Friday, April 24, 2009

Moving on from Boston

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon, I am not feeling my best. My resting heart rate is elevated at 58 (usually 48 to 50), and I have a bit of a cough and a sore throat. But no big deal. I've been back on the rowing machine the last three days (5000 meter every morning in about 23 minutes, HR just over 130) and the worst of the pain and stiffness in the legs are gone. Not planning to run until May 5th, which is going to be difficult. I have pulled a calf muscles at least 3 times in the past in the immediate post-marathon time-frame and if I went out for even a slow 5-mile jog this weekend, I'd probably be limping back. So none of that.

Instead, I'll be upping the distances on the C-2 and start to mix in some weights, core exercises and stretch bands this weekend. Now that I am not training for a marathon (comforting thought of the day!) I have no excuse not to lose some weight. So for the next few months, I will be making yet another attempt (this is getting old, I know) at finding my lost abs. Quite frankly, I'm not betting on it. Their reappearance is about as likely as finding Jimmy Hoffa alive. But we'll see.

Talking of weight, when I got on the scale on Tuesday, the day after the marathon, I had ballooned to 167 lbs; apparently this is not unusual as the body retains a lot of fluids to cope with the self-inflicted damage. By yesterday, I was back to a more respectable 162. The mid to low 150's would be closer to my ideal BMI, so that will be the goal by summer's end.

Running is not completely out of the picture: Kathleen and I have signed up for the Summer Kick-Off 5K at Clear Creek High School on May 9. I won't be doing a whole lot of running until then, but a 5K would be a good way to ease back into it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Beaten down in Beantown

[For photographs, see below]

Veni, vidi, ivi. I came, I saw, I left. That about sums up my one and only Boston Marathon. There was no conquering, only a huge sense of relief when I crossed the heralded finish line in Boston's Back Bay in a time of 4:16 and change. My 15th and last marathon race started well enough but by the end I was hanging on for dear life. Yes it was that bad, a seemingly endless, painful plod from mile 19 or so onwards, sheer willpower forcing agonizing step after agonizing step from legs and feet that had nothing left in them.

In weeks and months to come, the pain will disappear and the painful memories will recede. I will always have that much sought after medal and the next time someone finds out I am a runner and asks whether I've run Boston, I will be able to say 'yes'. And then change the subject.

It is not as if I had gone into the race expecting great things. A knee injury and untimely travel disrupted and shortened my training cycle, and I knew that I would be lucky to break 4 hours. What I had no inkling of and certainly did not anticipate, was a grueling and painful death march which tested every bit of my resolve. In 15 times of attempting the full marathon distance, I've never had a DNF, and I wasn't about to mar that unblemished record at Boston. It is Boston after all. So despite every fiber in my legs protesting mightily step after step, I kept running - never walking - although at a veritable snail's pace towards the end.

Would I attempt it again? Probably not. Would I encourage anyone else to try and qualify and run it? Of course. I am taking back with me to Texas a little piece of the magic that is the Boston Marathon. Even though the Newton Hills and Heartbreak Hill in particular ate me alive, I am now part of a great and ongoing tradition, one of the relatively small band of runners who qualified for and completed Boston. I am thrilled and honored to have reached that cherished status and I will wear my Boston jacket with pride.

In retrospect, I suppose I should consider myself very fortunate to have even made it to the starting line of the Boston Marathon. It took a perfect set of circumstances for me to qualify by the headshakingly thin margin of one second. 3:45:59. A beneficial conflation of good weather, no wind, a flat (Houston) course, a great training group (all credit to Mark Coleman who was then heading up the Katy Fit Green Group) and a very fast last mile, thanks to timely advice from Sean Wade of Houston's Kenyan Way. So if I were being honest with myself, I'd have to concede that my long-distance 'career' peaked on that January day in 2007. That was my finest hour as a runner, even if I did not realize it then.

So what went wrong on Monday? Nothing extraordinary. Yes the course is difficult but conditions were quite good, other than for some pesky headwinds. I was just not adequately prepared. Most significantly, I did not have enough consecutive weeks of substantially high mileage under the belt. Some runners may do well on less, but long and painful experience clearly shows that I cannot expect to run a decent marathon time with less than 8 consecutive weeks or so of minimum 50 miles per week, preferably more. My other big mistake this year was to forgo my tried and trusted weekly tempo run during which I would do 7 or 8 miles or so at 10K pace. Too few long runs and too little 'serious' tempo running = lack of endurance.

My Boston experience was fun and rewarding in many other ways, beyond the actual running itself. On Saturday night, Kathleen and I attended a Runners World FE. For the uninitiated, that stands for Forum Event, when a bunch of widely dispersed internet running buddies get together and try to put names to faces, or rather faces to names or forum monikers. So 'Smick' becomes Jessica, RTN is actually Beth in real life, and so on. What was amazing, was how we all instantly got along, having shared months of daily runs, races, training programs, progress, hopes, dreams and the inevitable setbacks, on the RW Boston Forum. We even had a special technical shirt complete with logo, and many of us exchanged gifts. What a group! What a party!

I reveled in everything that makes Boston Boston. Taking the 'T' early on Monday morning with thousands of other runners doing the same thing, converging alongside the Boston Commons for the almost ritual bus procession to Hopkinton. Convoy after convoy of yellow school buses taking off en masse, with another set of buses charging up to fill the vacated space. Again and again, they swallow up several hundred slightly tense to downright nervous runners, chatting away to their seat mates about the weather, their expectations for the race, where they are from and invariably, whether this running of the Boston Marathon was their first time or not.

And so we ended up in the athlete's village in Hopkinton where I stood in a short line for water, bananas, bagels, coffee and Gatorade, and a very long line for a portable toilet. I bumped into a couple of people from the FE, but otherwise I just walked around and found a quiet spot to relax on my comfy stadium seat, trying to take it all in like a kid's first time at the circus. What a spectacle, what an experience!

Then it was time to walk quietly through the barricaded streets of Hopkinton down to the starting corrals, a bit like sheep being taken for a shearing. Due to yet another wait at a portable toilet en route, I just barely made it to my 18th corral, when we were off. Four minutes later I crossed the start line and pushed the 'start' button on my Garmin. My first few minutes of the 113th Boston Marathon were exhilarating, as they probably were for anyone who has ever run this greatest of all marathons. Here, before you, went Johnny Kelley, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, and a string of unbelievably fast male and female athletes from Kenya, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Some of them, such as Dire Tune of Ethiopia, we've seen here in Houston as well. She's won the Houston Marathon a couple of times. Incidentally the overall male winner in 2009 - Deriba Merga - also won the Chevron Houston Marathon earlier this year. Note to would-be Boston winners: stop in Houston first.

By Mile 10 my heart rate still looked good, but the first sign of impending disaster showed up all too soon in the form of a painful and steadily tightening right (upper) quad muscle. At the halfway mark, boosted by the incredible cheering of the Wellesley College girls, I was still harboring ambitions of a respectable finish. By Mile 17, where Kathleen came out for a very welcome word of encouragement, I mustered a smile but my interior dialogue was grim. You're not even close to being done with the hills, I was saying to myself, yet you've already expended far more than half your energy. And so it was. By the time I hit the sharp downhill section after Heartbreak Hill, my day was over. Pain and suffering ensued as I tottered along on rubbery legs and blistered feet, grimly hanging on as hundreds of runners caught up to and passed me. Honestly, it was just the crowd support that kept me going. I have never seen such enthusiastic cheering at a marathon. You'd think we were leading the race, for the reception we got practically every step of the way.

When I took a right on Hereford and a left on Boylston I momentarily suppressed the agony to take in what will be my lasting memory of Boston. A grand spectacle of hundreds of wildly cheering spectators, urging us on to the finish line and yelling out congratulations. The Boston crowd is no doubt the best there is anywhere. Knowledgeable, vocal and highly supportive, they are out there in their hundreds of thousands, cold temperatures or not. A standout section was at Boston College where the cheers of support rivaled Wellesley. It was thrilling!

Had I known what Boston would be like, I would certainly have tried to train harder, short of running through injuries which can have bad long-term effects. Having qualified and completed the race, I will encourage all serious marathon runners to go for it. Just be smart: don't start out too fast and conserve your energy for the last third of the race.

One's first Boston is supposed to be a victory lap. So I will try to forget the pain and remember the joy. I doubt that I will ever make it back there (as I said it took everything I had to qualify and I am not getting any younger), but even if I never do it again, Boston will always be the pinnacle of my marathon experience.

Old North Square just half a block from where we stayed at La Capella Suites in the heart of Boston's North End.

Paul Revere House, just around the corner from where we stayed. Too bad about the cars in the foreground. Can't even pretend that this is 1775... I did not realize it until writing this report, that we were there on the anniversary of Revere's famous midnight ride which started on April 18 1775. Weird fact: the first brand of cigarettes I ever smoked just after leaving high school? Paul Revere. I quit more than 15 years ago.

A statue of Paul Revere on the Paul Revere Mall, along the Freedom Trail

Another view of the statue with the well-known Old North Church in the background

How you get around in Boston. On the 'T' of course.

Our single best meal in Boston (and there were several contenders!) was at Trattoria Il Panino in the North End

We discovered this natural food store just a block away from our hotel, on Richmond St. in the North End.

We get it that Yankees suck, this is Boston after all. France sucks? I thought that spat was over by the time M. Sarkozi became President?

No visit to Boston's North End is complete without visiting Mike's Pastries to purchase some cannolis and other baked goods. Not much there for vegans but there are lots of churches around to seek forgiveness, if you stray just this once...

This gentleman at Mike's Pastries was very gracious to allow photography inside the store. I was surprised at how friendly Bostonians were - and talkative! Particularly about the Redsox, baseball, the marathon, food and the weather.

Boston's Old South Church on Copley Square in Boston's Back Bay section

The VIP tents on Copley Square

At the finish line on Saturday, before picking up my bib and blissfully unaware that we would have to stand in line for 45 minutes to pay for the Boston Marathon jacket.

Me - and several other runners who no doubt beat me to the finish line - at around Mile 17.5. I was still feeling semi-ok but the smile was not a true reflection of my state of mind or body.

Just minutes after the end of the race, hungry and cold but smiling nonetheless. Having a Boston Marathon medal draped around your neck will elicit a grin even under the worst of circumstances. I was ready to get the heck out of Dodge by that stage!

The area around Copley Square is a zoo in the aftermath of the marathon.

Runners who had just picked up their bags from the buses, on their way to the family reunion areas, which is by the way the best place to meet anybody after the race.

Another pic of the area a half mile or so from the finish line. This was around 3:00P by which time approximately 20,000 of the 26,000+ runners had completed the race.

Part of the Boston skyline and waterfront as seen from the harbor - on a nice day! This and most of the pics to follow were taken by Kathleen. I was resting up in the hotel room. Fat lot that helped!

Another view of the waterfront

The Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge is a Boston icon

The Fletcher-class destroyer USS Cassin Young, which saw extensive service during World War II, now berthed in the Boston Navy Yard

Part of the Boston skyline as seen from a tour boat on Boston Harbor

Another view from Boston Harbor

Old Ironsides as seen from the harbor cruise

On board Old Ironsides, aka USS Constitution

A U.S. Navy crew member on board the U.S.S. Constitution provides information about the guns used on the ship.

Not much privacy in the sleeping quarters on Old Ironsides.

Closer look at a gun on the USS Constitution.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Boston Marathon countdown starts

Well it is Day -2 and Kathleen and I are in Boston! Got here last night, about 90 minutes late (thanks Continental!) but otherwise an ok flight. We found our way to Boston's North End quite easily by way of a short, fast trip on the Blue Line to Aquarium Station, and then about 10 minutes walk. La Capella Suites - the bed & breakfast where we will be spending the next 3 nights, is just a couple of blocks or so off Hanover, which is the 'main drag' of the North End, Boston's Italian area. And is it ever Italian! Italian restaurants literally everywhere, pastry shops, coffee shops, Italian grocers, the works. We stocked up on a few pastries at Mike's, which is one of the best known shops of its kind. Last night (Friday) it was so crowded we didn't even venture inside but this morning at around 1100A there was no line at all. I am surprised at how friendly and talkative the natives are, happy to chat about the marathon, the Red Sox, the weather, whatever.

We literally stumbled upon the Freedom Trail and I took a few pics of the Old North Church and Paul Revere's Statue, the light wasn't great though. This afternoon we will be going to the Hynes Convention Center on Boylston Street to pick up my bib for the race. Tonight after an early pasta dinner there is a Runner's World Forum Event at the Boston Beerworks on Canal Street. It will be fun to put faces to the names of so many of the runners who have been posting on a near daily basis on the Boston Forum. As for the race, the weather forecast so far is mixed: the temperatures look ok with a minimum around 40F and a maximum around 50F, but unfortunately it appears that there will be a westerly or NW wind of up to 20MPH or so. I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that I will have to be very fortunate to equal my BQ time, and more likely to finish around 4 hrs.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The thrills of soccer

Kathleen and I had some great seats at a Saturday night soccer match between the Houston Dynamo and New York Red Bulls at Robertson Stadium, on the grounds of the University of Houston. Fun and entertaining yes; exciting - not really. Few really good shots at the goal on either side, and too many mistakes. After 90 minutes of pretty intense but futile back and forth attacks, defense and counter-attacks, the game ended with a rather tame 0-0 scoreless tie. The 19,000 or so spectators had a nice time nonetheless: there was plenty of beer, some Dynamo Girls action during the halftime break, and incessant drum-playing, chanting, cheering and booing, particularly from the eastern 'end zone' grandstand. I would definitely like to return some time again soon.

Some orange-clad Houston Dynamo fans - and our view of the field

This area of the stadium - the east 'end zone' is known for being particularly boisterous and noisy, with incessant drum-beating, cheers, chants and boos ringing out. A large contingent of these ultra-partisan fans show up in a big group, marching into the stadium like a conquering army.

Earlier on Saturday, we ran a 5K at Rice University. The official results aren't up yet, but I ran pretty close to 21:17 which was a nice confidence booster for Boston. Unfortunately a 5K time isn't a great predictor for a marathon time; if it were I'd be finishing under 3:30 - which is not going to happen. This morning's 10-miler with Steve and Allison proved that. Admittedly it was extremely humid and warm, but I was really laboring towards the end. Hopefully this week's much reduced running and moratorium on strenuous cross-training (surely a little lifting can't hurt?) will help to rejuvenate my tired legs. I am very relieved to have my last long run under the belt, the end is in sight!

Kathleen and I with Sammy at the Flying Owl 5K race on Saturday

Friday, April 10, 2009

A computer virus ruins my day

I am a morning person who usually gets 70% of my work done by 1100A or so. Not so yesterday. Like a puff adder waiting to be trodden on along a pathway in the African bush, there was something equally sinister coiled up in the innards of my usually trusty Dell XPS computer. So when I tried to launch my program, an absolutely vital component of my daily workday, nothing happened. The icon just sat there on the start menu, about as useful as a glass eye on a blind person. With my heart rate and blood pressure increasing rapidly, I tried again, and again. Nothing. The alarmist in me was already thinking dire thoughts of losing thousands of addresses, an unlikely event as I use an automated off-site backup system. But such is panic, unreasonable and irrational.

With a little bit of sage advice from my son, who is a computer science graduate, I calmed down and called Surprisingly, I was on the line to a friendly and competent technician in less than a minute. I won’t bore you with the details, but he couldn’t fix the problem, telling me that my computer was likely infected with a virus. And so, I spent much of what remained of my productive day, on the 'phone with Balasubramanian, my newest best friend who works for McAfee. "Just call me Bala, for short..." Bala sits in a cubicle somewhere in Asia - I thought it would be impolite to ask. I hope his cricket team wins all their matches this year because he succeeded in extracting the virus from my Dell. Good job Bala! Killed my day, though. Might be time to consider a Mac. If it works anything as well as my iPod, why not?

I was hoping that my day would improve with a late afternoon race, stage 2 of HARRA’s Tour de Bayou, at Spotts Park near the intersection of Memorial Dr and Heights Blvd. It didn’t. This free race was worth what I paid for it. A little over three miles of huffing and puffing around (two out and back circuits) in what must be Houston's hilliest pocket park. It seemed like all steep up or downhill with almost no nice flat stretches to recover. Makes you wonder why so many of the city's elite runners (it was great to see them zoom by) would voluntarily show up. Must be the bragging rights. I did enjoy chatting with a few other Striders before and after the race though.

Kathleen and I will be departing for Boston a week from today. It is starting to feel real. Judging by yesterday’s race, my hopes are not very high for a fast race, but I won’t worry about it. Anything around 4 hours will be fine by me. It is likely to be a one and only experience, so I will be taking it all in and trying to enjoy the experience, rather than running myself into a state of total exhaustion. Perhaps one day soon I can help Kath to also qualify and return as a spectator.

Friday, April 3, 2009

2 year vegan anniversary

I can hardly believe that it has been two years already since I changed my diet - for health reasons - from omnivore to vegan. Out with the lamb chops, in with the lentils. Goodbye bacon and cheese burgers, hello chickpea cutlets.

So what is the verdict, 24 months into this rather drastic lifestyle change? Certainly, I am a lot healthier. Just more than two years ago my total cholesterol was over 200, and despite racking up 30 to 40 miles running per week, I was on a statin and metformin, which is often prescribed for diabetics. I had not quite reached the clinical threshold, but was definitely in the pre-diabetic stage. When my (then) GP handed me the results of the annual physical check-up, with several big fat H's (for High) staring up at me, and several sections highlighted with his blood red marker, I literally felt sick. Several weeks dragged by before I could get myself to fill the prescriptions, and it wasn't until many weeks later, that I actually started taking the recommended dosage.

Did they work? Yes, almost too well. My total cholesterol dropped below 100, which brought up an 'L' on the next annual physical checkup report. I hated being on the medication though. Then, on Sat 31 March 2007, I noticed a tiny article in a Dallas newspaper about Dr. Neil Barnard's Program to Reverse Diabetes. Back in Houston the following day, I bought the book and became a vegan overnight. It was tough the first couple of weeks or so, probably more so for my family than me. What were we going to eat? It is almost ridiculous how 'brain-washed' we were about meat & other animal products being the only 'real' food. But we made it. A few Vegan Meetups later and some more reading (T. Colin Campbell, Esselstyn, McDougall and others), and I soon started to feel more confident about my decision.

Armed with a large Kuhn Rikon pressure cooker (which I still use at least 3 or 4 times per week) I started cooking up big pots of beans, chickpeas and wheat berries, and rather obscure grains such as millet and quinoa started appearing on our plates. It was quite the journey of discovery, and it hasn't stopped yet. As some of you may know, I am working my way through Veganomicon, a simply fantastic - and often hilariously irreverent - vegan cookbook. Lots of wonderfully inventive and delicious things there. One day earlier this week, for example, our dinner consisted of baked marinated Asian tofu with Wasabi mashed potatoes and Corn and Edamame Salad. Hardly any fat, zero cholesterol, plenty of protein and loaded with other nutrients & likely a good dose of fiber. Just as importantly, it tasted every bit as good anything we might have served 2 years ago.

Two years on a plant-based diet and all my cholesterol and triglyceride readings are within the desirable range; no need for any medication to control cholesterol or blood sugar, blood pressure at around 100/60, and body weight stable around 160 lbs. I have literally not been sick a day since April 1 2007, and have more energy now than in my 30's. And then there's the running. Let's face it, there is no way anyone my age would be able to withstand the rigors of training for Boston on a diet which is deficient in any way.

The Boston training cycle is rapidly coming to an end. I would have loved to have had an extra month to train, but April 20 is just around the corner. This week I have had a few very good, hard runs:

* 4 X mile repeats on Tuesday, all within seconds of 7:00 - and I could have tacked on one more if I had to.
* 9 miles on Wednesday, 4 of which were on the Ho Chi Minh bike trail at Memorial Park. Talk about fun! It takes a lot of energy and concentration to safely negotiate the twists and turns, dips, ditches, crude bridges, moguls and roots galore. Average pace about 8:35.
* 5.5 miles on Thursday, including a hard 4.5 mile race, Stage 1 of the Tour de Bayou, a HARRA (Houston area Road Running Association) event. I finished 44th overall, could probably have done quite a bit better, but did not have much in the tank after Tuesday and Wednesday's workouts.

Tomorrow will be my last long (16 to 18 mile, depending on weather) hilly run at New Ulm. Bring on the taper!