Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Under the Same Roof - Rock n Roll Chicago Half Marathon 2013

"The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof."
- Richard Bach, Illusions

I've said before that the marathoning community is more than just a group of people who share a hobby. There's a big gap between people who've never done a half or full marathon and people who've completed even just one. This April, during the Boston Marathon bombings, I noticed that gap closed quite a bit. Outside the race, marathoners are just people. We grieve. We suffer. We celebrate. We do this with people we barely know for no other reason but that we share a course for a few hours on a weekend.

The Rock n Roll Chicago Half Marathon was a three-act journey along the family theme. 

Act I:
First and foremost, we remembered a recent death of a fellow Half Fanatic, Bobby Prayther, who recently died suddenly at the age of 47. There was a moment of silence before the group picture at the Buckingham Fountain. Bobby completed at least 31 half marathons and was a double agent as a member of the Marathon Maniacs. Susan and I met him in St. Petersburg earlier this year. We didn't connect for very long, but we're sad to see him leave this world.  Our friend Kevin dedicated his race to Bobby's memory. Several racers were wearing signs on their jerseys with Bobby's numbers. HF#1807/MM#3492.

The Half Fanatics pre-race picture at Grant Park
Act II:
Ron's Race: Al made a last minute decision to register for the race since he was working a triathlon expo just over the border in Wisconsin. Long story short, with the pollen count off the charts, his nagging lung infection still not completely clear and a late arrival Saturday night, this was not looking like a banner race. After some early morning struggles to get his 4 bags down from the 34th floor without a working elevator, he was able to hop on the CTA and meet me at our hotel about 30 minutes before the 6:30 gun. We still had to pick up his bib for the race. 

Our hotel was about a mile from the starting line and we decided to take a cab. This should have been my first red flag about how Al was feeling. A cab? For just a mile? Since our hotel was on the course, the surrounding streets were closing down and the cab was diverted to a route even further than where we started. By 6:10, the cab driver was ready to run a barrier in the underground streets when a Chicago policeman yelled at him to stop. The policeman was actually reaching for his holster and radioing in for help before we backed out. We got about a half mile from the starting line before hopping out (tipping the cab generously, I would say).  The wave start helped us a lot. The line for race-day pick up was 300 deep and we had enough time to get into corral 25 to start. 

The second red flag came up about mile 2 when Al told me to slow down a bit. Apparently the NyQuil he'd taken to clear his lungs was still in his system and after describing the spots in front of his eyes that looked like Bat signals, I figured it was time to go into full support mode. He didn't think about leaving me in Seattle when I was hurting, so I was damned sure I was going to look after him this time around. By mile 6, I was walking at a relaxed pace and making sure he stayed vertical. Things got better by mile 7, but it was going to be a slow day for both of us.

Coming off the turn at 31st and Lake Shore, we were certain that Susan would have caught us by that point. A quick location check on Find iPhone showed her about a mile back. She was texting regularly, but something just wasn't feeling right. We ran into fellow Half-Fanatic, Wilbert, at mile 8 and Maryland TNT Mentor Caitlyn at mile 9. I checked in with Al and he sounded like he was OK to continue with Wilbert and Caitlyn for the last mile. Like I did in 2012, I turned back to find Susan and make sure SHE was OK.

Act III:
(Heaven on Earth)
Susan's Race: At the expo the day before, Beth gave Ron and me "get back UP today" today medals for being ardent supporters of a cause near and dear to her heart. This must have been some sort of foreshadowing of how my race was going to be that day. After hooking up in the corral and hearing about their adventures that morning, I let Ron and Al go ahead and decided to ease up and enjoy the race that day. 

Around mile 2 I saw two people carrying a sign that said, "Get back UP today Shannon!" I instantly recognized the sign and starting taking pictures. I introduced myself, asked them if they knew Jim and Beth (which of course they did) and said that I wanted to take a few pictures of them on the course. My plan was to continue on my way until I started to chat with Barbie. This was Barbie's second attempt at completing the RnR Chicago Half Marathon with her leg brace. Rick (who helped Barbie get fitted in the right brace) had decided the day before to do the half marathon (without training) so that he could be there to support Barbie. This was his first half marathon but his whole focus was making sure that Barbie had a good time this time around. 

While Rick was chilling to the music in his earphones, Barbie told me that Shannon (who the sign was for) was having back surgery the next day and they they were walking in her honor to give her strength. That's what seems to connect us back-of-the-packers most - the selfless attitude of helping others no matter what our own circumstance.

Barbie and Susan (with Rick from Allard in the background)

As soon as Barbie mentioned that she got swept at mile 9.5 last year and forced to take a bus to the finish, she had me at "swept." I instantly decided to stay with her and first-timer Rick to help them BOTH finish the race that day. We made it past both cut-off points at mile 9.5 and mile 11.9 with at least 10 minutes to spare. My most memorable moment of the race was when Barbie told me how elective back surgery had led to a severed nerve leaving one foot paralyzed and one foot numb. For five years she suffered until a friend saw Beth on TV describing foot drop syndrome and brace technology that can help you walk again. Barbie contacted her doctor who put her in touch with Rick at Allard. She went from stumbling and falling routinely without the brace to being able to dance at a wedding! Her spirit has not been crushed and she's on a mission to find others in need whose lives can be transformed just as hers has. Her students call her the bionic woman and she inspires kids with a variety of disabilities in her school because she's not afraid to "look different." 

Barbie and Rick nicknamed Susan their "Angel" for helping them finish the race.

Out in front of us were two women wearing MY sensational Gypsy Runner outfit for the upcoming TriRock Austin race that Ron and I will be supporting. It wasn't until Barbie, Rick, and I passed them that I realized that I knew them! We've been to so many Expos across the country that our frequently visited vendor acquaintances soon become destinations to say hello to at the exhibit hall. At each race I find something new to add to my collection of race gear and to share with friends and family as gifts. (Alisa - Your blinged out 13.1 car emblem is waiting for you!) This was a rare occasion where our vendor friends became fellow course participants. My favorite moment after the race was seeing Dave unveil that he shared the same bright spirit (underneath a pair of black shorts.) 

Amy, Dave, and Amy's sister Brenda from Gypsy Runner

Everyone on the course has a story. Some are whimsical ("I did this on a dare", "my significant other made me do it"). Some are moving, like dedicating a race to a fallen friend or coming back to overcome the odds. If you stop and listen to a few of these stories you'll start to bond with a wide variety of people like we have. 

Every race weekend becomes a family reunion.

The Rock n Roll Chicago Half Marathon was first held in 2009. Before being bought by Competitor Group, it was known as the Chicago Distance Classic and had been around for over 20 years. The event is held in mid July to early August.  In 2013, there were 14016 finishers (2:18 median time). There was a "Mini Marathon" (5K) added this year.

The course starts in Grant Park, crossing the Chicago River four times, first heading north towards the Magnificent Mile, back south then towards the Near West Side and Greektown, coming back east to Michigan Avenue down to 31st and back along Lake Shore Drive to finish right back at Grant Park. Ron still says this is his favorite urban race due to the scenery though the summer Midwest weather can make you feel like you're racing while wearing a Saran wrap suit. There are two cut-off points at mile 9.5 and 11.9. Participants are either bused to the finish line area or bused to the finish chute.

Weather: Temps range from high 60's to mid 70's for the 6:30 AM start. Humidity is a fact of life in Chicago in the summer and temps can climb 10 - 20 degrees by 10 AM. Hydrate, take advantage of the ice at the med stations and look for the cooling sponges t mile 10. Several local residents come out with hoses. Just remember to cover your electronics as you get a soak.

Things to do (or at least what WE did): We spent much of the weekend at the Expo and getting some extra steps in for our Weight Loss Challenge. Ron was able to complete his 2,000,000 steps in 5 months goal and Susan continues to lead her company contest with a 7% drop in the first month. The expo featured our friend and Rock n Roll gypsy, David DeNeire (runlikeaclydsedale.com) and three contestants from Season 14 of The Biggest Loser (Danni, Jeff and Francelina). Kevin, Susan, and Ron carbo loaded for the race at Noodles. Al recovered enough to be able to introduce us to The Purple Pig, The pork shoulder, the fried eggplant Parmesan balls and the assortment of cheeses were a fantastic way to top off the weekend.

Course setting: City streets, park and lake views. There's a great breeze near the south end of the course in the later miles. The tunnels under McCormick Plaza were a lot less oppressive with the addition of the lights display this year. Maybe next time they'll let us go though the inside with the AC going full blast.

Support: Excellent. Water, Gatorade Endurance every couple miles, Gu at mile 9, Med tents at regular intervals with bags of ice. The misting structure before McCormick was a good touch. Even at the 3:25 finishing time, there was plenty of chocolate milk, bananas, water and cold towels at the finish line. Since Rock n Roll Los Angeles in 2012, Competitor Group has used the Race Guard organization to monitor races. The volunteer first-responders are trained in race first aid and really make you feel safer on a course. With the hot and humid conditions, many of the dangerous conditions like heat exhaustion and heat stroke can be caught before they become life threatening.  

We signed up for RNR Chicago this year as a 'safety race' to ensure we'd get our 10 races in for Rock Idol. The 2014 race is on our calendar, but we haven't registered yet. That may change when the Tour Pass is announced for 2014... any day now...

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Nothing Left to Lose - Apps, Gadgets and Challenges

This morning, Susan and I did our one-month weigh-in for her company's three-month weight loss challenge that started on June 16th.

"Huh? Why the heck do you guys need to lose weight?"

Let me clarify. I joined the program because her company was matching the $25 entry fee that goes into the winners' pot. I figure if I grow the pot, it'll reward the folks who are joining the contest with a bigger prize. I don't expect to get anywhere close to winning but we'll all be winners by participating in the end. 

Susan came to the conclusion that studying for exams last year and her work-from-home assignment this year had decreased her activity level with a detrimental effect on her overall health and well-being. With the race heavy 2013 race schedule, she wanted to shed a few pounds to keep her legs fresh. She was already 2 months into her progress, losing about 10 pounds even before the contest was announced. 

Losing weight for us has had short and long term positive effects on our life styles. I celebrated my 2-year anniversary of coming off blood pressure medication on July 14th. It's been about that long since my weight stabilized where it is today. I had a few people say how good I looked, but then ask me in quiet tones why I was losing weight.  Was I sick? Am I undergoing some kind of treatment? Did I have some drastic surgical procedure?  

None of the above. I just decided to get well. I got tired of seeing my triglyceride levels climbing with every blood panel and didn't like the soreness in my knees after doing an easy training.  In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 35.7% of adults and 17% of children in America are obese. I decided I didn't want to be on the wrong side of that statistic. I'm qualified to be listed in the National Weight Control Registry for having lost 30 or more pounds and kept it off for more than a year.  NWCR surveys their members to check on progress and gather behavioral data to see what works.

Susan is already seeing short term race benefits of faster half marathon times dropping her half marathon PR by over 16 minutes this year alone. The rule of thumb of getting faster by two seconds per mile per pound of weight loss is holding pretty true.

So say, like us, you've decided you want to lose some weight but didn't want to resort to anything drastic. What's our secret? More importantly, how do we keep it sustainable?

Lord Kelvin said "If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it." While there are certainly psychological and specific medical conditions that affect the ability to lose weight, the simplest formula is to burn more calories than you take in.  With today's technology, it's a lot easier than the old days when you'd have to bring a scale everywhere and work out on a machine that would give you a generic calorie burn value. Now you can track things yourself.

Calories In: Counting calories is step one. There are many free sites that have great databases of foods and their nutritional values - calories, fat, protein, carbs, micronutrients - and corresponding mobile apps that allow you to input values by scanning bar codes on your phone.  We're using MyFitnessPal and have connected with a number of friends on the MFP network to encourage each other as we work towards our goals. Other free sites include Sparkpeople, Livestrong's MyPlate. Weight Watchers has a companion app for those in the program as well. The great thing about these apps is that you can also set goals and they'll give you a day-to-day target for net calorie burn (intake minus exercise) and monitor it as you enter food during the day.

MyFitnessPal app - first thing in the morning

The Fooducate app even gives commentary on additives and artificial ingredients to give a grade on the 'general healthiness' of a particular food. Eat This, Not That is a great iPhone app if you find yourself stuck at a fast food restaurant and want to find the healthier items on the menu. Yes, those do actually exist!

Remembering to enter food takes some getting used to, but since most people are never without their phones these days, it's much easier than toting around a notepad or depending on your memory to enter what you ate. I think the most important thing is to learn how many calories each food contains and what your 'normal' intake translates to on the scale.  For friends who are starting out, I recommend making no changes to diet for the first week or even two, but just get into the habit of tracking food, and I mean EVERYthing, so you know what your baseline is. 

Calories Out (Exercise): Recent studies are showing that lack of activity are more dangerous than people thought. Sitting 6+ hours a day raises blood sugar and blood pressure and increases your risk of dying in the next 15 years by 40% ("Sitting is Killing You").  By monitoring your activity and setting a daily goal, you can remind yourself to keep moving. Our technology of choice is the Fitbit One (shown below). It's amazingly portable and I wear it clipped inside a pocket. It can even go through airport security if you have it clipped to undergarments (or so I'm told).

Other devices such as the Nike FuelBand and the BodyMedia Fit Core are great options as well. These devices are essentially high tech pedometers that not only measures steps, but also elevation change to count flights of stairs climbed. They regularly sync to a computer (and your smartphone) and send the data to the website, translating the activity and your personal measurements into calorie burn. The FitBit calorie burn even syncs to MyFitnessPal so we don't have to enter the exercise while doing incidental steps during the day. The social media aspect of the sites also creates a good support network (or a competition, if you're into that sort of thing).

Again, get used to the device before you make major changes to your routine. Susan used to have a BodyBugg (an older model of the BodyMedia Fit), but eventually wasn't comfortable with how the armband felt and looked. Having to start over because you don't like the device can be a big deal but getting the right device for you can help a lot.

Put it together and think long term:
Once you get a good handle on how much you're eating and how much you're burning, THAT is when you can start moving the numbers in the right direction. I like to say that there are two things I wish I knew when I was growing up: 
1) learning how to spend my money to fit within my income to become financially secure and 
2) Knowing how important it was to 'spend my calorie intake' to fit within my calorie burn.   

Basically, once I worked out what my baseline intake/burn was, I started to make a few choices to reduce my 'spend' (eat less) to build up a calorie 'savings'. I started by going for smaller portions, getting a smaller side of fries and then eventually skipping the fries all together. Little tricks like using smaller plates and eating slower helped.  I chose filling calories like protein (our favorite supplement is the Power Crunch line of products) and fiber instead of simple sugars and fat and the pounds start to come off. Fruits and veggies started getting back into my diet replacing chips and cookies. I still had the sweets, but as occasional treats and not every day.

Exercising and burning a few extra calories a day is equivalent to taking a part-time job. You earn the 'budget' to eat more, or you can put those calories 'into savings' and make the road to physical security that much easier. I use a standing desk at work for 6 - 8 hours a day and a few hours at home. That alone burns an additional 300 - 400 calories just by engaging more muscles.  I also take advantage of the great California weather to get a 2 - 3 mile walk in at lunch when I can.

How long does it take to see results?  It depends on how much of a calorie deficit you can sustain. One way I like to look at it is the "10 Calorie Rule." For every 10 calories per day you can reduce your net intake, you'll lose 1 lb/year.  So set your goal for 20 lbs and you're looking at 200 calories per day. It actually isn't much. Skip a half of your order of fries or walk for 30 minutes extra on a daily basis. 

A safe weight loss rate is 1 - 2 lbs/week. It may not seem like much, but 50 - 100 lbs/year is nothing to sneeze at. I found it tough to lose more than 20 pounds a year, BUT what I was doing was completely sustainable. Losing 2 lbs/week put my net calorie intake at 1200 calories/day. Even the most dedicated people get busy and missing a tough target for a few days can discourage you enough to give up all together. Keep it sustainable and be patient. Above all, look long term. That way, you'll have a lot longer to enjoy the results.  

Month one weigh-in results:  I'm down 2.8% from my starting weight. Susan is down 7%. Since we both lost at least one pound, we qualify for this month's drawing in the weight loss competition. 

What have you got to lose?


"The Best Activity Trackers for Fitness" -  PC Magazine, May 22, 2013
"The Best Free Apps to Help You Lose Weight" - Shape 
"The 8 Best Smartphone Apps for Weight Loss" - Forbes, August 2012

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

"Back-to-Back Races": The Definition is All Relative - The Firecracker Quadzilla/Quadzuki and multi-day racing

I recently read a post in the Half Fanatics group page where a relatively new member was about to do her first "back to back" races. It occurred to me that the timeframe for "back to back" really depends on your perspective. 

When we first started marathoning with Team in Training, our coach advised us not to do more than one race every six months. We started training in January of 2005 and did our first full marathon in June five months later. Getting hooked by the marathoning bug early on, we turned around and spent the next six months training for our second full marathon in December. Two full marathons, six months apart just like our coach told us to.

But somewhere along the way, we realized that on the ramp up in training mileage, we were already doing double-digit mileage so we threw in a bonus race along the way. In 2005, we worked in the Nike Women's Half Marathon two months before Honolulu Full Marathon and in 2006 we added Avenue of the Giants Half Marathon one month before the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Full Marathon.

Two to three races per year soon became four to five races per year. However, year six was when our goal setting got the best of us and we subsequently increased the number of races per year from eight to ten to twelve to nineteen. You know doing a combination of twenty half or full marathons in 2014 is inevitable at this rate. Sometimes you just have to let momentum grab you and take you away.

It was nerve racking this year when Susan realized that she “accidentally” signed up for two half marathons in one weekend over my Birthday weekend (American River Parkway Half Marathon and Diva San Francisco Half Marathon). All the preparation in the world couldn't prepare her for what actually happened. It turned out to be really no big deal. Not that she felt the need to PR at both events but still racing on what Coach Mama Lisa calls, “Tired Legs” is absolutely possible. 

So, of course, if one can do two half marathons on two consecutive days, what about doing two half marathons on the same day? It’ll be like doing a full marathon with a nice long break in between, right?  We’ll tell you all about it in November.

Where does the madness go from here? Well, Disney World’s 39.3 mile Goofy Challenge (half marathon on Saturday, full on Sunday) is definitely on the goal list for 2015. And the event organizers realize that more is better so the 48.6 mile Dopey Challenge (5K, 10K, Half and Full Marathon on 4 consecutive days) has been created. It sold out in less than an hour of opening registration.

Assuming you get hooked on marathoning, it seems inevitable that you’ll eventually want to challenge yourself either by getting faster and setting new PR’s  or by doing more races. 

Maybe both?

Last weekend the Firecracker Quadzilla was held in Portland, Oregon. Marathoners had the privilege to do four full marathons on four consecutive days. Or if you were not quite up to that challenge, you can "back off" and do the Quadzuki race and complete four half marathons in four consecutive days. Is that all?

How far can human beings go with continuous racing?  We've had the privilege of hearing Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes speak at several races. Dean has some amazing accomplishments including running 50 marathons in 50 days in 50 different states. He has done 100 mile relay races as a 'team of one' and once ran 350 miles in 80 hours and 44 minutes - without sleeping. My favorite story is about him ordering a large Hawaiian style pizza during a long run. He rolls it up and eats it like a burrito.  

In 2012, Stefaan Engels set the world record for consecutive days running a marathon distance (not official races) with 365. Engels also set the world record for completing 20 Ironman Triathlons in a year.  He describes himself as just an "Joe Average goes to work on Monday morning, whether or not he feels like it. I wonder what he does for a living.  The record of most OFFICIAL marathons in one year was set by Larry Macon in 2012 with 137 marathons.

How do you train for back-to-back marathons? A Google search for how to train for back-to-back races defines “back-to-back” anywhere from consecutive months to consecutive weeks to consecutive days. Active.com has tips for training with 2 - 8 weeks between racesRunner's World's 2012 article reported that one in four marathoners complete multiple 26.2's each year and gave some good training guidelines if you plan to race with less than a full 5 month training plan. The rule of thumb is to take a day off (easy training only) for every mile of your longest distance. We humbly note that most articles of this type are geared toward marathoners who are racing at higher intensity levels and may not be applicable for those of us who are addicted to LSD (long slow distance) training. This is where the definition of "easy training" becomes a personal thing.

Addressing any aggravations early can prevent injuries down the road. Regardless of how many races you do in whatever time-frame you choose to do them in, the key is to stay healthy, stretch, foam roll, and strength train. Above all, know when you've had enough and your body needs to heal. Don't let a stress fracture, sciatica or other issues get worse and sideline you for months. Better to take time to heal and not have to go through the psychological agony of not being able to race at all. It might even be a good idea to book a slightly higher refundable air fare or hotel room until you're feeling good about a heavy race schedule.

The Half Fanatic doing "back to back" races was actually doing them with only two weeks in between half marathons. The group was very polite and encouraging, knowing that everyone starts somewhere.  

As you can see, the sky may not be the limit if you're a Marathoner for Life. 

The Firecracker Races were held in the Portland, Oregon area over the 4th of July weekend. Since the 4th fell on the Thursday in 2013, race director Steve Walters upped the ante on the 2011 Firecracker Triple and last year's Firecracker Double to create the Quadzilla. The event weekend consists of :
Foot Traffic Flat (Full/Half/5K races available)
Summerlake Loopy (Full/Half)
Freedom Marathon (Full/Half) 
Stars and Stripes Marathon (Full/Half).  
Our friends Kerry and Michael Caldwell did the Quadzuki (4 Half Marathons) last weekend. Kerry has started a Racewalk Revolution Facebook Page and is getting her website started as well. Check them out (and check out the collection of bling)!

Kerry and Michael Caldwell's Bling Haul from the Firecracker Quadzuki

Other multiple-race events include the Quadrathon (Ireland, mid-August) and the Seattle Quadzilla and Quadzuki (Thanksgiving Holiday weekend). If you want to throw in a little travel, Mainly Marathons runs several series with the races close to state borders for additional bragging rights. 
Day of the Dead Series (4 races, 4 days, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico over the Halloween week).
The Dust Bowl Marathon Series (5 races, 5 days in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico in late-March)
Center of the Nation Series (5 races, 5 days in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska in mid-September). Dust Bowl and Center of the Nation also offer half-marathons for the mere mortals among us.
Discounts for Mainly Marathon events are available for members of 50 States Club50 States Half Club50 States + DCHalf FanaticsHalf2Run.
The Hatfield McCoy Marathon offers back to back half marathons as part of the full marathon. Technically, this can be seen as two half marathons in two states on the same day since they are timed separately. Some hardcore Fanatics wonder if this is just a really good workaround, though.