Running Austin

My race report is 5 days old. What can I say? Life happened.

Finishing the Austin half 2011 felt incredible. Incredibly painful and incredibly proud. By most course standards I think the Austin half is fairly brutal. At the start there are a couple of hills, a long gradual uphill going down South Congress (no idea why the course has runners facing their back to the gorgeous view of the Capitol) and the final 3 miles are the worst – a long, steep uphill on 15th St., and just when you think it’s over, there are 2 hills on San Jacinto before you turn on 11th street to the finish.

I didn’t beat my 3M time on the race, even though there was a point in the race where I thought I might – we were at 2.10 or so at 10 miles so I thought I might do it, hills notwithstanding. I ran with a friend from the Rogue training group, Vira. Actually Carlene, Vira and I started racing together. The energy at the start line was electric! More than 20,000 runners, some few thousand volunteers and practically half the city out to cheer the runners, bands playing at various spots. It was a party out there and I think that environment easily adds a few seconds to your pace. We began running and I knew we were running faster than I’d begun 3M. Which being my first race, I was nervous, but this one, despite nervousness and running a tad bit too fast for my usual pace, I was having a lot of fun. Carlene was funny and chatty but Vira was quiet. At around mile 6, Carlene took off with a friend while Vira slowed down to get her nutrition. Carlene kept looking behind but before I knew it, she was lost in the crowds. Vira and I began the long and boring but relatively easy trudge down S. 1st street. People who lived there took the excuse to have music blaring from their houses or put up little spots where they set up their music stations. I applauded for every band we passed by (including those who were taking a break, forcing them to begin playing again – what the heck, I wasn’t taking a break from running was I?).

My knees began to ache around mile 7 so I stopped a few times to stretch out the IT band and hips. Vira was running a bit slowly and she admitted later she didn’t have a good race. But I wanted to keep running with her. So at mile 8, when my pacer Charanya joined us (whose legs were fresh and she wanted to sprint to the end), I deliberately slowed down to be able to keep with Vira. I kept glancing back towards her and waiting for her to catch up.

Then we came to Enfield/15th St. This was right after hilly Winsted. Charanya, who until then was pushing us to run faster, told me that if I wanted to walk Enfield, I could. Many had injured themselves pushing up this long, steep hill on the Austin half course. I took a short stop. Stretched out everything and began to run. Tried remembering Rogue hill running tips and tried to run as naturally as possible. The strides naturally get shorter and I kept my focus up. I didn’t stop running but I did feel like my lungs were going to explode. I chanted my prayers and for the first time, I asked for divine help in finishing this course. On top of Enfield, I felt like you could have knocked me downhill with a straw.

Finally turning on San Jacinto when I saw the last hill, I just felt mad. I felt angry at the course, at Lance Armstrong, with all the people out there who were running before me. I tried running up the first hill and then walked up the second because I knew, the last 200 meters would be run or die. And finally as I turned on 11th, I ran as fast as I could. I saw my friend Tanushree, who was screaming my name. I could vaguely hear Charanya yelling, ‘Run Sirsha’. As I sprinted towards the finish line I thought I would pass out with fatigue but please god, let it be after I cross the line. I heard the announcer say something encouraging about me and suddenly, finally it was over. I stopped running and held the railpost to recover my breath. There was no feeling of vanquish I’d felt during my first race, no smiling run to the finish line. I just felt angry and disappointed. I’d hoped to be able to beat my 3M time despite the hard course. I’d hoped to be able to run the hills easily – which I did on all except the last hill. And what does it matter if you scaled them all but the last one slowed you down?

And then during the week a friend sent me this video. Christopher McDougall, the author of the book Born to Run talks about how humans are made to run long distance because we can perspire and remain cool unlike any other animal. But what was more important to me was the store of the Ethiopian runner with a heart of gold. And how running is and always has been a social phenomenon – something that people have done together for centuries. Running is sharing some sort of bond. It’s not about buying the best running shoes or getting the latest gear. Its about being out there, free and together.

So then why was I pissed off? And frankly I don’t know. I got sucked into this competitive expectation that I would beat my previous time. I could tell people I ran Austin and yeah, I ran it faster than I ran 3M. Why did I even think I’d be able to do that? I know my body, I know my knees and my lungs. Moreover, since when did that matter to me? When I started running, it was all about going there and enjoying it. And I did enjoy running Austin. I think back to the first 12 miles and I loved it. Yes, the course was hard, yes I was tired and I’d to put the most effort out there. But I loved it and not making some goddamn time doesn’t matter at all. And importantly, I shared the run with Vira – we finished 15 seconds apart but I was glad to have run with her the whole time.

So thanks Chris McDougall. Thanks for reminding me what this was all about from the beginning and what it should always be about.

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Ode to Running/Advice to New Runners

It’s the day before the big race and there isn’t much I can do at this point except rest, hydrate and eat well. Oh and not forget to pick up my bib at the Health expo. And not linger around at the expo and tire my feet :).  Other than that, I’m doing absolutely nothing today.

While I do absolutely nothing, I want to take stock of this tryst that began about 4 months ago on a beautiful fall Saturday in Austin. I want to write about what running and training for this HM did for me. And what it will give you, new runners.

Advice to New Runners

1. There will be pain

I admit I went from couch to the training track. There is such a thing as no pain, no gain, even if you have been running track since college. Or rather, that pain is the test. You will not run pain-free. But when you run, you will be free of pain. What do I mean? Provided you take care of yourself by stretching adequately, thinking about your running form, learning and reading about running, asking questions to the Coach, you will be able to run. And that run will set you free from pain. I run so that I can get there. Everytime. May not happen everytime. But I try to get to that pain-free zone on every run.

2. Train with a program

I cannot begin to emphasize on the value of a good training group. I couldn’t have gotten this far without Rogue and without the constant encouragement of my fantastic coach, Lorrie. She gently nudged me to push my boundaries. When I asked her about the Run from Hell and that I wasn’t confident, she said, give it a shot, walk up a few hills but give it a shot. I did and till date, its one of the most grueling but one of the best runs I have done in training. When I buckled with pain at one of my speed workouts, she insisted I check it out with the doctor, drove me back and was very concerned. When I got back from a long break she asked me to take it easy, even skip the 3M race and was there proudly at the finish to commend me. I dedicate my race, and every race to her.

3. Understand your limitations but push your boundaries

When I started running I was extremely slow. I used to run at nearly 14 minutes a mile. That was the only speed at which I could breathe easy and keep running for a while without stopping. That was fine by me.  I didn’t care, I was just happy I could be out there running. (FYI, my pace was 12.57 for 3M, which is incredible gain over when I started, so yes, training helps!) Even now, I’m excited to meet other runners but when they ask about time, my eyes glaze over and I just say, ‘Oh, I’m really slow’. That’s fine. If you’re slow, there’s no need to be embarrassed! You are NOT competing with anyone else but your past self. If you are fast, then you’re trying to get fitter and faster.  If you’re tall and have long legs, remember Nature’s given you an advantage with stride length. Go out there and put it to good use.

And for god’s sake, don’t give up without trying. You went for one training run and you huffed and puffed. So what? Were you able to do calculus in grade 1 or play tennis on day 1? Why should running be any different than learning any other thing? Don’t get it wrong – it is a sport like any other.

3. Ignore the nay-sayers

And trust me there will be many. There will be those who have never done a single run but will wax eloquent on how it will wreak havoc with your body. They will cite examples of their friends or friends’ friends who have bust a knee or wrecked a shoulder. There will be people who will cite ridiculous stats and tell you you will die sooner, age faster if you do too much. Running will not age you faster or kill you sooner – it will make you alive, stronger and healthier than you’ve been. And to counter these nay-sayers, I refer you back to point no. 1. There will be pain. And you will work through it. If you’ve got pronation (i.e. a tendency to run in a certain way where your legs bend in e.g.), repeated movements of that nature will bear strongly on some body part. We’ve all got pronation – you may move your hips in a certain asymmetric way or your knees may poke out or your toes may like to face each other. Repeated movements make these pronations into pain.

But will it kill you? I doubt it. Other stuff like smoking, not wearing seat-belts or jaywalking are far likelier to kill you. And if you’ve got pronation – you can get help of a physiotherapist to work through it like I did. You need to use a foam roller on your muscles and you will learn how to use them. When there is pain, you will rest, ice, compress and elevate (RICE). And you will be smart enough to listen to your body. That will only make you stronger to run, not likelier to die/age sooner.

Completing this training program and being able to run these distances which I couldn’t even begin to imagine I could do before – has given me incredible confidence. I feel younger, stronger and more alive than I’ve felt in the last 5 years! I feel grateful that I can do something as fun as this and yet contribute to something close to my heart – child education and the fight against child labor in India. And you know what I’ve been pleasantly surprised with? Not that I changed my perspective on who I am or what I can do, but on how much my near and far friends have supported me. They’ve supported my run financially and also boosted my morale by following my blog, continuously telling me I’m doing something great, by encouraging me when I feel its too much. My own husband, who I may count as an initial nay-sayer is a convert. He hates running but ran with me to give me support. Worked with me through the issues I faced.

A lot of us want to do something great around this age (call it quarter-life crisis) – most great people were already done being great at 30. To me reaching beyond these physical limitations and going above and beyond what I expected myself to do is great enough. This experience has only made it possible for me to scale larger walls, higher mountains. And that’s what I’d like you to think about when you’re out there on your run.

Happy Running!

On the Last Leg

I went for my last training run with Rogue this morning. I was taking a break from running in the last week, where I ran very short distances of no more than 3-4 miles, followed up by (very BORING) cross-training at the gym. I managed to get in a couple of days of cross-training and also managed not to fall off the elliptical in boredom. There is no substitute for running outside.

But Austin was on a freeze (uncommon to these parts) and so were my knees (note rhyme please, unintended). I went back to Dr. Spears for an evaluation on the knees. He confirmed what PT had told me – that no structural issues but the hips weren’t strong enough so a lot of pressure on the knees and quads were making those muscles tight and the IT band was pulling on the knee cap. Or something like that. Ariel, my PT asked me to continue the clams (hip exercises) and pretzels (knee exercises), added another routine to dissociate the hip and lower back. The latter is because she said a lot of the strain was being taken by the lower back as well. So all of these routines would help strengthen the hips.

I hadn’t been terribly regular with the exercies but with the Austin Half looming, I decided not only would I step it up, I would start believing its going to work like magic. I heard somewhere its important to believe in the treatment. Or at least believe in the weekly fees I was shelling out for PT!

Dr Spears also said to listen to my body and not run when the knees hurt. That’s why I curtailed the running a bit this week. I hadn’t really taken rest since the 3M race. I was almost toying with the idea of chickening out of Austin Half. I mean, I was done with 1 race. But I like finishing. I’m not very good at finishing but I like to try. So the tryst which started out one cool Saturday in October culminates at the end of this week.

I had a shitty week too last week. Work is busy and several personal issues cropped up as well. The general gloom was compounded by the fact that I couldn’t go run it off due to knee pain and cold weather. So yesterday as it warmed up, I went to run off some of the gloomy feeling. It did help, took my mind off the issues and focused it on how I was feeling while running, which was not that great either. Thanks to the break, I was cramping up a bit.

This morning I awoke at 6.40 am to go get in the last training run. I took my time to get in the clams and pretzels in good number of iterations of ten-second holds. I also did a quad stretch my friend Arun taught me last night – kneel with one knee on the couch and foreleg leaning against the back of the couch and the other leg in 90-degree stand in front. Abs tucked in and back straight. Incredible quad-stretch. It felt awesome. Did the calf-stretches and toe raises. I felt confident about going in and nailing the 7 miles.

I was one of 2 who showed up on a Sunday. I started with the other runner, who was running a bit too fast for how I like to start. I fell behind her in a couple of miles and began my own easy pace. The air was cool, crisp and the sun was glorious. It was early enough on a Sunday that I felt like I owned the road. I ran in the middle of the streets, on the double yellow line and I felt like a Queen! I’d breakfasted before but I happened to have a gel on me and I thought I’d take it as I felt tired. The last leg of the run had us on the last hill of the Austin Half course which would end on 10th and Congress. I think I did ok on it, but had to walk a bit on the top, which according to Rogue’s hill training tips meant I didn’t do something right. I didn’t want to think how that hill would feel next week after 12+ miles on other hills. We’ll cross that hill when we get to it, I thought.

Back in Rogue I stretched well and long. I rolled on the foam roller and with my brand new recovery leggings, I’m not limping around the house this morning! I feel a lot more positive already! 

Rogue’s got a great race plan on navigating the Austin Half course. Will post on that later. Some really great hill running tips in there.

If I can finish Austin Half, I’m going to be a monster in my own eyes. Running long distance has increased my endurance by several multiples. There are many things that I wouldn’t dream of attempting that I’m considering now – hiking long distances, biking, trail running, triathlons, and even mountain hiking! Will I do all of them? Perhaps yes, sometime in life, perhaps no. Other stuff may take over. But I feel right now, that I can do anything I set my mind and body to. And I can think about finishing the Austin Half.

Running when it ‘feels like’ 18F (-6C)!

I’m writing this post while a crazy snow blizzard takes hold of most of continental USA. Friends in Chicago are braving 60mph wind gusts and bracing for more than 2 feet of snow. Down here in Texas, we aren’t unaffected. Winds at more than 30mph, sub-zero temperatures and the worst combination of the two, the dreaded windchill.I’ve lived in Chicago and I know the brutal wind chills. That’s why I moved to Austin, Texas with my husband. It was the next best thing to California without the taxes! In fact, someone mentioned it may even be really warm on my birthday, early Feb. Imagine my dismay at the teeny bopper temps this week!

And imagine my greater dismay when Rogue didn’t cancel the quality workout today. Coach Lorrie even called out to me saying it wasn’t that cold ‘miss Chicago’! Well, it wasn’t like I ran in Chicago anyway. But, I like running when it’s cold. Wait let me say cold-ish. When it’s cold enough you don’t feel the strain. That’s not what I bargained for today.

5 people showed up in the half marathon beginners group. I assumed there would be enough crazies. But I was wrong. I was one of 5 whackos who showed up. When we began the jog to the track, it was 32F-felt like 18F. The wind in our faces twisted my words as I chatted with Marianne and Carol. We kept running and kept talking just to keep our minds off the wind. The usual run to the track, which has sometimes been a strain (including the one time trial workout that I choked), felt like a breeze, no pun intended. At the track, usual varying pace, alternating 400m at HMGP and 10K paces. Lorrie asked me to run easy since I’d just finished the race. But I ran with Marianne who, for a 54 year old has some pretty fast turnover on her feet. I remember struggling to keep up with her when I had joined the program. Not today. I was too cold to feel any strain. Heck, if I had the breath power I’d have run 9 min a mile. I ran the 8 laps on the track as fast as I could. Coming around south east facing was brutal against winds going NW. Pretty soon I lost my thighs to numbness, the hands and feet were frozen. Oddly enough in those temps, you’d rather be running. Even after finishing my laps, I kept running to keep warm.

On our run back, we passed East Side Pies, an East Austin pizza place that tempts Rogue runners every week. A young girl was rushing back to her car with her dinner. When she saw us, her jaw dropped open. She pointed at us, smiled with a raised brow and gave a thumbs up. Other drivers were not so charitable. They stared at us as if we were nuts. One of the runners said it was commendable I came out tonight despite the cold and having run a race. And then I thought, yeah what the hell was I thinking? I think running the race gave me some extra ‘josh’, rather foolish. Anyway, I think I felt my legs at least an hour later and full sensation only after a hot shower.

Amazed that people run races in such conditions. I was quite done with a short run, being out there for an hour. Folks complained that it was hot on the day of 3M 2011 and then proceeded to say it almost got blown away last year due to cold winds. I thank Mother Nature for giving me a good race and for freezing up 2 days later!