Monday, November 25, 2013

Wrapping up the season

This post is long overdue! Where to begin?

Let's start at the finish. The 2014 Philadelphia Marathon. Mile 25 and I'm headed for a sub-2:40 marathon. At the last checkpoint, I had a 30s buffer, but now my body is starting to fall apart: my respiratory rate is close to a perceived 50-60, my side body is cramping up from side stitches and the 26 mile mark isn't coming any closer. One bad mile and that 30s buffer goes "puff" - that knowledge is all that keeps me going. The field is pretty spread out at this point, but even picking off runners so close to the finish is not giving me a boost. Finally, the mile 26 marker appears, crowds are lining the sides and cheering, but .2 miles could not seem longer. I envision standing on the sidelines spectating, and imagine seeing myself run towards the finish, struggling and my face giving away the total pain I'm in. Finally, I cross the line, all the pain evaporates, and I'm am flooded with an elating sense of accomplishment - as if a great weight were lifted from my shoulders. The sudden realization that months of training and complete dedication crystallized so perfectly to enable me to finish under 2:40 fills me with bliss!

In this post, I want to talk about all the things that played a role in achieving a 10-minute PR, off an already great time of 2:49 at a particularly hard race in Boston this April. First and foremost: support. From (for the most part) my girlfriend but also my friends - only with their support was I able to get away with running every day from June to November, sometimes twice a day and on weekends, when training often takes up the whole morning. Coming home from a run at 9 or 9:30 PM on weekdays and even though there's no time for much else that evening, she's understanding. Thanks for tagging along to destination races, for support and encouragement. Thank you Kate - you're great and I could not have done it without you!

Then there are my training partners. This season I owe a big thanks to Jeremy for tagging along to so many Saturday long runs and opting in for some of gruesome workouts. There are also the people at Falls Road and Tuesday Night Track, a great crew. Despite doing many of my workouts solo, it's important having other people putting in work on the track alongside you. Lastly, there's HMT - teammates I can count on to get me out of bed and on the trail by 7:00 am every Saturday.

Next, the training plan. A runner's bible, our single most important tool. A blessing and a curse, because we tend top obsess with logging the prescribed miles - it keeps us accountable, but on the flipside it's important to know when to cut-back to prevent or recover from injury. My training plan was loosely based of Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning, specifically his 85 Mile schedule. I used his plan predominantly for the mileage, but as far as workouts were concerned I pulled and adopted from various sources: Running Times, Competitor blog, to which I applied past experience and judgement. The result was a 24 week training plan, beginning in June and culminating in the Philly marathon, aligned into phases: strength, stamina and speed. To briefly summarize, the first cycle involved hill repeats and long mid week runs to injury proof my body. In the next phase, I worked on pushing down my lactate threshold via tempo runs and long intervals. Lastly, a few weeks before goal race I interspersed traditional "speed work", 400s, 600s and 800s to sharpen and get comfortable with a low 5:20 pace.

Another anchor was diet. To all serious runners looking to improve their PR, I advice picking up Matt Fitzgerald's "Racing Weight" - a truly fantastic read. Basically, I diversified my diet to include more nutrient groups, such as nuts and legumes which I prior didn't eat very often. I tried to cut back on "empty calories" in the form of redundant snacks, unnecessarily fatty foods and sweet indulgences. Taken together, I threaded the line in Philly approx. 3 kg lighter than Boston, only eight months before.

Lastly, I would like to give an honorary mention to my marathon shoes, the Wave Evo Levitas from Mizuno. These bad boys performed outstandingly on the track and at races, lightweight yet supportive, responsive but not too firm. And of course, I've got to attribute some part of my success to the weather, which can so often make or break a racer. 

The last few weeks I've spent reverse-tapering. It's been nice not having to get-up extremely early every morning and start logging the miles. As of a few days, I'm fighting back against a calf strain, sustained from trying 800's on the treadmill. New rule: don't overdo it when attempting a new workout. And more importantly, know when to prioritize recovery over training. That's the finest line we runners must walk and to me experience is a key player in recognizing when an injury demands rest and when it's ok to push on. And even then, you as a runner need to have the good sense to actually dial down - a concept I still struggle with. Hopefully a day or two more of relative rest and easy running and this injury will be resolved. Then, I look forward to applying my new training plan into practice as I begin training for my 2014 goal race: the Vienna City Marathon.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Delaware Distance Classic 15K Race Report


This race wasn't anywhere near my radar. Originally, I was supposed to run the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half Marathon, a fast, point-to-point race starting at GW's Mt. Vernon Estate and crossing the Potomac on the Woodrow Wilson bridge to finish at National Harbor. However, thanks to House Republicans' government shutdown the race was cancelled just a few days prior: parts of the course ran along National Park Service grounds and seeing as how they were starkly affected by the shutdown, could not provide personnel to  close roads to traffic. Thus began a frantic scramble to locate a race that same weekend, all other October weekends being fully planned while acknowledging the importance of a good tune-up race.

Thanks to the excellent race finder on "Running in the USA", I came up with a shortlist of alternatives: a metric marathon by the Annapolis Striders, the Great Alleand0ny 15K in Cumberland, MD and the Delaware Distance Classic in Wilmington, an hour's drive north of Baltimore. After ruling out the metric marathon (16 miles of rolling hills seemed a tune-up overkill), I briefly debated between a race in Western Maryland versus Delaware, but opted for the latter considering the much shorter drive. As an added benefit, I noted that the race was offering price money for the top three contenders, as well as the top team. A teammate from Falls Road Running, Graham Peck, was also in the market for a race and suggested we put together a team and shoot for a win at the team competition. We narrowly missed online registration, but thanks to the leniency of race directors got a green light to compete. Graham, his sister Kaylyn, Meg, Jeremy and I made up the team.

The hour and fifteen minute ride to Wilmington was made easy with Jeremy driving and a pit-stop at Starbucks. We arrived an hour early and found an excellent race-day registration setup. After a brief warm-up we were ready to roll. Race conditions were humid and warm but at least we were spared direct sunshine thanks to thick cloud cover.

From the left: Graham, Meg, Jeremy, myself and Kaylin.


Thanks to Pike Valley's generous price purse, the race attracted numerous regional competitors. Graham led the pack and pulled ahead, and I was at 10th place from the start. The course consisted of two out-and-back loops, the first three miles long, the last 6. While the first part of the course made for a good opportunity to lock-in the tempo, the second was much more enjoyable: it followed the riverfront deeper into Downtown Delaware along the riverwalk, and a regatta taking place simultaneously resulted in a large turnout of spectators and made for some interesting navigation through the crowds. After a 4 mile long chase, I was able to catch up to and take 9th place. Unsure of how close behind the competition was, I kept pushing the pace - or better, holding on. It helped having 2 racers in my sights, and with 3 miles remaining I hoped to catch them - one or two more miles more and I may even have done so! In the end, I finished 15 seconds behind 8th place, totalling 53:18 minutes, a new PR - though this came as no surprise never having raced a 15K before! I was extremely happy with my performance and felt invigorated to aim high at my goal race in Philadelphia, now only 5 weeks away.


I enjoyed a peach belini courtesy of one the race sponsors - quite the treat! There was warm pizza as well, which in hindsight I should have had after our 2 Mile cooldown. Bananas, pretzels and cold beer rounded off the spread. Following awards ceremy - in which our team took home the overall men's (Graham won it), 3 age group and the team competition award, we headed to nearby Iron Hill Brewery for a post-run brunch. When we discovered that they had no brunch offerings, we ordered beers and made it lunch instead! You know you're among serious runners when even after a race, 4 out of 5 order are salad.

What a day, and one that reminded me of why I love this sport so much!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Running routes in and around Baltimore

Canton via Harbor East to Inner Harbor with a turn-around at Fed Hill: that is the standard route for those living and running in Downtown Baltimore. While an excellent route, and one that I prefer to run most frequently after nightfall and in the winter when it gets dark early, the course quickly becomes routine, even repetitive. In the summer the Inner Harbor is filled with tourists and jogging is quickly demoted to crowd-dodging or crawling. In the winter, the snow-covered Promenade can become an icy death trap, with an accidental plunge into the bay waiting to happen at every turn. My relation with the Inner Harbor Promenade is one of love-hate: it offers a safe, illuminated, long and car free running experience (and there’s even a working water fountain - one of 2 in Baltimore!). But the monotony, the cobblestones at Fells, the constant construction, the sharp blind turns at Harbor East and the crowds lining the bridges adjacent to the aquarium never fail to bring me down.

Many a newcomer to Baltimore quickly learns his way around Patterson Park and Inner Harbor, but then gets stuck navigating the same stretch over and over again. And from my own experience, it’s ludicrously difficult to find any information online, let alone an overview of available routes. And so for those new to Baltimore, or those who have yet to discover some of the city’s hidden running spots and refuges, I dedicate this piece. May you discover your favorite running spot in Charm City. Happy trails!

Gwynns Falls Trail

This is a fantastic 8 Mile route starting at Security Boulevard (at the I-70 Park and Ride) and winding through the Gwynns Falls park. It offers solitude and switchbacks, is well marked and maintained and is easily accessible by car. Paved footpaths follow the course of Dead Run river, and become gravel/dirt at its confluence with Gwynns Falls for the next miles as it enters Baltimore through the city’s West neighborhood. The route becomes a little harder to follow in the later sections, but chalk marks on the floor usually point in the right direction. Finish is at the Carrol Park golf course near Pigtown, just a few miles west of the Inner Harbor. For those especially determined, it is possible to follow the route (now along sidewalks and roads) all the way to the Inner Harbor Promenade.

Jones Falls Trail

My favorite section of Jones Falls starts at Penn Station and climbs north, loosely following the bends of Falls Road. The trail offers a dedicated footpath all the way to and through Druid Hill, via a brand new section in Woodberry over Cold Spring Lane and Northern Parkway leading to Mt. Washington and the Cylburn Arboretum. Once at Cylburn, there are wooded trails and singletracks. One your way there, you’ll pass by Woodberry Kitchen and Artifact Coffee, but try to resist the temption to stop for an espresso. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, take a right immediately after entering Druid Hill instead continuing to the reservoir: you’ll hit what Falls Road Running Store so fittingly describes as the “Dreaded Druid Hills”.

Northern Central Railroad Trail

For the marathoner’s bread-and-butter workout, the weekend long run, there few choices are better than this. The NCR trail is a flat and virtually endless gravel footpath, formerly rail but now converted to trail. The best access point is at the Paper Mill Road trailhead, where there is ample parking except for the weeks leading into the Baltimore Marathon. At 6.7 Miles lies the town of Monkton, where restrooms, water and ice creams awaits. In summer there is tubing on the Gunpowder river, and in winter its one of the few spots that still offers good tread in the rare episodes of snowfall. I recommend doing your longest marathon training runs here, since upon passing White Hall at mile 10, you’ll soon enter the “Shire”, complete with mounds and gnomes - I invite you to go see for yourself (though be prepared for a 22 Mi roundtrip).

Herring Run Trail

This short but sweet trail runs near Morgan State University, and starts at the edge of Lake Montebello. It runs along both banks of Herring Run, but the trail along the southern bank is considerably longer. There are some nice views along the way, but also signs of disregard for nature as evident by littering of the waterways. With a circumference of 1.3 miles, Lake Montebello lends itself to good running as well. Locals frequent the Montebello loop for exercise from early morning to late at night.

Stony Run Trail

This hidden gem is unmapped and little known. It starts just north of the Homewood campus, from University parkway go down Linkwood Road and look for a trail running along the Stony Run river on your left. Follow it for 2 Miles to arrive at Gilman High School, where there is a 400m track open to the public on weekdays after 6:30 pm and all day on weekends. You can continue North to connect to the Robert E Lee trails or return to campus via Roland Avenue. Northbound, after the intersection with Cold Spring Lane, watch for a stream crossing on your right as there is another trail along the river’s eastern bank - wider, and less stony.

Robert E. Lee Park Trails

From the parking lot, cross over the bridge facing the dam and follow the paths to the park’s northern boundaries. There will be steps leading to the light rail crossing, and just beyond that begins a 2 Mi route coasting Lake Roland and crossing Jones Falls to arrive at Falls Road. There are a plethora of smaller single-track trails sprouting from the main route, a wide path and former rail bed. Make it a long run by following the road east of the parking lot along Woodbrook Lane to Charles, then south to Lake, and finally east via Hollins to return to the park. By the way, Robert E Lee park has the second working water fountain in Baltimore city (and probably only because it’s owned by the county).

Oregon Ridge Park

This a small park lies just a few minutes north of Towson. In the summer (or in the winter if you dare) you can cool off after the run at the nearby lake. There are a few trails, each of them blazed, but my recommendation is to start counterclockwise and follow the red, then yellow blazed trails for a 4 Mi loop. Be prepared for stream crossing. Four of them, to be precise.

Loch Raven Reservoir

Come here on weekends for a run along Loch Raven Drive when the road is closed to motorized traffic. This hilly route stretches from the eastern boundaries of Loch Raven Reservoir to Dulaney Valley Road, all the while winding up and down the hills surrounding it. Don’t be alarmed if you hear gunshots ringing in the distance, the BPD firing range is located at the opposite shore.

BWI Trail

The BWI trail loops around our airport for a total distance of approx. 10 Miles. The best access point is the Thomas Dixon Observation Area, where you can watch incoming planes on their landing approach as you’re getting ready to run. While well marked, taking a wrong turn means you’ll end up at the local Amtrak station or BWI terminal! For extra mileage, combine with the trail described below.

B&A Trail

Starting at the Sawmill Creek park in Anne Arundel county, south of Baltimore is the B&A trail. This trail proceeds to travel all the way to Annapolis, but most of us will have turned around long before then. It’s a good route with fair amounts of bike and foot traffic, but feels a bit too urban at times, often surrounded on both sides by residential or commercial zones.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the plethora of running opportunities in and around Baltimore. In addition, those willing to travel the extra mile to the DC area will be rewarded with access to trails systems at Rock Creek Park, the C&O canal and many others. As part of our marathon training programs, we at the Hopkins Marathon Teams run at a different trail every Saturday during our 16 week training cycles. There’s no better way to become acquainted with the best running in Baltimore!

Here's a map with pinpoint location to all the trail-heads of the routes described above!

EDIT: I'm including a Gmaps link since there was an error with the embedded map:

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Hammer Energy Gels Review

Bremen was the one who first introduced me to Hammer Gels. I remember because I thought they looked quite odd, their over-sized packaging easily dwarfing that of other gels. He's a fan of their Montana Huckleberry flavor and so next time I was at REI, I decided to pick up a few of my own.

For purposes of this short review, I'll compare them to GU gels, which I'm sure most of you are already familiar with. Hammer Gels come in single-serve packs weighing 32 g and packed with 90 Cal. Its main component is maltodextrin (a glucose multimer), though unlike most other gels there is no added fructose, which tends to be less well tolerated by some athletes. The trade off is that the maximum rate of carbohydrate absorption is less in Hammer Gels than others, since glucose and fructose are transported into the bloodstream via different receptors. At the same time, this would suggest that Hammer Gels delivers energy at a slower, steadier rate (absorption being rate limited by epithelial glucose transporters), and thus might stave off what runners experience as a brief boost upon gel intake followed by a relative "crash" thereafter. As for electrolytes, Hammer Gels have slightly less sodium and potassium than its competitors, and especially on hot and humid days I would consider supplementing it with salt tabs or electrolyte drinks. Only the coffee and tropical flavors are caffeinated, with a dose of 50 mg.

For me, the main argument for Hammer is taste and tolerability. Simply stated, no other gel (GU Chocolate Outrage being the single exception) tastes as natural as Hammer. Take GU's "Cherry Blaze" for example, which - while not bad tasting per say - has a very artificial taste, and can quickly become overburdening especially when consuming your fifth or sixth gel at the end of a race. All of the Hammer flavors I've tried are understated, and never overpowering. I generally tolerate most gels very well, but for my early morning workouts, when I just got out of bed, am feeling groggy and have very little time until I need to be back on my feet, Hammer has become my go-to fuel because they are so easy on the stomach. My personal favorite has to be Hammer banana, which tastes exactly the way it should: fruity, not too sweet and with the right consistency.

My new favorite gel - wish it came in a caffeinated version!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

White Marsh 4 Miler Race Report


Figures, it takes a road race to get me to go to a shopping mall :) This Saturday I drove up to White Marsh for the "White Marsh 4 Mile", a new race put together by T3 Run, who also organize the Towson Downtown 5K. It coincided with the first cool day of the season, to the extent that warranted pulling out a pair of track pants and pullover out of long term storage. My plan was to run the race hard then add-on my regular long run (20 miles) on NCR immediately after for an extra-strong training stimulus.

The race organization was fine, though the race was smaller that I had hoped. My belief is that I would rather have a deeper field than a better placement, in my view good competition enables us to run beyond our abilities. And so when lining I was happy to see one or two guys engaged in serious warm-up. The cool thing about smaller races is that there are few enough people that you try to gauge the competition. So then you end up with two or three of us looking each other over, trying to figure the other out. Here's what to look for: singlets and shorty shorts - my prediction that the less fabric a runner wears, the better they are generally holds true (especially at low temps on race day).


The course looped around the White Marsh Mall twice, and was unexpectedly hilly. Three of us broke away from the pack early on with a 5:10-5:20 dash for the first half mile. I looked down at my watch and decided to hang back in third rather than force a pace I couldn't keep. It was the right choice because second place soon began fading, upon catching him I shouted "let's get that guy" while pointing to the leader. Much easier said than done, as it would turn out. Upon finishing loop 1 of 2 he had gained 30 seconds on me and while I tried to hang on, it would be impossible for me to make up that deficit over the remaining two miles. Fortunately, one thing I notice is that while running a hard pace such as this one, my mind doesn't have much time or energy to contemplate alternatives, so in my head I was still fighting for the win, and as a consequence I did not drop the pace. I finished second in 22:20 on a course that read 4.1 Mi on Garmin.


This was the best part: free, post-race massage for a 4 Mile race! I finished early enough to not have to wait, and received an excellent 15 minutes sports massage courtesy of the Healing Path. Taken together with Panera bagels and a tech shirt, I deem this a great value for only $25 registration. I had to leave early to meet the Hopkins Marathon Team at NCR for the weekend's long run (a 20 miler), so the race director kindly handed me my 2nd place medal and I was off.


With a good value for the price and decent enough organization, I would do this race again if it aligned with my training schedule, though hopefully there will be more participants and next year's race.

Update: The results just came online and they are off by over a minute from what I recorded on my Garmin. I've contacted the race director to request a correction. Come to think of it, one vital thing that was missing at this race was a race clock at the finish! Hopefully these small quirks will be ironed out by the next race.