Thursday, December 30, 2010

(Science) PhD 101

ChemE stands for chemical engineering.  I have a bachelor's of science from MIT in chemical engineering, and in September 2008 started in the Chemical engineering PhD program at the University of Texas at Austin.  I chose to pursue a PhD because I really enjoy research, and the advanced degree is a necessity for all of the permanent jobs I have considered, both academic and industrial.  I realize that the majority of my posts center around running, but today I'd like to talk about being a PhD candidate.

One thing you may not know is that the majority of science PhD candidates are paid while working towards their degree.  They receive a stipend, health insurance and tuition is paid by the department or advisor.  In return, PhD candidates perform research and/or work as teaching assistants.  The stipend amount varies significantly and depends largely on the field of study and the school.  Engineering programs tend to offer better stipends than sciences, and theoreticians usually have stipends on the low end because that area of research isn't raking in the dough.  Highly ranked programs typically offer the most competitive packages.  In ChemE, UT Austin is ranked 6th by US News and World Report, and their stipend package is particularly generous amongst the top ranked programs.

A masters of chemical engineering is a rarity and unnecessary for a PhD program.  This really throws people off; usually when someone hears I am getting a PhD they assume I already have a masters.  That is absolutely not the case for ChemE, but tends to be true for other fields like mechanical engineering.  In chemical engineering, a masters degree is pretty much unmarketable and does not come with pay increases or a different job title.  Companies routinely hire chemical engineers with bachelors and masters degrees to do the same work.  A PhD however, comes with a significant pay increase, different job title and career path.  Furthermore, admissions into a graduate program for a masters is rare.  This is largely because the masters degree is awarded for course work (i.e. you take classes), which does not have the tangible benefit to the department that research does.  I had several friends from MIT interested in doing a masters in chemical engineering.  They submitted applications to top ranked schools, and their applications were automatically switched over to the PhD program, for which they were admitted.

One of the worst questions you can ask a PhD candidate like myself is how much longer they have.  Unfortunately, I get asked this question all the time, and it makes me feel bad because the answer is not so straightforward and inevitably, I have more time left than I would like to admit.  Many people assume that, like med school or law school or business school or veterinary school, a ChemE PhD program has a set length of time associated with it, and as long as you don't fail anything, you will finish in that time frame.

In reality, graduation hinges on the ability to set forth and accomplish unique research goals.  When I started my PhD, I selected an academic advisor whose lab I work in.  With the help of my advisor, I have crafted a thesis proposal that states my novel research goals.  I then selected a thesis committee and presented my proposed research to them for approval.  This committee is made up of 5 professors; my advisor, 2 additional UT ChemE professors, 1 professor of Cell and Molecular Biology at UT and 1 professor of Chemical Engineering from MIT.  This group of experts in my field are assembled to offer me guidance and suggestions, and evaluate the merit of my work.  When I have met my research goals, I will write a dissertation or thesis document, summarizing my work.  I will provide my committee members with a copy of the dissertation and give an oral presentation of the work.  This final presentation is called a thesis defense.  At that point, the committee will be asked to sign and approve my degree.  All members of the committee need to sign for the PhD to be awarded.  The College of Engineering will then review the degree, but this is usually a formality because they almost never go against the decision of the thesis committee.

The length of time required to achieve a PhD in the sciences is highly dependent on the specific project.  The whole idea behind research is to explore uncharted territory, and with that comes a lot of roadblocks, troubleshooting and failures.  Some people get lucky and have research projects that simply take off and work well from the start.  Others get very unlucky, and work for one or two years on something that completely fails and have to start over.  Most people fall somewhere in between.  The quicker things work and the less roadblocks along the way, the sooner you get your degree.

Two additional factors are the advisor and the department.  Advisors tend to graduate all of their students in the same time frame.  Some keep their students one to two years longer than the average, while others regularly graduate students a full year less than the average.  In my department, and chemical engineering in general, the average time is five or five and a half years.  I realize this is a long time, especially compared to something like an MBA, but the averages in the sciences is typically much more than that.  Biology PhDs at some of the top schools (including MIT) routinely take seven years to complete their degrees.

At the time I am writing this post, I am two and a half years into my PhD.  My advisor is new, with no track record (I joined his group in his first year), so there is no precedent for my group.  I am hoping to graduate in the average 5 years.  Some aspects of my project are working really well and moving along at an acceptable pace.  Unfortunately, some major aspects of my project are roadblocked and progress is stalled.  I also work with mammalian cells, which grow very slowly compared to the yeast and bacteria of my colleagues.  This makes my experiments slower and time consuming.  On the other hand, I have the pleasure of manipulating the genetic engineering of human cool is that?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Running

Yesterday: 9.5 hilly miles in 8:18 min/mile
Today: 7.1 easy miles on trail, 8:19 min/mile

We are amidst the holiday season, and what an excellent time it is for running!  The weather is cooler (in the Northern hemisphere), many of us have time off from work, and with lots of holiday food going around, the extra calorie burn is helpful.  Furthermore, if you are extra nice, maybe someone will gift you with some fun new running gear. 

On Wednesday, I put my run off until the evening because boyfriend needed a ride to the airport.  I had a fair amount of work to do and couldn't get out until 5:30pm, which is when it starts getting dark these days in Austin.  I decided that if I was going to run in the dark, I would make it festive.  I drove down to Townlake and combined a 4 mile hilly loop through a posh neighborhood with a 2.8 mile loop along the river.  This was my first time running the route at night and I was pleasantly surprised!  The neighborhood was beautifully lit up with lots of twinkly lights and decorations.  I usually don't enjoy evening running as much, but this run was particularly festive and enjoyable. 

This week I am house/dog sitting for a family that lives in west Austin.  Texans refer to this part of the state as "hill country," largely because the rest of the state is so flat by comparison.  And while there are no mountains, west Austin definitely has some extreme terrain including rolling hills, ledges and ridges.  I fancied myself a pretty strong hill runner, but running out here has definitely humbled me.  Very few of the roads out here are interconnected, so there is no direction for me to run that doesn't involve ups and downs.  While it makes planning my routes rather intimidating, I am confident that a week of Texas hill running will make me much stronger. 

Happy Holidays to all, and remember to get that run in!  It will make your Christmas day that much more enjoyable.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Running Neuroses

Today: 18.6 mile long run, 2:29:29 (8:02 pace)

Sometimes I wonder whether runners, in general are neurotic, or if I am simply a neurotic person that likes running.  In the 13 years I have been a running, I have developed a lot of habits around this hobby, and over time these habits have been so fixed in their practices that they can certainly be characterized as neurotic behavior.

In fifth grade, it was determined that I was nearsighted, which I wasn't really surprised about because both of my parents wear progressive lenses.  I got glasses, and dutifully wore them throughout the day.  When I started running, I used my glasses.  However, when I started high school, and it became clear to my parents that I would do cross country and track, they decided it was time for me to get contacts.  This was probably a good decision because the cross country courses were typically technical trails, and if my glasses moved around on my face it would make it hard for me to see.  I also skied a lot, and putting ski goggles over glasses is a real pain in the butt.  Anyways, I started wearing contacts roughly 10 years ago.  While I like my glasses and don't mind wearing them for almost any occasion, I never wear them to run.  In fact, in the past ten years, I have probably gone running in glasses less than ten times.  The idea of running without the contacts is so unthinkable to me that I have literally skipped or postponed runs because I did not have them with me.

The watch
I have previously discussed my love of the digital running watch.  I am pretty neurotic about knowing how long and how far I ran.  Frankly, I am willing to estimate the distance when necessary, but I don't like to estimate the time when I can just as easily use the handy chrono feature on my cheap-o watch and get it down to the seconds.  Fortunately, there is little risk of me forgetting my watch, because it almost never leaves my wrist (except when I need to dress up all fancy).  However, I am definitely that neurotic runner that is stopping the chrono timer at every red light, stop sign or cat that walks in front of me.  If I forget to restart the watch (which is a rarity, but has been known to happen), I agonize over how to estimate the now lost time.

The direction I run
This is by far my strongest running neurosis.  Let me explain.  I have a variety of running routes.  Many of them involve loops.  I have very strong opinions about the direction that those loops should be run.  There really isn't a standard, it isn't like its always clockwise or counter-clockwise.  Nonetheless, each loop must be run a certain way.  It's usually the same way I first run the loop, but sometimes it changes.  Further, the idea of reversing the direction on any running loop is downright atrocious to me.  For example, when I run around the golf course near me, I always go counter-clockwise.  But, when I run around Town Lake, I go clockwise.  Fortunately, I almost always run by myself, so I don't have to explain this neurotic and illogical thinking to a running partner.  Boyfriend is pretty new to running and just lets me lead, so I don't think he even notices how crazy I am about this.  Hopefully he won't read this post...

So those are the things I can think of thus far.  However, if I notice any other neurotic running behavior on my part, I'll do a part 2 post.  Finally, here is something interesting I saw this week:  I was running in the evening through a pretty ritzy neighborhood.  The streets were very residential, with big houses.  One of the houses was having a party, I assume for the holidays.  They had valet parking for their guests!!!  At their home.  Which they paid for.  So people didn't have to park their own cars.  Furthermore, parking was completely legal on the street.  It was very strange.  It always amazes me what some people do with their money.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Running and Eating

When it comes to running, I do best on an empty stomach.  A full or half-full stomach makes me feel sluggish and uncomfortable (at best), or gives me cramps and gastrointestinal distress (at worst).  This significantly complicates my running life, because after all food is fuel and fuel is important for endurance sports.  Running first thing in the morning before breakfast is definitely optimal for me and one of the major reasons that I am a morning runner.  Occasionally, though, I wake up feeling extra lazy and can't manage to do the morning running thing. I placate myself with the knowledge that after work and before dinner, I can sneak in a run.  And, of course this is definitely true, plenty of people run in the evening.  In these cases, I seem to operate well with at least 5 food-free hours before my run. Inevitably, though, I have a hard time cutting off my eating early enough to be comfortably digested.  I like snacking, and the afternoon is a perfect time for it.  I start getting mildly hungry and then I convince myself that it's fine to just have a small snack, a small snack won't hurt me, right?  Inevitably though, I head out for the run and the food is sitting in my stomach like a rock and I regret it as I mosey through my now uncomfortable run.

It wasn't always like this.  In high school, I ate lunch around 11:30am and sports practices started at 2:30pm.  Even though the time between the two was relatively short, I did just fine and I don't remember indigestion problems at all.  I would have to attribute that to two things; first, there was really no alternative option.  I had a very strict lunch break that was not adjustable, and I also had a predefined sports practice.  Further, I think my metabolism was different in my teen years.  Either way, my body adjusted and I did just fine.

Ten years later, my eating/running habits are completely different.  I have to be very careful about what I eat and when before runs.  As previously mentioned, I try to finish meals about 5 hours before a scheduled meal.  Sometimes, I do need a snack before I run (usually if the stomach is growling) or in the morning before a race.  In these cases, I have a few go-to foods.  Bananas sit pretty well for me, as do grapes.  I can also eat a few saltines or other plain crackers.  I've tried GU Chomps or GU gels with water, and those are pretty neutral on my stomach as well.  That's about as adventurous as I get.

A few days ago, I was unable to run before work and decided instead to go running in the evening.  Unfortunately, I hadn't packed a lunch that day because my advisor was buying my lab group pizza.  I had requested a vegetarian pizza, but forgot to ask for one without cheese.  I am vegetarian but not strictly vegan.  However, I have been making a conscientious effort to avoid dairy and eggs.  In the spirit of convenience, I decided to have some of the pizza.  Sadly, this turned out to be a mistake.  I hadn't had any significant amount of dairy in a while, and it definitely did not agree with me.  There was no immediate distress, but rather my stomach was generally uncomfortable for the rest of the afternoon.  I knew that I wouldn't be running for at least 5 hours after I finished eating, and I figured everything would settle down by then.  At 5:30pm, my stomach felt better and I headed out for the run.  I think the turbulent motion of running flared up the discomfort again and my stomach was pretty miserable.  I pushed through the first 29 minutes of the run and then stopped to stretch out my abdomen.  I started back up feeling slightly better, but not great.  Finally, 35 minutes into my run I had a huge burp and experienced instant relief.  Its just amazing what a burp can do :)  I finished out the run much more comfortable.  I think the lesson here, for me, is to stay away from cheese.

In other Running/Food related news, last night I hosted a Runner's Round Table episode on Vegan Running.  I was joined by podcasters Megan, Gordon and Jake and blogger Margaret.  We talked all about how veganism (and vegetarianism) relates to running, advantages and disadvantages and we each discuss why we made our own dietary/lifestyle choices.  Definitely give it a listen and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Running in Florida

Yesterday:  9.1 miles at 8:20 pace
Today: 7.25 mile tempo run, avg 7:24 pace (3.75 miles of tempo at 6:50 pace)

I apologize for the gap in posts (not that I think there are that many people reading this).  I was out of town at the end of last week and through the weekend visiting my grandparents in Florida, south of Tampa Bay.  While I know that it is no longer the weekend, or even close to it, things were a little hectic when I got back to Austin.  See, here at the University of Texas, finals have already started.  While I am not taking any classes, this does mean that the entire university is preparing to shut down for a long winter break.  And its the first week of December.  Seems a little early to me.  This means that any lab supplies or other resources that I want, I have to order and coordinate now.  Hence the craziness.

Running has been going well.  The weather is reliably cooler now, high 30s and low 40s in the mornings, which is pretty ideal running weather for me.  I had to dig out my cold weather gear last night (hats, gloves, tights) just in case one of these mornings is especially brutal.  But, for now, I am still getting away with shorts and long sleeved shirts.

I did not allow my journey to Florida to impede regular running and managed to run every morning I was there.  Running in Florida (at least this particular region) is always a unique experience for me.  This is largely because my grandparents worry constantly for my safety.  Their front yard is the first place I ever puked after running.  That happened on a very hot and humid summer day when I was in high school and didn't understand that running in temperatures 15-20 degrees warmer than accustomed and 100% humidity would have ill effects on my body.  It simply doesn't get into the 90s at 7am in the summer in Boston.  After the puking, I had to spend nearly an hour convincing my grandparents that I was okay, would not pass out and did not need to visit the hospital.

The next time I visited them was in the middle of training for my first marathon.  I was hell bent on sticking to my exact training schedule, which included a 10 mile run for the weekend I was out of town.  My grandfather, in his patience and love for me, took his car and mapped out a route that would total 10 miles.  The night before my long run, he drove the course with me, so I would know exactly where to go and wouldn't get lost.  I did not get lost, but this run turned out to be the most boring and painful ten miles I have ever run.  I hated nearly every minute of it.  Now I am sure there are lots of lovely places to run in the state of Florida and even in the Tampa Bay area, but the neighborhood of my grandparents is exclusively private housing developments and major roads with shopping centers.  Because I couldn't run in the housing developments, my grandfather had instead picked a route that ran up and down a very busy 6 lane road dotted with shopping centers.

Last winter when I visited, I wasn't training for any particular race, but I did want to run in the mornings.  I figured I could handle the route on my own and decided to run for time.  I headed out of their development and took a left and ran the length of the road, the took another left.  When I reached 30 minutes, I turned around and retraced my steps.  The route wasn't particularly interesting but it got the job done.  When I got back, my grandfather asked me where I had gone for my run and I told him I took a left coming out of the development.  Unfortunately left was the wrong answer.  He was very concerned.  He knew that by going left, I was on a road that didn't have sidewalks.  The fact that it wasn't at all a busy road and it was complete daylight and I was 23 years old didn't phase him.  He was gravely concerned and urged me not to run that way the next day.  I agreed not to run on that road again, even though I thought he was being overly cautious, and have indeed kept my promise.  The next few days of running were rather boring, as I was forced to return to the 6 lane major road with sidewalks and go back and forth along that road until I fulfilled my allotted time.

So this past weekend, when I again visited my grandparents, I decided I needed to come prepared with a few more interesting routes.  I utilized the very awesome Google maps and searched the general vicinity of their home for a place that looked interesting to run to.  Sadly, I came up rather short-handed.  Once again, I'm sure there are lots of great places in the Tampa area to run, but my resources were limited.  I didn't have the use of a car and had to find a reasonable route that started and ended at my grandparents house.  This is further complicated by the lack of through streets.  Many of the developments can only be accessed from a single, major road.  Eventually I picked out two routes that were interesting enough, an 8.9 mile loop and a 7 mile out and back run.  Both runs were very enjoyable with sidewalks and very little traffic the entire way.  This time, when my grandfather asked me where I ran, I was intentionally vague.  I simply did not want him to worry about me.

So I guess in summary, running in Florida has provided some very unique experiences for me.  I am, however, most grateful to google maps, which are always a beacon of light in an otherwise dark world of travels.  Google maps, you always help me find great places to run when I am not in my home town...thank you.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Chafing Chronicles

This weekend a managed a 20-mile long run.  I finished it just under 2 hours and 49 minutes, giving me an average pace of 8:27/mile.  I was pretty pleased with the pace and overall time, especially given my 2 hour 55 minute finish for last weekend's 30km race.  Granted that race was on trail, and it was humid, but still...

These two long runs (the 30km trail race on 11/21 and the 20 mile training run on 11/28) were so very different. The weather varied; hot and humid on the 21st but cool and dry on the 28th.  The terrain varied; technical rocky trails on the 21st, familiar and even road and paths on the 28th.  The circumstances varied; a well supported race on the 21st and a solo training run on the 28th.  Despite all the differences between the two days, one element unified both events.  This aspect of running constantly makes its presence known for so many of us, on long run days: the chafing!

Over time, I have simply come to accept chafing as an unavoidable accessory to long distance running.  Don't get me wrong, I do make major efforts to avoid or at least minimize the chances of it occurring, unlike these naked bikers.  However, as the mileage creeps up, there are just some casualties that come along with it.

Side note: while I found this random picture of naked bikers on the internet, there does exist a (mostly) nude cyclist in Austin, TX.  I have seen him with my own eyes, twice, and boyfriend was with me on both occasions so he can corroborate my story.  Nude cyclist wears only an olive green man thong and rides all over town on his bike.  I'm sure he has had his own chafing issues.

Chafing afflicts so many of us runners, and each has his or her own weak spots.  While I have had incidents all over, most of my chafing can be blamed on sports bras and afflicts either my chest or armpits (where the bra seam rests).  I attempt to minimize chafing several ways.  First, I am careful to replace problematic clothing items.  This works for short to medium length runs, but pretty much everything with chafe if you sweat in it for three continuous hours.  Second, I make use of a wide range of lubrication.  Vaseline is always reliable and I have used it many times for toes and feet.  The goopy-ness, however, can be a deterrent for other body parts, especially because it picks up dirt.  For body parts such as the thighs and arms, body glide is usually a better option.

Last weekend, when I ran a 30km trail race, the weather was 65-70 degrees with over 80% humidity.  This weather, coupled with nearly 3 hours of continuous running, was the perfect combo for some extreme tank bra chafing.  While there were minor abrasions on the front, major damage was under the arms, and the most unexpected chafing occurred on my back.  That's right, I had back chafing!  When I got home to take a shower, I noticed large red marks about halfway down and towards the outside of my back.  Both spots stung horribly as warm water flowed over them and I contemplated just how I managed to accumulate friction in this area.  I have to conclude that the elastic band of the bra caused the chafing, even though it seemed too low to be the elastic band and at no point the elastic band had felt uncomfortable.  However, the stinging sensation of my back was proof that the chafing was indeed real, and not imagined.

This kind of chafing is Locker Room Chafing.  Locker Room Chafing is the most common form of chafing and affects private areas of the body, usually seen only by yourself but occasionally glanced by others including significant others, doctors and people in a locker room.  The problem with chafing marks is that to the untrained eye, they don't necessarily register as such.  Therefore, people may ask you questions about your home life, trying to figure out if you are in an abusive relationship or even hurting yourself.  Answering with "No, I just like to run a lot" may not make sense to an outsider, you may need to expound.

This weekend, I managed to escape any traces of Locker Room chafing.  With weather considerably cooler and dryer, and wearing a most seamless sports bra, my tenderest skin was well protected as I covered the 20 miles.  I had hoped to escape entirely chafe-free, but it was not to be.  Seeing as how it was a cooler day and a 20 mile run, I opted for a wicking, long sleeve shirt.  I had the exact shirt in mind, a comfy Reebok 1/2 zip pullover that fits me really well and is very comfortable.  I woke up on Sunday, pulled out my shorts, sports bra, socks...but I couldn't find the shirt!  I had left this shirt at boyfriend's, and thus was forced to chose another long sleeved tech shirt.  No problem, I have plenty.  And I do have plenty, but I only had one in my apartment, all the rest were in storage.  I silently debated driving over to boyfriend's to rescue the Reebok shirt, but it seemed excessive and time consuming.  I grabbed the one long-sleeved tech shirt (white Hot Chili's ski layer) and headed out the door.  I had previously used this shirt on long runs, so I knew what was coming.  This shirt is exceptionally comfortable, except the top, left seam around the neck.  This seam falls right on my clavicle, near my throat and for some reason chafes like nothing you can imagine.  With three miles left in the long run, I stripped off my shirt because I couldn't bear the rubbing any longer.  Three days later, I still have a raw, red mark on the left side of my throat.  Of course, there are no marks on the other side, further confusing me because the shirt appears pretty symmetrical to me.

I have designated this particular type of chafing to be PDA Chafing.  I'm pretty sure that any one who saw me after this run would have assumed the red mark just to the left of my throat was a hicky.  Why?  Because that's what it looks like.  PDA Chafing brings about a whole new level of embarrassment, because unlike Locker Room chafing, the whole wide world can observe it.  However, people aren't even going to ask you questions about why you have red marks on your neck, because they assume they already know and that you are getting hickies all time.  There is no solution to this problem, unless you like putting makeup on your neck.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Oh Smoothies!

Yesterday: 7.25 mile tempo run, 8:00 pace
Today: 4.5 mile trail run with Ike, 8:47 pace

I love fruit.  I always have.  As a little girl, I used to ask for fruit instead of ice cream or cookies for dessert.  We had large raspberry bushes in the backyard and I would eat all the berries straight off the bushes before anyone else could them!  When we went strawberry picking, I used to get in trouble for putting too many in my mouth instead of the basket.  It's hard for me to find a fruit I don't like (the one I have found would be durian, a spiky, sulfur-smelling fruit native to east Asia that I experienced while in Singapore).  I naturally incorporate fruit into pretty much every meal I have ...because it's delicious!  That being said, fresh fruit is definitely something my body craves right after a run or other hard workout.  This makes sense, because fruit is sweet, refreshing and loaded with easily digestible sugars - perfect for recuperation.

My last food post was about leafy green vegetables, so today I need to talk about fruit.  While eating fruit in any form is fabulous, smoothies are a particularly excellent and creative way to blend flavors.  I love drinking a smoothie with my post-run breakfast.  I have been making a lot of smoothies lately, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts and ideas.

I think winter is a great time to talk about smoothies.  This is because very few fruits are in season during the winter, making it harder to find reasonably priced, fresh fruit in the grocery store.  Frankly, I'm a budget shopper, and I feel offended when I have to pay outrageous amounts for produce, especially if it isn't ripe or flavorful.  This means that in the winter, the variety of fresh fruit I can buy suffers.  As an alternative, I buy frozen and canned fruit, which work great in smoothies.  However, I don't use exclusively frozen fruit for two reasons; 1) I don't like the icy, frozen texture that results and 2) it's hard on my cheap-o blender.

A typical smoothie for me contains the following:
1.5 cups of liquid (combo of almond milk and water)
3 servings of fruit; varies
1 tsp white sugar
~1/2 tsp of nutmeg, cinnamon or powdered ginger

I typically use three different types of fruit in a smoothie, sometimes four.  This is a great opportunity for me to get rid of any overripe fruit lying around.  In the past this has included bananas, kiwis, apples, pears and berries.  To this, I add 1 or 2 of my stockpile, frozen fruits, which include peach slices, blueberries, strawberries, mango, raspberries and dark cherries.  I think cherries would have to be my favorite.  I add about one and a half cups of liquid, including some almond milk and water.  The final two ingredients are white sugar and a dash of spice.  Adding a spice to the smoothie really adds a kick and nice flavor.  Nutmeg is definitely my favorite, but changing it up with other spices like cinnamon and ginger is fun.  I am also going to try fresh ginger, which I've heard is good.

I liquefy it in a blender until its smooth and serve it for myself in a juice glass as part of my breakfast.  It's also fun to see what the final color is, which varies significantly depending on which fruits I chose.  I urge you to give it a try and let me know what you think!  Any creative fruit/flavor combinations I should know about?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Mule Trail 30km - Race Report

On November 21st, I ran The Mule Trail 30km race, sponsored by Rogue Running at Muleshoe Bend Park.  This was my first 30km race, and what follows is my race report for the event.

The Logistics
The race started at 7:30am on Sunday morning at Muleshoe Bend Park, which is roughly an hour's drive from my apartment.  I had never been to the park before so I was nervous about getting lost and therefore woke up at 5:15am, ensuring myself plenty of time to get there.  I got ready pretty quickly and headed out the door at 5:45am.  I had both printed driving directions and a Garmin GPS.  Fortunately, I had remembered to print and bring directions, because the Garmin seemed to be completely unaware of not only the park I was headed to, but also all of the roads nearby.  The only issue I had with the printed directions was reading them effectively in the morning darkness.  Luckily, I rose to these challenges and arrived at the starting area at 6:45am.  This race was pretty small, so I got a very close parking spot and had plenty of time to stretch, visit the porta-potty (twice!), and pick up my timing chip.  The timing chip was designed for an ankle bracelet.  This was the first time I had worn an ankle timing device and I was concerned it would be uncomfortable, but it was actually quite nice and cushy.  Unfortunately the weather was not ideal.  While it had been cool and dry all week, things had warmed up considerably during the past weekend, and it was in the mid to high 60s throughout the race with significant humidity.  I race better in cold weather, so I was particularly disappointed.  Fortunately for me, there was a cool breeze coming off of Lake Travis and cloud cover, which helped a little bit.

The Start
With about 45 minutes to kill, the lead up to the start of the race was very leisurely for me.  There were about 50 people that had turned up for the 30km race (closer to 80 for the 10km, which started a half hour later), and I chatted with a few while passing the time.  Just before 7:30am, the race officials called us over to the timing mat, gave us some directions and got us on our way.  With so few people, I was right near the front and was able to run unobstructed the entire race.

The Course
This race was a triple loop course, with each loop being 10km in distance.  The start of the loop is about a quarter mile on dirt trail taking us from a camping area to the head of the main trail.  At the end of each loop, we had to retrace our steps along this dirt trail back to and across the timing mat.  The main trail was one large loop encompassing the majority of the park.  It was very technical, almost entirely single-track, with highly varied terrain.  There were tree roots, large rocks, small rocks, ledges, deep sand, long grasses, ruts and loose gravel.  Most of the loop was rolling with about six decent size hills.  There were a few flatter and faster sections where I was able to pick up my speed, but the majority of the course was a lot slower to run on than road.  Spaced in three areas along the course were water stops, stocked with water, Nuun (an electrolyte drink) and snacks.  On each loop I used two of the three water stops, varying which one I skipped.

My Performance
I headed out on the first loop at what felt like a comfortable training pace.  My intention was to pick my pace up on the second and third loops, once I was more familiar with the course.  Unfortunately, that wasn't what happened and I ended up slowing down on each loop.  I ran the first 10km in roughly 56 min.  The second was 58 min and the final loop was just over an hour.  My final time was 2:55:40.  I think the heat and humidity definitely slowed me down; my legs felt sluggish and tired and I was definitely sweating more than I had hoped I would.  However, seeing as how this was my first 30km race, that was a PR and so I can't complain too much.  At least I have something to improve upon now.  On a positive note, I was the third female finisher, second in the open division and 12th overall, including the men.  That is definitely one advantage of doing smaller races!

The Aftermath
After crossing the finish line, I was both sweat soaked and salty.  I felt dehydrated, but I think it was mostly an electrolyte balance that left me dragging towards the end.  When I got home, I got into the shower to wash away the dirt and grime, at which point I discovered significant chafing from my champion tank bra.  The chafing was the worst in my armpits and the middle of my back.  Washing salt and sweat away from chafed areas is extraordinarily painful, and I did not enjoy it!  However, everything is now healing quite well.  I then ate a healthy and hearty lunch, drank lots of water and continued eating well throughout the day.  While I felt quite sleepy, the soreness was minimal.  The next morning, though, when I tried to walk down the stairs, my calves immediately cramped up, which was very painful.  I carefully massaged them with my hands until I could walk comfortably again.  Because I hadn't eaten anything since dinner, I think my electrolytes were again imbalanced, because I felt much better after eating breakfast.  At work, I skipped the stairs and used the elevator instead.  This morning I felt great, and went for an easy 6.7 mile run at an 8:45 pace.  I'm recovering nicely and I expect I'll be able to get a tempo run in on Thanksgiving morning.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gearing up for my first 30k!

Yesterday: Rest
Today: 9.1 miles at 8:21 pace

This morning was deliciously brisk, with cool, dry air and temperatures in the low 40s.  This was perfect weather for my last 'substantial' run prior to this weekend's 30k trail race.  I ran just over 9 miles in 1hr 16min, and felt great!  Well, actually, my stomach was a little troublesome, but I attribute that to one to many chocolate cookies last night.  My legs and lungs felt great, and the run felt relatively effortless, even though it was over a lot of hills.  That really boosted my confidence and I am now eagerly looking forward to this weekend's race.  I think I have not raced since May.

While running this morning, I had the pleasure of seeing two deer romping through some yards.  I am always impressed by how graceful the movements of a deer are, which makes them very enjoyable for me to watch.  These particular deer were interested in crossing a relatively busy street.  I watched them move across the yard and stop at the edge of the lawn and the road.  They then proceeded to look both ways, checking for cars, before crossing the street and entering another yard.  It was a very interesting thing to spectate and I was the only one there to see it, which is what I love about running in the early morning.

So my 30k trail race is this Sunday morning, starting at 7:30am.  Packet pickup is this Friday and Saturday.  The start is about an hour's drive from central Austin, so I will probably be getting up at 5:30am on Sunday morning, leaving at 6am.  I'd prefer not to be at the start too early, because I won't have anything to do while I'm waiting.  The course will be three loops of 10k each, with an aid station roughly halfway through the loop (and of course at the start).  I do not have a goal pace in mind.  Not only am I unfamiliar with this course, but trail running is always slower than road running.  I have also never raced this particular distance.  My plan is to run the first 10k at a comfortable training effort and see how it goes.  When I start the second loop, I will have a better idea of the terrain, where I can speed up and where I will need extra time (ledges, sharp turns, hills etc).  I will try to run this second loop intelligently and then see what I've got in the third loop.  Ultimately, though, I want to finish feeling strong and enjoy the race.  The best part about trail racing is taking in the beautiful scenery.
NB 101T

On another note, I recently purchased the NB 101 Trail shoe online.  The 101T is currently making its way towards me in the mail and I am definitely looking forward to the arrival.  As you may recall, I am currently running in the 790, which New Balance retired.  It's (quasi) replacement was the 100T, another ultra lightweight racing shoe.  This shoe got really great reviews, and its improved version, currently on the market, is the 101T.  In case you haven't noticed, New Balance can't leave a good thing alone!  Nonetheless, I  am excited to give the 101T a whirl and once I have been able to fairly assess it, I will share with you my opinions.  Until then, I'll be using a pair of 790s and the Brooks green silence.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A new watch

Yesterday: 7.8 mile tempo run over hills, 7:55 pace
Today: 6.1 mile recovery, 8:30 pace

Yesterday I had a pretty successful tempo hill run.  As you can see above, my pace for the entire 7.8 miles was under 8 minutes per mile, which is definitely fast for me.  This is my half-marathon pace.  My original plan for yesterday was a track workout.  Here is what happened.  Alarm goes off at 6am.  I wake up and realize my throat feels slightly scratchy and the glands seem swollen.  I drink some water, but it doesn't help.  I also feel tired.  Because I am tired I come up with lots of reasons to go back to bed.  I then realize that doing a track workout (my least favorite of all workouts, because I hate running in circles) with a sore throat is going to suck.  I decide the best course of action is two-fold: (1) Skip the morning workout and get a little more rest and (2) Later in the day re-evaluate my condition, and if I'm feeling good, do a tempo hill run after work.  A few hours later, my throat felt fine, and I determined I was not sick and thus running would not harm me.  I therefore did my run in the evening after work, the only downside being that it was slightly warmer than I prefer.  You may ask why I didn't just do an evening track workout.  The answer is that track workouts require the most discipline on my behalf to complete, and my resolve to run is much weaker later in the day.  Tomorrow I will do the track workout.  I can't back down because I've declared it on the internets.  Done.

Timex 1440 watch
So the main topic of this post is that I got a new watch.  Not a fancy one, a $15 one!  As you may know, I posted recently about the gear I run in, which includes a Nike sports watch.  Said sports watch is about 5 years old.  Recently, the all important 'reset' button has stopped functioning.  No matter what I do, it doesn't work.  Furthermore, the battery was replaced a mere 5 months ago, so its not the battery.  Without the reset button, I was unable to reset the Chrono display to zero.  While this is slightly annoying, I used my superior math skills and simply subtracted the old from the new time to figure out the length of my runs.  The tipping point, however, came this past Sunday with daylight savings.  See, the reset button is also essential to change the display time, and while I love my digital watch for running, I love it more for day to day use.  I always like to know what time it is, and having a watch that is one hour fast is very annoying.  The problem is when you forget that the watch is one hour fast!  I dealt with it for Sunday and Monday, and Monday evening I got a new Target.

See the idea of buying a fancy sports watch is enticing, especially the GPS watches.  But, they are all a significant investment, over $100.  Before I make that kind of a purchase, I want to consider my options and make an informed decision.  However, my watch needs couldn't wait that long, so the easiest thing to do was to make a minimal investment ($15) and buy a functional but basic Timex 1440 watch.  So far, I really like it! However, I would love to hear everyone else's reviews and suggestions for watches because more than likely I will be upgrading in the near future.

In other, ChemE, exciting news, I will be attending a conference in Shanghai, China in May!  I found out this morning that an abstract I submitted for a biotechnology conference was accepted.  This will be my first time traveling to China and first time presenting at a conference :)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

An Interview with Ruth England, Rogue Coach

Yesterday: 16.2 miles at 8:31 pace (6 miles over technical trail)
Today: Rest day!

I capped off a great training week with a 16-miler yesterday morning.  I met up with my friend Zach at 6:45am and we ran a 10-mile loop around the town lake trail, followed by 6 miles (out and back) on the Barton Springs trail.  The Barton Springs trail is very rocky and technical, which I think is good preparation for my upcoming Mule 30K trail race.  Because yesterday morning was the last day before day light savings, we were able to run for about the first 30 minutes in complete darkness.  Surprisingly, neither of us had any spills on the trail.  The weather was very cool (as compared to a previously humid 14-miler) and I felt great!  My pace was faster and I felt much less tired when I finished.  Glad to have this cooler fall weather to train in.  Also, it was very nice to have Zach to distract me and chat with.  Thanks for slowing down and running with me, Zach!  This run topped off my week with 51.25 total miles.  I'm aiming for similar mileage next week.

On November 4th, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ruth England for the 105th episode of the Runners Round Table.  You can listen to the interview here or download it through iTunes.  In 2004, Ruth and two others founded Rogue Running in Austin TX with the mission of applying elite level training concepts to everyday runners. They are an integral part of the Austin community, operating a specialty store, hosting race events and training hundreds of runners every year for marathons, half marathons, ultras and other goal races.  I first found out about them because every spring they host a 3-part trail race series.  I have now run four of their trail 10ks and will be doing my first trail 30k at the end of this month.  I have also met a lot of people in Austin who have taken part in their training programs.  I was curious to learn more, and Ruth was kind enough to chat with me.  For those of you in the Austin area, I think you will really enjoy hearing more about this major part of our running community.  For those of you outside of Texas, I still think Ruth's interview has a broad appeal.  We talk about trends she has observed in the specialty running store, training techniques, the kind of runners that come to Rogue and even their new elite training program for professional runners.  I hope you will give this a listen!  I also welcome any feedback you have.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Running in Traffic

Yesterday: 7.5 mile tempo run, average 7:53 pace; 2.7 miles at 7:07 pace
Today: 8.6 miles at 8:43 pace

The weather continues to be awesome in Austin, well, at least for runners.  There is no humidity and the mornings are cool.  Yesterday the temps stayed in the 50s all day, with on and off drizzles and gusting winds.  I don't think the other Texans appreciated that, but it wasn't so bad for me.  Don't get me wrong, I love having sunshine nearly every day, but I am also not so wussy that I refer to 55F as "cold".  Texans broke out the winter coats yesterday...I am not even joking.

City of Portland's pedestrian safety campaign slogan
Today I would like to share my opinion about road running and that constantly nagging obstacle of traffic.  Some of us are blessed with easy access to running trails and bike paths, which keep us out of traffic and away from cars.  I often seek out trails for my runs, as one major benefit is that I don't have to contend with street crossings, stop lights and cars.  However, the majority of my running is still done on roads.

I often feel that the drivers are out to get me.  They view me as an annoyance and an inconvenience, for forcing them to slow down on a residential street, not drive in the bike lane, or wait 12 seconds longer at a stop sign.  Like many runners, being around traffic makes me nervous because I never know when some driver is going to hit me.

To avoid this problem, I try to make use of sidewalks when I can.  Last time I checked, cars cannot drive on the sidewalk.  There are three things that prevent me from doing this all the time though.  First, sidewalks are uneven and unpredictable surfaces.  Sometimes they turn suddenly, or tree roots have cracked the concrete, or they suddenly stop.  The road, on the other hand, is usually in better condition and smoother, so on a quiet street I prefer to run in the road.  Second, sidewalks are made of concrete whereas roads are (typically) made of asphalt.  Running on concrete causes a lot more impact on the legs than asphalt.  Finally (and most importantly), many many streets in Austin do not have sidewalks.  That's right, there are no sidewalks.  I don't understand it, it's like they assumed that people wouldn't walk anywhere.  Whenever I find myself running on a sidewalk-less street, which is pretty much on every run, I have no choice but to run in the road.

For all of the reasons above, I find myself doing a lot of running in the road. This, of course, puts me in direct competition with the traffic.  Over time, I have developed habits to minimize my risk.  First, I run as far to the right as I safely can, in a bike lane or shoulder if available.  These are areas cars are not supposed to drive in, although that doesn't always hold true.  Second, I almost always run against traffic.  This makes it easier for me to spot approaching cars and in some cases make eye contact with a driver.  Also, I never cross in front of a car unless I can make eye contact with a driver.  Even if I have the right of way.  I make eye contact with the driver.  That is because many people in their cars have forgotten that pedestrians exist and are often surprised when they spot one.  For this reason, I never assume the driver knows that I am there.  Furthermore, I freely use hand signals.  If I want to pass in front of a car, I put a hand up with the palm out towards the driver, indicating they should stop.  I thank drivers when they are courteous and occasionally flip off the drivers that are jerks.  If I am running at night, I always wear a bright color like white or yellow.  All in all, I simply never assume a car won't hit me and am always on the defensive.

So what motivated this post?  On several of my regular running routes in Austin, I find myself on relatively busy roads that do not have sidewalks.  These stretches of road are usually short (<.5 mile) connectors such as a highway overpass.  This also makes them unavoidable to get between point A and point B.  These sidewalk-less roads all have four lanes, two in each direction.  What I find amazing is that drivers will see me running towards them on the right, outside of the road.  The left lane will be unoccupied.  They could easily move into the left lane.  They chose not to move into the left lane.  They chose not to slow down.  They chose to drive by me, within a foot of me, at full speed.  Amazing!  Is it a game? because I don't want to play.

So this is my plea for the drivers out there to be nicer to the runners and cyclists and SHARE THE ROAD!  Sometimes it is beyond our control as runners to be in the road instead of on the sidewalk, but that doesn't mean we want to play Russian roulette with our lives.  Please slow down as you go around me, and I promise to return the favor if I am the one driving.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Squash: A cross-training experience

Yesterday: 6.1 miles at 8:51 pace; 1 hour of squash
Today: 7 miles at 8:23 pace

I haven't posted in the past few days because my father came to visit me in Austin and I have been busy busy!  The weather was great for his visit; 70s and 80s in the afternoon, sunny and clear skies.  We had plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities, including horseback riding, tail gating and hiking.  He left Austin this afternoon, so I guess things have to go back to normal, including me being at work (instead of having fun).

One of the things we did during his visit was play squash.  Twice to be exact.  For those of you who don't know, squash is a racquet sport.  Of the other, more mainstream racquet sports, it is most similar to racquetball.  It is played indoors, on a squash court.  A squash racquet has a small head and the ball is small and made of rubber.  It was invented by the French, but popularized by the British.

Regulation squash court
I really enjoy squash, however finding places to play can be a challenge.  The easiest place to find squash courts is at  a university or college, especially in New England.  Like many obscure sports, squash is more popular in New England than other parts of the country.  As a child, my parents put me in squash lessons.  I wasn't very good, but I learned a lot and developed my skills enough to play with my parents and sister.  At MIT, they had six very nice squash courts.  I took a squash class as part of PE and continued to play with my family and friends.  The University of Texas has far fewer squash courts than MIT, but they do have some, so my father made a point of bringing his racquet with him.

The soreness I am experiencing now is a consequence of not playing squash for months, and then playing two days in a row.  Like other racquet sports, squash requires a lot of fast, lateral movement.  This is very different than running, so I have a sore butt and inner thighs today.  In fact, it seems that any sport that is not running makes me sore (previous entry about football).  I did have the intelligence to keep up with my morning runs, which I believe stretched out my legs and minimized the possible discomfort.

I would like to finish with a few interesting things about squash, for those of you unfamiliar with the sport:
In squash, all four of the court's walls are in play, including the back wall.  A lob or particularly hard return will often bounce off the back wall.  These shots are the most difficult for me to return.
Squash balls are made of rubber, and there are different grades of rubber (of varying hardness).  The rubber ball always needs to be "warmed up" before a game because as the ball heats up, the rubber softens and becomes bouncier.  This is often done by hitting it repeatedly against the wall.  Other people will keep the ball under their armpits.  Warming up the ball can be particularly challenging in winter, but not too bad in Texas.
Squash courts are often not well ventilated.  This means you are running around in a 6x10m box with no fresh air and it can get hot.
Squash can be played as a doubles or singles game.  Doubles courts are larger.  I have only once played doubles squash.

In case you were wondering, we played 6 games, I won 2.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Gear I Run With

Yesterday: 7.8 miles over hills, 8:28 pace
Today: 7.2 miles, 8:42 pace

This morning I had a very excellent run!  One of the reasons it was so excellent is because the temperatures were in the 50s.  This is the first time this season I needed a top layer, so I ran in shorts, tank bra and a long-sleeved cotton shirt.  For those of you who read my entry about the clothes I run in, you may remember this is my absolute favorite running outfit.  Long-sleeved cotton shirts feel so comfy to me.  Also, when I feel cool, I can pull the sleeves down over my hands, but when I'm warm I roll the sleeves up.  Here's hoping for many more days of similar weather.

Today I'd like to talk about running gear.  In the past decade, many companies have started producing a wide range of products for runners outside of the usual clothing and shoes.  I am amazed at how much variety there is!  From watches to GPS to heart rate monitors to fuel belts to bottles to road ids, there are lots of running related items you can carry with you out the door.

Nike women's sports watch and HRM
The digital watch.  I almost never leave for a run without a digital watch.  In fact, I am almost never without a watch period.  I like knowing what time it is.  I have a few nicer watches, but 90% of the time, I wear my Nike Imara sports watch.  Let's face it, changing watches takes foresight, which I don't always have.  I time nearly all my runs (the exception being big races, where knowing my time psychs me out) to determine my average pace.  Because I don't have GPS, I use google maps to plot my running routes.  This might seem old school, but it works for me.  I've considered a Garmin watch, but the price is a bit of a deterrent, especially when my current system works well. This watch was a Christmas gift and it came with a chest HRM (see the picture).  I have used the HRM occassionally, but I didn't like it very much.  First, I found it somewhat uncomfortable and experienced chafing.  More importantly, I found it inaccurate.  This is probably because as a female runner, the strap has to sit low on my chest, making it more difficult to get a reading.  However, this particular model was specially designed for women, so that isn't much of an excuse.  Anyways, the reading would jump around like crazy (above 220) when there was no perceived change in effort, so I gave up on the heart rate monitor.  I still use the watch though, and it has been going strong for 4 or 5 years now.
iPod Nano

The iPod Nano.  I take an iPod Nano and earbud headphones along with me on the majority of my runs.  I listen to a combination of podcasts (mostly running related) and music on training runs.  I find the content enjoyable and it helps pass the time.  Especially on long runs, it can be a welcome distraction.  When I first started running, I recall using a walkman that takes tapes.  The iPod is certainly an improvement in size and convenience.  This baby is ultra light.  I keep it in a case with a clip for my shorts, but which also protects it from the elements.  While I use it for the majority of my training, I usually ditch the iPod in races.  I think it would prevent me from getting the full experience and detract from the sights and sounds of a race.

And that concludes the gear I run with.  I know the list is short, but I don't like carrying things with me when I run.  Sometimes I need to bring a house key or energy gel, but otherwise I keep it light and simple.  That's just what works for me :)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Leafy greens: a new favorite food

Yesterday: 4.1 miles with boyfriend (8:46 pace)
Today: 7.7 miles over hills (planned for this evening)

There are many foods that I love.  Today I would like to talk about some leafy greens, which I have (surprisingly) found myself recently enamored with.  A few months ago, I made a concerted effort to incorporate more vegetables and fruit into my diet and to cut down on my consumption of animal products.  While I have always loved fruit, my relationship with vegetables was rather lukewarm, and I was certainly not getting the recommended five servings a day.  I have switched my eating habits and now consume a large salad for lunch about 6 days a week.  This meal alone helps me incorporate lots of veggies into my diet.  But, when you eat a salad every day, you need some variety and so I have been trying out lots of foods that were previously ignored by me.  Some I really haven't enjoyed (beets, turnips), while others have delighted me.  Today I want to honor some leafy greens because they are delicious, nutritious and my new found friends!

I have tried the following greens: arugula, kale, mustard greens, spinach, and swiss chard.  I have not yet tried, but would like to try: beet greens, collard greens, dandelion greens, and turnip greens.

Arugula is delicious!  I have been eating it raw in my salads all week and it has a lot more flavor and zing than romaine lettuce.  It has a peppery, spicy taste and is very fragrant.  Of all the greens I have tried, this is my favorite to eat raw.

My favorite way to eat kale is sautéed.  First, I heat about a tablespoon of oil in a pan.  I chop 10-12 white mushrooms and sauté them in the pan until golden brown and fragrant.  While they are cooking, I wash the kale and break the leaves into smaller pieces.  I then add the kale to the pan and cook.  The leaves will shrink a lot and their green color will intensify.  As a final step, I add 1/4 cup of pine nuts and some kosher salt.  The pine nuts need just a few minutes to warm and toast (3 minutes) and then this side dish is done!  For me, this is two servings and it is my favorite way to eat cooked greens (so far).  I have also tried kale in salads and raw in smoothies.  In both cases it was okay, but not great.  I definitely prefer the flavor of cooked kale.

I have eaten mustard greens once, as a substitute for kale in the above dish.  Mustard greens look very similar to kale but have a lighter green colored leaf (almost lime).  These greens had a wonderful spicy flavor when cooked.  However, when I reheated the dish the next day, the greens did not taste very good.  I think the kale holds up better to storage.

After arugula, spinach is a good choice for salads.  I think arugula has a lot more flavor than spinach, but both leaves are nice raw and go well with other veggies.  Spinach is also a great choice for a sweeter salad with things like citrus, berries and nuts.  I haven't ventured into the cooked spinach zone just yet, but I think it would be good with pasta.

Rainbow swiss chard
Lastly, is swiss chard.  I have eaten swiss chard both in soups and sautéed.  I think this green is okay, but I much prefer kale.  I found that the chard wilted rather quickly in my fridge.  Unfortunately, I can usually only go to the grocery store once a week, so I can't always eat vegetables 2 days after I buy them.  Swiss chard is a very pretty green though.  The stems come in a variety of colors including white, yellow, red, purple and pink.  I think I should give this green another try though, and perhaps use it right after I purchase it.

Some final thoughts on leafy greens.  First, if you have some recipes that utilize these greens, or the greens I still have to try, please share them!  I am always looking for new ideas.  Second, if these plants seem foreign to you, give them a shot!  You may be pleasantly surprised.

On a completely different note, last night I participated in the Runner's Round Table podcast.  The episode was about endurance relays and can be found here.  This episode was led by Dr. Dave with fellow co-hosts Mark, Colin and Chris.  Check it out and let me know what you think.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

And the Humidity Returns...

Yesterday: 5.8 miles at 8:32/mile pace
Today: 14.2 miles at 8:29/mile pace

The weather forecast for tomorrow predicts a high of 92F.  It's the last week of October and we are back in the 90s!!!  Seriously?  What happened to those nice 50 degree mornings we had a few weeks ago?  Austin is experiencing something of an indian summer, and with it is a lot more humidity.

My runs this weekend were sticky, sweaty and unpleasant.  Yesterday it was supposed to be an "easy" 5 or 6 miles that turned into hot hot misery.  First, I didn't start the run until 10am (because I wanted to sleep late) so I was both dehydrated and hungry on the run.  Second, the temperature had crept into the 80s, with high humidity.  The sun was high in the sky and felt like it was beating down on me.  I ended up taking several walk breaks before struggling home to 3 glasses of water and a nice cold shower.  At the very least, I got plenty of vitamin D.
Longhorn Dam, Austin TX
This morning I had to get through a 14 mile long run.  I used a similar route to a previous 13 miler, with a hilly four mile loop on Stratford road and 10 miles along Town Lake between the Longhorn Dam and Mopac Bridge.  Despite being just 1.1 miles longer than before, this run was infinitely more difficult.  I felt tired after 4 miles and exhausted after 10.  My thirst seemed unquenchable, especially with limited water fountains along the route.  My clothes were sweat soaked after a half hour.  I struggled through the last three miles and ended up taking two walk breaks.

In retrospect, I am happy to have gotten through these runs.  However, I really really hope I have seen the last of the humidity for a while.  This weekend's running is a strong indication to me of how much better I perform and feel in cool, dry weather.  Here's hoping for 50s before the next long run!

As a final note, I wanted to thank Mark and Cris for their insightful comments about Boston Marathon Registration filling quickly.  If you haven't gotten a chance yet, I hope you will read the post and let me (and other bloggers!) know what you think about this issue.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Boston Marathon Registration Fills in One Day

On October 18th, 9am EST, registration of qualified runners for the 115th Boston Marathon opened.  At 5:03 pm that same day, registration had filled and closed.  This is by far the fastest filling of a Boston Marathon in the race's history.

In February of 2009, about six months after moving to Texas, I ran the Austin marathon.  I had trained hard and had my eyes on a new PR.  My previous PR was set in 2005 at the Baystate marathon (my first) where I was luck enough to qualify for the Boston marathon, which I ran in 2006 and 2007.  In 2009, I was focused on getting faster.  Of course, a new PR would also mean another Boston qualification.  I was secretly hoping for an excuse to fly back in April 2010 to visit my parents and run my hometown marathon.

Starting line of the Baystate marathon,
October 2005
The Austin marathon came and went and I had a great day and a new PR of 3:35:09.  The 2009 Boston marathon came and went, with some great showings by US athletes.  When the fall arrived and the blazing heat of Texas subsided, I got my butt in gear and increased my mileage.  I started thinking about registering.  Rumors had it that registration would fill earlier than usual.  Previously it had closed out in about February, so I decided to register in November.  Around the middle of November in 2009, I went onto the BAA website, ready to shell out the over $100 and commit to this race...but registration was full!  I had missed out.  In just over two months, the entire field of qualified runners was saturated and my qualifying time wouldn't carry me over for another year.  I was out of luck.

Kenmore square, Boston marathon 2006
Initially, I was pretty disappointed.  I felt somewhat cheated by the whole thing.  But then I reminded myself that I had run that race twice before.  I also reminded myself that flying to Boston was somewhat expensive and grad students are raking in the dough.  Finally I pointed out that if what I love is running long distances (which I do), that there are plenty of marathons in Texas and surrounding areas and there are other types of races I can do.  I signed up for the 3M Half marathon in Austin and got over it.

I told this lengthy, three paragraph personal anecdote to illustrate my own experience of being shut out of Boston registration and to explain why this personally is okay for me.  I started running marathons because I think 26.2 miles is an extraordinary challenge and I feel really great knowing that I can complete the training for that distance and execute on race day.  There are plenty of 26.2 mile courses out there, and I want to try all of them.  Nonetheless, in a larger sense, I am concerned that Boston registration is filling up so fast.  If I had not already had the experience of running this historic and awesome race, I know I would have been devastated to not get in.  Additionally, many qualified runners were completely blind sided by this sudden increase in popularity.  I think the BAA has a serious problem on there hands and I hope they fix it.

People have suggested a variety of things.  The most common suggestions are the following; 1) Increase field size, 2) Do away with charity runners, 3) Tighten qualification standards, 4) Use a lottery system, 5) Delay registration until closer to April.  I want to talk about each of these suggestions and my opinion regarding their ability to solve this problem.

A logical suggestion is to allow more runners in the Boston Marathon.  The field size is typically 20,000-25,000 official runners.  Races like NYC, London, Berlin and Chicago are accommodating ten to twenty thousand more runners.  While I advocate increasing the size of the Boston field, this particular course is simply unable to support as many runners as NYC or even Chicago.  The majority of the Boston race is run through small New England towns on narrow, winding two lane roads.  Furthermore, the cities that are part of the course are consistently reluctant to an increase in participants because of the burden it places on medical and safety staff, volunteers and road closures.  I would like to see Boston bump their registration numbers up a little bit, but I think it is unrealistic to assume this will fix the problem completely.

Many have suggested Boston do away with charity runners, who can make up as much as 20% of the total field.  I think this is a good idea, because I would prefer to see Boston remain prestigious and sought after, but I don't think it is very realistic.  Boston has a long tradition of supporting organizations through charity runners, and these runners bring in thousands of dollars each year to worthy causes.  I think it would be some really bad PR to pull the plug on this program, and I can't see the BAA or John Hancock running that risk.  One option would be to decrease the total number of charity runners from 20 to 10%, but double their expected monetary contribution.  This would free up some more spots for qualified runners without disturbing the charities.

Another thought is that the BAA should tighten the qualifying standards.  To me, this is really the best option.  Historically, Boston qualifying standards have fluctuated a lot and used to be much more stringent than they are now.  Second, stricter qualifying standards would keep with the spirit of a prestigious, world class event worth striving for.  Additionally, a small change in qualifying standards could easily create a lot more availability in the race.  

Many popular races (NYC, London, Houston) are using a lottery system for registration.  I would be really disappointed if Boston adopted this approach. First, I don't want Boston to be like those other marathons, it should continue to set a standard, not follow in the footsteps of other races.  Second, a lot of lottery events are becoming very difficult to get into and appear to be biased based on where you live.  While many may disagree, I think Boston is best as a marathon experienced by those who have achieved a certain time goal rather than achieved a time goal AND got lucky.

The final common suggestion is that the BAA delay their registration process until closer to the event in April.  In previous years, registration has opened in September.  This year it was moved back to mid October to accommodate more fall races and give those runners a fair shot at entering the race.  I think this was a responsible move on the part of the BAA, although it clearly wasn't enough.  Furthermore, there are plenty of fall races run in late October, November and even December.  In the southern part of the country (like Texas), major marathons are in the winter months.  Moving the registration date around might help to include more qualifying races, but there will always be some that are left out, so this is more of a short term, band-aid solution.

Regardless of which approach you think is best (and I would love to hear your thoughts!), clearly the BAA needs to hit this problem head on and come up with a new solution.  It is ridiculous for a qualifying marathon like Boston to sell out in 8 hours and it is unfair to hundreds of runners who met those standards but were unable to register in time or even knew this would be an issue.  If registration for the race takes place in the span of 8 hours, runners are subject to all kinds of ridiculous biases like internet speed, time zones, the site crashing, and slow credit card verification.  Obviously you wouldn't be able to mail in an entry blank, which would impact those runners without an internet connection at home or access at work.  My hope is that the BAA reviews its qualifying standards and revamps them across the board, testing the impact of a modest (<5min) decrease in the requirement.  Additionally, I think they should push the registration back to December and consolidate the charity running spots.  In the meantime, I'll be content with my 2006 and 2007 experiences and work on getting faster by running in other races.