Sunday, January 30, 2011

Houston Half Marathon Race Report

This morning's Aramco Houston Half Marathon and Chevron Marathon was certainly unusual, primarily owing to the weather related anxiety surrounding it! As a weather-obsessed runner, throughout the past week I frequently checked Houston's weather forecast and was frustrated with the its wild oscillations, from an initial near-perfect prediction to the final 80 - 100% chance of rain with a significant likelihood of thunderstorms and lightning.

Anticipation of lightning justifiably caused the Houston race organizers to scramble, to enhance their contingency plans and to release a map of shelter-in-place locations were lightning to be sighted within 10 miles of the course. Having years ago come within 100 yards of a lightning strike and realizing its tremendous danger to runners I fully support the race organizers' efforts, if for no other reason than to heighten awareness.

Fortunately, this preparation was not tested. The race started as planned at 7 AM since no lightning was sighted within 100 miles. However, the ongoing light rains caused wet and slippery conditions, which combined with starting temperatures in the low 60's and the near 100% humidity the race was appropriately put in the "Yellow" Heat Advisory status. This was justified as I've found correlations which point to a necessary heat stress related slow-down amongst marathon/half-marathon runners when:
  • The average race temperature plus the dew-point is more than 120°F (this morning's was 65°F+60°F=125°F). Consequently, a reduction of ~20 seconds per mile was warranted as this slow-down was ~5°F above 120°F.
  • The average temperature in degrees Fahrenheit is over 55°F. A recent study found that in general marathoners slow by 19 seconds per degree for temperatures above this level. While quite simplistic (since it ignores both humidity and the runner's average pace), using today's average 65°F would translate to an 8 seconds per mile slow-down.
So, given this weather-adjusted expectation how did I do? Well, as I tend to run much hotter than other runners (evidenced by my running the Chicago Marathon two years ago and sweating profusely despite temperatures in the mid 30's and being bare-chested) my slow-down was more pronounced. In the first 10K I was generally on-target with a 7:17 pace, however as the heat got to me I slowed to finish with a 1:43:55 - approximately 45 seconds per mile from my optimistically hoped-for P.R.. Nevertheless, considering the high humidity and the difficulty obtaining traction on the wet roads I was satisfied.

Moving on, consistent with Sean Wade's advice the next stage of my training will focus on improving my running form and my shorter distance race performance. In this regard next week I've got an appointment for a "basic biomechanical and gait analysis" from a bioengineering wizard with Memorial Hermann's Sports Medicine Institute. I'm looking forward to it and the follow-up strengthening and stretching exercises, which I will incorporate with my ongoing Kenyan Way training.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

USATF Half-Marathon Championship

One of the great things about being a runner in Houston is watching some of the USA's greatest men and women runners at the 2011 USATF Half-Marathon Championship. While both the Chevron Houston Marathon and the Aramco Half Marathon will be held tomorrow, the official USATF 2011 Half-Marathon Championship was held this morning, and was comprised of approximately 90 elite men and 50 elite women athletes.

For this event I was one of many spectators in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center, many of whom like myself will be lining-up for our own races tomorrow. Using my handy iPod Nano I recorded the following video of the race's start, mile 5 (which very conveniently crosses near the starting area), and the finish for both the men and the women.

Both when I saw Ryan Hall briefly during his 2007 record-shattering run and this morning it was a bit surreal reflecting upon his unbelievably smooth and relaxed running gait. While he continues to knock down some great splits, it's clear by comparison to his former finish times - and his inability to kick hard in answer Mo Trafeh's last-minute surge - that he and his Flagstaff support team have much work ahead. I truly hope that they're successful, as it would be great to see Ryan bring home a medal from London!

And finally, here's a better angle of the men's and women's finishers, and some good post-race interviews:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Mark U. to overtake Ryan Hall ;-)

At the Houston Marathon/Half-Marathon Expo earlier today I visited the Nissan booth and had fun with their "green screen" technology which superimposed yours truly against the nervous looking Ryan Hall (justifiably so, considering I'm nearly matching his pace in my street clothes and shoes ;-)

All's well in my Half Marathon preparations; I'm feeling confident and am truly looking forward to the race - rain or not!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1.... Countdown!

I grew up in the age of NASA's highly successful Mercury, Gemini then Apollo space flights.  These were always exciting, as mankind's place in space remained a novelty until long after Neil Armstrong first planted his feet on the Moon's surface in 1969, and there remained a - completely justified - edge of danger associated with each launch.  It's hard to believe now, but for every manned space flight launch in the 1960's all three major networks interrupted their normally scheduled programming as every American's eyes remained glued to the TV screen, especially as the announcer counted down from 10 seconds until the always spectacular liftoff.

With an eye towards those exciting times I gravitated early-on in my marathons' final taper phase towards a similar count-down methodology to determine how many miles to run in the days leading to a race.  Thus, beginning five days prior to a race I run five miles, targeting the latter half of the run at or near (i.e. within 45-seconds per mile of) goal race pace.  The following day I run four miles, and so on until the eve of the race I run just one mile - to maintain my confidence and to remove the edge of nervousness as the big day rapidly approaches.

Following an effective taper strategy maximizes our energy supplies of blood glucose and glycogen (a polymer of glucose stored in the muscles and liver). Through this 'countdown' reduction in miles run and calories burned in the final days leading to a race we trigger our bodies' systems to store these internal energy supplies, especially if we:
  • Have built-up our bodies' muscular strength and endurance in the months' long preparation. 
  • Maintain a constant caloric intake with a diet consisting primarily of complex carbohydrates with some lean protein.
  • Remain fully hydrated, as this energy storage mechanism requires large quantities of bodily fluids (consequently, don't worry about two or three pounds of unaccustomed weight creeping on the scale as this is a temporary phenomenon and an indication that your taper is proceeding properly.)
The countdown approach is both extremely simple and effective - so give it a shot before your next race launch!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Confidence critical prior to an important race

In planning for a race one's mental preparation is just as important as one's physical preparation. To help instill confidence it's important to have a good 'dry-run' of one's race roughly one-week prior with two or more late miles at, or slightly faster than one's target pace. Consequently, I was ecstatic to execute an excellent Kenyan Way 11-mile training run with a Boston-bound friend this morning, as we managed a good negative split and ran strongly throughout.

Naturally, my morning's attire, shoes and pre-race nutrition were all consistent with next week's race, and the only variable completely outside my control is weather (this morning's temperature was ideal in the low to mid 30's.) I'm hoping for the best weather next Sunday, as I hope to surpass my half-marathon P.R. time of 1:35 set in Chicago in the fall of 2009.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Newton's Natural Running Clinics - Highly Recommended!

A big thanks to fellow blogger and running friend Chris as he kindly alerted me to "Newton's Natural Running Symposia and Form Clinic" held in Houston at Luke's Locker both last night and this morning.  Chris had recently flown to Colorado to attend similar sessions, and it's clear that we both found them to be tremendously valuable.  I encourage all runners to keep an eye on Newton's related webpage as I'm sure they'll soon be scheduling more clinics around the country.

I've long been a huge fan of Newton shoes, and have commented on them in several blog posts including my most enthusiastic.  I'm convinced that my Newton shoes - with more focused training - have played a key role in my speed increases and form improvements.  Nevertheless, even while wearing these shoes it's crystal clear after the past two sessions that I've still got an imperfect gait despite trying since last summer to make further form improvements.

My gait (which has a knock-knee characteristic with an outward leg swing on the return) was a bit of a chin scratcher to Newton's excellent instructor Ian Adamson - so much so that he "invited me to their labs in Boulder for a further analysis" citing my "having the largest negative Q-angle of any male runner that he's seen".  After that serious sounding pronouncement I was relieved during the the group's road run (where we sought to apply our learnings while receiving individualized guidance), as Ian provided some helpful exercises which I intend to follow to hopefully somewhat straighten my gait.  With regards the frustratingly lengthy transition time needed to accomplish a permanent change in one's running form, I was encouraged by Ian's introductory comments: he's a highly accomplished adventure racer and a multiple world championship winner, yet it took him two years to successfully change his running form.

Wisely, the Newton training was broken down into two parts, the very interesting and informative lecture and the form clinic.  Many runners attended both sessions, though there was a large percentage of attendees who just attended one.  While both sessions were very helpful, I'd give a slight nod to the form clinic as it was the most hands-on with excellent individualized observations and recommendations. Highly recommended!

Updated February 2011 with a running gait related follow-up post: