately, the race organizers did eventually work things out and, one week before the wedding (less than six weeks before the race), the course was published. Whew! Crisis averted.

Or at least crisis number one. Because when my fiancé and I arrived the Friday before Labor Day, we found the Pacific Northwest blanketed by a haze of forest fire smoke. Is it even safe to be running in this? I wondered as I laced up my shoes. What if conditions got worse? However, two weeks later, the fires calmed down, and my Portland friends assured me that rainfall was taking care of the ash in the air. Good. Nothing left to do now except finish the training cycle.

Or so I thought. A week later, I returned from a long run to find a voicemail from my sister: “Hi, Allie? Don’t panic, but mom’s in the hospital. Call me back.” My mother had had a heart attack. Six hundred dollars and twenty-four hours later, I was in Pittsburgh, watching with relief as they wheeled her out of surgery, alive and intact. After a day or two, I started looking at my transportation options home . . . a plan that was quickly aborted when I found myself driving my father to the emergency room of a different hospital. He was also suffering from heart failure.

Thankfully, both of my parents were released from their respective hospitals within a week, and, thanks to the incredible generosity of two friends, I flew home to New Jersey feeling shaken but relieved. Surely that was the final hurdle I’d face before this marathon . . . right?

Pre-race pasta dinner (photo and apartment credit: Lisa!)
Finally, it was the night before my flight to Portland. As I lay in bed trying to will my eyes shut, I realized that I hadn’t received any alerts about checking in for my flight. Wow, that could have gone badly, I thought as I picked up my phone and opened the app. I was about to swipe right to check in when I did a double-take. Surely that didn't say . . . I couldn’t have. . . . But there it was, glowing right before my very eyes: the flight that had I thought was scheduled for 6:40 pm was actually taking off at 6:40 am—exactly 6 hours from that very moment. And I wasn’t even packed.
  
In the end, everything worked out. I not only made my flight with time to spare, but the plane was so empty that I was able to move back to the emergency exit row. (Extra leg room!) I stayed with my friends as planned, ate lots of pasta, and showed up at the starting line feeling as good as I could hope to feel at the end of such an uncertain marathon cycle. But the Portland Marathon wasn’t done with me yet. Stay tuned for the "irks and quirks" that awaited me along the course. . . .