Wednesday, December 28, 2011

From Texas to Boston: Running in the Cold

Apparently the start of December, and winter, in Massachusetts was incredibly mild this year.  That all came to an end just before I flew from my cool but temperate central TX to my parents' home in the Boston area.  I arrived on Christmas eve, in the afternoon, and had packed and prepared for morning runs every day of my visit.  After all, what is a vacation without regular running?  While the Mass air felt very chill to me as I left Logan airport, I put it out of my mind, taking solace in the knowledge that I had packed tights, long sleeved wicking shirts, gloves and a running hat.

Christmas morning arrived with grey skies and very cold temperatures.  I woke up and checked the thermometer outside the bathroom window, which registered between 10 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit.  I briefly contemplated returning to bed, given that I had not tackled such temperatures in nearly a year.  However, the thought of doing so was shameful enough that I instead pulled on my tights, two layers of long sleeved tech shirts, gloves and a hat.  Before I could sink into a small and cold puddle, I put on my Garmin and headed out the front door.  The cold air sent a chill through me immediately, and because the Garmin had not located satellites, I was forced to continue standing, very still, for about 2 minutes.

Shortly after I started running, my muscles and extremities felt much more comfortable and I could feel blood circulating throughout my body.  My face still felt cold and raw and there is an unpleasant feeling that settles in your throat from continually sucking in chilly air.  Nonetheless, the simple act of running brought my body temperature into balance.  That is, unless I found myself stopped at an intersection.  A lack of motion meant the immediate return of frigidity.

Toward the end of my run, the wind had picked up and the tips of my fingers and toes were permanently and uncomfortably chilled.  This was especially surprising because I was wearing fleece mittens.  I cannot remember another time that they were not sufficient to keep me warm.  When I finished the run (a hearty 8.43 miles), I took a very nice and deserved hot shower and drank some hot tea to return my body temperature to normal.  The rest of my family still lives in Mass, and therefore this weather was not out of the ordinary.  I, however, was very pleased by my fortitude.

The three days following Christmas have brought considerably milder weather and with it easier and more comfortable running conditions.  On the 26th, I headed out with a hat and gloves, but quickly shed the gloves at the trail head where I was running, and retrieved them before heading home.  On the 27th, I went into Boston and ran along the Emerald Necklace.  The weather was in the high 30s, warm enough for me to go sans hat and gloves!  And while the trend continued this morning, the weather has now changed again, with temperatures in the 20s tomorrow and a very heavy wind chill to accompany it.

Getting out of a warm bed for the prospect of a run in the cold air is not often appealing to a groggy runner.  What I have learned over the years though is that more often than not, with the proper dress and a consistent pace, one will be warm enough.  So tomorrow, and the rest of the time I am here in Massachusetts, I will remind myself that the chilly conditions are nothing that a little running can't cure.

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Art of Running in the Dark

Daylight savings in autumn is a pretty exciting day for perpetually tired students like me, because it means a glorious, extra hour of sleep.  After that, though, all the excitement is gone and you are left with longer and longer periods of darkness.  For most of us this time of year (in the northern hemisphere) this means periods of running in the dark, whether it is pre-dawn or post-dusk.  My running is no exception to that, and I have been logging quite a few miles in the dark of late.  As I was (yet again) running in the dark this week, I came to the realization that there are quite a few tricks that I feel are important to making this a satisfying and successful experience.

Embrace it.  If you are going to spend a significant amount of your runs in the dark, you really ought to enjoy it, which I think one can do by actively focusing on the nice things about it.  I enjoy running in the dark because it feels so much quieter.  This in turn makes it easier for me to meditate and mull things over.  Furthermore, I find that traffic is often less in the early mornings or late at night.  If you time it right, one can also enjoy a sunrise or sunset during the run.  This time of year, one can also enjoy the holiday lights better in the darkness.  Sometimes I pick a running route that takes me through a particularly well decorated neighborhood and it makes me feel festive.

Gear up.  A few adjustments to your normal running attire can make a dark run much more enjoyable and safe.  First, swap a dark colored shirt for a bright/light colored shirt.  Any gear with built in reflective elements is a plus, but certainly throwing on a white shirt is extremely easy to do, so no excuses! You can also clip a cheap, flashing bike light on your clothing.  This makes you easy to spot for any cars.  If the area you are running in is not well lit or has particularly bad footing, consider using a head lamp or hand held flashlight.   Alternatively, you can pick a route that you know is well-lit and has smooth terrain.  That is what I usually do; I avoid off-road paths anytime I know I am running when it is dark out.

Know thy enemy.  My primary concern while running in the dark is cars.  This is particularly problematic in Austin, where many roads (1) lack sidewalks and (2) lack street lights.  This means I am often forced to run in unlit streets.  The good news is that Austin is pretty cycling friendly, so most of the roads have shoulders.  First, I always run against traffic.  This is strongly recommended for runners, because it supposedly allows cars to see you sooner.  I usually take a defensive approach with cars, though, and assume that I need to take safety into my own hands.  I like running against traffic, because it makes it easier for me to know when a car is approaching.  As they get closer, I can gauge whether they are moving away from me and giving me plenty of passing space and if not, I will jump onto the curb.  My secondary concern is vulnerability and isolation.  As a female runner, I never want to put myself in a situation where someone could hurt me and I would be unable to get help.  While I enjoy running in remote and natural places, I skip this at night because it is so much harder to avoid danger.  I stick to well lit/populated areas with a decent amount of traffic.  If traffic is a problem, one can also choose residential neighborhoods with lots of houses and people in those houses.

Perfect the Art.  A major problem I experience while running in the dark is temporary blindness from the oncoming traffic's bright lights.  This makes me somewhat uncomfortable, because many of the roads I run in have potholes or other contour aspects.  In this case, I do my best to look at a distance where I can make out the road surface.  Additionally, I tend to press my feet into the pavement with confidence.  I also use this technique when running on slick or icy surfaces.  Literally, I apply a little extra pressure when my foot hits the pavement.  This should increase the friction between my shoe and the road, and help keep me upright.  It might all be in my head, but I can assure you that I have never fallen using this approach, and I have taken my fair share of face plants while running.  Usually these falls occur during the calmest of weather on smooth, flat road in full daylight, much to my embarrassment. 

Right now in Austin, the sun sets around 5:30pm.  I set out for a run at 5pm and selected a route that looped south along the Shoal Creek trail and then back along roads and through UT's campus.  Because the second half of the run would be in the dark, I intentionally ran the trail section first and was well onto paved road before it was too dark to see.  It was a grey, cloudy and drizzly day, preceded by an entire weekend of rain.  The weather was cool, in the low 50s and wet.  It reminds me of New England, and I love it!  After the hottest summer on record in Austin, I am finally in my element.  And for that, I don't mind logging a few miles in the dark :)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The race that was not

Back in the middle of the summer, I registered for a half marathon.  It was the See Jane Run half marathon, which would be held for the first time in Austin, TX on October 9th.  Even though October can be quite hot in Austin, I wanted a race to motivate my summer running, and the convenience of a fall race in my backyard was highly appealing.  It all seemed so ideal.  Until October 9th, that is.

A storm passed through Austin (early in the morning) and for the first time in three months (literally), we were blessed with soaking rain.  I woke to rain and thunder around 4:30am.  The race start was 7am, so I was unconcerned at the time.  My alarm went off at 5:30am, and there was still rain with occasional thunder and flashes of lightning.  Thinking this might cause a race delay, I booted up my computer and quickly checked my email and the race website, figuring if there was a change, it would be posted there.  Nothing.  Well, I have run my fair share of workouts and races in the rain, and being a hearty New Englander by birth, I was unphased.  I finished getting ready and was out the door by 6am.

The line of cars to approach the parking lot was long and moving slowly.  I got there by 6:15 and then just creeped along.  I knew I had plenty of time, so I didn't panic.  I finally got close enough at about 6:25 and realized all the cars were being directed to turn around and leave.  "Race is canceled" someone yelled to me.  I unrolled the window to confirm.  I drove further up to double check with someone of authority.  I expected to talk to a race director or volunteer, but sadly they could not be found.  There was a police car, no one else to be seen.  They confirmed the race was canceled and sent me home.

When I got home, I had an email waiting from See Jane Run.  They informed us that the race had been canceled; they had been asked to cancel the race by the police because of lightning and rain (i.e. asked, not told).  There would be no rescheduling or refund.  The email was time stamped 6:24am.  The race start had been 7am.  By this time, 6:45am, the lightning had completely stopped and the rain was more of a drizzle.  By 8am, it was not raining at all.  The sky cleared and the early morning was greeted with sunshine.  Needless to say I felt pretty disappointed and adamant that See Jane Run race organizers had made the wrong call.

The next day, I got on their facebook page to express my disappointment, ask some questions, and try to make some sense of their decision.  While lightning poses a threat to runners, it seemed obvious to me that the correct call would have been a delayed start.  SJR had permits and plans to keep the half marathon course open for five hours.  A 30 minute delay would have been enough time for the lightning to clear completely and would still have allowed the majority (if not all) of the field enough time to run the course.  The radar for Austin clearly showed this storm was fast moving.  SJR organizers claimed they could not delay the start because of permits (I guess they never considered ending the race at the same time regardless).  They also used the excuse that the rain had resulted in flooding of the starting area.  While lightning presents a legitimate safety concern, flooding does not, and I have never heard of races being canceled because the ground is too wet.  In fact, I ran many a gnarly and soaked cross country race in high school, trudging through ankle deep mud and water.

Furthermore, SJR race officials should have stayed at the course well past 7am and explained to all of the runners arriving what was going on.  Instead, they were nowhere to be found, and one police officer was left to inform all the participants that they race was canceled.  When I asked SJR organizers about this point, they became very defensive, and didn't understand why runners would want to talk to race organizers instead of police (!).  They then told me that at 6am when the decision to cancel was made, all the organizers went inside to get dry and started tweeting, facebooking and calling radio stations.  What they failed to realize was that by the time they emailed the participants (a mere 36 minutes prior to race start), nearly everyone running the race had already arrived or was in transit.  Organizers' time would have been better spent talking to all the participants instead of calling radio stations.

Finally, I was disappointed by the way SJR organizers handled the criticism they received.  Thousands of women paid to partake in a race that was abruptly canceled and clearly did not have a backup plan in place.  Given how quickly the weather changed, many participants questioned the legitimacy of the decision.  While organizers did make an effort to distribute souvenir items, including wine glasses and t-shirts, they did not seem to grasp that a lot of people were disappointed that they didn't get to run a race.  In fact, they asked the public to consider how disappointing it was for them (organizers) after days of hard work.  This argument is completely insensitive to the fact that registered runners trained for months (and paid) for a race they never got to run.  Instead of explaining how they made their abrupt decision to cancel the race, they defensively stated that they had over 20 combined years of racing experience and therefore made the right call.  Then, when asked why communication regarding the event being canceled wasn't better, they stated they weren't FEMA and can't be expected to have the best communication.  I am, however, skeptical.  While this runner only has 14 years of race experience, she thinks its pretty obvious the race organizer should stick around the race start and talk to participants, instead of heading inside and out of sight a full hour before the race was scheduled to start.  While some people did post comments that were below the belt, the majority of them were fair criticism.  Sadly, SJR organizers were unwilling to accept any criticism.

So clearly you can tell that I was: (1) disappointed I didn't run a race that I trained and paid for.  I don't even like wearing the shirt, because I don't feel I earned it!  I also wasted two weeks on an unnecessary taper.  (2) I think the right decision would have been to postpone 30-60 minutes.  I have previously run races right here in Austin, TX and they were postponed for weather related safety reasons.  The lightning was long gone by the time the race would have started, and a little rain never hurt anyone.  (3) Communication by race organizers was abysmal.  They jumped ship too quick (not staying at the start to talk to people) and after the fact became defensive and unable to accept criticism.

In fairness to SJR, I will mention what they did that I think deserves kudos. (1) They donated all of the medals for the race to Medals for Mettle, a charity that gives race medals to children fighting debilitating diseases.  (2) They are offering a reduced, $30 entry fee to the half marathon next year.  I personally will not chose to run another SJR event, because I was extremely disappointed by the organization they demonstrated.  However, I think that whenever an event is canceled and refunds are not possible (entry fees had already been used to pay for costs that could not be recuperated), a reduced or free entry fee is the best way to resolve the issue.

So that is my race that was not.  Now its November, and I haven't run a race since an Easter 5k.  Fortunately, I have something on the calendar for December, which I will be sure to talk about in an upcoming post.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How does my garden grow?

First, happy world vegan day!  Eat lots of plants!  Lately, it has been getting easier and easier for me to consume massive amounts of plants.  Why?  Because I have 192 square feet of garden right outside my front door.  That's right, I'm the proud parent of a raised bed victory garden.


Homegrown cucumbers
(white is heirloom variety)
In August, I moved and one of the perks of the new house was a front yard that got plenty of direct sunlight.  In August, it was a dirt patch, what with the long, hot Texas summer and lack of rain.  Boyfriend and I, as well as two neighbors (one of which has a masters in agricultural sciences) undertook the task of turning this area into a fertile, plant growing space.  Our neighbor has been the real mastermind beyond the project, which took off quickly.  First, we built 6 raised beds, each 4 feet by 8 feet.  Next, he installed a drip irrigation system, complete with timers.  We can set when and for how long each bed gets watered, and it happens in the wee hours of the morning all on its own!  For each bed, we marked off each square foot and then the planting began!  One of the advantageous of hot hot Texas is two growing seasons.  Although August was too late for many crops (like strawberries and tomatoes), it was early enough for corn, squash, peppers and cucumbers.  Now that fall is in full swing, we have filled out the beds with other delicious plants including fresh herbs (sage, mint, dill, parsley, cilantro, basil, oregano, thyme and lavender), leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard greens, chard and many many lettuces) carrots, beets, beans, broccoli, onions, cauliflower and cabbages.
Fresh picked salad and beans

Of course, different plants grow at different rates, so we haven't been able to harvest everything yet, but we are already enjoying the fruits of our labors.  We have a bumper crop of cucumbers, so many that we are giving them away and turned more than twenty of them into pickles.  I picked a massive bowl of beans the other day and I frequently eat salads composed of our own, freshly picked greens.  I have sauteed up our kale and add our swiss chard to my smoothies.  On two occasions, we have made homemade pesto with our own basil.

Both boyfriend and I are really enjoying the gardening and love to look at it everyday, up close and personal, to see all the changes that are occurring.  Of course the fresh taste of homegrown food isn't a bad perk either.

Check out the youtube links for my narrated tour of the garden:
http://www.youtube.com/user/amlanza?feature=mhee#p/u/0/WAmbT79wFaU
http://www.youtube.com/user/amlanza?feature=mhee#p/u/1/qTQtwTPo8PI

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bailey

Bailey, on 'her' couch
In a short amount of time, my new dog has become firmly ingrained in the family and quite spoiled.  She had lots of toys, biscuits and bones keep arriving from her grandparents in the mail, she has two dog beds, is allowed on the couch, and even has her own jar of peanut butter.

Bailey and Sadie, resting
She is a social butterfly.  She regularly gets invited by the neighbor across the street to play with Holly, the German short haired pointer.  She has a second playdate with Sadie, a lab hound puppy, tomorrow.  She goes to the dog park with her pitbull friend, Raisin.  And, of course, she has sleep over parties with her beloved cousin Ike.
Bailey (with the bow) and Ike

She has lots of energy and spunk, which we take advantage of with lots of playtime, trips to the park, and of course, runs.  Because she is so young, we do not run for more than 20 minutes with her, but we go on jogs between 1 and 2 miles regularly.  She is definitely fast, but when we started, her leash/running manners left much to be desired.  She would often run across my body, tangle her legs in the leash, lunge after a squirrel, stop dead to stare at a cyclist or lag behind me.  By applying a consistent running style and some basic leash training, I have noticed a dramatic improvement, making running with Bailey much more fun for all of us.
Bailey wears a bow!

And while she isn't perfect and sometimes drives me crazy (can you say separation anxiety?), who can stay mad at a pup this cute?  I sure can't for very long...

Friday, September 16, 2011

NB Road Minimus

In a previous post, I detailed the Shoes I Run in.  Several hundred miles later, however, both the 790T and Green Silence have been retired.  I took the 790T on my trip to China, and subsequently left them there before returning to the US.  With all the souvenirs I found, I had to make room in my suitcase somehow.  The Green Silence were thoroughly washed with the hose, to remove miles and miles of road dust, and are now my dog walking shoes when I volunteer at the Town Lake Animal Center.
NB Road Minimus
I am currently alternating between the NB101T (a lightweight, racing trail shoe) and the NB Minimus, designed for the road.  The Minimus is NB's most recent attempt at a lightweight, fast, minimal shoe.  As a pretty loyal NB customer, I appreciate their efforts to design more minimal shoes, and therefore felt the need to test it out myself, despite the whopping $100 price tag, which I felt was excessive.  Fortunately, I received a Groupon gift of $50 for a specialty running store, which I used it towards the purchase of the Minimus.  These shoes now have just under 70 miles on them, which is enough to give a review.

I like the weight and feel of the shoe.  The materials are very comfortable and the shoe is very light.  Of course, I have been wearing lighter weight shoes for quite awhile now, so a normal shoe would feel clunky to me.  The Minimus goes a step further than many of NB's previous models, weighing under 8.2 oz.  The sole of the shoe has minimal nubbing, which I thought could cause traction issues.  I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that running on wet grass or trail (for shorter periods) was no problem at all.  I have yet to run on wet pavement with these shoes, mostly because we have been without rain for so long in TX :(  My first few runs in these shoes left my feet a little sore, which I think was a result of having even less cushioning than the 101T or 790Ts.  I also noticed tenderness/hot spots on my big toes when I first ran in them.  Recent runs have not presented any problems and I intend to race an upcoming half marathon in these shoes.  While the shoes come in a variety of colors, the mostly white model that I selected (pictured above) shoes a lot of dirt, so even though I have only run 70 miles in these shoes, they already look very dirty.  I cannot say how well the materials hold up, but I intend to try to take these shoes beyond 500 miles, and will follow up then.

Overall, I enjoy the NB Minimus.  It is a fast, lightweight shoe that is very comfortable and requires almost no transition if you have previously run in something like the Brooks Green Silence of other NB models (790, 101).  However, with a $100 price tag, I am disappointed that it is not more affordable.  Unfortunately, with increasing demand for lightweight, minimal shoes (which should use less materials to manufacture), shoe companies are recognizing they can charge more and more.  While I would be happy to purchase another pair, I intend to look for a deal to reduce that overall cost.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Summer Running in Austin: Part 2



I think I'm getting the hang of this summer running thing...

Previously, I wrote a post about the difficulties of running during the intense, long Texas summers.  And while the heat has not abated, I am am impressed by the adaptability of the human body because my runs seem to be getting better and logging miles in the heat seems to be getting a little easier.  Good thing too, because I have at least another 6 weeks of pretty high temps.

Walnut Creek, Austin, TX
This weekend, I had two great runs.  On Saturday morning, I took Ike to Walnut Creek in North Austin for a 72 minute trail run.  We both love running in that park; Ike because he can be off the leash and explore (he once flushed a massive, male deer), me because there is over 11 miles of trail network that twists and turns and covers all kinds of terrain, so it is pretty hard to get bored.  I started out at a relaxed and comfortable pace, tackling the steep uphills and screaming downhills with grace.  Around 50 minutes, I was still feeling good and conscientiously picked up the pace, finishing sweaty but strong.  I was pleased that I felt no soreness and hardly any fatigue in my legs.  I know the same distance on road would have a very different result, got to love those trails!

For the rest of the morning, Ike came over to my house for a play date with Bailey.  Unfortunately for Ike, she is full of energy and had had no exercise yet that morning.  The result was an unrelenting desire to play, which manifested itself as jumping on Ike and following him wherever he went.  Poor Ike!

Yesterday, I had a 12 mile long run on my schedule.  Instead of getting up bright at early at 6am, I snoozed my alarm and slept until 9am.  The lack of sleep throughout the week had caught up with me.  I was pretty bummed about not getting the run in, and set my mind to getting it done in the evening, something I have really never done with a long run, and especially not in the middle of the summer, when temperatures in Austin can persist above 95F well beyond 10pm.  Well, I ate a late lunch and made sure to drink plenty of fluids.  At 7:45pm, I headed out the door, 20 oz of water in my hydration pack and prepared for my first ever evening long run. Fortunately for me, late afternoon cloud cover had kept the temperature below 100F.

I started sweating about 5 minutes into the run and was pretty well covered 20 minutes in.  I ran west, under the MoPac expressway, and continued on a hilly course through the affluent neighborhoods surrounding Tarrytown and Mount Bonnell.  I watched a beautiful sunset, and 45 minutes in found myself running in the dark.  I was careful to watch for cars and stay out of their way.  Otherwise, I really enjoyed running in the dark, which was quiet and tranquil.  I had plenty of material on my iPod and tackled hill after hill with gusto.  Before I knew it, I was crossing back under MoPac with only 2 miles left on the run.  At this point I was pretty thirsty and finished off my water, and while I was tired, I never felt extremely fatigued and was able to hold a strong pace all the way through.  I finished 12.38 miles in 1:46:41, giving me an average pace in the 8:30s.  Considering all the obstacles: summer heat, long distance, dehydration, night time running, hills, I was very pleased.  Of course lots of cold water and a cold shower helped too.

So what is the take away point?  Pushing through uncomfortable conditions, be it hot or cold weather, will eventually pay off.  The human body is an amazing machine and can adapt to a lot of conditions.  Eventually, the rewards will come, and in this case, it was two great weekend runs.  Hoping the momentum will carry me through the rest of the week!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Bailey: The New Kid on the Block

I haven't previously mentioned this, but I spend a lot of time volunteering with dogs at my local shelter, the Town Lake Animal Center.  This shelter is currently the largest No Kill shelter in the country, striving to maintain a 90% live outcome rate for dogs and cats.  I work with the dogs, taking them for trail walks, play and potty breaks, and working with customers interested in adopting them.  I find it to be a very rewarding use of my time, especially because I love dogs.

This past week, with extreme heat in Texas (over 50 days above 100F) and overcrowding, the shelter found itself dangerously above capacity.  Boyfriend and I decided to foster a dog and bring her home, out of the heat.  Her name is Bailey and she is a 10 month old female, 40lb Plott hound mix.  She is very energetic, playful and affectionate and has been doing wonderfully with us at home!  She doesn't bark or chew on things and seems to be housebroken.  She already knows 'sit' and 'shake'.  She is also very friendly with other dogs and really enjoyed meeting (and pestering) Ike.

Last week, I took Bailey for a few, short runs.  At the end of my run, I took her for a 1.75 mile loop nearby our house.  She was a little distracted by noises and passerbys, which made it difficult to run at an even pace, but overall, she did really well!  The pace was slower than I'd like, but I expect that will improve with practice.  I used a yuppie puppy harness, which makes controlling her very easy.  Her biggest joy came from a few squirrel sightings, which caused her to go nuts!  She was trying her hardest to get after those poor squirrels and could not be distracted even when we were a 100 yards away.

Bailey had her spay surgery yesterday, so she is not allowed to run with me for the next week, only walks allowed.  I will definitely miss taking her out for a jog, but we will go for walks instead and the week will pass quickly enough.

For any animal lovers out there, please consider adopting from a shelter or rescue group, in the process you will save a life!  Of course, you can always foster or volunteer, which is another great way to help.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pingyao: A trip to Old World China

A view of countryside from the train
As I mentioned in a previous post, I visited China for three weeks in May 2011. The trip came about because I attended a conference in Shanghai, but it was a good opportunity to do some traveling in another, very different part of the world.  I was fortunate that my parents, very seasoned travelers, were interested in accompanying me.   In this past post, I talk about the experience of running in China.  As time permits, I would like to catalogue some of the sights and adventures (apart from running) from that trip.  If you find yourself traveling to China, and are interested in more information, please don't hesitate to contact me!

The old city wall (6km)
surrounds Pingyao
We took an overnight train from bustling Beijing and traveled 12 hours to arrive around 5am in the sleepy city of Pingyao.  The Chinese travel predominantly by train, therefore there are many different types and speeds of trains.  We had a K train, which is the slowest and oldest of the "high speed" overnight trains.  We booked a first class sleeping compartment, which was not luxurious but adequate and comfortable.  However, many of the men in our car insisted on chain smoking throughout the night and would not close the car doors.  The smell of smoke filled the cabin and made breathing and sleeping somewhat challenging.  Furthermore, the toilets were beyond disgusting so we minimized use as much as possible.  Because Pingyao is so small, traveling by train is the only option.

A courtyard of our guesthouse
The overnight trip was well worth the effort, because Pingyao was the most interesting and pretty city we visited.  It was the financial capital of the empire during both the Ming and Qing dynasties and the old city layout has been preserved since that time period.  As China modernized, the government bulldozed a significant amount of cultural relics and old cities.  Pingyao is one of the very few that did not fall to this fate, and because of its more than 4,000 well preserved homes and old wall surrounding the city, it is a UNESCO world cultural heritage site.
Bikes and rickshaws rule
the road here

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Pingyao became extremely wealthy and was the closest location of banks to the seat of the empire, in Beijing (then Peking).  Anyone interested in acquiring a loan would have to travel to Pingyao to meet with the bankers.  This stimulated other businesses, such as guesthouses and restaurants.  You can visit the original banks and stay in the guesthouses, all located within the old city wall.  This part of the city does not allow cars, and the predominant form of transportation is bikes.

Intricate gargolyes and lattice work
grace the preserved homes
We stayed two days and one night in the heart of Pingyao.  Our guesthouse was beautiful and had many courtyards and a very pretty, traditional room.  We were fortunate to have modern plumbing and hot water, because in this part of China, both are rarities.  In fact, many of the homes here sport a miniature water tank on the roof.  Most people cook with coal here, and the smell is omnipresent.  Also, the air is filled with particulates, which did give me some allergy problems, especially after 4 days in heavily polluted Beijing.  If I could do it over again, I would have packed some nasal spray and Sudafed.

We spent the days biking around the old town.  There were a few temples and museums to visit, and I walked atop the entire 6km of the old wall, which gave me great views of the city and homes.  We found the local food delicious and interesting, with lots of mushrooms, potatoes, noodles (potato and oat!) and spices.  Preserved beef is common to the cuisine there, but being vegan, I passed on that.  I did try some very interesting Sea hawkthorn juice, which was both sweet and tart and the color of mango juice.  We also visited shops.  Local goods include lacquered boxes and handmade shoes. I didn't indulge in either, but did buy a hand-carved wooden fruit basket and some candies.  My mother bought some very good jasmine tea.

Biking along the old city wall
Because most of China is very densely populated, the other cities we visited were bustling and crowded.  By contrast, Pingyao was tiny (only 490,000 people compared to the 24 million in Shanghai).  The architecture was also very beautiful and I would say it was definitely a highlight of the trip!

Monday, July 11, 2011

My First Hydration System - Nathan Speed 2


While I maintain a strong belief that running unencumbered (sans GPS, music, hydration packs and other gadgets) has its place and pleasure in the running world, I am very pleased to be the owner and frequent user of a new Nathan Speed 2 hydration pack.  The oppressive heat of a Texas summer necessitated some change, especially if I am to build up long runs beyond 1 hour in duration.  I have used the Nathan Speed 2 on many runs since acquiring it, and I have definitely noticed that drinking water in moderation has made the experience much more pleasant.  Here is my review of the product, for all this one runner's opinion is worth.

The Good
The hydration pack is relatively lightweight, even with 20oz of water and contours to the hips very comfortably.  I was very impressed that there was no bouncing of the bottles.  I really didn't want a handheld bottle because of the sloshing and am happy I chose a waist pack instead.  It did take a few tries for me to get the belt on the right spot of my hips, but once there, it was a smooth and comfortable ride.  I find that low on the hips works best and with a 28inch waist and 32inch measurement around the hips, I went for the medium.  I could have gotten away with the small, but many reviewers online said the product ran small.  I would disagree and say the product runs true.

The plastic bottles are easy to open with the mouth.  They can also be washed in the dishwasher (top rack), which is a big plus.  The cloth waistband dries quickly and has no irritating seams.  The color schemes are nice, although I did chose basic grey.  The pockets built into the waist band are awesome, and I intend to get a lot of use out of them on long training runs.

The Bad
The bottle tops are difficult to close with the mouth and I am always afraid they are not completely closed.  Reaching behind with my left hand feels a little awkward, and I did drop a bottle once, which rolled into a flood drain, leading me to stop my run and crouch in the gutter to retrieve it.  I expect the reach around motion to become more comfortable with time.  Also, the bottles make considerable contact with my sides.  Initially, it is uncomfortable having the ice cold bottles against my skin.  A short way into my run, I notice that the water is lukewarm (heat transport by conduction at work!).  This is a minor problem very much outweighed by the benefits of hydration, but worth noting nonetheless.

While I would prefer to run without the added weight of a pack, I am going to be sticking with it for any runs in the hour plus range, at least until the temps drop back down.  I was able to get the Nathan Speed 2 on Amazon.com for $28 and free shipping.  I think it is a pretty good deal and this is one piece of gear that is going to be getting a lot of use from me!  And while this purist is now a convert, I think that in cooler weather I won't be using it as often, and probably only on runs over 2 hours.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Summer Running in Austin: Part 1

It's that time of year again in Austin, TX.  Day time highs above 100F (yes, that is hotter than body temperature...), overnight lows between 73 and 78F and temperatures hovering in the 90s long after 10pm.  While morning temps in the mid 70s may not seem terrible, the humidity averages 90% at that time of day.  In summary, Austin summer weather is nothing short of unbearable for outdoor running.

Despite that, I try to make the best of it, getting up bright and early to run in the "cooler" morning temps.  My paces are slower and I feel like I'm running through a wall of humidity.  The sweating starts almost immediately and somewhere between 10 and 12 minutes in, my body is literally coated in sweat.  In my desperate attempts to keep myself cool, I am wearing very little clothing and have nothing with which to wipe sweat from my eyes, ears, forehead, shoulders etc etc.  I let it pool all over me and just go with it.  Lawn sprinklers are a welcome sight and offer a brief moment of reprieve.  When I finish, all the sweating leaves my core body temperature dangerously high, which can be alleviated pretty efficiently with a 10 minutes cold shower.  I follow this up with massive quantities of cold water, and it usually takes me the entire day to properly rehydrate.

Thirst on the run has been a major issue lately.  I have been trying to do longer runs in the range of 10 miles.  In cooler weather, I can easily run 16 miles without any water, but the summer heat has made that impossible.  I finish 7 mile runs totally parched and can recognize that the lack of water on the run is impacting my performance.  I finally caved in and got a hydration pack (actually boyfriend bought it for me as a birthday present!).  I got the Nathan 2-speed waist pack.  As a minimalist runner who hates taking "stuff" with them, the idea of a handheld was not appealing and the Nathan waist packs are not supposed to bounce.  I am hoping these extra 20oz can help me build up to the 14 mile range through the summer months.

On Sunday, I made the fatal mistake of sleeping in.  Sadly, I was very tired and had also gotten up early on Saturday morning to run.  I silenced my alarm and didn't get up until after 9:30pm, far too late to brave the morning heat.  This left me no choice but to run in the evening.  As previously described, evening temps stay in the 90F range up until about 10pm, so I decided that I would make the best of it and run at 8pm, a half hour before the sun went down.  I am babysitting my friend's dog Ike, who loves to run, so I took him along.  Ike is an incredible runner and has a lot of endurance, so I was surprised when both of us were lagging about 45 minutes into the hour run.  At our last intersection, Ike even lay down on the ground, something I never see him do, indicating he was hot, exhausted and running on empty.  We slogged through the last 5 minutes and celebrated with  frosty glasses of water.  The worst part was that, even though I had my new hydration pack, I elected NOT TO BRING IT WITH ME!  A 7 mile run is a standard distance for me, and I convinced myself I wouldn't need it and should wait to use the pack for longer runs.  A mere 3.5 miles into the run, I desperately regretted my decision.

So what have I learned with all these hot weather running?
1) The weather isn't going to get better for awhile.  Don't wait for ideal conditions, just motivate yourself and go out and do it
2) Running in the morning is almost always better than the evening.  Unless there is a massive rain storm and you happen to synchronize your run with the rain
3) Hydration makes a big difference.  Drink drink drink leading up to the run
4) Even dogs hate hot weather running.

When I finally use my new hydration pack, I will write a review with my thoughts about it.  In the meantime, stay cool and run long!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Summer Swimming

One of the (few) perks of being a graduate student is free access to the amazing athletic facilities of the University of Texas, including their natatorium which has both an indoor pool and outdoor pool.  The outdoor pool is open year round, and heated in the winter.  I have found that I really enjoy lap swimming outside.  There is a lot less noise, and chemical odors compared to an indoor facility, and I can enjoy the sunshine.  While it is definitely hot this time of year, water circulators keep the pool temperature low enough that it feels refreshing.  The pool is quite large, with at least 10 lanes of 25m in length.  It is also pretty popular.  On Monday evening, every lane was full with at least two people and there were a few people waiting for a place.  I have noticed that on the weekend afternoons, there is a lot less demand and I can usually get a lane to myself.

I read enough books, magazines, and blogs and heard enough running related interviews and podcasts to know that runners benefit from cross-training.  In fact, I think we all know that.  But in practice, with limited time and energy, it can be hard mentally and physically to work cross training into an exercise schedule.  But after nearly 13 years of regular running, I've decided to commit to a regular, albeit low level of swimming to diversify my workouts.

DSC_0009.JPGAn Austin summer is an optimal time to increase cross training and decrease running.  The heat and humidity (100F and 90% are normal and regular from May-Sept) make running both a hydration challenge and less enjoyable.  I either run first thing in the morning (finishing before 8am) or need to wait until after 8:30pm.  While I am training for a half-marathon in October, I have cut back my running to five days a week with one long run on the weekends.  I think five days a will still provide enough consistency to build a solid running base and then provide race-specific training.

DSC_0107.JPGOn the two non-running days, I am trying to phase in lap swimming workouts.  For the past three weeks, I have swam once a week and this will be my first week with two pool workouts.  I started off with 2000m in one workout and have worked up to 2500m.  2500m takes me about 50 min, so ideally I would like to add another 500m for an hour total swim.  I like to vary the workouts as much as possible, and incorporate warm-up laps, backstroke, breaststroke, kicking, pulling and sprints.  I usually swim 500m sets, and then take a 2 minute break to drink water before starting again.


Hopefully I can expand the swim workouts to twice a week and maintain this pattern.  If so, I think I will start to notice the benefits with my running.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A (nearly) naked cyclist

I few days ago, I was enjoying what for all intensive purposes was an average run.  It was hot and humid (just like it always is these days in Austin), I was sweating a lot, listening to a running podcast on my iPod and was cruising along near the Shoal Creek trail.  My boyfriend and I had just parted ways; I wanted to extend my run so he took our favorite running partner Ike back with him.  There weren't a lot of people out and it was that time of day just between daylight and dusk.  Just then, practically out of nowhere, a mythical Austin figure appeared on the road heading right towards me bearing it all...the (nearly) naked Cyclist!

Austin, TX has a saying; Keep Austin Weird.  It's plastered on bumper stickers, t-shirts and hats and a significant portion of the populous embraces this saying wholeheartedly.  I guess that when you are a liberal, artsy, music city smack dab in the middle of a fairly conservative state, it's hard not to earn a reputation of being weird.  This alternative attitude makes Austin a pretty progressive, interesting place to live.  Bumping into the (nearly) naked Cyclist always reminds me just how unique this city is.
The (nearly) naked cyclist in his typical attire in
downtown Austin, TX

This is the third time I've seen this guy.  He rides his bike all around Austin, though I have only encountered him in the Hyde Park area.  He wears nothing except an olive green thong and sometimes a hat.  No shirt, no pants, no shoes.  He unabashedly rides his bike through the streets, and when I pass him, I cannot help but stare.  It is very weird, even by Austin standards, and I just cannot look away.

I guess these are the things that keep our runs interesting and make for good stories.  I cannot take credit for this excellent picture capturing the (nearly) naked Cyclist.  Check out more excellent Austin photos here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Running in China

I recognize that I haven't written in about two months, which is unfortunate.  I'll explain briefly and try to prevent this from happening again.

On March 6th, I ran the Little Rock Marathon in Arkansas.  I will write more about that in the near future.  After LR, only five weeks later than the Miracle Match Marathon in Waco, TX, I was pretty tired and settled into some low-key, fun running without any training goals in mind.  As a result, I had a little less to say about my running.  Most of my focus shifted to work (i.e. being a graduate student in chemical engineering).  In April, I submitted two manuscripts for publication in scientific journals.  Preparing them required final experiments and a lot of writing and revisions.  This process is very time consuming.  Lastly, I had to prepare a talk for a conference (Asian Congress on Biotechnology) I recently attended in Shanghai, China.  I left for China on April 28th, and the month leading up to the trip was very crazy for me.

I was able to spend almost three weeks in China.  The conference took up a solid week, plus two days for traveling.  However, for the remaining 17 or so days, I was able to travel around China with some family members, and it was a great and interesting experience.  Sadly, a few days before the end of my trip my camera got lost.  I don't know exactly what happened, because I was rushing around trying to catch a boat before it left. I either left the camera in a taxi, or it was stolen from my bag.  Fortunately, the people I traveled with have much nicer cameras than I and plenty of pictures they will share with me.  In the meantime, I can't add any of my own pictures.  I will probably update this post later to include pictures from my trip.

The trip started in Beijing, the capital of China.  We stayed there for 4 nights and then took an overnight train to Pingyao, in the Shaanxi province.  We stayed 1 night in Pingyao before taking another overnight train to Xi'an (Shanxi province).  We stayed two nights in Xi'an and then took a high speed train to Luoyang (Henan province).  After two more nights in Luoyang, we took a flight to Shanghai, where we stayed 6 nights and I presented at the conference.  We then took a short, high speed train to Suzhou (just outside of Shanghai in the Jiangsu province) and stayed one night.  We stayed a final night in Shanghai before our flight back to the United States.

In another post, I will talk more about what I saw/experienced in each of these locations, but for this post, I want to talk about running in China.  I packed an older pair of running sneakers (which I left behind at the end of my trip to lighten my luggage) and was able to run 7 times while in China.  When I factor in the days on the plane, as well as overnight train rides, it works out to running almost every other day, which I was pretty happy with.

One thing I did have problems with was running for long periods of time.  My runs varied in length from 34 to 49 minutes.  I would have liked to get closer to the hour mark.  My primary limitation was finding a place to run without heavy traffic, a lot of street-crossing, and a constant need to dodge pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists.  Everything you may have heard about China being crowded is true.  The cities are massive, with Beijing and Shanghai alone holding over 20 million people each.  Of all the places we visited, only Pingyao had less than 2.5 million (population 480,000).  This was a major difference compared to the United States or other countries I have visited.  This kind of urban sprawl isn't very conducive to distance running, and while most of the cities have very nice parks, they aren't necessarily very large or anywhere near the hotels.

Another problem I had towards the beginning of the trip was jet-lag.  Beijing is 13 hrs ahead of Austin, and the flight over took around 19 hrs.  When I arrived in Beijing I was exhausted, had gotten very little sleep on the plane, and it was 2am Beijing time before I went to sleep.  Over the next few days, I adjusted pretty well and seemed to be back on track just before we left for Pingyao, but it was difficult to sleep on the overnight train, and I had a little setback.  By Xi'an, my body clock was back on track.

In Beijing, we stayed in a Marriott located next to the old city wall; the original structure demarking the city center and seat of the Chinese empire until it collapsed in the 1930s.  While very little of the wall still exists, there is roughly a mile and a half still intact, along which a very nice park and path had been built.  I ran along this path, next to the old wall and through the parks on a weekend morning.  Many people were out walking their dogs, doing Tai Chi in the park, or writing Chinese characters with big brushes and water on the paving stones.  It was very beautiful.  At the end of the run, I finished up by running through the winding streets of a hutong located just behind my hotel.  Hutongs, or neighborhoods, are the old style of housing in Beijing.  They are disappearing fast, as the government bulldozes them to make room for high rises, displacing people in the process.

Xi'an is an old, walled city.  Our hotel was very close to the south section of the city wall.  I ran to the wall, and then along a canal on the outside of the wall.  It was very picturesque and the park was well maintained.  I again saw people doing exercises in the park, walking dogs and lounging around.  I also saw women giving haircuts on the sidewalk, very interesting!  Xi'an was hot, temperatures rising above 85F during the day.  The humidity was not ideal for the morning run.

Luoyang's weather was much cooler.  While we were there it was drizzly and rainy, which is certainly ideal for running.  My hotel was about a mile from a large river, which had a nice jogging path and park running along it.  I was able to run very far in one direction, and then simply turned around and headed back.  This park was very popular in the morning, packed with adults and children even though it was a weekday.  Being a female, Caucasian runner, I was definitely interesting to them and throughout the run people pointed and stared at me.  This was a pretty common experience throughout China, in fact (excluding Shanghai), but it was most noticeable on this run.

In Shanghai, we stayed in a central part of the city.  This made it very convenient to get to and from the conference, but meant we were nowhere near a park or jogging path.  The first time I ran here, I went around the block, which I estimated to be one mile, three times.  I then used the treadmill in the gym for another 17 minutes.  The next time was my shortest run of the trip (34 minutes), for an out and back run.  I ran along a main road until it ended, and then headed back.  Along my route, I passed an Ikea.  I guess some things about big cities are the same.

Suzhou is a water city with an intricate network of canals of varying size.  When I went running there, I headed out along one of the main canals, which had a path right along the water.  I crossed the canal on a very pretty bridge.  It was an enjoyable and scenic run, but unfortunately, I could only run a few miles before turning back.  Some private buildings sit right along the canal, which meant the jogging path stops abruptly.  To continue, I had to find my way around the buildings and back to the path.  It was also very hot here, so the 45 minutes of running felt sufficient.

My last day in China, I was very determined to run.  I knew that the exercise would help me withstand the long plane ride.  Unfortunately, the hotel (which was very nice) was right next to a highway and surrounded by  busy roads.  There was nowhere to run outside, I tried asking the concierge and he thought I was crazy for suggesting it.  I was relegated to the treadmill, which I have a very hard time using for any extended period of time.  I slogged through a 40 minute run (thank you iPod).

Overall, I was happy with my running experience in China.  While the air quality is generally very poor throughout the places I visited, I never noticed any additional problems because of the running.  I figured I was breathing particulates regardless of whether I exercised.  The weather was varied, in Beijing it was a cool 55F, but in Xi'an and Suzhou it rose into the 80s.  Finding places to run was a little challenging, but in many cases it ended up being a great opportunity to take in some scenery and explore my location.  I did not see many other runners.  I think each time I went out, I was lucky if I saw two other people running.  Now I'm back to Austin and my regular running routes, which is very nice.  Of course, the weather here has already hit triple digits, so I guess you can't have everything...

Monday, February 28, 2011

Favorite Foods:Nuts & Seeds

Back in September I drastically changed my eating habits and embraced a vegetarian lifestyle with strong vegan tendencies.  The choice is  motivated by health and ethical reasons (not the subject of this blog post).  I do want to highlight, however, that I find myself eating a much more varied diet and trying so many more new foods than I ever did as an omnivore.  Because of this, I am constantly discovering new favorite foods.  This post will be about one such category of food: nuts and seeds.  I eat nuts and seeds every day.  They are calorically concentrated and a great source of healthy fats and protein.  Eat them in their whole food state to get the best benefit and see if you can't incorporate them into all three of your meals!  While not a comprehensive list, here are some of my favorites, as well as how I commonly eat them.  Go nuts!

Pine Nuts
Perhaps one of my favorite nuts, these little guys are harvested from pine cones and come encased in a hard coat, which is then split open to reveal nut meats.  Harvesting pine nuts is very labor intensive, which unfortunately makes them pretty expensive (I pay $28/lb).  They have a delicious, piney, rich taste and I enjoy adding them to pasta dishes, roasted vegetables and sauteed greens.  They are also delicious in cookies, although the cost per pound may be a deterrent.  Pesto recipes traditionally call for pine nuts.  They are about 190 calories per ounce.

Walnuts
A great source of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as protein, walnuts are 185 calories per ounce, are rich in flavor with a slight bitterness.  I like to use them in baked goods such as cookies, muffins and quick breads.  I often add them to a lunch salad or mix them in with my oatmeal.  You can toast them in your toaster very easily, it takes less than five minutes.

Pecans
Not just for pies, I find pecans to be a sweeter, less savory nut.  I like to toast them and add them to my oatmeal, and I often bake with them.  They are a great addition to any salad, and compliment fresh berries, balsamic vinegar, spinach or baby greens.  Pecans ring in at 195 calories per ounce.

Almonds
Almonds are probably the most versatile nut (to me).  They can be used in savory dishes, such as couscous with raisins, and are also a staple when it comes to baking.  Finely ground almonds can be substituted in part with flour to give baked goods a delicious nutty flavor.  Furthermore, almonds are great in anything from cookies to bars, brownies, breads and pies.  Don't forget that marzipan is a paste made from ground almonds and sugar!  When I'm not having them in a dessert, I like to add almonds to oatmeal, salads and pasta dishes.  A breakfast favorite for me is almond butter on toast.  Relatively low calorie for the nut world, these guys are 165 calories per ounce.

Cashews
Cashews aren't actually a nut, but rather a legume, but I added it here because most of us think of these guys as part of the nut family.  I love adding cashews to a vegetable stir-fry dish and find they pair well with a drizzle of soy sauce.  Just like with almonds, I thoroughly enjoy cashew butter on toast for breakfast.  I buy freshly ground nut butters in bulk, but the MaraNatha brand is another good option.  I have several recipes for cashew cream that I intend to try out, but haven't had the opportunity yet.  This faux-nut packs 155 calories per ounce.

Sunflower Seeds
Enough about nuts, on to the seeds!  Of all the seeds, sunflower are probably the most delicious to me.  I add these to my salad nearly every day and buy them in bulk, pre-roasted and salted.  I also like sunflower seed bread, but I buy that in the store and have not attempted to make it myself (yet).  They are about 165 calories per ounce.

Flax Seeds
I use ground flax seeds a lot because of their healthful and useful properties.  Flax seeds are the most concentrated source of omega-3 fatty acids anywhere, so I make a point of adding a tablespoon of ground flax meal to my oatmeal.  It also adds a rich, nutty flavor.  You can also add finely ground flax to smoothies, soups or salads and shouldn't notice much of a change in taste.  Ground flax whipped with water also makes an excellent egg replacer in baking, without the cholesterol.  I use it for breads and cookies, and recently made a successful and delicious batch of latkes.  Ground flax is about 35 calories per tablespoon.

Pepita (pumpkin) Seeds
I use pepita or pumpkin seeds in similar ways to sunflower seeds.  I like to add them to my salads, and I have also mixed them with sauteed greens and vegetables for a delicious effect.  It is easy to make your own, especially in the fall and winter, when squashes are abundant.  Just scoop the seeds from the gourd's center, wash in cold water and roast with salt and some oil in a hot oven.  They are about 170 calories per ounce.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

New Boston Marathon Qualifying Standards - Will it work?

Workout
Yesterday: 6.2 miles in 51:36
Today: 7.8 miles over hills

Last week the BAA announced revised qualifying standards for both the 2012 and 2013 races.  If you weren't aware, the qualifying standards came under scrutiny after the 2011 Boston Marathon filled in under 8 hours this past October, shutting out hundreds of runners who had met the qualifying standards, and leaving no space for those people making a BQ attempt in the latter months.  The new standards make an effort to resolve this problem, but the million dollar question is simply, will it work?


Registration for the 2012 race will open on September 12, 2011 and remain open for up to two weeks.  The first two days, registration is only open to runners who have exceeded the current BAA standards by 20 min or more.  In the next two days, those who have exceeded the standard by more than 10 minutes may register, and two days later anyone exceeding by five minutes can register.  The following week, starting on the 19th, anyone who has met the qualifying standard may register.  They will accept registrants on a first come basis until the race is filled.

The pros:  With a tiered registration system of this nature, the BAA most likely guarantees registration will stay open beyond just the first day (although we can't be sure...).  They have made the wise decision of keeping the preexisting qualifying times for another year, which is only fair for those people who raced marathons between the October and February, and were shooting for a BQ.  Finally, allowing your faster runners to register first increases the likelihood that the race will have an impressive pool of amateur athletes.


The cons:  With this method in place, plenty of people can achieve the qualifying standard and not ever get an opportunity to run the race.  What does it mean to qualify if you are shut out of actually running the race?  Additionally, the BAA has now moved the registration period to mid-September, long before the majority of increasingly popular fall marathons are held.  We know from last year that the race is sure to fill up in the allotted two weeks, if not sooner, so anyone making a BQ attempt is forced to do it this spring or summer.  Finally, with all of the waiting and lack of disclosure regarding race specifics, the BAA may have scared off a lot of would be runners who would prefer to take themselves elsewhere.

Registration for the 2013 race will open on September 10, 2012.  New qualifying standards will be in place, which are five minutes faster than the current standards in all age groups.  There will no longer be a 59 second grace period.

The pros:  With a tightening of the qualifying standards, the BAA is raising the bar for participation in the event and will likely push many runners to perform even better than they would otherwise.  Furthermore, it should decrease the number of qualified runners for a given year, leaving less people "shut out".

The cons:  There is no guarantee that the 2013 race won't fill up in 8 hours.  Perhaps the BAA has an idea of this likelihood (look at past races and the percentage of participants that were five minutes faster than the qualifying standards), but the general public doesn't know what will happen.  I'm concerned that the BAA has no long term solution that resolves these issues altogether, while upholding the tradition of excellence for this race.  Further, they have not taken into consideration the relative difficulties of the qualifying standards for different age groups.  It has long been argued that it is easier to qualify for some ages and genders than others.    Finally, registration is again opening in September, which negates all 2012 fall races for qualification.  If the BAA is going to keep their registration so early in the year, I really think they should consider lengthening the qualifying time frame beyond the current 18 months.

There are other issues the BAA has either not addressed to the public or has not considered.  For example, there has been no statement regarding increasing the field size for the event.  While I am aware that many of the roads used during the Boston Marathon would not easily accommodate a larger field, the 100th running of the race welcomed 38,000 runners without a wave start.  Compare that to the 23,000 runners divided amongst two waves in the past few years.  Additionally, it is common knowledge that thousands of unregistered, 'bandit' runners participate every year and are utilizing the races' resources including food, water and medical care.  Active discouragement of this could open up a few more spots for runners who meet those qualifying standards, but are shut out from registering.

I grew up in Boston.  I watched this race every year.  I qualified and ran it twice (2006 & 2007).  I love the Boston Marathon, it is a race like no other.  I understand why so many athletes want to run this race and achieving a BQ time is a major accomplishment that deserves to be rewarded with a run on that prestigious and historical course.  And that is why I, like most of the running community, want to see a well thought out qualification plan.  I for one am not convinced that the BAA has come up with a workable solution.  I do commend them for their action (even if it came later than they promised) and I am interested to see the new standards in action...will it work?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Carnage on the Long Run

Yesterday was the Austin Livestrong Marathon and Half Marathon.  While I wasn't participating in this race (ran the marathon in 2009), I was out for a 16 mile long run at 8am.  I ended up crossing the marathon course 4 times and running two short sections of the course (on the side open to traffic).  Living in central Austin, it is pretty hard to cover 16 miles and not come in contact with the marathon course.  It was a hot, muggy day.  Temps started in the 60s and climbed.  Fortunately for all the runners, the cloud cover prevented the sun from acting full force and there was a consistent, cool wind.

I was out for a 16 mile run because I am finishing up my training for my next race, marathon #6!  On March 6th, I will be running the Little Rock Marathon.  I decided to run two marathons this winter (Miracle Match Marathon on January 30th) because the winter in Texas is so ideal for training, whereas training through the summer and into the fall can be very hard and limits my fall race season.  With five weeks between the two races, I anticipated plenty of time to recover and get key workouts in before the race in March.  However, last weekend I found myself sidelined with a virus and fever and was unable to run for five days.  Now that I am back to running, I am trying to finish up this training cycle with some good, key workouts.  Yesterday's run was a true test, with the same hot humid weather that destroyed me in Waco.  While I was 10 miles short of the total marathon distance, I was able to maintain a respectable 8:28 min/mile pace.  I was pretty happy about that, but definitely hot, sweaty, hungry and thirsty long when I finished.  I rewarded myself with a delicious breakfast of fresh pineapple and home-made vegan cranberry orange bread (recipe from The Joy of Vegan Baking).  This past week, I logged 46 miles over 5 days.  This week, I am planning on running between 35 and 40 miles over 5 days including a tempo run and hill workout mid-week.

About 7 miles into yesterday's run, I passed a pack of 6 vultures chowing down on some fresh-killed squirrel.  I was a little surprised to be able to get so close to the birds, who didn't seem at all perturbed by me running right by them.  While it makes sense to find these birds wherever dead animals are, I was still a little taken aback to see vultures on a busy road in central Austin.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Miracle Match Marathon Race Recap

This race report is long overdue.  Unfortunately, the non-running aspects of my life have been demanding a lot of time of late.  Nonetheless, I want to talk about my recent marathon, the Miracle Match Marathon in Waco, TX on January 30, 2011.  This was my fifth marathon, and sadly a personal worst finish in 4:10:58.  While I was athletically well prepared going into the race, it was a tough course (hilly) and overly warm and humid weather, which together made for an unimpressive performance on my part.

January in central Texas is typically very mild, with daily averages in the 50s and morning averages in the 40s.  I am definitely a cold weather runner, and was hoping for cool, dry weather in the mid 40s.  Sadly, as the weekend approached, the temperatures spiked.  Race morning came and the overnight low was 65 degrees F.  When the race started it was barely still in the 60s, and the humidity was a whopping 96%!  While the humidity dropped throughout the day (down to 70%), the temperature climbed, and it was over 75 F when I finished.  Unfortunately, those temperatures and humidity were not ideal for me, and my legs felt exhausted very early in the race, resulting in far more walk breaks than I would like to acknowledge.  This really slowed me down, as did some killer hills between miles 10 and 16, and again between 20 and 24.  I even thought about quitting, but I'm glad I didn't because that would have been rather demoralizing.  Despite a disappointing finishing time, I was 43rd overall, 9th woman and 2nd in my age group.  That would be one of the benefits of doing a small race.

finisher's medal
MMM medal
The Miracle Match Marathon had some good and bad qualities.  First, the race raises money for a very good cause, to test for potential bone marrow donors.  Second, the race was well organized and a significant portion of the course was quite scenic.  It starts by going through Baylor's campus and downtown Waco.  Later, it runs along Lakeshore Drive, with a view of the lake and dam.  It finishes through the hills of Cameron Road, which are tree lined, and then along the Brazos river and across a pedestrian suspension bridge.  If I was in a better mood, I would have really enjoyed running this course.  Third, the SWAG is very good.  Marathon finishers got nice wind jackets and half marathon finishers got long sleeved technical shirts.  The medals were very unique looking, hand-cut metal.  All participants also got a race t-shirt, water bottle, and snickers bar.  The aid stations were very well stocked and frequent, and there was a lot of food and drinks at the finish line party as well.  While the course is challenging because of the hills, I would recommend it, especially to people in the Austin/Dallas area who want a change of scenery.  Traveling to Waco was easy and the hotels were reasonably priced.  However, Waco isn't much of a tourist destination, so you couldn't make much of a vacation out of it.  The other thing I was really disappointed about was the lack of course clocks - and I mean NO clocks anywhere on the course.  This was a major problem for me, because I chose not to wear a watch, assuming there would be timing at least every 5km.  Clearly I need to reevaluate my racing strategy before my next marathon, because that plan definitely back fired.

In conclusion, I finished my 5th marathon.  It was a personal worst in 4:10:58, but I tackled a new course, and ran in fairly challenging conditions.  In my previous 4 marathons, I think I was lucky to have near perfect weather, but that can't always be the case, and this time my luck ran out.  Ironically enough, two days later, the weather dropped below freezing in central Texas.  I'm hoping weather won't be a factor in my next race, but it isn't something I can control.
Until then...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Marathon Eve

Workout:
Yesterday: Rest day
Today: 2.1 miles easy

Tomorrow I will be running my 5th marathon, the Miracle Match Marathon in Waco, TX.  It seems like the taper weeks just flew by and I'm hoping I am as prepared as possible.  Unfortunately, I have had a few obstacles working against that preparation.  For starters, I spent 9 days of this month (the first part of my taper) on a family ski vacation in New Mexico.  The vacation was a lot of fun, but it made it difficult to get mileage and intensity in, both of which I would have liked for the beginning of the taper.  Then, once I returned to Austin, I was thrown back into what is turning out to be a hectic semester of work.  This week in particular, being the final week of my taper, I have been striving to be relaxed, calm, rested and hydrated.  Circumstances at work have been doing everything possible to thwart this.  First, it has been hard to finish up anywhere near an 8 hr day.  While I am at work, I am almost never sitting, instead I'm doing bench work standing up or walking back and forth to different labs.  I've had deadlines, which doesn't help the "calm" and finally I cannot drink water while physically in the lab, which has made hydration a challenge.

But that is all behind me because today is Saturday and I slept in this morning and I am feeling well rested and happy.  I ran an easy 2 miles this morning and got a good stretch in.  Right now, I am eating some oatmeal and blackberries for breakfast and I'm feeling good.  In the early afternoon, boyfriend and I will make the relatively easy drive north to Waco, stop by the expo for my stuff and check into the hotel.  I booked a hotel room literally a block from the starting line, so I'm expecting an easy morning tomorrow.  While the weather forecast isn't ideal, it's looking pretty good...57 to 64 F but high humidity (starting at 96% and dropping to 70%).  I would have liked a race 10 degrees cooler, but you can't control everything.

So here we go, marathon number 5!  Tomorrow I'll be taking off the watch, running by feel, and seeing what I can do.  This is a hilly course, so I'm not focusing on a time, but rather feeling good and controlled in the race.  Best of luck to everyone running Houston tomorrow, as well as any other races!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Running in Santa Fe

Adobe home in Santa Fe, NM
After Albuquerque, I headed north to the capital of New Mexico, Santa Fe.  While Albuquerque takes your breath away at 5,300 ft above sea level, Santa Fe is located at an impressive 7,300 ft.  As a city, it is much smaller than Albuquerque, but it has a rich history, having been established by Spanish missionaries 400 years ago.  The architecture is truly unique, with the majority of the buildings being in the Adobe style of the Native Americans.  I spent two full days in Santa Fe; one skiing and one sight seeing.

Ski Santa Fe base lodge
Ski Santa Fe is located just 15 miles outside of Santa Fe's city center.  While the access road is only 15 miles, it climbs over 3,000 ft to the ski base (10,350 ft).  Ski Santa Fe is a really cute area!  They had gotten several inches of fresh snow, overnight and that morning, which made for great conditions.  However, visibility was somewhat limited while the snow was still falling, and it was COLD (especially for a person living in Austin, TX).  The base was just below 20F (-6C) and the summit was 10F (-12C) without the wind chill.  I found out afterwards that this was unseasonably cold weather for the area, and turned out to be the coldest weather for Santa Fe in well over a year.  Lucky me :)  Getting back on my skis was a lot of fun and I realized after two runs how much I missed it.

On my non-ski day, I managed a nice 7.3 mile run.  I wasn't sure where to go, so I asked the hotel concierge.  A lot of times, that doesn't work out.  The hotel staff either has no idea why I would want to run outside as opposed to on their treadmill, or they detail a 1 mile loop for me (without understanding that I would prefer something in the 5-8 mile range).  This time, however, the concierge handed me a printed and highlighted Santa Fe Running Map!  There were three unique loops, all starting from and ending at the hotel, with street names clearly printed.  The loops had multiple cut-offs with distances ranging from 2 to 7 miles.  It was fantastic!  I headed out on the 7 mile loop, which took me through the historic downtown, and then out along Canyon road, lined with art galleries and colorfully painted adobes.  This road ran next to a beautiful park and winded up towards the mountains.  It was breathtaking!  I was treated to a fantastic sunset as headed back towards downtown Santa Fe, and finished up the run with an average 8:20 min/mile pace - fantastic considering the altitude.

This time around, I definitely noticed the effects of the altitude, which left me feeling winded for the first 20 min of my run.  This part of the run was also a gradual but steady climb up the canyon.  I do think I am adjusting somewhat to the thin air here, and I'll be able to test it again on my next run in Taos, NM.