Thursday, March 27, 2014

Racing with Heart(-rate Training) - Rock 'n' Roll Dallas Half Marathon 2014

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It's been 50 days, the longest we've gone without a race in year and that includes Ron recovering from surgery last August. We went from doing five races in the space of five weeks, capped off by doing two full marathons in the span of 4 days on different continents and we somehow forgot to plan a race for the month of February. So what's a Marathoner For Life to do?

After going three and a half years without setting a half marathon PR between 2006 and 2009, I improved my PR twice in 2010, 3 times in 2011, twice officially in 2012 (we have timing mat and traffic questions that may have made it four PR's), and three times in 2013. I've been getting faster, but the incremental improvement has been getting smaller every year. 

We've dedicated 2014 to heart rate training. After eight years of marathoning, it felt like the right time to take greater advantage of our Garmin technology and educate ourselves more on the nuances of the heart. We’re only a couple months into this journey and yet we’re already learning a lot.
First things first. We've been in recovery mode ever since completing the White Continent and Punta Arenas marathons. Since then, our weekly long training has been slow and steady, keeping our heart rates in the 130 - 135 beats/minute (Zone 1 - 2, depending on your calculation method) as long as we can. The idea here is to elevate your heart rate, but only to the point where your body can easily clear out any lactate build up easily and you never go into a state of oxygen deprivation.
Thanks to the advice of veteran marathoner, Al, we've been monitoring our heart rate on flat ground for miles at a time. We end our training when we can no longer sustain the low heart rate regardless of how slow we go. For a benchmark, the training pace was anywhere from one to three minutes per mile slower than race pace.
Susan has successfully experienced this phenomenon of spiking heart rate once,  after about 11 miles, with her heart rate coming up into the mid 140's without being able to bring it down. It was alarming when it happened so it was good to know what was coming in advance. Ron went nearly 20 miles before he spiked into the 140's. Regardless, our race in Dallas was going to be the test to see what affect this novel (to us) approach had on our race performance.
The results are now in. Apparently we've successfully increased our level of metabolic efficiency. Since we’re still new to the physiology of heart rate training, bear with us as we do our best to communicate our understanding of what is going on.
  • Both of us were surprised to notice that we ate less during the race - a sign of greater efficiency. Ron actually didn't eat anything at all, a first for a half marathon.
  • Both of us were surprised to notice that we drank less during the race. This could have just been due to the colder weather that day, but again, it's a sign of lower overall exertion.
  • Negative split accomplished: a strong indicator that you tackled the course well is having reserve energy at end such that your second half split time is faster than your first. 
  • Susan’s last mile of the half marathon was not only her fastest mile that day but it smashed her best timed mile pace by 18 seconds. An eight-time half marathon walker Elana paced Susan at the end of her 58th half marathon, proving that anyone can inspire even the veterans among us.
  • No muscle soreness later that day or the next day. Susan was quite tired after the race but physically our lactic acid clearance threshold seems to have improved preventing muscle soreness.
How did we feel right after the race? Ron felt great, like he didn't even work for a 2:36 walking half marathon that would have been a PR three years ago. Susan said, “This race seemed relatively good, but I didn't feel like I did very well”. It wasn't until Ron reminded her that a 2:40 walking half marathon was as fast or faster than most of her run/walk times.
Heart rate training further engaged! Stay tuned for more as the year progresses. 
Random References:
Heart Rate Zone Calculator at Digifit. Use as a starting point only. It does not take into account individual situations, weather, humidity, hydration and sleep.
Recent article at about training with the Lactate Threshold method as a different direction in building endurance.

Faces in the Crowd
On another note, Susan’s most vivid memories on the course often come from things that she overhears and observes. A shout out goes to the Team in Training Texas participants and coaches on the RnR Dallas half marathon course on Sunday. 
Overheard: “If you ever get into any trouble on the racecourse and need help, look for a TNT coach; they will always help you even if you’re not with TNT.” Great to hear! Most TNT coaches absolutely abide by this philosophy that they are there to help anyone in need to the best of their ability. In addition to it being the right thing to do, you never know who might sign up for TNT next season because a supportive encounter out on the race course.
Observed:  A non-TNT race participant was sitting down on the curb surrounded by several people. A TNTer ran up to her and said, “Don’t worry, my TNT coach is just ahead. I’ll call him and he’ll come help you.” Later that TNTer ran by me and I thanked her for what she did to help out a fellow racer who wasn't with TNT (not yet at least). It’s that spirit of camaraderie out on the course and the feeling that, ‘we’re all in this together’ that makes me proud to have been affiliated with the Team in Training organization for so many years.
Keep up the good work – GO TEAM!

Dallas was a great trip for the Rock n Roll Gypsies. We haven't seen Kevin since his 5-second walk-by at RNR Las Vegas.

Pre-race dinner at Ravenna. Kevin was able to get his Alfredo fix.
Al goes old-school with the original RNR Las Vegas singlet in 43 degree weather. He's also one of the hundred or so Legacy runners who've done all 5 RNR Dallas races.
Al, Susan and The Biggest Loser Season 5 contestant Dan Evans. Dan caught up to Al and me at the finish line, just in time for the three of us to have our pictures taken gawking at the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. We were a little distracted in the last 50 yards of the race.
If you're looking for more races, The Biggest Loser Run/Walk has added a Theme Park Race Series with 10k and 5k races in the Six Flags locations. We've signed up for the two in California that landed on free weekends. Yay!

Veteran Rocker Joe Harris celebrated his 100th Half Marathon. Michelle Bogush, Jim and Beth Austin were also at the race, but we didn't see them at the finish tent, probably because they were freezing their butts off.

Joe at the finish line VIP tent. The 100 Medals were a gift from fellow Gypsy Beth Deloria-Austin.

This year's Rock 'n' Roll Dallas was the 5th year of the event. There were 9678 finishers in the half marathon compared to 10711 in 2013. The median finish time was 2:15:14. Weather this year was a typical (for March) low to mid-40's during the race and it didn't warm up much until noon. Bring some warm clothes if you are waiting at the finish line for a ride back since its a point to point course. Note that Uber operates in Dallas and there was a $20 credit for first time users in the Rock n Roll goodie bag. We splurged for VIP for Joe's party, so we were able to take the CGI Shuttle back to the Omni.

This was our second Rock 'n' Roll Dallas, last coming to the city when Susan was doing the commute in 2011. Ron had a goal of setting a personal best for the state of Texas, which he did by over 14 minutes. It was Ron's 57th half marathon (43rd Rock n Roll event) and Susan's 58th (44th). While we aren't likely to register for RNR Dallas 2015, we'll come back in the next few years.

We had a few good dining experiences to add to a great list complied at #CGIEats Dallas edition, written by the CGI superstar Shayne McCoy. Look for Shayne's Rock Blogs before your next Rock 'n' Roll race for some great tips!

Y.O. Ranch Steakhouse
We started with the YO Queso and had the Buffalo Filet and Pecan Crusted Trout for our early dinner. Top that off with the Pecan Pie and Apple Tart and you should be set for your post-race celebration.

Price: $$$

Tiff's Treats:
After hitting Slickables after Rock n Roll Arizona earlier, I've learned to appreciate the fresh-baked cookie/ice cream sandwich. Tiff's uses Blue Bell Ice Cream. And they deliver.

Price: $

Yumilicious Frozen Yogurt:
Some of the more interesting flavors include Mango Habanero, Avacado Tart and Maple Bacon Donut. Flavors rotate daily, but there's always a selection for the adventurous and main-stream dessert aficionados. 

Price: $

Monday, March 17, 2014

When I Grow Up... - Rock 'n' Roll Arizona, 2014

"If I lived to be 200 and have Alzheimer's, I'll still remember that weekend" ~ Al Hernandez.

There's something to be said about longevity. People who live to be a hundred, who are married for 50 years or who continue to race year after year have earned our respect simply for doing what they're doing.  Such is the case for our friend Al, who completed his 250th half marathon at Rock 'n' Roll Arizona this January.

It was probably a good thing Al didn't see the decorations we had for our 50th half marathons in Cleveland and St. Louis last fall. It may have spoiled the surprise.
With Caryn, Susan and Ron doing the planning, the entire weekend was one long recognition of the accomplishment. Al is not the type to relinquish control of anything so we took it pretty seriously. Just a few looks at the weekend from our perspective.

Ron, Al, Susan, and Caryn at the Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Expo

Just to keep things lively, we gave Al a scavenger hunt game in the form of a bingo card. He had to find and take pictures with (among other things) a Marathon Maniac, an original Half Fanatics shirt, a Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Tour Stop shirt, an SA2LV participant, the drum core cheer station, and a Boston Marathon jacket. He successfully found them all.

After hitting the expo, we did lunch at True Food Kitchen. This is an excellent place for people with food sensitivities, featuring vegan, vegetarian, gluten free selections and items designed to fit an anti-inflammatory diet popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil. The presentation is about as good as the food too!

Al is a big fan of Despicable Me. Good thing too, since we three "accidentally" wore our minion shirts that day.
Not embarrassing at all!
At our pre-race pasta at La Bocca Urban we presented Al with a collection of pictures and well wishes from his friends. Susan spent over a month putting it together. Al said he nearly cried at a few of them. Thanks so much to the countless Half Fanatics, Marathon Maniacs, IronMan and Rock 'n' Roll folks who contributed pictures and quotes. 

Dinner was followed by a special dessert, ice cream sandwiches at Slickables. Slickables will be an absolute MUST the next time we visit Phoenix. They serve fresh premium ice cream inside cookies fresh baked with natural ingredients for $2 apiece. So good, you'll want to experiment with different combinations and can still do it on a budget. The selection depends on the day you get there, but they had my favorite snickerdoodle cookies to put around a good scoop of chocolate chip. 

Race day was more of the same. Custom Bib designed by Caryn, ordered from Races 2 Remember (R2R FB page).

Starting line interview with John "The Penguin" Bingham, arranged by our awesome friend Ann Wessling.

Caryn was having a good day so she pulled ahead. Al stayed with Susan and me for most of the race as this was our cool down race before doing two marathons the following weekend. We heard a lot of comments on the bib. About 75% of them were "Congratulations" and 25% were "You're CRAZY!"  After SA2LV, we now take the latter as a compliment. My favorite response was "yeah, we'll it's actually not that impressive. It took him 130 years to do it."

Even with the focus on him, Al still found time to help us. He remembered the low-tech video camera I used in San Antonio and Las Vegas and I mentioned I wanted to do the same for our Antarctica trip coming up. Al set me up with a new hat mounted Garmin Virb camera that can be controlled by a Garmin Fenix watch. I've been having a blast playing with the new features. RNR AZ was a great road test. I was able to capture some good footage on Antarctica before the battery gave out after three hours in near zero temperatures.

Shot from the hat-cam Garmin Virb. One of many that turned out well and many more that didn't.
This wasn't going to be a fast race for any of us. Al took pictures at each of the mile markers and the 5, 10 and 15 k signs. He had to take a few more to fill out the bingo card (which he finally finished just after the race).

Al and his Double-Down medal, enjoying a post-race refreshment with Ann Wessling - BINGO!
Given the immensity of the achievement, I was wondering why Al wasn't more excited about the day. He was, of course, in his own low key way, but he also said that it was nothing special. After all, he'd been in good health for over 30 years and it's just a matter of time and not getting bored of the sport. At that moment, he looked across the finish area and pointed out a man and woman. He had an prosthetic on his left leg below the knee. She was Misty Diaz, a woman with Spina Bifida who started on the half marathon circuit just last year. Al asked in a humble way, "What have I had to overcome?"

It's certainly a different perspective for me. We love coming back and we have the health and the means to do it. Some people aren't as driven or as lucky. It's good to keep in mind that we may not always be able to do the things we enjoy. 

But in the mean time, keep enjoying it.

250 half marathons. Maybe some day, when I grow up, I'll be like Al.


2014 was the 11th year for Rock 'n' Roll Arizona. The course changed slightly this year to finish in Tempe Beach Park instead of the parking lot of Sun Devil Stadium. Competitor once again did a great job recruiting volunteers for the full and half marathon courses. Weather was pretty ideal, but like it always is in Phoenix, it was pretty dry. Hydrate well when you're in town for this race.

This was our fifth RNR Arizona after racing in 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2013 (all at the half distance). For whatever reason, RNR Arizona's have not been our best races. Ron had to deal with mysterious chest pains in 2013 and an over-indulgence of fiber the night before in 2012. With a pair of full marathons coming in the next few weeks, we took it easy and enjoyed the moment for 2014. Someday, we may actually push this race since it's very PR-worthy. The course is relatively flat with the exception of a new hill at mile 8. Otherwise, with the long stretches of straight road and typical cool temps. Counting half and full marathons, this was our 68th event and kicks off 2014's quest for a fourth Rock Idol medal. 

Special thanks also to Kamika Smith for taking this picture. He made a side trip down after finishing a half marathon in Utah the day before, JUST to see Al finish his 250th.
We've already registered for RNR Arizona 2015. Like this should come as a surprise to anyone :)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ever Wonder Who's Standing Next to You in the Corral at the Starting Line?

We've been to dozens of Expo clinic presentations and there's a common theme about marathoning being a "great equalizer". When the gun goes off, it really doesn't matter if you're a college student, a movie star, a CEO, an elite athlete, or a first-timer. Everyone follows the same course, regardless of speed, age, or technique. 

How people get there is a different story - it's usually pretty amazing.

I guess I should have considered that when we went on our trip with Marathon Adventures. Traveling to the bottom of the world to do a race takes a special kind of crazy. Doing it expecting to finish two marathons, potentially on consecutive days, takes things to a whole new level. It's people like us who can weather anything, including having to watch the Super Bowl in Spanish.

The room was so loud, no one could hear the commentators anyway. The only bummer was that the commercials were local ads only.
It's only after the races that we started to get a feel for this amazing group of individuals. I'm going to think about this the next time I line up in my corral at the start and look around.

Is there a world record holder here? Brett Weigner extended his record by completing the Seven Continent circuit for the ninth time. He's also the only person ever to complete an Ultramarathon at the North and South poles. Since we left Punta Arenas, he's finished (and placed in) races in Africa and the US National Snowshoe championships. One more Antarctica race will give him his 10th complete circuit.

Brent at the White Continent Marathon 2014. Photo Credit Imran Ahmed
Maybe I'll see a world record being set. Kristen DeSousa completed her Seven Continent circuit in just 89 days. At 15, she now holds an entry in the Alternate Book of Records for being the youngest person to complete the circuit in the shortest time as well as the youngest Canadian to complete the circuit. The Guinness Book of World Records does not acknowledge anyone under 16. Kristen is also doing this to raise money to build schools for underprivileged children in Nepal through the Children of the Mountain charity. Her mother Sharon ran with Kristen every step of the way.

Kristin with her medals from seven continents after finishing the Ultra at Punta Arenas
Maybe someone will start a run for a world record. Maria Conciecao started a quest to complete Ultra marathons on all seven continents over a span of just 42 days. She's doing this to raise funds for children in the slums of Bangladesh with the Maria Cristina Foundation. With Maria on her journey is Ziyad Rahim. He set the world record for the Marathon Grand Slam, finishing marathons on 7 continents in under 42 days. He is raising funds for CARE "Million Child Mission" that aims to educate one million children in Pakistan marginalized and NORMA, a degenerative disease that affects marginalized children in Africa. Maria and Ziyad finished that quest on March 9th at the Louis Massyn Ultra Marathon in South Africa.

Maria at the Punta Arenas Ultra Marathon. Photo Credit Imran Ahmed

Ziya at the White Continent Ultra Marathon. Photo Credit Imran Ahmed
Maybe there's a future star. Ten year old Nikolas Toocheck has finished four of the seven continents. He was recently awarded the Prudential Volunteer Service Award for raising money for Operation Warm. The "Running the World for Children" campaign has raised more than $28,000 to provide coats for impoverished children. Nik holds two single-age world records for the 10 Mile distance. This weekend, he claimed gold medals in the USATF Indoor National Championships for high jump and the 1500 meter racewalk. His father Daniel runs every step of the way with Nik, at least when Dan can keep up.

Nik and his father Daniel finishing at Punta Arenas. Photo Credit Imran Ahmed.
Maybe it's a country's ground breaker. Within a month of the White Continent / Punta Arenas event, Tee Morgan became the sixth black runner, the fourth black woman and, with Abi Adekanmbi, the first Nigerians to run seven marathons on seven continents. 
Tee and Abi at the Maritsburg Marathon, February 23, 2014
Sixty-eight people came from all over the world to run these races. Every one of us had a story to tell, but when we lined up - record holder, future record holder, future star, champion, or ground breaker - all we knew was that it was us against the course. 

During one of our last nights in Punta Arenas, we sat around a table at Okusa, having a few drinks and some chocolate mousse. We went around the table and talked about our next big adventures. Ambrose is going to race Kilimanjaro this spring. Soren is getting ready for Ironman Copenhagen. We found out later that Rob was competing in New Zealand Coast to Coast World Championship. He and his teammate won the 151 mile triathlon. John has finished 6 continents and will be speaking about his experiences at the Bixby Memorial Library in Vergennes, Vermont on March 21st. Esmail was targeting his 100th marathon in Napa in which he finished on March 3rd. We'll be getting the Bay Area gang together for a celebration this week. It's only been a month and a half, but I know a lot has happened since then.

I thought about how it felt when we were just starting out marathoning and how I loved to hear the stories and accomplishments of people who had been racing for years; I aspired to some day have something like that to talk about. It's good to know that we still find people who have done even more than we have and we know there's a lot more out there we can do. People have told us that we inspire them. I'm thrilled to hear people tell us that they've started racing, got back to racing or started on the path to a healthy life because of the stories we post. It's a great feeling to take control of your life. We love being someone in the corral next to you with a story to tell. 

The 2014 White Continent / Punta Arenas Tour Group.
If you happen to be in the corrals at Rock 'n' Roll Dallas in a few weeks, look around and you may find Susan and Ron (link to our blogger profile on Hope to see you there!